Hey I’m back! Without going into too much detail, immunosuppressant drugs suck ass. Probably expect me to repeat last year and be sporadic.
And I know I said Aria or Cymbeline next, but this was more-or-less done so here it is since this is a better stopping point than the last one. It’s also a good stopgap becaaaaaaause…
Fox’s esp ate itself. At least as far as CK was concerned. But I’m making good headway on its replacement, so once that’s done, proper screenshots to show what’s in there, and it’ll be up Sunday or Monday. I’m sorry that shit keeps happening >.<
Anyway, enjoy this chapter. Sit back and wonder if the Thalmor have unwittingly stumbled into a bizarre form of Kenny syndrome! And then prepare for Cymbeline! (for reals this time)
Rei was so lost in himself that he didn’t notice when they’d gotten back to Ivarstead. He’d had to let his kirin down pretty soon after he picked him up. He knew he wouldn’t have been able to carry him for very long like he would have only months ago, let alone with one arm. So he let him down and carefully dropped Vallinalda’s hand in favor of Sabrael’s. He tried to offer her an apologetic look that was as platonic as possible, but she seemed to understand and nodded with a melancholy smile.
Tauryon, apparently realizing he’d left the others behind, let them catch up. He put a hand behind Rei’s head and pulled him in for a kiss before they set off again. He could feel Sabrael’s reflexive depression, and he wanted desperately to get rid of it for his sake, but it was too heavy. It was too heavy and he couldn’t let it simply slide off his hip the way he could his kirin.
“What would you like to do, Celedaen?” Tauryon asked, jerking him out of his daze.
Rei swallowed and licked his lips, which were chapped from the dry cold of the mountain. “I don’t know,” he said truthfully. “I think I just want to be left alone for a while.”
His friend nodded and pushed a stray lock of hair from his face.
“Is that okay, Sabrael?” he asked.
Sabrael nodded. “We all need some time alone sometimes. Where will you be?”
“There’s a small dock by the river. I’ll sit there for a while.”
“Alright,” Tauryon said. “Don’t get too cold.”
“We’ll just be in the inn having a bit of a late lunch. Or an early dinner, if you prefer.”
“I’ll be in in a while,” he said automatically.
As the others turned towards the inn, he walked down the embankment to the little fishing dock and sat down on its edge. Not too long ago he wouldn’t dream of being this close to a quickly flowing river, but his Sabrael helped him, and he found that it was soothing. It wasn’t the ocean waves from home whose sound seemed to carry for ages, but this sound was nice, nonetheless.
An aspect of Talos. It wasn’t just the dragon blood he carried. He was inexorably tied to the Septim Dynasty. The Empire. The man who’d ruined the Altmeri way of life.
Maybe he should do it himself?
“Don’t get lost in despondency, Rei Ginsei,” Azura’s voice echoed in his head. “Remember that I told you that Skyrim – indeed, even Tamriel – needs you here.”
“But it hurts, Mistress. Too much. Why me?”
“I am not of the Aedra, and I cannot speak for them. However, Akatosh and Kyne saw promise in you. A disturbed boy. A heartless killer. Perhaps they felt that you could find salvation from yourself as you travel this path.”
“But that doesn’t answer my question. There are countless people who aren’t Altmeri who I’m sure share those traits. Why not a Nord? An Imperial? A Breton?”
“Some questions can’t be answered,” She said with a bit of impatience tinging her words. “You will have to accept this if you are to move on. You may not posses Clavicus Vile’s power or strength anymore, but strength is not always physical. What runs through your veins is immaterial to the task at hand. Find your real strength.”
Before he had time to even open his mouth, She was gone.
Rei knew he should have found comfort in her words, but it just wasn’t there.
He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting when he heard Vallinalda’s voice behind him, but the sun was well and truly low.
“You’ve been gone a while,” she said. “Captain Camorin told me it’s probably best to just leave you be, but you haven’t eaten anything all day.”
“I thought you listened to your captain?”
“I told him I was worried, and he said it was probably unwise, but I could do what I liked.”
“I’m really not very hungry, Nalda. And Tauryon’s usually right about these things.”
“Well, I brought you some barley bread anyway.”
He only sighed.
“May I sit?”
“I suppose so.”
She sat beside him. Too close, but he didn’t feel like protesting. She offered him a slice of bread, and he took it and bit into it, mostly out of politeness. She didn’t have to bring him anything, at all. But he’d cried so much and his heart was aching so badly that he couldn’t even taste it. He managed to swallow, but he didn’t take another bite.
“You’re one of those who can’t eat when you’re upset, I guess.”
“It’s been that way since I was a boy, although lately it’s not been much of a problem since nothing’s made me this depressed since I got my soul back.”
“I keep hearing about your soul, but I don’t really understand what happened,” she said.
“It’s in the past,” he said flatly, tearing his slice of bread into pieces and throwing it to the ducks who seemed far more excited for such trivialities than he ever was. “Don’t worry about it.”
Rei saw her look down at the cloth that was covering at least three more slices of bread. What did she think he was?
“I didn’t mean to pry,” she said.
“It’s alright. It’s not something you hear every day. Curiosity is probably an appropriate response.”
He felt a hand on his cheek and he looked over. He didn’t need this right now, but he leaned over and kissed her, anyway. She pressed, trying to prise his lips open with her tongue, and he gently pulled away.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Rei took a deep breath and finally turned to face her properly. This was the last thing he wanted to do, but it seemed like it was going to be now or never. “Sabrael tells me you have deeper feelings for me than I realized.”
Vallinalda looked away, her cheeks darkening with embarrassment.
“He wasn’t meaning to gossip,” he said quickly. “He’s concerned for you, that’s all.”
“I just…I…I think I might love you.”
“You don’t even know me, Nalda. I look strange and some people think that’s interesting or attractive, and that’s what you’re ‘in love’ with.”
“Maybe I want to know you.”
“And I have no doubt you will once all is said and done, at least to some extent, but I’m not going to like or love you that way. I consider you a friend, and I’ll hold your hand and I’ll try to comfort you as best as I can if you need someone, limited though I am in that capacity, but only Sabrael and Tauryon can claim my heart, and my heart is only so big.”
Vallinalda sighed. “So when you said you wanted me…”
“I do. You’re very pretty, and you’re unexpectedly sweet for a soldier under Ondolemar, but I’m not for you.”
“I wouldn’t go bothering you if we could-”
“Stop, Nalda, please.”
“Just this once? To help make you feel better?”
“I mean it,” he said sharply. “Don’t push me on this. Honestly I shouldn’t have kissed you just then, and I’m sorry. The closer I get to you like this, the more you’re going to hurt, and you don’t need that. I don’t need that. You’ll find someone better than me, I promise. If you knew half of what I’ve put Sabrael through, and Tauryon, you wouldn’t be so infatuated.”
“Sabrael told me some things,” she persisted. “He said you were scary at times, but I don’t care about that!”
Rei sighed and closed his eyes. He was exhausted. “This isn’t a question of what you can tolerate,” he said. “If you can look past the murders, that’s wonderful, and I appreciate your kindness. I know I said I’d repay you. I feel a lot like I took advantage in Whiterun, and I’m sorry for that, too. If it were a no-strings-attached situation, that would be one thing, but clearly it’s not, and the kissing, the fooling around – it needs to stop now before it continues in earnest, and I have to let you go down the road and leave you raw and hurting.”
Vallinalda swallowed, and her eyes started glistening as she looked back down.
“You’ve done good things for me,” he offered. “You watched over Sabrael. You covered for him. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’m happy to be your friend, but I just can’t give you what you want. What you need. Callous as it may sound, I don’t want to. I’m giving what I can to the men I love. They have all of me, and that’s just the way it is.”
“You’re right,” she said. “I understand.”
“Should I find my way back to Solitude? I’m sure the other emissaries would be okay with it since Captain Camorin is with you. He’d write an order for me, I’m sure.”
“So things won’t get awkward.”
“Are you planning on making things awkward?”
“Then stay with us, if that’s what you want. I’m not a teenager anymore, Nalda; I don’t have the energy to go making things difficult.”
“You’ll be alright,” he said. “Heartache is one of the worst feelings, I know, but you’ll be okay.”
“If you say so,” she said.
Rei got up and helped Vallinalda to her feet, as well. They walked in silence to the inn, but just outside the door, Vallinalda put a hand on his arm. He turned to see her.
“What are you planning on doing when we get inside? It kind of hurts to be with you right now.”
“I don’t know. I really just want to go to bed and sleep until my body sees fit to wake me up.”
“It’s a bit early, isn’t it?”
“I’m extremely drained.”
She nodded and opened the door.
Tauryon and Sabrael were sitting at one of the tables, Sabrael in Tauryon’s lap.
“Hello, my lovelies,” he said tiredly as he joined them. He saw Vallinalda suddenly turn on her heel to head to the bar, and then to her room. He hadn’t meant to lie; he just hadn’t been thinking.
“You two were out there for a long time,” Tauryon said. “Is everything alright?”
“She and I needed to have a word.”
“I’m proud of you, Rei,” Sabrael said.
“It was a hard thing to do, and with the way you’re feeling I didn’t expect you would feel like it.”
“What’s he talking about?” Tauryon asked.
“Vallinalda developed a bit of a flame for me, that’s all,” Rei answered. “I needed to set the record straight.”
“Ever the heartbreaker,” his friend smirked.
“That’s one way of putting it, I suppose.”
“You seem a little better,” Sabrael said. “Or you’re stifling something. My chest doesn’t hurt, I don’t wanna cry anymore, but you feel kind of flat. Like you’re not here.”
Rei looked his husband and his best friend, wondering. Tauryon would probably find out sooner or later. This was something he’d be dragging around with him, and he couldn’t subject Sabrael to that for however long it would last. Considering the way this day had been going, he figured why not keep hurting the people around him and put a bow on the end of the day.
“Can we take this to our room?” he asked. Already he felt his breath hitch. It was starting all over again.
“Yes, of course.”
Rei led them into their spacious room and shut the door behind them. His stomach hurt, and he could see tears already falling from his kirin’s eyes as he shared his feelings. Sabrael ran over and hugged him, and Rei buried his fingers in his turquoise hair. Suddenly his words left him, and all he could do was stand there while his throat closed and his breathing began to speed uncomfortably, to the point where he almost couldn’t breathe at all. His hands began to tense up.
“Breathe, Rei,” Sabrael choked. “Just slow down.”
“Celedaen,” Tauryon said gently, placing a hand on his cheek. “Look at me. Look at me and take deep breaths. Sabrael’s with you. I’m with you. Nothing you can say will make us stop loving you.”
“Please don’t say things that might turn out to be lies.”
“Stop that,” Tauryon said sharply. “Tell me what happened up there.”
Rei took a deep breath, even though it didn’t seem to help. “People that are Dragonborn,” he said slowly, his voice hampered by the tightness in his throat, “they share the blood of Tiber Septim.”
“Well, yes, if you wish to be needlessly poetic about it. He was Dragonborn, you are Dragonborn, but beyond that…”
“No, I mean literally. The Greybeards call me Ysmir. They say I’m an aspect of…Gods, do I have to say it?”
“Talos, you mean,” Tauryon said. “You’re an aspect of Talos.”
“Celedaen, that’s the most ridiculous, contrived nonsense I have ever heard.”
“But the Greybeards said-”
“A group of sequestered monks subjecting you to a ritual that gave you a headache are probably not the right people to be telling you who you are, figuratively or literally.”
“They’re supposedly experts in Dragonborn lore.”
“Lore isn’t real, Celedaen. Who wrote these stories, hm? People fawning over a brutal dictator. Of course they would shoehorn a connection to the false god that was given his gift the same way as you were – via Akatosh. Akatosh and Kyne bestowed this to you, and Talos had nothing to do with it. It’s their way of trying to perpetuate the myth of his apotheosis. Now, do you believe you’re carrying the blood of Tiber Septim?”
“I don’t want to,” Rei said, suddenly feeling his breath speed up again, that feeling of panic, his legs turning to lead.
“You are a true Altmer, Celedaen,” Tauryon said emphatically. “No matter what those monks say, your lineage is as pure as mine. If you were back home during the purge, no Thalmor soldier would have looked at you twice before moving on. And even if the Greybeards are right, what better way to spit on the Empire than to use this gift to spite it? To conquer his precious empire of rape and cowardice with someone carrying his own blood? If anything this has made our original plans that much better!”
Rei took a deep breath, but he felt Sabrael shaking and afraid. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“And this was what you thought would make me kill you?”
“It seemed logical,” he answered. “Why would you want an aspect of a filthy lie of a god around?”
“Well, because it’s codswallop, mostly, and because I know your values.”
Rei took his friend in an embrace and kissed him hard and gratefully. “I love you so much,” he said.
“And I love you,” Tauryon smiled. “No more tears. No more worrying. We’re here, Sabrael and me, and we will never leave you.”
“Never, ever,” Sabrael said quietly.
“Tauryon, can I have a moment with my husband?”
Tauryon looked down at Sabrael and took a sharp breath. “Yes, Celedaen, yes, of course. I’ll just be out having a drink.”
“Thanks,” Rei said, returning a quick kiss.
Tauryon leaned down and kissed Sabrael, as well, saying, “I’m sorry if I scared you, little one.”
When the door closed, Rei rubbed his still-throbbing head and sat down on the bed. Things just kept going on, and on. The weight Tauryon lifted from his shoulders was amazing, but it had scared Sabrael, and in spite of the relief making him even more tired, he had to perform his duties as a protector. Rei sat down on the bed and beckoned his kirin over, noticing Sabrael’s unease was being damped by his exhaustion. The daedra’s eyelids were drooping, and his breathing had slowed. Rei was relieved that, for once, Sabrael wasn’t afraid of him, as his kirin crawled into his lap and held onto him tightly.
“What are you afraid of, sweetheart?”
“Everything,” he said. “I don’t like how Tauryon talks that way. What was he talking about when he said ‘purge’?”
“That’s a bit of a story, I suppose, and one I don’t have all the details of for obvious reasons. During much of that time I was, for the most part, in the Valenwood or Cyrodiil. What I didn’t see personally – what I didn’t already know – I learned of via what few books have made it to publication.”
“Tell me what you know, I guess.”
“Well, what we call the Thalmor today are not the same Thalmor that preceded them. This one started as a group of rebels. Tauryon would be able to better explain all of that, of course. From my understanding, when the Oblivion Crisis came to an end, the Thalmor took credit for ending it, and they began doing what they needed to do to establish themselves properly as a governing regime in Summerset.
“When Tamriel was thrown into disarray after the murder of Ocato, that’s when the Thalmor were able to usurp the monarchy and take control. That’s when my homeland took its original and proper name. Do you know what Tauryon meant when he was talking about our lineages?”
“Not really. I’m not really sure why it matters.”
“We Altmer claim a much closer relationship to our Aldmeri ancestors than any other mer in all this world. It is for that reason people choose their mates very meticulously, that we might retain the features of our forebears. After the Thalmor established their rule, there was a purge, which is to say, they methodically chose which Altmer they deemed not ‘Aldmeri enough’ and killed them. Based on the things Delphine said, and based on what I know about Tauryon, he was probably among those who were making judgments and acting on them.”
“That’s awful,” Sabrael said. “You think Tauryon was doing that? Killing people just because they looked different?”
“Because they were dissidents. Because they said the wrong thing at the wrong time. ‘Not Aldmeri enough’ is a conveniently broad descriptor. But yes, it’s a reasonable expectation that he would have played some form of role, especially as it seems he started with the original group of rebels.”
Sabrael was suffering a deep sadness that hurt Rei’s heart and brought fresh tears to his eyes.
“Do you think that’s right?” Sabrael asked.
Rei took a deep breath and ran his tongue over his upper teeth. “That’s a question with a very complicated answer. I agree with the Thalmor, and I agree with their premise that Alinor’s people and her government had become complacent with being part of the Empire. I agree that we must strive always to be close to our ancestors, and I agree that to establish proper rule, dissent ought to be damped in some way. Ultimately, however, you’re asking a question of morals and ethics of a man who never particularly hewed to either until quite recently.”
“At least you’re honest, I guess,” Sabrael said. “I wish I could talk to Tauryon about it.”
“Why can’t you?”
“Because when I ask things like that he changes the subject or says it’s not the time to debate those things.”
Rei sighed and pulled his kirin close.
“Why does he do that?”
“Because he loves you very much, and it would tear him apart if he should let something slip that might cause you to hate him. He lost himself just now, and he realizes it.”
“I wish you weren’t Dragonborn,” Sabrael said, sniffling. “I wish after Clavicus we could have just found a nice place to live.”
“That would’ve been nice. If it weren’t for Azura I’d take you away right now, but She gave us a precious gift, and I have to repay Her.”
“It’s all just so confusing. I don’t know who’s right or wrong anymore. I love Tauryon, but between this morning and now, I sometimes wish we hadn’t run into him.”
“Oh, beauty,” Rei said, stroking his hair. “I’m sorry this is happening.”
“I understand about the Blades,” he said. “I understand why the Thalmor want to make the Empire go away, and why you hate it so much. I just wish that so many people didn’t have to die because of it.”
“I know, precious.”
“What will you do with Delphine?” he asked. “Once you’re done with your plan or whatever it is?”
“If she fights and we have no choice, we will kill her. But ideally we only immobilize her and take her to the Embassy for questioning and to be sent to Alinor for proper sentencing.”
Sabrael looked at a vague place on the floor in front of him. “Rei?”
“Tauryon said that if a Blade were to kill one of the visiting Thalmor, they may be executed as a show of faith to the Aldmeri Dominion. That’s what this is, too, isn’t it? She’s not going to be tried or anything, and when you say ‘sentencing’ you mean they’re going to just kill her for show.”
“Sabrael, just tell me what you want to do. Tell me what you want me to do.”
“I don’t know, Rei!” he said and burst into tears, falling against him. Rei sniffed and held him tightly.
“Tell me you want me to quit this and I’ll quit, and I’ll bear Azura’s wrath, and we can run away to Hammerfell like you wanted where it’s warm. We won’t have to take Tauryon or anyone. It can be just you and me again, living alone and happy. There may even be other Kelpies.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I bet there would be!”
Sabrael sat back up and pushed his hair back from his face. He was thinking hard. His eyes were red and puffy. After a moment, the excitement he’d felt dulled.
“No. You need to do this. If you have this power, and if Azura says it’s for a reason, you need to do it, especially since I don’t think Her wrath would be something that you could just walk away from. As for Tauryon, I love him a lot, and it would make me a hypocrite to give you a pass for the things you’ve done and shun him for his.”
Rei sighed. “I wish you could have fallen for someone who’s actually worthy so that you wouldn’t have to compromise a value so important to you.”
“You are worthy, Rei. To me, anyway. Nobody else’s opinion matters to me on that subject. Not even yours.”
“I suppose I’ll have to just accept that, then,” he smiled tiredly, wondering if melancholy was all he would ever feel again. “I love you, beauty.”
Rei accepted the kiss Sabrael planted on his lips and ran his fingers through that soft hair. He tried to recall a time he felt so tired, and he couldn’t. Not even his hardest training day as a youth could compare. It was his mind, mostly, he supposed, and he knew well enough how badly emotions could drain a person. The day had gone so quickly, but it seemed like a week’s worth of problems had been packed into it.
“Do you want a healing potion?” Sabrael asked.
“Your head. It’s really hard for me to handle.”
“Oh, Sabrael, yes, I’m so sorry. It’s amazing how one can forget things like that if there’s enough to distract from it. Let me find my satchel.”
Rei winced as he swallowed the bitter draught, but it started working quickly, and the throbbing pain from the dangerously loud noise faded away. “I think I might find something to eat and go to bed,” he said.
Sabrael held out his hand, and Rei took it happily before walking with him out into the tavern. Tauryon was sitting at a table, leaned back with a boot against the edge, looking absently at the candle in the center and holding a goblet of wine.
“Are you alright?” Rei asked as they sat down.
“The older I get, the younger everyone seems. How is Vallinalda a Lieutenant Commander? She can’t be much older than fifteen.”
Rei chuckled. “We were only a few minutes, how can you already be in your cups?”
Tauryon shook his head. “I’m not. I had planned to be, but I do believe they’ve given me rotten vinegar instead of wine. Did you know that girl just came to me asking if I would write her an order to return to Solitude? What nonsense is that?”
“Auri-el’s beard,” Rei said, rolling his eyes.
“Ah,” his friend said. “Well I told her absolutely not. We need her bow and her blade. We need her youth.”
“Where is she now?”
“Crying in her room, I suppose. I feel for her, of course, but this is a situation she needs to learn to, if you’ll pardon me, soldier through. Nobody has died, nobody is mangled or maimed. She has a duty, and I’m not about to coddle her over an infatuation that wasn’t reciprocated.”
“It is a little childish,” Rei said. “How old is she?”
“Well, she was close to Aicanath’s age. He’d be eighty-six next month. In any case, she’s certainly old enough to know better than to make such a ridiculous request.”
“I think she’s just frustrated,” said Sabrael. “She says she wants a real partner, but according to her nobody wants to be.”
“I know very well what her problem is,” Tauryon said. “She’s been part of this organization for fifty years, give or take. Even if someone’s not your direct subordinate, when you hold my rank you start seeing familiar faces and remembering names. If she knows what’s good for her, she’ll tighten her belt and act like a soldier. My patience has limits, you know.”
Rei reached over and rubbed his kirin’s back.
“Little Sabrael, please don’t be upset,” Tauryon sighed. “It would be one thing if she were just a civilian along for the ride, but when you join a military organization of any stripe, you must alter your behavior and be able to understand what is appropriate and what isn’t, and when.”
“I could never be a soldier,” Sabrael said.
“And I wouldn’t want you to be, precious boy. You’re far too innocent to be subjected to the horrors that we see.”
“Do you think I’m weak?”
“On the contrary,” Tauryon said. “You’re one of the strongest beings I know, and I know a lot of beings.”
Tauryon had awakened in the night suddenly, jerking straight upward, panting. His skin was dripping with sweat, and his heart was racing. As the knowledge that it was a dream set in, he closed his eyes, raised his knees, and buried his face in his hands. Details were fuzzy, but Aicanath was there, and Scandalon. Both of them were in trouble, both were out of his reach. Acid-green fire and screams surrounded him, and the harder he tried, the farther away they got until he saw them both grotesquely melt to nothing in the flames.
It had been ages since he’d had such a nightmare. Between Scandalon and Vallinalda’s theatrics, he figured it was the trauma of losing his steed and Vallinalda’s connection to his late husband as a classmate. He’d not had many dealings with her, and he’d signed a few orders himself to send her to corrections, but she was always, in his mind, the girl his Aicanath considered a friend.
“What’s wrong?” he heard Celedaen mumble. He felt his hand rubbing his back.
“A bad dream, that’s all,” he said softly. “I wish I could have saved them.”
“Come here,” Celedaen whispered. “Just hold onto me.”
Tauryon didn’t hesitate, lying on his side next to his friend, belly-to-belly. He could be so tender. Tauryon wondered if he would have been the same way in their youth, had either of them the courage to confess their feelings. They kissed, slowly, lovingly. Celedaen’s hand slid over his cheek. He felt himself somehow hardening, felt the sharp pang of arousal between his legs.
Without breaking their kiss or saying a word, he felt Celedaen’s warm hand begin massaging him. Not pulling, not stroking, just gently rubbing, his thumb occasionally sliding over the tip. It was wonderful. His muscles felt like they were turning to liquid. His breathing had slowed. It took what felt like a long time, but this wasn’t about simple relief; it was about bonding and reassurance. He lost himself in his lover’s arms and cherished his gently playful kisses.
“Celedaen,” he moaned quietly. He was so close, perched precariously on the edge of what was promising to be perfect bliss.
“I’m here, darling. I’m here, and I’ve got you.”
Those words, those sweet, reassuring words were what did it. He reached down and clutched Celedaen’s buttocks and pushed his hips forward in slow thrusts as he enjoyed one of the finest sensations he’d ever felt. The slow massage both relaxed and built him up, and as he came he felt like he was falling into the softest, warmest down bed.
“Did that help?” Celedaen smiled.
“Could you keep rubbing?” Tauryon breathed. “I doubt I’ll get anywhere, but your hand feels so very good.”
Tauryon exhaled slowly and reached down to rub his sac while Celedaen rubbed his head through the foreskin as he softened.
“You know,” he whispered, “my favorite place to pull myself was in the hedge maze.”
“Because that was where we first met to make our plans. Have I told you that every time I smell honeysuckle I think of you?”
Celedaen smiled. He was beautiful in the moonlight that fell in from the high windows.
“I would go there after I knew the gardeners had gone home, even if they weren’t managing the maze that day-” he paused to moan quietly as Celedaen worked him back to erection. “I would find my way to the center. Usually by the time I got there I’d worked myself up so hard that it only took a few strokes. But you know how it is, even now, I know it, but when I was that young I just couldn’t help myself most of the time. So another fantasy was all it took to get me hard again. It was you. Always. Nobody else.”
“So it’s your turn to tell me your fantasy,” Celedaen grinned.
Tauryon’s toes curled. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d come twice in a row, but he thought he might be about to as Celedaen continued to squeeze and rub. “Well, my favorite was thinking about us in those confounded etiquette classes. It was so hard going to the actual classes once I’d thought this up. I thought about us being assigned as partners instead of one of the girls. I thought about us dancing, and I thought of you leaning down to kiss me.
“We were dressed in the finest formal attire, and there in front of everyone you said you needed me.”
“I’m sure I would have.”
“We managed to slip away, and you’d pin me against an outside wall, grinding your hips against mine and reaching down into my pants to play with me, rubbing softly like you’re doing now. Gods, who would know my favorite fantasy would come true, even if only partially.”
Tauryon reached up to hold Celedaen’s face as he kissed him. So close, so close…Warmth wrapped around his legs. His cock ached as he felt his passion build.
“That’s it,” Celedaen said gently. “Just let go, love.”
Just a few more seconds, and finally, just as it seemed he might die from the pressure, he burst in Celedaen’s hand, much harder and more intensely than he had before.”
“I love when you come,” Celedaen whispered. “I’m so happy I can do this for you.”
Once more his friend’s words intensified his pleasure, and Tauryon drew close as his outside knee lifted up involuntarily to rest in the shallow dip between Celedaen’s hips and rib cage. He kissed him over and over as he throbbed hard in the warm, slender hand.
“What can I do for you?” he asked as he finally started to come down. He was still twitching, creating a conflict between his libido and his tired brain, but they felt nice, anyway.
“I’m fine, darling.”
“You’re hard as a rock.”
“And I’m fine,” Celedaen chuckled quietly. “I just want to hold you. Sabrael’s out cold, besides. After the night before I don’t want to deprive him of rest if I can avoid it.”
“I’m so happy you’ve been good to him,” he said. “I was certain I was going to need to kill you.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t. You’d have been right to, probably.”
“Your little prince wouldn’t hear any of it. I hope you know I wouldn’t have relished the act if I had to do it.”
“I know. Even if you were feeling a bit jealous,” Celedaen grinned.
“I wasn’t very graceful at hiding that, was I? Sabrael is so much like my Aicanath. The thought of him with you in the state you were in seemed a great injustice.”
“Was I that much different than before?”
“Oh, yes,” Tauryon said. “I don’t know if it was Vile’s influence or if regaining your soul so quickly spun you into some sort of downward spiral, but when we first reunited in Solitude, you were restless to an extent I didn’t remember, even before all the madness. I’d seen your bloodlust, and of course I’d seen you lose your temper, but you’d never, ever tried to hurt me. I know why that was, now, but if you could turn on Sabrael, of course you could turn on me.”
“I’ll never not feel guilty for dragging you all into that hell.”
“It’s behind us, love.”
Celedaen took his lips, and he could feel the gratefulness and the love through the simple gesture. “Tauryon,” he said.
“How pressing is the need to go to Riften?”
“Not terribly, I suppose, why? Did you have something better in mind?”
“Azura made it clear I need to avoid diversions, and I’ve just had this idea in my head that we should go back to Riverwood. If what you say is true, we’ll likely wind up going to Riften soon enough.”
Tauryon thought for a moment. “What brings you to that conclusion?”
“You said Rulindil has been digging into a case concerning this other Blade, correct?” Celedaen asked.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And Delphine has this plan she’s formulating that involves infiltrating the Embassy, yes?”
Tauryon felt like laughing. He pulled Celedaen’s face close and kissed him hard. “You clever thing!” he said. “Rulindil answers to me, even if I tend to be more hands-off these days. I’d only need ask for details.”
“And there would be no need to rely on nebulous information.”
“Well, less nebulous, anyway. If he’d found anything concrete, we’d have nabbed the coward by now.”
“Some is better than none.”
The ride to Riverwood was quicker than Rei had expected, but they had been traveling at a decent clip. Vallinalda, being shorter than both Tauryon and Rei, gave up Ondolemar’s horse so that Tauryon could ride more comfortably. Vallinalda was better able to ride Windy with her shorter legs, albeit only just without causing her undue discomfort. It wasn’t the most attractive riding posture, given Windy’s relative size, but the arrangement meant that the three tallest members of the group could ride more easily, and Sabrael could ride Baku with Rei, since he fit better than another grown Altmer.
Vallinalda had been very quiet and barely looked at anyone. Rei could swear she was scowling, even if it was only slightly. She’d clearly been crying most of the night based on the redness of her eyes and her unusual state of dishevelment. Her hair was tied into a messy tail, and flyaway strands created a strange dark halo around her head. Rei didn’t feel particularly bad for what he’d said or done, but he wasn’t expecting this level of depression. She barely knew him; what was there to fall in love with? For her age it seemed a bit dramatic, and he wondered if this behavior wasn’t at least partially responsible for her apparent inability to find a man to call her own. Not that he’d gotten to know very many people, but Sabrael was right that they tended to get more attached if he’d had sex with them than if he’d simply flirted or let them get him off in another way. If this was Vallinalda’s reaction after only jerking him off, he couldn’t imagine the histrionics if he’d slept with her.
“I’ll stay out here,” she said sulkily when they’d arrived. “If that’s okay, Captain?”
“If that’s your prerogative,” Tauryon sighed. “You’re going to need to get used to Celedaen’s presence, however, and you will do so very soon. Meanwhile, we’re in Riverwood. We’re not politically aligned with anyone.”
“Yes, sir,” she said meekly. “I mean. Tauryon.”
“Can I stay with her?” Sabrael asked quietly.
“If you want to, beauty. We’ll be out shortly.”
Delphine was nowhere to be seen in the small main room, but a gruff voice belonging to the man behind the bar told them their room was ready and handed them a key. He said the door wasn’t latching; best to lock it behind them.
Rei nodded, took the key and proceeded with Tauryon to enter the room and lock it as instructed. The wardrobe sat wide open, which Rei found a bit foolish. The locks on room doors were never like the locks on entrances and exits, and this one was no exception. They key was chintzy, and the lock’s tumbler was showing its age rather obviously. If someone really felt like bursting in, they certainly could with no issue.
“If I hadn’t seen for myself how painfully incompetent the Blades as a whole were, I’d have to ask how Delphine was allowed to join,” Tauryon whispered, barely moving his lips.
Rei snorted as they walked down the steps. There were far more candles lit than there had been that first time, and it hurt Rei’s eye so badly he had to close it completely. How could somebody light so many candles without magicka? Surely the first would have burned out by the time she reached the last. It was for her own visual benefit, however. The walls had become plastered with parchment bearing loads of ideas, all scratched out in favor of a new one. She couldn’t have been sleeping.
“Good, you’re here,” she said. “I have a plan.”
“Excellent,” Rei said cheerily. “Do tell.”
“Well. The ambassador is well known for hosting grand galas for those bootlickers who refuse to stand up to a bunch of prancing High Elves.”
Rei and Tauryon glanced at each other.
“No offense,” she added automatically. “Anyway, I had an upper class couple in here on the way to Solitude talking about one of these parties. It takes place in four days.”
“And we’re to infiltrate this party, I suppose,” Rei said.
“Exactly. I want you to get in there and find out whatever you can about dragons.”
“Do you suppose there’s just some sort of Thalmor library in the Embassy?” Tauryon asked. Once more Rei found himself stifling a smile.
“I don’t know what I suppose,” Delphine snapped. “Look. I have a friend on the inside. His name is Malborn, a Wood Elf. Plenty of reason to hate the Thalmor.”
Rei glanced over and saw Tauryon raise an eyebrow. He, too, was again having trouble maintaining a straight face.
“I’ve already sent a courier ahead with a letter telling him to expect you, Rei. I told him to meet you in the Winking Skeever at three P.M. the day of the party. Go meet him, and he’ll tell you the plan he’s come up with.”
“You’re presuming an awful lot, aren’t you?” Rei asked. “How do you know he’ll be willing?”
“Like I said, he has as much interest in bringing down the Thalmor as I do. He’ll be willing.”
“Well, then. I suppose we’ll be on our way.”
“Yes, good. Best to arrive early, get your bearings.”
Vallinalda sighed as she climbed onto the porch and crossed her arms on the railing, leaning down and forward so that she could lay her head down and peer sullenly over her arms. Maybe Rei was right. How long had she known him, anyway? It all seemed like a blur. Maybe it was just his looks. Not just handsome but exotic. Exotic and familiar all at once. Dangerous. She’d seen his teeth. How could anyone miss those claws? They weren’t just fingernails grown long. She could tell they grew from the same source, but they were thick and solid, and she could only imagine how he used them.
But in the end, she supposed, he was just one in a long line. Even if she did want him badly enough to brazenly talk to his husband about it.
“Vallinalda?” she heard Sabrael ask.
“Hm?” she mumbled, looking irritably over to where he stood on the ground.
“I’m sorry Rei didn’t like you back.”
She shrugged and turned her eyes back to the nothing in front of her. “Sorry I tried to lay your husband, I guess.”
“I don’t really care about that,” he said. “I just don’t like it when you’re sad. You seem different and all.”
“I don’t handle rejection very gracefully.”
“You can’t be happy that he at least still wants to be your friend?”
“What do friends do?”
“What do you mean?” Sabrael asked. “They help each other. Like I wanna help you.”
“I joined the Thalmor to get away from home. I don’t really know if I care whether or not the Empire exists or who looks like what or what races are ‘acceptable’.”
“What was wrong at home? …If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I came from a small village in Auridon. And Auridon is a small island on top of it. Everyone knows everyone, and I was the girl you went to if you wanted to get laid. I was tired of the reputation – tired of the rejection – so I went to the Academy and joined up. And promptly began fucking everything that moved.”
“That sounds like something you wouldn’t be allowed to do.”
“It’s not smiled upon,” she said vaguely. “I liked it, you know, but it was all the same. Rejection just as soon as they got what they wanted. Or they were fairies.”
Finally she pushed herself back up and leaned against the wall behind her. Everything was suddenly closing in. “I’m going to defect.”
“What does that mean?” Sabrael asked timidly.
“It means I’m leaving the Thalmor and I’m running away to find a new place to start over.”
“Why can’t you just tell them you don’t wanna be a soldier anymore?”
Vallinalda laughed. “Really? You don’t just leave a military organization, and certainly not this one. Desertion is the worst thing you can do. It’s treason. They’d send me back to Alinor for even thinking this, and I don’t mean ‘home’.”
Sabrael was fidgeting with his fingers. “Why would you defect over Rei?” he asked. “It seems foolish, is all. He’s worth a lot, but I don’t know that it’s so much to risk your life over.”
“It’s not just Rei, it’s everyone.”
She breathed slowly and deliberately. Her heart was racing, and she felt tears on her cheeks, even though she didn’t know she’d started to cry. Was she serious? She’d only just said it out of nowhere, although it certainly wasn’t the first time she’d thought about it. If she had to, though, Skyrim was probably the easiest place to flee from. Where did the ships go when they left Windhelm? She vaulted the railing and went to Ondolemar’s horse, looking through the saddlebags and the cargo on his back. Good. Everything was in there. She’d have to discard her armor somewhere, but that was okay. She’d also have to find more and better civilian clothes, but that could be arranged when she wound up wherever she wound up.
“I’m doing it.”
“I have to. You’re coming with me.”
Sabrael’s already pale face turned almost completely white, and his eyes grew as big as dinner plates. “No,” he said. “No, I’m not.”
“Yes you are,” she smiled. “Because you can’t keep your mouth shut. I know you tell Rei and Captain Camorin everything that happens.”
“I only told Rei about your feelings because I didn’t want him to hurt you!” he protested.
“And what’ll be your justification for ratting me out to Tauryon Camorin, of all people?” she hissed. “He won’t just send word; he’ll hunt me down. He’s done it before.”
“I’ll keep my mouth shut, I promise! Please don’t take me away…”
“Stop crying. If Rei feels you I won’t get anywhere.”
“You’re not afraid of me hurting you?”
“As your normal self?” she laughed. “I’ve seen you try to walk on dry land, and I know you know better than to transform in front of all these nice people. I’m sure one of them would be interested in curiosities. So you may as well come with me and not worry about being locked away and put on display.”
Sabrael looked at the door, and Vallinalda raised a hand. She may have been better at melee combat than magicka, but she knew some tricks.
“Do it,” she said. “Go open that door.”
The little daedra took a step back and turned, but before he could run, Vallinalda shot him with the one alteration spell she knew. One invented by Captain Camorin himself. She smirked as the gleaming teal ball hit Sabrael between the shoulder blades, and he crumpled. Her magicka wasn’t strong, so he wouldn’t be asleep for very long, but it would be long enough to get his hands tied up and to haul him onto the grey horse’s saddle.
As people stopped to stare, she simply said the daedra had shown its true colors.
Rei bit his tongue as he leaped up the hidden stairs, nearly dropping the key in his excitement. He slammed it onto the bar before hooking his arm around his friend’s and rushing out the door.
“Celedaen, you wonderful mer!” Tauryon cackled once they’d run down the porch steps and towards the horses. “Didn’t we agree that gift of yours would help the Thalmor?”
“What do you mean?” Rei grinned.
“Oh that little traitorous, tree-loving, bastard! It’s always so satisfying rooting out a hopeful little spy. And without even trying!”
“You know him? Malborn, was it?”
“Oh, I do, indeed. He’s a servant around the Embassy. Unpleasant thing. Never liked him.”
Rei laughed quietly through his bared teeth. “Dare I ask?”
“Just utterly unpleasant. No respect for his betters. Really, he should be thankful for having such an easy job and the pay we so generously provide. The worst of it is that he’s such a craven little twit. The sort that makes his disdain known but without the conviction to back it all up. But all that will go away, Celedaen, because he has no idea who you are, and Delphine only told him about you. The Thalmor can act without worrying about him escaping.”
“So most of our plan has been laid out, we only need to fill in the blanks,” Rei paused. In his glee he hadn’t realized the emptiness of a certain part of him. “Where’s Sabrael? And Vallinalda?”
Tauryon’s expression dropped as he turned and looked around. “Where would they have gone?” he asked.
Rei shook his head. “She’s been ridiculously upset. You don’t think she’d do anything foolish?”
Tauryon closed his eyes and sighed. “She’s been foolish in the past, but surely she wouldn’t try to defect? And with Sabrael?”
“For her sake that had better not be the case. She’ll wish for an execution by the Thalmor if she’s tried to take him as a bargaining chip.”
“We’ll figure that out when we find her. What do you propose?”
Rei thought. Sabrael was too far away to feel him, and then he noticed Ondolemar’s horse was missing. “Oblivion take that sorry whore!” he spat. Come on, we’ll both take Baku. Windy and Merriweather will be fine.”
“How can we tell where she’s gone?” Tauryon said.
“I don’t know. If she has, in fact, defected, it seems her best bet would be Windhelm.”
Rei pulled his swords from their protective coverings, attached his quiver to his belt and slipped his bow around his shoulder.
“Do you think that will be necessary?” Tauryon asked.
“Better to have them and not need them.”
They mounted Baku, and when Rei felt Tauryon’s arms properly wrap around him, he sent Baku into a gallop towards the tundra.
“They can’t be far, wherever they’ve gone!” he heard Tauryon shout above the wind.
“Gods willing, anyway!” he called back.
Tauryon had mercifully been right. Vallinalda had been heading north and was only just shy of the fork that would determine her progress to either Windhelm or Solitude. He couldn’t feel Sabrael, and he saw what looked like his legs draped limply over Vallinalda’s lap.
“Vallinalda!” he screamed. “Stop right now or I swear to the gods above I will fill you so full of arrows a tailor would mistake you for his pin cushion!”
She looked behind her, her eyes wide with a wild sort of fright.
“I’ll let him do it!” Tauryon yelled behind him. “Stop now, or you’ll wish to be sent back to Alinor!”
It took a moment, but soon the horse slowed and came to an uneasy stop. Vallinalda turned it around. Rei felt Tauryon dismount and followed suit, nearly getting caught in the stirrup in his haste to sprint over to where his kirin lay draped across the front of the saddle.
“What did you do to him?” He shouted. “Give him to me!”
Vallinalda backed the horse up, looking at him suspiciously.
“Do what he says,” Tauryon warned.
“Let me go,” she said, “and you can have him back. He’s only sleeping, don’t worry.”
“That’s not how this works, Lieutenant,” Tauryon said. “You have a choice here. You give Sabrael over to Celedaen, and I will take you to Solitude with us, where you will be dealt with. Or, you can be stubborn, and I give Celedaen free rein to do as he will for the crimes of kidnapping and treason.”
“So Rei wants a fight?” she asked. “I’ll fight him. I’ll fight you, too, once I’m done with him. Captain.”
“This is a bit dramatic for being turned down, don’t you think?” Rei asked.
“This always happens,” she said. “I’m leaving, and I’m starting someplace new. Maybe finally I can get my life together.”
“You’re not leaving,” Rei said. “If you’re foolish enough to fight me, then by all means hand Sabrael to Tauryon, and we’ll fight.”
Tauryon wore an expression of worry mixed with anger. Rei smiled serenely and nodded once, slowly.
“And if I win?” she asked.
“Fight Tauryon, if you must. Then I suppose there will be nothing stopping you from defecting.”
Vallinalda looked uneasily at him as he drew his gleaming blades, but she carefully handed his kirin over to Tauryon as instructed, and she dismounted before drawing her own sword.
“Would you care to use a shield?” Rei asked charitably.
“I don’t have my shield.”
“I suppose we’re both wearing clothes. Even enough?”
Vallinalda ran at him and raised her sword. Rei crossed his blades in front of him and deflected her downward strike. Over and over he deflected as she stabbed and swung.
“You’re not fighting!” she shouted.
“Do you really want me to?” he asked.
“You son of a bitch, I won’t be made a fool of twice! Fight. Me.”
Vallinalda was competent enough, but she didn’t do well with anger clouding her vision. He was sure if she wasn’t feeling quite so rabid she could have been a decent opponent, but not while she was just swinging madly. He lowered his swords, dodged hers, and deftly stepped around her, dropping his off-hand so that he could wrap his hand in her ponytail and jerk her head back. In an instant, he pressed the other blade to her throat, just enough to draw a trace of blood.
“Do it,” she said. “Just kill me, stop humiliating me! Over and over. It’s always the same.”
Rei scowled as she started to cry. She had seemed so innocuous. “Bind her hands,” he said to Tauryon.
Tauryon nodded and laid Sabrael down in the grass. Rei stepped slightly aside, not moving his blade, allowing Tauryon to roughly yank the soldier’s hands behind her back and wrap her wrists in glowing purple ligatures like the ones he’d used to bind Rei to the guest bed not long ago.
“I would’ve thought that was a conjuration trick,” Rei said.
“Roots of the trees, Celedaen. Roots of the trees.”
“If you take me back to Solitude, I swear I’ll tell everyone the truth about Ondolemar,” she threatened. “It won’t just be me on that chopping block then, will it?”
Rei pursed his lips over his tongue as he ran it over the front of his teeth. He looked over at Tauryon.
“I could silence her,” he said, “but it won’t last forever, of course.”
“So it seems like the only choices you two have are to let me go, or kill me yourselves. Show me your colors, Rei. I know you want to, for all that show of nobility allowing me to live. Taking what you wanted from me and tossing me aside before pretending you’re above it all.”
“I don’t see any other choice,” Tauryon said. “Nothing I do is infinite, and as long as she’s around, the truth will come to light.”
Rei sighed and tightened his hold on her hair, smirking as she flinched.
“Just let me go,” she said, her tone suddenly one of pitiful fear.
“I wasn’t going to let you live for your sake,” he answered. “I certainly wasn’t going to do it for mine. I was going to do it for Sabrael, because, regardless of what happens to you later, he deserves a husband who can show some modicum of mercy.”
“Then I won’t tell anyone!”
“Don’t you just turn on a septim? Coward. As far as I’m concerned, the Thalmor don’t enter into this. As far as I’m concerned, you took my kirin away, and there is no greater crime. I did for you what I’ve never done for anyone in four hundred years, and you squandered it. All because I told you I couldn’t love you.”
“You and everybody else,” she moaned.
Rei loosened his grip on her hair and kicked her down onto her stomach. He helped her turn over onto her back with his foot, but before she could try to sit up, he slammed his boot onto her stomach. “That’s not my problem. It’s not Tauryon’s problem. It’s not the Thalmor’s problem, and it absolutely is not Sabrael’s problem. You took an innocent creature from his mate to use as a pawn. You’re trash, Vallinalda. Common, filthy trash. Whose skirt were you hiding behind when the Thalmor came calling? Because I wouldn’t have thought twice if I were an inquisitor.”
“Please, no, please! I just forgot myself that’s all! I don’t deserve to die!”
Rei placed the tip of his blade against her throat and looked over at Tauryon.
“Do what you will, Rei Ginsei. The Thalmor are behind you.”
He stood for a moment, flaring his nostrils as he thought. Surely Sabrael would be waking soon, but, oh, how he wanted to just cut out that harlot’s tongue! Taking a deep breath to fight the urge, he plunged the blade downwards through her throat, all the way down to sever the spinal cord. He twisted it, causing Vallinalda to silently shriek, and sliced. As if blowing out a candle, she went limp and her eyes grew glassy.
“Why, that was downright gentlemanly, Celedaen,” Tauryon said.
Rei laughed once, through his nose. “We could’ve been friends, me and her,” he said. “What a shame.”
“She was on thin ice, if I’m honest. Outbursts of this nature weren’t entirely uncommon, if not nearly as drastic. I personally signed off on something like two or three orders for correction over the decades. I can’t imagine what her direct superiors had to deal with.”
“She seemed so…ordinary,” Rei said.
“She apparently just could not handle rejection. One order I signed off on was due to her attacking another female soldier because she took her as competition for a young man in their unit. I can’t say whether or not he knew about this, himself.”
Rei stood for a moment, wondering on the nature of people and just how much he had in common with Vallinalda. He supposed she didn’t quite have the gall to do what he did. He also supposed she wasn’t getting a thrill out of it.
“You called me Rei Ginsei,” he said finally.
Tauryon took a breath and licked his lips. “I daresay I might see you as two people since our reunion. If you’d never left, I probably wouldn’t have, but as it is, Celedaen is the man who made love to me last night in the most tender way he knew how. Rei Ginsei is the beast that seeks blood for his pleasure. I admit, without Vile muddying the waters, I find them both rather attractive.”
Rei smiled. A sudden feeling of severely uncomfortable grogginess made him jump, accompanied by confusion, and then fright. He ran to where Tauryon had laid Sabrael and dropped to his knees to pull him close.
“Rei!” he choked. “Rei, she was gonna take me away!”
“You’re safe now, Sabrael. I will never let anyone steal you from me. I would hunt them to the ends of Nirn if I had to.”
Sabrael wrapped his arms around him and buried his face in his neck. “But what happened?” he sniffled after a moment. “Where am I, even?”
“You’re just at the snowline; she didn’t get very far with you. And I’m sorry, but she’s dead.”
Sabrael pulled away slightly, but didn’t break his hold. “You killed her, I guess.”
“I tried to let her live, I really did. But it just wasn’t possible. Not if we wanted to keep you safe.”
“She tried to take me away,” he said again. ” She did it because she said I would tell on her if she left me behind. I tried to run away, to find you, but she put that spell on me. I don’t like when people die. I feel guilty because of what I did to Ondolemar, but it had to happen. You were just doing the same thing.”
Rei nodded. “I made it quick.”
“Good,” he sighed as he snuggled back into Rei’s embrace. “Thank you.”