Delphine’s words hung over them like a shadowed cloak as the carriage jerked forward, Ulfric huddling across from her. They said nothing, but he reached across the space between them and took her hands in his, holding her cold fingers and rubbing warmth into them. Every time she looked up into his eyes, he tried to smile for her, but it came out more like a grimace, the corners of his mouth quickly jerking downward again as he lowered his gaze to their hands.
“I’ll be all right,” she whispered, squeezing his fingers.
He only nodded, holding onto her hands as long as he could before it was time for him to take his leave and allow her to go forward without him.
She’d been so angry with him when she left Windhelm, she’d prayed to Talos in the temple to send her the strength she needed to go on without him, a part of her actually believing she might never see him again. But as if her god had known exactly what she really needed, Talos had sent him to her instead, and though she’d wanted to curse him that night he’d taken off his helmet before walking into her camp, she was glad he’d come after her and even more glad she’d found it in her heart to forgive him.
She didn’t know what lay ahead of them, if she would even come out of the task that lay ahead of her alive, but at least she would go to her death at peace with her husband.
“I’m not afraid to die,” she reminded him.
He did smile at her then, lifting his hand to rest against her cheek before lowering his forehead to hers. They sat that way for awhile, the rickety cart carrying them through the cold hills. “You make me proud, woman.”
When he kissed her goodbye then, she felt as if he’d given all of the strength he carried inside himself to her before drawing back and rising to stand.
“Talos be with you, my love.” She squeezed his hand before he hopped down from the moving cart just below the Embassy and watched her drift further and further away from him.
“Be careful in there, woman,” he called. “I will see you on the other side.”
She only hoped as he disappeared into the shadows that the other side he spoke of wasn’t the other side of Oblivion.
The snow covered estate nestled in the mountains behind Solitude glistened like a jewel in the light of burning sconces and silver moon shining behind it like a beacon. Luthien was surprised when a Thalmor agent guarding the door actually stepped up to the wagon to help her to the ground, his warm hands gripping hers tight until she was steady on her feet again.
“Another beautiful lady,” a gruff male voice called out to her as she made her way toward the porch with her invitation at the ready. She glanced to her right and saw a burly Redguard seated on the bench below the deck. “Are you hear to mingle with the pinchpennies too?”
“I’m sorry?” she shook her head, hoping he didn’t draw too much attention to them.
“Nothing, I’m just venting out loud. Name’s Razelan. I assume you’re here for the party, then? Is this your first one?”
“Oh, yes,” she nodded. “I’ve heard so much about them and my father thought it was high time I made my way here to mingle and perhaps make a suitable match.”
“I’ll drink to that,” he wagged his eyebrows at her.
“Excuse me, my lady,” the Thalmor guard who’d been standing at the porch approached. “Do you have your invitation?”
She drew out the paper, steadying her hand in her pocket as best she could before turning it over to him. He read over the words and then nodded, lifting his gaze to her. “Everything appears to be in order here. Welcome to the Embassy. Please follow me.”
As she was walking toward the doors, she glanced over her right shoulder and caught a glimpse of a shadow in the trees, familiar ebony armor briefly glinting in the moonlight as Ulfric stood watching over her until she drew a deep breath and crossed the threshold.
Luthien had never seen Elenwen before, but she knew as soon as she entered the Embassy the graceful, willowy woman with the golden skin that made her way toward her was her enemy. Looking down her nose with fiery, amber eyes, the acids in Luthien’s stomach immediately began to churn and she could feel her knees wobbling beneath her gown. Not because she was afraid; but because she couldn’t believe she was finally standing in front of an enemy she’d silently hated since the day she’d first seen the scars and faded lashes that marred her lover’s body.
This was the monstrosity who had wrought unspeakable tortures on Ulfric, filling him with quiet shame he would carry for the rest of his days. The immediate need to exterminate her where she stood was so overwhelming she almost couldn’t breathe, and for a moment she thought silently to herself that she didn’t look so tough. Then she remembered Ulfric’s scars, thought of him fighting steadfast at her side in dragon battle, and realized she was being a fool if she thought one look at her enemy had given her enough information to size her up properly.
“Welcome.” There was a chill in her voice, and more arrogance than Luthien had ever heard Ulfric muster—and that man was ego incarnate. “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I am Elenwen, the Thalmor Ambassador to Skyrim.”
Ambassador her lily-white backside. With the Empire no long in control in Skyrim, by rights Elenwen had no claim to that title any longer, but even Ulfric had told Luthien months before there was nothing they could do to drive the Thalmor out of Skyrim… yet. They had left their headquarters in Solitude quickly enough, but the Embassy itself was just far enough away from the city that for the time being it was easier to leave them alone. Ulfric would allow them to think he tolerated their presence, for the moment, but asking them to evacuate their Embassy could be the final insult that brought war.
Resisting the urge to spit in her face and remark that she knew exactly who she was, Luthien steadied her emotions and swallowed them. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ambassador. I’ve heard so many things about you.”
She tittered with girlish laughter as she reached out a golden-skinned hand to touch her arm. “All good things, I hope.”
Luthien didn’t answer that, but instead said, “I am Jora of Morthal.”
“Ah yes,” she nodded. “I recall your name from the guest list. Please, tell me more about yourself. What brings you to… these parts?”
I am queen of these parts, she wanted to say, and as if he’d sensed the tension rebuilding inside her like a storm, Malborn called out from Elenwen’s back, drawing her attention away from Luthien so she could draw a breath. “Lady Elenwen, a moment please?”
“What is it, Malborn?” she hissed over her shoulder, ignoring him when he began to speak again and returning her focus to the woman in front of her. “Morthal, did you say? I hear there’s been trouble there with… what was it? Werewolves, no, it was vampires, I believe. Nasty sort, bloodsuckers, but I suppose even vampires are better than that ragged band of usurpers who think they can keep the Empire out of Skyrim, wouldn’t you say? I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before we can restore proper peace to this land.”
“This is a beautiful party,” Luthien had to grind her teeth together hard. “I can see you spared no expense.”
“Of course not,” Elenwen smirked. “One does not gather the most important men and women of Skyrim and serve them cheap ale and stale bread.” Oh, how little she knew of the real important men and women of Skyrim. The celebrations in the Blue Palace the night they’d claimed Solitude had been filled with true important men and women of Skyrim, and they had dined gratefully on roast boar and venison, their mugs overflowing with strong Nord mead and ale. “This is only a taste of the benefits that accrue to those who align themselves with Thalmor interests.”
She could feel the heat washing over her skin, rising in her cheeks as her jaw clenched almost painfully. If it hadn’t been for Malborn calling out to his mistress again, Luthien was sure she would have truly lost it and that would have been bad for everyone. The Thalmor thought they could win the people of Skyrim over with shiny baubles, expensive brandy and rich food—they were fools.
“The hospitality of the Thalmor Embassy is at your service. Please, enjoy yourself and if I can be of service to you while you’re here, don’t hesitate to seek me out. We’ll have to get better acquainted later.” She bowed without lowering her head, a clear sign that she thought herself above Luthien as she backed away and made her way toward Malborn at the bar.
She caught his gaze over Elenwen’s shoulder, one eyebrow lifted in caution, and as she drew in a deep breath through her nose, she had to wonder if she really looked like she felt? As if she might explode at any given moment and reach for the nearest sharp object to shove through that smug witch’s eye. She had never had a problem with the elves, the neighbor boy she’d grown up with had been Dunmer and as children they’d been thick as thieves, but that woman… She made Luthien’s blood boil with endless rage.
Moving into the folds of guests milling about near the food tables, she saw a few faces she recognized in passing, but fortunately none of them recognized her. She mingled and chatted, finding it far too easy to lie as though she were truly one of them and wondering to herself what they have thought of her if they knew who she really was. Ulfric said her people loved her fiercely because she drove back the dragons, but she had a feeling the people in that room could have cared less at all about dragons. As long as the general populace kept filling their deep pockets with plenty of coin, they probably would have let the dragons rule the sky forever.
And speaking of deep pockets and plenty of coin… the infamous Maven Black-Briar made her way into a one-sided conversation she was having with Erickur, (who was so drunk he hadn’t recognized her at all, Talos be praised,) and he backed up to snag another drink from the girl passing by.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure. Who are you?”
“Who am I?” She laughed haughtily. “I am Maven Black-Briar, and if you don’t want me to blow your cover, I’d suggest you stay as far away from me as possible for the rest of the night. I don’t know what you’re up to, but I want no part of it.”
She ignored the woman, heading toward the bar asking Malborn for another drink. She was starting to feel like she’d been there too long already, and if she wasted anymore time, Ulfric was likely to come busting into the Embassy with his sword and his Thu’um at the ready to get them both killed.
“Good,” he nodded, handing her a glass of Colovian Brandy. “You’re doing okay so far, but you’ll need to make a distraction of some kind so I can get you away from the party. Once you’ve done that, come back here and I’ll take you to your stuff so you can get the real party started.”
“What kind of distraction?” she wrinkled her brow.
“I don’t know. You’re the stealth agent here, not me, remember?”
Sighing, she took the brandy and turned away from the bar, surveying the party in front of her. Maven was still squinting at her, and Erickur was watching her with lusty eyes, but she ignored them both and made her way toward Razelan, who’d seated himself on the bench near the foyer.
“What’s a fella gotta do to get a drink around here?” he looked longingly at the brandy in her hands. “None of the waiters will serve me. Elenwen must have told them to cut me off, the frigid bitch. Probably afraid I’ll cause another scene.”
Talos was truly with her, or maybe it was Sanguine, lingering in the shadows watching over her with approval, she thought, handing her untouched glass of brandy over to him. “Here, I brought this for you.”
“For me?” he reached for it. “One generous soul amidst a host of lick-spittles and pinch-pennies. Really, you shouldn’t have. Now I’ll be forever in your debt.”
“It doesn’t take much to get on your good side, does it?” she chuckled.
“A good strong drink from a pretty girl is a surefire way straight to the center of my heart. You just let me know if you need anything at all, darling, and it’s good as done.”
“Do you think maybe you could help me out, since I was kind enough to bring you a drink?”
“Sure.” He swallowed two heavy gulps and lifted his dark gaze back to her face. “What can I do for you?”
“I need you to create a distraction for me. Get everyone’s attention for a few minutes.”
“Sweet girl,” he grinned. “I was born to make a scene. You just say the word and I’ll dazzle this room with my magical charm.”
“How about right now?”
Swilling the last few sips of his brandy, he lowered the cup onto the tray of the serving girl who passed by and pushed up off the bench with a confident swagger that made her grin. “Stand back and behold my handiwork.” He sauntered into the midst of the party, calling out, “Attention everyone. Could I have your attention, please? I have an announcement to make. I propose a toast to Elenwen, our mistress.”
Luthien quickly scanned the room, all eyes on Razelan as she backed toward the bar and ducked in beside Malborn.
“Let’s go, quick,” he whispered, gripping her sleeve and leading her toward the kitchen doors.
As they slipped away from the party, she could still hear Razelan’s voice over the din of the party. “I speak figuratively, of course. Nothing could be more unlikely than that someone would actually want her in their bed…”
“So far, so good. Hopefully no one saw us leave the party.” Malborn said as they shuffled into the kitchens where a Khajiit woman milled over more refreshments. Glancing up to scold him for bringing someone into her kitchen.
“A guest feeling unwell. Leave the poor wretch be.”
“A guest in the kitchens? That is against the rules. You shouldn’t have a guest back here. If the Lady Elenwen finds out…”
“Rules, Tsavani? I didn’t realize eating moonsugar was permitted. Maybe I should ask the Ambassador,” he hissed, shoving Luthien into the larder and closing the door behind them.
“You’re gear is in there,” he gestured toward a chest in the corner. “I need to lock this door behind you and get back out there before someone notices either one of us gone. Don’t screw this up.”
She knelt on the floor and opened the chest, her heart swelling with joy at the sight of Wuuthrad waiting to be embraced. Lifting it out, she actually kissed the cold steel of the blade before slinging her bag of potions over her shoulder and rising to stand.
“Thank you, Malborn,” she nodded to him as she reached for the door handle. “Talos guide you.”
“Whatever,” she shook his head. “Just get out of here, go on. Go.”
She opened the door and slipped through into the hallway, scanning the empty corridor and listening for voices as she heard the click of the door locking behind her.