It was midday before they reached the gates of Solitude, the chill of their journey sunk so deep into their bones that Luthien wanted nothing more than to bathe in a boiling tub of water until she could feel all of her digits again. Elisif was not delighted to see them, at least the grimace she wore as they made their way up the stairs to meet with her in the Blue Palace seemed to suggest she was actually a little bit put out by their surprise visit. She was kind enough, smiling at Luthien genuinely as she surveyed her strange attire with furrowed brow, but forcing the same gesture when Ulfric asked if she fared well.
Before she could even give him a full answer, he cut her off mid-sentence and announced, “Good, good. We will be requiring a room here in your palace. My wife is weary and I have business to attend to. Have your servants see to her needs.”
“Of course, my king. You and the queen are always welcome here,” Elisif said with as much bittersweetness as she could muster. “Falk, will you please have the servants make a room ready for the High King and our lady queen?”
“Absolutely, Jarl Elisif,” he bowed and took his leave, returning rather quickly with a host of servants to see to their needs.
Ulfric left her for a time to check in with Istar Cairn-Breaker, who’d taken over control of Castle Dour and the Stormcloak guard in Solitude after the war. Before he left, he confided that he had a feeling the streets would be abuzz with word about her little excursion in the Embassy. Elenwen was likely fuming and if he spent enough time in the streets listening, maybe he would actually hear something worthwhile.
The servants in Elisif’s household had been gracious enough to draw a bath for her, and after the basin was filled with steaming water, she sunk down into its perfect heat and let herself forget about those dossiers for a little while. She couldn’t deny she was curious to read what they had on Ulfric, but even more than that, she wanted to know who this Esbern fellow was. Delphine claimed to be the last of the Blades, but Etienne told them the Thalmor were searching for another, a man named Esbern who might know something about the dragons.
She reached out of the tub, her arm dripping water into tiny puddles on the floor, and grabbed the first dossier on the top of the pile. She flipped through it, scanning the words. According to the file, Esbern was a fugitive the Thalmor allowed to slip through the cracks due to his age. The man was in his seventies, and though he’d never been in the field, he was known to have executed some of the most brilliant pre-war attacks against the Thalmor. The document went to say that they had no idea why the dragons had returned, reiterating what she’d already read in Elenwen’s study, but they believed Esbern may have information that could shed some light on the dark subject that baffled them.
Did Delphine know about Esbern? She wouldn’t be surprised if she did. That woman and her secrets… as much as she liked to chastise Luthien, treating her like a twelve-year-old girl who didn’t know her own arse from a hole in the ground, Delphine’s reckless enthusiasm was like to be the thing that got them all killed in the end.
She leaned out and lowered Esbern’s file onto the table, swiping Delphine’s into her grasp and skimming it over. There wasn’t much within those pages Luthien didn’t already know. She’d been an essential asset to the Empire during the Great War, making waves and leaving Thalmor blood trails everywhere she went. She was to be exterminated on sight, but fortunately for her the Thalmor had no idea where she’d been hiding for the last twenty years.
Which led her next to the file on Ulfric. She knew better than to trust anything the Thalmor said, but when she saw the word “ASSET” scrawled at the top, it was hard to ignore—even if it did say uncooperative beside it in parenthesis. There were a lot of words in that document that were hard to ignore. They’d established contact with him after the war, but after the Markarth Incident they believed he’d become uncooperative. What did that even mean? The final words claimed that he was to be considered dormant as an asset unless under extreme circumstances.
Ulfric? An asset to the Thalmor? That didn’t even make sense, and yet the distrust that still lingered in the back of her mind began to immediately question him. Forgiving him for going behind her back with Farkas was one thing, but to blindly follow him without ever questioning his motives was an entirely different matter. Was the resentment he carried all part of some elaborate hoax, or were the Thalmor really as disillusioned as he claimed.
No… Ulfric would never betray Skyrim, would he? There were those who believed everything he’d done, he’d done only to gain power, and now that he had that power he could use it to see whatever plans he had for Skyrim to fruition. But he had shared those plans with her so many times while they lay together in the dark, fingers absently stroking her shoulder as she nestled into the crook of his arm listening to him talk. Self-reliance, a return to their roots, thriving on the old ways until every Nord in Skyrim could once again claim their homeland with pride. He would rather die than hand over that power to anyone—especially the Thalmor.
Again she found herself ashamed for doubting him. His hatred was far too real, and there was no denying those hidden tears he cried as he clung to her in the dark, but what on earth would ever give the Thalmor the idea he was their man? They named the Markarth Incident, and though he often boasted with pride that The Men of the Reach had been a savage disgrace that needed removing, he’d never mentioned Thalmor involvement in his plans.
Tossing the dossier back into the pile, she sunk down into the tub again, already feeling the water beginning to cool to room temperature. She soaked until the water was lukewarm and then washed and rose out of the tub, pulling into the comfortable robes the servants had left beside the tub. Combing out the waves of her wet hair by the fire, her mind raced.
That document had to be destroyed, but not until Ulfric had a chance to see it. If word got out that the Thalmor thought he could be manipulated, Skyrim would lose what little faith she had in her king and people would turn with their hopes and allegiance back to the Empire, or worse, the Aldmeri Dominion. Solitude was the worst place possible to have that dossier. If one of Elisif’s servants got their hands on it, word would spread through the land faster than it could ever be stomped out.
She was just laying the comb on the dressing table when she heard the doors open behind her and turned to find her husband grinning in the doorway. “Elenwen is furious,” he announced, stalking toward her and handing over a neatly folded dressing gown of blue silk he’d picked up in the Radiant Raiment. “The good news is, she has no idea who you really were, but she suspects I had something to do with it. Just knowing she is inflamed with rage makes my heart swell. Probably more than it should.”
“Good.” She took the clothes from him. “We need to talk.”
The grin quickly faded from his lips when he heard her tone. “What is it?”
“The Thalmor seem to think you’re an asset to their cause, an uncooperative asset, but an asset none the less.”
She watched his eyebrows knit together, every wrinkle in his forehead visible. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s all there,” she gestured toward the document on the table. “It says they made contact with you after the war. That you helped them in Markarth.”
“Elenwen and I did come into contact with each other during the Markarth Incident, that much is true, but I am no traitor and I have never been, nor will I ever be a friend to the Thalmor, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“I’m not suggesting anything. I only wish to understand why they would think you were an asset to them.”
His jaw clenched, teeth grinding together as his gaze moved toward the pile of dossiers. “Because I cracked, Luthien. I gave them important information about our plans, our positions, ways they could get inside and it was because of me they took the Imperial City. It was my fault the Empire fell, but I only wanted the torture to stop. You have to understand that. I was weak. The Empire left me there to die and when I escaped, I knew I could never go back. Titus Meade didn’t give a damn about me or any of the Nords who’d gone to war for him. We were disposable pawns in his game, and I betrayed him because I had no choice!”
She shook her head, everything starting to make sense. “They had already taken control of the city when you gave them whatever information you gave, and then they let you escape, knowing they had sown you with enough seeds of hate to fuel your eventual rebellion against the Empire. It wasn’t your fault the Empire fell.”
Ulfric sat down at the table, squinting in the dim light of the candle as he read over the dossier while Luthien got dressed. “This is ridiculous,” he shook his head. “Surely you don’t believe any of these lies. I was never a willing cooperative in any of their games. The things they did to me…”
“Ulfric.” Approaching him from the side, she rested her hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently in a gesture of comfort. “I believe you, but as I said, others might not be so willing to see the good in you that I see. That needs to be destroyed before anyone else lays eyes on it.”
“Yes,” he agreed, raising his hand to his forehead in an attempt to smooth away the tension building there. “It does.”
Luthien reached for the document, but he held tight to it for a moment before letting it go. She threw it into the fire, while he stood behind her with his arms crossed and his brow still furrowed. “You should have let me kill her while I was in there,” she mused, hoping to see some of the light come back into his eyes, but he was in no mood for jests.
“I should go back in there and kill her myself, strangle that bitch with my bare hands.” His fists clenched tight at his sides, joints cracking with rage. “That would show her how willing I am to cooperate with whatever plans she thinks she could get me to go along with.”
“Her hackles are up now, thanks to my little stunt. If you walked into the Embassy, she would be waiting for you with her claws out, ready to strike.” She braced his shoulders, leaning into his chest and laying her cheek against him. “As you told me, we are not ready for war with the Thalmor yet, but in good time it will come. Probably sooner, rather than later now that we’ve poked the sleeping giant.”
“I don’t care. I want them out of Skyrim,” he fumed. “And it is high time we send them that message.”
“Do you really think that’s wise?”
“What do you expect me to do? Nothing? I can’t sit with my thumb up my ass like the Empire, waiting for them to make the first move.”
Another war… they weren’t ready, no matter how angry he was, and though she’d seen him angry more times than she cared to remember, this anger was more righteous than any she’d ever seen in him. “We will need to make preparations. Rebuild our armies. It’s going to take a lot of well-trianed soldiers to stand against the Aldmeri Dominion, soldiers we don’t have at our disposal. Driving them out tomorrow would be a fool’s quest, but in a couple of months’ time, with dedication to rebuilding our strength, we might be strong enough. In the meantime, we go on letting them believe they have the upper-hand and when we strike, they will never see it coming.”
“You are my husband and my king,” she lowered her head. “Whatever you decide, I will support you.”
“We should make our way to Windhelm before we go to Riverwood. It’s not as if we have anything of consequence to deliver to Delphine and I need to speak with Galmar about this. Find out how strong our troops are, though I already know the answer.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “We will leave first thing in the morning, but tonight, Lady Elisif has invited us to dine with her court. Her cooks have been preparing a great feast for their king. Come, we can forget this for now.”
“My thoughts are troubled and I am in no mood to be courteous or civilized. Just looking at Elisif right now would only incense my temper, but you should go.”
“I will stay with you.”
She leaned up to kiss his cheek and then left him, making her way to the dining hall where Elisif and her household had already taken their seats. They all rose when Luthien entered, and didn’t sit again until she was comfortably nestled in the empty chair beside the head of the table, a gesture that always made her feel strange and uncomfortable.
“You look beautiful, my queen,” Elisif grinned across the table at her. “That gown is absolutely stunning. Wherever did you get it?”
“The Radiant Raiment,” she unfolded her napkin and laid it over her lap.
“Right here in Solitude? I will have to send my ladies over to place an order.”
“Where is our Lord King?” Falk Firebeard asked, pouring more wine into his goblet. “I was looking forward to hearing his stories from the road. I hear the two of you have been slaying dragons far and wide. Ulfric has always been such a good storyteller.”
“I’m afraid my husband won’t be joining us. Ulfric is not feeling well.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Elisif noted, though Luthien detected a hint of joy hidden in her voice. “I hope it’s nothing serious.”
“Only a headache.”
“Well then, perhaps you will entertain us in his stead, my Queen,” Falk grinned across the table at her. “I’d love to hear the tale of the three dragons on Northwind Summit.”
“It was only two dragons,” she began, “as I had killed their brother as I was coming into Shor’s Stone. We met the flames of their wrath as we scaled the mountainside…”