O Auri-El –
Great Dragon Bound –
I bid you grant favor to your champion in this his hour of victory.
Nothing happened, of course.
Laila couldn't keep from a vindictive smile at that. She knew that she was about to die. The fact that at the moment, she was merely restrained by two gold-armored soldiers was a formality. She knew that even if she lived, there would be no rescue. But all the same... How long had this Thalmor bastard taken the favor of the Divines for granted, with all his poise and refinement? Years, at least. She was going to die. But after she did, how would he take account of himself?
But when Lord General Naarifin turned from the Dragon's foot to Archbishop Matius, it wasn't discomfit in his porcelain-fine face. It was vindication.
“Did you really suppose you would make a fool of me?” he said softly, pacing forward, tracing a finger along the Archbishop's jawline.
“What exactly – can you mean by that...” Castor Matius was trying to sound defiant and failing utterly. His was the line of the Fighting Counts, but he himself had never been cut out for a soldier. No one left in the city was.
Naarifin held his gaze for a moment, then stepped back with an utter disdain. Matius slumped in the grip of his captors. With relief, Laila thought.
“Do not trouble yourself, I've heard your account of the Great Anguish. The races of men are always thrusting themselves into tales they have no place in. Such as the Eight and One,” said Naarifin, gazing down on him. “A well-known variant of the Talos heresy.”
Laila's eyes flicked to the high vaulted ceiling, to the head of the Dragon...
“Do you imagine the Lords and Ladies of the Thalmor know nothing of what we are called to combat? Of the Empire? I have your Empire, and even its stunted limbs won't thrash much longer. Yet you persist in taking me for a fool.”
Her Temple vows...
“No,” croaked the Archbishop. “The One is in reference to, to Mundus – the compact of Akatosh with--”
“Alessian Order,” said Naarifin, negligently tossing his head back. “Kill him.”
With the automatic reflex of one laying a plate for dinner, the elf to Archbishop Matius' right put a sword through his throat, and the one to the left put another through his heart, and together they cast his body to the floor.
Her Temple vows had had her forswear the conjuring arts... and yet every one of those vows had been toward the honor of Akatosh, and of this sacred ground...
Below the eyes of the elf at her left arm, a black ball of energy grew in her hand.
“Lord Naarifin!” shouted the one who'd got the Archbishop through the throat. The Lord General leapt smoothly from position; had he not, the daedroth Laila had summoned behind him would have had his beautiful head in its jaws.
“The girl,” said Naarifin, as coolly as though nothing had happened at all.
The grips of the soldiers to either side changed and readied. It was her throat with the cold elven-glass through it. Her heart. It was curious how little pain there was... She saw, through a deepening dark-green haze, the shuffling of golden boots...
“Den of heresy. It will be torn down by tomorrow,” said Naarifin's voice, wavering strangely, ringing without significance in her ears, as the last of her life left her.
Sareil's niece looked up at him, peevish and resentful, as though to say she knew full well he wasn't about to say anything good and as she'd predicted as much, he might as well shut up. Eight years old, and it was as though the life she thought she had was already one to be weary of.
But there was no choice but to press on.
“Your father and I tried, Rada, we tried to see that you'd live without this war hovering over you. But we... you can't be sheltered anymore. Better to be haunted than dead. Come. Walk outside with me.”
“Isn't outside where all the elves are?” she grumbled.
Wordlessly he passed her a bedroll, and a waterskin, and a small pack filled with her father's journal and every precious trinket that would fit. “They're coming for the houses,” he said finally, seeing her alarm wasn't the less for his silence. “Everyone says so.”
She didn't look cheered, precisely. But there was a thrill there, a wonder. The sense of adventure. He didn't know whether to pity or envy her for that.
He lurched to an uneasy stance, the old badly-healed knee smarting, braced on his stick with a heavy sack of rations dangling behind him. “So,” he grunted, “we'd better get going.”
Rada did not argue.
The walls he could see from their enclave were as high and proud as they ever were. Somehow, Sareil had expected to see them shrunken. But the smoke and dust and death were heavy in the air; there was no disguising it.
“They killed your cousin Laila,” he said in a tone too low for even himself to hear. But he'd never gone wrong overestimating a child's powers of hearing. And if he heard the words come from his own lips, he might lose the nerve to stand or to get up again, and what good would he be then? “The Emperor's gone, Rada, he's alive, but he's not coming back, the Legion isn't going to be able to save us. He couldn't defend us, and attacking always gives you longer odds. Naarifin, the elf general, when he saw the Legion was gone, he went to pray at the Temple. Nobody knows what happened, quite, but at the end of it Laila was dead, and the Archbishop.”
He braced her with his left arm, the one over his good leg.
“It doesn't sound like we should stop, then,” said Rada, returning the squeeze vaguely, not quite comprehending the situation but knowing she ought to be grave about it. “Better get to the gate soon as we can.”
“The gates are guarded, Rada, and we can't fight. There are a few sewer entrances. The sewers've been Blades standard training from the beginning of the era, just about, and anything the Blades know, we have to assume the elves know, but...” He forced himself not to think what might be happening in the other districts. “They've just taken over, they're keeping themselves very busy, and they don't have the manpower to spare for every sewer entrance. They won't let us leave the city, be sure of that, but we can lie low down there for tonight, which is all we need.” He forced a smile. “It'll hardly smell worse than up here.” He started to walk again.
“Why wouldn't they kill us if we're not in the house?” said Rada, reverting somewhat to the usual cynical air.
“Just what I've heard. Retribution, or that's what they call it. They're burning one in nine of the houses in Temple District, and no one knows which.” He stumped toward the head of the winding outer road, Rada keeping an easy pace with him. “Because... when your father heard about Lail-- about the Temple, I mean-- he got together some people to defend it, thought the elves wanted it torn down. He was right. They always say they stopped the Oblivion Crisis, and to think some 'debased Son of Talos' might have done it...” He shook his head sharply, catching himself trying to escape into a tangent. “Rada, your father's dead. They all are, if they didn't run. They didn't stand a chance. But that they even tried to fight...”
Rada's face had the concentrated blankness of one looking for a way out of an inescapable pit. But she still managed to halt at his raised hand, and peep around the building corner.
It was a corner of the avenue that radiated toward the center of Temple District. Above the rubble of the Temple, the gold plate and the black cowls, the blood of his brother and daughter, the Dragon stood unscathed, rearing to defy and damn the whole bloody scene. Constant as Time.
Rada's lip trembled. She began to break into a run toward the ruins before Sareil caught her around the middle with his walking arm, managing not to collapse on top of her. “No!” he said. “You can't do anything there but die. But this is why these Thalmor bastards are going to lose, do you see it?”
“They're killing everyone.” Hot tears were cascading down her cheeks. “This is the capital, and you said the Legion isn't coming back for us in the capital, so how are they...”
He held her face so they were looking each other dead in the eye. “Because they're wrong, Rada. Not because they're evil bastards, but because they are factually wrong. They refuse to hear the truth, it flies in the face of everything they are and do. And that means one of these days, they're going to trip up, and hard.”
He felt for his stick, heaved himself up, and turned them back toward the sewer entrance he was going for. “Let's try to stay alive till then.”