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The Royal Guard

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He was born to serve - and excelled. Now an old man, how can he protect the Emperor, when bonegripe has left him unable to even hold a sword? And a fearsome enemy is coming, evil prophecy on her lips.

Fantasy / Adventure
Matthew Mundy
Age Rating:

The Royal Guard

"When I became pregnant, Your Grace, I was sure-"

"When you became pregnant?" the Emperor's mother said. "What a nice way of putting it." She sniffed laughter and fingered her wine glass. "Go on, girl."

"When... when I became pregnant, Your Grace, I knew it must be your son's child. I've lain with no-one else since he passed through me village near Nibenay-"

"When he passed though my village," Candyce corrected the girl's grammar.

"Pardon, Your Grace, when he passed through your village."

Candyce sighed. "You have not even a passing acquaintaince with proper syntax, do you my love?" she said flatly. "Don't bother to answer. But do stop calling me Your Grace. I'm not a queen. My only title is The Lady of Topal Bay - and that's a mouthful I'd rather not hear you stumble through. 'My lady' will serve."

"That's not true, m'lady," her older guardsman leaned down. "You're also Duchess of Kvatch, if you remember."

"Am I?" Candyce Mede shrugged. "And where are you from again, girl?"

"Leyawiin, Your Duchess... my lady."

"Russell, what in Dawn's Beauty was my son doing in Leyawiin seven months ago?" she cocked an ear to her Captain of the Guard, standing slightly behind her jewelled and gilded chair.

It occured to him to say 'clearly, fucking peasants,' but as close as he was with the Emperor's mother, that might not be wise. She liked to keep up appearances.

"Every village in the province got a victory visit when we threw the yellow elves back, my lady. The feasts... well... let us say I'm glad your ladyship did not have to see how devoted to Mara they got in the wee small hours."

"I see." Candyce looked at the girl until her eyes fell and a blush crept up her cheeks. "Is that how it was? Your very name is Mara, is it not, child?"

"Yes, my lady."

"And - is that how it was? My son bred you in some sort of peasant ritual?"

"That's not... everyone was..." the girl couldn't go on without stammering. Russell could see in a minute she would begin to blub.

"Cyrod was joyous in victory," he said over Candyce's shoulder, presuming to speak without being asked. "I can vouch for that. And no-one was more joyous than Kyus, that's true, as well. Do you remember when he arrived back in the Capital after the tour, my lady?"

"He was in the Palace of Healing for a month," the older woman remembered over her wineglass, eyes distant. "Yes, I remember. Perhaps we should be glad we dont have another by-blow turning up at the tower every day, then." Her jovial words hid a deeper, insulted little girl, Russell knew.

"As one of his journeyguards, it was partly my responsibility..."

"Oh no, I blame my son. No-one else," she asserted, smiling. "And look at this one." Candyce leaned over and took the girls hand, then trailed her fingers though her wheat-coloured curls. "So pretty." She leaned back and drank deeply.

"I promise, I won't never ask for nothing, m'lady. I just want to keep it, my baby. I won't never even tell anyone who the father is, if you say so."

"It is best you don't ask," the Emperors mother said plainly, nodding. "Since you will never receive anything. Why do you think I am talking to you, instead of my son? You are nothing to him. Your baby is nothing. Do as you will."

"Well," Russell cut in, "there you go, my lady - you may do as you will!" He swept her off her seat as kindly as he could and ushered her out of the chamber.

"Captain!" his Lady called when they were already out the door. Russell leaned back through the jamb to see a cupbearing girl of ten reddening her glass from a massive decanter. "Give the girl twenty dragon-notes before she goes."

He bowed and withdrew again. That may take the sour taste out of the girl's mouth, he thought, but only until it runs out. And when the tale gets out - and it will - it'll become a tasty bit of treasonous gossip. They could add it to the others. That 'victory visit' through Cyrodiil had been a drunken violent farce of a royal tour, and Russell had seen Kyus embarrass the Empire in ways his mother would have paled to hear.

The girl, Mara, was one he had missed; but there had been so many girls. He pressed the dragon-notes into her small white hand as they reached the granite Palace steps. "For the babe." Two redcloaked inferiors came forward. They would take her the rest of the way to the city gate, as The Lady of Topal Bay had commanded.

Russell sighed. He had served at court in High Rock, and then in Highking Ulfric's Palace for a short time, but sometimes these Imperial Medes acted more haughtily regal than either.

Lorcas found him on the steps, staring at nothing. "You have the same look on your face as my greatfather," he said, "when he's forgotten why he came into a room."

"And you have the tone of someone who had to fill in for me at watch-brief," Russell smiled. "Anyone get stabbed today?"

"Nick got his ear bitten off in a brothel last night. I think that was the only injury."

"Big Nick or Little Nick?" he asked.

"Big Nick. So some might say it's an improvement."

"Wouldn't say it to his face. What else? I'm late for Kyus." The Emperor liked his briefings delivered in-person every morning while he was still abed, over runny eggs and toast. And mornings for him started promptly at noon.

"Nothing out of the ordinary," Lorcas Illuminus said, watching two ladies pass by in the courtyard in matching silks of creame-and-gold. They noticed him looking, and lowered their parasols to shield their giggles. "Had more refugees turn up from Valenwood. Apparently the typhoon reached that tree-capital of theirs... what is it...?"

"Silvenar," Russell said, his tone drawing Lorcas' attention away from the strolling ladies. "The tree-city is Falinesti."

Lorcas clicked his fingers. "That's it. We have about nine-thousand new Bosmer citizens now. They sent an emiss'ry too - some sort of wood elf holyman. Looks like a twig in a tablecloth if you ask me. I stuck him with Triss Greenblood for the time being, but he'll want the ear of a Mede eventually, I'm sure."

"And...?" Russell hated how Lorcas always made him ask. "The other..."

"Our spies? No - nothing. Nothing from the Pussyfeet. Not for a week."

"The Catspaw," Russell corrected. "And that's a worry."

"You're late Brachus," the Emperor said as Russell entered his bedchamber. Three tailors buzzed around him like thrummingbirds, helping him dress. Today it was a mantle of grey-brown doeskin, boots of the same, and a simple crimson scarf about his neck. Somehow that took three powdered experts to poof and preen over.

"I am sorry, Your Imperial Majesty," he said, remembering the girl, Mara. "But here I am."

"Your Imperial Majesty. Gods... you only call me that when I've done something wrong. Did my mother enjoy her audience with that Leyawiine?"

Emperor Kyus thumbed his sword an inch out of its scabbard, and then let it fall back. It was something Russell had taught him personally, and he was glad to see Kyus still did it. Making sure that a sword was drawable and not stuck or expanded in the scabbard was something every man at arms should do when they first buckled one on. "Anyone who doesn't check," Russell had told him as a child, "shouldn't be wearing a sword, or should expect to be killed by someone who does."

"The girl is pregnant, my lord, but I don't remember her. I was... celebrating as hard as you were, my lord. Do you remember a 'Mara,' with dark blonde curls? I'd put her age at five-and-score. Certainly no higher."

Kyus became frustrated with one of his fitting boys and threw the dandy's hand away. "I can fix my own belt," he said. "I have no more need of you." His thrummingbirds bowed like Kyus had just praised them and backed out of the chamber, their little shiny black shoes clicking on the polished marble.

Despite his surface anger, Russell could see the Emperor's mind working-over deep and troubling thoughts; until the arrival of his horselords and hunting companions made him break into a huge smile.

"You're going hawking in that, you poof?" Marek said. Any other man in the Empire would have been dismembered for the jibe, but out of Marek's mouth, it merely made Kyus laugh.

"Have you ever seen Lord Stellen's eagles, Russell?" Kyus grabbed his shoulder and led the party on to the stableyard. "Some of them are big as horses, arent they, Marek? When they come back and land on Stellen's grips, they bow his arm with their weight." Stableboys ran around the yard, fussing over final arrangements and drawing forward the parties mounts for the journey to Bravil. Russell reckoned they would have only a few hours light left to hawk in when they arrived, and decide to stay overnight. Not for the first time he thought he should be going with them, but Kyus had declined his offer; wording it to seem Russell's age was a factor and that this was a young-man's outing. With Kyus though, that could be a cover for any number of activities he didn't want reported to his mother.

He explained the wood-elf refugee situation as the Emperor pulled on his riding-gloves. "Yes, yes, we'll settle them somewhere for awhile. Homestead, maybe."

"Homestead is a ruin, Your Majesty."

"And I've been looking for someone to rebuild it. Conservatively. Look, if Valenwood keeps flooding like it has been every wet season, we can expected our flood of teaky elves to continue, can't we? Let's get into bed with them early, I say, while they're desperate. And make Homestead fit to hold it's name."

"Teaky elves," Marek laughed like he'd never heard the slur before, and pulled his grey courser up beside Kyus.

Russell knew he had only moments left, so he summarised the rest of the days petitions and squabbles as fast as he could, skipping over the cattle and grain counts which always bored Kyus Mede to tears, important as it was.

"My mother will think she's in control while I'm gone, Brachus," he said in parting, "but as always..." the Emperor wound his hand in the air, urging Russell to finish his thought.

"As always, the Octus Council has final vote on anything important, not her."

"Very good." A smile returned to his face. "Then we're off!"

Kyus kicked his horse into a gallop, which was the signal his companions had been waiting for - they all followed his lead and clamoured out of the Plaza like they'd been called to some urgent task. Russell could still remember how it was to be young and riding like that a thrill in itself, about fourty summers ago perhaps, but he still remembered the feeling. He couldn't claim he'd been more practical or wise at Kyus' age, either. If anything, he'd been worse.

When the tower in the Arcaneum struck two bells, he headed for the arena - gladly cutting-short his meeting with Kymore Medellen and his constant referencing of his distant ties to the Mede line. His grandson was sparring in an exhibition today, and Russell had promised to attend.

Leaving his blade at the arena-gate always unnerved him, and the sweaty Redguard who took it and passed it to the lockroom recognised him as Captian of the Guard, and wanted to bend his ear about taxes.

"Shut your foreign face," a red-and-goldcloaked Officer told the man, and showed him an inch of bright steel. "Captain Brachus doesn't need to hear your lisping, Hammerfell ox-shit."

Great red awnings screened the afternoon sun and made the arena sand a dusty, rippling pink, but even in the shade it was stifling hot. Russell spied his middle-aged son at the barricade, puffed with pride and calling him over. His battlevirgin grandson mingled on the sand with the other boys, swinging his wooden sword to parry an imaginary attack, and willing himself ready.

A hand touched Russell Brachus' shoulder.

When he turned he saw two exhausted, panting redcloaks presenting another man to him - a commoner - a Breton by the look - and one who looked even more done-in than them. Words started to spill out of the man's mouth in common-tongue, but it took Russell a long moment to fully grasp what he was saying. When he did, a cold rush swept up his back.

Why did I have to be so old when it finally happened? was his first thought. My ward's enemy is arriving on a dragon this night, and here I am, this sad sack of meat and aching bones. He could barely even hold a sword anymore, not with the damn bonegripe in his hands. These days I go into combat with my wits alone.

He struggled to think of a proper Imperial protocol. From what the courier claimed, they had about six hours to prepare.

"Send for the Emperor, call him back."

"It's been done, Captain," the Dunmer redcloak told him. "If he was on The Green Road like he should have been, he should be returning."

"If," Russell agreed.

Daniel, Cobb and he set up an operations-centre in the Talos Plaza District before the main gate. Men arrived constantly to interrupt their planning; endless Officers with endless queries and messages. All except for the one message Russell really wanted to hear - 'The Emperor has been located and is returning to court'.

The Plaza was packed with healers in robes of pale lavender and burnt umber, mages consulting diagrams and reference tables, scholars at their measure-sticks and sundials, and twenty leather-armoured, redcloaked archers. "The deadliest score of shooters in the capital," Lorcas assured him, "handpicked by my Drill Sergeant." Most of them looked Bosmer.

When he finally got a moment to breathe, Russells attention fell on the great sundial set in the district centre. The shadow of the dragon statue pointed at a pillar with a stone cherub base, whose bow and arrow formed the "V" and "I" for five o'clock. It had only been two hours, then, since the courier had delivered that first message. Russell felt like he had achieved nothing.

What would you do, Martin? he asked the ancient, roaring statue; a rendering of the second living incarnation of Emperor Septim.

As if in answer, clouds hid the sun for a moment, wiping out the sundials mark and taking away the sunlight glare from the rock. It revealed an old crumbling dragon, missing a good many teeth and scales off his proud chest, his stone body pitted with age - until the clouds shifted and the sunlight returned in full.

And then left again, in a rush.

That's no cloud.

They're early.

"Archers: lower bows!" he roared, rising from his collapsable chair. "If I see one arrow fly, I'll hang the man who nocked it!" He stared into the west, slitting his eyes, but it was no damn good. His old man's eyes saw only a setting, blinding Magnus.

No pride, he heard his old trainer say in his mind. A good man, fifty summers dead. The proud cannot serve. No pride. "Jaelor!" he called to the half-Altmer. "Tell me what you see."

The Lieutenant put his hand to his brow. "Well, we definitely have a dragon on our hands, that's for sure," the half-mer said. "It's big. If those are normal-sized people on its back, it's very big."

"How many ride it?" Russell asked. He himself could only see a shimmering wing coming out of the sun.

"Three. Yes... three... but one is smaller than the others. A man. Behind him is a woman. She's the rider."

"A woman? She can't be the rider, the Dovakiin is a man. What else? Tell me everything."

"Another man sits behind her... he's... it can't be... " Jaelor Thrandishe dropped his sun-shielding hand. He looked confused.

"He's what?" Russell demanded. "He's what? Spit it out, elf!"

"He's a Nede." Jaelor stated. He sounded like he was talking in his sleep. "I don't know how I know that, but I do. He must be. I've seen all the races of man on Tamriel and... well... you can see for yourself in a minute."

The beast was upon them. It soared over them about a mile up, beat its wings a few times in the air, and then attained the top of the White-Gold, perching there. In the Dovakiin's defence, that was where they had agreed to meet in the courier's message. Loose rocks that had crumbled under its talons hit the plaza courtyard in a shower.

"Eight fuck me!" some Breton archer marvelled, craning his head back at the view.

In any other circumstance Russell would have demoted the man on the spot. In this one he didn't even look at him. "Ath! Can you get me there?"

Athorenne Geyeb shuffled forwards, hitching up his sleeves to his elbows, his face a net of concerned wrinkles. "Uh, to the top, yes? To the, uh, top of the tower, yes?"

"Indeed," Russell said, trying to sound surer than he felt. "Can you make it?"

"Uh, oh I can make it, uh," the old Nord said, and indulged at some time being offended by the idea that he couldn't before hitching up his sleeves again, and focusing on the cobblestones beneath Russell's steel sabatons.

I'll keep my eyes closed, Russell told himself, and it worked... until he felt the pull of his stomach falling into his groin, and heard the high whistle of air currents screaming through his helmet, and then he had to open them again. Windows streaked past, the reflections of Lake Rumere in them flashing by again and again, sickening fast, faster and faster. And bad as that was, the end of the flight terrified him more. Weak-kneed and nauseated, he was lowered by invisible hands to the God's Eye courtyard - as the Medes had renamed the White-Gold eyrie - lowered down like a little mouse before the great green terror that sat there, atop the spire's ten crenulated peaks.

Now Russell understood why the Dragon Priests of old revered them as gods. Because of this feeling. It felt like when he got caught stealing apples as a child and his father had thrown him at the farmer's feet to apologise, only about twenty powers more cowing. He found that he could barely lift his eyes.

Ropes uncoiled and hit the eyrie's stone, but only when three sets of feet began walking towards him could he look up.

Men, he could deal with.

The first one that took his attention wasn't a man, though, even though she did have a fierce look about her. As she came forwards, she pointed at where Magnus set in the west and then trailed her hand behind her, until she was pointing at the place it would come up again at dawn. Russell didn't understand, until the green monstrosity arched its back and took to the sky again, with a deafening roar that seemed to rattle the very air.

That was when she wanted the dragon to return - tomorrow at first light.

A tall man in seal-fur was at her left shoulder, staring at him defiantly, and another at her feet, shivering in filthy rags; as thin and weak-looking as the other man was thick with muscle. Both of them fell from his attention. Russell was used to dealing with powerful lords and ladies, and identifying the true leader in a room was a skill he'd picked up years ago. With these three, that was the woman.

Confirming it, she spoke. "I am Pinnacette Morndas. Are you familiar with that sername?"

Guards in heavy mail started to file out of the stairwell door, but one gesture from Russell and they scrambled back down into it.

"Morndas is the Dragonborn sername," Russell said. "But the Dragonborn is a man. Mattheu Morndas."

"Her brother," the seal-furred man at her left said. "Her twin brother."

"A shared egg," said the snivelling man at her feet, his blue lips twitching, his eyes unfocused. It sounded like he was quoting something. "They read the kin as ki'in, born instead of family, but the text says, A shared eg-"

The woman, this Pinnacette Morndas, kicked him in the stomach. A good blow. He sunk, clutching himself onto the rooftop, frothing at the mouth through a set of shattern, rotted teeth.

"Brachus... Russell Brachus. Captain of the Guard." He held out his hand.

Pinnacette Morndas looked at it, and then pulled her short riding-glove from her right hand, and instucted him to do the same. The man behind her grinned, seemingly proud.

When they shook, her naked hand was oily in his grip, and smelled sharply of some type of rendered animal fat. On the Hammerfell coast, oyster and clam farmers covered themselves in seal fat and dived naked for the treasures. He'd known a girl from Sentinel who smelled exactly the same way as this one did now, when her clothes were off and she'd warmed beneath his sheets instead of the briny waves of the Azurian.

The next matter, as far as manners and properly recieving a guest went, felt awkward.

"May we take your coats?"

The man behind her looked at him as if Russell had suggested killing his dog, more intimidating than ever.

"It's a courtesey, Atlyys," she put her hand back onto his flat belly. "He means it as a submission."

"Strange men," Atlyys said, his anger slowly turning to wonder.

"Don't ask for his weapons either," Pinnacette said, smiling. "Just a friendly... piece of advice."

"Indeed. And indeed I must apologize, my lady, first of all. Our Emperor is not here to recieve you and you're stuck with me, I'm afraid. We received your courier message late, only... well... hours ago. His Majesty Kyus Mede was away at the time, but he will be very, very pleased to see you when he arrives."

She was pleasant to see, that much was true. Russell was now seeing past the seal-fat stink that clung to her and the brutal, masklike expression she affected; saw how the wind stirred her helmet-crushed hair about her head in a swimming, golden veil, saw how her eyes were the distant pale blue of an icefloe. And when she pulled at the front of her furs to cool herself after the exertions of the dragonflight, she revealed Dibella had blessed her with not only a fair face.

"Before we go any further," the dragongirl said, "before you surround me with your redcloaks, I must ask you something. Do you doubt my powers?"

"No," Russell said, an honest answer.

"Do you doubt that I could tear the top off this tower, like this-" she snapped her fingers.

"I don't doubt it, my lady."

"Do you need a demonstration?"

"I am satisfied without one," he said, pulling his right-hand glove back on; mainly so he didn't have to meet her gaze.

"Well make sure your men know it, because I don't want some hero coming at me. You'll never get him out of your tapestries."

"As you say, my lady. Only our most trusted will be permitted in your presence, and they are also aware of your... importance."

"Hans ska reeg dig Isen Drottning," her man Atlyys said. "Inte midam."

If that wasn't ancient nordic, he was a three-toed-sload. Russell didn't need any more convincing - the man was a Nede. Men still lived on Atmora. Nedes still lived there. Well there you go, he thought. Perhaps that whole book by Geyerski is true. Stranger things had come to pass.

"He says you should be calling me Your Grace, not 'my lady'," Pinnacette explained.

"Isen Drottning," Russell repeated the Nede's phrasing. "You're their... Ice Queen?"

"In name only. They have a king, and I'm not his wife. My people have a lot of titles for me, to honor me. Listing them all would take too long, but if you introduce me to Kyus as Isen Drottning, it will go some way to calming this one," she gestured to the Nede at her side.

"And this one?" Russell nodded at the pitifully thin man on his knees.

"All in good time," she said. "Now, will you allow us into the throneroom to await your all-king? I've always wanted to see the Ruby Throne, ever since I was a little girl."

"Then I insist, Your Grace."

As they descended the circling tower steps, the men charged with their bags and belongings gave a cry and dropped a duffle with something clearly moving inside of it. "Oh that's just Atlyys' collection of snakes," the Dragonborn girl explained. "We don't have any on Altmora, and he's fascinated with them."

"Altmora?" Russell said, scowling at the fumbly soldiers. "I always thought it was pronounced At-mora, Your Grace."

"Alt-mora," she enunciated. "'Old Wood' is the literal translation, but the Nedes mean it as a blessing, as in 'long life'."

He sent men ahead to make sure the Great Hall was emptied of everyone, save the posted soldiers. When they finally gained the noble dais, the Ruby Throne took Pinnacette's attention entirely. All the woman could do, seemingly, was stare at it and breathe. It felt to Russell like she forgot any of them were even there.

"Så vacker," she said to her Nedish companion. "När kommer ni att få mig något liknande?"

When Russell laughed she spun and looked at him. "It seems we can't talk in code-language anymore, Atlyys. How is it you understand our Nedic, Captain?"

"The accent is... different... that's for sure," Russell said. That was putting it mildly. They sounded like backwoods Dawnstarians with sorethroats, who had for some reason decided to talk backwards. "I have enough Nordic to understand you, though. You just asked Atlyys when he's going to get you one of these," he gestured at the gold and ruby winged seat of the Cyrod Empire. To him it always looked like something a confectionaire might spin out of sugar and berries. "I didn't think it would be to your taste, though, Your Grace."

"I think our host has just called me un-womanly," she said to Atlyys. The scar-faced Nede looked at him wide-eyed and snorting, like an aurochs looking at a matretaunt's blood-flag.

"I only meant the throne is so slender and fragile, a trifle really; whereas Your Grace - mir Issen Drottning - is so awesomely strong and sure-willed."

A soldier whispered in his ear then, saving them all from the need for her to frame a response. "The Empress and Lady Candyce are without, ordering their announcement."

There was no stopping that announcement now, he knew. That milkdrinker of a Hall-master, Moke Tulius, wouldn't deny Candyce entry if she demanded it - and no doubt she would be demanding it - even if Russell had ordered no admittance. The joke around the Palace was, Moke'd let anyone into the throneroom so as to hear his own voice do the announcing, and have an excuse to domineer his trumpeting troupe impere.

After a moment the fool himself stiff-marched into the room, all brace-necked and with his silly little brown moustache as sweaty and twitchy as ever, like it was trying to escape his face. "Her Ladyship Candyce Immerian Mede, Lady of Topal Bay, Duchess of Kvatch and Mother of the Emperor... and Her Empress Medella Lyminor Mede, Lady of Cyrod, Treasure of Cyrod, Duchess of Skingrad, and the Natural and Lawful Daughter of our Majestic Emperor, Kyus Mede."

The brass sounded their arrival in sotto. At least Moke Tulius had got that right, he supposed, and hadn't blasted them with the full fanfare of a noble-gathering.

Candyce led her great-daughter Medella down the crimson-carpeted centre aisle, the older woman's eyes avid and staring at their Atmoran visitors.

Alt-moran, Russell inwardly corrected himself.

They were dressed in the newest finery from Hammerfell, Imperial red-dyed silk, puffed into trailing bouncing skirts, and with the tightest bodices Russell had ever seen on a woman. Vaire shawls shifted over their naked shoulders as they came forwards, all dusted with ruby shards that glittered in the candlelight marking the processional way.

Candyce Mede did not curtsey to them, but the little Empress Medella, ever spontaneous, did. Russell had to force his smile away, watching Lady Candyce blink in displeasure.

"How lovely to finally receive you!" her Ladyship trilled, her breath smelling of alder root. She'd at least had the good sense to wash the wine out of her mouth, then. "We must confess we expected your brother, but I've been reliably informed you have assumed his mantle, and are now the... true Dovahkiin?"

"I am. My brother sends his regards."

"I trust he was simply very busy, and means no offence." Candyce wrang her hands together, expressing apparent concern.

"He's fishing," the dragongirl said, and went back to looking at the Ruby Throne.

"For... information?" Candyce asked.

"No, actually fishing. For fish. He's seen enough of Cyrodiil to last him a lifetime, he says. He says that every time Cyrodiil comes up in conversation actually. No offence, my lady, but I think he's just seen all the worst of the Empire, and for too long. Anyone would get weary of that."

"Indeed," Russell said. "And no offence taken."

"Do you like our Throne?" Medella asked suddenly.

The Ice Queen Pinnacette Morndas smiled, and tore her attention away from the raised gold and ruby seat.

"Why do you like it so much?"

For the first time since Russell had met her, the Dovahkiin seemed unsure of herself.

"My great-dah used to say you wanted to steal it, but it looks like you just... like it," the child finished.

"When I was your age," the Dragonborn woman said, "or maybe a little older, my dah promised my brother and I that we would see the Ruby Throne. But we... never did." Russell read-between-the-silences. There was tragedy there, and much sadness. "And now I have seen it. And I very much like it, as you guessed. Yet possess it? I do not desire this. If someone were to have one like it made for me, however..." she nudged her Nede companion, laughing.

"Is he your husband?" Medella asked.

"He is."

"He is very big!"

"He is," Pinnacette repeated, smiling.

"Who is he?" the girl asked, nodding at the skinny man in roughspun, cringing at every sound.

"That is something I am here to discuss with your father, sweetling."

"Then it is a good thing I've arrived when I have!" Kyus called out as he strode though the receiving hall, pushing a trumpet out of his face as he went. His eyes lit up when he saw Pinnacette, as Russell had expected. "I see you've already met my family, so perhaps we should now speak more in private. Please." He held out his palm at one of the twin recesses behind the throne and they left the Lady and Empress to be escorted from the Great Hall, but not before Medella had given them all one final curtsey. Her greatmother yanked her away with some hushed scornful words.

"Can you believe Marek nearly tore my clothes wanting to be here too?" Kyus asked his Captain in a quick aside, laughing.

"I can."

When the chamber guards dropped their visitors bags and belongings - along with two helmets obviously constructed for dragonflight, with some kind of opaqued glass visors - Kyus pulled out his scarfpin and pointed at them. "Did you bring me a gift?" he smiled.

"We did actually," Pinnacette said. "First of all..." She untied one of the bags and drew out a parchment. Once unfolded four times, it revealed a cartographers view of Altmora, as the Divines must see it from Aetheria. Beside each town and city, it displayed which noble familiy acted as chieftain - or 'ädel' - of that town, along with their coat of arms. The escutcheons were beautifully rendered. Altmora did not lack for high-culture, apparently.

"Morrah Eel. Deathshead Eel. Lightening Eel. Your people like an eel for their sigil, don't they. A giant starfish, House Sjöst... Sjöstjärna?"

"Nearly. Listen to me say it." Pinnacette took a moment to help him get the pronunciation right, and Russell recognised the look on his ward's face as she did so. The woman intrigued him. And when a woman intrigued Kyus, he would follow that curiousity into ever deeper and deeper follies. The realm knew that, not just Russell Brachus.

"Cuttles and king crab we have here, they aren't very exotic," the Emperor leaned into the womans arm as they looked over the map and its illustrations.

"We have more... gifts," the Nede said behind them. He upended the largest of their bags and spilled a mess of huge, squirming snakes onto the cold stone floor. Their serpentine heads raised to take in the room, until one of the inner-keep dragonguards stepped forward and cast a magic shield around them, keeping them in one spot with his outstretched fingers. Dragonguards were versed in magic and swordplay, for just such an event. Russell was more glad of that than usual.

"We have those on Tamriel," Kyus smiled at the man, and shook his hand, to finally exchange names.

"We don't have any on Altmora," Pinnacette told him. "There's a legend about one of the ädels of old, driving them all into the Sea."

"Then one came back," Atlyys said, and jerked the skinny man they'd brought along to his feet. The leather collar around the man's neck had been there a long time, the skin underneath was callused and filthy-looking. "Tell us why you came!" He shook the thin, windbitten the man by the neck. "Tell them who you are!"

"My name is Haim," the man said, his voice a pitiful squeak. "I-I went to Altmora to find the D-Dovahkiin. For my Masters."

"And who are your Masters?" Atlyys' voice was full of hatred. "Speak!"

"W-We Who Rise. The Pursuers. We are bound. We cannot help it. We cannot rest until the Dovakiin has paid for his sins, until the prophecy is fulfilled."

"But the Dovahkiin did complete the Elder Scroll's prophecy," Kyus said. "He defeated Alduin - what? Two years ago? Nearly three now."

"The Dragonborn's tale does not end there. The doors to Coldharbour will open, and the multitudes will tremble. Alduin knew this. He accepted even his own death, ages ago, having studied the text ex-exhaustively, but he could not accept what the Scroll said would happen next. The Dovahkiin will only grow and grow in power. All dragons will perish, not just on Tamriel but everywhere. He will gain the powers to cross planes. He will destroy every souled and souless opponent in every realm he chooses... unless something kills him first."

"Alduin strikes at us from Aetheria," Kyus said, awed, and sat down heavily in one of his cushioned, ornately carved chairs, the legs shawed to resemble two dragons in flight out of dark cherrywood.

Too quick for Russell to see, a knife flashed though the air and hit Haim, the emaciated agent of the enemy, square in the back of the neck. Atlyys put his knee in the man's back and pulled the knife down between his shoulderblades and all the way down further still. The dragonguards went for their swords, but Russell held up his hand, and shooed them back. Whatever was happening, barbaric as it was, it was what their visitors wanted them to see.

At first Russell thought the Nede had cut the man in half, but a central core still remained, pulsing and twisting underneath the slackened skin in a way that no man's body looked when it was cut - Russell had seen enough of that to know. Pink flesh and rags flapped to the floor, as a scaled trunk bowed and twitched like a dragonfly larvae leaving its cocoon. Shocking the Emperor back into his seat, a giant snakes head emerged, and the human body was abandoned entirely as it birthed the remaining foot-after-foot of long, reptilian form, trailing tendrils of ruined tissue and fat.

"This is what hunts us," Atlyys said, and trapped the sluggish snake's head under his boot. "Tsaesci."

- End of Chapter

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