It was a moment Kaawen would never forget, standing there on the wall, holding Betath, kissing him in the sunset. But it couldn’t last long. After only a few moments, a guard came sauntering along on his patrol and broke the mood.
Betath glared at him and took Kaawen’s hand. “Let’s go see Captain Astanya before she leaves for the night.” He led her back up the beach to the docks, and then past a small market area to a set of stone steps leading up into the city proper.
At the top of the stairs stood a fully armored Altmer woman with graying hair and eyes so dark that it was hard to tell where the iris ended and the pupil began. She stood there with her arms folded, looking officious, eying them warily. She nodded when they walked up. “Fair evening. How are you, Betath?”
“I am well. Captain, this is Kaawenyth.”
Astanya looked her over and gave a small shrug. “State your business, Kaawen. With the Queen in town, we’re taking extra precautions.”
“I’m working with Betath and Razum-Dar. We just came from Khenarthi’s Roost, which was attacked by Maormer.”
“Thank you for telling me. I’ll make sure the information is passed along to the appropriate parties.” She reached over to a barrel next to her and picked up a clipboard and quill pen. “Now. You said your name is Kaawen? I’ll need it for the official register.”
“Yes, Kaawenyth. K-A-A-W-E-N-Y-T-H.”
“Kaawenyth, Bosmer,” she mumbled as she wrote. “Hometown?”
“Elden Root, in Grahtwood.”
“Graaahtwoood, very well. By order of the First Auridon Marines, your presence in Vulkhel Guard has been officially registered. Fare you well.”
“We were here to offer our help,” Betath told her.
“Help? I don’t think any is needed at the moment. Come back tomorrow, though, and I will find you something to do. Good night, then.”
Kaawen and Betath left the captain and walked up into the city. She gawked at the scenery, all of it as lovely as the beach, clean, polished, and alive with color from dozens of flowering trees. In the fading light, candles and torches blazed all around, giving the city a golden glow.
“This place is just amazing!” Kaawen gasped. “I can’t wait to get a good look around. But for tonight, where can I find an inn? I want to get set up as—”
“You could stay with me,” he said impulsively.
She stopped and gaped at him, silent for a moment. They’d just had their first kiss, and emotions were running hot right now, but his request was still a shock, and she didn’t know what to say.
“I-I have an extra room,” he added. “There’s no pressure, Kaawen.”
“It’s just too soon, Betath.”
“I understand. But I’m not ready to let you go. Not tonight. Besides, you can help me clean up. I haven’t been home in two months.”
With a relieved sigh, she said, “Oh, that’s it. Invite me to your home and put me to work.”
“Play your cards right, and I might even let you make me breakfast.”
“Well, how can I say no to that?”
She followed him through the city to a small house near the central marketplace, and he led her inside. The house was lushly furnished, if a bit dusty. A comfortable sitting room was positioned around a large fireplace, in which wood and kindling were already set up. A desk, some bookshelves, and a weapon rack stood in a corner, and a kitchen and two bedrooms opened off the main room.
The first thing Betath did was level his staff at the wood in the fireplace and cast a fireball. In seconds, the room had a warm glow. He also waved his hand at several candles around the room, further lighting the area.
Kaawen chuckled. “That’s a handy skill.”
“Indeed.” He showed her to the smaller of the two bedrooms. It was a nice room with a small but soft bed, an expensive dresser, a full-length mirror, and a large wash basin. “You can sleep here.”
“Thanks.” She put her knapsack on the bed and began digging through it. “I travel light; I don’t even have any nightclothes.”
“I’ll give you one of my shirts. Should fit you like a dress.” He stepped into his own room and returned momentarily with a large tunic that, when she put it on, did indeed fit like a dress. It hung to her knees, and she had to roll up the sleeves in order to be able to use her hands.
She joined him in the sitting room, where he waited with two glasses of wine, one of which he handed her. “I’m afraid I don’t have any mead or rotmeth,” he said mildly.
“Wine is all right on the odd occasion,” she replied, taking a sip. It was good: dry and rich with a hint of vanilla, and though she was far from an authority on wine, she figured it was probably well aged. She held her arms out at her sides, showing Betath how she looked in the shirt. “You really are huge, you know.”
“No, I’m average height for an Altmer. You’re just short.”
“I’m not short; I’m compact and infinitely adorable.”
“That, you are, my lady. That, you are.”
They drank wine and talked for a couple of hours, mostly about their families. Betath said he wanted to prepare her for his parents, who could be overbearing. They were good people, he told her, just a bit cold and close-minded. This was foreign to Kaawen, who had grown up in a big, loud household with several brothers, whom she adored, and doting parents who encouraged individuality. Still, they had raised Betath, so Kaawen figured they couldn’t be all bad.
Finally, head spinning from too much wine, Kaawen decided to turn in. Betath walked her to her bedroom door and bent to kiss her goodnight. At least, it was meant to be a goodnight kiss. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he backed her up against the door jamb, drinking her in, taking her breath away. She moaned softly as he trailed his hand over her curves and cupped her bottom, and it was all she could do not to pull him into her room.
“Sleep well, Shorty Elf,” he said huskily when he withdrew.
After another half dozen kisses, she finally stepped into her room and closed the door. She lay down on the bed, arms and legs sprawled out, staring up at the ceiling, and did her best not to squeal. How long had she wanted Betath to kiss her? It seemed like forever, and oh, it was worth the wait. That elf had the sweetest lips she had ever tasted. She still considered creeping across the hall and joining him in his room, but she didn’t. She didn’t want to appear too eager, although after the kisses at her door, it was next to impossible. Falling asleep alone in that bed, with him lying right across the hall, was going to be one of the hardest things she had ever done.
* * *
Betath had trouble sleeping as well, and for the same reason. He had meant it when he had said there was no pressure, but he couldn’t help hoping she’d change her mind, especially after the make-out session at her door. After a night of tossing, turning, and wondering if she was awake and if she was thinking about him, he climbed out of bed, wrote her a note in case she woke up, and made his way to the market for some breakfast. He frequented Samardan, a heavily accented Khajiit grocer at the beach market, over all the other food merchants in town. Samardan’s food was good and his prices were reasonable, and listening to him speak was a riot. Betath headed over and purchased bacon, eggs, milk, and a special all-meat breakfast brew Samardan said the wood elves loved.
Kaawen was still in her room when he got home, and he started the cookfire in the kitchen and set about preparing breakfast. She came in a little while later, just as he was flipping the eggs. She was bleery-eyed, hair mussed from sleep, mouth agape in a yawn, and looking downright edible in his shirt. He wanted her so badly, he could barely hold his spatula.
“Morning,” she muttered sleepily. “You’re up early.”
“You kept me up with all your snoring.”
“I do not snore!”
“Loud enough to wake the neighbors.”
She swatted him on the arm.
“Since I wasn’t sleeping, I thought I’d run to the market and get some breakfast.”
“Smells delicious. I thought you were going to make me cook for you.”
“I decided I didn’t want to risk it.”
It turned out that Kaawen did love the breakfast brew, and she gushed over it and the bacon and eggs as they ate. After breakfast, they cleaned up, dressed, and made their way to Captain Astanya’s post to once again offer their services.
“You’re here early, good,” she said curtly. “We’re preparing for an event tonight, and a few details must be tended to. Go speak to Advisor Norion and Steward Enimwe. They await assistance from the guard, but those are hands we can’t spare right now.”
“Who should we see first?” Betath asked.
“See Norion first, and he can send you to Enimwe when he’s finished. You’ll find him at the warehouse at the west end of the beach. Tell him I sent you. Once you’ve finished with both of them, report back to me.”
“Will do. You said there’s an event tonight?”
“Oh, yes. I’m sure you’re invited, Betath, don’t worry. It’s for the queen, of course, now that she’s returned to claim her birthright after gallivanting all over Tamriel. I wish I could just quit my job and then come back when I got bored. She’ll be making a grand speech, probably talking up the ‘unity’ of the Dominion.”
Betath sneered at her. Obviously, Astanya wasn’t a fan of the alliance. He decided to yank her chain a little bit. “So. I hear you and Razum-Dar are old friends.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Old friends! Is that what he said? He has an active imagination. We know each other, even fought together a few times, but I wouldn’t call us friends. Not since he signed up with the queen.” She grunted. “Some hush-hush, cloak-and-dagger outfit. Thieves and liars, the lot of them.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” he replied knowingly.
Evidently realizing she had said too much, Astanya managed to look slightly embarrassed. “My apologies for speaking out of turn. Be assured that I do not normally let my personal feelings affect my job.”
“Of course not. Let’s go, Kaawen.”
They walked up the beach and found Advisor Norion standing outside the warehouse, studying a clipboard. Betath didn’t know the advisor, so he didn’t know what to expect or what game to play. There were always games when dealing with Auridon’s politicians. He would just have to wait and see what Norion’s game was and decide whether to play it or not.
The advisor looked up and glared when Betath and Kaawen stood in his light. “I’m busy here. Away with you!”
Oh, so it was that game. This was one that Betath rarely played, especially with flunkies like Norion.
“Watch Captain Astanya sent us,” said Kaawen before Betath could say something defiant. “She said you needed help.”
With that, his face softened and he almost smiled. “Ah! In that case, you’ll do nicely. My servant followed a burglar to this warehouse. The ignorant knave stole a set of marine deployment plans for the queen’s speech.”
“Why would he do that?”
He folded his arms. “Well, I’m sure I don’t know. I’m no burglar. In any case, we can’t let those plans get into the wrong hands. They could be used to bypass the queen’s security. The two of you are to retrieve them.”
“Any idea what to expect when we get in there?” Betath asked him.
“Do I look like that’s something I would know?”
“Don’t you normally work in the warehouse?”
“I am a personal advisor to Queen Ayrenn, thank you. Just go. Do your jobs.”
“Yes, sir. Whatever you say, sir.”
A small door was set into the big double doors of the warehouse, and Betath drew his staff and stepped inside with Kaawen following.
“Please, I did as you asked,” a shabbily dressed elf was saying.
Another, who was wearing dark clothing, loomed over him. “Yes, you did,” he said, then he stabbed the other elf in the chest. Before Betath could get off a spell, the assassin saw him and vanished into thin air.
“I hate it when they do that!” he grumbled. They went to the burglar, who was drawing painful, ragged breaths, and knelt next to him.
The burglar held out his hand, which still clutched the plans. “Take them back,” he moaned. “I didn’t . . . I didn’t know—” With that, his hand dropped and he perished.
Kaawen took the papers, rolled them up, and tucked them into her belt. They did a quick search of the warehouse in case the assassin was still hiding inside, but it seemed he had somehow managed to get out of the building unseen.
“How is that possible?” Betath mused.
Kaawen shrugged. “I can briefly turn invisible when I need to. It’s Nightblade magic.”
“Sure, but how did he get out of the building? We’d have seen the door open and close.”
“Not if we had our eyes on the burglar, which we did. If he was good—and apparently he was—he could have silently slipped out in only a couple of seconds.”
“Damn it,” he muttered. “Well, at least he didn’t get away with the plans.”
“Maybe Norion saw him leave, although I doubt it.”
They went back outside, where Advisor Norion still stood with his clipboard.
“Well? Did you find the plans?”
“The burglar was murdered,” said Kaawen, “but he still had these on him.”
She took the papers from her belt and held them forth, but he didn’t take them. “Keep them and give them to the captain next time you see her. I must attend the queen. If you have other tasks, you should get to them.”
“We’re supposed to go see Steward Enimwe. Do you know where we can find her?”
“Do I look like the steward’s assistant? Do you take me for a commoner? No!”
“So do you know or not?” Betath asked again, this time with an edge to his voice. He was losing patience with the stick up Norion’s arse.
“Actually, yes, I do,” Norion admitted. “East warehouse, just north of the docks. You can go now.”
They set out, Betath grumbling angrily as they went. “See, this is why I take jobs outside of town.”
“He wasn’t that bad, really.”
“You must be joking! Puffed-up bastard was trying to come off as much more important than he really is.”
“Maybe what he said was true.”
“Kaawen, I know the queen’s personal attendants. Either he’s brand new or he was lying about his importance. In any case, he had no call to treat you like that.”
“He treated you like that too.”
He stopped and looked at her, eyes wide with chagrin at his slip. “Us, you’re right. He had no call to treat us like that.”
They found the warehouse and stepped inside to find Enimwe, a pretty Altmer with sandy hair pulled back into a pony tail.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you right now,” she said apologetically. “I’m very busy and there’s a lot to do.”
“We’re here to help,” he said with frustration. He was getting tired of being dismissed, and his mood was getting worse by the minute. “Watch Captain Astanya sent us.”
“Wait, I know you. Aren’t you Gareth Anyuviel’s son?”
“Yes, that is me. This is Kaawen.”
She stood almost at attention. “Enimwe, Vulkhel Guard Manor’s Chief Steward.”
“Yes, we know who you are.”
“Of course, thank you for coming. Two of my cooks fell deathly ill right in the middle of preparing the queen’s feast! I suspect sabotage and want to be sure all the food supplies are safe. I’m examining the supplies in here. You go to the warehouse next door and check for anything out of place.”
“We’ll take a look.”
As they stepped out of the warehouse, Kaawen said, “You don’t have a lot of patience for the people in this city.”
“You’ve told me before that I wasn’t a typical Altmer. Well, typical Altmer are usually arseholes.”
Kaawen chuckled as they arrived at the warehouse and began inspecting barrels, crates, and cargo bales. They found linens and trinkets, but also cheeses, wines, and produce, including some Bosmer cheese from Grahtwood. He took it to Kaawen.
“It’s hard to tell with Bosmer cheese. Is this any good?”
Kaawen gave him a wry look. “Yes, it’s fine. In fact, it’s delicious. You should have a bite.”
“I think I’ll demur,” he said with a sour face.
The rest of the foodstuffs he inspected seemed fresh and untainted, but Kaawen found a crate of salted meat with a foul odor.
“This meat is poisoned,” she announced.
“Let’s check the rest, and then we’ll go back to Enimwe.”
They found nothing suspicious in any of the remaining crates, so they took the evidence they had found back to the steward.
“Thank the stars!” she exclaimed when Kaawen showed her the meat. “I knew something was wrong. Hold onto that; the captain will want to see it.”
Enimwe handed Kaawen a rag, and she wrapped the meat and started to stuff it into her knapsack.
“Here,” Betath said, “I’ll hold onto that. My sense of smell isn’t as strong as yours.”
“Thanks.” She handed the package to him. “Why would someone want to poison the cook, Steward? Do you know?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, I’m sure it was some kind of test to see if they could sneak anything deadly past our security. Lucky we had you on the job! Listen, thanks for your help, but I have to get back to work now.”
“There’s nothing else you need from us?” Betath prodded.
Enime paused to look around the warehouse and glance at the papers on her clipboard before shaking her head. “I believe that does it.”
He led Kaawen out of the warehouse. Just outside, he took her hand and pulled her toward him. “Sorry I’ve become so cross,” he told her.
“It’s all right. You’re not cross with me.”
“Definitely not.” He bent his head and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. They were so soft and he was tempted to lengthen the kiss, but people were already staring. “Come on. Let’s go see Astanya.”
The guard captain seemed eager to talk to them. “Tell me what you found.”
“Yes, we found this set of—” Betath began.
Betath gritted his teeth and said, “You didn’t let me finish.”
“So sorry. I hate to rush you, but I have another task for you.”
“One of my men, Heldil, has cornered a thug nearby. The low-born scum knows something, but he refuses to speak to the guards.”
“What did he do?”
“I don’t have time to answer these questions!”
“You want us to question him, right? Don’t you think we’ll do better, the more we know?”
“Look, he’s involved in a plot against the queen; that’s all you need know.”
“Well, do you want this evidence we found?” Kaawen asked, finally with an edge of frustration in her voice.
“Just hold onto it for now. You can find Heldil up the stairs, first house on the right. Now, get going!”
Betath turned and stomped up the stairs. “See what I mean?” he muttered when Kaawen caught up with him. “Arseholes.”
“And yet you work for them,” Kaawen noted.
“I work for Raz. And a few select others.”
“Like the queen?”
He stared at her for a long moment before saying, “Let’s just go talk to Heldil.”
They found the guard outside the house and approached. Heldil was handsome, green-eyed and dark-haired, and Betath could have sworn Kaawen raised an eyebrow when she saw him. Betath swallowed hard as a lump of jealousy formed in his throat. Stop it, he told himself. You know better than this. Keep it professional.
“Kindly step back,” Heldil said politely. “We have a situation here.”
“Captain Astanya sent us,” said Kaawen.
Was it just his imagination, or did the timbre of her voice raise slightly? He’d read that people who found someone attractive often spoke in a higher voice. Stop it! he admonished himself again.
“Ah, good, help from the captain. We’ve cornered a dangerous mer in this house. He’s wanted by the crown and has valuable information, but he threatens to kill himself whenever we approach the door.”
“And Astanya thinks he’s going to talk to us?” Kaawen protested.
Heldil shrugged. “You’re not with the guard; he might open up to you.”
“Who is it?” Betath asked. “I’ve lived here all my life and might already know him.”
“His name’s Fasion.”
“Then I do know him.”
“I need him alive, but don’t listen to what he says. He’s half-crazed.”
“You want us to talk to him, but you don’t want us to listen to what he says.”
“Look, just get him talking and we’ll move in while he’s distracted. That’s all you need to do.”
“Very well.” Betath approached the door with Kaawen on his heels and knocked.
“Get back!” said the suspect. “One step closer and I’ll cut my throat!”
“We’re not with the guards,” Kaawen said gently. “We just want to talk. Let us know what this is about so we can help you.”
“And why should I trust you?”
“It’s Betath, Fasion. Let me in so we can sort this out.”
“Fine, fine. Just don’t try anything.”
He unlocked the door, and Kaawen slowly pushed it open. When Betath stepped in, his eyes widened. Fasion was a friend, but he’d never seen him like this before. He was silver-haired, wearing leather armor and a ring in his nose, and his pale eyes had a wild cast to them. He was terrified, on the verge of panic.
“Betath, thank the stars!” Fasion cried. “Quickly, we don’t have much time.”
“What’s going on? Why do the guards have you cornered in a house?”
“We both know you’re just a distraction, Betath; the guards will be in shortly, no? Listen closely, my friend. Astanya is corrupt. She’s a member of a group called the Veiled Heritance.”
“The Veiled Heritance? I’ve never heard of them.”
“They’re newly organized, have only been making themselves known on Auridon for a few weeks. They’re planning an assassination attempt on the queen, tonight at the temple. The speech and the celebration were supposed to be at Skywatch, but the Heritance bribed members of her staff to get the speech moved here.”
“Including the watch captain. Do you have any hard evidence?”
“No, only what I’ve been able to put together from things I’ve seen and heard. Please, Betath, you know me, and you know what my capture means. You must warn the queen. She’s in grave danger and the guards are—oh, no.”
The door opened, and Heldil stepped inside with a handful of other guards, two of whom moved into place behind Fasion. “Good work, citizens,” he said.
“Traitorous scum,” Fasion snarled at the guards.
“Shut your pie hole. You’re under arrest. Farritale?”
With that, one of the guards behind Fasion hit him with the butt of her sword, and he groaned and fell unconscious.
“Did you have to do that?” Kaawen demanded.
“He’s a dangerous criminal involved in a plot to kill the queen. Would you have us parade him through the streets and risk escape?”
“What are you going to do to him?”
“Don’t worry. He’ll receive a fair trial.”
“Of course he will,” Betath muttered. “If we’re done here, we have to go find the captain.”
“She’s moved in to protect the Queen. You can find her at the manor house. Stars guide your steps.”
Betath and Kaawen only glared at Heldil before leaving the house.
“So do you trust Fasion?” Kaawen asked.
“With my life. And I believe what he said.”
“He said you knew what his capture meant. What does it mean?”
“It means this is about to get ugly. Listen, just follow my lead, okay? I don’t know the Veiled Heritance, so I can’t make any judgments until we get there and assess the situation.”
As they approached the manor house, Betath saw a black-armored Bosmer leaning unobtrusively against a tree near the building. Most everyone passed as though they didn’t see her, but Betath walked up and leaned on the tree behind her.
The elf rolled her eyes. “Really, Betath? Every time?”
“Yes, Loramia. Every time. Keep your eyes open wide, my little friend. Something is amiss, and you might be running an errand.”
He nodded to Kaawen and headed toward Captain Astanya, who stood out front with several other members of the watch.
“Stop right there!” Astanya called. “On my authority as Captain of the Guard, you’re under arrest on suspicion to commit regicide! Guards, search them.”
Betath started running options through his head as one guard took his pack and another took Kaawen’s. In addition to Astanya and including the two whose hands were full with their knapsacks, there were seven guards. That was too many, even for him and Kaawen, and Loramia’s job was to watch, not to fight; they would have to let themselves be arrested and then work from the inside.
“Kaawen, just let it be,” he warned.
The guards produced the meat and the plans from the knapsacks and showed the captain, who had the gall to look shocked. “What is this! Deployment plans, and is that poison I smell? Those are the tools of an assassin!” She nodded to the guards standing behind Betath and Kaawen.
He heard Kaawen’s gasp before he felt the blow to his own head. Pain burst all through his skull, and a black haze fell over his eyes as the ground came up to meet him.