“Well, that was unpleasant,” she groaned painfully, gingerly touching the lump on the back of her head.
“How do you feel?”
“Terrible.” She sat up to see that they were in a prison cell. Fasion lay a few feet away, stone-cold dead. Razum-Dar stood at the cell door, and a guard lay at his feet.
“Is he dead?” she asked, nodding to the guard.
“Merely unconscious,” the Khajiit replied. “Our friend Fasion, however, has not fared as well. This one knew him well, as he thought he did Astanya.”
“Do you know what happened to him?” Betath asked.
“Fasion was not willing to give up secrets.”
“And now he’s dead. Damn it.”
“He did well, my friend.”
“Yes, he did. So are you going to let us out of here?”
“Of course.” He deftly picked the lock and opened the door.
“Thanks,” said Kaawen when she and Betath were outside the cell. “How’d you know we were here?”
“Forgive Raz; he was looking for Fasion. Finding you was just a happy accident. Now this one must ask your aid once again. The captain will attempt to murder the queen at the temple; you must warn her and her battlereeve. In order to do so, you must get past Astanya’s men. See Eshaba in the marketplace. Ask her for a souvenir of the First Marines, and she will set you on your path. But Kaawen, you must do this alone.”
“Why do I have to do it alone?” Kaawen asked.
“Betath’s face is known in the royal court. If he were to appear in a marine uniform, they would suspect something was amiss. But a new face in the uniform will barely garner notice.”
“Fine, but I think it’s time you told me exactly who you two are. I know you’re agents of the queen, but I feel like there’s more to it than that.”
“We are the Eyes of the Queen,” Raz replied, lowering his voice to a whisper. “We are few and we stick to the shadows, but we have the honor of being Queen Ayrenn’s most trusted agents.”
“But what about the First Auridon Marines?”
Betath shook his head. “The battlereeve is unfailingly loyal and believes his marines are too, but stains can set in even with the most dedicated, especially an organization as large as the First Auridon Marines.”
“But not with the Eyes of the Queen?”
“As I said, we are few,” Raz reminded her. “We choose our members very carefully, and we keep a close eye on each other. If any of us was corrupted by the Veiled Heritance, it would be discovered quickly.”
“Did you know about the Veiled Heritance before?” Betath asked him. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“At the time, you didn’t need to know, my friend. Now you do. The Heritance doesn’t think we need the Dominion to survive. They think the queen is making a mistake by elevating the Bosmer and Khajiit to be equals with the High Elves.”
Betath rolled his eyes. “Racism. Again.”
“Racists, isolationists, and general idiots.”
“All right,” said Kaawen. “I’m ready to do this.”
“I’ll introduce you to Eshaba,” Betath told her.
Raz turned and went farther into the jail, but Betath led her through the hallways past more unconscious guards and then up the ladder to the guard tower. They made their way through the marketplace to the blacksmith shop, where a Khajiit woman with brown fur, tiger stripes, and a pretty face was peddling her wares.
“Buying! Selling! Trading! Eshaba has just about anything you could want!” She turned to them and said, “Good afternoon, Betath. What can this one do for you?”
Betath pointed to Kaawen, and the cat turned to look at her.
“I’m looking for something very specific,” Kaawen answered.
“Is that so? Don’t be shy. What do you need?”
“I need a souvenir of the First Auridon Marines.”
Eshaba nodded knowingly. “Ah, yes, the perfect thing to suit your needs. But such a souvenir has certain expectations.”
“I know what it entails.”
“Then it is a wise purchase. You may find what you need in the chest behind my stand. When you see our mutual friend again, be sure to give him this one’s best. Betath, it’s good to see you again.”
“It’s a pleasure as always, Eshaba.”
He helped Kaawen carry the uniform back to his house, and she went to her room and changed. When she emerged, he eyed her critically.
“You’re a bit short for a First Auridon Marine. I don’t think you can pull this disguise off.”
“Well, if you hadn’t been plastering your face all over Vulkhel Guard for the last century, you could take my place. And I’ve already seen Bosmer marines, you know, so just shut it.”
Betath chuckled and bent down to place a kiss on her lips. “You’ll be fine, my love, and I’ll be nearby.”
“Let’s do this, then.”
“You’ll need to find Battlereeve Urcelmo. He has short, gray hair and a beard, and he wears golden armor with an eagle emblazoned on the front. The armor is unique, so it stands out.”
They left the house, and Kaawen made her way to the manor while Betath disappeared behind a nearby building. She found the battlereeve easily, for he was standing outside with several of his marines. They were guarding the queen, who waited a few feet behind them, a lovely white-haired elf with pale blue eyes, wearing a lavishly embellished formal dress and an elaborate headpiece. Kaawen couldn’t help noticing how uncomfortable she looked in the outfit.
The battlereeve glared at her when she boldly approached. “Explain yourself, marine! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at your post?”
“I’m not actually a marine, battlereeve. Razum-Dar sent me.”
“Razum-Dar, yes, I know the name. Why have you come?”
“I’m here to inform you of a plot to kill Queen Ayrenn,” she said quietly.
“Hmph,” he uttered with indignation. “We have taken every precaution. Watch Captain Astanya herself assured me that the whole area is locked down.”
“Yeah, about that. Astanya is behind the plot. She plans to attack the queen in the temple.”
“Watch Captain Astanya? Absurd!”
“A moment, Urcelmo,” said the queen from behind. “I would hear what this one has to say.”
“Queen Ayrenn, I fear for your safety. Please disregard this person’s empty threats.”
“Razum-Dar was mentioned. He acts on my behalf, and if you won’t investigate, I will.”
“Apologies, my queen. I will do as you wish.” Urcelmo turned to Kaawen. “You come with me. We will investigate the temple together.”
“Believe me, I meant what I said,” the queen told her. “I’d gladly go there myself. But in this dress? The nobles would lose their minds!”
“We’ll handle it, my queen,” Kaawen assured her. She followed Urcelmo into the temple, where they found Steward Enimwe lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Several Altmer were gathered off to the side, looking cowed and fearful.
“Mara be merciful,” the battlereeve gasped. “What happened here?”
“No, no,” the steward said painfully, “it’s a trap. Watch out! Astanya, on the balcony!”
They looked up to see the watch captain standing there smiling at them.
“Our ‘queen’ has betrayed us, Urcelmo. I wanted her head; I’ll settle for yours. Kill them!”
With that, several guards emerged from behind columns and attacked them. Betath also appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and joined the fight. Two enemies approached Kaawen at once, and she quickly cast an Agony spell on one of them, stunning him long enough for her to draw and shoot the other one. By the time the first recovered from the spell, his partner was dead and Kaawen was ready to defend herself.
Betath fought nearby, casting fireballs with his destruction staff and flinging lightning from his fingertips. There was an unmistakable gasp from one of the Altmer off to the side and a muttered, “Oh, dear Auri-El,” but Kaawen paid it no mind. Such a battle would obviously be shocking to someone in the general populace.
“It’s not over yet, Urcelmo,” Astanya called when the final enemy fell. “The Dominion won’t last; the Veiled Heritance will see to that.”
“The Dominion will last long after your corpse cools! Now come down here and face me yourself, coward!”
Astanya leapt from the balcony, using some sort of spell to slow her descent and give her a soft landing. She cast a lightning spell toward the battlereeve with her staff, and he dodged out of the way and charged her.
“Stay back!” Betath warned him as he cast a fireball at her. Kaawen nocked an arrow and shot at her. When the projectiles had hit their mark and she was struggling to stand, the battlereeve stepped in and thrust his sword into her heart.
She fell dead, and Urcelmo sighed heavily. “Three against one. Her death was not honorable.”
“The odds didn’t matter,” said Betath. “That her actions made her death necessary stripped her of honor. She sent her lackeys to kill us while she stood on the balcony and watched. Besides, honor has little place when the objective is to kill.”
The battlereeve stared at him for a long moment, then nodded his agreement and knelt next to Enimwe. “She needs healing,” he said.
Betath put his destruction staff away and took out his restoration staff, using it as a focus to treat Enimwe’s wounds. After a few moments, she sighed with relief and sat up.
“Thank you,” she said. “I will go to a healer for the rest.”
“Of course,” said Betath.
“We need to report back to Queen Ayrenn,” said Urcelmo.
But as they turned to leave, two of the Altmer standing at the side stepped toward Betath.
“I’ll have to catch up,” Betath said with resignation.
Urcelmo nodded and left, and Kaawen started to follow him, but Betath took her arm. “Stay.”
When the couple reached them, the woman said, “Betath, what were you doing?”
“Hello, Mother. Father.”
“Answer me,” his mother demanded again.
It was patently obvious to Kaawen what Betath had been doing, but it didn’t take much to realize more was going on here than the obvious. Betath’s father eyed her suspiciously but said nothing. After a moment he looked back to his son.
“I was protecting the queen,” Betath replied.
“With destruction spells? Have we taught you nothing?”
“You taught me to do what was necessary, Mother.”
She threw her hands up in the air. “This is unacceptable!”
His father placed a comforting hand on her back and said, “Betath, you were such a gentle child. And now we see this. We’re just a bit confused.”
“Confused?” his mother echoed. “My son, you must stop this silliness right away.”
“Silliness? Mother, you know what my job entails. I protect the queen. Did you think I was merely a healer?”
His father finally acknowledged Kaawen. “And who is this? Young Bosmer, this is a family discussion.”
“This is Kaawen, my partner, and she’s not going anywhere. Kaawen, these are my parents, Arelia and Gareth Anyuviel.”
“It’s an honor to meet you,” Kaawen said softly.
“You as well,” Gareth replied.
Arelia narrowed her eyes and looked Kaawen over. “And do you use destruction spells as well?”
“Destruction spells, no, but I do use offensive magic. I’m a Nightblade.”
“Please forgive my behavior, Kaawen. And my son’s.”
“With all due respect, he has done nothing to forgive. He has used destruction magic to save my life numerous times.”
“I have to report to the queen, Mother.”
“Yes, of course. We’ll discuss this further later. Come to dinner tomorrow.”
“And bring Kaawen, of course,” said Gareth.
“Yes, Mother. Father.” Betath turned and walked toward the door, and Kaawen followed. When he was safely outside, he ran his fingers through his hair anxiously. “Of all the things they could have criticized, they picked that one.”
“Why do they not like destruction magic?”
“They’re healers, and they taught me to be a healer as well, but I’ve always had a knack for manipulating elemental energy. There’s more to being an agent of the queen than healing, Kaawen.”
“I just wish they did. Let’s go talk to the queen.”
They reported back to the queen, who had retreated into the manor house. Battlereeve Urcelmo had taken up his position in front of her again, and he nodded and turned to join them as they walked past.
“Urcelmo tells me the plot was real,” Ayrenn said.
“It was, Your Majesty,” said Betath.
“And Astanya. I can’t believe it! She was truly an agent of the Veiled Heritance?”
“She said you had betrayed your people,” Kaawen told her.
“Betrayal! She turns her back on this nation after years of service, and she speaks of my betrayal? No doubt Urcelmo will triple his watch after this.”
“You can be assured of that, my queen,” said the battlereeve.
* * *
Ayrenn made sure Betath and Kaawen were invited to the celebration that night, and Kaawen bought a dress for the occasion. The speech and ensuing party went off without a hitch, at least as far as the queen was concerned. Betath’s parents completely ignored him all night, an act he seemed perfectly fine with. He ignored them as well, and when Kaawen asked him about it, he dismissed the question with a vague response about different acquaintances. He introduced her to a few of his friends, but while he laughed and joked with them, he never let her stray far away.
They were sitting at a table with tankards of mead when a servant approached and said the queen wished to speak to them. She smiled when they approached her table.
“Sit down,” she offered. When they sat, she turned to Kaawen. “I have spoken to Razum-Dar,” she said, “and he has told me of your work on Khenarthi’s Roost. You have repeatedly proven your worth to the Dominion, and I would like to offer you a place with the Eyes of the Queen. Would you join them? Become an elite agent for the good of the Dominion?”
“I will,” Kaawen said earnestly. “I accept your offer, Your Majesty.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Betath grinning.
“I’ve also heard the two of you have been acting as partners. Raz says you work very well together, so I will expect you to continue on as such. Now to look ahead. I must continue my tour of the island and further cement my position. I will make for the ancient site of Tanzelwil. Normally, a new monarch communes quietly with the dead. We’re supposed to show a willingness to heed the wisdom of our ancestors.”
“As you saw today, my reign so far has been anything but normal. I worry there will be complications. I know Raz will have administrative arrangements for you and cleanup after the events in the temple. Do whatever he needs you to do and meet me in Tanzelwil in three days. Seek out my entourage; they will be able to direct you to me. Now that that’s taken care of, let’s enjoy the party.”
“My queen, can you tell me a little about yourself?” Kaawen asked. “I’ve heard so many rumors.”
Betath seemed to choke on his mead, but Ayrenn chuckled. “Oh, thank Auri-El! Someone who’s not too blinded by my crown to ask a real question. What would you like to know?”
“Was this the first attempt on your life?”
“I wish I could say yes. But Astanya got closer than anyone else. Subverting the watch captain. I can’t believe the Veiled Heritance could be so bold.”
“What do they want? Do you know?”
“An end to the Dominion. They want me to step down so they can appoint their own regent, and for anyone not of High Elven descent to leave the Summerset Isles. I’m afraid the list is quite long.”
“Why are they so against the alliance?”
“They’re racists, High Elven supremacists with no understanding of the real world. Shortsighted misanthropes with delusions of grandeur. Bastard throwbacks that should crawl back beneath their rock!”
“Don’t beat around the bush, Your Majesty,” Betath quipped. “Tell us how you really feel.”
The queen swallowed hard and composed herself. “Is there anything else I can tell you, Kaawen?”
“I heard you did some traveling before you took the crown.”
The queen nodded. “You said you’d heard rumors. My exploits have been greatly exaggerated, I assure you. Except for the one about the bear. That one’s true.”
“What prompted you to found the Dominion?”
“Well, to be blunt, the Altmer are too few. Together with the Wood Elves and the Khajiit, we have the iron will, the strength of arms, and the depth of character to solve the problems facing Tamriel. I spent years traveling the face of Nirn, and I think we’ve forged the strongest alliance in the world. I worked for several months with the Mane and the Treethanes to create this alliance. I’m very proud of it.”
“Is that where you met Razum-Dar?”
“No, Raz and I go way back. We met some years ago while I was traveling. We were in Wayrest. Or was it Windhelm? Something with a ‘W.’ The story is a long one, and it involves a drunken schoolmarm and a purple velvet dress. Ahem.”
Kaawen chuckled, but Betath just looked uncomfortable, so she decided to refrain from asking any more personal questions.
“You’re awfully quiet, Betath,” Ayrenn said.
“I thought I would just let you ladies talk,” he replied awkwardly. Kaawen was amused. She had never seen him so out of sorts.
“What about you?” the queen asked her. “Tell me about yourself. I hear you’re from Elden Root.”
Before she could respond, an Altmer couple approached the table, the man with hair and eyes the color of stone who wore highly embellished armor, and the golden-haired woman wearing mage robes.
“Kaawen, Betath, this is my brother, Prince Naemon, and his wife, High Kinlady Estre.”
The prince and the high kinlady nodded to them. “I suppose congratulations are in order,” he said.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” said Kaawen.
“We were just discussing my travels before I ascended to the throne,” said Ayrenn.
The prince rolled his eyes. “I’m just relieved she’s finally come to her senses. A woman of royal blood, off doing who knows what in the wilds? Ridiculous!”
“And yet she’s come back so well rounded,” said Estre. “Kaawen and Betath, your exploits this day are very impressive indeed. Now that I know your faces, I’ll be sure to watch for further acts of selfless bravery.”
The prince and the high kinlady turned and walked away, and Queen Ayrenn smiled warmly. “My brother is a good man. A bit stuffy, I suppose, but he is an Altmer, after all.”
They socialized with the queen for a while longer but excused themselves when some dignitaries came up and engaged her in conversation. When they walked back to their table, Kaawen asked Betath why he had been so uncomfortable.
“She’s the queen. Some of the questions you asked were very . . . personal.”
“Betath, she’s not some high-and-mighty royal who has no time for her people. She’s a real person, queen or no.”
“Of course I know that. You’re right: she is very approachable for a royal. And she kept putting her hand on my knee under the table. Did I tell you that you look beautiful tonight?”
“Several times, actually. But do you think it’s going to get you out of trouble?” She swatted him on the arm, paused for a long moment, and then said, “You were kidding about the queen, right?”
His eyes glimmered. “Of course I was kidding, love. And I meant it: you are the loveliest woman here, Kaawen.”
She felt heat rise in her cheeks, and she couldn’t believe she was actually blushing. But she found she wanted more from him than compliments. “What do you say we get out of here?” she asked.
Betath took her hand and pulled her up from her chair. “I thought you would never ask.”