A/N: And here is the second half of the Liberation Day party, where it all kicks off in style. Warnings for sexual harassment, a punch-up, endangering one's health to impress a woman, cross-species flirtation, shamelessly setting up three young children and getting them in trouble with their father, family rows and Madanach probably wishing he'd never bothered.
Summary: Expensive alcohol and a room full of secrets make for an explosive combination, especially when the love affairs of Madanach's female kin cause consternation, and one guest in particular doesn't know when to stop. Meanwhile Kodlak wishes he could wholeheartedly love and approve of his son, but Cicero doesn't make it easy...
Someone else who was feeling a bit on the sidelines was Kodlak Whitemane. Farkas was still off who knew where with Kaie. Vilkas and Ria had joined Cicero and Eola for some sort of drinking session that had started off with sampling lots of different cocktails and passing them around, then all sorts of ridiculous drinking games and had now turned into a concerted effort to try and get Argis drunk. Apparently Briarheart warriors were almost immune to poison, which made it very hard to get them intoxicated, but Eola and Ingun were doing their best to try.
Kodlak was watching from the sidelines, envying them. He couldn't approve of either the Dark Brotherhood or the darker side of Reach-magic, but he did remember being a young warrior, just about, and he had some very fond memories of knocking back the ale and singing songs of victory. Watching his son and granddaughter and the man he'd practically raised having a good time was bringing back some memories.
The scuffling under the chair brought back memories of an entirely different sort and he leaned down to see what exactly was sneaking up on him. He didn't think there were any assassins in the Keep – not ones that weren't currently trying to sample every drink in the place anyway – but it paid to be careful. Unless it was a skeever, of course, but Kodlak was certain there were none of them in this place.
It turned out to be neither. Staring back at him was a little Altmer in a sparkly green dress and a pretty silver necklace shaped like a butterfly, and matching hair grips in her red hair.
Kodlak had heard there was a little girl Altmer running around somewhere, the Thalmor Ambassador's daughter apparently, and while he had no love for the Thalmor, it wasn't the little one's fault who her parents were.
"Hello there, lass," Kodlak said gently, getting off the bench and kneeling next to her. "What are you doing down there?"
The little girl whispered something completely inaudible. The poor thing looked terrified. She glanced off to one side and Kodlak saw a pointy-eared doll wedged between bench and wall, upside-down and looking as if it had been dropped, probably from the balcony up above. The little elf clearly wanted her toy back.
Kodlak sat up and retrieved it, holding it out to her.
"There you are, little one. Did you drop it?"
Delight in the little girl's eyes as she took the doll off him, squeezing it tight.
"Thank you!" she whispered, crawling out from under the bench. She looked at his armour with no little interest.
"Are you a ReachGuard? You don't look like a ReachGuard," the girl said, brow furrowing. Clearly the only sort of human warrior she knew about were the city guards and she was wondering if he was one of Markarth's even though her own eyes must have told her no.
"No lass, my name's Kodlak Whitemane and I'm a guest here, same as you. The Reach-King invited me partly because my son lives here and partly for business. I don't think I know your name though."
"I'm Ancalime," the girl said, getting to her feet and dropping a polite curtsey before sitting down on the bench. "And I'm thirty five and a half, and my parents are Meryndor and Sabrinda – Ambassador Sabrinda," she added, clearly having been well-schooled in how to introduce herself to adults. Altmer parents were evidently big on formality, which was no surprise. The age though, that shocked him a bit. Heavens, he knew elves aged slowly, but the reality of an elf born before the Great War still being a child was going to take some getting used to.
"Well, I'm very pleased to meet you, Ancalime. Are you enjoying the party?"
Hesitation, and Kodlak guessed a little girl was probably not going to be having the best time at a party where she knew no one and the other children were humans who might not be keen on an elf playing with them.
"Everyone looks very pretty," Ancalime ventured. "And I liked the illusion show! Even if it was a bit sad in parts. What happened to the little girl who got stolen by Nords? You know, Keirine?"
Kodlak glanced to where the First Matriarch of the Forsworn, fairly glimmering with illusion charms that gave her the appearance of a silver-haired beauty in a sky-blue flowing dress, was talking to Delphine and Esbern.
"She turned out all right in the end," Kodlak reassured her, deciding that explaining Hagravens to the Thalmor Ambassador's little girl was a job best left alone. "Now she helps her brother look after the Reach. She's a sort of priestess and court mage. That's her over there, although she's a very important woman so best left well alone."
Ancalime oohed, but she did smile.
"I'm glad she got away in the end," Ancalime whispered. "And that her brother got out of prison and got to be king. I met him earlier, he seems like a nice man."
Nice man was pushing it a bit, but even Madanach could be kind to children at least.
"He can be when he wants to be," Kodlak admitted.
"And his wife, that's High Queen Elisif," Ancalime said, looking a bit confused. "How come she's High Queen but he's not High King?"
An awkward question if ever there was one, but Kodlak did his best.
"Ah, well, she's High Queen of Skyrim, because each part of Skyrim has its own ruler, or Jarl, and she's High Queen because she's in charge of all of them. But the Reach is a separate country now, and Madanach is King here, and Elisif's not in charge of him."
"But they got married anyway," Ancalime said. Kodlak nodded.
"That's right. It was felt there'd be less chance of a war breaking out if the Reach's King married Skyrim's Queen – what is it, little one?"
Ancalime was looking faintly disbelieving.
"Is that what they told everyone so no one got upset at him marrying one of the Nords?" Ancalime asked, grinning. "It's all right, you can tell me, I won't tell anyone. But they didn't get married just for that, they obviously fell in love at first sight like in the stories. I mean, look at them, they were kissing earlier like they really loved each other and there they are up near the throne cuddling. So they must be in love, mustn't they?"
Kodlak decided not to argue, and besides she was sort of right, and for all Kodlak knew it really had been love at first sight for them both.
"Yes, all right, they love each other very much but don't tell anyone," Kodlak whispered conspiratorially. Ancalime giggled, looking very triumphant at having worked that one out.
"Knew it!" she whispered. "No one gets married just to stop a war!"
Kodlak had a feeling marriages in elven cultures were a lot less politically motivated than among humans and Ancalime in any case was too young to have been told otherwise.
"Harbinger, Harbinger, dearest Harbinger!"
And speaking of children, his own had just arrived, still on his feet despite the number of shots he'd had, face a bit flushed and his hat on crooked but apart from that, still the same old Cicero. The Jester Dragonborn flopped down next to Kodlak, draping an arm around his shoulders while his free hand clutched a pink drink. Definitely not sober.
"Hello Cicero," Kodlak sighed. "How is your evening going?"
"Very well indeed, dearest father, there are lots and lots of fancy drinks and everyone is being very nice to sweet Cicero, and all his friends are here, or lots of them at any rate, and Cicero is having a marvellous time! All Cicero needs now is a fight and a good stabbing, and his evening will be complete. But Cicero doesn't think Madanach will be very pleased if a fight starts." Cicero looked very disappointed at the prospect of no blood being spilt. Once upon a time, Kodlak would have agreed that an evening was not complete without a brawl breaking out, but the years had mellowed him and becoming acquainted with Cicero did have the effect of making everyone start taking a long hard look at their attitudes to violence.
Ancalime had taken a long, hard look at Cicero and gasped.
"You're the Jester Dragonborn!" she squealed. "Like in the story! You're the one who saved the city from the Stormcloaks! Did you really fly on a dragon's back?"
Cicero had stared back, face blank, blinking rapidly and then he had broken into a grin, giggling.
"Yes! Yes! I am, I am! I did ride a dragon, I did, I did! And still do sometimes. His name is Odahviing and he's a dear dear friend of mine."
"Wow," Ancalime whispered, staring up at Cicero in rapt adoration. "You must be really brave."
"Oh, it was nothing, dear child, nothing at all," Cicero giggled, blushing a little. "Cicero is just a little fool with a gift for removing what must be removed, nothing more. Eola thinks I'm brave though – well, what she actually says is that people say humble Cicero is either brave or insane but she's quite sure which of the two it is." Cicero beamed as if this was a compliment. Ancalime glanced at Kodlak, clearly unsure how to react to this. Nor was Kodlak to be honest, but the important thing was to keep smiling.
"Why do you wear a jester hat? Are you really a jester?"
"Yes!" Cicero giggled. "I tell jokes! Funny jokes! And perform merry japes at the drop of a hat!" He promptly took his hat off and dropped it on the floor, giggling as he did, before hastily picking it up and dusting it off and replacing it on his head. It still wasn't on straight.
"You're not going to be telling the horker joke, I trust?" Kodlak sighed. It had been funny the first time, but after several hundred repetitions, it was starting to get old. That and it wasn't remotely suitable for telling around children.
"Oh no, no, Cicero has been told by the Li – by many people that he is not to tell that one tonight. Apparently it is... unsuitable."
"Why is it unsuitable?" Ancalime asked, wide-eyed and curious. Kodlak felt his breath catch in his throat as he glanced at Cicero, not entirely trusting him not to launch into a full explanation... but mercifully Cicero had enough sense not to go into detail.
"Oh, it is not at all interesting for a well-bred little girl such as yourself," Cicero cooed. "You would not understand it. It is very vulgar, very vulgar indeed and utterly unsuitable for a refined occasion such as this."
"Oh." Then. "Ohhh! Is it about privies?" Ancalime was looking very sly as she grinned knowingly up at Cicero. Cicero and Kodlak exchanged looks then decided to seize this avenue of escape.
"I'm afraid so, lass."
"Filthy. Awful. Cicero wishes he could wipe it from his brain, but alas it is too late now," Cicero sighed, shrugging as he giggled, and then decided to swiftly change the subject. "So, sweet little child, why are you here by yourself? Did you not wish to play with the other children?"
Ancalime's smile died as she looked at her feet, all the enjoyment being sucked out of her and Kodlak could guess from this that she'd tried and it hadn't gone well.
"I tried playing with the Jarl of Whiterun's children, but Dagny made fun of my ears and Frothar said I was a filthy Talos-stealer and then Nelkir threw Miss Primrose over the balcony," Ancalime whispered. "I – I was coming to get her when you found me."
Kodlak felt his heart go out to her, and wished there was more he could do to help. Whatever her mother's sins, Ancalime did not deserve the ill-treatment. He'd offer to have a word with Balgruuf but he knew full well he'd dismiss it as kids being kids. He glanced at Cicero, surprised to see him pouting as well, then glancing up with narrowed eyes at where the Jarl's kids were hanging around, making pointed comments about how bored they were.
Perhaps if they'd been a bit nicer to the child who'd wanted to play with them, they might be having a more interesting evening now.
"Leave it to humble Cicero," Cicero purred. "He shall go and deal with the problem for you." Scampering off on noiseless boots, he crept to where the Jarl's kids had carelessly left their non-alcoholic cocktails on a low table, one of which was a pink drink looking exactly like his. Before Kodlak could stop him, he'd swapped the pink drinks around and crept away... before breaking cover and bouncing over to Balgruuf and Irileth.
"Balgruuf, Jarl Balgruuf, Cicero has just seen your lovely children!" Cicero could clearly be heard cooing. "They are having a simply wonderful time drinking their alcohol-free cocktails. It is a very good thing none of them have managed to acquire any of the grown-up ones by some subterfuge or other, isn't it? As it is, none of them have done so and so Cicero doesn't need to report underage drinking to anyone. It really is very fortunate, isn't it, my Jarl?"
Oh sweet Talos, his son really was an utter scoundrel.
"Very," Balgruuf said warily. "Madanach, why's the Dragonborn babbling nonsense at me?"
"You ever known him to babble anything else?" Madanach growled, newly arrived from cuddling Elisif and not pleased at his little romantic interlude being interrupted by seeing Cicero talking to someone important and feeling an urgent need to intervene. "Cicero, why are you bothering the Jarl of Whiterun?"
"Oh, Cicero was just saying how nice it was to see the Jarl's children having such a good time," Cicero cooed. "And that none of them have acquired an alcoholic drink by means of subterfuge, no not at all, so Cicero doesn't need to report anything untoward, no, nothing!"
Balgruuf might have been confused by Cicero's meanderings, but Madanach got the point all too well.
"I need to have a word with my bar staff, excuse me," Madanach growled. "Balgruuf, I suggest you check your children's drinks."
"At once, milord," Irileth said smoothly, her suspicions also roused, and Cicero skipped off, triumphant smirk all over his face as he went to the bar to replace his children's drink with a proper one, just in time for Madanach to catch him doing it, see through his plan... and pat him on the back before telling the bar manager to never mind. What Madanach singularly failed to do was share this knowledge with Irileth, who was shouting at the three children and frogmarching all of them off to bed, with Balgruuf not far behind her and tersely informing them all they weren't coming to any more grown-up parties if this was the behaviour he could expect.
Ancalime had seen the whole thing and had her hand over her mouth, trying not to laugh.
"Don't look too impressed, my son's an unrepentant rogue," Kodlak sighed. "That was not honourable behaviour, lass, so don't you go thinking you're allowed to do that."
Cicero returned at that point and he wasn't alone. Trailing behind him was a young Imperial of about eleven or twelve, dressed in a fancy black tunic with red lining, and leggings to match, who took one look at Ancalime and blushed.
"Aventus, Aventus, this is Ancalime, the little elf the Thalmor brought with them," Cicero chirped, indicating Ancalime, who'd got to her feet and was staring back at the boy. "She is feeling very lonely and the Jarl of Whiterun's children were being mean to her, so Cicero was thinking you could entertain her! You and that boy from Morthal."
"I... sure!" Aventus breathed. "I mean, whatever you want, Cicero. Er... I mean, hi Ancalime! I'm Aventus."
"Hello Aventus," Ancalime whispered back, also blushing. Then she realised she was still clutching her doll and promptly hid it behind her back, laughing nervously.
"Er... the doll's a gift from my father, I was going to leave her behind but he looked upset so I brought her along to keep him happy. You know how it is."
"Yeah. I know," Aventus laughed, offering her an arm. "Did you want to come and play with me and Joric? We were playing hide and seek but he always seems to know where I am. It'll be much more fun with three of us."
Ancalime nodded, looking a bit breathless and was about to take his arm before remembering her manners and turning to Kodlak and Cicero.
"It was lovely to meet you, Sirrah Kodlak and Sirrah Cicero," Ancalime said, dropping into a curtsey.
"You too, Ancalime. Enjoy the rest of the party," Kodlak said, and even though his son's methods were over the line, he had to admit the cause was just. Cicero did a formal bow himself and then waved as the two children ran off, before sitting down next to his father, looking very pleased with himself, and having the nerve to turn to Kodlak as if seeking some sort of approval.
"What?" Kodlak said wearily. "Don't look like that, you just set up three young children for doing something they didn't and you're not remotely sorry."
"Should I be?" Cicero asked, wide-eyed. "The crime they did do was going to go unpunished. Cicero merely evened the balance."
This, this was the most dangerous thing about Cicero. Stabbing Kodlak could deal with. It was taking basic moral principles and inverting them completely, that was the real danger with Cicero. His twisted logic could make wrong seem right and justice seem utterly unjust.
"You are an utter scoundrel," Kodlak sighed, deciding not to argue the point. "Honestly, how you've managed to convince the world you're a hero is beyond me."
"Madanach and the Listener put together the script for the light show, not Cicero," the little jester shrugged. "Cicero does not brag about his exploits, Cicero simply does them and lets his betters work out the story."
"Or in your case, an alibi," Kodlak muttered, knowing full well an awful lot had been left out and not just for concision either. No mention about Dark Brotherhood contracts or the Blades or just how the Emperor had died exactly, and Kodlak was just thankful Cicero had been fighting Alduin in Sovngarde when the assassination happened. Kodlak wasn't exactly surprised at the omissions, but that they'd been necessary said an awful lot about Reach-King and Dragonborn both.
Said Dragonborn had gone very quiet, clutching his pink drink rather harder than was strictly necessary. When he did speak, the usual manic levity was gone completely.
"Cicero saved the world, killed the World-Eater, killed another Dragonborn and stopped him enslaving an entire island, helped root out corruption in your own organisation that you hadn't seen," Cicero growled. "What more do I have to do? You have a Dragonborn son and you still think he's not good enough?" He was looking up now, eyes flashing furiously, and yet Kodlak could see the anguish lying beneath it.
"It isn't that," Kodlak sighed, feeling horrible for this and yet knowing that so long as Cicero remained an unrepentant assassin, he was going to find it hard to really accept him as he wanted. "Lad, don't think for a second I'm not proud of all your triumphs. But being a Companion means living such that your Shield-Siblings would proudly say they fought at your side. There's been many occasions that's been true... but how many other times have there been when any man or woman of honour would have believed the only honourable way forward was killing you?"
Cicero didn't answer, just tossing back the remains of his pink drink and getting up, only swaying a little.
"Many," he finally said, eyes dark. "And we do not sing publicly of those, no. Cicero's younger years will not be getting displayed in a light show, not ever. But Cicero cares not. That any of Cicero's deeds are worthy of song, that is more than he ever hoped for. And Cicero has also heard that Tiber Septim himself did many things in his younger years that would not be getting songs written about them either. Kill them one at a time and you are a murderer – kill hundreds in one big battle, and you are a great general. Kill a man with a knife and you are an assassin, kill him with your pet dragon and they make light shows about you. Cicero cannot fathom it, but no one ever said Nords were logical." Cicero shrugged, laughing all of a sudden. "Perhaps Cicero should give up, hmm? Accept his father as he is, maybe? It's only fair, I suppose."
"Cicero, wait," Kodlak cried, feeling a sudden sense of guilt, and while part of him felt annoyed that of them both, he was the one feeling guilty, a deeper part of himself was whispering that if he'd bothered looking harder, assumed Stelmaria hadn't abandoned him, found Cicero young and brought him to Jorrvaskr, things wouldn't be like this. His son would be an unargued hero, not a murderer who occasionally did heroic things. But he had the son he did, and it was his own fault at root.
Cicero did at least stop, just barely sparing him a glance.
"I'm sorry, lad," Kodlak sighed. "I know... look, I am proud of you. And I do love you. And I'm sorry I was never there for you and your mother when you were young. It is just hard, that's all. But you are my son and I will always be here for you."
Cicero nodded mutely but he didn't look happy. Kodlak got to his own feet and put an arm around Cicero, and Cicero at least didn't push him away.
"Thank you," Cicero said quietly. "Cicero does love you, father. Cicero just wishes... oh but there is no help for it, hmm? You are who you are, Cicero is who he is. We just have to make the best of it."
They did... but Kodlak wished he could truly make his boy smile. All parents should be able to unconditionally love their children... and Kodlak considered it a deeply shaming thing that he couldn't quite do it.
Delphine was trying to work out if she was having a good time or not. On the one hand, the Thalmor were here and Delphine had had an unnerving conversation with Meryndor who'd been a bit too curious about what she did for the Reach-King. Balgruuf had seen through the illusions immediately and been very surprised indeed to discover she was really Dalviona, a special ops agent for the Reach and Madanach's cousin. But he'd agreed to keep quiet that he recognised her.
But on the other hand, the drinks were nice, Cicero seemed to be having a good time and more importantly was behaving himself, Aventus was having fun playing with Joric Ravencrone and little Ancalime, and Esbern was enjoying the chance to get out of the Temple for once, presently talking dragons with Jarl Brina and Rikke, who'd been surprised to learn the Reach had their own dragon expert, but seemed interested. Yes, this had been worth it.
"Dalviona. There you are." Keirine breezed in, gritting her teeth and glaring over her shoulder. "Come, look like we are having a simply fascinating conversation."
Oh good, intrigue. How Delphine had missed this. All the same, she couldn't quite resist the temptation to give in. She wasn't really the partying type, she'd been getting a little bored, and the First Matriarch needing help was piquing her interest.
"What do you need?" Delphine asked, taking Keirine's arm and leading her off. "Is it a job?"
"At this rate, quite possibly," Keirine growled. "But right now, all I need is a distraction. I find myself beset with suitors, which is unexpected at my age, but not unwelcome if they weren't insufferable." Keirine led Delphine to the bar, ordering a Nightshade Surprise for herself and a Dragon Blood for Delphine.
"Suitors?" Delphine asked, dying to know more about this. "Do they know...?"
"No," Keirine grinned. "Or they would not be harassing me, I assure you." She looked up at Delphine, hard and angry look in her eyes despite the smile. "Liberation Day in the Reach but are we truly free, Lathroniel? My brother is King and I his sister and First Matriarch, but even here in his own Keep, I am beset by unwanted attention and he can apparently do nothing. Because one is his wife's thane."
Ah. Erikur. How the man was still breathing was a mystery to Delphine. He must have enemies, those enemies must have coin... and yet no contract. Even Maven hadn't called one in. Apparently he'd not bothered her enough to be worth spending money on removing.
"You'd always have to deal with the politics though," Delphine sighed. "The Reach doesn't exist in a vacuum, even if you weren't in the Empire, you can't just openly murder people you don't like."
"Murder?" Keirine laughed, bitterness in every syllable. "I would settle for taking a stand. But no, he doesn't want to make things awkward for his wife. So his kin suffer instead." She shook her head, seeming weary and sad, and given Madanach had apparently started the Forsworn in the first place to avenge his sister's abduction and rape at the hands of the Nords, for her to be suffering unwanted Nordic attentions now the battle was won must be extremely galling.
"Are you sure you don't want me to have him poisoned, I've got an alchemy specialist in this very room," Delphine murmured, but Keirine shook her head.
"No. Murdering him here would be suspicious so for now, we endure. But one day, he will pay," Keirine said, narrowing her eyes, and yes, here it was, there'd be a contract soon, Delphine could tell. She was already looking forward to it.
Keirine looked up, and there was Kaie, standing there and looking extremely nervous. Which was unusual for her.
"Cariad. What is it?" Keirine asked. "Did you need something?"
"No, I... there's someone I'd like you to meet," Kaie said, fidgeting rather awkwardly as she beckoned someone forward. "Auntie, this is Farkas. Farkas, this is Lady Keirine, First Matriarch of the Reach and my aunt on Da's side."
Farkas shuffled forward, looking a little embarrassed but smiling.
"Hey there. It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am." He even bowed. Not with any great grace or style, but Farkas the Companion was definitely trying.
Kaie was watching him, smiling as he straightened up and looking very proud of him as she took his arm, before turning hopefully back to Keirine.
Keirine looked as surprised as Delphine felt, because Delphine had not seen this coming and she had Eola keeping an eye on the Reach court and Cicero reporting back all the Jorrvaskr gossip, and neither had said a thing about Kaie and Farkas hooking up, or even any suspicions that either had a mystery partner. This was a very sudden development.
"You truly do have someone," Keirine said, intrigued. "Or someone willing to act as a decoy. I don't entirely blame you. Have you told your father yet – no, of course not, we'd all know if he knew."
"Know what?" Oh now here was trouble. Madanach himself seeing his daughter re-appear and wanting a reckoning about the mystery boyfriend. Not a mystery for much longer.
"Da," Kaie said stiffly, turning to face him. "Da, this is Farkas. He's... we're seeing each other. You wanted to meet him. Here he is."
Madanach had gone quite still, brain processing the thought of his beloved heir to the throne with a Companion of Jorrvaskr, particularly one who'd attacked a lot of Forsworn camps in his time. As expected, he was not pleased.
"You've pledged yourself to a Companion of Jorrvaskr," Madanach growled.
Kaie nodded, refusing to budge. "Pledged is not the word I'd use, but I'm fond of him," Kaie said. "And you didn't object to Eola being with Cicero, and he's a Companion too."
"Cicero saved my city from an invading army, that one has attacked my camps on a regular fucking basis over the last two decades!" Madanach seethed. "You honestly think I want to see my eldest daughter married off to a Nord wer- warrior?"
"I don't care what you want, I'm keeping him!" Kaie shouted. "If it's a choice between him and the other eligible men I've seen tonight, I'll take him any day! He's a good man and an honourable one, and even if we were on opposite sides once, I'd rather have a strong warrior in my bed than some milk-drinker who's never wielded a blade in his life!"
Madanach's eyes widened and he actually hissed, before turning to where Kodlak had just arrived with Cicero.
"Did you know about this?" Madanach snarled. "About him and my daughter?"
"Not a clue, although they were flirting a little the other day. I didn't know it had actually gone anywhere, or that they'd even met before we got here – Farkas, are you sure about this?" Kodlak asked, clearly wary.
"Never surer," said Farkas, arm around Kaie and cuddling her. "She's gorgeous. Even prettier than Eola."
Kaie actually beamed at that, and Eola could be heard whispering "What?", looking a little bit insulted.
"You are aware she's killed an awful lot of people, mostly Nords and mostly innocent travellers," Kodlak said, looking rather pointedly at Kaie. Farkas just shrugged.
"I've killed an awful lot of people too. We're at peace now. The past can stay there."
Kodlak nodded and shrugged at Madanach, washing his hands of the matter.
"Sorry, Reach-King. I tried. But he seems insistent. As does your daughter."
Madanach stared back at Farkas, hostility radiating from him, and his gaze didn't change much when looking at Kaie.
"This is not over, daughter," Madanach growled, turning on his heel and striding off, radiating fury, so much so that Elisif had got to her feet and was slowly making her way over, clearly worried. Madanach put his arms around her, holding her tight and moving to one side, having a hushed but furious conversation with her. Given that Madanach from the look of it had ranted for about thirty seconds, before Elisif had folded her arms and snapped at him, causing him to immediately drop the ranting and look very contrite and pleading, Delphine had a feeling he'd get over it.
She returned to her drink, as did Keirine... and then Delphine had the sensation of someone watching her. She looked up, caught Keirine's eye, and then the two of them turned simultaneously to see Jarl Siddgeir standing there. For some reason, he was looking nervous. Delphine wondered what he was up to and then she recalled Keirine having mentioned more than one suitor.
"Do you need something, Jarl Siddgeir?" Delphine asked, and to her surprise, Keirine motioned for her to stop.
"Don't worry, Dalviona. This one is harmless. Persistent, but harmless. Well, boy? What is it? I already told you I was too old to think of courtship."
"I know, I know, and forgive me, but... was there anything you needed?" Siddgeir asked, seemingly shorn of his usual indolence and condescension. "I mean, a woman such as yourself is hardly ineligible and while I know you can't bear children, I could always take another wife after..."
"How very romantic," Keirine sighed, eyes rolling. "Dalviona, do you hear this. He doesn't care I'm old because I'd die soon and then he could marry a younger woman. You are in debt, aren't you. You want to wed me for my coin then have a young girl barely in adulthood to warm your bed after. Or before, maybe? Perhaps you have the contract to end me lined up already."
"No!" Siddgeir cried. "I mean, no, that's not it at all! I mean, I – I know I only met you tonight but I – I've come to admire you greatly in a short amount of time and I would be honoured if you'd condescend to give me the privilege of your company..." The Jarl of Falkreath was actually blushing. Delphine never thought she'd see the day. Keirine was also looking very surprised.
"By the old gods, I think he's serious," Keirine said, amazed. "Boy, I am a skilled illusionist, I could look like anything under these."
"Oh that doesn't matter," Siddgeir said dismissively. "Your strength now, that's what I'm interested in."
Eyebrows raised and Keirine turned to Delphine, one domme to another, and Delphine had to try not to laugh. So someone had a bit of an older woman fetish, did he?
"Really," Keirine said, sliding off her chair and taking his face in her hands, weaving a bright glowing light around them to hide them both from view. "So you wouldn't even care if I really looked like this?"
The light hid them both but Delphine could guess that she'd shown him her real face, because Siddgeir had shrieked and backed away.
"By the Eight," he gasped, staggering away. "I didn't know... had no idea..."
Keirine had let the light go, redoing her illusions and looking sad as she took her seat again.
"I thought as much. Go home, Nord. You're not worthy." She turned back to the bar... only to realise Siddgeir hadn't run away. He'd dropped to his knees alongside her, reaching out for her.
"You're nothing like in that book..." Siddgeir whispered. "Matriarch, please, let me... I'll do anything!"
Dear gods. Someone didn't just have a female domination fetish, someone had a Hagraven fetish. Delphine stared at Siddgeir, before looking up at Keirine, and as both women met each other's eyes they had to bite their lips to keep from laughing.
"Anything?" Keirine asked, smirking. Siddgeir nodded.
"Yes, Matriarch," Siddgeir whispered and Keirine motioned for him to rise.
"To be worthy of a Matriarch, one must undergo a sacred ritual of the Reachfolk," Keirine continued, beckoning a young Reachwoman barmaid over. "The Rite of Cusad Y Creena. Yeena, the Jarl here will be requiring Red Eagle's Revenge."
A hush had descended and before Delphine knew it, a crowd had gathered – various ReachGuard, Uaile and her father Uraccen, a few other ex-Cidhna Mine veterans, Eola, Argis, Kaie, Farkas, Vilkas, Ria, Ingun, the three children who hadn't been sent to bed for underage drinking, and then the older generation, including Maven, Esbern, Hemming, Rikke, Meryndor, Sabrinda and even Madanach having heard someone was actually trying the Red Eagle's Revenge and having to see this for himself.
A clear glass about the size of a pint tankard was produced and then a black wooden box. It looked old, with arcane symbols carved into it, and Delphine was reminded very strongly of the Black Books of Hermaeus Mora. Whatever was in that box, Delphine was very certain she did not want to drink it.
The barmaid looked uncertainly at Keirine but at her nod, opened the box. There, sitting in a pool of preserving alcohol, was a shrivelled, mummified human heart, no longer red but a dark leathery brown. It smelled vile.
The barmaid lifted it out with a pair of silver tongs and lowered it into the glass, before putting the box away and producing a bottle of the best jenever, the Druadach Reserve. She filled the glass up with it, just enough to cover the heart and leave a finger's worth of liquid above it.
"Cusad y Creena," Keirine said calmly. "Kissing the Heart. Said to be the original heart of Red Eagle, kept safe after the Hags cut it out of him and gave him one of Briar. Many young Reachmen, and the occasional young woman, have sought to prove their worth by undergoing the rite. Including my brother many years ago as a young man with more bravery than brains."
Madanach was grinning and nodding as if to say, yes, I definitely did that, and Elisif who had caught up by this point and gone very pale as the smell hit her nostrils, was now looking at her husband as if she never wanted him to kiss her again.
Siddgeir hadn't taken his eyes off the foul-looking drink, looking paler than even Elisif, and he didn't have pregnancy to blame it on. But Siddgeir was a Nord at heart and he had a woman to impress, so he nodded.
"I'll do it," he whispered.
"Good," Keirine laughed. "All you have to do is take a swig of the drink, and make sure the heart touches your lips or it doesn't count, got it?"
Siddgeir nodded, screwed his eyes shut and drank, tilting the glass enough for the heart to slide to his mouth... and kept drinking, downing the entire pint without stopping, until nothing was left but the heart. Swaying, Siddgeir slammed the glass on to the bar, wiping his mouth, looking hazily around.
"Did I pass?" Siddgeir slurred, eyes trying to focus but failing. The Nord contingent were looking impressed, and some had even cheered. The Reach contingent looked nothing short of horrified.
"He drank the whole thing," Madanach said faintly. "I didn't even drink the whole thing!"
"I washn't shupposed to drink the hull thing?" Siddgeir asked vacantly. Slow shakes of the head from all the Reachfolk.
"You were just meant to drink a mouthful!" Keirine cried, and it was rare for a Hagraven to sound quite that horrified. "Sithis' sake, no one drinks that much neat jenever in one go! It'll melt your insides! Old gods help me, we need to get you to a surgery immediately before your liver completely dissolves, and I don't think the Slan Gwasanaeth here will have what I need. No, there's no help for it, you'll have to come with me to Hag's End. Come on, put your arms around me."
Siddgeir did so, actually looking hopeful.
"Does thish mean I pashed?" he slurred. "It doesh, doshent it?"
Keirine gestured for space, before gesturing again and opening a portal in front of her.
"You're an idiot," Keirine growled. "But if you survive... yes, you passed. Now come on."
Siddgeir clung on to her quite happily as she leapt through the portal, and then both First Matriarch and Jarl of Falkreath were gone.
The excitement over, the crowd started to disperse, all talking excitedly, little Ancalime in particular squealing that he'd kissed the heart, he'd kissed the old heart, that was disgusting! To which her father responded by telling her he was a very silly man, yes, but very young for a human, and young men were very prone to doing silly things, especially if there was a girl they liked around. Ancalime giggled, but her eyes were looking in Aventus's direction.
Delphine returned to her drink, idly watching Cicero skip over to Farkas, congratulating him on his new lover and then sweetly inquiring as to why he, one of Farkas's friends, had known nothing of this or indeed even that dearest Farkas had even had a lady friend. Questions for Kaie and Farkas to answer and given that both had looked a bit panicked then promptly hauled Cicero off for a hushed conversation, Cicero at least was going to be getting the truth out of them both.
Eola sauntered up to her, apparently unconcerned with Cicero interrogating her sister, preferring to snuggle Delphine instead.
"Hey beautiful, how you doing?" Eola murmured, cuddling up to her. "Missed you. We were having shots!"
"So I saw," Delphine said, grinning as she pulled Eola on to her lap. "I think I'm a little past the age for drinking games."
"You're never too old to have fun," Eola murmured, lips moving to hers.
And then things all decided to go to the Void.
"Hey, where'd Keirine go?" Erikur, just back from the privy and having missed all the excitement.
"Oh good, Skyrim's number one lech is back," Eola sighed. "Are you sure no one's taken out a contract on him?"
"Not yet, but Keirine's considering it," Delphine said, patting Eola's back and hoping his attention latched on to someone else. Alas, she was to be disappointed.
"Well now, here's a thing. Aren't you the Dragonborn's girl? Didn't know you were into ladies as well, but I'm sure your man would just love to know you've got someone else on the side," Erikur purred. "But if you let me in on your little tryst, I promise not to tell him."
"Go to the Void," Eola growled, her smile fading. "You tell Cicero what you want, he will not believe you. Or he might and then he'll stab you."
Talos, that was all Delphine needed, Cicero being encouraged to stab people at high society parties. The fact that by Reach standards Cicero was high society himself, didn't make Delphine feel any better.
"I'll take the chance," Erikur grinned, edging closer. "Or maybe I'll talk to the Thalmor Ambassador instead, tell her how you set Maven and me up at that party at the old Embassy."
"Maybe Maven'll deny everything and make you look like a liar," Delphine said, but inside she was starting to panic. What if Erikur did start talking? He didn't know a lot but what he did know could be dangerous.
"I think you're clutching at straws there, Dalviona," Erikur purred, reaching out. "I think you might want to... reconsider. Madanach's not as powerful as he likes to think." His hand settled on Delphine's thigh, and Delphine's instincts were to go for her dagger. She'd seen this too often in her innkeeping days to think this was going to end any other way than smacking some sense into the offending male, and never mind the inevitable bounty. Shutting Erikur up was more important.
"I think you're drunk and I think you need to leave," Delphine growled, slipping off the bar stool and shifting Eola off to one side before standing to face him.
"I think otherwise," Erikur growled, and he was just drunk and overconfident enough to not quite realise that Madanach's cousin was more than she seemed. One arm slid out and went round her waist, pulling her to him despite Eola's cries. Then Eola's mage armour flared and a lightning spell sent Erikur flying back into the bar.
Silence. The entire room had gone quiet and even the ones who didn't know that Delphine was a high-ranked Dark Brotherhood assassin knew that she was high up in Madanach's court. Erikur shook himself down, picked himself up and glared at Eola.
"What the fuck was that, you psychotic bitch?" Erikur demanded as he advanced on Eola. Oh good, a fight, that was all they needed.
"All right, that's enough, she's Madanach's daughter, you'll leave her be," Delphine said, moving to shield Eola and hoping Erikur could be calmed down before things escalated. "Eola, let it go, he's a guest – hey!"
Erikur had grabbed the front of Delphine's Listener armour and hauled her off her feet, his face inches from hers.
"You're coming with me, you little slut – argh!" Delphine's knee had collided with Erikur's groin and the Thane of Solitude staggered back, doubled up in pain. Delphine backed off, eyes seeking help, and various ReachGuard and Companions were advancing, and even Madanach was threading his way through the crowd, having heard the crash. And then a furious whisper echoed through the room as a dagger snicked out of its hilt.
It was a good thing Kodlak was standing right next to his son and still had his reflexes, because otherwise Erikur would have died on the spot. As it was, Cicero was struggling in Kodlak's arms, dagger flashing wildly, lips pulled back in a horrifying rictus, and no one who saw it could doubt that Cicero was a very dangerous man.
"LET ME AT HIM!" Cicero howled. "Let me at the vile pervert! How dare he commit such sacrilege! He must PAY for his crime! He must pay!"
"I know, and I don't disagree but there's children here," Kodlak growled, glancing at Ancalime, Aventus and Joric, who'd just emerged from where they'd been playing. Ancalime was already looking up at her father, confused, and Sabrinda was motioning for her husband to take her away. Aslfur was doing the same with Joric. Everyone else was staring in horror, and Eola had fire in her hands although with the amount she'd had to drink and the bar right there, that wasn't going to end well, and the bar staff were already fleeing.
Madanach had also heard everything and was making his way over, grimly determined to find out just what had set Cicero off this time. He got there just in time to see Farkas step forward and grab Erikur's shoulder.
"What set him off – oof!" Erikur had noticed Cicero, puzzled, and then suddenly found himself spun round and punched by Farkas.
Farkas was not gentle and Farkas had been doing this for a living for a long time. One of Erikur's teeth went flying, and the jawbone dislocated as Erikur was sent sprawling to the floor.
"I don't like it when men overstep the mark," Farkas announced, glaring down at Erikur as he hauled the shocked Thane to his feet. "It's not honourable." This time the punch went to Erikur's abdomen. "And it's not gonna happen on my watch. We clear on that?"
"How dare you..." Erikur wheezed. "I'mma... I'mma Thane of Solitude! I'll have you – arrrgggh!" Farkas had smashed him into a nearby wooden table, the crash even drowning out Cicero's excited squeals of 'yes! Yes! Hit him harder, Shield-Brother! Make him bleed!'
"Then you should know better," Farkas growled, pinning him down and preparing to strike again... until someone grabbed his wrist, and this someone was stronger even than Farkas because the Companion couldn't wrest his arm free no matter how he tried. He looked up to see Madanach's son Argis staring down at him, actually smiling.
"I think you got your point across," Argis said wryly. "But technically, that's assault and battery charges you're looking at."
"But he started it..." Farkas began and then he fell silent as Madanach arrived, expression unreadable.
"Technically, I believe so," Madanach said calmly. "But Cicero rarely starts shrieking like that for no reason... and there's only one reason my daughter would cast Destruction magic on one of my party guests who happens to be an older man and notorious womaniser. You know it's the death penalty for laying a hand on a member of the Reach Royal Family, right?"
"What..." Erikur whispered, clearly not having known this one. "But... but I'm a Thane! You can't...!"
"Of Solitude. Not the Reach," Madanach said, still sounding eerily calm. "Under Reach law, you're just a private citizen, in fact, no, you're not even that. You're an outsider."
"You can't do this to me," Erikur breathed, feeling real fear for probably the first time in his life. "Elisif, you're my Jarl, you're High Queen, you married him to stop him killing Nords, help me!"
Elisif moved to her husband's side, a little ungainly but not slowed down much by the pregnancy. "I married him because I wanted a consort my court couldn't suborn or intimidate," Elisif said, looking absolutely disgusted. "I saw what you did, Erikur. Frankly, I'm ashamed of you. But I don't think it exactly merits a death penalty either. Would a five hundred septim wergild payment be acceptable?"
Elisif looked hopefully at Madanach and Madanach looked back and nodded.
"Fine. If he gets his sorry hide out of my country and doesn't come back. I don't want him at court when I'm in Solitude either. Oh, and one more thing." Madanach was looking balefully around his Keep at this point, pointed gaze sweeping round them all. "I started the Forsworn Rebellion to end Nord oppression and stop them taking what they wanted, when they wanted, from us. That is what this country is founded on, an end to misery and injustice and people getting away with breaking the law just because of who they are. I will not have Nords perpetuating injustice in my very Keep, on members of my family. Argis, get this sorry excuse for a man to the Slan Gwasanaeth for treatment and then throw him out of my Keep. He's got his own carriage, he can get himself to Solitude on his own."
"Will do, Da," Argis said cheerfully, lifting Erikur effortlessly into the air, flinging him over his shoulders and carting him off.
"You can't do this to me! This is a setup!" Erikur shouted, furious at being manhandled. "I'm a Thane! Elisif! Elisif! You're my Jarl, I demand you help me here!"
"I'm very sorry, Erikur," Elisif said, although she didn't sound terribly regretful. "I'm just the consort here, I don't have any formal authority to override the Reach-King's internal jurisdiction. Oh and Erikur. That's Jarl Elisif to you."
"What, no, you can't, you... Elisif!" Erikur howled as Argis made off with him. His cries faded away and disappeared as Argis hauled him into the Keep's clinics for the duty healers to look at.
With him gone, Kodlak finally felt it safe to release Cicero, who ignored everyone else and ran straight to Delphine, snuggling in to her and fussing over her, wanting to know if she was all right and how dare the disgusting defiler hurt her, how dare he! Eola was also there, hugging Delphine from the other side while Delphine reassured them both she was fine, she'd suffered worse as an innkeeper and Cicero hissed that that was not the point!
Madanach meanwhile had gestured for some of the ReachGuard to start clearing the wrecked table away, not to mention the broken glass and spilt drinks.
"Very sorry about that, ladies and gentlemen," Madanach said apologetically. "It appears some men can't hold their alcohol. Disgraceful, I know, but I'm sure there won't be any further disturbances tonight."
"Oh don't worry," Maven said smoothly, sipping her Black Widow. "Erikur's had it coming for years." This was said to a rousing consensus of agreement from Rikke, Irileth, Brina and both Idgrods, and the men present were wise enough to keep their counsel on that one. Sabrinda raised an eyebrow but said nothing, merely going to find her husband, and slowly the party returned to normal. At least, most of it did.
Madanach turned round to see Farkas still standing there, looking a bit nervous. Technically guilty of assault and battery, and he was standing there with Kodlak rubbing his back, Vilkas and Ria both hovering nearby and Kaie on his other side, hugging him.
"Do I have to leave as well?" Farkas asked nervously. For a few moments, Madanach said nothing, then he shook his head.
"No, you just saved me the bother of having my own people administer the beating. Also when the story gets out, it looks a lot better for a Companion of Jorrvaskr to have decided a Nord noble was out of line and needed a beating rather than me ordering it. So congratulations, you don't get bountied this time. Just don't make a habit of it. I'm still going to have to charge you for breaking that table though."
"I'll pay for it," Kaie said swiftly. "I mean, he did it at least partly for my sake, so it's only right I cover the bill."
Madanach raised an eyebrow, scrutinising Kaie carefully. "Is that so. Hmm. All right, but I hope he's not going to leave with the impression he can do what he wants and you'll cover for him," Madanach said carefully.
"No sir," Farkas said quickly. "I'll be good as gold, promise."
"Right, right," Madanach said, eyeing him carefully and then nodding. "All right. I withdraw my earlier objections. You take care of that... condition of yours, and I'll stand back and let you court my Kaie. Only if you marry her, you'll also have to leave the Companions and come and live here, she's not moving to Jorrvaskr. Oh and if you ill-treat her or break her heart or behave in any way towards her that might be considered dishonourable... I'll kill you personally." Madanach's smile at that point looked just a bit too pleased at that particular prospect. "You have a good evening now." He nodded his head and left, Elisif on his arm telling him how proud she was of him for doing the right thing and Madanach replying he wasn't sure if she was a good influence or making him soft, to which the High Queen of Skyrim rather cheekily replied that that she usually did the exact opposite to him, which led to Madanach laughing and Kaie and Eola promptly reaching for strong drinks to get that mental image out of their heads.
The party was a little more muted post incident, but people were at least mingling still and talking, and at least the atmosphere hadn't been completely ruined, in fact a few Erikur stories were now circulating that would utterly trash the man's reputation next time he came to a party – if he was on the guest list at all, which was doubtful. Sabrinda was already commenting as to why a noted womaniser was allowed into these things in the first place, and once the Thalmor Ambassador took against you, you were finished.
Kodlak settled down at the bar, next to Delphine with Eola and Cicero cuddling her, all returning to sip at their cocktails while Kodlak just ordered some mead. It wasn't often he got a chance to have Black-Briar Reserve without paying over the odds for it and he was determined to make the most of it.
"Well, that's that crisis over with," Delphine sighed. "For now, I suppose." She still didn't like the idea of Erikur linking her to any kind of disturbance at the Thalmor Embassy. Even discredited, he was still dangerous – perhaps more so because he'd been discredited.
"Aye, but I doubt someone like Thane Erikur will let this sort of humiliation go," Kodlak said, echoing Delphine's own thoughts.
"That is all right, Cicero has no intention of letting this indignity heaped on my Listener go either," Cicero growled, voice a little muffled from where he was nestled in Delphine's cleavage. Delphine just patted him on the back, smiling.
"That's my boy," she said, kissing his head, and Eola looked rather pleased at this idea as well. Kodlak wondered if he should perhaps intervene before deciding Erikur had no idea what honour even was and it was probably best to leave him to Cicero before the man went too far with someone else.
Alas for them all, it was already too late to stop that.
A/N: Next chapter is when the plot really kicks off! It'll be a while before the Dawnguard aspect really kicks in but you can definitely expect some considerable excitement in Markarth in the near future...
Lathroniel = (female) Listener. (Male Listener is Lathronion and the gender-neutral version is Lathroniad.)
Cusad y Creena = Kissing the Heart. Based on a story I heard about this bar somewhere in the wilds of Canada which serves this specialty drink involving a pickled toe in a glass of beer (or possibly vodka). If anywhere in Tamriel has something similar, it's the Reach.
Yeena = girl
Slan Gwasanaeth (y Rhan) = (Reach) Health Service. Free healthcare programme for citizens of the Reach as funded by the Mournful Throne. Because Forsworn living on a camp could get healed by the camp healer for free at any time, and Madanach saw no reason for the people of Markarth to miss out.