The last lingering heat of summer was still present, its heavy warmth settled over the Imperial City, making the revellers in the street even thirstier than normal. It was Harvest's End and the entire city was celebrating. The ale flowed free in the taverns tonight and even those who'd never grown so much as a weed in their lives were happily partaking in the festivities to mark summer's bounty.
The tiny flames of celebrants' torches far below looked like sparks dancing through the streets— mirrored by the night sky, the silver stars twinkling high above. Reaching up, Lilia cupped her hands under the brightest star in the Warrior, smiling as she imagined for a moment that she could somehow touch Aetherius.
Pulling her hands back down she thought of all the marks history had left upon them. The scar of the worm thrall, left by magics she would never understand, remained unchanged. It didn't bother her now. After all, she'd been present at the destruction of the King of Worms. There was no need to be ashamed to display it, even if it did make people nervous.
The small ring on her baby finger, while no longer necessary, was something she never wanted to take off. It was the only thing the Gods had left her though it hadn't escaped unscathed. No longer was it a shiny copper. It had been darkened to a burnished amber colour.
Nestled against it was her newest ring. Martin had ordered them made, two matching bands, out of daedric metal recovered from the bodies of Dagon's forces. A red diamond was set in the centre, flanked on either side by a small, faceted welkynd stone and a piece of sigil stone. The inscription was something she'd disliked at first, but had come to see the beauty in its irony.
This heart is the heart
of the world, for one was made to satisfy the other.
Seeing the words of Mankar Camoran on her wedding ring had upset her at first until Martin had reminded her that the Gods could turn anything to good. He felt that just as the Gods led them down parallel paths to the same shared fate, their lives shaped to satisfy the salvation of Nirn, so to did he feel that their hearts had been created for each other. Now whenever she thought of it she couldn't help smiling.
The large ametrine on her right hand no longer held it's powerful enchantment. It was quiet, as were all other daedric artifacts left on Nirn. So she happily wore the Ring of Khajiit on a daily basis, happy to remain visible as she did so. It was one of the few pleasing things she'd received during her brief stint as a relatively powerless Daedric Prince.
And the ebony and gold band was back, the jewel in the centre twinkling flashes of crimson at her in the moonlight. Martin had returned it to her claiming that it had fulfilled its purpose. It never hurt to gaze at it anymore. She still found it odd that any memories of her time with the Dark Brotherhood could possibly be happy, but such was the nature of the ones to come back to her whenever she looked at it.
With the breaking of the amulet, the Nine's physical token of their covenant with the descendants of Talos, the jaws of Oblivion had been sealed shut. No longer could daedra or mortals pass between realms. The daedric artifacts on Nirn had lost their power and the shrines had all gone quiet. Conjurers could no longer summon demons to do their bidding. Nirn was the sole province of the Aedra now. Tamriel ae Aedroth.
The sudden soft press of cold against the back of her neck made her gasp.
"Dead again, Empressling." She knew he was smiling. This new game was one that he greatly enjoyed.
"I'm the bloody Empress. And I thought we agreed. No more magic that could leave a mark when I'm in my nice clothes," Lilia replied, spinning around suddenly to grab the arm bearing the frost covered finger.
"It's just a little water." Martin smiled as he tugged the arm closer to his body, pulling her along with it. "What's the harm in that?"
"Just a little water? Have you forgotten that you ruined the suede trim on one of my dresses with just a little water? Or the time you froze a block of ice to the back of my yellow eodoric and then singed the fabric when you tried to heat it off? Or the time—" Her recital of his crimes against her clothing was cut off with a soft kiss.
"You're just mad that I keep surprising you," he teased her with a grin. Lilia noticed that he was holding the staff of Richaud behind his back and guessed that the Emperor was up to something again.
"And I keep telling you that it doesn't count. My senses aren't at all what they used to be. I know you just wait until I relax my detect life spell before pouncing. Are you trying to make me paranoid?" As she joked she smoothed back his hair. Even after having the entire summer together she still couldn't resist touching him whenever she got a chance.
"As if I could ever corrupt a trusting innocent such as yourself." He grinned mischievously, tracing the curve of her ear with his cool finger and she sighed. For some reason he couldn't leave her ears alone and she couldn't be happier about it. The Bosmeri blood in her made them delightfully sensitive. "Now turn around Empress. There's something I wanted to show you."
"Empress is merely my title. That's not who I really am." She replied lightly while admiring his enchanting blue eyes. "Try again."
"Sorry. Turn around Master Wizard." Martin answered and Lilia shook her head.
"I'm the retired Master Wizard. Try again."
Lilia had retired from the council while retaining her membership in the Mages Guild but not before helping Raminus make a final few changes.
Maranique and Jeanne had both been kicked out of the guild. The memory of the Imperial Battlemages' departure from White Gold Tower was one that Lilia would always treasure. Martinique had been furious, though she'd quieted down when Lilia had gently reminded her that refusing Martin's request to provide Battlemages for the defence of Bruma could easily be viewed as treason. Lilia was fairly sure the implied threat would be enough to keep Maranique out of her hair for good - the Breton may be a schemer but she wasn't a fool.
Even though she was no longer an active member of the council Lilia occasionally visited Raminus and Carahil as they worked to guide the motley assortment of guild mages. Sometimes Hanibal would also be there and council business often fell to the wayside as the mages shared their stories with one another. Lilia was still impressed by Carahil's tale of battling a powerful lich in the basement of a manor in Anvil.
She enjoyed visiting the Arcane University. The statue that commemorated the guild's victory over the King of Worms had been placed in the foyer and she always took a moment to admire it. Much to Lilia's pleasure it was a perfect replica of Hanarai. The small plaque beneath it had given most of the credit to the wild hare with the briefest mention of Lilia's involvement. She wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
The sudden failure of an entire branch of magical study had rendered conjurers suddenly bewildered as to what to do instead. Lilia was pleased to hear reports that Athragar and Erthor had quickly adapted. Both of them being Bosmers meant that they did have the command creature ability. She'd last heard that they were now trying to train various wildlife in domestic duties instead of scamps. Apparently trying to get a minotaur to wash dishes had led to quite a mess. Guildhall mistress Jend never hesitated to dispatch their failed experiments with a flourish. Unfortunately that flourish often necessitated the scrubbing of walls and ceilings and washing of clothes. Erthor's latest letter had mentioned that he and Athragar had become very skilled at removing stains and had offered Lilia a few tips that she could try on her ruined garments.
"Retired Champion." Lilia chuckled as she answered.
Erthor had also mentioned that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find woodland creatures to train. Modryn and Delphine's frequent hunting trips around Chorrol were decimating the population of the local fauna. She hoped they left enough alive for the end of the year. She'd already informed Martin that they would attend the Chorrol guildhall's Saturnalia feast should they be invited. Lilia simply refused to miss another one of the Bosmers' memorable dinner parties.
Since she'd never really done any of her duties as Champion in the first place it hadn't bothered Modryn much that she was retiring from active Fighters Guild work. The mer had come to visit a couple of times and still beamed whenever she called him Master. Lilia made sure to use his title whenever possible. She wanted to keep him as a friend and ally, especially now that he and Delphine were so close. The last thing she'd ever want to do would be to annoy either of them. The thought of their combined wrath frightened her more than the idea of going up against Dagon alone.
"Undefeated retired Grand Champion."
She'd chosen to send a letter rather than go in person to inform Ysabel and Owyn that she would not be returning to the Arena. The fury of the battle matron was something she'd not wanted to face, even with allies.
Especially now that Synderius was rarely fighting anymore. Baurus had been rather impressed by the mer's ability to meet people and had recruited him into the Blades. Most of the summer the Dunmer had spent training in Cloud Ruler Temple, though last week he'd come down for a visit before his first assignment in Morrowind.
She and Martin had journeyed with the mer to visit Crowhaven and Lord Lovidicus. They'd spent a lovely weekend visiting with Agronak. The manor was shaping up quite nicely, though there was still quite a bit of work to be done. Martin had been very gracious when Synderius had proudly pointed out their magical handiwork in patching the roof. Lilia could tell by the way the Emperor's eyes had crinkled that he'd wanted to laugh at the strangely mended structure. The bedroom they'd been given had been a bit damp but Lilia had resisted her urge to help Agronak by magically drying the place for him. She still felt guilty about the way the kitchen wall had collapsed.
The town was also starting to flourish. The combination of ash that had drifted from the sky and the warm summer weather had yielded a bountiful crop and Agronak had done a very good job of arranging for the produce to be marketed and sold to the neighbouring cities. She was very proud of the noble and had been delighted when he'd confessed that he'd hired a dancing instructor to visit him weekly. Lilia had been very restrained in inviting him to the Palace for the necessary balls, dinners, and meetings that Martin's station required. She knew how busy he was and how much of a sacrifice he'd made to join them in Bruma, though she was sure she'd call on him to join them more frequently next year once he was more settled in.
Armand had finally relented to Lilia's wish to officially leave the Thieves Guild. Both of them had reached the consensus that it would do their respective associates more harm than good if she remained an active member. Methredhel had been understanding. The mer had been a great help in Bruma. She really was a skilled marksmer. And while she still refused to admit that Hieronymus might not be such a bad person she had behaved herself while in the city. Lilia had given her friend the key to her shack on the waterfront and Methredhel had told her that she was welcome to visit her at any time. Lilia was still debating on just when to sneak in and repay the Wood Elf for her mischief. She was currently trying to figure out just how many sheep she'd be able to paint on a pair of Methredhel's pants. But first she needed to get enough ink…
"Silencer of the Black Hand."
"Former Silencer of the defunct Black Hand." She'd shared her strange and disturbing tale of her life among the assassins with Martin. While she'd told him the truth she had tried very hard to keep her tone light as she did so. He'd actually laughed as she'd discussed her run in with Francois Motierre and the cursed zombies that plagued his family's niche of the undercroft in Chorrol. Though she'd glossed over the actual murders she'd committed while in the service of the Nine. It still wasn't something she enjoyed thinking about.
And so she hadn't been pleased to find it was something she'd thought more about as the month of Second Seed had worn on. As the anniversary of the purification had approached she'd been unable to push away the memories of the abandoned house in Cheydinhal that haunted her during quiet moments. There was something that she'd always wanted to do but had never had the time or felt strong enough to handle before. She still hadn't felt strong enough to do it but she knew someone else who was.
Janus had been rather surprised by her odd request. Thankfully he'd not made any wry comments about it. Lilia knew that he could read the way her body reacted while she'd asked for his aid and he obviously had been able to tell she hadn't made her request in jest. While he hadn't been happy to let her go Martin had understood why she'd needed to leave him for a day. With the amount of decisions to be made for the coronation and wedding she'd been sure that he'd stay busy while she'd gone off with Janus to Cheydinhal.
The wait outside the gates of the city while hiding invisible had seemed to take ages. When Count Hassildor had finally returned with the small bag and the old key she'd almost sworn he was a shade paler than when he'd left her. Though as he was a vampire she knew that wasn't possible. Janus had been very kind to her as he'd given her back the well key and the leather bag. To her surprise, he'd even given her a stiff hug. Lilia had appreciated it. He was possibly the only person on Nirn who truly understood what his actions meant to her.
The climb to Dive Rock had been a difficult one. So many memories, both bitter and sweet, had whirled through her mind. As she'd moved up the mountain she'd allowed herself to give in to them, to laugh, cry, and rage as she felt necessary. By the time she'd finally reached the plateau she'd been exhausted but much calmer. As she'd waited for the afternoon sun to sink down in the west she'd reflected on the irony that it was on the day of Drigh R'Zimb, the Yokudan festival to honour the ancient sun god Daibethe, that she'd experienced one of the darkest days of her life.
As the last rays of the sunset had bathed the land of Cyrodiil with a warm glow Lilia had released the ashes to the wind while letting her tears flow freely. She'd cried with joy at the knowledge that Vicente was enjoying the bliss of Aetherius, with sadness at the memory of the terrible way in which he'd left her, and with relief that she was still here to honour him. Lying on the cool rock she'd stared up at the stars above and spoken to him, to her parents, to everyone she'd cared for and who had gone before her to join the Divines. She'd told them her stories, shared her secrets, and confided her fears. The words had flowed from her lips as she'd said whatever it was she felt needed saying. By the time the sun rose once more in the east she finally felt at peace with the strange events that had happened in her life.
"Hero of Kvatch."
"That's an old title."
Nobody called her the Hero of Kvatch anymore, but it was something that she didn't mind hearing. Countess Goldwine had begun reconstruction of the city and some of the citizens were slowly moving back to it. While it might never return to its former glory, Lilia hoped that one day it would surpass it.
"Saviour of Bruma."
"That's a statue, that's not me."
Jorundr and Narina had commissioned a statue depicting Lilia's triumphant return from closing the great gate. Much to her delight the artist had taken several liberties, resulting in something that didn't look much like her at all. Not only did her armour suddenly match, but she'd also been placed in a victorious pose with her right hand holding a magnificent longsword up towards the sky. The lack of a helmet and the sudden addition of long flowing hair had confirmed her suspicions that whoever the craftsmer had been he'd obviously done no research whatsoever as to what had really happened. At least it hadn't accurately depicted her crumpled ridiculously armoured form lying on the ground. That probably wouldn't have made a very aesthetically pleasing monument.
They'd gone up to Bruma for the ceremony to honour those who had fought on behalf of the Empire during the Oblivion Crisis. Standing on the plateau once more, staring again at the assembled faces of those who had been able to join them, had been a very touching and humbling experience. Lilia had let Martin do most of the talking, though she had said a few words of thanks. Without their aid she doubted that Nirn would still belong to the Aedra.
Visiting Cloud Ruler Temple had been like stepping back in time. Even though it had been weeks since she'd last left it the way that nothing had seemingly changed surprised her. For some reason she'd expected it to have been altered, for a physical representation of the intense time they'd spent there to be present. But everything was the same, down to the small watermarks in the Emperor's bedroom that stained the wallpaper. The only change had been the addition of Jauffre's katana among the dozens ringing the great hall. The Breton's treachery was known only by Baurus. The last thing they needed to start their reign off was tales of the betrayal of the Emperor's trusted and loyal bodyguard. And so Jauffre's death was not mentioned to any other than the Blades. He was neither revered as a hero nor mourned as a martyr, but merely another casualty in the list of many.
Though his name had been left off the monument that had been unveiled in the Temple district. As many septims as could be poured at the rebuilding efforts had gone into repairing the buildings, replanting the trees, and restoring the Temple. Leaving a lingering wreckage in the midst of the Imperial City would not reflect well on the Emperor and so fixing it had been a priority. Especially as it had also been the planned site of the wedding and coronation, so neither Lilia nor Martin had wanted to wait any longer than necessary for it to be ready, especially as everything had been scheduled to coincide with the Mid Year celebrations.
"Champion of Cyrodiil."
"That's just a title. I still don't know why I couldn't be Champion of Tamriel. It was the entire realm that was saved, not just this one province." Lilia replied lightly while dodging a kiss.
This title was one that was still used and spoken of, though Empress was how she was officially presented. Being hailed as the Champion of Cyrodiil cost the Empire nothing, but helped increase the goodwill of the people. The political situation was still tenuous, the foundations of alliances and agreements set on the shifting sands of warring families and disgruntled nobles, but there was peace at the moment.
The fact that she had a little bit of each race helped a bit, as conniving leaders wondered if they could use that slight kinship to their advantage. The travels she'd done as a child also helped her acceptance. Every minor noble that her father had ever worked with most likely viewed having Lilia as an Empress to be to their benefit, the thin connection perhaps offering some form of leverage to exploit.
With Ocato in place as High Chancellor and Janus' frequent behind the scenes guidance she felt confident that the Empire would stabilize. Though it wasn't her place to dictate policy Lilia was using all of her wiles to try and promote her own small agendas. Hopefully one day she would see Orsinium recognized as an official kingdom and she would not cease in her subtle efforts to restore Leyawiin to the Mane. But there was time enough for all of that to happen and she was content to wait as she dropped the right hints and asked the right questions, convinced that one day the idea would be embraced, but seemingly not as her own.
The new inhabitant of White Gold Tower had proved to be a very clever idea of Martin's. When he'd asked Fathis to become the Imperial Battlemage, pointing out the mer's excellent training techniques, the fact that he understood the importance of heavy armour, and his remarkable skill, the Telvanni had merely responded with one of his inscrutable smiles. As they'd stood in the Elder Council chambers he'd listed the conditions in which he would accept the post. Most had been easy enough to grant, though one request had been rather odd.
The look on Ocato's face when he'd entered the room to find the bewildered Emperor, the Telvanni collapsed on the floor with laughter, and the Empress swearing softly at the slippery walls as she'd climbed up them, had been a memorable one. Fortunately the Altmer hadn't resigned his position on the spot. She suspected he was starting to get used to their unusual methods.
"Fine. Servant of the Nine, will you just turn around?" This time she was unable to dodge the kiss that punctuated his question.
"No. I'm no longer a servant of the Nine, merely a devoted follower." Her servitude had ended with her death. Just as she'd known she'd been bound to it she knew she'd been freed from it. Even the gifts the Nine had given her were gone, which suited Lilia just fine.
She certainly hadn't needed them to do a little housekeeping in the Imperial City. Hieronymus had been honoured to accept the offered post of Imperial Legion Commander. He'd more than proven his abilities to lead an army in Bruma and his intimate knowledge of the corrupt guards in the city was an asset. Slowly but surely they were being dismissed or demoted, with loyal soldiers being installed instead.
He'd even brought Carius down from Bruma to become a Captain of the Guard. And with his backing, Viera was now implementing her own standards on the guards of Bravil, secure in the knowledge that she had the blessings of her superiors in her work.
The move to the city was a good one for Carius as far as Lilia could tell. He'd stopped complaining about needing to shave all the time, and he'd joined the Arcane University. Currently he was trying to perfect a teleportation spell to make his frequent trips to Bravil easier. As far as she knew he and Viera were still getting along very well.
Almost as well as Hieronymus and Lyra. The independently wealthy lady had taken a small townhouse in the Elven Gardens district and was frequently seen in the company of Commander Lex. They'd both given very thoughtful gifts to Lilia and Martin in honour of their marriage and coronation. The painting of the Anvil coast, with the rather large bird in the sky, was hung in a place of prominence. Martin still didn't know why Lilia often snickered when walking by it. Lyra's gift of a bound copy of her epic poem That Which Once Was Ceased To Be And Was Later Born From The Ashes was safely tucked away in a box out of sight for safekeeping.
They'd received a few unusual presents. The stuffed kagouti head, puncture mark still visible in the middle of the forehead, had caused Lilia several minutes of delighted laughter. There had been no card, but she knew exactly who had sent it. The iron battleaxe from King Gortwog had been very touching. Though the impractical yet highly magical glass warhammer enchanted with a powerful light spell from Gothryn, head of House Telvanni, as well as his note congratulating Lilia's rise to Empress and stating that she was an excellent example of their House had been a bit of a mystery. Though It hadn't taken too long to realize that Fathis must have told them that she was part Telvanni. The mer simply refused to be dissuaded of his notion. For all she knew she was one so Lilia didn't protest too hard. She was not about to get into an argument with an entire House of powerful Dunmeri mages that seemed to want to embrace her as one of their own.
"Former vampire." She smiled up at him as she answered, sure that he'd recognize that particular grin.
The return to mortality had been welcome. Even though she no longer had enhanced senses, increased strength and speed, or any other of the benefits Lilia didn't mind that too much. She'd survived most of her life as a mortal, she was sure she'd be able to handle herself for the rest without fear.
"Former vampire? What about wicked?"
"Oh, I'm still wicked. Always have been, always will be."
Martin caught hold of the hand she was idly running down his torso as she replied.
"Lilia, will you just turn around?" The way his brow creased she could tell he was getting a bit frustrated with her. His impatience amused her, but she didn't want him to know that.
"Very well." Whirling around she once more had an excellent view of the city, encircled by the dark waters of Lake Rumare, and the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside. "What am I looking at?"
"This. I've got a riddle for you to solve." As he answered three balls of sparkling light shot out from the staff in his hand. The first formed itself into a glittering blue eye, the next a stylized heart, and the last a fluffy white sheep wearing a pink ribbon.
"Eyeball, heart, sheep. What is this, a necromancer's shopping list?"
"No." Martin's chuckled reply died as he kissed her neck. "Ugh. Have I ever told you that you're like an onion?"
"You're not going to go on about my layers of mystery again, are you?"
"No. You need a bath. Since when have you ever been so sweaty?"
"Mortal, remember? Besides, I've spent all night dancing at our party. I think I've earned the right to be a stinky Empress." She intertwined his fingers in hers and leaned back against him. The Harvest's End celebrations they'd hosted for the visiting dignitaries, ambassadors, and diplomats had been very fun but very warm. At least the ice atronachs Fathis had patrolling the hallways had helped to keep things a bit cooler, but they'd been unable to prevent the sweat she'd broken during a quick reel with the Bosmeri ambassador. The remembrance at being twirled around by the enthusiastic mer brought a smile to her lips. Lilia gently shook her head and continued the pretence of not understanding what Martin was trying to say with his clever images. "Anyway, I'll try again. Eyeball."
"Shorter? Eye?" She felt him nod his head. "Eye, heart, sheep. That doesn't make much sense."
"What does a heart do?"
"Beat." She faked a horrified noise of shock. "I beat sheep? That's far crueller than anything I've done to mud crabs. Sheep are so fluffy."
"You're being ridiculous. What else do hearts do? What do they feel?"
"Love. I love sheep? Oh, I get it. You like mutton. I'll tell the kitchens to serve it more often. Honestly, you could have just said so."
"That's not just a sheep. Look at the ribbon. It's a female sheep" He pointed with the staff as he spoke.
She mock gasped in surprise. "Oh, Martin, I know you worshipped Sanguine, but I never thought you'd done that!"
"No!" His indignant tone was one that she instantly recognized. He really was too much fun to tease. "What's another name for a female sheep?"
"An ewe. I love you. Very sweet." She twisted her upper body around to give him a quick kiss. "But you're missing something." Grabbing the staff as she turned back she fired off another glittering beribboned sheep.
"Two ewes? I love two ewes?"
Shaking her head she pressed his free hand onto her stomach. "No. You love us two."
The sound of metal clattering against the ground accompanied the quick spin as Martin brought her back to face him. Her desire to scold him for abusing her staff faded as she beheld his expression. The corners of his lips were curled up and he was searching her face, looking for confirmation of her meaning, excitement and hope written all over him. As she nodded the smile he was trying to suppress broke free and she managed a quick burst of delighted laughter before his lips, still in the goofiest grin she'd ever seen, cut it off with an enthusiastic kiss.
And as she kissed him back, his warm arms wrapped tight around her, she marvelled that even though she had no idea what the future had in store for them it didn't bother her. It didn't matter what challenges life threw at them or where their journeys took them. Because standing there she knew that so long as she had Martin by her side, and the stars above her head, she would always be where she belonged. She'd always be home.