Caelmil always found it extremely amusing to observe the behaviour of those brought before him to be interrogated, especially when it offered variety; there was a certain pleasant flair, a tingling, poignant enjoyment, in the contrast between the dumb fear of one prisoner, the whimpering pleas for mercy of another, and the foolish, obstinate boldness of one that dared to defy his - or her - inevitable fate. Lately Caelmil had been coming across frustratingly few examples of that last behaviour pattern, which entertained him the most, so when the suspected dissident, identified in his records as Battlemage Lanwen, was escorted into the dimly-lit interrogation chamber, he stirred in his seat, suddenly tense and alert like a predator wakened from idle drowsiness by the smell of fresh game. From what he knew of Lanwen, this was going to be exceedingly interesting.
She strode in through the narrow arched doorway with her back erect, her head high in the air, her gait firm and broad - as if it was she who was showing the way to the two soldiers behind her back. Having approached the parchment-strewn desk behind which Caelmil was seated, bending over his pile of scrolls in mock interest, his cat-like eyes following her closely from below his hood, she froze in a rigid, military pose, silently awaiting his instructions, her face emotionless like a stone carving... a very intricate, fine-cut stone carving, he thought, surveying her features with languid curiosity. She was somewhat shorter and darker than most her High-elven kinsfolk; perhaps she had a small share of Bosmeri blood - if so, it had added something wild, untamed to her beauty, a dormant storm concealed beneath the icy exterior. From her face his eyes slid down, registering all there was to register - and there was quite a bit, outlined temptingly through the thin night robe in which she had been apprehended - with cynical appreciation; a small red spot appeared, blossom-like, between her collar-bones; he took a mental note of that, his lips twitching in a barely visible complacent smirk.
'Pray be seated, Battlemage,' he said silkily, making a curt gesture to the soldiers to show that they were dismissed, 'We have a long talk ahead of us, and I wouldn't want you to get weary'.
She lowered herself obediently into a wooden chair opposite his desk; her bearing when she sat was the same as when she had been standing, so proud and impenetrably cold... But there were ways to break through even the thickest of ice, and, being one of the best and longest-serving Thalmor interrogators, he knew them all.
'I trust you are aware why your house was searched and you yourself taken here for questioning?' he began, his manner casual, almost friendly, but his eyes intent, probing into hers, as if trying to extract whatever secrets their golden depths held.
She inclined her head slightly, enduring his gaze without a twitch of a muscle.
'I will read out all the information we have on you; perhaps you would care to make a comment'. He nodded meaningfully to the inconspicuous Bosmer clerk that sat concealed in the shadows, ready to take the minutes of the interrogation, and reached out for a parchment scroll with a heavy, significant-looking seal, 'It says here that the soldiers under your command have recently been found in the possession of copies of a certain book that the Dominion wishes to see destroyed... And according to certain sources, you were the one to spread the said copies among them. What would you like to say on the subject?'
'If the 'certain book' you are so reluctant to name is Rising Threat, then yes, your sources are perfectly correct. I have been giving all the copies I could obtain to my soldiers'.
It was the first time she spoke, and the sound of her voice stung him like a dagger with a flame enchantment; it was deep and velvety soft as the waves of the sea at night; he suddenly found himself wishing she had said more, wishing that she would go on speaking forever... With a violent start, he shook off the enchantment cast upon him, and hurried to ask her, in as business-like a manner as possible, 'And would you, per chance, be so kind as to tell me your reason for doing so?'
'I did so because Rising Threat is a book every conscious mer should be familiar with,' was the reply; her tone was even and self-assured, spiced with a tiny pinch of haughtiness.
His eyes narrowed, glinting like two unsheathed blades. 'Ah, yes,' he said softly, 'One could argue that our people should be made aware of the lies spread about the Dominion by its enemies. However...'
She cut him short, 'This was not what I was trying to make my soldiers aware of. My intention was to open their eyes on the fact that they serve as cogs in a monstrous machine, sophisticated and deadly as the most cunning of Dwemer traps, and the so-called mission to spread the glory of the Dominion is nothing but infecting the world with a terrible plague'.
Her voice was quiet and her tone even, but the red spot bloomed on her chest again; he peered at her, eyebrows raised; for the first few seconds of her little speech he had been so absorbed in watching her lips move that he was finding it a bit hard to properly digest the meaning of her words - a fact that he was trying desperately to conceal. It was not proper, admiring a woman while she was speaking against everything he held sacred.
'I dare say this means that you will not deny what our other reports say about you, Battlemage,' he uttered at length, regaining his composure, 'That there are certain points in the Doctrine of the Aldmeri Dominion you do not support?'
'I do deny it. What your reports say is false. I disagree with the Dominion's doctrine entirely'.
Her eyes lit up like rekindled embers. Finally, the ice was giving way, melting in the heat of the hidden flame in her heart. Perhaps he would yet be able to get her to lose her temper - and once she did, she would be in his power.
Caelmil moved to the last, most delicious item of the agenda, 'It has also been brought to our attention that whilst praying at the shrine in your home, you ask the gods for forgiveness for your heroic deeds during the Great War, which have been admired by many among the Thalmor, calling these acts of bravery and loyalty - I quote - horrible crimes; what is more, in your prayers you address the Divines as the Nine. How would you comment on this?'
At these words, a frown warped her statue-like features; he mentally applauded himself, smiling with malevolent satisfaction. The realization that during the hours of private prayer, when she thought herself safe and secure, she had been spied on by a Thalmor informant, had clearly angered her - and gods, anger made her look so beautiful... He drank her face in like a gobletful of wine - and it went to his head, fast; it took him all the willpower he could muster to retain a grip on himself and focus on the interrogation.
'What did Sharavi demand of you in exchange for selling me out?' she asked, her voice metallically harsh, her nostrils flaring slightly, 'Did you indulge in her skooma addiction, that I have been trying to cure her of?'
'You see now, Battlemage, how unwise it is to trust inferior races,' Caelmil murmured, his tone patronizingly mocking, 'You open your heart to them and they put it on public display for a bottle of foul liquid...'
The spot between Lanwen's collar bones grew deeper in colour; Caelmil had to slide his hand across his desk and grip tightly at its edge, overcome by a sudden wild urge to kiss that red-hot blossom.
'The Khajiit are not inferior to Altmer,' she said sharply, each word sinking, blade-like, into his heart, 'Nor is any other race, man, mer, or beast. And even if they were, that would not entitle us to dictate to them what they should think and believe. If anything, it would make us responsible for them, like the elders are responsible for their children. But I repeat, we have no right to claim superiority...'
'You seem to be falling into the same sin that you speak so ardently against, Battlemage,' Caelmil remarked, hoping his face would not betray that he had difficulty breathing, 'You are forcing your ideas upon me - ideas that, admirable as your devotion to them might be, are inherently wrong. It pains me to see a young, promising mer such as yourself, a skilled mage, a courageous warrior, an asset that could be of great value to the Dominion, fall into such heresy. While there is still time before your trial, I will arrange daily meetings with you, during which I will be doing my utmost to persuade you to discard these abominable views and see the light of truth'.
'Does this mean you are done with me for now?' she snapped.
'Yes, I suppose I am,' he allowed the corners of his lips to slide upwards - if only the circumstances were different; perhaps in that case, she would have returned his smile, 'Our conversation has proved very... enlightening. I shall now call the guards and they will escort you to your - I really hate using this word in relation to one of our kin - to your cell, where you will be contained for the time being'.
'You mentioned a trial. May I ask what the charge is?' The red spot faded away; she was prepared to face her fate.
'Treason,' he said simply, 'For which the penalty is...'
'Death,' she finished his phrase for him, and that one word came out of her mouth as the icy breath of winter.
After the guards, summoned from the semi-darkness by an imperious snap of his fingers, led Lanwen away, Caelmil sat silently for a while, his eyes half-closed, listening to the throbbing of his heart. It had been so long since he last was in love; he had almost forgotten what it felt like.