Real Barenziah, v 8
Tiber Septim lived another half century, during which she saw him on a few occasions, as she was bidden to Imperial City for one reason or another. He greeted her with warmth on these occasions and they had long talks together about events. He seemed to have quite forgotten that there had ever been anything more between them. He changed little over the years. Rumor said that his mages had found spells to extend his vitality, and even that the One had granted him immortality. Then one day a messenger came with the news that he was dead, and his son was now Emperor in his place.
They'd heard the news in private, she and Symmachus. He took it stoically, as he took everything.
It doesn't seem possible, Barenziah said.
I told you. It's the way of humans. They are a short-lived race. It doesn't really matter. His power lives on, and his son now wields it.
You called him your friend. Do you feel nothing?
He shrugged. "There was a time when you called him somewhat more. What do you feel, Barenziah?"
Emptiness. Loneliness, she said, then she too shrugged. "That's not new."
I know, he said, taking her hand. "Barenziah, let me try to fill that lonely place." He turned her face up and kissed her. It filled her with astonishment. She couldn't remember his ever touching her before. She'd never thought of him in that way, and yet, undeniably, an old familiar warmth spread through her. She'd forgotten how good it was, that warmth. Not the burning heat she'd felt with Tiber Septim, but the warmth she associated with, with Straw! Straw, poor Straw. She hadn't thought of him in so long. He'd be middle-aged now if he still lived. Probably married with a dozen children, she hoped, and a wife who could talk for two.
Marry me, Barenziah, he was saying, "I've worked and toiled and waited long enough, haven't I?"
Marriage. "A peasant with peasant dreams." The words appeared in her mind, as if from long ago. And yet, why not? If not him, who? The great noble families had been destroyed in the war and its aftermath. Dark elf rule had been restored, but not the old nobility. Most of them were upstarts, like Symmachus and not as good as he was. He'd fought to keep Mournhold whole and healthy when their so-called advisors would have picked their bones, sucked them dry as Ebonheart had been sucked dry. He'd fought for Mournhold, fought for her, while she and it grew. She felt a sudden rush of gratitude, and, undeniably, affection. He was steady and reliable. He'd served her well. "Why not?" she said, smiling.
The union was a good one, both in its political and personal aspects. While Tiber Septim's son viewed her with a jaundiced eye, his trust in his father's old friend was absolute. Symmachus, however, was still viewed with suspicion by Morrowind's stiff-necked folk, suspicious of his peasant ancestry, his close ties to the Empire, while she was quite popular. "The Lady's one of our own in her heart," it was whispered, "held captive as we are." Barenziah felt content. There was work and pleasure and what more could one ask of life? The years passed swiftly, with crises to be dealt with, storms and famines and failures and successes and plots to be foiled. Mournhold prospered well enough. Her people were secure and fed, her mines and farms productive. All was well save that the marriage produced no children. No heirs.
Now elven children are slow to come, and most demanding of their welcome, noble children more so than others, thus many decades had passed before they grew concerned.
The fault lies with me, husband. I am damaged goods. Barenziah said bitterly. "If you want to take another..."
I want no other, Symmachus snapped, "nor do I know the fault to be thine. Perhaps it is mine. Whichever, we will seek a cure. If there is damage, surely it may be repaired?"
How so? When we dare not entrust anyone with my true story? Healer's oaths do not always hold.
It won't matter if we change the time and circumstances a bit. Whate'er we say or fail to say Jephre never rests. His inventive mind and quick tongue are ever busy spreading gossip and rumor.
Priests and Healers came and went, but all their prayers, potions and other efforts produced not even a period of bloom, let alone a single fruit. Eventually, they put it from their minds and left it in the gods' hands. They were yet young, with centuries ahead of them. There was time. Elves always have time.