32 - Katariah

The party going over to the Katariah was smaller than it would have been before the arrow incident, but Zahra and I had earned our place among the guests twice over, now. We were among the few permitted to keep our weapons. Although, how you disarm a mage is beyond me.

The reception on board was sumptuous, and with fewer guests than originally planned, it was much easier to meet everyone. Titus Mede II indicated that he'd like us to stay after the others left, and he'd discuss the situation when everyone had gone.

Vittoria and Asgeir were of course the first to leave. They had a honeymoon to start. The other guests all had to leave together on the next boat back to the docks, which left just Zahra and myself.

We followed the Emperor back to his cabin at the stern. He shooed out the guard, telling him we had matters of state to discuss. "And I can pour the wine myself, you know." As soon as we were comfortably seated, he did so.

"Tamika's?" I asked, after my first sip. "This brings back memories of guarding a gate outside Skingrad. The one Dagon left me at, when they all closed."

The Emperor was impressed by my knowlege of wines, but Tamika's Vineyard was one of Tamriel's finest even before the Oblivion crisis. Her planting of vines on the area scortched by the gate was a stroke of genius, and the wine from that patch was famous above all others. The effect had faded over the years, and this wasn't one of that vintage, but it was still distinctive enough for even me to tell the difference.

My assessment of his strategy with the Civil War proved to be accurate. He'd constrained Tullius by limiting his reinforcements, to make sure he could contain Ulfric, but not defeat him, or provoke a larger uprising. Now perhaps, it was time to draw down the Legion presence further, and maybe recall the General to a front where he'd be happier.

"But what of the dragons?" Titus asked. "I'm sure Tullius will cite those as a reason he should stay."

"They don't represent a threat any more," I replied. "Without Alduin, they're independent, and frankly care nothing for the affairs of mortals. They can be induced to take sides when it benefits them, but I don't see anyone having the knowledge of their desires to do so. If anything, they may be a reserve asset against the Thalmor, whose aims definitely do not seem to concide with the dragons'. And I may be able to gain their respect as the conquerer of Alduin."

"Your main threat seems to come from your own people," Zahra added. "Kothet and I are certain that archer at the wedding was sent there to assassinate you."

"Oh, you don't have to tell me. I'm only too aware that my succession is being plotted all the time. I have no legitimate heir, so everyone and his dog feels they could take my place, if there were to be an accident."

"Then I'm surprised that you're not taking more precautions," Zahra continued. "A guard using a Detect Life spell, or better yet, a ring with that enchantment, should be with you at all times."

She demonstrated the spell. "If there is anyone around, you see them, even through walls, like that guard outside your door."

"I sent the guard away. If there is someone outside, they shouldn't be there."

As we watched the glowing shape, it approached the door, and silently opened it. We saw the glow enter the room, but nothing else. Zahra cast another spell at the glow, and revealed ... a naked Bosmer woman carrying a dagger, with a bow and quiver on her back. She froze when she realised we could see her. Zahra and I were between her and Titus, so she'd never have reached him if she tried.

"Oh, she's beautiful!" exclaimed Zahra.

"No, that's not beautiful," replied the Emperor. "Beautiful is for putting on pedestals, and standing back and admiring. Most of the ladies of my court are like that. The further back you stand, the better.

"No, this young lady is what I'd call pretty. The kind of looks that make you want to get closer. In her case, extremely pretty."

He turned to address the newcomer. "Why don't you put those weapons down on the table there, and find yourself a robe in the closet? We have a lot to discuss, don't we?"

"And I'll take whatever you're using to give you chameleon," Zahra added.

Titus poured another glass of Tamika's for the Bosmer. "What's your name, pretty young lady?"

"Gaenathilwen, or G'wen for short. But you can call me 'failure', because this is the second contract I've messed up. I was supposed to kill Vittoria as a warning, and then you."

"You haven't completely failed yet," Titus replied. "I have need of your services, but not quite in the way you'd expect."

He explained what he meant. The Emperor can't just step down without naming a successor, and frankly there wasn't anyone else fit to take the job. "The Empire would actually be better off with an internal struggle to replace me than if I picked sides. Concentrating the remaining power of the Empire in anyone's hands now would just encourage them to waste it."

"So I need to go away and leave them to their own devices, and that apparently means I have to be considered dead. So you will report your success, even though it didn't exactly happen. No body to confirm it, of course. You'd have dumped that over the stern into the river. The mudcrabs will strip a corpse in a couple of hours, and the bones will wash away in no time."

"So all we need to figure out is how you killed me. I'd like it to be something special, out of the ordinary, and a topic of conversation. That will help convince people that it's true."

"I think she'd have poisoned her nipples," replied Zahra. "You wouldn't have been able to resist that temptation."

"And I'd have died happy," Titus laughed. "That's a great idea, as it also accounts for why she got rid of my body. Poisons leave traces that a competent mage can identify. That can help track down the source of the poison, and thus the assassin, or her sponsors."

"Why did you come looking for me naked anyway?" he continued. "I know I have a bit of a reputation in that regard, but I don't think that was what you had in mind."

"I had to swim out to the ship, which got my leathers totally soaked. When I noticed that I was leaving a trail of drips that anyone could follow, I left all my wet gear down in the hold. I figured that with full chameleon, nobody was going to see me, so why not?"

"And with those rings of yours, I can leave this ship with Kothet and Zahra. But don't worry, G'wen, there are plenty of places for you to hide here, before you get away. I had a lot of them constructed so I could disappear if this ship was ever boarded, and even the crew don't know most of them. You'll be safe until the hunt dies down, and quite comfortable, too. I wasn't planning to suffer while I was confined, after all."

"What are you intending to do, if you're not Emperor any more?" G'wen wanted to know.

"I'm going to become a pirate. I have a ship waiting off the coast, and we'll be harrassing the Thalmor supply lines to Skyrim and High Rock. Keeping them in check that way will be more effective than the big confrontation everyone expects from the Empire and the Legion. That threat is still needed, though, to tie down their main forces on the borders."

"Can you trust whover gets control after you to see it that way?" I asked.

"No, but without a decisive advantage, they'll have no choice but to sit it out. If they find a way to defeat the Thalmor that I haven't seen, that's all to the good, but I doubt that will happen. And likewise, the Generals won't let them do anything too stupid, and let the Thalmor win. It's that inevitable stalemate that's making me want to go do something about it."

We continued discussing the arrangements, and firming up the details of the fake assassination, to make sure we had a story that was watertight. G'wen would be reporting most of it back to the Dark Brotherhood, who'd been given the assignment. She also had to try and contact the person who'd made the request in the first place, as the Emperor would prefer that they'd have their plans disrupted, too. "If you get to kill him, he can take my place for Sithis, can't he?"

G'wen wasn't used to wearing just a thin silk robe, and she kept having to wrap it back around herself, whenever she noticed that it had fallen off her breasts. Half the time she didn't, and she was quite distracting. Perhaps that was why Zahra's robe, which was usually magically fixed in place, was also falling open from time to time.

The Tamika's could possibly have been contributing, too, although none of us were drinking that much. We needed to be coherent to make our plans, after all. But we did all feel quite relaxed.

Zahra was pointing out that the two of us had to have left before G'wen arrived, as the Emperor would naturally have employed me as his taster, just in case. As an immortal, the poison would have been an inconvenience, at best. "You know you'd like that job," she laughed.

"But would you let me take it?" I asked her.

"Do I get to choose? You're the one who summons me, aren't you? You do what you like."

"What I like is a contented housecarl. So your opinions matter."

That was what she wanted to hear. "You go ahead and taste G'wen, and I'm going to taste Titus. It's only fair to her."