Solitude was…crowded. Ralof had done his job, though, and they got Ulfric from the Palace of the Kings to the Blue Palace without incident. They arrived the day before the Moot, just ahead of Laila Law-Giver, who was last. Jarl Elisif put most of her guests up in the palace, but Selene and Brynjolf chose to stay at Proudspire Manor, where they were more comfortable. Besides, they had guests of their own. Half the Thieves Guild had turned up to reap the bounty afforded by all those wealthy people congregating for the coronation, which was to be held the day after the Moot. Selene also had a special project in mind for the Guild.
“I want you to steal something for me,” she told Brynjolf, Karliah, Rune, Cynric, Thrynn, and Vipir as they lounged around the kitchen drinking mead and wine. “It’s a little out of your bailiwick, but I’m hoping that won’t be a problem. If it is, trust me, you’ll be well compensated.” When she told them the target and the plan, her thieves were quite enthusiastic about the job.
When Selene walked into the front door of the Blue Palace the next morning, she was met by an Altmer in golden elven armor, who stepped forward and handed her a sealed letter before she even realized what was happening. “From the Emissary,” he said curtly, then nodded, clicking his heels together, and left the palace. Selene glared at the guards standing nearby.
“He promised only to deliver the letter,” one of them said.
“He shouldn’t have gotten into the palace at all,” she rebuked him.
“My apologies, Stormblade. But they haven’t been officially banned from the palace, so we didn’t see a problem.”
“That’s a problem in itself. It’s not exactly business as usual today, gentlemen.” She stepped past them and headed for the main dining room, which was set up for the Moot. Eighteen chairs stood around the long table, each with a place setting, a small journal, an inkwell, and a quill before it on the table. Place cards indicated where each representative would sit. Off to the side, a grand breakfast buffet had been set on several tables lining the wall. Vignar was seated at the head of the table, already munching on bacon and cheese and talking with Elisif, who sat a couple of seats to his left. Olfina and Falk chatted at one of the buffet tables. Selene said good morning, grabbed a sweetroll and some warm mead, and sat down in her designated place to the left of Ulfric’s, which was at the other end of the table. She broke the seal on the letter and read.
You and I have unfinished business, little one. E
Selene chuckled mirthlessly and shook her head. Only Elenwen would have the gall to risk a soldier’s life just to taunt her. “Has anybody seen Ralof?” she asked the others.
“Last I saw him, he was outside Ulfric’s suite,” said Vignar. “Why? There a problem?”
Selene got up from her seat. “Nothing we can’t handle.”
She met Ulfric and Ralof coming through the door, and she took Ralof’s arm and pulled him aside as Ulfric went to the buffet. “Thought you might want to know your guards let a Thalmor soldier into the palace this morning.”
Ralof’s eyes widened. “What?” The look of shock quickly evolved into one of anger, and he said, “I’ll have their heads on pikes. Who was it?”
Selene shrugged. “I’ve seen them before, but I don’t know their names. Three guards on the front door. They said they didn’t know the Thalmor weren’t welcome.”
“Why would they think that?”
“Perhaps because Elisif still allows them to roam free in Solitude and the Blue Palace.”
The captain of the guard rolled his eyes. “I’ll take care of that right away.”
Ralof grumbled as he stalked from the room, and Selene sat down next to Ulfric and dropped the note on the table in front of him. Ulfric’s scent flooded with rage as he read it. “I have reached the limit of my endurance with that godsdamn elf,” he muttered.
“I’ll take care of it, Ulfric.”
The others trickled in and broke their fast, making some small talk but mostly bombarding Selene with questions about riding dragons and her battle with Alduin. She patiently retold the story for the hundredth time and answered all their questions, bowing her head graciously when they extolled her virtues.
“You’re a true hero, Dragonborn,” said Jarl Laila.
“What? I was ‘Selene’ last time we spoke.”
“You’re correct, my friend. I apologize.”
“Well, then!” Vignar piped up. “Are we ready to get this Moot started?” The others agreed, and he slammed a gavel on the table. Olfina dipped her quill in her inkwell, ready to take the minutes of the meeting, and others prepared their quills as well, planning to make their own notes. “Very well. As the eldest jarl in attendance, I call this meeting to order. This Moot to choose the High King of Skyrim, taking place the First of Rain’s Hand, Fourth Era Two-Oh-Five. In attendance are myself—Vignar Gray-Mane, Jarl of Whiterun—along with my housecarl, Olfina Gray-Mane. Representing Haafingar, our host, Elisif the Fair, accompanied by her Steward, Falk Firebeard. For Falkreath, Dengeir of Stuhn is present with—wait, I don’t know this one. What’s your name, my dear?”
“I’m Rayya, my jarl,” said the Redguard woman who sat next to Falkreath’s jarl.
“Rayya. His housecarl?”
“No, sir, just a housecarl in his court.”
“Ah. Well, then. Falkreath housecarl Rayya. Skald the Elder represents The Pale, and his lieutenant is his housecarl, Jod. From The Reach, we have Thongvor Silver-Blood and his brother, Thonar Silver-Blood. Sorli the Builder represents Hjaalmarch and is accompanied by her housecarl Teeba-Ei. Then we have Laila Law-Giver and her housecarl Unmid Snow-Shod from The Rift. Last but not least is Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Eastmarch, accompanied by Selene Stormblade, also known as the Dragonborn, his Thane. And my Thane, truth be known. Tell me, Dragonborn, how many thanehoods do you have?”
“Three, Jarl. I’m also Thane of Haafingar.”
“Ha-ha! Congratulations! All right. I’m not gonna make a big speech; nobody wants to hear me blather on. I’ll just remind everybody of the procedures. Only jarls may make nominations and vote, but lieutenants may second any motions and participate in the discussion. I will ask for nominations; then we’ll discuss and vote. You are allowed to nominate yourself, and the jarls can call for a vote at any time. Election requires a two-thirds majority.” He smiled smugly. “I don’t expect this to take very long. Any questions?” No one responded. “Comments?”
Thonar Silver-Blood raised a hand. “I would like to take this opportunity to remind Jarls Dengeir and Sorli that this is a Nord gathering.”
“Now, wait just a minute—” Sorli began.
“Calm down, Sorli,” Vignar interrupted, “don’t get your bloomers in a twist. Thonar, this is not a Nord gathering; it is a meeting of jarls and their lieutenants to decide on the next High King of Skyrim. The Blue Palace will not crumble beneath our feet because we have a Redguard and an Argonian present, so just shut up. Does anybody have any real business?” When no one answered, he said, “Very good. We’ll open up the table for nominations.”
“I nominate Ulfric Stormcloak for High King,” said Laila.
“I second,” Selene threw in.
Vignar sat silently, waiting for any other nominations, but no one spoke up. Selene watched Elisif carefully, expecting her to nominate herself, but she stayed quiet. Falk nudged the petite jarl gently, but she shook her head.
“Elisif, do you have something to say?” Vignar asked her.
“No one else, then? All right, let’s open the table for discussion.”
“There’s nothing to discuss!” growled Skald. The elderly jarl slapped the table. “We only have one nominee; let’s just vote and be done with it.”
Vignar ignored him. “Anyone?”
“I must speak my mind,” Falk Firebeard claimed. “While Jarl Elisif has sworn fealty to Ulfric and has refused to accept a nomination for High Queen, it must go on record that she has done so under duress. Ulfric Stormcloak literally held a sword to her throat and demanded her allegiance.”
“As would any conqueror,” Unmid Snow-Shod pointed out. “At least he gave Jarl Elisif a choice.”
“Swear allegiance to the man who killed her husband rather than be deposed and incarcerated—or executed—is not a choice.”
“Falk, execution was never an option and you know it,” said Selene.
“I do not know it. He killed High King Torygg—”
“In a duel.”
“He cheated. He should be made to answer for that.”
“The rules of engagement said nothing of Shouts,” Ulfric reminded him.
“Shouts wouldn’t have been an issue with anyone else! Your defeat of High King Torygg was dishonorable.”
Anger was slowly starting to seep into Ulfric’s scent, and Selene could see the conversation going south very quickly. “What would you propose?” she asked Falk. “An apology? Restitution?”
“How could he offer restitution for the murder of the king?”
“Not murder!” Skald fairly screamed. He stood up and shook a long, bony finger at Falk.
“Skald, sit down!” Vignar ordered him.
“Again—what do you propose?” Selene repeated. “No one else has been nominated; Ulfric will be chosen High King. How peacefully the transition goes will depend partly on the terms you set out.”
“I will offer a formal apology,” Ulfric broke in, “and sit down with Elisif to discuss other arrangements. I stand by my claim as High King, but I am willing to do whatever possible to make amends.”
“Thank you, Jarl Ulfric,” Elisif replied sweetly, “but any concessions you make will not bring back my husband.”
“Elisif should be grateful that Ulfric is still willing to work with her,” Skald barked. “He could still oust you from the throne and plop you down in the dungeon with Balgruuf and Idgrod, you know.”
“Thank you, Skald, but you’re not helping,” said Ulfric.
“No, no,” Elisif protested, “he’s right. Ulfric, I will be glad to sit down with you and attempt to make our uneasy peace more amicable.”
Vignar waited a moment, but there was no further discussion. “We’ll consider that matter closed, then! Anything else?”
By the way Falk sneered down the table at Ulfric, Selene could tell the matter wasn’t as closed as Vignar thought, but he didn’t press the matter further.
Thongvor Silver-Blood raised a hand. “I call for a vote.”
“I second,” said Thonar.
“Very well,” Vignar nodded. “The nomination of Ulfric Stormcloak as High King of Skyrim is officially up for a vote. Elisif the Fair, Jarl of Haafingar, what say you?”
Elisif only hesitated for a moment before saying, “Aye.”
“Dengeir of Stuhn, Jarl of Falkreath.”
Dengeir stood up. “I vote Aye. Ulfric Stormcloak has been—”
“No need to proselytize, Dungeir. The time to make arguments has passed, and we don’t need a speech. Now, sit down. Skald, Jarl of The Pale.”
The vote was unanimous, of course, and Ulfric accepted the position with a grateful nod as the jarls and their lieutenants applauded—all but Falk. “Again, thank you all for your support. I assure you that my intent is to lead, not rule. I will look to all of you for counsel and will always be open to suggestions. You will retain the autonomy you have become accustomed to as long as you remain loyal to me as High King and to Skyrim as a whole, and I will exert my influence in your holds’ affairs only when absolutely necessary. My first order of business is to propose a resolution moving the capital from Solitude to Windhelm. For the most part, this will save Jarl Elisif and myself from being uprooted from our homes.”
“But would cause many others to be uprooted, as well as the transfer of archives, records, accounts, and a host of other items,” Falk noted.
“I do not expect this to be a simple matter. Assuming the resolution passes, I will put you in touch with my steward, and you can make arrangements. We’ll move staff if need be, but I won’t force anyone to go permanently. I want this to go as smoothly as possible, and Jorleif will assist you in any way he can.”
“They will either go or lose their jobs.”
“It’s my understanding that Haafingar will still need administrative staff when it is no longer the capital. Surely you will be able to find employment for anyone who does not want to relocate.”
“Embassies are an issue,” Elisif said. “I received a letter from the Emperor requesting to open a dialog and possibly erect embassies here and in the Imperial City. We have the Thalmor Embassy to think of as well.”
“My second piece of business today will be to ban the Thalmor from Skyrim soil, so that embassy won’t be an issue.”
“The Thalmor won’t go easily,” said Thongvor.
“The hard way suits me just fine, my friend.”
* * *
The Moot lasted late into the evening, and Selene arrived at Proudspire Manor about two hours after sunset. She found Brynjolf and Karliah sitting at the kitchen table, drinking wine.
“How’d it go?” Karliah asked her.
“Electing the new High King took about five minutes,” she replied, taking a sip from Brynjolf’s wineglass. “The rest of the day was spent discussing how he would begin his reign, and jarls love to hear themselves talk. Where are the others?”
Brynjolf smiled. “Waiting for us at the rendezvous point.”
Selene sighed heavily and stretched, cracking her neck. “Ugh, do we have to go now?”
“This was your idea, you know.”
“I know, I know. I’ve just spent the entire day sitting at a table listening to jarls argue, and I’m tired. But I guess a hike will do me good. You go to the rendezvous; I’ll get Ulfric and meet you there in an hour.” She changed into her armor and grabbed her bow and daggers, then trudged back to the Blue Palace and upstairs to Ulfric’s suite. She knocked on the door, and Nilsine answered.
“Selene,” she nodded stiffly.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I need to borrow His Majesty. Something urgent has come up that needs his attention.”
Ulfric came up behind his fiancée quickly. “What is it?”
“I can’t talk about it here. Just trust me. You don’t need to wear armor, but you will need your sword.”
He nodded, went to the hearth where he had placed his sword in a weapon rack, and strapped it around his waist. He kissed Nilsine on the forehead and promised to return to her as quickly as possible, then followed Selene out of the room and through the palace.
“Did I hear you call me ‘His Majesty’? I won’t be High King until tomorrow, you know. And then I believe ‘Your Grace’ is the commonly used term, and then only in public. In private, you never have to use my title.”
Selene gave him a mischievous grin. “Whatever you say, Your Excellency.”
He glared at her. “You’re going to make my transition to High King very difficult, aren’t you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Your Holiness.” They reached a trapdoor hidden under a rug at the end of a long hallway.
“This is where the Stormcloaks infiltrated during the battle,” she reminded him.
“We’re leaving the city?”
She nodded but said no more until they were safely out of the palace. “We’re not going far. There’s an abandoned shack a couple of miles from here. We’re meeting Brynjolf and some others there.”
“Selene, what in Oblivion is going on?” he demanded.
“It’s a coronation present from the Guild.”
“And it couldn’t wait for tomorrow?”
“This is not something we just set on the gift table, my king.”
When they arrived at the shack, Cynric and Vipir stood outside, guarding the door. “Everything’s ready,” Vipir informed them.
“Thanks, Vipir.” Selene opened the door and led Ulfric inside.
The shack looked as if it had once been quite cozy. There was a bed, some tables and chairs, bookshelves, and a fire in the fireplace. On closer inspection, though, the bed was rickety, one of the legs was off the table, and the bookshelves were full of spider webs. Something else was in the room as well, the package she had sent the thieves to retrieve.
Kneeling on the floor, hands tied behind her back and Brynjolf and Karliah standing over her with daggers, was a figure dressed in Thalmor robes. Thrynn and Rune leaned against the wall nearby. When Brynjolf removed the hood, Ulfric smiled grimly. It was Elenwen.
“I got your letter,” Selene informed the ambassador.
* * *
The Thalmor hadn’t even realized who they had when they had captured Ulfric. One of Elenwen’s lieutenants managed to get him to reveal his true identity, and after that, the ambassador did her own dirty work. She tormented him for weeks, denying him food and sleep, forcing him to watch the torture, rape, and murder of his comrades, and inflicting unimaginable pain on his body. She paralyzed him with her spells and then alternately cast fire, shock, and frost spells at his bare skin, carved designs in his chest and arms with enchanted daggers, broke his bones with a hammer, and had her thugs beat him until his face was little more than a mass of blood and swollen tissue. When he neared death, she would have someone come in and heal him, and then she would start all over again. All the while, she gave him news on how the war was going, questioned him about battles that were being fought, and prodded him for information that would help them take the Imperial City.
He held out as long as he could, but when Elenwen told him his father had been assassinated, he finally cracked. He didn’t tell her much, but it was enough. Elenwen came back and regaled him with graphic stories about the sacking of the Imperial City. Ulfric learned later that not only was his father still alive, they had taken the city before Ulfric gave up the information, and Elenwen had squeezed it from him solely for the satisfaction of saying she had broken him. He had escaped shortly after that, and it wasn’t until after he met Selene that he found out Elenwen had let him get away.
It had been more than thirty years, and Ulfric could still feel the searing heat of the flames, the sizzle of lightning, the point of Elenwen’s knife, the crunch of bone as she bashed him. He could still feel the pinch of the shackles that held his wrists and ankles, the damp cold of the dungeon, and her foul breath on his cheek as she leaned in close to whisper lies into his ear. Some of the scars still ached when the weather was changing.
General Tullius had been right when he’d said the Thalmor wanted the civil war. Selene had recovered a dossier from the embassy that designated Ulfric as an asset, albeit an inactive one. He had never known such rage as he had experienced when he read that file. Had Elenwen been present, nothing would have been able to stop him from ripping the elf limb from limb.
And now here she was, on her knees before him, bound and gagged, and the terror in her eyes was worth waiting thirty years for.
“Well, well, look what we have here. It’s amazing what a master thief can steal. Brynjolf, you and your organization have truly done me a service. Now, would one of you be so kind as to remove the gag?”
A muscular young Nord with red warpaint stepped toward the ambassador and took hold of the gag. “Screaming won’t do you any good, so don’t bother. We’re too far away for anyone to hear you, and it’ll only piss me off. We both know what happens when you piss me off, don’t we?”
“High King Ulfric,” Elenwen spat when the thief pulled the gag away. Ulfric noticed that her lip was split and a large bruise was forming on her jawline. “What a lovely way to begin your reign—having common thieves abduct high-ranking emissaries and sloshing out into the swamp to torment her.”
“I’d hardly call them common thieves. You were taken by the best the Thieves Guild has to offer. Besides, I can’t think of a better way to begin my reign.”
“I’ll be avenged.”
“Do you think so? According to Selene, everyone at the embassy despises you. Why would they bother avenging your death?”
“I doubt they even know she’s gone,” Karliah mentioned. “We took her quietly, using a paralytic toxin, and no one detected us. When they do discover that she’s missing, they will think she fled when you were chosen High King. It may be weeks or months before anyone decides she’s worth looking for.”
“Especially after the Thalmor are ejected from Skyrim,” Selene threw in.
Elenwen drew a trembling breath.
“What, are you afraid?” Ulfric taunted her. “Worried about what these inferior beings are going to do to you? With good reason, I would imagine. I hear you have as much to fear from the Thieves Guild as you do from me.”
She looked at him as though she didn’t understand, and Brynjolf said, “Etienne.”
There was still no recognition on her face, and Brynjolf snarled and kicked her over, his face red with anger. “He was the thief you tortured for information about where to find Esbern, you Thalmor bitch! He’s as meek as a child and will never be the same, and you don’t even remember him? Jarl, whatever you’re going to do to her, just let me have her for five minutes.”
“Brynjolf, set her back up, love,” Selene said softly.
His beloved Selene. Even after everything that had happened, her touch or her sweet voice could still send tingles up Ulfric’s spine. How in the Divines’ names was he going to pledge his devotion to Nilsine when the last thing he thought of before going to sleep every night was Selene’s face? It wasn’t fair to Nilsine, but she knew what she was getting into. It was an arranged marriage, and she didn’t need for him to love her. She just wanted to be queen, and so she would be. They liked each other well enough. Perhaps someday they would grow to love one another. In the meantime, they would comfort each other—Nilsine, whose twin sister was brutally murdered, and Ulfric, who lost his love to a thief.
A thief who now wanted to take something else away from him.
“This one is mine, thief.” He met eyes with Elenwen. “Funny. Last time we met, it was I who was bound and gagged. You claim I’m a Thalmor asset, but you did nothing to prevent my execution that day.”
“I suppose you could say my hands were tied then as well. Your death would indeed have been inconvenient, but preventing it would have meant revealing my hand to General Tullius, and I could not afford to do so. How fortunate for a dragon to attack at the moment your little friend here was on the block.”
“My ‘little friend’ followed him all the way to Sovngarde and destroyed him, saving your life and immortal soul as well as everyone else’s.”
“Are we sure she even has a soul?” the thief with the warpaint muttered.
“Only to bring me before you now. Will you save me this time, Dragonborn?”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Selene replied coldly.
“So what will it be, Ulfric? Will you beat me? Carve me with your dagger? You don’t know any magic, so you’ll have to torture me in a more mundane fashion. Or will you just let the thieves have me? This one seems to know what he’s doing.”
This was his chance. Elenwen, the Altmer emissary who had caused more suffering in his life than anyone else, who had forced him to betray his empire, and who still plagued him with the occasional nightmare, knelt helpless before him. The Thieves Guild had given him the opportunity to return all the pain and anguish she had inflicted on him. But now that she was here, Ulfric realized all he wanted was for it to be over. He drew his sword.
“No, Elenwen. I don’t want to torture you. I just want you to die.” With that, he swung his sword. She stayed upright for just a moment before her body collapsed and her head toppled to the floor.
Ulfric closed his eyes. His heart thrummed in his chest, and emotion surged through him. Tears actually threatened to well in his eyes. But he wouldn’t cry, not in front of the Thieves Guild.
An Imperial with an open, friendly face took Ulfric’s sword and wiped the blade clean before handing it back to him. “We’ll take care of the body,” he promised. “Nobody will find her. Ever.”
Ulfric nodded a thank you and sheathed his sword, and Selene placed a hand on his arm. “You all right?” she asked him.
He looked down at her, then over at Elenwen’s body, which was soaking in an ever-growing pool of blood. “I suppose I’ve finally committed the murder they’ve been accusing me of.”
“This wasn’t murder, love. It was justice.”