When I returned to Cloud Ruler Temple, I was surprised to be accosted by Jauffre in the courtyard. His face was grim.
"Is everything all right?" I asked, immediately concerned. "Martin...?"
"Martin is safe," Jauffre assured me. "But I'm worried about him. He does nothing but pore over that evil book all day. He's hardly taken time to sleep since you left."
"Ah... And how is he sleeping? Still having nightmares?"
"As bad as ever. Perhaps worse. It seems his guards have to wake him from terrors several times a night. But he listens to you. If there's anything you can do...?"
"I'll go and speak to him now."
Entering the Great Hall I found Martin at his usual table, head buried in the Mysterium Xarxes. Even more books had been added to the piles in the few days I'd been away, and some stacks were in danger of toppling over. More worryingly, the Emperor looked grey, haggard, and close to collapse. Jauffre's words had not been enough to prepare me for the change in his appearance. I was used to seeing bags under his eyes, but these were full-scale purple rings, like bruises.
I pulled a chair up, and sat down next to him. "Gods' blood, Martin – what have you been doing to yourself?"
Unaware of my presence, he jumped, before recognition set in. "Alix... It's good to see you, my friend."
"I wish I could say the same for you. Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately?"
He frowned. "I've made no progress with this translation. The Mysterium Xarxes doesn't give up its secrets easily. Every day that passes brings the Mythic Dawn closer to victory."
I made a decision. "Close that book." When Martin resisted, I closed it for him. "Look at me." After a few moments, his eyes reluctantly met mine. "You told me that you'd have to proceed cautiously with the Mysterium Xarxes, because it is exceedingly dangerous. Now I'm told that all you're doing is sitting here staring at it. Martin, what of your warding spells? Are they strong enough?"
"I'm working as quickly I can..."
"And driving yourself into the ground as you do so. You are this world's last hope. The Mythic Dawn doesn't even need to get its assassins near you if you destroy yourself."
Martin's blue eyes widened, and he shivered, realising the truth of my words. I reached to pat his shoulder, before realising he needed more comfort; and drew him into a hug instead. Martin's arms slowly came round to return my embrace, as his head slumped on my shoulder. I held him tightly for several minutes, feeling some of the tension leave his body.
Eventually, he pulled back. "Alix... I can't sleep. I can't escape the Xarxes, even in my dreams. And the nightmares... Gods. I can see three futures, and in two of them I die. In one of them, the world as we know it ends. I can't make myself go back to that, night after night."
For Martin had inherited the gift of prophecy along with his Septim blood. But growing up illegitimate, away from the guidance of his regal father, he had never learnt how to tell the difference between futures that would definitely happen, and those that were only possibilities. He did not know which dreams would come literally true, and which were just allegories. Moreover, he suffered from nightmares in which he relived traumatic events in his past. The daedra worship that had caused all his friends to die, the resulting expulsion from the Mages Guild, the sack of an entire city in an attempt to kill him, all of the people who had gone into battle on his behalf and not returned... His grief and guilt were so strong they were almost tangible.
All I could do was offer myself, in whatever role he needed me. Rescuer, protector, healer, friend. I stroked his back to show my support.
"Alix?" said Martin, in a small voice.
"What do you need, my friend?"
"I... might be able to sleep if you were there, to watch over me. Remember that time you were injured and I put you in my bed? I slept that night."
"You had exhausted yourself trying to heal me! You completely drained your magicka, like a novice mage with no experience! That was ridiculously foolish."
"I was afraid. You were so badly hurt... And I needed you. I still need you."
I saw the pain in his eyes, the guilt on his face, the tension in every part of his body, and nodded. "I'll run to fetch a bedroll from downstairs, and meet you in your room."
"No!" Martin grabbed my arm. "Please... That bed is big enough for three. Two can share it well enough. Just... be there?"
Suddenly embarrassed, not quite sure what he was asking, I bowed. "Whatever my Emperor needs." I regretted my impulsive action immediately, as I saw Martin's eyes cloud over. Letting go of my arm, he turned away sadly.
"I was joking!" I all-but yelled, spinning him around to see the fear in his expression. Damn it. I'd put that there. "Martin... you have to understand, I didn't quite know what you were asking."
Low-pitched, he whispered, "I ask for nothing from you, and everything. You're my only friend, and yet I constantly send you into danger. I can't force you to do anything. I understand that."
"I don't need to be forced. I do what I will, because it is the right thing to do, and because I love you. Not because of what you are, but because of who you are."
"I know. The Blades... they touch me to wake me from nightmare. They carry me to bed if I pass out while reading. But it's always duty for them. Always 'my lord' and 'sire', not plain Martin. They forget, I'm just a man. I need the company of friends, like any other. You touch me out of friendship."
I nodded, brushing his cheek lightly with my thumb. "I do."
We went up to the Emperor's bedchamber. It was as opulent as ever, yet mostly untouched. I remembered the day we'd arrived at Cloud Ruler Temple, refugees from Kvatch; and Martin's horrified reaction at the size of it. I remembered how I'd caught him playing with his dagger; how I'd thought he was suicidal, before he'd explained that it was the only possession he had left. I realised anew why it was that he still wore his beaten-up priest's robe instead of any of the more luxurious clothes on offer.
Knowing how self-conscious he was about undressing, I excused myself briefly, and went to speak to the Blades outside the room. I was pleased to see Jena, one of the few Blades with any magical ability, with Baurus, of course. "Um, listen," I said, "Martin's asked me to stay with him tonight."
"Oh, really?" exclaimed Baurus. "I was wondering when he was finally going to get around to that!"
I gave him a confused look. "Um, perhaps you know something I don't. But I just wanted to say. I'm not quite sure what he has in mind, and... just in case... well, if you hear um, sounds..."
"Sex sounds," agreed Baurus. Jena blushed bright red. I felt my face doing the same.
"By Talos, Baurus, I'm wondering what exactly our lord's been sharing with you! But... yes, if you hear anything that sounds like, um, screaming – I give you my word as a Blade that I will not harm the Emperor."
"We need more assurance than that," piped up Jena. "Not that we distrust you, but for all we know, both of you could be being murdered in your sleep."
"I know," I agreed. "Which is why I want you to use the Detect Life spell I taught you to check on us instead of coming in. If you see more than two life signatures – or less than two – or anything which implies that something is wrong, then you should burst in with swords ready. Otherwise..."
"I can do that," Jena agreed.
"And... take care of him?" asked Jena. "He's not just our Emperor. He's given up so much for us. He deserves happiness."
"I'll do my best."
Back in the room, Martin was kneeling alongside the bed, praying to Akatosh as he did every night. He'd blown out most of the candles, leaving only a couple next to the bed. I stripped off my armour, without looking at him: unbuckling each piece and laying it out straight to make it easier for the morning. By the time I stood in my undergarments, he was lying in bed watching me, with a small smile on his face as if he liked what he saw. I was still unsure what exactly he wanted from me; knowing only that whatever he needed, I was willing to give.
I slid into bed next to him, and opened my arms. "Come here, then". He wriggled into my embrace, and sighed. We lay together, side-by-side, for a few minutes.
My left elbow was trapped under Martin's body and I couldn't move my arm enough to release it, but my right arm was free. I stroked his back gently, moving my hand upwards, until I got to his neck. Sliding my hand under his thick, brown hair, I dug my fingers in, grabbed a fistful of hair and pulled – as I'd wanted to since I'd first seen him. Martin groaned, and his eyes flared with lust.
He pushed me onto my back, rolling over so that he was on top of me. Raising himself up on his arms, he looked into my face. "Alix... I... we need to talk."
"Tell me what you need," I replied. I let my arms fall away, giving him space to move.
"That's the problem," he sighed, letting himself collapse on top of me. I let him lie there for a while, bringing my arms round in a cuddle that would have been completely innocent, were it not for his head on my chest. I kissed the top of his head, lightly – something I'd do just as easily for a close friend as a lover. Martin seemed to be fighting for control of his emotions.
Eventually, he spoke again. "Alix, I... I've told you a little of my history with Sanguine. Only what I could. My friends died... It hurts to even think of that time. But I... You know what worshipping Sanguine involves, don't you?"
"Well," I thought for a moment. "He's the Daedric Prince of debauchery, always depicted with a bottle in his hand or a whore under his thumb. You told me before how nothing was ever 'just a prank' with him. I imagine that worshipping him involves getting very intoxicated and losing your inhibitions."
"And the rest. Sex. With whichever partner the daedra chooses. Not who you might choose, or be attracted to ordinarily. Sanguine decides. Remember that 'prank' he made you do – making the Countess of Leyawiin run round in her underwear? He loves humiliation. If he can debase you, he will."
I could see that what Martin was telling me was somehow very important, but not how to respond. I swallowed, and said carefully, "You had no choice?"
"Whoever he chose? Even if you weren't attracted to them?"
"Whoever he chose. Especially if you weren't attracted to them." Martin's eyes glistened with unshed tears.
I shook my head. "I don't understand how a so-called god could do that to his followers. That's why I've always stuck to the Nine. The Divines are honourable, even if their plans are impenetrable." I stroked Martin's hair, and kissed the top of his head again, offering whatever comfort I could.
"I haven't been with anyone since leaving Sanguine's fellowship. You understand – it was my choice? Akatosh doesn't ask for celibacy, even the priesthood doesn't require it - it was something I had to do for myself. Years without love to atone for those months of hedonistic lust. And... what happened afterwards."
Thoughtfully, I carried on playing with his hair. "You haven't had a lot of free choices, my friend. I've only made that worse for you. Disrupting your life, telling you that you're the Emperor's son, bringing you here... Putting the fate of the world into your hands."
"Don't say that!". Blue eyes bored into mine. "We both know I'd be dead by now if not for you. What happened at Kvatch would have happened again. I owe you my life. I owe you everything."
"Then if you ask for everything, and owe me everything – isn't that a fair trade?"
Martin stared at me as if his sanity depended on it. Perhaps it did.
"What you did at Kvatch. It wasn't the gods that saved us, it was you. Were you acting for the gods? I don't know."
"I don't know, either. Are you asking whether Akatosh sent me to save you?"
"Yes." Martin's head dropped onto my chest, and he began to weep. Months - and years - of pain, fear, disgust, and self-loathing washed out of his system with his tears. I rolled him onto his back and crawled on top, to maximise the calming pressure of my body on his.
I kissed his forehead. I kissed his cheeks. I ran my hands through his hair. I kissed him on the lips: brief, chaste pecks. He wrapped his arms around my back and held on. I could feel his arousal building, but would do nothing without his express consent.
"Alix?" he said, finally, voice rough from crying. "I can't ask for what I want. I do what the gods want of me. No man can deny his destiny."
"Then tell me. Do you trust me to do what you need? To keep kicking the Divines until they give you a destiny you can live with?"
I kissed him again on the lips, and this time he opened his mouth to meet mine.
Martin lay under me, utterly spent. He'd come so violently that he'd surprised himself, and now he was lying in blissful afterglow, watching the flickering of the candlelight on my skin. His brown hair glinted chestnut, the lines on his face seemed to have faded, and his smile finally reached his eyes. We kissed drowsily for a few minutes, before his breathing deepened, and exhaustion overtook him.
I got out of bed and blew out the last few candles, before opening the heavy curtains slightly to let in some moonlight. Then I pulled the blankets over both of us, and snuggled in against his side. It was so unusual to see him totally relaxed. Martin moaned faintly in his sleep, and threw an arm over me, possessively. His eyes moved rapidly behind closed lids, and I knew he was dreaming.
I held the Emperor in my arms all night, guarding him from the horrors in his head.