The scent of sweet rolls had interrupted Ondolemar’s late night routine sending him to the Keep’s kitchen. When he got there he was nearly certain he was having some sort of horrible hallucination. Eolain, Faleen, and Alexa were seated around the chef’s table playing cards while, it would seem, binging on brandy and bite sized sweat rolls.
“Alexa,” he exclaimed in surprise, even as he noted that she wasn’t wearing her armor but a set of basic, College of Winterhold, robes.1 “What are you doing here?” he asked, suddenly a little concerned. He had never seen her out of her armor before.
“Got my ass nearly handed to me by a lich this afternoon,2” Alexa replied, with a welcoming smile. “So I decided to spend the night here, in this lovely city, rather than ride somewhere nicer while exhausted and wearing armor in need of extensive repair.”
“Oh! Hello…” Faleen greeted him, with disturbing cheer, belatedly turning to look over her shoulder at him. “Eolain was just telling stories about you!”
“Alexa keeps winning,” Eolain explained in a stage whisper. “I’m trying to distract her.”
“Why you think I would find stories about the Commander’s childhood distracting I do not know,” Alexa replied primly.
“Well I do…” Faleen giggled, an event so out of character it caused a shiver to run down Ondolemar’s spine. “I’ve always found him distracting. Mostly the lips.3 They look so… soft.”
“Oh, they are,” Eolain grinned at the Redguard woman as Alexa picked up a good portion of the discard pile.
“Wait… how do you know what his lips are like?” Faleen demanded of Eolain. “I thought you preferred women?”
Alexa smirked at him from across the table as she rearranged her hand. “This clearly isn’t going anywhere good, Commander. I suggest you run away before she answers that.”
“I came here for a sweet roll,” he announced stiffly. Not that fleeing hadn’t already occurred to him but, now that it had been suggested, there was no way he was going to admit he found the situation intimidating.
Alexa tilted her chin in the direction of the sideboard. “I saved some for you. On the covered plate over there.”
“Dolly,” Eolain hissed, grabbing at his coat as he tried to slip past her to the sideboard. “I think Alexa might still be sober, can you tell?”
“How much have you already had?” he asked her in exasperation.
“Uhhh… we’re working on our second bottle, I think,” Eolain answered. “Though the first one wasn’t full when we started, so it’s hard to tell…”
“Then no,” he cut in before Eolain could ramble any further. “I doubt any of you are the least bit sober. It’s actually surprising you’re not dead.”
“But how can you tell?” Eolain demanded. “She keeps winning!”
He sighed. “Alexa, are you sober?” he asked, disentangling his coat from Eolain’s hand.
“Not particularly, no,” the Breton replied, laying out her hand to the mixed groans of the two other women. “Though I think my tolerance has increased somewhat since my run in with Sanguine.”
“Cheater!” Eolain gasped. “Daedric help is not fair!”
“Boo-oo,” Faleen added half-heartedly as Eolain filled Alexa’s cup to the brim. “Oh, hey,” Faleen gasped, her eyes fixed on Ondolemar backside as he picked up his plate of sweet rolls. “Alexa’s right! Thalmor coats do have heart shaped designs on their butts4!”
“How had I never noticed that?” Eolain demanded, leaning around Faleen to inspect Ondolemar’s butt.
Ondolemar glared at her and sat down on the nearest chair. Usually he would have taken his sweet rolls back to his room but what was going on here might prove… interesting. Faleen at the very least was drunk enough to let something slip and Eolain almost certainly required supervision at this stage.5
“I mention it simply as an odd design decision,” Alexa sniffed, as she laid out a winning hand. “I mean, usually, one would assume such a thing would be used to accentuate the wearer’s curves… but Altmer generally have no curves to draw attention too.”
Eolain snickered, tossing her cards into the center of the table. “Ah… the truth hurts. My wife, however, is dunmer. Her curves areluscious.”
“What about my curves?” Faleen asked sounding dejected as she handed her cards to Alexa.
“You, my dear, have the best breast in Markarth,” Eolain told her with complete sincerity.
“Thanks!” Faleen blushed. “But Alexa is prettier.”
“Alexa is very pretty,” Eolain agreed warmly. “Quite a lot of mer blood too… though I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a mer as pale as she is…”
“Not sure pale is the right word,” Faleen mused. “White, yes, but pale just suggests she doesn’t get enough sun.”
“Snow Elves,” Alexa replied shuffling the cards. “And my coloration doesn’t change much when I tan; it just becomes harder to see the veins through the skin. As Faleen suggests my pigmentation is very white. I believe it is your deal?”
“It is but, before we start the next hand, you need to prove you’re as drunk as we are or you have to drink everything in your cup,” Eolain announced. “And don’t think you can get out of drinking just because you were right about Dolly’s coat.”
“Wait… does that mean you’ve been checking out the Commander’s ass?” Faleen demanded.
“I noticed the design a little while ago when I was forced to follow a Thalmor agent up a flight of stairs which was steep enough to place his butt on about my eye level,” Alexa told her.
“So you’ve been staring at Ancano’s coat,” Ondolemar murmured, not above getting a little of his own back.
Faleen’s head whipped towards him, startled. “Oh, Ondolemar, you’re still here!”
Alexa ignored him and grimaced at the amount of brandy now in her cup. “Right, so how do I prove that I’m as drunk as you ladies are?”
“You could uh…” Eolain looked around the room for inspiration. “Kiss Dolly!”
“That would be a very bad idea,” he told them coldly, wiping his sticky fingers on a napkin.
“Are you going to hold him down?” Alexa asked Eolain, as she stood up.
“I will!” Faleen laughed, getting to her feet. She stood behind his chair, her hands on his shoulders, pressing him into his seat.
“It’s alright, Commander,” Alexa smiled. “I promise you I’m not poisonous.”
“Alexa…” he warned but it was already too late. She’d taken his face between her hands and was kissing him. Auriel help him, the kiss was amazing. It took all of his willpower, and the knowledge that Eolain was watching, not to react beyond resting a hand on her hip to keep her steady.
She pulled away and smiled. “See? No harm done!”
“So?” Faleen asked curiously as she released Ondolemar’s shoulders.
“Eolain was right,” Alexa replied with a little shrug.
“Sooo unfair!” Faleen moaned. “If I didn’t have a lover already I’d…”
Ondolemar cleared his throat, picked up his sweet rolls, and fled the kitchen.
Ondolemar only made it as far as the throne room before realizing he didn’t feel safe leaving those three to gossip without some supervision so he turned around and took a seat in the shadows leading off to the Jarl’s quarters. From here, if he listened carefully, he could still hear everything that was being said in the kitchen but was out of teasing range.
The women’s revelries only lasted a few more hands before Alexa excused herself and, drawstring bag in hand, disappeared in the direction of Calcelmo’s work station.
“Hey… Eolain, why are you here again?” Faleen enquired, leaning heavily against the mer woman and gesticulating sloppily as Eolain helped her from the kitchen.
“Because I’m a pureblood and the stupid Thalmor are stupid,” Eolain replied a little grouchily, propping the housecarl up against one of the stone tables. “Where’d Alexa go?”
Faleen plopped, gracelessly, onto one of the stone seats. “Sheee… potions?” Faleen replied after a good deal of thought. “Hey, you know, you’re a… a good person. I like you. Most of the Altmer around here… assholes.”
Eolain nodded knowingly. “Thalmor,” she agreed.
“Yeah… assholes,” Faleen repeated. “Not the Commander though. Can’t figure him out. Says all the right things but… not an asshole. Should be, but… not. Weird.”
“I see we’ve progressed to the meaningful conversations part of the evening,” Alexa laughed, coming back.
“You… not drunk enough,” Faleen informed her as she downed the potion Alexa handed her.
Alexa reached out and touched Faleen’s forehead with glowing fingers. The woman’s eyelids flickered and then she slumped forward on the table and began to snore.
“Wow,” Eolain commented in surprise. “Sleep spells aren’t that common in academic magic.”
“True. Guards!” she gestured to the two men still standing outside the throne room. “The housecarl requires help back to her room.”
Alexa waited for the guards to completely disappear with Faleen before turning to Eolain. “You want to tell me why you’re getting drunk and avoiding the Commander?” she asked, sitting on top of the table the housecarl hand just vacated.
“No,” Eolain replied simply, taking a seat beside her. “And Faleen is right, you a far too sober. You shouldn’t have noticed that.”
“Yes, well, I’m fairly resistant to alcohol these days and notcompletely unobservant.”
“Because you’re a dragon?” Eolain asked.
“No. Dragons can get drunk. I wouldn’t suggest it though… Their memories indicate it often ends poorly.” She hesitated for a moment and then appeared to shift topics. “Earmiel says you have a daughter my age. That’s… odd to think about.”
Eolain nodded glumly. “I’d think less about it if… never mind.”
Alexa seemed to consider that for a moment. “If the reason you came to Skyrim isn’t working out, why are you still here? Markarth isn’t the most interesting of places.”
“Because I’m worried for Dolly,” Eolain answered, a tired, sad, little note to her voice.
“And you think that sentiment is best expressed by drunkenly avoiding him?”
“Ha!” Eolain, laughed. “No. I’m avoiding him because I haven’t figured out how to talk to him about it yet.”
“You could just try telling him. The Commander is fairly skilled at verbal interrogation. He’d know the right leading questions to ask.”
“Or the right things to say to shut me down,” Eolain muttered. “He’s almost as bad as my mother when it comes to implying that he’s deeply disappointed in my decisions.”
“Are your decisions so very disappointing?”
“I’m a pureblood Altmer, with a rare gift for Alteration magic, and not only did I choose to shirk my family duties, when I ran off to Morrowind, but I’ve had the bad sense to prefer my own sex. As a pureblood of childbearing age I should be producing perfect Altmer babies for the Dominion. Preferring woman makes that more difficult,” she explained.
“I’m sorry. The current situation in Alinor does not appear to be particularly socially healthy.”
Eolain snorted rather indelicately. “You, my dear, have a rare gift for understatement.”
“What has you so worried about the Commander?” Alexa enquired, proving, in Ondolemar’s opinion, that he wasn’t the only one skilled at getting people to talk. He’d have to remember that.
Eolain sighed slightly. “When we were children adults were always holding Dolly up as an example of our generation’s ideal pureblood. It’s… not a standard anyone should try to live up to. I worry about the day he wakes up and realizes exactly how unhappy he’s always been.”
“And you think that’s more likely now than it has been before?”
“Previously I just worried that he’d never realize he was unhappy,” Eolain replied wryly.
“Huh...” Alex mused. “I just assumed he was unhappy because living in Markarth would make anyone unhappy. What makes you think the Commander might see his unhappiness as a systemic condition rather than as a result of living in this wretched place?”
What indeed, Ondolemar wondered, sinking deeper into the shadows that surrounded him.
“I think… I think he may have, for the first time in his life, actually considered making a choice that could lead to something other than living up to the potential of his perfect bloodline by eventually being promoted to Thalmor High Command and living in elegant misery for the rest of his life.”
“That was quite the mouthful,” Alexa remarked.
Eolain rolled her eyes. “I say ‘considered’ because he hasn’t, and probably won’t, actually choose to deviate from the path he was set on by his parents. But the simple act of considering possibilities other than the ones he’s been told he should want leaves him open to the realization that being better than everyone else isn’t making him happy.”
“And so you’re staying in the hopes of mitigating the resulting nervous breakdown?”
“No. I’m staying because, should he choose happiness, I want to be here to help him.”
“I think the Commander is lucky to have you and Earmiel,” Alexa said with a soft smile. “I’m a little jealous.”
“Jealous of overbearing childhood friends?”
“I have no one like that in my life. I… didn’t get much of a childhood.”
“So… what’s it like, being dragonborn?”
“Growing up, not knowing, sucks,” Alexa answered with all the appearances of truthfulness. “I was always, different, too good with magic, too aware of some things, too good at guessing others. My human family couldn’t just let me be a child. No, I had to study and perform and impress the right people so that I could be married advantageously and live my life as a particularly decorative weapon my husband would keep around to impress others…
“It wasn’t until I absorbed a dragon’s soul that the weirdness of my life made any sense. Even then it wasn’t until I found a dragon that would actually speak with me that I had someone to talk about the strange things that go on in my head. In some respects, I suppose, I’ve spent my entire life alone.” She sighed and, seeing Eolain’s worried look, gave a dismissive shrug. “Knowing though... Your view of the world changes when you suddenly gain all the memories and experience of a being that had lived since not long after time began. Even the oldest mer I’ve ever met cannot approach the knowledge and understanding of the world that a dragon has.”
“And you remember all of it?” Eolain asked, a little awed.
“All of it times four… Dragons have eidetic memories and I have absorbed four of them,” she answered.
“I can’t imagine what that must be like,” Eolain admitted.
“Mostly I try not to think about it…” Alexa admitted with a wry little smile. “Or anything else that might cause the dragon memories to suddenly bombard me with massive amounts of information I have no way of verifying. It’s one reason I stick to the ridiculous and trivial in conversation. Having people stare at me like I’ve run mad, simply because a dragon I’ve killed knew something otherwise undocumented, doesn’t make for a fun evening with friends.”
“Alright, blow my mind!” Eolain exclaimed, flapping a hand at Alexa. “Tell me something you’ve learned from the dragons that no one knows or would believe!”
“For the last twenty-six years we have been living in a Real Moment6?” Alexa offered.
“A real moment?” Eolain asked.
Alexa, displaying a very strange grasp of alteration magic, drew a glowing straight line in the air in front them. “Looking back we see history as a single line of causality, a single trajectory along which we all travel, inexorably, to the end. But this is only because we assume that the way things happened is the only way they could have happened,” she explained. “And yet we know from the various accounts of the Warp in the West that time and experience, at least within a Dragon Break, are more malleable than that.” She drew several, staggered, lines off the first line connecting them all back to a single point a hand’s length further down. “Dragon Breaks – spaces of un-time within linear time – are not the only documented type of anomaly that effects Time. There are also times in which the trajectory of history can be changed,” she said, drawing a straight line branching off the first. She then circled the point at which the two lines branched. “These spaces in which the trajectory of history can be altered are Real Moments.”
“How can you tell that we are living in such a time?” Eolain asked. “I mean if you don’t have a dragon to tell you.”
“The instability of the future timeline allows for greater influence from beyond the various barriers that protect reality including, but not limited to, the Oblivion realms, Adjacent Places, and even un-time. In such times the mnemoli - a group of Magna Ge in charge of the Elder Scrolls – may choose to remove their charges from Nirn for safe keeping. In 4E 175 the entire Imperial collection of Elder Scrolls disappeared.”
“You are saying we have been living in a Real Moment – a time without fate – since sometime in 175?” Eolain asked in astonishment.
“That’s… amazing! But not something, I think, you couldn’t convince someone else of. Got anything better?”
“Aldmeris never existed?” Alexa asked.
Eolain turned look at Alexa. “What?”
“Don’t shriek at me,” Alexa complained. “You wanted something unbelievable.”
“But there were tapestries, and texts, in the Crystal Tower!”
“There still are,” Alexa replied calmly. “Just because you can’t get to them doesn’t mean they’re not there. But they’re proof of the function of the Tower not of a continent lost in the early Mythic.”
“The Crystal Tower has a function?7 Beyond being a big building, I mean.”
“If all of creation is music – as the Dwemer believed – then the Towers are like conductors each directing their own performance of the symphony that is Creation,” Alexa answered. “Kalpa to kalpa they are unchanging their contents carried from one Creation into the next. When the Destroyer consumes all of Mundus only they are left behind. From them all Creation begins anew.”
“So you’re saying there have been multiple creations and Aldmeris never existed in this one?”
“Not multiple creations exactly. More like multiple iterations of the same creation – variations on a theme. Like the same symphony being played over and over again. Each performance is unique but also the same. As for the society depicted in the artifacts held within the Crystal Tower… it has not existed in this iteration yet,8” Alexa answered quietly.
“Meaning Aldmeris is a possible future?”
“One in which the Ayleidoon Hegemony had removed from the world all non-mer sapient life. The ninth era I think, though it is hazy. Dragon memories of past kalpa are… like half forgotten dreams: Strange and distorted by the influence un-time has on drake. I do know that particular kalpa didn’t last long after the final set of extinctions weakened the structure of the Convention such that the Hist nearly conquered all five cornes of the twelve worlds9 before the beginning of the next kalpa cleared them from the field.10 Whether this kalpa will end the same way that one did… I can’t tell.”
“Wow. There’s so much to unpack from that it may take me a decade or two to think about it,” Eolain confessed staring blindly into the middle distance.
“Welcome to the inside of my head these days,” Alexa laughed.
“I don’t think I envy you, though it would be fun to keep you around just to talk to,” Eolain smiled.
There was companionable silence between them for a while.
“Hey, I’m glad you’re friends with Earmiel,” Eolain said suddenly. “You’ll keep an eye on him for me? I worry that he’ll eventually get himself into trouble that his charm can’t get him back out of.”
“I’m not sure that anywhere near me is the safest place to be,” Alexa pointed out. “Dragonborn aren’t known for living safe and quiet lives. But yes. I will attempt to haul his ass out of any trouble he gets into. As long as I’m still around at least. Speaking of which, it is definitely past my bed time and I’ve got an early start in the morning.”
“No more liches, I hope?” Eolain asked as Alexa retrieved her pack from the kitchen.
“No. I’m off to devote a few days to the thrilling activity of meditating on the meaning of words,” Alexa smiled. “As the greatest risk involved in such things, this time of year, is frostbite, I think I’ll be fine.”
“Good luck?” Eolain offered. “If the boredom becomes overwhelming you can always come back and entertain me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Alexa laughed, turning away.
“Are you not going to say goodbye to Dolly before you go?” Eolain called after her.
Alexa gave Eolain a slightly startled look and then glanced, swiftly, in his direction. He froze, barely even breathing.
“No,” Alexa answered Eolain with a sight shrug. “It’s late and the Commander needs his beauty sleep.”
“Alright then,” Eolain stood up. “I guess we can walk to the inn together then.”
“After you, m’lady,” Alexa bowed, gesturing towards the stairs.
Ondolemar waited until he could no longer hear their voices before standing and making his way back to his room. Had Alexa known he was there? And, if she had, how much of what he had overheard had been for his benefit, he wondered?
“If I apologize for yesterday’s drunken antics, will you forgive me enough to acknowledge my presence?” Eolain asked, late the next evening.
There was a moment of tense, pregnant, silence between them before Ondolemar shifted slightly in his chair. “Do I really strike you as unhappy?” he asked, without looking up from the report he was writing.
Oh. She perched, carefully, on the edge of one of the padded chairs before the fire, facing him. “Yes,” she answered, her voice calm even as she twisted the fingers in her lap hard enough the joints complained. “How much did you overhear?”
“Everything from the time you left the kitchen to when you and Alexa left the Keep,” he replied mildly as if it were of no concern.
She swallowed hard around a suddenly dry throat. “Then can I ask you something?”
“Is there some way I could stop you?”
“Do you love her?”
The quill Ondolemar was holding snapped between his fingers.
“To be clear,” she hurried on before he could respond. “I’m not asking if you desire her I’m asking if you love her.”
He put the broken quill aside. “That’s not really any of your business, is it, Eolain?”
“Fine,” she replied shortly. “Then let me ask you something else. If you were free of all responsibilities to your family, and to the Dominion, what would you do with your life?”
He opened his mouth to reply, closed it again, and turned away from her with a slight sigh. “I don’t know,” he admitted softly.
“Well thank the Divines for that much at least,” Eolain sighed, relieved. “Because, ‘Exactly what I’m doing now’ wouldn’t have been a good answer.”
“And what is it you believe I am doing now?” he asked her.
“Torturing an entire people with the intention of destroying their way of life in order to negate their ability to defend themselves against Thalmor Imperialism,11” she replied without flinching.
Ondolemar raised both eyebrows at that. “You’ve gotten rather bold, living in Morrowind.”
“Am I wrong?” she demanded, equally calmly.
“I do not torture people,” he told her softly. “Nor do I refer them to the torturers if it can be avoided.”
“But the Thalmor do,” she told him.
“Yes. The Thalmor do.” His eyes met hers squarely and she could only stare at him, aghast.
“Stendarr’s mercy, Dolly, what have you done?” she whispered.
“Nothing,” he told her. “I have done nothing. And I will continue to do nothing. The dragonborn is my asset. What I choose to share with my colleagues and superiors, about my assets, is for me to decide. It is enough for them to know of her affiliation with the cause.”
“You’re officially protecting the dragonborn?” she hissed. “Are you insane?”
“You make that sound as if she is an enemy of the Dominion,” he remarked.
“Isn’t she?” Eolain demanded.
“Do you have proof of that?”
She blinked. “No...”
“And you never will,” he told her.
Eolain sat there, for a time, dumbstruck. “Are you ever going to tell her?” she asked finally.
“I’ve… tried. I can only assume that her apparent ignorance is a choice she has made to not endanger our current relationship.”
Eolain snorted at that. “You ever tell her straight out?”
He fiddled with the point of his new quill but didn’t answer.
“Dolly, she saved you a plate of sweet rolls and then kissed you on the flimsiest of excuses. She clearly likes you. And, if you weren’t dressed like that, she might even have picked up on the fact that you like her.”
“So steal her from him! Anyone who would let Alexa face liches, and travel around a countryside full of angry dragons, with only her dog for company, doesn’t deserve her!”
“And what would you have me do about that?” he demanded. “It’s not like the Second Emissary to Skyrim can simply leave his post to travels around the countryside fighting dragons!”
Eolain blinked, taken aback by the vehemence of his response. She swallowed and considered her next words carefully. “All our lives, Dolly, you have done what others expected of you, not because you had any particular attachment to what you were being asked to do but because you never had a good enough reason to say no. Is Alexa enough to change that?”
“You’re suggesting I leave the Thalmor?”
“NO,” she exclaimed, shocked that he’d even suggested it. “That would probably be a very bad idea. But I am suggesting you focus less on getting yourself promoted to a position in Alinor and more on finding a position someplace where an Altmer with a Breton lover wouldn’t be quite so scandalous.”
“You think I haven’t thought about it?” he admitted. “But I have a duty to my family to return to Alinor. It’s already been put off longer than it should. Putting it off again will only invite comment. I must return there in 205 when my current deployment is up.”
“That I can help you with,” she told him.
He gave her a startled look. “You can?”
“We can talk about it after you’ve actually told Alexa how you feel. As bluntly as possible.”
Ondolemar frowned at her.
Eolain rolled her eyes. “For once in your life Dolly, do yourself a favor, take my advice, and talk to her about something more important than whatever random, and totally fascinating, thing she’s deflecting people with today.”
“I’ll consider it,” he told her, “if you leave me alone to finish my reports.”
Eolain jumped to her feet, made a high-pitched noise of glee, hugged him, and then scampered across the room to the door. Her hand on the door handle she stopped and looked back at him, where he sat, still stunned by her reaction. “You know I want you to be happy, right? No, don’t answer, it was a rhetorical question,” she continued before he could respond. “But I’m glad I came here, even if this place is utterly wretched and I hate spending this much time away from Mirlen and the children, because you deserve better than…” she gestured around her. “Anyway, you have work to do.”
Still frozen in place, Ondolemar watched the door shut behind Eolain. The strength of her reaction was worrying. What, in the names of the Divines, did she think he had just agreed to?