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Cracking the Facade

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“I hear there’s a new recruit making their way up the fighter’s guild at an unprecedented rate” Raminus Polus remarked, and to anyone else the comment might have seemed offhand, a mere point of casual conversation.
The Arch Mage quirked an eyebrow from her position reclined on the bed. “Not much gets past you, does it?”
“Nothing, my dear”
The quizzical eyebrow flattened into a closed expression. “We shall see”
Raminus did his best to shake off the response, fully aware that there were depths to Reija’s past even he couldn’t find his way into without permission, and just as aware that he wouldn’t like what he found if she did let him in. His companion studied him for a moment while he processed the thought, only to turn back to the book in her hand when she tired of looking at him. She seemed to tire of him all too easily.
“So?”
She glanced back, almost as though she’d forgotten he was there. “What?”
“I was just wondering why the Arch Mage was wasting their precious time doing errands for the fighters’ guild. Not that I have anything against our weapon-oriented brethren, it just seems somewhat below your level”
“Well my role here hardly keeps me busy. I was bored and decided I would rise to the very top of another organisation”
Raminus hated to think how many organisations Reija was at the top of, but he’d snooped around her quarters at the university when she wasn’t there (which was always) and there were things in her chest he couldn’t imagine were easy to come across. He’d recognised some of the armour stuffed in there as that of the Grand Champion of the arena, something that had never come up in their conversation, even though he had seen her winning fight himself (he hadn’t known it was her at the time, though, true), and that was just the tip of the iceberg. There were specimens of plants he didn’t recognise, things that could only have been gathered from another world entirely, nestling among scribbled notes about shady meetings. Shattered Ayleid artefacts rattled around at the bottom, discarded among countless magical rings and necklaces, things he knew most of the scholars at the university would give limbs for a chance to study, chucked in as if they were nothing. There were weapons that terrified him, swords and hammers that glowed with a dull fury, just going near them made him feel unwell; arrows that literally sang with malice, letting out faint electric zaps or flaming crackles. Then there was the dark armour she wore almost like a second skin, and the even darker robes he’d seen her in, both of which made her terrifyingly difficult to see when she drifted into the shadows. Yes, there were secrets he didn’t want to know about.
“Another diversion, then”
“Something like that”
The dark elf’s attention remained on the book. It was rare she devoted it to him fully nowadays. A lot had changed since she first came to him, a new recruit still excited by her advancement and the dangerous missions he’d been forced to send her on.
She’d still been a long way from the top when she came back that fateful day, the horrors of her latest encounter still shining in her eyes, and Raminus found it impossible to tell whether it was fear or fading bloodlust that drove her into his arms. At the first touch of her dark lips on his he was lost. As he was vaguely aware of the glowing green of her beguile spell all around him he knew he’d never be the same, even after the magic wore off. She’d continued to rise through the guild and every time she returned from a mission she’d take him in her arms and remind him why he had given himself to this stranger with secrets and flaming red eyes.
He’d thought things would be better when she became arch mage, when his work and her bedroom were in close proximity, and for a while they were. As she explored her new position she hung around, taking him to bed with her as and when she pleased. She never found him unwilling. But slowly she was there less and less so that now he spent every moment hoping she’d come through the door but was almost alarmed when she actually did.
“Is that all I ever was? A diversion?”
She finally put the book down. “Yes. And no. I needed you to distract me from everything. But…”
“But?”
“You always seemed so unwilling to send me to do something, you always told me to be careful, said you hated putting me in harm’s way. I fed off that. Your concern hit upon something within me that I didn’t know was hurting”
That was an insight he hadn’t expected. “Does no one else care about your welfare?”
She allowed a small laugh. His innocence charmed her and she looked at him like one might a puppy who couldn’t work out why it couldn’t fit an enormous stick through a door.
“In the fighters’ guild they just tell you to go and hurt something. In the arena you’re expected to die until you’ve proven you’re more than capable”
“And elsewhere?” The question, indeed any question about her life, was unusual coming from his lips. There was just so much he didn’t think he was supposed to know.
“Elsewhere they don’t care about your wellbeing no matter how high up the ladder you climb. It is made intensely clear to you that you are no more than a pawn for higher players”
The shaky breath she took suggested that opening up had not been a part of her plan for the evening. A door had opened a crack and, without her meaning it to happen, Raminus had spied inside to the insecurities of a broken adventurer.
“Well for all that it may matter in light of the presumably many more powerful, more dangerous people in your life, this humble wizard, who rarely leaves his university, cares about you”
Something flickered in her eyes, it almost looked like… No, that wasn’t her style.
And yet…
“I care about you, Reija. Not because of your position or your power but because you are a person close to my heart”
There it was again, that same flicker of something breaking through the cold exterior. Pain. That was what it was. As though his declaration caused her an agony beyond the others she must always feel.
“Then you are a fool, Raminus Polus, for I am a monster beyond redemption”
It had been a long time since Raminus had seen the dunmer be so open, in fact it was possible she’d never been so vulnerable before him. Or before anyone, in the last few years at least.
“You are a lot of things, my dear, and many of them are likely not good, but you are not a monster”
“You have no idea what I’ve done, what I may yet do”
“And I don’t care. The things I do know you’ve done are good things, and I believe they define you just as much as whatever haunts you, if not more”
If she had not still been so very in control, as she always was, Raminus believed she would have sighed. As it was she pulled a face that said, ‘you have no hope of understanding.’
He finally decided to make his move, getting up from his chair across the room from the woman, the exquisite creature (for she could never be more or less than a beautiful creature) and crossing the distance between them to sit beside her on the bed. He waited for the unspoken permission in Reija’s eyes before he kissed her (he always had to have her permission).
It was just like the first time he’d kissed her, as it always was. Nothing like the first time she’d kissed him, though. When she’d first kissed him he had lost all composure and control, but when he’d finally plucked up the courage to initiate a kiss himself some days later he felt a surge of control, of power, as he felt the woman beneath his lips melt just the tiniest bit. Every time he made the first move he felt that same surge, even stronger now as he finally understood just how beyond his reach, beyond everyone’s reach, she was.
She tasted of wine and sweet rolls, which was hardly surprising since she seemed never to be without those things.
She let him kiss her, let him trail down and leave his mark on her neck, shuddering at the contact. Perhaps this was the closest she ever came to being safe. And yet, even now, her guard stayed up. She relaxed somewhat, true enough, but she was still coiled, always ready to spring into whatever action she needed.
He so wished he could take that burden from her, even if just for an evening. But she would never let him, and even as he laid her back and reverentially removed her clothes he knew she would never give up her façade. And the next morning, when she slipped away with nothing more than a sweet kiss to his sleepy lips, he lamented having let another chance to help her slip by.