“I thought you could use a drink. You’ve been out here for hours.”
Elaine looked down, and saw Martin standing in the courtyard with a mug full of something warm—the steam curled in the chilled mountain air.
“How’d you know I was up here?” she asked with a teasing smirk and raised eyebrow. “I thought you were supposed to have your head stuffed in that book.”
He shrugged. “I needed the fresh air,” he said easily. “Do you want the tea or not?”
Elaine slipped off the roof of the stables, landing softly on her feet. She walked up to Martin—probably a little too close, but these days she couldn’t help but be drawn closer to his warmth—and took the clay mug from his hand, their fingers softly brushing against each other in the process. She hoped the cold helped mask the blush that threatened her cheeks.
She moved away just as quickly and sat down close to the steps that led to the main structure of Cloud Ruler, patting the ground to her left.
He sat beside her, just close enough for their shoulders to barely touch.
Wrapping the mug with her hands, she looked to him. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Martin hummed quietly. “I asked one of the patrols.”
Elaine smiled, looking toward the horizon visible past the walls. The sky was still purple with twilight, but quickly fading into the blackness. The night around them was quiet save for the occasional breeze or the clank of one of the Blades’ armor as they moved through their patrols.
A finger brushed against her temple. “You have a scar there,” she heard Martin murmur. “How’d you get it?”
She froze, caught between the memory of the wound and Martin’s gentle touch. Her face went completely red. “It… it’s complicated…”
He drew his hand away at her discomfort, and she found herself thinking, No, come back.
After a moment to collect herself, Elaine continued, “I told you once I was a member of the Dark Brotherhood.”
“It was almost two years ago,” she said, “not long after I joined. We found out there was a traitor. Our Speaker ordered me to investigate, and eventually I cleansed our Sanctuary. But we were wrong, the traitor escaped, and the Speaker was killed along with almost every member of the Black Hand. We managed to find the real traitor, a man by the name of Mathieu Bellamont. But not before he killed almost all of the remaining Black Hand and tried to kill me. In the fight he gave me this.” She thumbed at the scar, remembering how the blood at reddened her vision and the stench of iron coming off the corpses littering the crypt. Martin was silent.
“For my loyalty I was rewarded by our Unholy Matron,” she scoffed. “I was named the new Listener, but the damage was already done. Recruiting was a nightmare for months—apparently people get squeamish about joining up with assassins when your second-in-command allegedly cannibalized the previous second-in-command.”
Elaine looked to Martin, who watched her steadily with his bright eyes. He didn’t appear at all fazed by her tale.
“You did what you had to do, Elaine,” he said after a while. “I’m just grateful you lived to tell the tale of it all.”
She watched him in a daze, desperately looking for any sign of sarcasm or disgust. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it phrased quite like that.”
“We all have our dark pasts,” he replied easily.
If Elaine were anyone else in Tamriel, she might’ve had tears in her eyes at that. Instead she returned her gaze to the horizon. “I suppose so.”
There came Martin’s hand again, this time slowly taking her own in his. She held fast to the rapidly cooling mug in her right hand. “And this scar?”
She couldn’t help but burst into laughter—loud and unapologetic, in a way she hadn’t done for years.
“What is it?” Martin asked, the hint of a laugh in his own voice. What a beautiful sound, she thought in the back of her mind. “It certainly can’t be so humorous. These look like teeth!”
Her laughter renewed and she had to set down the mug or risk spilling the tea all over the two of them.
Elaine finally quieted several moments later, although she couldn’t keep the giggles out of her voice when she spoke. “My younger sister bit me when she was a toddler because I tried to bathe her.”
They met eyes for the briefest of moments but couldn’t stop the onslaught of laughter that came.
She was surprised to find that listening to Martin’s deep laugh warmed her more than the tea ever could.