Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Stormflyx
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11th Suns Dawn, early evening
Outskirts of Jehanna,
The Border of Skyrim and High Rock

Darkness was beginning to settle. The daylight slipping down behind the mountains leaving only a sky of thick clouds, and the fog that curled around the rocks of the region. Between each boulder of slate, thistle and wildflowers grew in abundance. Roots buried deep beneath the earth, settled and unfettered by the breeze and simply caressed by it.

The path was rugged and crunched underfoot, the air alive with the bite of pine and somewhere in the distance there was wolfsong. Nature's playground was a wild beast, untamed by the hands of man. Regular men did not dare set foot onto the rough paths. Women did not dare to look to them.

Carved into one such mass of rock was a cavern. Shaded by the trees but the orange flame that peeped out was indication of the life inside. Fjolte Soriksen eyed it from his vantage point in the tree. He'd scaled the bark with ease - huge hands taking careful, but fim hold to pull himself up. Now, he sat and ate. A skewer of meat, the warm juice sliding down his palm and to his wrist. He cared not. He was as wild as the land was, and yet there was an air of dignity surrounding him. His mane of hair a mass of dirty blonde piled into the mohawk of a barbarian, but no such rage sat in the deep wells of his eyes. He simply ate, and thought of his task.

To hunt down Jodane Lirrencel, a bandit who had dishonoured his employer by manner of a petty theft. But of course, it was never too late to pay for goods. Fjolte was here to collect that payment.

For three days he had tracked the bandit like a hawk hunts a field mouse through the long grass. He was unkempt, hungry, and wanted to return to his comfort in Jehanna, to please his lady. Nothing would please her more than a debt repaid, and perhaps something else could be found for her as an extra token of compensation for the trouble. He smirked at that. The smirk that flashed a feeling of excitement within him. He chewed at the last of the meat, wiping his chin with the back of a wet hand, licking his fingertips before pushing himself off the branch with ease.

The drop was high, but his height was enough to stop it from being too much, and he hit the dirt below near silently. Soft on his feet, softer in breath as he slowly began in the direction of the cave, the smirk playing on his lips. He had no weapon on his person, he was barely armoured but he knew whoever was in the rathole would pose no threat to him...

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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Hank
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Hank Dionysian Mystery

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11th of Sun’s Dawn, early evening, 4E201
Outskirts of Jehanna,
The Border of Skyrim and High Rock

Another hunter had approached the cave from the opposite direction.

Jodane Lirrencel was a man that was wanted by more than one party to answer for his crimes. With the bounty posting still stuffed into the pocket of his overcoat, Gregor Mercurius had followed the trail that the innkeeper outside of Jehanna had pointed him towards, which allegedly led to a cave that had been in use by a long and storied succession of bandits. Wherever there was an underground hideout, Gregor mused, there was someone unsavory hiding in it. His leather boots were soft on the forest’s dry earth and his eyes reflected the duskborne light with the color of old mahogany, searching the trail ahead for any signs of the promised cave. It wasn’t a given that Gregor would find Jodane there but it was the best lead he had, and he was hardly a natural at following the tracks of a man that didn’t want to be found. If this didn’t pan out, Gregor had already decided that he would leave this bounty to the professionals.

As he crested the latest hill in a series of hills -- for the border between Skyrim and High Rock was a particularly hilly and even mountainous area -- his eyes fell on a figure, broad-shouldered and long-limbed, dropping down from a tree and approaching… ah, there it was; a cave. The man was unarmed but the untamed hair and rippling musculature told Gregor all he needed to know about the danger the man posed. One thing was certain: it wasn’t Jodane Lirrencel. This was a Nord, or else Gregor would eat his gloves. He cursed quietly to himself and stuck to the shadows for a moment, deliberating on what to do. It wasn’t a surprise that someone else had been attracted to the same bounty. Or, rather, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Gregor fingered the grip of his bastard sword’s cruciform hilt, sheathed across his back as it was, but decided against drawing the weapon immediately. Perhaps the stranger and himself could come to an amicable cooperation. Half of a reward was still better than none of it, and he did not take kindly at all to the idea of coming to blows with another law-abiding citizen merely carrying out his duties.

And so, hands empty and held out in a universal gesture of non-threatening compliance, Gregor stepped into the fading sunlight. He was dressed in fine garb, dominated in color by red and black, with his dark hair swept back into a ponytail and his beard shifting slightly to convey the fact that he was smiling. It was hard to say whether the smile extended to his eyes, however, cast in shadow as they were by his powerful brow.

“Hail, friend,” Gregor said. “I don’t mean to startle you, but might I assume that you are on the hunt for a certain Jodane Lirrencel as well? If you are, I would like to request your cooperation in this endeavour.” He nodded towards the cave. “No telling what we’ll find in there. I’d feel much better if I had someone to watch my back.”
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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Hank
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Hank Dionysian Mystery

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The interruption had been a surprise, and Fjolte stood still for a moment before turning his head. His jaw square and strong, expression stoic as he eyed up the stranger before him. It wasn't unheard of for bandits to pull such a ruse, and after he had traced Gregor's outline his eyes tracked the surrounding area, for a sign of anyone who may have been with the approaching Imperial. After rather a long, and tense pause, Fjolte's eyes drew back to meet those of his 'friend'. They were dark and as mysterious as he was, but there was something in the air that put the Nord at ease.

He kept quiet still as he took slow strides towards the Imperial, his eyes narrow. There was a sword on the man's back, and he was dressed in good armour. "Aye…" he finally breathed with a nod, "aye I'll take your help…"

And then he smiled, his posture softened with it, and suddenly he seemed immediately less intimidating.

Gregor exhaled slowly, suddenly aware he’d been holding his breath while the Nord had sized him up. It was an unsettling sensation, being inspected and evaluated like that. But, truth be told, he had made the most of it and returned the favor. When the other man relaxed, Gregor was reasonably confident he had read his body language well enough to judge that his acceptance of Gregor’s offer was sincere, and that he did not have anything to fear from him. As such, the silversmith held out a gloved hand for the Nord to shake.

“Very good,” Gregor said with a nod and relief in his eyes, visible as he tilted his head back to look up at the man’s face. “The name’s Gregor Mercurius. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, mister… ?”

"Soriksen," Fjolte said with a light shrug before grabbing Gregor's hand in a powerful grip to shake. "Fjolte Soriksen of Rorikstead," he added - as Nords often did. Satisfied with the introduction, he turned back towards the cavern and then back to Gregor with a curious glint in his eye. "So tell me, what did he do to offend you…?"

“That’s near Whiterun, isn’t it?” Gregor asked. “I’ve never been but I’ve seen it on the map.” He paused for a moment, wondering whether the Nord would want to know his hometown in turn. “I’m from Bravil, myself,” he added, but quickly moved on from that topic to answer the Nord’s question. Gregor was smart enough to work out the implication: Fjolte wasn’t here for the bounty but for a more personal reason. He made sure that the buttons of the pocket containing the parchment outlining the offered reward were firmly closed while clearing his throat.

“Not me, personally. I’m here to capture him and turn him over to the authorities,” he said, and looked Fjolte up and down once more, leaving out some details deliberately. Details concerning gold, mostly. “Alive, if preferable, but I don’t think they’re very picky.”

"Close enough to Whiterun, aye…" Fjolte replied nonchalantly, running his fingers over the stubble on his chin - briefly imagining how he might look with a thicker beard like Gregor's. He was a majestic looking gentleman indeed, and while thinking of that, he missed entirely most of everything else he said. It wasn't until the word 'alive' was tossed into the air that Fjolte snapped out of it.

"Alive might be an issue… He might put up a fight, might slip and fall on the pointy end of that," he said, indicating to the sword on Gregor's back. "I need to teach him a lesson before he gets handed over to any authorities," he confessed, bringing his hands together to crack his knuckles. "Collect a debt."

“He might,” Gregor echoed in agreement, followed by a sigh. “Wouldn’t be the first time. Don’t worry, I won’t hesitate to oblige him if he decides he’s had enough of living. I’d just like to avoid any unnecessary deaths if possible.” His eyes followed Fjolte’s hands at the sound of the Nord’s large knuckles cracking, and then back up to his face. He looked quite serious about what Gregor could only assume to be the physical beating he was about to deliver. “What kind of debt, if I might be so bold?” Gregor asked, his curiosity piqued.

"Mr Lirrencel here had an agreement with my employer…" the Nord began to explain, now moving back towards the cave at Gregor's side. "He was offered a very reasonable sum, given half in advance… Well, some time passed and he never did honour his agreement…" He glanced sidelong at Gregor, "that sort of behaviour is taken very seriously. So, I'm here to collect that payment that was made in good faith. That's all…" He smiled, but it was more of a devious curling of his lips than the friendly beam from only moments ago. "I can't have my boss shown up by a petty bandit."

Gregor raised an eyebrow upon his realization that he had misjudged the fellow; he seemed like a wilder sort than the type to have something as mundane as an employer, and Gregor briefly wondered what kind of person could commandeer the services of such a proud Nord specimen.

“I see,” he said. “That sounds reasonable to me. I take it you’re operating under the assumption that Lirrencel has stowed his payment in the cave.” The prospect of more gold for the taking was tempting but Gregor quashed that thought immediately. There was no chance of seizing it for himself without having to go through the Nord. “In that case, since your quarrel with him is of a more personal nature…”

Gregor slowed his pace as they stepped in front of the cave’s entrance and gestured towards it. “After you. I’ll see to my business with him when you’re done. If it comes to a fight, I’ve got your back.”

If Gregor was having any thoughts of double crossing Fjolte, they were not detected by the Nord. He was trusting of people in general, and the Imperial seemed affable enough. "Well I appreciate that brother, and so you know, I have yours too." It had been some time since he had worked alongside someone else, at least someone that wasn't a bandit like the very one they were hunting. He was curious about the man. He seemed almost too proper to be here, collecting on a bounty of all things. He honestly looked like the sort to be indoors doing just about anything else.

As Fjolte approached the mouth of the cave, he made out the shape of a bandit sitting down, watching. Watching in completely the wrong direction, mind. A quick scan of the cave showed that there was a tunnel down, and so that meant that this poor fellow up top was in quite an unfortunate position should he choose to deny what would be a polite request. "Good evening!" Fjolte announced, the bandit turned his head especially quick, his mouth hung open into a gawping expression.

The Nord held up his hands, with no weapon in site he continued forwards, a smug grin on his face. "I'm here to see Jodane, just Jodane, just to get something that belongs to me." The smug grin remained, and the eyes of the bandit flitted between Fjolte and Gregor.

In a moment of absolute wisdom, he drew his sword and took in a breath, "never should have come here!" He exclaimed before rushing at them…

Gregor, standing a few feet behind and to the right of Fjolte, rolled his eyes. Instead of drawing his own sword in return, he was curious to see how his newfound Nord ally was going to use his fists, and limited his contribution to the defeat of the bandit watchman to a single flash of thunder magic, the bolt etching the air between Gregor’s outstretched hand and the man’s chest in painfully bright lines of lightning. The spell generally wasn’t powerful enough to kill anyone -- not counting those with hitherto undetected cardiac disorders -- but it would stop the bandit in his tracks long enough for Fjolte to do as he wished.

It had at least stopped the bandit in his tracks, dazed him enough that he dropped his sword. He was much shorter than Fjolte, there must have been a foot between them, and it pained him to have to do anything too violent to him. He was just an idiot, afterall. Not fit to be the watchman but tossed up there anyway. Fjolte simply sighed and sent a tightly closed fist into his cheek, avoiding the nose, but landing it in just the right way to knock him out. He fell down quickly. His legs didn't fold beneath him, he didn't stagger, he just fell backwards with a thud. The Nord sneered, feeling a pang of regret for it. "Sorry lad," he said with a shrug, before turning back to Gregor.

Seeing the man mould the elements in his hands was a surprise, maybe that sword was just a decorative piece. The fact he was a mage raised an eyebrow and piqued at Fjolte's interest even more. He might need to bring that up later - in any case, he was only finding himself with more questions, and less answers. "Come on, let's get down there," he said, waving his hand as he crept over the rocks and began his descent.

There was something decidedly comical about the single, well-placed punch and the spreadeagled posture the bandit subsequently adopted on the floor of the cave, and Gregor felt a mixture of amusement and approval at Fjolte’s non-lethal tactics. One surefire way to gauge the quality of a man was to see how he treated his enemies, after all. He was heartened to know that Fjolte wasn’t a rabid barbarian. “Yes, let’s,” he agreed, not failing to notice the way Fjolte looked at him. Gregor knew that it was difficult for strangers to get the proper measure of him and he considered it one of his strengths. Being underestimated was definitely preferable to being overestimated.

Descending further into the cave brought them to something rather like an antechamber, Gregor thought, for while the tunnel opened up into a wider cavern, he also spotted a path deeper into the underground grotto on the other side. More pressing, however, were the three bandits that jumped to their feet, yelling more incoherent battlecries while they armed themselves. Fjolte wasn’t even given the opportunity of brokering for peace this time. One of the bandits leapt over the table they had been playing dice at, axe in hand, and made for Fjolte, while another reaver, a Dunmer with dark gray skin and eyes the color of old blood, bore down on Gregor with ill intent. The third bandit, a Bosmer, had predictably taken up a bow and retreated towards the back of the cavernous chamber, keeping his distance so that he could try to pepper them with arrows.

Now that they were outnumbered Gregor thought it prudent to draw his sword and it left its scabbard with a satisfying rasp, the brilliant steel blade scattering the light of the torches across the walls. He wielded the bastard sword in two hands and maneuvered, surprisingly light on his feet for a man in such bespoke clothing, to keep the Dunmer between himself and the enemy marksman.

“This is the part where you fall down and bleed to death,” the dark elf hissed and locked blades with the Imperial.

With no time to worry about Gregor, Fjolte sprung to action, avoiding the axe the first time with a well-timed duck and roll. His movement was quick and as he came back up he swung a punch into the bandits back. He was a burly fellow - another Nord, his arms could rival Fjolte's if they really wanted to compare. "Come one now," Fjolte huffed out, his feet moving beneath him quickly, kicking up sand. The bandit might have been big, but Fjolte was fast. He dodged the heavy swings with ease, dancing around almost gleefully.

"Fuckin' prick," the bandit spat out, stamina fading fast. He wasn't going to manage to hurt his opponent with the axe, and so he dropped it, rolling up his own sleeves and balling his hands into fists too. Try as he might, he couldn't keep up with Fjolte, who was ready to launch back.

He performed a quick turn on his heel, lifting one leg up in a high kick that landed on the bandits chin with a meaty sounding thunk!. He staggered back only briefly before striking at Fjolte, his fist found the collarbone of his opponent, but it barely seemed to stop him. Instead, Fjolte countered back - taking advantage of the closeness of the bandit to swing an elbow. It whooshed into the bandits face, and his free right hand was then the fist that smashed into his nose. The crunch was unmistakable and the wound bled instantly.

The stream fell from his nostrils and over his bruised lip. He still carried on, wiping it away with a clumsy forearm.

Meanwhile, Fjolte circled him, attention drawn to the archer by the sudden and dull thud of an arrow fired into a table beside him. "Shit," he muttered, watching the dizzier bandit and then the sneaky Bosmer… It hadn't left him free of inspiration, that was to be sure. A second arrow missed him only just. The pressure was on, and so he started his movement again. The third arrow came quickly after, landing in the same spot. He was a good shot, the Bosmer - just not good with a moving target.

Fjolte counted, guessing that it would be on four… He guided the burly bandit, too concussed to know better right where he needed to be. "One," he lifted a foot…

"Two," he began a spin with momentum to get him off the ground…

"Three," his foot stretched out, the bandit was too dumb to know any better but this was a fight to the death...

"Four," he counted - the kick sent the bandit back and into the way of the arrow. It pierced his neck, the tip cleared to the other side.

"GREGOR," his voice boomed as he ducked again, out of sight of the arrows - they'd stopped now that the Bosmer realised what he'd done. "Some magic when you're able, brother…"

The Imperial and the Dunmer danced with each other, their duel undisturbed by arrows while Fjolte fought the other Nord, and Gregor could tell that his opponent was enjoying himself. The elf’s blade was curved and wickedly sharp, an exotic design that he didn’t recognize, and he wielded it with expertise. Gregor’s blade was longer and heavier, however, and he managed to keep the Dunmer at range while he sought for an opening, threatening to punish any overexertion on the elf’s part with a solid disembowelment. The circular stalemate erupted into a flurry of blows after a few seconds and Gregor winced as he felt the hooked edge of the curved sword nick a cut into his elbow -- but he was almost more concerned about the fabric of his coat than anything else.

“Why won’t you die?” the bandit spat and attacked again.

Gregor managed to deflect and parry the next series of attacks and scored a satisfying hit against his enemy, raking him across the chest with the tip of his sword. It drew blood but it wouldn’t be nearly enough to dispatch his opponent. The ice spike that followed, however, faster than the Dunmer could react, buried itself into his chin, tearing through the esophagus and piercing the brain stem. The elf dropped dead, abruptly reduced to little more than a sack of blood and bone. Gregor tried to ignore the cold fury that hummed in satisfaction inside of him.

That’s when the roar of Fjolte’s voice demanded his attention, and Gregor’s gaze followed, seeing the Nord take cover from the Bosmer’s archery. Of course -- the third bandit. The fight wasn’t over yet. Switching targets, Gregor cursed as the bow and arrow were trained on him. He swiftly dropped to the ground, the iron-tipped arrow whistling overhead, and retaliated with a volley of three fireballs that the Bosmer deftly avoided. He overturned and ducked behind a crate, creating cover from behind which he could easily stop the approach of either Gregor or Fjolte. Unless they worked together.

“On three?” Gregor asked, glancing sidelong at Fjolte from his prone position, still breathing hard from the duel with the Dunmer.

Fjolte nodded at him, he wouldn't say it out loud, but working like this had been fun for him too. He peeked around his cover, the Bosmer was still obscured behind flame. So that was thunder, ice, and flame that Gregor had at his command. The interest grew, and so did an idea, tickling at the back of his mind. "One…. Two…." He counted, glancing back to the Imperial on his, "three!"

Gregor scrambled to his feet and dashed towards the crate where the Bosmer was hiding behind, blade in one hand and a stream of fire coming from the other, like a mythical dragon’s breath, that would obscure the bandit’s vision and hopefully force him to keep his head down against the blistering heat.

Contrary to that expectation, however, something knocked the wind out of Gregor and he stumbled, falling to his knees after having crossed roughly half of the distance towards the crate. He gasped for breath and looked down to see an arrow sticking out of his vest and immediately felt with trembling fingers how deep the shaft had penetrated. Relief flooded him when he discovered that it had been stopped by the chainmail beneath his clothes and merely forced the air out of his lungs with the impact. He tore the arrow out of his vest and glanced back up, hoping that he had bought Fjolte enough time to seal the deal.

And he had. He'd closed the distance while Gregor sent his flames. Appearing behind the Bosmer, the flame surrounded Fjolte almost in a semi circle, the smoke obscured his face so much that he looked more of a menacing shadow than a man. The muscles that were packed onto his arms rippled as he moved, and sweat lined his brow as he forced his fist into the Bosmer's ribs - who responded with a loud yelp at the dull thud that knocked him down and over the crate he had been hiding behind, towards more of the flames. He scuttled over the dirt, wheezing as the bruising took its dark hold of his torso. "Gnnnurgg… Stop, please…" he begged, rolling onto his back, the bow and arrow had been left behind.

The wide eyes of the Bosmer archer met Fjolte's as he moved slowly towards him, dropping to his haunches over the bandit. The Bosmer then looked around him, at the Dunmer and at the Nord who had both met violent ends. "Please, I'll run away and won't come back, just don't kill me-" he begged tearfully, bringing his slender arms up to his face as Fjolte raised a fist.

He hesitated, closing his eyes tight, the weight of the decision heavy…

"Please don't hurt me, please!" He continued, sobbing.

Fjolte looked to Gregor, the Bosmer was in no position to fight back, but it wasn't all up to the Nord to make the choice. Gregor had been shot, and had it not been for his armour… That was a killing shot, sure as sure. He clenched his jaw and his nostrils flared, anger momentarily rushed across his countenance. "Should we?" He asked aloud, tone cold.

Taking deep breaths and absent-mindedly stroking his chest where he’d been hit, undoubtedly already bruising beneath his armor, Gregor got back up on two feet and plodded over to Fjolte and the Bosmer, his sword loose in his hand. His mind was telling him no, but the anger in his heart told him yes. For a moment, Gregor hesitated.

Then he shook his head. “Take his weapons,” the Imperial wheezed, followed by a coughing fit. He took another deep breath to steady himself. “Then let him go.”

Fjolte ran his hands over the Bosmer, removing only a dagger from him. After that, he stood up, taking hold of his collar to drag him up too. He kept a tight hold of it, even after he'd found his footing. With a strong tug the Bosmer was inches from Fjolte's face. "Run, take your friend out there with you. Don't be here when we leave…" That was when he let go, the Bosmer staggered again but ran as fast as he could and then he was simply gone.

"Let's find Jodane…" he sighed, a huff of anger left him and he felt his own adrenaline start to settle down, enough so that whatever had descended over him was pushed back. After a long exhale, he noticed that Gregor wouldn't be standing upright properly for a while after a blow like that. "That's got to hurt…"

“It does,” Gregor managed through gritted teeth. He looked down at his feet and closed his eyes, pressing the hand that had been massaging his chest flat against his vest. A beatific glow emanated from between his fingers, illuminating his features from below, and the soft chime of Restoration magic echoed through the chamber. A few seconds passed before the light faded and Gregor glanced back up. He rolled his shoulders and bounced up and down on the balls of his feet.

He smiled and nodded. “That’s better. I’ll get a real healer to look at it when I get back to Jehanna but it’ll do for now. Let’s go.”

With a tilt of his head, Fjolte observed yet another display of magic from the man. It was impressive really. Annoyingly so, almost. "Alright, fucking show off," he scoffed- meaning nothing by it, the slight chuckle in his voice indicated that. "You mages…" he sighed as he turned on his heel and headed in the direction of the next tunnel, following the torches on the walls. "If it's to Jehanna that you're headed, I'll take you to the best…" he said with a smirk, looking over his shoulder briefly at Gregor.

As they continued through the tunnel, they came across an opening, and the sound of running water could be made out. A stream, and a beautiful open section of the cave. The walls dampened and glistening in just about every shade of blue, catching silver too from the light sources. To the side as they rounded out of the tunnel, a high wooden platform had been built as scaffolding to reach the heights of the walls. It looked secure enough, and from underneath, Fjolte could hear hurried footsteps, back and forth. As he cast his gaze up, he could just make out the dark figure of a man pacing... "Jodane," he whispered.

Momentarily distracted by the natural beauty of the cave, Gregor only snapped back into focus when he heard Fjolte whisper. He turned to face him and nodded. The sound of the water meant that they could whisper without being overheard. “How do you want to do this?” the Imperial asked as quietly as he could. Fjolte was the one whose employer had beef with the man, after all, so Gregor decided to just follow his lead.

Jodane seemed preoccupied, and so Fjolte pointed to the staircase. "We go and have a chat with him, like gentlemen would," he said, matter-of-factly. As if he wasn't covered in smoke, dirt, and had blood on his knuckles. After all, what was the Breton going to do? He was simply a cornered rat now with nowhere to go and nothing to do but pay up.

He didn't really care if Jodane saw either of them, either he'd fight and Gregor would throw an ice spike - or he'd piss himself. Maybe both. As the soles of Fjolte's boots touched the stairs they creaked, but Jodane kept pacing. The higher they climbed, the more that could be made out of the man. He was frantically packing, muttering under his breath as he went. So much for him being a true bandit, he looked to be trying to escape…

"Oi," Fjolte announced as they made it to the top of the stairs. That got his attention at last, and he scrambled over his case.

"Shit, shit, shit," he cursed. Recognising the Nord at once, he took a step back. "Look, if this is about the job-"

"It is," Fjolte interrupted quickly.

"You see, I was stopped by someone and I couldn't - it was too risky, surely you can understand…." Jodane's beady brown eyes then fell on Gregor, a man he did not recognise at all. "You understand, don't you friend?" He asked Gregor, his eyes desperate for some back up.

Gregor scoffed. “I’m not your friend,” he said and crossed his arms over his chest -- making it evident he was not going to intervene on the Breton’s behalf. He was still sore where the Bosmer’s arrow had hit him and felt a sharp stabbing pain if he breathed in too deep, not to mention the rips in his vest and the sleeve of his overcoat. None of that served to make Gregor any more amicable towards the wanted man.

“I just watched him beat up your men with nothing more than his bare hands,” the Imperial added and gestured towards Fjolte with a nod. “If I were you, I’d do whatever he says. You’ve got nowhere left to run, Jodane.”

Having received no support, it was as if he resigned himself to whatever fate was coming to him, and instead of just keeping quiet and playing ball, he pointed a finger at Gregor, curling his lips into a snarl, "Deserine hires just about any trash now then," he spat. "Fine. Take the damn septims back," he stomped over to his case, rifling through it to find a heavy coin purse, which he tossed to the ground. "Take it and go."

Fjolte knelt to pick it up, examining it by the weight. It felt right enough. "Need interest, friend. You embarrassed my employer… You owe more than a bag of gold now." He slipped the coin purse into his pocket. "Oh, and he's not part of the company, he's here for business of his own… Ain't that right?" He looked over his shoulder to Gregor with a playful smirk.

“Quite right,” Gregor confirmed. He kept a straight face and produced the bounty posting that called for Jodane’s arrest from his pocket before tossing it at the man’s feet, unopened. “You’re wanted by more than just Deserine.” Whoever that is, Gregor thought to himself. “Once your business with my friend here is concluded, you’re coming with me,” he said and slowly lowered his arms back to his side, ready to call on his magic at a moment’s notice. “Dead or alive. Your choice.”

"I'm not going with you," Jodane responded defiantly, "and you're not taking a damn thing else from me." He slammed his case shut, and picked up his own weapon, a spear. He held it tightly, and all of a sudden he did look like a bandit. Just another bandit. "The interest can be the head of her favourite little slave," he hissed, thrusting the spear in Fjolte's direction aggressively. "Then yours too, for good measure," he snarled out at Gregor.

With the movement, the scaffolding began to wobble and creak, Fjolte hopped back out of the range of the spear, but Jodane rushed forward again…

With grim determination, Gregor brought the destructive power of his spells to bear and unsheathed his blade once more. A combination of spells and deft bladework overwhelmed the Breton quickly, before his spear could do any harm to Fjolte, after Gregor stepped inside of the long weapon’s reach. Jodane sank to his knees with a fresh burn mark on his face and Gregor’s steel bastard sword buried deep in his gullet. “Idiot,” Gregor hissed. The Breton looked up at him, lips moving feebly as he attempted to say one more thing, but the life faded from him with every weakened pulse of his heart and he expired before he managed to form the words. Gregor sighed, pulled free his sword and averted his gaze, looking to Fjolte instead. Jodane sank onto the ground, dead. “Do you have what you need?”

As Jodane fell to his crumpled heap, Fjolte made his move - popping the case back open to rummage through. Just clothes and books, “a moment, brother,” he said to Gregor with a wave of his hand as he continued his exploration of the available loot. He came across a crate, pulling it open to reveal what he had really been after…

“Well I’ll be damned,” he sighed, crouching down to gaze into the jewelry scattered over the bottom. There sat amongst what looked to be rather dull and unimpressive pieces of brass and crockery and various rings and bracelets was a necklace. Silver. It was thick like a choker, and featured a row of three sapphires. The one in the centre was the biggest, and the two at either side were smaller but still as beautiful in Fjolte’s eyes.

He didn’t have a trained eye, either. He couldn’t see that the sapphires weren’t truly flawless. He just saw a shiny piece of jewellery that might go a long way to making someone smile. He held it out for Gregor to look at too, “this will do…” he smiled, looking at Jodane one last time. “Debt is paid… As for you,” he glanced back to Gregor, his eyes as blue as the stones. “Take anything you’d like too."

Gregor's eyes widened at the sight of the hoard of jewelry spilling out over the wooden planks of the rickety platform, and he smiled gratefully when invited to partake of its looting himself. He knelt down beside Fjolte and glanced sidelong at the piece that the Nord had selected. It was obvious at a glance that the silver was an alloy, diluted with something else, and that the sapphires weren't of very high quality. Nevertheless, Gregor nodded in approval. "Very nice," he said, keeping his thoughts to himself. The silversmith rummaged through the loot, dismissing most of it as nigh-worthless kitsch, until his eyes fell on a subtle but unmistakable sparkle.

He held up the object to the light for a proper inspection. It was a ring, the gold band so old that it had faded into a colour approaching bronze -- nothing a little love and polish couldn't fix, however. More interesting were the small gemstones set into it. A row of garnets, mostly, but Gregor spotted what seemed to be three flawless diamonds in the center of the fixture. He turned the ring over to search for the maker's mark, but it had faded with age and was illegible. As it was, the ring's value was hard to gauge, but the diamonds… he could use those. Satisfied, Gregor slipped it into his pocket along with a set of earrings and a bangle that interested him because it might be of Argonian make, which would fetch a decent price on this side of the continent.

He straightened back up and looked around until he had spotted Jodane's spear. It would suffice as proof of identity for Jehanna's steward in order to obtain the bounty. "I think that's all for me," he mumbled and looked back at Fjolte. "You mentioned a healer?"

“Aye, back in Jehanna. The best hands around.” Fjolte replied, eyeing up the goods that Gregor took. The way he’d examined them was interesting, and yet he’d taken what looked to be a burnt out brass ring. Well, whatever, he thought to himself and gave a nonchalant shrug. He’d find whatever value he wanted in the goods, he supposed. “Those jewels are pretty nice,” he commented still, “selling them on are you?” he asked - trying to be subtle about it. He wanted to learn more about the Imperial, and he’d take that chance for knowledge where he could find it.

"I might," Gregor replied noncommittally. "Haven't decided yet." He glanced at Jodane's corpse and averted his gaze again. The man was a bandit and he deserved what had been coming to him, but it still felt wrong to chat about what to do with the man's belongings even before he was cold. "Let's get out of here."

The campfire provided a homely warmth under a canopy of trees that they had found, in the shallow mouth of another cave, closer to Jehanna. They had walked as far as they could manage from the bandits cavern before deciding to give up and rest for the night. It was cold, and the darkness so thick that they could barely have seen an outstretched hand in front of them were it not for the torches they carried - now pressed against the logs of their campfire - a makeshift spit hung over it with two rabbits being turned over sporadically, the smell tantalising and inviting.

Fjolte stretched back against the rock, watching them. He would happily have eaten them raw if it wasn’t for Gregor taking the time to prepare them properly. Just another of the contrasts between them. Gregor carried with him a gentlemanly patience that Fjolte simply didn’t possess. He supposed it was in some way one of the differences between Imperials and Nords in general. They were refined, cultured… Nords were hardy and tough and manners weren’t always the first priority. Still, he gave thought to Gregor’s brief stroke of violent malice in the cavern and a chill caught hold of his spine. Where Fjolte demonstrated a certain restraint, Gregor had a chilling finesse in his tactics.

“You really did have my arse in there,” he said, breaking the silence to distract himself from thinking about the food. “I’m grateful, been a long time since I’ve worked with anyone. It was a stroke of luck when you came my way.”

Gregor looked up from what he was doing -- putting his travel allotment of salt and spices back in their respective pouches -- and returned Fjolte’s gratitude with a nod. “Think nothing of it, my friend. The feeling is mutual.” He followed the Nord’s example and made himself comfortable against the wall of the cave’s mouth, on the other side of the spit, and observed Fjolte from across the flames for a moment. He was curious to see how the large man carried himself within the walls of Breton civilization, or more specifically, if he felt as much at home there as he seemed to do so out here in the wilderness. Gregor had become a little more accustomed to the sounds of wild animals and the pitch black darkness of night since he started traveling, but it was still sufficiently alien for him to feel not entirely at ease. He was just as grateful for Fjolte’s presence as he had been for Gregor’s aid in the cave. There was a reassuring aura of dependability and warmth about him. At least, there was now that he had accepted Gregor as a traveling companion. Gregor hadn’t forgotten how intimidating Fjolte had been during their first meeting.

“Forgive me for prying, but how did a man like you end up in the employment of anyone else?” Gregor asked, and then immediately hastened to add: “It’s just that you seem like such an independent spirit, especially given that you’re used to working alone. I mean no offense.”

The Nord had to think about that, as was evidenced by the way his brow creased as he pondered over it. "I…" he began, running a hand under his chin to scratch an itch. "I travel, and I needed some coin at some point," his hand waved, "I took on what I thought would be a simple bit of courier work, and well… that became another job, then another and I suppose… Just stuck with it," he finished with a shrug. "Still travel around mind you, just always find my way back here to help out. Still do my own things…" he explained, placing his hands into his lap.

"You're pretty far from Cyrodiil yourself, what waits for you in High Rock exactly?" Fjolte asked, drawing a knee up to his chest, relaxed.

It was a more mundane answer than Gregor had expected, or perhaps hoped to hear, but it was reasonable. Many people merely happen into their circumstances, after all. He pondered for a moment how much he should tell Fjolte about himself. It was generally wise for a silversmith to keep his occupation to himself. More than one of Gregor’s colleagues had been forced into servitude of a bandit gang in order to provide them with a steady supply of reforged jewelry to pawn off. That said, he quickly decided that he trusted the Nord.

“I’m a silversmith by trade,” Gregor said and held up his hands: three rings decorated his fingers, made from various materials in different styles -- though the gold band on his right hand stood out by virtue of its simplicity -- and pointed to the lobe of his scarred left ear, from which dangled a single earring.

“Made these myself. I’m apprenticed to a master in Bravil and by his reckoning, the time has come for me to become a master in my own right. To do that, I need to present an exquisite piece of my own design and construction, a proof of mastery, to Cyrodiil’s Guild of Silversmiths. Jehanna is Tamriel’s foremost producer of mithril. It’s a rare material, even more so today than in the past, so to present a proof of mastery forged from it would be…” He paused for a moment and shrugged with a smile.

“Let’s just say it would help my chances,” the Imperial finished and dropped his hands back into his lap.

Fjolte let that sink in, the amount of responsibility that Gregor had. The work that he did was so important and precise, the picture began to make so much more sense to the Nord, and he looked at the Imperial with a new respect, imagining him at work with stones and metals. “That’s…” he began after a long breath. “That’s one of the most impressive things I’ve heard,” Fjolte remarked truthfully. “I often wonder what my life could have been had I picked up a trade, but truth be told I’m just a farm boy,” he laughed. “I don’t have the patience for something like that, and probably don’t have the intelligent eye for design either…”

He rubbed the back of his neck, feeling somewhat flustered at his own… plainess in comparison. “But you know, I always just liked being out in the world discovering things, meeting people, cultures. Free spirit I am,” he added with a grin. “Simple man, simple needs.”

As if out of nowhere, a thought did occur to him — after hearing of Gregor’s background and trade, and he began to laugh again, slapping his thigh, “I don’t know whether that is something you should keep to yourself brother, when I introduce you to my good boss.”

The Imperial was bemused by the compliment. Fjolte seemed entirely sincere in his awe at Gregor’s craft, so he accepted the expression of admiration as gracefully as he could, but he would have thought he was being made fun of if anyone from Cyrodiil had spoken to him that way. Silversmiths were respected, to be sure, and it was a very decent profession, but nothing that would draw such a reaction from anyone. Hell, the Nords themselves were seen as some of the finest smiths in all of Tamriel. Gregor wasn’t sure whether to chalk it up to the man’s simple background or his racial culture.

“Thank you for the compliment,” Gregor said and rubbed his neck somewhat sheepihsly. “But I’m not a master yet. You should see what my mentor, Roderic, can do with gold leaf, or enamel, or… well, anything, really. His is the truly impressive work.”

He fell silent for a moment before he laughed softly. “You know, I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had done what you did. It is only these last few years, since I have been traveling beyond Cyrodiil’s borders for work, that I have developed a bit of a taste for adventure.” Gregor almost added that this was to be his last such outing, as promised to his wife, but he closed his mouth and merely shook his head. “Alas. It seems I have already found my calling.”

Speaking of, he raised an eyebrow at Fjolte’s last comment. “I thought you were taking me to see a healer?”

Fjolte’s eyes narrowed as he, again, found himself thinking on Gregor’s words. He had never known that gold could grow on trees. In all of his own travels, he’d never encountered such a plant. He expression glazed over as he thought about that some more, and he wanted to probe Gregor further on it, but something told him that it was for the best not to ask about it, for now.

“Oh, well — yes. She is the healer,” he said at last, his expression warming up at her mention. “She’ll fix you up. Just… About the silversmith thing… She has something of a reputation for that kind of finery so, unless you feel like being locked up in her dungeon making tiaras…” his voice trailed off, he ran a hand over his shorts, smoothing out a crease before laughing again. “Don’t tell her I said anything like that.”

There were two options here; either Fjolte did work for some kind of bandit queen, or he worked for an aristocrat. One was decidedly more troubling than the other. “Don’t worry, I won’t,” Gregor said and chuckled. He leaned forward to check on the rabbits while he thought about the implications of what Fjolte had said and it wasn’t until he had handed one of the succulent shishkebabed animals to the Nord and sat back down with his own that he said anything further. “Deserine, right? That’s what Jodane called your employer. A Breton name, if I’m not mistaken?”

He nodded in response, already tucking into his meal, mouth full of the rabbit. “Mmhmm,” he swallowed it down, a wonder that he even tasted anything. “Raelynn Deserine,” he said, before taking another bite and chewing again with all the etiquette that was to be expected of a Nord when given meat. “She’s a Breton alright, real beautiful one too,” he cast a glance to Gregor and shook his head - as if to indicate that both of those things were troublesome. He wiped his chin clean of juice. “But if anyone can get you Mithril in Jehanna…” Fjolte gave another of his carefree shrugs, chomping through the rabbit happily. “She’ll make you jump through flaming hoops though…” He stopped, lowering the skewer to meet Gregor’s eyes again, his own wide and regretful, “don’t tell her I said that either.”

“My lips are sealed,” Gregor promised. He consumed his own rabbit in a much more modest fashion, briefly lamenting the lack of cutlery and a proper table, but that was the reality of life on the road. He kept his bites small and dabbed at his chin with a handkerchief he produced from an inner breast pocket to prevent the juices from leaking into his beard. He was sure he looked like a bit of a poof to Fjolte, whose ravenous devouring of the rabbit made more sense given their environment, but he couldn’t help but be a little bit annoyed that the Nord made no effort to savor the taste. Gregor hadn’t seasoned the rabbits for nothing.

“So, a beautiful Breton woman who is both a healer and a… proprietor of rare goods, I suppose?” he asked and lowered his shishkebab to laugh softly. Having warmed up to Fjolte, the laugh extended to his eyes now and they shimmered pleasantly like a hot cup of tea on a dark autumn afternoon. “I think I’m beginning to understand why you’ve stuck around. She sounds formidable.”

“Like I said, she has a reputation.” Fjolte said, pressing a bone to his lips to draw out the marrow. “But… Well, maybe you’re right about that. I’d be lying if I said I… err,” he confesse, suddenly feeling slightly bashful — “if I hadn’t thought about us… doing some after hours work…” His eyebrow raised and a smirk appeared after all, Gregor seemed like a man's man, someone who knew the score. “You must know the feeling, sometimes we aren’t always thinking with this-“ he tapped at his temple and grinned boyishly in Gregor’s direction. “Simple needs…”

Gregor nodded knowingly with something boyishly mischievous on his features for the first time since they had met. It made him look younger and for a moment, the dignified beard and clothes looked a little out of place. “Absolutely. I can’t begin to describe my father’s relief when I finally settled down. The first thing he said was ‘thank the Divines, now all the men in town will stop pestering me about what you’re doing with their daughters!’ Looking back on it now, I almost feel bad for all the trouble I caused him,” he reminisced and shrugged. “Almost.”

“God’s, why am I not surprised you have a wife, eh?” He joked, setting a dry bone down at his side, his fingers working at the rabbit for the next. He pulled one away with an easy snap. “You must miss her being away so much,” he commented, without the awareness that, yes, he might really miss being away from his family. “Still, handsome man like you — I’ll fucking bet you got around.”

The smile didn’t leave his face but a cold stoicism returned to his bearing and Gregor fidgeted with his wedding ring. “Yes, well… yes, of course,” he said, and sighed. Fjolte was still for all intents and purposes a stranger and that meant that Gregor felt free to discuss certain things that he otherwise was forced to keep to himself. “A word to the wise, my friend: don’t put too much stock in marriage. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. At least, not necessarily.” His voice was low and layered with an undertone of hurt. He thought about Briar, her raven hair and ice blue eyes, and the tattoo on his forearm. It itched beneath his clothes.

“It was good at first -- great, really. But people change. Things… happen. Or don’t happen. And then they change.” Gregor took a deep breath and bit his lip. “Truth be told, I’m glad to be out of the house when I can. And this,” he continued, gesturing at Fjolte and the campfire and Jodane’s spear, upright next to him, “a little danger and adventure, pretending for a while to be someone else -- it’s exactly what I needed. So thank you, Fjolte, for indulging me.”

As Gregor spoke, Fjolte ate slower, a brief moment of politeness as the Imperial told his truth. For the first time, he felt sorry for the man, and that left a little patch of emptiness in his own heart for his new friend. “That’s rough… I’m sorry to hear it. You know, my parents have squabbles and they bicker. Maybe there’s a truth in that marriage thing. Gods know I’ve avoided commitment to a woman proper.” He ran his oily hand over his pants leg to dry them, to wipe them clean of the food. “I hope that you can find more peace and enjoyment on your travels, wherever they take you.” Fjolte wished he had a glass, or a bottle to toast it — to toast to their working together. He was glad to have at least helped him so far. “Maybe time apart will help you both find your way back to each other,” he said, an innocently hopeful tone in his voice.

The Imperial exhaled softly through his nose. He appreciated Fjolte’s sympathy, truly, but it wasn’t like the Nord could offer any truly helpful advice without knowing the full story, and that was something Gregor wasn’t keen to get into at length. “Perhaps. But squabbles and bickering are unavoidable. The real problem is when you no longer feel like the person you married is the person you’re with today.” He had looked away while he spoke but now he focused his gaze back on Fjolte. “That’s what I envy about your way of life. You meet people in a moment, you get to know them as they are and enjoy them that way, and then you move on. You’re spared from forming expectations and attachments to them and the pain it causes when those start to ring hollow, and the person you were used to spending your life with is... gone.” Gregor took another bite of his rabbit and made an effort to empty his mind. If Fjolte was paying attention, he would visibly see the stiffness in his shoulders relax and the tension leave his hands.

“Anyway, enough about that,” Gregor declared with a note of finality and gestured towards Fjolte. “You’re a traveler, so my question for you is this: what is the most interesting place you’ve ever been?”

“Aye, my way of life is all great and exciting until the day that one hundred bastard Soriksen’s knock on my door,” he said with an easy laugh and a sigh, smile dropping only slightly to hint that it wasn’t completely a joke. In answer to Gregor’s question, well, it was easy and his answer came without having to really think about it at all. “Elsweyr of course. It’s where I learned to fight the way that I do,” he swung a punch at the air to demonstrate, his finished carcass beside him. “From Corinthe to Torval through to Senchal… Beautiful place,” he sighed wistfully, staring up above him to the nights sky, before closing his eyes. “But, interesting can be found anywhere. It’s simply a matter of perspective.”

“Elseweyr,” Gregor echoed. Now it was his turn to be impressed. Bravil wasn’t far from Elseweyr’s borders at all but its status as a duo of vassal kingdoms to the Aldmeri Dominion meant that his father had always strictly forbidden any voyages there. And for Fjolte it must have been quite a journey. From the frozen tundra of Rorikstead to the warm sands of the Khajiit homeland was practically the full width of the continent. “They say the sun always shines there. I should like to see that, someday.”

“Oh yes, that it does” Fjolte said fondly through a yawn, “may your road lead to warm sands…” he smiled before sliding down the rock onto his back, eyes heavy lidded and sleep coming and going in waves. “We’ve quite a trek tomorrow friend, and I can-“ he yawned, stretching his arm out, “barely keep my eyes open… You should… Try to sleep too…”

It was endearing to see the big man slip into and surrender to drowsiness so easily. In some ways, Fjolte was like an overgrown child, but Gregor wasn’t sure if that was a fair comparison to make -- or if Fjolte had merely unlocked the same secret to carefree living that children possessed. “You’re right, sleep well,” he said and finished the last of his rabbit before settling down on the bedroll he’d already laid out beforehand. For the first time in a while, Gregor drifted off to sleep without discontent gnawing at the edges of his mind.
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The Long Well was an inn situated on the outskirts of the centre of Jehanna, as close to the docks as it could have been. It was old, but had been built strong. Thick beams held it upright through tumultuous storms, and it’s foundations had always been able to withstand a brawl. It was a respected establishment, and while it didn’t have the polish of the inner-city inns of Jehanna, it certainly had the most charm.

The interior walls were painted in a crisp white, and burgundy velvet had been the choice for the fabric of the curtains that hung over the impressive bay windows - each with a seat built in. On many an occasion, a window had been broken - but the townspeople and even the rowdy sailors from the harboured ships always had the decency to front the bill. The Long Well was a respected establishment, after all.

That clientele always seemed to vary. From the artistic types to families and then to shadier individuals. One mainstay, however, was the witch in the largest suite. A talented healer who simply wanted a decent enough room to ply her trade - to treat the infirm, sick, and sometimes grievously wounded. The proprietor of The Long Well had been the only one happy to allow her this. Since Raelynn Deserine had taken long-term board, he’d seen more customers - and better behaved ones at that.

He was always slightly curious as to how she paid for her suite, and the fine clothes that she wore — amongst other things, but as long as she slipped him those septims regularly and on time, he turned a blind eye to anything else she may have been conducting under his roof. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, in that respect.

It was a bright and clear day, Raelynn observed as she looked out of the window at the sea view of her suite - standing over a turquoise vase, of Hammerfell style. She paused to take in the sight of it, her workspace near silent save for the sound of the wooden floorboards being brushed behind her. She let a lily fall into the vase, and she looked at it, tilting her head from side to side, before deciding to shift it slightly to the left, gently curling the petals between her thumb and forefinger.

Everything was so clean. Her desk had only neatly arranged papers and a quill and ink pot sat upon it, a small golden statue of an eagle as a paperweight. A display cabinet sat up against the wall opposite to a decadent hearth - filled with various silverware and tea sets. A vase of roses brightened it with colour and a light scent. Above the hearth was an impressive piece of taxidermy, a stags head with his antlers completely intact and unblemished. An alpha if ever there was one, his glass eyes watching over the room. Her four-poster bed was hidden behind a fold out partition of mahogany frame and a thick, ivory paper as the screen. Brush strokes of paint depicted autumn branches over the three separate screens.

None of the furniture really seemed to match the rest of the inn. It was all her own, and proudly so too.

Behind Raelynn, was a younger woman in a simple garb, on hands and knees working the dust out of the floorboards with a dry brush. She seemed perfectly content to do so, only stopping every now and again to take a glance at the woman in the window, arranging her flowers as she so often did. She had known the Lady to spend hours on it. How it must be to have such free time to amuse herself with what seemed like a purely cosmetic hobby.

But, she supposed it was to be expected, for Raelynn was a vain and cosmetic woman, that much could be said even just by how she dressed. Today, forest green velvet leggings which hugged at her lean legs. High waisted, cinching at her womanly middle until they met the soft cream chiffon of her frilled shirt. It was such a delicate garment - she knew this because to launder it was always an anxious experience. Yet it looked so good on the lady, just sheer enough to see her skin underneath, and the lining of her undergarments. She got back to brushing, and Raelynn continued to arrange the lillies, one by one, petal by petal.

Fjolte practically stumbled through the doorway of The Long Well, his legs aching, and back even more so. It was usually quiet at midday, but today there were several patrons enjoying a hot meal, which was absolutely torturous for him and he groaned as the scent wafted up to his nostrils. Pheasant roast. It had to be, he could make out the aroma of the crisped potatoes in a roasting pan, and of the rosemary heaped into the gravy turrines. He wanted nothing more than to kick of his shoes and order the biggest plate imaginable, but he had a bag of coin — and an Imperial in need of some assistance at his side.

He gave the proprietor a nod of acknowledgement before heading to Raelynn’s suite, Gregor behind him. “Alright, stand up straight and don’t stare…” he whispered, rather ominously before knocking at the door.

From inside, Raelynn, still occupied with her flowers lifted her head only just so at the familiar rhythm of the knock. “Shona, answer that. It’s probably Fjolte.”

The younger woman did as was told, dragging herself up from the floor with a happy smile all of a sudden. She smoothed down her apron and hair before approaching the door and opening it carefully, making sure to look at the floor, and not directly at the Nord - lest she start to blush again like the last time. Only today, there were two sets of feet in the doorway.

“Raelynn,” Fjolte said in as bright a voice as he could manage, stepping inside, giving Shona smile - tempted to ruffle her hair but since he wasn’t alone, he thought better of it.

She turned from her vase at last, looking over her shoulder at him, catching the figure beside him, eyeing him up and down quickly with her piercing eyes, outlined with a black kohl. “You’re back,” she said cooly - turning to walk to her desk, flicking a section of her hair back over her shoulder, it was like white gold in the midday sun. “With a friend?” she added with inflection as she took her seat, looking at the Imperial once more, waiting for his introduction.

One thing became immediately apparent: Fjolte was anything but a liar. Raelynn Deserine was one of the most beautiful women Gregor had ever seen and he had to consciously replay the Nord’s advice to him in his head to get himself to stop staring at her -- from her pale blonde hair to her glacial eyes, so much like Briar’s and yet so much more intense, and from her gorgeous, expensive clothing to the womanly shapes visible beneath the sheer fabric. Years of experience in dealing with high society clients had taught Gregor the skill of keeping his face inscrutable, however, and he stepped forward to introduce himself without betraying anything.

“Gregor Mercurius, my lady, at your service,” he declared and bowed his head and bent his knees in the Imperial curtsy. Having seen how the Breton decorated her room and the way she carried herself, Gregor was beset upon by a powerful compulsion to make the most sophisticated impression upon her that he could.

Simultaneously, he had to suppress a laugh -- now he really understood why Fjolte had stuck around for as long as he had. He straightened back up with a respectful expression on his face and placed a hand over his heart.

“I apologize to barge in unannounced on the coattails of your associate, my lady, but he informed me that you are a healer of some skill. Jodane Lirrencel was wanted not only by yourself, but also by the lord’s steward for his crimes. Master Soriksen and I happened upon each other while we were on the man’s trail and collaborated in bringing him to justice. One of his bandits caught me in the chest with an arrow, unfortunately. It did not pierce my chainmail but it’s caused an awful bruise and my lungs still hurt when I breathe, so… I was able to alleviate the worst of it, but I thought it prudent that an expert such as yourself take a look at it,” Gregor explained, noticing about halfway through that he was being much more verbose than he would have liked -- but at that point it was too late to stop. He finished with a smile and clasped his hands behind his back. “Thus, my presence here today.”

At Gregor's side, Fjolte raised a brow - and suppressed a laugh too. Gregor was a man's man alright.

Raelynn however, watched Gregor with a keen eye, listening to his words - paying attention to his accent. As much as she could do for looking at him. She kept her own expression as intense as always, but something about the dirt on the otherwise clean man before her had piqued her interest. His rugged shape, paired with the neat and somewhat noble style of his facial hair was enticing. "Well, Mr Mercurius, if you were as helpful to him as you say then helping you with an injury is the least I can do…" she said at last, having fully drank in the sight of him.

Fjolte watched as they both locked eyes, and his own brow furrowed slightly. It would never have occurred to him to curtsey like that, and while the two were occupied, he stretched a leg forwards as if to practice such a thing before giving up with a resigned sigh as quickly as he'd attempted the fancy maneuver. "Got the four hundred back," he interrupted, letting the bag drop with a heavy thunk onto Raelynn's desk.

"And Jodane?" She asked, without looking at either Fjolte or the coin.

"Gregor finished him off," Fjolte answered, "he'll not be a bother to anyone else."

“He resisted arrest,” Gregor further elucidated, briefly glancing from Raelynn to Fjolte and back. He had not expected her to ignore the Nord like that and wondered if there was something the man had done wrong, or if it was because of her interest in himself. He wasn’t a stranger to female attention but the way her gaze lingered on him caused his pulse to quicken all the same, though it didn’t feel too dissimilar from being a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. She carried an authority that was far beyond her years.

"The troublesome ones always do," she replied to Gregor, before rising from her seat to take the coin purse. She let it sit in her palm, and she raised a brow - watching Fjolte as she did before there was an uptick of a smirk on her lips. "This is more than four hundred, you must have scared him…" she smiled, her eyes sparkled in Fjolte's direction before she walked to the display cabinet, coin in hand.

"Shona, go run Fjolte a hot bath upstairs, and have a meal brought for him," she flashed a look to the young maid, who simply nodded. She knew what that meant, and her cheeks flushed pink. "You both did well, then. You'll both be adequately remunerated for your efforts." The drawer clicked shut and she moved back to her desk, placing her palms flat on the surface. "Go eat, get clean-- I'll see to our friend here."

Now dismissed, Fjolte gave Gregor a nod and a pat on the shoulder before following after Shona.

The blush on the maid’s cheeks was telling, and Gregor could not blame her. He didn’t doubt for a second that he would have had quite a crush on Fjolte as well, if he was a woman. There was little not to like about the Nord. He returned his focus to Raelynn and thought about what she said; if she meant more than just her healing when she said ‘remunerated’ , there was an opportunity here to be paid by her and the steward both. If that were true, this was turning out to be quite the lucrative adventure.

“You have my gratitude,” Gregor said and inclined his head. That said, he cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows inquisitively. “Should I remove my coat and vest, or…?”

“That would certainly be preferable, Mr Mercurius,” Raelynn answered, stepping around the desk to face him. She took care in rolling up her sleeves, folding the frills of the delicate sleeves back and tucking them away - revealing the equally delicate skin of her wrists. Then, the Breton ran her thumb over the tips of her fingers on her left hand — the familiar glow of restoration magic had formed there in the warmth left behind. “Take a seat, and I’ll examine you,” she said, matter of factly - pushing an armchair out from under the desk with her foot as she leaned back onto it comfortably, tucking her hair behind her ear. A diamond stud twinkled in the sunlight that poured in from the window.

Gregor did as she asked and stripped down to his undershirt, placing his overcoat, vest and leather, mailed cuirass over the back of the chair that Raelynn had provided, and rested his sheathed sword against it, before sitting down himself. He unbuttoned the shirt so that she could properly inspect his chest and tried to avoid looking at her too much. Now so reduced to a single linen garment above the waist and just his pants and boots below it, Gregor’s muscular physique was revealed. Forged through years of hard work, plenty of exercise and good eating, he still wasn’t as bulky as Fjolte, of course -- a nigh on impossible task for an Imperial -- but it was clear that there was strength in his arms and the broadness of his shoulders. Unlike a blacksmith, however, Gregor’s hands were not covered in calluses and he was mostly free of blemishes.

When he rolled up his sleeves for good measure he re-discovered the cut he had sustained on his elbow earlier in his duel with the Dunmer and mouthed a surprised aha. “I’d forgotten about that,” he muttered, before looking up at Raelynn. “Don’t worry about that one, my lady, I can heal it myself. It’s the chest that concerns me.”

She held him under her gaze as he stripped down, and sat down. Her expression was unimpressed, but inside she felt the opposite. He was stunning, in his own unique way. He looked like he could carry plenty and hold his own in a brawl, and for a split second she imagined how it would feel to be held in arms like that. But only for a second. Something else played on her mind, and with Fjolte and Shona out of the room, she’d got the Imperial in as compromised a position as she could have.

She pinched at her chin, and something in her countenance changed, the arch of her brows appeared more severe, and the ice in her eyes was more chilling. She lifted a leg, and brought her knee to rest on the arm of Gregor’s chair. Raelynn moved closer to him, unafraid of whether he would bite — perhaps she knew that he wouldn’t. “Why did you follow my associate?” She asked in a quiet voice that sat on the fringes of seduction and threat, her finger pressed against the cut on his arm, a pointed nail sat on his skin at the edge, it wasn't clear whether she was threatening to dip into the wound, or close it just as quick.

The abrupt change in atmosphere wasn’t lost on Gregor and he was caught between enjoying the tantalizing physical closeness and the twinge of apprehension that followed immediately after. If she was just a Breton healer and a businesswoman he had nothing to fear from her, but… that was not how she was posturing herself. Gregor tore his gaze from the leg she had placed across the armrest of his chair and looked up at her eyes -- so bright and so sharp that his breath briefly caught in his throat.

“For healing, like I said,” Gregor answered cautiously, his brow slightly furrowed. “I needed to be in Jehanna for Jodane’s bounty either way, so Fjolte offered to bring me to you.” All inclination for formal address melted away in the face of the tension in the room. “Why?” he ventured, finding his nerves. “Are you expecting someone with malevolent intentions?”

She blinked slowly, the finger against his arm releasing a steady stream of magicka since his answers were to her satisfaction. So far. "Always," Raelynn answered, staring deep into his rich ebony eyes. The finger traced his cut slowly, and she pulled back only a few inches. "Were you following my associate to Jodane's hideout? Was it really a… chance meeting?" It was clear that she didn't trust the Imperial with his particular style of armour, dress, and sword. He looked too out of place, and the story seemingly too bizarre for the already overly-cautious Raelynn to take him at his word. At least not without toying with him first.

The way she said that word -- Always -- sent a chill down his spine. Gregor could tell that she meant it. Then again, it stood to reason that a woman in a business that required hunting down bandits to retrieve payments probably had to worry about such things. Now understanding her need for caution, Gregor relaxed a little and did his best to mollify her. “Yes, it was. I don’t know how Fjolte found the cave. I followed the directions as given to me by an innkeeper outside the city walls. When I got there,” he explained and smiled at what he was about to say, “Fjolte dropped out of a tree. Like a cat. I was worried that he would spell trouble for me at first, but he was amiable to my request when I asked for his cooperation. He can corroborate that, if you wish.”

"Fjolte is trusting to a fault…" Raelynn said with a sigh, finishing up the work she was doing on his arm. "He'll corroborate the story, and then embellish it, and then embellish it some more," she clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes. "But fine." Her eyes fell to his chest, pushing away as much of the linen fabric as she could with a light touch, she felt his heart beating faster than a heart should. What was it that was making it race, she wondered, trying not to smile at that. "Definitely an arrows work…" she muttered, drawing a finger across the bruising. His features and accent were unique, that much was true, and she knew where to place them. "Why are you chasing his bounty? I deal with bounty hunters and… You don't fit the usual description. There aren't so many Nibenese hunters around here…" Her words were still somewhat accusatory, but there was genuine curiosity there too.

The Imperial smiled at the way she talked about Fjolte. “Don’t be too harsh on him, he speaks of you very fondly,” Gregor lied, trying to do his new friend a solid. Her further questioning was to be expected and, quite honestly, deserved. Anyone with any sense would be wondering what a man like him was doing hunting down bandits in caves. “My father taught me that it is every able-bodied citizen’s duty to defend the Empire against those who threaten its people and work to undermine its society,” Gregor explained and shifted slightly in his seat. “And I need the septims,” he admitted. “But you’re right, bounty hunting is not my trade. It’s just something I do as a… hobby, I suppose.”

"Dangerous hobby," she remarked, removing her knee from the chair the more that Gregor's story made sense to her. "A noble hobby, but dangerous…" Raelynn then brought her attention to the scars across his cheek, being so bold as to hold his jaw in her hand to run her thumb beneath them. The long scars, claw marks of some kind. She wasn't one for apologising to anyone, but she gave him a warmer expression and a softer voice; "I just wanted to be sure, it's nothing personal."

Her hand got to work on his chest, and she looked away completely, turning her face to the stag head above the fireplace. "What is your trade then?" She asked finally, curiosity getting the better of her once more.

The tension had been so palpable that when she placed her hand under his jaw Gregor had to resist the sudden urge to lean into it. He tightened his grip on the armrests with both hands to steady himself, the sensation of his wedding ring pressing into the wood reminding him of what waited for him back home. As Raelynn looked away from him he blinked a few times, as if to clear his mind, and he settled more comfortably into the chair.

It didn’t last very long when she placed her hand on his chest. Breathing in her scent -- flowers of some kind -- he answered her question by bringing his own hand up to the side of her head and he brushed his thumb against the diamond stud that pierced her ear. “I’m a silversmith,” he said softly, Fjolte’s advice entirely forgotten. “Apprenticed to Roderic Mero of Bravil. Is this elvish?” he asked and switched his gaze from the diamond to Raelynn’s profile, his eyes tracing the outline of her nose and her lips.

She turned back to him at his touch, or was it the words? Both were of interest. Something about him reaching to her ear was… Intimate, in a way she wasn't sure that she was comfortable with. Raelynn set to remind him that he was not in control by taking his hand and setting it back on the arm of the chair, pressing firmly down - as if she was regretting not binding him to it. "You have an astute eye, yes, it is elvish."

She released her grip from his hand, but not her gaze. "A silversmith from Bravil in Jehanna. Why is that?" The hand on her chest grew softer, brushing in soft circles around the spot where the arrow made contact. Slow, slow circles.

Gregor knew he had to apologize for the transgression. Not just for politeness’ sake, but for his own sake, too. He had to make it clear that he didn’t mean anything by it. He was a married man, after all. He had no business touching women like this.

But he didn’t. He kept his hands where she wanted them but he held her gaze evenly. “Mithril,” he answered. The way her fingers were circling on his chest made him want to look, but he cocked his head at Raelynn instead. “In fact, that was another thing Fjolte told me. You’re the woman to ask about obtaining some of that.”

Raelynn's lips parted slightly, as if she was about to say something but instead hesitated. "I can get you anything you want," she said after a pause. "For a price." There was a smugness in the way she said it, perhaps pride in her business and in that she could, or maybe it was because she had a carrot with which to dangle in front of Gregor now. "What are you willing to pay for what you want?" She asked, quieter now - her magicka had stopped, and now her hand was just resting against the contours of his chest, lingering there. Holding him in place.

Fjolte had warned him about that too, so Gregor wasn’t surprised when Raelynn raised the question of what it was worth to him. He was impressed by the way she went about it, however. It was obvious that Raelynn knew exactly what her strengths were and she was employing them artfully. Even being consciously aware of how he was being manipulated was little defense against it, and Gregor took a deep breath, his inflating chest pressing back against her hand.

“Its street value, insofar as mithril has one… but I’m open to suggestions,” he said and patted a hand against the blade that rested against the chair. Gregor knew that mithril was more expensive than he could afford with the septims he had on him. “If you need another helping hand in your business, my sword is available too.”

Without warning, Raelynn moved away from Gregor, taking her hand off of his chest, making her way to the otherside of her desk. "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours…" she said, stealing a glance at him, relaxed in the chair with his shirt open like that. The dark stranger, so apparently dangerous and yet…

"I shan't need your sword… But you, actually." Raelynn said, pinching her own chin again. "I have a business deal to close. A very, very important one." Normally, such things brought her joy, but there was caution surrounding this particular venture and that was clear in the seriousness with which she spoke. Whatever fire had been between them moments ago was dying embers now. "You're as refined a man as I'll find, willing to work with me. If you attend this business meeting with me, and if the deal is finalised. I'll give you your mithril."

Being left without Raelynn’s physical presence was like somebody opening a drafty window and blasting him with cold air. Gregor became abruptly aware of himself -- painfully so, even. Gritting his teeth, he checked his chest and found that the bruising had significantly reduced and he realized that the deep breath he’d taken earlier hadn’t hurt him. Satisfied in Raelynn’s work but disappointed in himself, Gregor buttoned his shirt back up while he listened to the Breton’s proposal.

He fell silent for a few seconds to contemplate it when she was finished. There was a lot she wasn’t telling him and Gregor questioned whether it was wise to involve himself so directly in her business affairs. Wasn’t it safer to stay on the periphery and remain a tool for her to use, like she did with Fjolte? Then again, taking arrows to the chest wasn’t particularly safe either. The Imperial hoped that it was safe to assume that a business deal would involve a great deal less violence.

That begged the question: what did she need him for?

He saw no reason not to ask, so he did. “What do you need me for, my lady?” Gregor got to his feet as the appropriate amount of formality returned to their interactions. He began the laborious task of putting his multi-layered outfit back on and added: “My father and my brother are merchants, so I do know something about conducting business, but I doubt it is anything you don’t already know yourself.”

"I need you to… Be my accessory. Make me look good," anyone else might have felt embarrassed to say such a thing, and there certainly was no implication in her words that she didn't already look good, of course. "Keep an eye out for trouble, don't let me drink too much…" Raelynn's chin pointed downwards as she reached for parchment. "We won't be on land, per se. It's a formal affair so good grooming is an absolute necessity. I'll provide attire for you, of course…"

As her fingers turned over the pages on the desk she chuckled to herself. "You know business, you know high society. Businessmen, nobles, at events like this they generally bring along their wives - to show them off, and also to display a certain image of themselves. I need that image too…" Raelynn finished, watching for Gregor's reaction. "Just one evening, and the mithril is yours."

He’d never expected to find himself on the receiving end of such a request. Gregor wasn’t sure whether he should be amused or offended, or any number of things. Then again, there was sense in her reasoning. “Don’t let you drink too much,” he repeated as his arms filled out the sleeves of his overcoat and he chuckled while he adjusted the lapels. “Somehow I feel like that might be the most challenging objective about this whole task.” He took another deep breath, relieved that he could do so without feeling any discomfort, and clicked the heels of his boots together. “Very well, my lady, I will accompany you. When is the occasion? Do you need my measurements?”

"No. I have a tailor in town, speak to him and tell him you're working for me, he'll have something in your size. Two nights from now, meet me back here and we shall travel there together." She gave him another look, now that he had dressed before pointing a finger up as she remembered something else.

"I almost forgot," she moved to the drawer with the coin purse, opening it with a click again. "I don't know how much your fee is for ridding me of dangerous criminals," she began - the detail that it had been Gregor who killed Jodane was not lost. "But… with my services taken into consideration, this should be more than enough I hope." As Raelynn spoke, she quickly counted and bagged a pile of septims, carrying it over to hand to the man.

Not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, Gregor accepted the bag of septims without weighing it. “Thank you,” he said and curtsied again. “Your gratitude is most appreciated. Two days from now,” he reiterated. It was nice to know that he had that much time to himself, and some unexpected pocket money to entertain himself with, without feeling like he was wasting it in any way -- Raelynn was his ticket to obtaining the mithril, after all. With that, he turned around and made himself scarce.

As soon as the door closed behind him and he was alone in the hallway of the inn’s upper floor, Gregor exhaled slowly and rubbed his forehead. “Be careful around her, you damned fool,” he whispered to himself.

Now that evening had swept over Jehanna, the streets were lit by torches in a line, and the guards made their patrols. Also on a patrol of his own, was a freshly groomed, freshly washed Fjolte. His beard trimmed, the messier lengths of hair clipped and combed. It was soft now, dirt and grime stripped from it. Styled in a tight bun. He grinned as his idle hands squeezed it while he paced the streets like he was looking to kill time.

He had dressed himself in a relatively plain khaki linen shirt, covered by an equally plain black leather jerkin, tucked into some new earthy brown trousers that fit him well. Women seemed to love a man with a sharp appearance. That he had definitely noticed when he had introduced Gregor to Raelynn earlier. His usual carefree dress was fine enough, but it was always stylish armour that garnered the attention and interest of the fairer sex right off the bat. At least that was the case in places like Jehanna.

It was that very observation that had led Fjolte to change his style, just for a night - taking a leaf out of Gregor’s book, perhaps.

He was a man on a mission and with a generous bag of coin from a good day’s work just waiting to be spent away. Or, in this case, drank away. He knew exactly where he was headed, and he made a sharp turn on the cobblestones in the direction of a more inner-city tavern, The Thirsty Frog. The Well was a good enough place, but he quite felt like being free tonight and to do so under Raelynn’s nose wasn’t the best idea. There was that, and also that The Thirsty Frog had the best lamb hotpot this side of Rorikstead.

As he stepped in, he stretched his arms out and his lips pulled into a smile at the side, “I’m home,” he breathed out, audible only to himself, rubbing his hands together as he approached the bar. “An ale, a whisky, and a lamb hotpot my good lady,” he said, dropping septims into the outstretched hand of the barmaid. She was a pretty young thing. Auburn hair and dazzling green eyes - curves in the right places that hooked him in straight away. “You got it, sir” she replied, giving him a polite nod as she took the septims. “Take a seat, I’ll bring it right over.”

As he took his seat in the corner, his drinks were brought out first. The barmaid placed them down for him he offered her a wink which she seemed to enjoy. The auburn haired Breton then walked away with a giggle and a wiggle in her step. He made a note to perhaps talk to her later, that’s if he could remember her at all. Down went the whisky in one - the heat in his throat like a flame that immediately added gravel to his growl. He placed the empty glass down, and picked up the ale - that one he’d take his time with.

Not too long after, by fortuitous coincidence, the door to the Thirsty Frog swung open once again and none other than Gregor Mercurius stepped across the threshold. The damage to his clothes had been mended, his beard had been oiled and trimmed to perfection, the dirt and grime of their underground bandit-battle was washed away and his pouches were much heavier with gold than just yesterday. Bringing Jodane’s spear to the city’s steward had seen him rewarded with another one hundred fifty septims. The coins that clinked with every step saw the ghost of a smile play around his lips all the way from his rented room down to this watering hole. It had been a good day.

The heavy footfall of his boots on the wooden tavern floor turned many a head in his direction and Gregor felt their eyes lingering on his outfit and the large bastard sword across his back, but he paid them no mind. The Imperial wasn’t averse to making an entrance when he was in a good mood. He kept his back straight and his chin up while he sauntered to the bar and he placed a handful of septims on the counter, fixing his raptorian gaze on the auburn-haired barmaid. He looked like a bird of prey inspecting his meal for a second before his eyes softened and he smiled properly. Normally, he wasn’t much of a heavy drinker but he felt like he needed a stiff drink after his encounter with Raelynn.

“A bottle of your finest Cyrodilic brandy, if you please,” he said, placing his hands flat on the bar and resting his weight on it. He’d already eaten -- Gregor was just here for a drink and a good time.

"Course sir," she replied, smiling back at him - impressed too at his noble and masculine appearance. Even if the way he had eyed her had been intense, she didn't flinch from it. Instead turning a blushed cheek the other way. "Take a seat and I'll bring it to you."

It was as if his experiences earlier in the day had reignited Gregor’s delight in the wooing of the fairer sex and he smirked behind the shroud of his beard at the sight of the maid’s blush. He rapped the bar with one of his rings and nodded in appreciation. “Very good,” Gregor declared and turned to stand with his back to the counter, inspecting the common room properly and letting his eyes drift over the assembled patrons. They widened in pleasant surprise when he saw Fjolte sitting in the far corner, looking rather fetching in what seemed to be new clothes.

“I’ll be with that gentleman over there,” he said to the barmaid over his shoulder before approaching Fjolte with a grin on his face and his hands raised in the same gesture as during their first meeting.

It hadn’t just been the smoky haze in the tavern playing tricks on his eyes; Fjolte really did look different. A little less wild and a little more refined. Gregor immediately decided that it suited him in this environment. “My friend,” the Imperial said by way of announcing his presence and he placed a hand on the back of a chair after Fjolte had looked up at him. “Mind if I join you, or do you prefer solitude tonight?”

“Gregor!” Fjolte exclaimed happily after a large slug of his ale, “sit down, sit down! Of course I’ll take your company — another happy coincidence!” he commented with glee. He had expected to see his new friend after he and Raelynn had finished, but it seemed he’d already left by the time he’d finished his bath. So, to see him now was a happy surprise - and in the comfort and warmth of the tavern, the man took on an even more elegant appearance. He looked right at home. “I didn’t think I’d get to see you again so soon,” he said, smacking his lips, running a finger to remove the droplets of ale from his stubble.

From the corner of his eye, he made out the hourglass shape of the barmaid making her way back over, and his nostrils flared as he caught the scent of his meal too. His head turned and he admired the manner in which she was balancing the bowl of hotpot, and a bottle and glass on the same tray - taking small and dainty steps to ensure it didn’t wobble or drop. As she closed the distance, she placed down Gregor’s brandy bottle; “Cyrodilic Brandy for this gentleman,” she began softly, bending over the table just enough to be tantalising, making eye contact with the Imperial before placing his glass in front of him too. “And a hotpot for this gentleman,” she said - practically purring at Fjolte, who was enthralled by it of course, enough to be distracted completely from the food.

“Can I get you two anything else?” She asked, flattening the round tray under her chest to… give a certain uplift.

“I’ll take another whisky, and bring a whisky for my good friend here - did you know he saved my life just last night Ma’am?” Fjolte began, tilting his head, softening his gaze upon the young woman.

“Oh, is that true?” she asked, turning to Gregor, with a look on her face that showed that she was both impressed and even more interested in the two of them than she initially had been.

Heartened, Gregor grabbed the back of the chair with both hands and pulled it free so that he could sit down, his movements more forceful than usual. He nodded when Fjolte expressed his surprise at their second chance meeting in as many days. “Me neither, but it seems the gods have plans for us,” he quipped with a wink before turning and clapping his hands together in approval when the barmaid approached.

He listened with a smirk as Fjolte immediately saw fit to embellish the story, just as Raelynn had predicted, but his eyes were on the barmaid, flitting down from her striking green eyes to her bosom and back up again. Gregor couldn’t tell who she was flirting with more, but it didn’t matter anyway -- she was Fjolte’s prize and he would see to it that the Nord received it.

Waving dismissively, Gregor laughed and said: “I was merely returning the favor, Fjolte, or have you already forgotten how you overpowered that Bosmer archer before he could finish the job and put me down for good?”

Her eyes moved from Gregor and back to Fjolte in amusement, and she even batted her eyelashes in his direction. “Well sounds to me like you’re both capable…” she rounded off with a girlish chuckle, bringing the tray further up to cover her mouth flirtatiously, as if she was suddenly coy and playing shy.

“Oh aye, we’re two bruisers alright,” he replied with a glance and a wink in Gregor’s direction. “Anything to keep dangerous folk of the streets and away from good, honest folk like yourself,” he smiled sincerely.

She was then staring at his arms, the muscles that lined them and stood out even from underneath the shirt - the lines and ripples. She giggled again. “Well… I’m glad to have good men like you out there.”

He glanced between the woman and Gregor, quite pleased with himself too - before sending her off, as much as it pained him. Maybe absence would make her heart grow fonder? “Go on lass, don’t let us keep you from your work - we’ve plotting to do and you’ve drinks to serve,” he remarked with an amorous smirk that only brought another blush to her cheeks - and then she wiggled off once more.

“So then Gregor,” he finally said after tracking her movement from their table and back to the bar. “You seem to be in better help now, now? Told you you’d be in good hands.”

The Imperial followed Fjolte’s gaze and watched the woman leave as well, his eyes on her swaying hips, before turning back to face his friend with a smirk and a faint shake of his head. He poured himself a glass of brandy and put it to his lips when Fjolte asked after his health and he hastened to put the glass back down again, swallowing his drink hard so that he could speak.

“Yes, yes, that reminds me -- I should thank you very much for introducing me to Raelynn. My wounds are healed and I’ve got a solid lead on a batch of mithril,” he said and clasped the man’s hand in order to give it a vigorous shake. “You’re right that she’s going to make me jump through hoops for it,” he added with a wry smile, “but it’s better than paying out the nose for it.”

Picking up his spoon, Fjolte listened to the man before plunging it through the layer of sliced potatoes to take a generous mouthful, raising a brow to hear that Gregor had been given a task already. “Oh yeah?” he slurred through a mouthful of potato, meat, and gravy before swallowing it down almost whole. “What hoops are those? Hunting again?”

Gregor shook his head. “Nothing so violent, no. I’m to accompany her to a formal occasion of some kind where she’s looking to close a business deal. You know how important men bring their wives to banquets and so on? She says I’ll be there to be her ‘accessory’. Her words.” He sniggered and took another sip of his brandy. “She has a tailor in town that will provide me with appropriate clothes and then I suppose my role will be to look and behave as refined and dignified as possible. I don’t know the details and there’s probably a catch somewhere, but…”

He trailed off and fidgeted a bit with his glass, a knowing smile on his lips as he looked at Fjolte. “You know what she’s like. I couldn’t refuse. And I really do need that mithril.”

Fjolte’s face dropped slightly, that sounded like something incredibly important — she hadn’t even mentioned a business deal to him, and his brow furrowed in response. “Well, I mean I can be refined too-” he began, not realising that gravy was spilling off the spoon and onto the table as he spoke. He shook his head and sighed, “pffff,” he scoffed, “I just get to go bandit hunting - you get to go for a nice dinner probably,” he continued, laughing in disbelief at the end. “I suppose you look the part more than I bloody well do.” He stabbed the spoon through the potato crust again, immediately over his very minor moment of jealousy. “Least you’ll get that bit of mithril though, she keeps her word, I’ll say that much.”

Aware that he had touched a nerve, Gregor nodded along with Fjolte’s words in all seriousness. “I’m sure you can be, but these kinds of affairs come with a whole booklet of instructions and etiquette. It’s hard to learn if you haven’t grown up around it. My father is a merchant and he attended the lord’s court in Bravil pretty often, and my mother comes from old money in Bruma. I was raised to know all the rules,” he explained as gently as he could, “and since the occasion is in two days, I’m afraid there’s not enough time to fill you in. It’s a matter of convenience, I’m sure,” Gregor said and gestured vaguely with his glass, a frown on his face.

“Besides, these things can be enormously dull. Tell me, and be honest, would you rather be out in the woods, fresh air and all the freedom in the world, or stuck in a stuffy castle for hours with a bunch of wealthy old people that have never worked a day in their lives?” he asked and raised his eyebrows at the Nord.

“I have been around some of those rich folk, and they are really boring, you’re right about that.” Fjolte commented nodding his head and relaxing his shoulders, leaning back into his seat some. “I’m trying to think of who she might be meeting with though…” the Nord glanced down, before quickly shrugging it off. “I’m sure it will be fun for you, if that’s your upbringing. But yeah, being a walking purse seems… Well, you’re a good fighter Gregor, can’t see you getting to swing a sword or throw a bit of magic at a banquet,” he laughed, grabbing his tankard of ale for a swig.

He lowered his head and raised his glass. “I thank you for the compliment. My father taught me how to swing that sword. He was a Legionnaire before he was a merchant. You know,” Gregor mused and ran a hand through his beard, “I think the two of you would get along like peas in a pod. My father is a very worldly man and he always speaks very highly of the Nord comrades he fought besides in the Great War. He doesn’t talk about the war much, but when he does, he’s a good storyteller.”

Smiling, Gregor shrugged. “As for the banquet… I don’t know about it being fun, necessarily. I deal with the rich enough on a daily basis -- someone has to make all that jewelry they wear, after all -- and like I said last night, I was just having fun being something other than what I was raised to be. But it’s good to know that Raelynn will come through on her word. The promise of a reward will make it tolerable, at least,” he said, wisely speaking nothing about what he thought of being in Raelynn’s company, and finished his drink, immediately reaching for the bottle again. A jolly redness was already rising in his cheeks.

That redness did not go unnoticed by Fjolte, and a wicked thought occurred to him, the kind of thought that only boys being boys had. He could tell already that Gregor was a lightweight, he knew the signs. He’d drank enough people under the table to spot them a mile off, and so he chuckled to himself, passing it off as a light cough to clear his throat. “If you’re Pa is anything like you, then I’m sure we would. My father is a bit of a stiff, honestly but he’s been a farmer all of his life - he’s earned his right to be a grumpy old git,” he smirked.

Once more, the barmaid approached - two glasses of whisky on her tray this time. She placed one in front of the two gentlemen. Giving Gregor a slow smile before she turned back to Fjolte, bending just a little more across the table for the Imperial. An extra button had been undone in the time she’d spent back at the bar. When it came time to pay attention to Fjolte, she blinked at him, “I hope you’re enjoying your meal,” she ran a finger across her collarbones - which Fjolte followed with his own eyes - forgetting about Gregor entirely in the moment.

“Oh aye, aye I am.” He nodded, unaware in a way that his hand had moved to the small of her back to give her a light tickle, which she delighted in before moving off again, looking back over her shoulder at them both with a giggle.

Fjolte raised his eyebrows and exhaled, “she’s a bubble of trouble that one,” he muttered - proud of himself all the same. He cleared his throat for real this time, picking up the whisky glass and holding it out to Gregor. “Alright friend, down in one?”

Normally Gregor would have politely declined such a proposal but he wasn’t about to allow himself to be further emasculated by the man that had just so completely and irrevocably stolen the barmaid’s attention away from him. The game was on. Gregor grinned. “Of course, what do you take me for?” he boasted bravely -- perhaps more bravely than he should have. Their glasses clinked together and Gregor threw it back in one go, as promised, but he visibly winced as the alcohol burned a way through his esophagus. “Mara’s mercy, that’s… that’s good stuff,” he managed, before beckoning for Fjolte to put his own glass down. He reached for the Cyrodiilic brandy and made to pour them both a shot. “Now let me show you what we drink in my country, eh?”

Fjolte too had to bring a fist to his mouth to prevent himself from wincing at the strength of the spirit. He watched with delight in his eyes as Gregor couldn’t hold his own back, and with equal parts delight and curiosity observed the brandy being poured into the empty glasses. “Bottoms up,” he said, clinking the glass again and knocking it back. It was sweeter than the whisky, that was for sure - and it caught him by surprise. “Kyne’s breath that’s a girls drink Gregor,” he hissed through gritted teeth, holding the sugar down. “Another!”

Gregor stared, slack jawed, in incredulity for a second or two before he closed his mouth and scoffed. “I’ll have you know that this is the drink of my forefathers, my good sir,” he moped in mock offense while he obliged Fjolte’s request and poured him another, but his eyes betrayed his merry amusement. “If it offends your sensibilities that we had the good sense to make our spirits actually taste nicely, I do apologize.”

“If that’s the drink of your forefathers… Well…” Fjolte began, losing his train of thought before he could finish it. He took the shot of brandy, finding that this was easier to swallow the second time around, and as he felt it slosh in his stomach he eyed Gregor mischievously. “Get that arse up to the bar and get us a real drink, a bottle of Shein…” he chuckled, wanting to see how much of a sway Gregor would have now. He even took out the septims from his own coin purse. “Go on…”

Gregor shrugged and pouted in the way that only toddlers and inebriated men could as he got to his feet. “As you wish.” He clicked his heels together -- on the second attempt, anyway, having missed one foot with the other on his first try -- and made way to the bar, blinking fiercely to keep himself focused and steady. “Shine… shine…” he repeated incorrectly to himself and frowned. “I don’t know of no drink called bloody shine,” the Imperial muttered in his bemusement. Still, Fjolte seemed to know what he was about when it came to booze, so he weaved his way through the other patrons, successfully avoiding the creation of a mess. One for the history books, he thought.

He sidled up to the bar and presented the barmaid with his most affable smile. It took him a few seconds to recollect his thoughts and as the silence stretched on between them, he held up a finger before bringing his other fist to his mouth and burping as elegantly as he could manage. “Apologies, your honour. Now, where was I? Yes, shine. Something like that. My friend has sent me here to procure a bottle of it. Do you know what he’s talking about? Because I don’t.”

The barmaid watching in disbelief as the very man who had been so eloquent and civilised earlier leaned over the bar - using it to hold him up even. “It’s a spirit,” she chuckled in a slightly higher pitched voice, “a strong one,” she explained as she reached behind the bar for what looked like an urn. She placed it down in front of the Imperial with another giggle. “It’s not like your nice brandy I’m afraid,” she smiled knowingly. “I think your friend is trying to get you very drunk good Sir.” Once again, the flirty barmaid batted her eyelashes at Gregor.

Meanwhile, back at the table, Fjolte was stifling his guffaws into a closed fist he’d placed by his mouth, sinking his teeth into his fingers to stop from making a ruckus.

“Bah,” Gregor grumbled. “He can try! Damned Nords, everything’s always a contest to them. He’ll have his contest. As for the spirit, that… this thing,” he settled on and pointed towards the bottle of shein, “you say it’s strong, yes? Good. Because he was complaining about the brandy earlier.”

Gregor drew himself up and something between a frown and a disapproving sneer emerged onto his face. “He said it was a girl’s drink,” he spat, as if it was a great insult to him and his family’s honor. He pointed a finger at the barmaid. “The Emperor himself drinks it, you know that? The bloody Emperor. Girl’s drink my… my arse.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment, and his face relaxed before he opened his eyes again. As the barmaid swam back into focus, he smiled broadly. “Anyway, don’t worry about that, or about me, or about anything. You’re too pretty for that. Thanks for the assistance.”

“Well, I think it’s a dignified man’s drink,” she purred, running a finger against the drunks forearm with a mischievous look to rival even Fjolte’s. “But tell me how you like that shein when you’re done. If you can.” With that said, she made her way to serve another patron, leaving Gregor with the dangerous looking urn, the smell seeping out each time the lid rattled around with his movements.

“Gregor!” Fjolte called from the table, “bring the drink already!”

“Yes, yes, alright, calm yourself!” Gregor yelled back, snatching up the urn -- immediately spilling some of the shein over the edge and into the fabric of his gloves -- and returning to the table. He dropped himself into his chair like a sack of potatoes and, in an absurd display of contrast, gingerly placed the drink on the table. “There’s your precious… stuff,” he grumbled and straightened up in his chair a little, as he was already threatening to slide off of it entirely.

“I was having a wonderful conversation with somebody in this establishment that has some good sense, I’ll have you know. You called the brandy a girl’s drink but the girl thinks it’s a dignified man’s drink,” he explained and jabbed a hand in Fjolte’s direction. “And I trust her judgement in this case. So there.” Satisfied that he had made his point, Gregor waved towards the urn. “So, what in Zenithar’s name is this? Who in Oblivion makes this stuff? It smells like death.”

Fjolte could only laugh at Gregor. He was still managing to be still in his seat, it hadn’t taken to him like it had to the Imperial that clear as day. “Yeah, alright then it’s dignified,” he laughed - taking the shein to pour a shot for himself, and one for Gregor. He let a little extra spill into his friends glass, knowing that he wouldn’t notice that. “This is Dunmer drink, so that’s why it smells like death,” he grinned. Even Fjolte was apprehensive about it. This was the drink you partook in if you wanted to eradicate an entire week from your memory. It might just throw Gregor off of Nirn altogether. He waited for Gregor to lift his own glass, and as they had been doing - they clinked the glasses together - more of Gregor’s toppled over the rim but Fjolte’s did not spill.

He brought it to his lips quick, and swallowed it quicker. He brought a tightly closed fist down onto the table with a loud slam, stomping a foot at the same time - a vein or two popped out onto display on his neck as he strained. “Ffffffff,” he wheezed, his eyes wide and bloodshot. “It’s like…” he continued, unable to breath, “like a finger up my arse!”

Not even the forewarning of shein being a Dunmer drink had stopped Gregor from cheerfully toasting with Fjolte, but when he brought the glass up to his face the smell was so overpowering that he, in a brief moment of clarity, stopped and lowered the glass back to the table -- his eyes were already watering merely from being in proximity to the stuff and he placed a hand on his midriff, swallowing hard to keep himself from dry-heaving.

Watching Fjolte’s reaction to the shein did nothing to improve his enthusiasm about the drink. “You know,” he stammered, visibly pale, “I’m not sure I should drink this stuff. It’s not… not that I can’t, or anything,” Gregor improvised, trying to put on a brave face, “but I just killed a dark elf last night and it feels wrong to be sitting here and drinking his drink the day after. It’s disrespectful, you know? We must respect the dead,” he blabbered on and made the sign of Arkay with his free hand. “Gods rest his soul, and all that.”

“I can see the Gods,” Fjolte continued, strain still in his voice, still unable to breath. He managed to turn quite quickly back to Gregor, pointing a finger in his direction, “drink it,” he commanded in a voice that was suddenly about five octaves lower. The Nord finally took a breath - several in fact in quick succession, the walls behind Gregor began to blur before his eyes. “It’s more disrespectful to refuse a gift,” he growled, finally finding something of a composure.

Gregor had to admit that the man had a point. He sighed and inhaled deeply, steeling himself for the trials ahead, and sat up straight -- there was more lucidity to his eyes than he’d had at any point since he started drinking. “You’re right,” he said and grabbed the glass firmly, placing his other hand on his knee. He raised his drink. “To your father, because I think the old git would enjoy a drink that tastes just like him. Bottom’s up.”

And up the bottom went. Gregor almost choked on it because his body’s desire to swallow and gasp for breath fought for dominance for a moment -- fortunately, swallowing won out and the drink went down without incident. At least, not immediately. “Fuck Akatosh in the arse with a halberd!” he swore colorfully and his hand gripped his knee strong enough to leave a red welt beneath his trousers. He had to resist the urge to throw the glass and the whole urn away, as if it was a hive of bees -- the whole experience felt rather like swallowing an entire colonly of stinging insects. Gregor put the glass back down with shaking fingers and looked at Fjolte with a furious, red-glazed stare, sucking in short breaths as he did so. “Bastard,” he managed to hiss.

It was wearing off for the Nord, not by much, but by enough for him to laugh — only, the laugh got caught in his throat and made him gag and his head lurched forwards - threatening to send the contents of his stomach flying. Instead, a rather meaty burp erupted that made him jump in his seat. “Fuck…” he whimpered, a hiccup fit taking hold of him too. “Well, we’ll say that’s hic the man’s man hic drink.” He no longer felt comfortable in the seat, his heart racing in his chest.

“I gotta hic run that shit off, fuck hic.” Then he stood up, his whole body swaying - convulsing terribly with every hiccup. “Come, Gagar!” he yelled in a slur before attempting to start off in a sprint for the door. “Hic!

“What?” Gregor asked unhelpfully. He had trouble using his eyes to follow Fjolte; in fact, he had trouble using his eyes for anything. “Do we need to run? Are the elves coming?” he mumbled and stood up to follow Fjolte, which resulted in him falling over face first and landing on the tavern floor with a dull smack almost immediately. He blinked slowly and pushed himself up enough, his cheek coming loose from the sticky floorboards with a gross sucking noise, to try to see whatever it was that Fjolte was doing.

Whatever happened to Gregor, Fjolte was unaware of it as he pushed his way out of the tavern and into the street, making strides through the brisk air, breathing it deep into his lungs as he followed his path to a small patch of grass which…. Started to look very, very comfortable. He sat himself down on it, and stared up at the sky, watching it spin around in circles. “Gagar? GRAGAR?” he shouted out, pointing at a disapproving guard as he walked past, “Grag? is that you?!”

He had looked up just in time to see Fjolte leave the tavern. Groaning at the sight -- because that meant getting up and following him -- Gregor counted to five, taking a minor detour past twelve to get there, and clambered back up to his feet, using the wall of the tavern for support. How had it all gone to shit so fast? He hoped the barmaid wasn’t looking as he shuffled towards the door.

Emerging into the evening air was a relief and Gregor was suddenly grateful for Fjolte’s decision to leave the warm and smoky tavern. He paused just outside the door to take a few slow, deep breaths, but a handful of patrons that followed through the door after him complained that he was standing in their way, which was undoubtedly true, so he moved on. Where Fjolte’s pace had been rapid, Gregor’s was sluggish and unsteady, and it took him a little while to find the patch of grass where the Nord had made himself comfortable.

“Hello there!” Gregor called out and waved at Fjolte.

He lifted his (suddenly) very heavy head from the ground to lock eyes with Gregor - but even finding them was like trying to pin a tail on a donkey. He gave up. “I admit it,” he puffed out, “crossed a line with that shit,” Fjolte wheezed before dropping his head again, closing his eyes to protect him from the moving sky. He did slap a hand on the empty space beside him, smacking his lips - he was incredibly thirsty for water now. “I just need the breeze and then I’ll get… hic right back on it.”

“You really did,” Gregor said and fell down next to Fjolte, remarkably accurately aiming his body on the patch of grass the Nord had indicated as available. “Fuck that drink and fuck the Dunmer for making it.” He rolled over onto his back and tried to focus on the sky, or on the rooftops visible at the edges of his vision, but everything was spinning way too fast. He could feel himself breaking out into cold sweat and his mouth was filling with saliva. “You’re bigger,” he wheezed, arms grasping uselessly for support. “Get me to somewhere I can throw up.”

"I don't know how they made that flavour…" Fjolte groaned as he pulled himself up, with a heave he had Gregor back onto his feet - guiding him towards a darkened corner. "Go for it, we'll get back in… a hotpot. That'll fix it all…" he said, with a hint of quiet desperation in his voice. He really hoped it would.

It wasn’t even necessary to stick a finger down his throat. Merely closing his eyes and leaning his head forward was enough to send Gregor’s dinner and most of the liquor they’d consumed back out the way it came in. He wisely remembered to keep his nose shut with two pinched fingers and when he was done, he straightened back up feeling rather relieved with how smoothly it all went… up, he supposed. Still swaying but with a severe and focused expression on his face, Gregor retrieved his handkerchief from his coat and wiped his mouth clean. The last thing he needed was chunky vomit in his beard.

“There we are,” he said, his voice hoarse and throat raw, “all better.” He still looked like he’d been poisoned by an Argonian Shadowscale, but that was besides the point. Gregor’s stomach immediately complained. “What did you say? A hotpot? Yes, yes,” he mumbled and held onto Fjolte’s shoulder. “That sounds great. Wonderful. Delightful. Lead the way, my brave donkey.”

"If I'm a donkey, you're an ass." Fjolte laughed before, patting Gregor's back before helping the man back into the tavern.

Surprisingly, the warmth of the tavern was a comfort again, and nobody had taken their table. Hell, there was half a hotpot still there - but so in fact was the dangerous drink. Fjolte left Gregor standing in the doorway while he swaggered over to the bar, grabbing the attention of the barmaid with a wave of his hand. "Miss…. Ma'am…?" He asked, realising he didn't even know her name. She appeared, smile and all -- she'd seen the whole incident, and the grin on her face communicated that to Fjolte.

"Yes?" She asked, pushing her chest out provocatively still.

"Think you could move that poison… And err, two more hotpots?" He asked, smiling sheepishly back until her bosoms appeared in his eyeline.

"Of course, wait right here," she said before setting off to move the shein. She gave Gregor a smile once she was by their table. His skin was so pale and he had that cold sweat sticking to him that she'd seen so many times before. "Are you alright mister?"

He, too, smiled sheepishly. “I will be, but you’re sweet to ask,” Gregor said, some of his sophisticated charm returning to him. “I could do with some water, though,” he added and glanced at Fjolte. “We both could.”

Having said that, Gregor sank back into his chair and rubbed his face with his hands in an attempt to reinvigorate himself a little. “You win,” he told Fjolte, peeking at him between his fingers, his voice a little muffled. “Let’s… let’s just enjoy our drinks now, yes? Not another race to the bottom.”

Fjolte nodded, slipping back into his seat too. "Got carried away and excited, but at least we survived the poison…" Even in his state he still felt smug over it and that couldn't be hidden. "So let's just slow down for a bit…" he sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Tell me something," he began - feeling a grumble in his stomach that made him scrunch his nose for a second. "Tell me a secret, or something."

Gregor dropped his hands to the table and thought about that for a bit. “A secret,” he repeated. Another deep breath saw him regain the ability to sit up straight and he settled into his chair, cleared his throat and smoothed over his clothes. They were slightly sticky from falling onto the floor earlier and he sighed at that.

“Well, my father always says that the Emperor didn’t really lead the charge in the Battle of the Red Ring, and that another man wore the Emperor’s armor that day, and that there’s a whole conspiracy at the top of the Imperial hierarchy to keep that information from becoming common knowledge,” he explained flatly, fully aware that it really wasn’t the kind of answer that Fjolte was after, but not in the mood -- just yet -- to dig into his personal life. “I don’t know if I believe that but if it’s true, then it’s a secret, right?”

"I'll have to think about that…" Fjolte said in response, absolutely seriously. "That's as well guarded a secret as the golden plants, Gregor." He added with a nod of his head.

Before Gregor would be able to react to that, the barmaid had reappeared - large glasses of water on her tray, as well as the hotpots. She'd done well to balance it all, and as she had been doing all evening, she made quite a titillating show of putting everything onto their table. While Fjolte's gaze was drawn to her bottom that she'd positioned beside him, she gave Gregor a wink and bit her lip. "This will make you feel better," she said and pushed the hot stew towards him.

There was nothing she liked more than flirting with the patrons, and when they were as attractive and responsive as Gregor and Fjolte, she ate the attention up.

"And for you as well Sir," she said to Fjolte with a wink - placing his second portion down in front of him, puffing out her chest a little as she leaned across the table. Chuckling to herself as she went - unable to tell whether this was a joke now that she just had to keep raising the bar on.

"Anything else gentlemen?" She asked, hiding behind her tray again to snigger.

After helping himself to a generous and very welcome gulp of water, Gregor’s eyes flitted between Fjolte and the maid and an idea came to him. “Yes, actually, there is something you can help me with,” he said in the most amiable tone he could muster. “What’s your name, my dear?”

“Camile,” she answered, as if she was taken aback by the rather mundane question.

Fjolte, on the other hand, watched Gregor with a glare of his own - what was he up to?

“Camile, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. My name is Gregor. This is my friend Fjolte,” the Imperial said and gestured at the Nord that sat opposite him. As far as he was concerned he was being as smooth as any man could possibly be. “Like we discussed earlier, he saved my life last night, when we were up against one of Jehanna’s most notorious bandits. I scarcely knew him then but he still did not hesitate to come to my aid.” Gregor paused to make sure that the yarn he was spinning was made of a single thread, made use of the moment to take another sip of water, and continued.

“Such a fine man is a rarity and I must say I feel rather terrible keeping him all to myself this evening. Would you be so kind as to alleviate me of this burden and come see us when your shift is over?” Going in for the kill, the masterstroke, the coup de grace, Gregor leaned back in his chair nonchalantly and smiled up at Camile with languid ease. “I should very much like for you to get to know him a little better.”

“Get to know him?” she asked, her head jolted backwards and her smile dropped. “I… I already do!” she laughed again, and looked at Fjolte expectantly.

Fjolte’s eyes widened, and he scrambled through whatever memories he could find in his inebriated state, and he took on the look of a frightened rabbit all of a sudden. “Y-yes… Camile, I know. I know.” He absolutely did not.

With all of the melodrama in the world, Gregor sighed, threw up his hands and a forlorn look fell over his face. “Oh, Fjolte, I thought the healer took care of that -- I’m so sorry, Camile,” the Imperial said as he turned back to the barmaid, thinking quickly.

“He wasn’t joking when he said that I saved his life in turn. It’s about all he can remember from the encounter. He took a terrible blow to the head and I think his memory has been…” He dropped his tone conspiratorially and leaned in closer towards Camile. “On the fritz, as it were. You’re not the first person this happened with. I had to reintroduce him to his employer just earlier today. We saw a healer afterwards, but… I guess what with the drinking, this was to be expected…” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Since I don’t know him all that well, it’s been quite the adventure trying to figure out who knows him and who doesn’t. Please don’t hold it against him,” Gregor pleaded innocently.

“You expect me to believe this?” Camile answered, rolling her eyes and tucking the tray under her arm with a laugh of disbelief. Fjolte, on the other hand, was still going through his thoughts, his expression remained the same. A pause dragged out until eventually something clicked for him. She hadn’t always worked at the Frog, she was the frisky woman he remembered having a… rather excellent romp with and as the memory flooded back a blush appeared on his cheeks.

“Camille, Camille…” he spoke out, smooth and confident again. That was a nice save by Gregor - but he’d have to work harder at the woman if he wanted to salvage any chance of a second encounter. “Of course I remember… I’m sorry for my rudeness, I just -- “ he looked down momentarily, bowed his head to the ground. “I didn’t want to come on too strong with you,” he confessed with a deep sigh, before lifting his head back up to look at her - a complete and utter smolder had taken hold of his expression. His eyes sparkled, and his lips pouted just enough. “I wanted us to rediscover that chemistry… That wonderful spark that allowed us that…” As Gregor had done, Fjolte also leaned in closer to her, flashing a look that could only have been described as naughty in the Imperial’s direction. “That special night in the barn…”

That made her blush again, and she looked between them both and giggled. Believing every word, hell, it made the whole thing a whole lot better for Fjolte if she now recognised him as some kind of romantic. “Maybe I can see you later… Maybe,” she said teasingly, restraining herself from touching him. She was still at work after all, and there was also a part of her that wondered if this was some kind of lie… But the look on his face was something irresistible. She didn’t want to hang around, and so she flounced off - a spring in her step that made her curves just… bounce around.

Fjolte looked quickly to Gregor, biting his lip and shaking his head. “That was close…” he whispered, retreating to his water to try and stop himself from laughing.

Gregor spread out his arms, a magnanimous smile on his face, and his eyes were like droplets of rich honey in the warm light of the fireplace. “You’re welcome,” he said, a god bestowing a blessing upon His disciple. Having said that, his face dropped a little and he resumed nursing his water. “Would’ve gone a lot smoother if you hadn’t forgotten that you knew her, Fjolte. Heavens above… how was I supposed to account for that?”

“It’s not like I didn’t warn you I enjoy my women!” he replied with a shit-eating grin. “But that’s not good is it?” he admitted, suddenly feeling like a bit of an idiot. “It was a good night, I may have been a bit drunk, or stoned, or both…” He gave a nonchalant shrug anyway. “Not a bad end to a an already good night… so thank you for your assistance friend.”

“Think nothing of it, my friend,” Gregor said with a hand over his heart. “For a married man such as myself, living vicariously through a free spirit like you is one of the small pleasures of life that make it all worth it,” he joked and finished the rest of his water. It was only then that he felt his nausea had subsided sufficiently to pay proper attention to the food that Fjolte had ordered. Arming himself with his cutlery, Gregor tucked in, too preoccupied with eating to say anything more.

“Yeah… Yeah,” Fjolte huffed from his chest - lifting his tankard to his lips to gulp back at least half of the content in one fell swoop. “I saw you enjoying yourself as well…I might be drunk but I can still follow your eyes.” Once again, his lack of self-awareness prevented him from realised that might have been offensive, and it was only his overly friendly constant state that stopped it from sounding like nothing but sass. “Hard to ignore a woman like that when she’s right in your space like that, I’ll admit…” he mused, running a hand through his stubble again thoughtfully.

Gregor frowned for a moment but he quickly realized that Fjolte meant nothing by it. He swallowed his food and shrugged. “Nothing wrong with inspecting the wares, as long as you stay loyal to your current supplier,” he said and immediately regretted it. Briar would have slapped him for that one if she had been there to hear it. “Not that I think of women that way,” he added and looked over his shoulder, afraid to find Camile there, but she was fortunately still occupied elsewhere.

Fjolte merely nodded in agreement, having taken a quieter turn as Gregor ate. “Get that down your neck, shein is no joke, don’t want you in a bad way for this important meeting of yours,” he stabbed his spoon into the top of his own hotpot, tucking in with delight and wolfing it down as he did with all food. “So… say Gregor, think you’ll just move on when you get that mithril then?” he asked, having enjoyed the evening — and Gregor’s company in general over the last day or so. The thought of him moving on so quickly didn’t exactly make him feel great.

Gregor looked up at Fjolte with a small smile. He hadn’t failed to notice the slight apprehension in the question. It was nice to know that Fjolte didn’t want him to leave just yet. Truthfully, Gregor felt the same way and had been thinking about the same thing. “It’s what I promised my wife,” he said, a guilty undertone to his voice. He took another bite of food and thought about it some more while he chewed. Saying it out loud would make it more real, and therefore make him more tempted to do it. He wasn’t sure if that was a good idea. He sighed.

“But I also told her that it wouldn’t be easy to get any mithril at all, let alone a sufficient quantity. If Raelynn comes true on her promise I’ll be way ahead of schedule. Just two days in Jehanna? I was expecting to be here for much longer, and I told my wife as much,” he added and, possibly fueled by the alcohol in his blood, a mischievous twinkle appeared in his eyes. “So I suppose I wouldn’t have to go home immediately, no.”

That brought a smile back to the Nord’s face in between his bites. Of course, he didn’t like to think of Gregor’s wife back home, waiting for her husband - but if what he’d explained the day before was true then perhaps she was enjoying the time apart too. It was much easier to enjoy Gregor’s company himself if he didn’t have to picture his wife pining for him as a result of them working together. “I’m sure Raelynn would like the help too, she’s already got you working on some things she has nobody else for… Maybe she’ll keep paying you in mithril. Enough mithril to make an armour suit if you wanted to!” he chuckled, inhaling the food - the spoon scraping the ceramic sides of the bowl.

That prompted a laugh from Gregor. “I think you might overestimate how much mithril she has access to,” he said and slipped into a scholarly voice that came surprisingly easy to him. “Most of the mithril in Tamriel was mined out of the earth by the Dwemer and now exists in circulation as already finished objects. Jehanna is one of the few places that still has mithril ore veins in the mountains near the city and the East Empire Trading Company guards the chartered right to mine them quite jealously,” he explained, completely oblivious to Fjolte’s probable total disinterest in geological matters. “Anyone with enough mithril to forge a suit of armour out of it is a rich man indeed, especially these days.”

He sat back in his chair and looked at the table, his gaze slowly shifting from his plate, to Fjolte’s, to their glasses of water and then finally to the empty space in between all of it. It suddenly dawned on him what he was looking for. “Where’s the booze?” he asked, bemused. Had they really drank all of the brandy and whiskey?

Unbeknownst to Gregor, Fjolte was listening - as always, and interested too. His explanation was sound and made sense, but he didn’t know what Raelynn was capable of procuring. Gregor hadn’t seen the items that Fjolte had boxed up into storage and to be couriered. In that regard, maybe it would be better for the man to head back home after all. But maybe he was right, maybe whatever mithril Raelynn had her hands on was limited indeed.

Still, Fjolte was not going to be surprised if she revealed a stash of it behind a bookcase in her suite. If it was as valuable and rare as Gregor made it out to be, she’d have a hand in it - and if not her, then most certainly her father would. “I suppose you’re right,” he said wearily all of a sudden, like the weight of what he’d seen suddenly slipped out.

“As for the booze, I had Camile clear it away… I was worried about the smell after your bodily performance earlier.” Fjolte said, a smirk returning.

“Ah, quick thinking. Probably for the best.” Gregor had finished most of his hotpot, not quite as voracious of an eater as Fjolte, as decided to leave the rest for what it was. He ran a hand through his hair and replayed the evening so far in his mind. A smile appeared on his face as a thought formed in his mind.

“Your turn to tell me a secret,” Gregor declared and looked around him to see if he could spot Camile. He wagered they were ready for a new round of shots.

He knew just the secret to tell, and he pulled his chair around the table so that he was closer to Gregor - he lowered both his head and his voice, looking around the room shiftily…

“Once when I was much younger — my mother had made an apple pie... “ He then looked at Gregor with severity etched into his features, “you don’t repeat this to anyone, Mercurius…” he warned darkly….

“Anyway, I was hungry… I ate the whole thing. When my mother asked where the pie had gone… I blamed my twin sisters and let them both get a smack for it too…” He covered his mouth and laughed into it, “I didn’t even feel one bit of guilt, and it wasn’t the first time I’ve blamed my eating on them…” He slid his chair back to where it had been, laughing still. “You ever go through Rorikstead? Say nothing about the apple pie eater, friend.” Maybe Gregor had been looking for something more serious, even Fjolte wasn’t going to indulge him in that - preferring to keep things light than to dig deep for the real secrets. He knew even touching the lid on that particular jar was too risky.

“On my honour,” Gregor said, sat back, chuckled softly and shook his head at Fjolte. It was clear from the way that he rubbed his brow with his fingers that he was torn between being amused and annoyed by the Nord’s answer. “Truly, you are a merciless fiend, and I take great pity on your poor mother,” he added, sarcasm dripping from his words in thick ropes of vinegar. “When I asked for a secret I didn’t realize that you would be confessing to such crimes. Do you know what you’ve done?” he asked and stabbed an accusing finger at Fjolte’s face, though he couldn’t keep the half-smile off his face. “You’ve given me another burden to bear in this life, for carrying this secret with me to the grave shall weigh on my soul like… like…”

He ran out of steam and waved dismissively. “You get the point. Gods, I need a drink to handle that one. Where is that girl? One second she’s all bouncing and flouncing and I’m up to my eyeballs in tits and the next she’s gone,” he grumbled, a combination of inebriation and food fatigue unearthing a crass side to him that he hadn’t shown Fjolte before.

“Well…” Fjolte began, leaning back in his seat, stretching his arms out as if to say what do you want?. “I don’t have any real secrets… I’m an open book! If it’s a titillating story you’re after you need only ask-”

As if on cue, Camile was back - four shots of whisky on her tray, and a sly smile on her face. “Alright boys,” she said, placing them down on the table one by one. Another button undone on her shirt this time so that her breasts practically threatened to be the next thing to spill over the table. She enjoyed the way that Fjolte’s mouth hung open at the sight. How his eyes just about fell out of his skull.

The next trick up her sleeve involved a coin that she accidentally dropped behind her. With the flounce that Gregor had been requesting, she bent down in front of him to pick up it up - her skirt only just covering her modesty. There was probably nothing else left in her arsenal to tease them with now unless she stripped off completely. With that in mind, she skipped off, but not before slipping a finger under Fjolte’s chin to close his mouth. “I’ll see you later,” she whispered in a coy voice that was barely sincere.

By the time that Fjolte would have recovered enough to turn back to face Gregor, the sight that greeted him was a wildly amused Imperial sniggering into the glass of whiskey he was nursing -- he wouldn’t make the mistake of trying to match the Nord in the race of shots consumed again. Now, he was going to drink at his own pace. “I do believe that this makes me the greatest champion of Dibella on this side of the Niben,” he said and raised the glass in a toast. “Orchestrating such salacious encounters with but a single story… truly,” the boast continued, “I am a genius.”

Having finished his spiel, Gregor’s eyes jumped from Fjolte’s to the retreating derriere of Camile and he couldn’t help but bite his lip. He would behave, of course, but no man could have been exposed to that manner of cleavage and buttocks and emerge on the other side unscathed. “Lucky bastard,” he shot in Fjolte’s direction, but he added a wink to soften the blow.

“Oh come off it,” Fjolte scoffed, downing one of his shots, the burn non-existent now that the shein had seemingly obliterated any kind of taste buds he had left. “It’s only at most half of your… matchmaking skills,” he added, waving the hand with the glass in front of Gregor, “the other half is the fact she’s already a right sort…” He placed the glass back down on the table. “But yes, Gregor, thank you — however can I repay you for your virtuous deeds in helping me… in my love life?”

Considering his marital status this served as a somewhat awkward segue, but Gregor glanced over that. He wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity. “I asked for a secret and you told me some boll-- I mean, a very cute story, but there is something I truthfully want to know more about. I took a chance in trusting you when I met you, but I also believe there’s such a thing as taking too many chances,” Gregor began, introducing his request rather at length.

He realized what he was doing and settled for clearing his throat and just asking the question. “Tell me about Raelynn. I’d like to know more before I accompany her to this… thing of hers.”

He ran a hand over the back of his neck at that, raising his brows and huffing out a long sigh. “I mean…” he began, eyeing up his second shot and feeling like he was about to need it. “I’ve known her for about a year — just over, I don’t know so much about her. She…” His eyes flicked to meet Gregor’s, and he was reminded of the way the two had looked at each other earlier in the day. “She’s intelligent, not to be underestimated in that respect. She learned her trade from her father who is… His reputation is greater than hers.” His hand fell on the rim of the full glass, and he lifted it, just above the table - not to his lips. “She loves flowers,” he added with a quick smile. “Flowers, and books. She likes to read, but more than that I think she just likes the smell of books because sometimes there are just open books across her desk when she’s working and not reading…”

Fjolte wasn’t looking at Gregor at all, instead at a point in the distance, his eyes glazed over as he thought on anything he could say about her that wasn’t too telling of her own secrets. They were hers, not his. He brought the glass to his lips and took a slow sip, instead of taking it as a shot. “I just… I don’t really know how to answer that question, Gregor.”

More so than learning anything particularly useful about Raelynn, Gregor found that he had learned something about Fjolte. He wasn’t sure if the Nord himself was even aware of this: he was in love with her. Gregor nodded slowly, his elbow leaning on an armrest and his fingers brushing over his beard and his mustache. That was alright, he thought, and an almost imperceptible frown flickered over his features. Of course it was alright. Why wouldn’t it be? Why was it necessary for him to acknowledge that it was alright that Fjolte was in love with her?

"Always," Raelynn answered, staring deep into his rich ebony eyes.

Gregor blinked repeatedly and sat up straighter. “I suppose I should have been more precise,” he said and smiled the subject away. “I meant her business. Is there anything about the way she conducts it that I should know? It’s already a given that she deals with bandits, and I’m curious about what implications that might have.”

The change in subject brought Fjolte back around, and it was as if he had a moment of awareness too. He tipped back the glass more, swallowing down the whisky that suddenly tasted bitter. “Ah, the business,” he said - adding a clarification in his voice, like he was about to get there anyway if given enough time. “It’s not her business. It is, but it isn’t. Part is - the… certain parts are hers. Much is her father’s and she manages it for him. She manages his Jehanna clientele. Artifacts, precious goods, trinkets… Shit like that.”

It was hard to be as sharp and perceptive as he usually was with this level of alcohol coursing through his veins, and Gregor mused over the answer for a few seconds before taking another sip of the whiskey. That would surely help. “So how did Jodane fit into that picture?” he asked eventually, arriving at the correct followup question to ask.

“She paid him to go and collect something,” Fjolte’s eyes moved from the rim to Gregor’s, he didn’t want to say too much. “An enchanted weapon,” he said, lying. “He decided not to, and he took her money instead. Happens a lot to her.”

“Aha,” Gregor said, a moment of epiphany breaking through his buzz. Now he understood why she wanted him to come along on her business deal. “That must be frustrating, not being taken seriously,” he reasoned and smiled, reassured. Going along with a businesswoman to make sure that she wasn’t swindled by the people she was dealing with was a sufficiently noble pursuit to put his mind at ease.

“She’s just like anyone else,” Fjolte responded, resting an elbow on the table. “Wants to make something of herself but she’s also just a person underneath that ambition.” He was saying too much, he knew it. But the two of them had reached the midnight hour where the deep wells just opened and flowed with ease. The alcohol sitting in his system. Whisky warmth and the comfort and buzz of the tavern. His finger drew over the rim again. “You have your quest to prove that you’re a master of your craft - she’s trying to be a master of hers.”

That was an interesting revelation. Gregor hadn’t gotten the impression that she was someone with anything left to prove. Then again, it was obviously in her favor not to advertise something like that. Without thinking, Gregor downed the shot glass of whiskey in one go after all, and scrunched up his face when the burning ethanol reminded him of what he’d done -- so deep had he been in thought. Also interesting, he thought when the discomfort subsided, was that Fjolte knew all these things.

“So you’ve seen the person beneath the ambition?” he asked and resisted the urge to smile as he reached for the second glass of whiskey. He was still sharp enough to make such deductions and that pleased him.

“I’ve spent enough time with her,” Fjolte said back, in a quickfire fashion. As if there was more to that than he wanted to share, or wanted to be pressed on. “Worked for her enough, I’ve seen the sorts of things she does. You want to know a secret, Gregor?” he asked, stretching out a leg outside of the table.

Gregor tilted his head a little as he regarded Fjolte and he eventually shrugged lazily. “Only the ones you’re comfortable sharing,” he replied good-naturedly and raised his glass in a toast. The warm atmosphere of the tavern, the now pleasant buzz of the alcohol and the excellent company he was keeping had elevated his already good mood to even higher levels, and he felt a great affection for Fjolte while they sat and talked.

“No businessman or woman in Jehanna would hire Shona,” Fjolte began, taking a deep breath in through his teeth, meeting Gregor’s warm eyes. “She’s mute, you see,” he explained further, placing his glass back down - feeling like it was only Gregor and himself in the tavern now. “Thought she’d be bad luck, or just that she wouldn’t be capable of a job. I got told that the first day Raelynn arrived here? She looked for a handmaiden and saw a dozen girls — and then she met Shona. She was told it would be a poor decision to hire a mute. She did it anyway, either to spite them, or whatever. But she gave that girl a job when nobody else would. I tell you - she smiles everyday. You think someone who has been around shit people for that long would stick with Raelynn if she wasn’t — well, at least halfway decent?” His lips curled into a slight frown. “Nah, they wouldn’t.”

“Wow,” Gregor mouthed sincerely. He, too, had slouched deep enough in his chair for his feet to stick out from under the table at the other end, and the tilt of his head had deepened further, now only held up by the arm he’d propped up underneath it. He was touched by the story and he reflected for a moment on the truest of all lessons coming through once again; never judge a book by its cover.

“If she wasn’t halfway decent, you wouldn’t be as fond of her as you are,” he said and smiled broadly. “Your character does her credit, so I already suspected she wasn’t awful.” He frowned. “Does that make sense?”

“Aye, aye it does.” The Nord gave a lazy shrug, “she pays me, keeps me busy, and I have a set of working eyes. Course I’m fond of her,” he chuckled, trying to draw in some levity again. He’d said enough and he could feel the regret already begin over that. “You’ve got eyes Gregor, and a good read of people. You tell me what you see of her if you’re so interested.”

Had he struck a nerve again? Gregor wasn’t sure. The idea that either of them could offend the other in this state and atmosphere seemed ludicrous. All was right with the world, after all, and everything was beautiful. “Well,” he began and drew himself up a little bit, only to sink back after a few seconds, “I saw someone ambitious, like you said, but also wary. She questioned me while she healed me,” Gregor said and chuckled at the memory, trying to push the more intimate parts of the encounter out of his mind’s eye. “Who I was, what I was doing in Jehanna, that sort of thing. She even asked me if I’d followed you to Jodane’s hideout.”

Mulling over his words, Gregor sipped on the whiskey again and found that his taste buds had been so blunted that he actually enjoyed the flavor. “I saw strength, intelligence, resourcefulness. But not much of the person beneath, I suppose.” He pointed at Fjolte with his glass. “That’s your domain, of course. You know her much better than I do.”

“As if I could have been followed and not realise it…” the Nord scoffed with humour in his voice. “Followed by an Imperial silversmith no less!” he laughed, it caught him off guard and the laugh was loud and real. “Please!” He rubbed the back of his neck again as his laughter quickly died back down. “Honestly, I’m telling the truth — I don’t know her that well. I just have faith that she’s a good person under everything.” He needed that. Faith. To do what he did. Faith that it was for a greater purpose.

“I’ve worked with her a year and you’ll get a better opportunity to get to know her than I’ve ever had when she takes you out.” He grabbed for his glass again, swallowing the last dregs from the glass before placing it down.

Now he was definitely detecting a hint of bitterness, Gregor thought, and he exhaled slowly through his nose. “Nonsense,” he retorted nonchalantly. “It’s a business deal, she’ll have way more important people to talk to. I’m just there to look pretty.” An idea came to him and he already started chuckling while he untied the ribbon in his hair.

The ponytail came undone and he moved his head to emulate the hair flip he had seen Raelynn do when he’d first stepped into her chambers. Still trying not to laugh, he gave Fjolte his best smolder, his face now framed by long, smooth locks of hair, reaching down to his shoulders. “What do you think?” he asked in a hushed whisper.

“Fucking hell,” Fjolte breathed before laughing out loud, placing a hand on his stomach that immediately seemed to ache. “That aint right, friend.” He said through spurts of laughter.

As they continued to laugh and play their games, Camile sauntered back over to the table, the empty tray outstretched to collect their glasses. She stopped dead in her tracks, scrunching her nose at the sight of the boozed up gentlemen, slouching in their chairs, halfway about to each fall off and be consumed by the underside of the table. She cleared her throat to try to grab their attention. Fjolte looked first, tipping his head right back so that she was upside down.

“Camile! It’s Camile, my favourite… honey…. Sweetpea… cabbage,” he mumbled out, reaching out a hand for her to come closer. She obliged, face still scrunched. She placed her hand into his.

“Your glasses, please. And do you want any more drinks?” she asked them both, looking to Gregor for him to take the lead. Fjolte was occupied with watching her from his upside down vantage point. That brought back memories alright.

Gregor cleared his throat and quickly tied his hair back into its usual ponytail before gathering up the empty shot glasses and handing them over to Camile. “We were just horsing around,” he offered by way of explanation and leaned back into his chair, mustering as much gravitas and enigmatic charisma as he could muster. “Chasing bandits is grim work, you know. A little levity afterwards does wonders for the spirit,” he said in a low, deep voice. “As for drinks…”

He tapped his chin thoughtfully and a slow smile spread across his face. “I think we should end this night on a classy note. Do you have a bottle of the 195 Surilie red? If you do, add a cheese platter, please. Local varieties. I’d like to try something new,” Gregor ordered. The mere thought of red wine and cheese had him sit up straight and he even made an effort at smoothing over his clothes.

"I'll see what we have, I know that there is a local goats cheese we serve," Camile answered, looking down at Fjolte, before turning away from him completely to talk to the Imperial instead. She knew exactly what she was doing in that respect…

"The honeyed figs are good with the cheese too, Sir. Would you like a serving of those too?" The young Breton batted her eyelashes in Gregor's direction. Ignoring Fjolte's finger that was tapping on her back.

“That sounds excellent, my dear,” Gregor said in accord, eyes bouncing between Camile and Fjolte’s attempts to get her attention. He suspected that she was teasing him and not ignoring him out of malice and he smirked at the sight. ‘Bubble of trouble’ had been more than right. Gods, if he were a younger man, without responsibilities… the fantasies simmered in his gaze as he looked Camile up and down. “Red wine, goat cheese and honeyed figs,” he summarized and laced his fingers together in his lap. “Bring us that and I shall be most grateful.”

He let it sit as he watched Camile, walk away, but Fjolte had a raised brow. Quite happy that she was out of earshot, he glanced to Gregor with a mocking expression; “195 Swirly red… Cheeeeeese… Honeyed figs!” He picked up his glass, sure to stick out his little finger like a noble might. “Now we’re really getting dignified, posh bastard,” he laughed. Dragging himself up in his chair to match Gregor’s posture again.

Not one to rise to such a bait, Gregor merely gave Fjolte a seraphic smile. “We’ve done things your way, my friend. Now it’s time to do them my way. You’ll enjoy this, I promise. The taste sensation when you combine the dry, full flavor of the red with the salty tang of the cheese…” He brought his fingers to his lips and kissed them. “Simply divine. My father taught me that. He said he and the other officers would get together after a successful battle, having requisitioned such food and drink from the locals, and enjoy an evening of fine wining and dining. It was the only thing about the war he truly enjoyed.” He breathed in deeply, as if he was already savoring the smell of the wine. “You want to meet new people and experience new cultures, don’t you?”

“I do,” Fjolte answered with a nod. “I’m not without my own taste too I’ll have you know… Every time there’s need to celebrate back home - we roast a whole pig,” he began explaining. “My Pa brews his own ciders too. Pork and apple Gregor, pork and apple.” The Nord suddenly sighed, thinking of home and his family, “I’ll try your wine and cheese. I’ll never say no to food and drink, whatever shape it takes… Your Pa must have been important then?”

He could picture the scene quite clearly, but for Gregor it was like something out of a children’s book -- stories about peasant families from ages past. Nords still lived in the old way in many places in Skyrim and it seemed Rorikstead was no exception. “That sounds like quite the feast,” he said as he looked up at a point above Fjolte’s head, imagining the smells and sounds of the Soriksen family at their most jolly.

Looking back down to the Nord, he rubbed his chin and thought about his question for a moment. “He was a Tribune,” Gregor answered. “A Legion is led by a General. Then there’s the Legates, the General’s closest advisors and direct subordinates. They usually oversee a single battlefield or Centurion of soldiers. The Tribunes are the officers that oversee the Legionnaires on the frontlines. There’s still several ranks of lesser and petty officers below that. So… yes, pretty important, I suppose. He served with distinction.” There was a clearly audible swell of pride in Gregor’s voice when he talked about his father.

“What if there was war again?” the thought occurred to the Nord, if Gregor’s father held such esteem in the Legion, would he fight again? Would he expect Gregor to? “I mean, you are a silversmith now — but… Surely there is a pressure...” he said quietly, seeing something of a different side to Gregor now that he was opening up.

“If the elves attacked again?” Gregor’s spine visibly stiffened. “We would answer the call. All of us. It would be an honour to fight for gods and country,” came his reply, perfectly patriotic, and someone with a lively imagination might be inclined to hear Imperial trumpets and the echoing call of bellicose oratory through the streets of Cyrodiil somewhere in the distance.

Fjolte ran his thumb over his lip, brushing his fingers through his beard again. “You know, you’re a good man, Gregor.” Any small feelings of inadequacy in his presence were amplified now, and he resigned himself to it. “There’s an honour about you that is rare to find. You’ve given me a lot to think about…” he confessed before huffing out a single laugh. “We’re from completely different worlds and yet we can still bond over shit booze and a good fight…”

Before there was time to react, Camile had made her way back over to their table. A bowl of sticky looking fruit, and a small cheese platter beside it. “Sorry Sir, no 195 red… But there is this Daggerfall vintage I found. Will it suit or shall I bring you another?” she asked politely with a smile, placing the food in the centre of the table - the sour scent of the cheese would have been overpowering were it not for the sweet and floral aroma of the honey.

Gregor wanted to respond to Fjolte but he was obliged to address Camile first. He took the bottle and inspected the label for a moment, until his eyebrows raised in surprise. "175…" he mouthed and a look of concern flitted across his face. This was undoubtedly going to be expensive. He looked at Fjolte again and nodded. "Ah, hell, when you're indulging yourself and introducing a friend to new experiences you might as well do it in style. It's perfect, Camile."

He took one of her hands in his own and kissed the back of it gently, his lips merely brushing against her skin, as if he were a nobleman greeting the belle of the ball. "Thank you ever so much." He looked up into her startling green eyes for a moment before turning enthusiastically to Fjolte and pouring them both a glass. He raised his own and remembering their last topic of conversation, he somberly said: "To the Emperor. Long may he reign."

He tried to take hold of the glass as gently as he could, in a way emulating the way he’d seen others do it. But.. try as he might, a wine glass place in his hand - even if he looked the part for a change. Still, it was nice to play at being more sophisticated than he was for a night. “Long may he reign,” he repeated, touching the side of the glass to Gregor’s. This had been a lot of drink mixing. He’d be sure to be punished for it come the morning.

To his surprise, it was a nice drink indeed. Warm and earthy. It had an appeal to it that he’d never really noticed in wine before. Maybe that was partly to do with the company too. “Well,” he began, smacking his lips in appreciation, “it doesn’t compare to how good the shein was, but I’ll take it.” He took another sip, refusing to gulp it down like he would with an ale - but taking his time to let the flavour settle in his mouth first. “This has been a good night Gregor, I’m glad we ran into each other.”

"I agree," Gregor concurred amicably. "About what you said, about honour," he began and looked over Fjolte's head again, digging into his memories.

"Even though large tracts of the Empire and many old and famous provinces have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Dominion and all the odious apparatus of Thalmor rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in Cyrodiil, we shall fight in Hammerfell, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the arenas of magic, we shall defend our Empire, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the forests, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender," he recited, his voice growing more impassioned with every passing word.

When he was done he sank back into his seat, having come to sit fully upright while speaking, and he pointed at Fjolte as if it was wisdom he wished to impart on the Nord. "Emperor Titus Mede II, on the eve of the Great War. Maybe you feel differently because Skyrim was never invaded but what happened afterwards in Cyrodiil…" Gregor shook his head. "The Slaughter of the Imperial City will never be forgotten. We trusted the Altmer to be a civilized foe and they proved us wrong. It's not about honour. It's about survival. Should there be another war, the Dominion will find an arrow behind every blade of grass. As long as a single Imperial draws breath, they will not know peace."

“Fair enough,” Fjolte said after a pregnant pause - both impressed by Gregor’s passion and somewhat shocked by it in equal measure. He gave a slow clap to the man, before lifting the glass to his lips again. He could never wish to be so eloquent, but where Gregor had a deep intensity - Fjolte felt confident in his own uniquely cool charm and charisma and he gave a smirk in the Imperial’s direction. “I’ve seen what you can do to bandits, friend, I have no doubt you’d fight to the very end if you had to. But I don’t know if I see the world quite like you do… I just want to walk every path and turn every stone. I wish that man wouldn’t go to war for the land that belongs to us all…”

“That’s the way of the world, unfortunately,” Gregor said. He liked Fjolte a lot and was just as glad to have met him as the Nord was to have met the Imperial, but he felt that there was a naivety to him that was not suitable for the reality of Tamriel. “A world where all races live in harmony and are free to go where they please only exists in history. You would have loved the Empire of the Third Era, my friend. The Septim Dynasty maintained the peace for hundreds of years. Now, Tamriel is more divided than ever since the days of Tiber himself.”

He sighed and laughed. “Sorry, I don’t mean to bore you with history. It’s just… something I feel passionate about. Let us return to a more enjoyable, lighthearted subject of conversation, yes?”

“I’m not bored, just wish I knew more about it myself…” he sighed with a slight chuckle. “Gregor, I can’t even fucking read,” he admitted with a laugh that came out louder than he’d expected - the wine was a different kind of drunken experience. “I grew up on a farm. Can’t really read or write, but I could chop firewood when I was a wee boy.” Just then, he had an idea, and he pulled himself up straight as he’d slouched again. “Say, do you think I could learn to be more… noble? Learn to fence with a sword or appreciate art… Good wine? I don’t know if it would suit me though…” he said, rubbing a hand under his nose. “Gregor, what do you think is… The thing that you do best?”

“Of course you could,” Gregor said with encouragement in his voice. “You already have a great nobility within you, Fjolte, like a giant… lion,” he said and scratched his beard, wondering where that had come from. “But I don’t know if you should, honestly. You’re a great man just the way you are and if I try to picture you with a glass of wine staring at a piece of Altmeri glass sculpture, making pretentious comments about the… the…” He frowned and gestured with his wine glass. “Fucking refractory quotient or the artist’s spiritual vision, or something, you just look pretty silly in my mind,” he settled on and looked at his wine, only now noticing that it was already almost depleted. He shrugged and poured himself a new round.

Sitting with one leg crossed over the other, Gregor thought about Fjolte’s question, swirling the wine beneath his nose. “That’s a tough question,” he mumbled and frowned pensively. “I suppose… my craftsmanship, or… being agreeable…” He had trailed off at the end but he repeated himself a little louder. “Being agreeable,” he said and looked at Fjolte with a question in his eyes. “Does that make sense? Is that a skill? I think I’m very good at being agreeable. I don’t quarrel with people, I’m polite, I try to be friendly and helpful, I respect my elders and I’m loyal to my loved ones,” he explained and then chortled, raising his glass. “Just the way my mama raised me.”

When Gregor told him he was noble, he puffed out his chest in response — face filled with pride at the compliment. “Damn right I’m a lion, king of the pack in fact…” he said without laughter. “I agree with you Gregor so I suppose that does make you quite agreeable and good at agreeing with things someone else might disagree with you on.” Fjolte explained, stumbling over the words, the wine in his glass sloshing from side to side. “You’re a bloody great man, Gregor… Gregor the Great in fact!”

The Nord slammed a fist down on the table again — he hadn’t really heard anything else Gregor had said, he was too busy imagining himself as the king of the pack… A goofy smile appeared on his face, and his cheeks turned red from the alcohol. “Gregor the Great and Fjolte the Lion,” he repeated. “That’s two Nord heroes if I’ve ever heard of them, they’ll be writing stories about our exploits…” Now, as Gregor had done just moments ago - Fjolte began a passionate speech of his own. His words slurred and came fast, and unlike Gregor, he didn’t exactly give much thought to the things he was saying at all.

“Gregor the Great and Fjolte the Lion! They fought and cleared every stinkin’ bandit hole! Took all the jewels and presented them to their…. Beautiful women! And the women flocked to the heroes because they were so… Great! And manly!,” he stopped for a moment, belching freely into the air. “They traveled Tamriel in search of all of the secrets - Gregor for his Emporererer, and Fjolte did it all for love!” He clenched a fist and went to raise his glass, only he lost his grip on it and it flew - seemingly in slow motion through the air, at least a quarter of a glass of the red wine left came crashing to the floor, shattering into what looked like a thousand pieces. “Well, shit my arse…” he commented as he looked down at it. “Butterfingers…”

Gregor burst into laughter, more loose and free than he had been all evening, until tears ran down his cheeks and his belly ached with every bout of uproarious merriment. It had been a decade or more since he had laughed and caroled like this with anyone. "Oh Fjolte," he managed eventually, gasping for breath and clutching his abdomen with both arms, "what'd you do that for, my dear fellow? Now Camile is sure to be cross with you!"

“It wasn’t on purpose!” he exclaimed desperately, looking at the pieces and the red wine puddle.

Camile appeared, an exasperated crease across her forehead. “You’re both too drunk,” she said, her hands on her hips as she looked at the men in despair. “Too bloody drunk!” she repeated, her voice more serious now.

Unable to take the petite woman seriously, Fjolte simply leaned on the table and pointed at Gregor with a boyish look “he started it! It was his fault!”

In utter disbelief, Gregor inflated, thunder on his brow, and got to his feet, pointing at Fjolte with his arm and index finger fully extended. "I did no such thing!" he declared with utter certainty and balled the first of his other hand. "You made this mess all by yourself and you know it! Take that back!"

He turned to Camile. "I paid for that wine, surely you don't think I'd throw it on the ground? You owe me, Fjolte! You owe me--" Frowning, he leaned a little closer to Camile. "How much does he owe me?"

Even as Gregor pointed a finger, anger and all, Fjolte could not help but giggle drunkenly. “Sweetpea!” he said, reaching his arms around Camile’s waist. “It was an accident…”

Camile frowned, somewhat humoured by Fjolte’s touch looked back to Gregor, “Four whiskeys.... Two hotpots… Cheese, figs, wine…” she rolled her eyes - staring upwards as she counted up the value of each item. “You haven’t even touched the food!” she cursed, as she eyed up the still full bowl and plate.

“Well, I’m saving my appetite… For my real dessert…” he purred, looking up at her before pulling her closer - which, if the giggle was anything to go by, she enjoyed. Now that he’d closed the distance between them, he nipped at the loose fabric of her shirt with his teeth. “Accident…” he repeated, his eyes aglow with desire now that she was in his arms.

“Fine… Fine… Fifty septims, each...” she replied, brushing a strand of Fjolte’s hair free from his eyes. “But you’re both too rowdy to stay…”

Drunken anger never lasted for long and Gregor’s was no different. It melted away quickly and he nodded in acquiescence to the proposed settlement. If it was time to leave, however, he wasn’t ready to part ways with the still half-full bottle of vintage Daggerfall wine, so he snatched it up and cradled it in his arms, looking around if he had left any of his belongings scattered about. He hadn’t and remembered that he had only come in with the sword on his back, after all.

“Fifty septims, very well,” he said and counted out the coins, mumbling along so that he didn’t forget his train of thought halfway through. He used the bag that Raelynn had given him to neatly drop the owed money in Camile’s palm. Their business concluded, Gregor looked between her and Fjolte and chuckled. “You two should really go home together,” he said, eyes alight with fondness.

“Not home,” Fjolte remarked with a salacious expression. “We have unfinished business in that barn…” he giggled almost wickedly, before getting to his feet, arms still wrapped around the waist of Camile. The woman was lifted up off the ground, where he proceeded to position her over his shoulder.

“My shift isn’t finished!” she proclaimed, hardly putting up a fight of actual protest.

Fjolte grinned again, “it is now.” He’d watched Gregor steal away the bottle of the vintage, and he turned to face his drinking companion - stretching out a hand for him to shake. “Been a good evening with you Gregor, we should… do this again.”

Between Camile and the bottle of wine Gregor knew which of them had come away this evening with the better prize, but he held no grudge in his heart. Gregor shook Fjolte’s hand firmly. “Absolutely, my friend. Have fun.” He winked and looked at Camile, whose precarious position over Fjolte’s shoulder revealed a similar view as she had displayed when she bent over to pick up the coin. Gregor allowed his gaze to linger for a few moments and smirked. “You too, Camile. Be nice to my friend, alright?”

That made the Nord laugh, “oh I hope she isn’t…” he quipped, before letting go of Gregor’s hand and heading to the door, feeling incredibly proud of himself. The alcohol in his system giving him an unbridled enthusiasm to shout out into the dark, midnight streets “I’M THE KING OF THE PACK!” and then he was away.
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Hank Dionysian Mystery

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13th of Sun’s Dawn, early afternoon
Jehanna, High Rock

Having followed the directions that Raelynn had provided two days earlier, Gregor stepped into the tailor’s store with a relieved sigh. He had put off the collection of his clothes until the day of the event and had been beset by the fear that he wouldn’t find the shop in time as he wandered through the streets of Jehanna and gotten lost repeatedly. Fortunately, his sense of direction and persistence had prevailed over the winding, labyrinthine city in time and his fear had been unfounded. While his eyes acclimatized to the gentle gloom inside the store he wondered, why had he been so anxious? It was unlike him not to have confidence in himself.

Unbidden, the image of Raelynn leaning onto his chair and staring into his eyes leapt back into his mind.

“Mister Mercurius, I presume?” came a voice from the back.

Gregor cleared his throat and blinked, willing his eyes to adapt faster. “Yes, that’s me.”

He stepped out of the pool of sunlight that fell onto the floor through the storefront windows and into an aisle flanked by two racks of coats. The musty smell that came inherently with having a place so full of clothes was dueling for dominance with a much more pleasant, flowery fragrance, and Gregor saw pots with woodsticks spaced every so often between the racks. It was a classy establishment, of course, and every measure was taken to make the shopping experience pleasant for its patrons. Gregor tried to imagine Raelynn here, picking out her own clothes, and found it easy when he happened upon the dresses. His eyes followed the layout of the place and she moved in front of him, a silent phantom, with her back turned and her long hair swaying with her movements, fingers brushing over the fabric of the clothes on display. The shuffling sounds of someone behind him made him turn back around and he saw the old and dignified form of the tailor take shape in the half-light -- real and tangible.

“I expected you earlier,” the tailor said, regarding Gregor levelly over the rim of his half-moon spectacles, with a taciturn manner of speaking that suggested that he was almost reprimanding him.

Gregor smiled and tried not to take offense. “My apologies, sir. I was indisposed until now.”

The older man merely harrumphed under his breath at that and beckoned for Gregor to follow him. They stepped deeper into the store into the tailor’s workshop and Gregor was directed to lose his coat and armor. A wry smile came to Gregor’s lips. Would he be forced to undress in every interaction he had with Raelynn or her business? But he did as he was asked and waited patiently while his measurements were taken. He had known several tailors throughout his life and he was used to being chatted up while they were at work, but this Breton seemed to have no interest in conversation. Maybe that was why Raelynn preferred him. She didn’t seem like the type to suffer idle ta;l or fools gladly.

When the tailor was done he straightened up and looked Gregor in the eyes. “Considering the formal nature of the event, sir, I recommend a simple black suit and coat over white. Stylish, elegant and timeless,” he said and it was only because he fell silent that Gregor realized it was his turn to speak.

“That sounds fine,” he said. Black suited him and it was definitely the safe option.

“Very good. Follow me.”

The collection of black suits, coats and white shirts was remarkable and Gregor was bemused as he gazed over the rack. The only variations were slight, in the color of the trim or the height of the collar and so on, but it was clear that the Bretons were firm believers in the fact that the devil was in the details. Gregor approached while the tailor waited in silence and inspected each ensemble in turn. Truly, he could not tell much difference between. Any one of them would do. Aware of the old Breton’s gaze on the back of his head, Gregor picked one of the outfits and held it up against him for the tailor to inspect.

“A fine choice,” he said flatly, stepping forward to fluff up the cravat and straighten the large opal that was attached to the fasteners of the coat. Gregor had the feeling that the tailor would have said the same about any of the other outfits but he wisely kept his mouth shut. The Breton took the ensemble from him and returned to his workshop, giving no indication as to when the necessary adjustments would be finished. Gregor didn’t feel like asking.

He found a chair near the front door that was obviously meant for patrons to wait in and he sat down gingerly, his own overcoat and armor draped over his arm. There was a severity and saturnine silence to the store that Gregor was unfamiliar with -- Imperials were a more lively bunch, and the Nibenese in particular, than these castle-dwelling Bretons. With nothing better to do, he closed his eyes for a moment and began to count…

“Mister Mercurius?”

Gregor opened his eyes and blinked a few times, feeling himself unexpectedly rise from the depths of sleep. Had he really needed a nap, or was it just the atmosphere of the place that had seen him doze off? He looked up at the tailor’s face and smiled apologetically. The tailor sighed and handed the ensemble to him. Gregor noticed that it included new boots as well and he held them up against the light with a frown.

“What’s wrong with my boots?” he asked and raised one of his feet off the floor so that they could both look at the boot.

The tailor didn’t answer for a few seconds, perhaps hoping that Gregor had been joking. “They’re not new,” he said at length, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Ah,” Gregor said and nodded to himself. So it was that kind of affair. The type that everyone would be wearing brand new attire for. Well, so be it.

He tried the clothes on and found that they fit him extremely well, so he thanked the tailor with sincere gratitude, which elicited the first smile, albeit small, from him that Gregor had seen. The Imperial admired himself in a floor-length mirror for a moment, turning this way and that, and even he had to admit that he looked very, very dashing. He decided to keep the outfit on so that he could break in the boots a little and left the store with a spring in his step.

This was going to be easy.

Back in the bay window of her suite at The Long Well, Raelynn stared wistfully across the ocean - clear blue with the chalk white lines of the waves dancing. Her slender fingers toyed with the petals of the lillies in their crystalline vase. Soft and delicate, held up pretty and proper. As her eyes moved between the ocean and the flowers, she discovered on one of those petals, a tiny brown stain. Where the petal had moved and perhaps creased in a breeze. It was spoilt.

She reached for it, removing it from the vase with a frown before placing it on the sideboard, looking over her shoulder to Shona, who was busy polishing a pair of earrings at a table. “Are you done with those?” Raelynn asked quietly, glancing down upon the plain looking girl. Her mouse brown hair fastened into a single, styless ponytail, her clothing a simple tunic and tights. Shona nodded. “Very good, help me to dress, please.”

The two worked together, first, Raelynn bathed — lavender, rose petals, and an oil were added to the water. Shona sat behind her on a low stool, combing through her ashen hair with great care while Raelynn ran a towelette across her skin. As she squeezed the water out over her forearm, she thought briefly of Gregor — of the cut she toyed with on his own arm. A smile briefly flickered over her lips. How would he be today? How well would he perform at his task? She realised in that moment she was half-excited to find out the answer to that question, and half-excited over the potential for the meeting to be a resounding success…

Shona had worked all through the day in preparing every element of Raelynn’s outfit. From polishing each piece of jewellery, to ensuring that there were no clicks or faults in her dress of gloves. She’d even taken the Lady’s shoes to be re-heeled. Everything was deliberate, everything had to be perfect — to the finest detail indeed, like the exact application of her perfume.

Raelynn stood, in just her underwear behind the partition as Shona fetched the dress. The Breton eyed her form in the mirror as it was, lingerie was not cheap, she thought to herself. Men never really understood it, how much attention women paid to their appearance. The lengths they went to. She smirked again, running a finger across the material of the thong - how it was as close enough to the colour of her skin as it could be.

“My guest, Mr Mercurius,” she said to Shona as the girl brought the dress around the corner on it’s hanger. “Do you think he’ll like this dress?” She turned her head to meet the brown eyes of her maid. Shona simply nodded with a smile, a knowing smile. She may not have been able to speak, but she could certainly express language through her chocolate eyes and her dimpled smile. “Good.” Raelynn said to her reflection, as she stepped into it.

Shona had only one button left to fasten on the back when there was a knock at the door, Raelynn’s head jolted towards it - she hadn’t actually expected him to be exactly on time. Still, she’d make him wait just as long as she felt to, eyeing herself up in the dress once more as she felt the cinch of the fabric when the last button was fastened. “Go to the door,” she commanded Shona, giving her a light nudge too.

She remained behind the partition, admiring herself. It was a simple gown. Champagne silk to the floor, exotic feathers strewn from just below the knee to the hem in a lighter hue. A provocative deep v across the chest, and she wore no necklace - only a pair of ruby drop earrings - her hair up and away from her face, save for select strands.

Once again, her lips were painted in a deep red, and the last touch to finish her outfit for the evening was a pair of dress gloves. Black velvet, and to the elbow. She felt so elegant and refined, and didn’t come out from behind the partition - even when she heard the sound of a man’s footsteps on the floor in the suite.

She took her time, there was a single hair out of place and it wasn’t until it was fixed that she made her way to the centre of the room, her expression stoic - despite the sudden twinge of nervousness she felt that she couldn’t quite place. Raelynn was never nervous. It wasn’t until she met the dark gaze of her guest that she found a clue as to why.

After bidding Shona a good day with a respectful nod and a small smile, Gregor had taken up position in the middle of the room while he waited for Raelynn to reveal herself and found himself staring out of the window and unto the sea that lay beyond. His hands were clasped behind his back, which was ramrod straight, his shoulders broad and positively regal in his new handsome black coat. A white cravat over a white dress shirt completed the look of his torso, while his black felt trousers were tucked into his knee-high leather boots, polished to perfection and featuring a dignified elevated heels. He, too, wore black gloves, the contrast with his rings making them shine even more than usual, and his single earring caught the silver light that filtered into the room while his face was turned towards the window.

Raelynn’s appearance immediately demanded his attention, however, and he looked at her with every intention of curtsying and asking her if she was well. But he found himself frozen to the spot, his dark eyes locked with her own bright orbs for a moment before they, despite his better judgement, wandered down her body and back up again, drinking in the incomparable sight of the Breton woman in full regalia. His expression was unreadable but his heart immediately started beating faster again, and he pinched himself in the fingers behind his back. Get it together.

“My lady,” he said after he broke free of her spell and dropped into the well-practiced curtsey after all. “You look absolutely radiant. Are you well?”

She did not answer immediately, but gave him a polite smile for the compliment. Instead of words, she walked a semi-circle around him, flagrantly observing him from head to toe before nodding. “I am. My tailor did a good job, I hope the clothes are comfortable for you.” Raelynn had walked past him now, and moved to her desk where an envelope had been placed.

He felt a bit like a piece of cattle being observed at the markets when Raelynn circled him, but he supposed it couldn’t be helped. He had a role to play tonight and she had to make sure that his looks were up to snuff. Gregor nodded with a half-smile on his lips. “Very comfortable, thank you. I can trust that this means I have met your standards of refinement?” he asked; an innocent enough question, but there was something playfully defiant about the way he asked it. His eyes sparked like dark fire opals.

“You do,” she answered, casting a long glance back at him - catching the glint in his eye. The sparkle of his jewelry added a touch to him that she enjoyed too, and she let him see a glimpse of a more alluring smile. “Tell me, do you have good sea legs?” she asked, pacing towards him with the envelope held between her fingers.

That smile was more like it and Gregor stood down a little, satisfied that he had evoked a response -- however small -- that pierced through her veil of stoicism. He didn't know why and he didn't want to think about why, but he felt a simmering urge to push back a little against her control instead of entirely meekly being led along like a lamb to the slaughter. "Steady enough," he replied, not very surprised by the question. She'd already mentioned in their first meeting that the affair tonight might not take place on land. "As long as we don't sail straight into a storm tonight…"

"We won't even set sail… It's all for show." Raelynn said, once again inspecting him. Her cold eyes narrowed and she brought herself closer to him, something wasn't quite right and she wasn't afraid to correct it. The Breton brought her hand slowly to his face, slipping a finger through his hairline to pull a particular strand free. She gently pulled at it, winding it around her finger before letting it go, a slight wave in it now. It gave him something of a darker edge immediately. "There now, that's perfect…"

When her fingers grazed his scalp Gregor felt a tingle run down his spine and the hairs of his forearms stand on end, as if he had been touched by electrical static. While she was busy with the strand of hair, his gaze wandered down her plunging neckline, and when she spoke he averted his gaze to inspect himself in the windowpane's reflection. "Do you desire to make a rogue out of me, my lady?" he asked, looking back at her eyes, his voice a deep murmur.

That elicited a slow and impressed chuckle from her, he was quick. The evening was shaping up to be less of a dull affair already, "sometimes I enjoy the things that are rough around the edges…" she whispered, leaning slightly closer to him for a split second before she moved to the doorway without warning. Her heels echoed on the floorboards, and Raelynn took a look at Shona who was waiting for her dismissal. "Ensure the room is clean, and then you're free for the evening, and I'll see you tomorrow morning, alright?"

The maid nodded and smiled - as always, then Raelynn turned back to Gregor, "it's time to leave," and held out her arm expectantly.

His eyes followed her as she turned away from him, admiring the things the silk dress did for her body. Another tingle ran down his spine. What was it about this woman that affected him so? Her sheer beauty was one factor, of course, but he had known plenty of very beautiful women since his marriage and none had incited such feelings in him -- as if an electrical current ran through his bones. He settled on biting the inside of his lower lip and flexed his hands a few times to ground himself.

When he stepped up to join Raelynn by the door he showed no outward signs of his inner disturbance and he hooked his arm into hers smoothly. “A ship in the harbor, then?” he asked, though it was mostly a rhetorical question. It couldn’t really be anything else. It was more so an invitation for Raelynn to share more information about their destination. He figured she was someone that always played her cards close to the chest and that wouldn’t divulge things without a little prodding.

Now seemed as good a time as any to debrief him on her plan. As the two walked and made it out of The Long Well, they were greeted by the fresh sea air, and the violet sky of dusk. The sun would be setting soon, and Raelynn thought about how it would be nice to see it from a ship, instead of from indoors, and nice to see it with somebody…

"The Morning Star. It's claimed to be the fastest ship in all of High Rock," she began, taking in a deep breath of the air and savouring it mid sentence before exhaling. "I want to meet with the owner of the Morning Star tonight. He's a redguard named Razul, and I want him to allow me to courier my goods on his ship… He has a reputation as being a ruthless womaniser and that's part of the reason you're with me and I'm not attending this alone." Raelynn turned to look at her companion, struck by the way he looked in the fading sun. "Are you comfortable with this?" She asked, paying close attention to how he would react - for the most part, Gregor had kept a level composure that was difficult even for her to judge. It only made him all the more mysterious to her, that he was so unreadable.

"I see," Gregor said. The implications were evident to him immediately. "My presence is not just required as a formality but as an active deterrent against his advances. Therefore, it is important that it is believably conveyed in my appearance and bearing that you are… not available," he summarised. He thought about this for a moment, then looked Raelynn in the eyes and thought some more.

Without taking his eyes off hers, Gregor worked his wedding ring off his finger and dropped it in one of the pockets of his coat. "It will be done," he said in the manner of a consummate professional sealing a deal.

So that ring was not just for show. She practically felt the weight of it falling forever into his pocket. However, Raelynn felt no guilt for what she'd asked of Gregor, she had a job to do and this was the way. "That is correct… Like I said, don't let me drink too much, don't let me stray from your sight…" Instead of the guilt, Raelynn felt her attraction towards the man deepen. He was in a way, forbidden. She didn't like being told she couldn't have something.

There was immediately something that awoke inside of her, and the devilment flashed over her eyes. Gregor was putting on an air of solemnity for himself, but she remembered very clearly the look in his eye -- and the simple way he'd brushed her earring. Even thinking about it now almost had her shudder. Another smirk teased across her full lips as she turned to face the ship ahead of them. "I don't want the people of Jehanna to think I engage in sexual deviancy as a currency for my business," she said, slightly smug about it too. Raelynn did not need to look at Gregor, she knew the image would find its way into his mind.

She wondered how long it would stay, before another thought occurred to her. “If it’s easier for you this evening, you can always act as someone else… A new name, a new life…”

Since he kept his eyes on hers until she looked away at the ship in front of them, Gregor saw the dark mischief in Raelynn's mind all too clearly. It should have been the final warning sign to back out of the agreement, to go back to his room and find the mithril another way. But he didn't. It was just one night, and he was strong enough to resist for just one night. Or at least that's what he told himself. Not even the image of Raelynn moving naked beneath him, a hot flush on her cheeks, that she conjured in his mind could dissuade him. He ignored the fact that it made his heart skip a beat and then begin to deepen in its thrumming.

"That might be prudent," Gregor replied, already taking precautions so that the events of the night that were about to unfold would not get back to his family, no matter what did or did not happen. "Call me Gregor… Sibassius," he settled on, and his imagination took a page out of the pulp novels he used to read as a young man. "Monster slayer and bounty hunter." A small smirk escaped through his solemn mask. "Not my real trade, but I have enough experience to make it work."

Raelynn gave thought to the name, and decided that she liked it. That was followed by a feeling of envy that Gregor could do such a thing - be someone else. She didn't have that privilege, not really. "I like that," she responded quietly, her attention slipping away from him the closer they got to the ship. There were many moving parts involved in night, to ensure that she got what she wanted - Razul's signature on paper.

"We've been courting briefly, it's early days. We met because you did some work for me. You… Procured a painting and I was impressed by your knowledge of the arts, despite your trade as a hunter. You put me in touch with another painter whom you know and things blossomed from there… We have not slept together," she explained - able to craft the story quickly. “I trust that you can keep up with that, Mr Sibassius,” she finished, looking at him once more as a playful expression crossed her countenance.

The thought of having to lie to a ship full of dignitaries was a little daunting, Gregor had to admit, but the way Raelynn looked at him filled him with determination all the same. “Of course, madam Deserine,” he retorted and placed his free hand over Raelynn’s, caressing the back of her hand with his thumb. “I immediately knew I was dealing with a woman of good taste, the way you looked at that Turner piece,” he murmured and, for all the world to see, it looked like there was genuine affection in his eyes. Then he chuckled and returned his hand behind his back, gaze on the ship that loomed in front of them. He briefly wondered what in Oblivion he was getting himself into.

“See?” she replied in an easy tone, “it’s like you’re a natural.”

Raelynn didn’t let it show, but that caress did nothing to cool the attraction she felt for him. A heat in her chest that simply filled the space where intimacy had been absent. An appetite she’d been ignoring.

The Breton was grateful to have arrived at the gangway to the Morning Star - the sound of music only just hit her ears, that and the buzz of chatter from the deck. At the top, a young woman stood with a tray of drinks to be collected upon arrival, and Raelynn could already distinguish that the guests had grouped themselves together for their obnoxious small talk, the pretence and embellishing of their achievements. If she could have gotten away with it, she would have rolled her eyes. She took the glass with an obnoxiously polite smile of her own, taking one for Gregor too. It was white wine, sparkling — expensive. “We’ll spend time here, Razul will sniff me out soon enough,” she whispered into his ear as she handed him the glass, passing it off as an affectionate brush with her lips on his neck.

The spot where Raelynn’s lips had touched him burned hot and Gregor exhaled an imperceptibly shaky breath while he accepted his glass from her, eyes going over the deck of the ship and the people there but taking in nothing. His mind only had eye for the woman on his arm. “Can’t blame him,” Gregor said in a low voice, without thinking. His eyes widened a little when he realized. Not seeing any way he could play it off as a joke, Gregor merely smiled at Raelynn as enigmatically as he could muster -- perhaps she would believe it was just part of his performance. He put the glass to his lips and swallowed what he knew was significantly more than a polite sip.

Raelynn watched him drink from the glass and raised a brow, “take it easy,” his comment slipped her mind when it became more apparent that he might end up drinking more than he should. There was a slight authority on her tongue that cut through the fervour she’d felt earlier. She still had a job to do, and so did he. “No more sips,” she commanded him as plainly as possible before making her way across the deck.

From the barrier, an older looking Imperial couple seemed to wave her over, “Lady Deserine,” the gentleman said, his wife side eyeing him, but offering her a smile all the same as she approached.

“Good evening,” she answered, looking over her shoulder to Gregor. “Quentin, Selena... You both look wonderful tonight.”

Their eyes shifted to Gregor. Selena looking both in surprise and relief, she raised a brow and gave an impressed smile at his form. It wasn’t often she got to eye up other men, and her husband wasn’t exactly subtle with other women. “And who might you be, Sir?”

Gregor had accepted Raelynn’s reprimand without comment but he felt the same rebellious urge that had welled up in him when she’d been tending to his wounds flare up again. Now was not the time to act on it, however, and he slipped into the role he was to play instead. “Gregor Sibassius, madam,” he answered and lowered his head, turning slightly so that the fading sunlight emphasized the scars on his cheek when he straightened back up. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Sibassius?” Quentin interrupted, thrusting his hand out to shake, “a strong name that one. It’s a pleasure to meet yours…” he smiled, the gap in his front teeth the only thing remarkable about his otherwise plain, and generic appearance. “It’s always nice to be in… our company from time to time,” he said quietly, alluding of course to the fact they were just about the only Imperials in what seemed like a sea of Bretons. “Lady Deserine, I’m surprised to see you bring a distinguished guest such as Mr Sibassius,” he chortled.

She laughed too, sickened by the fact that she did but keeping up appearances was part of the game, she placed a hand on Quentin’s arm. “Oh, well this seemed as good an event as any to arrive with him.” And then she looked back at Gregor - with an expression filled with absolute warmth and affection. Her eyes aglow with excitement as she placed her hand from Quentin’s arm to Gregor’s. “I’m already just so fond of him, isn’t that right?” she asked Gregor, squeezing his arm flirtatiously.

The memory of Fjolte’s dismay at not being invited to this event flashed through Gregor’s mind and he bit back the chortle in his throat. The Nord would have been like a fish out of water among these people. Tumbling about with a barmaid in a barn was much more his speed.

“It is,” Gregor replied, meeting Raelynn’s gaze and summoning the same fondness that she looked up at him with. He found that it came very easily. “You’ve been very sweet to me,” he murmured and brushed against her cheek with his fingers, leaning in a little closer, before expertly playing the part of the man caught being too affectionate with his lover in public and returning his attention back to the Imperials. “And very kind for bringing me along to meet with such wonderful people,” he said with a flourish. “I have recently traveled here from Cyrodiil and I am pleased to report that all is well in the homeland,” Gregor added, playing into the sentiment Quentin displayed.

“Glad to hear it!” Quentin responded, puffing out his chest with pride. “It’s nice to see you out of your workspace, Raelynn,” he added. “The few instances you emerge from that little cave of yours are so rare. I more often see your Nord running around, actually. Nice young man, yes.”

Selena nodded in agreement, “very polite,” she smirked knowingly. “You are very polite yourself, Gregor,” she added with a smile, holding out her hand for him too. His affection towards Raelynn had left an impression on her, and she couldn’t peel her eyes away from him.

Sensing an outlet for his defiance and an opportunity to subtly rebuke Raelynn for telling him how much he could or couldn’t drink, Gregor took Selena’s offered hand and kissed it gently. “I can be quite a rascal, truthfully,” he said as he straightened up, “but being in company as elegant as yourself is sufficient motivation for me to behave.” The easy smile he wore widened a little further. Hearing Fjolte mentioned practically by name piqued his interest and, further emboldened, he added: “Fjolte? I had a drink with him just the other day. Lovely fellow, I agree.” He briefly glanced sidelong at Raelynn. “We talked for hours.”

“The other day you say?” Quentin asked, his brow raising as he brought a hand to his mouth, Selena too looked at him, giving a knowing nod. The man laughed, “I heard from my good friend Claudius only early yesterday that he had discovered Fjolte on his farm, looking worse for wear.”

Raelynn’s eyes widened and she tilted her head, “oh dear,” she breathed. “I do hope nothing was damaged.” She said, placing her own hand over her mouth - a faux display of concern to mask a feeling of embarrassment at the mention. She felt Gregor’s gaze over her, but she would not give him the satisfaction of looking back.

“Oh, Lady Deserine, quite the opposite. The boy must have passed out drunk in the barn and felt so bad for it the next day that he set to a few hours of farmwork - saved Claudius an entire morning of shifting hay bales. He was very grateful, rest assured,” Quentin laughed.

“Is that so?” Raelynn asked, feigning a smile too. “Well, I shall be sure to pass that message along. What must you have done to him, Gregor?” she asked, turning to face him now at last with a smile. “I didn’t believe you could be such a rascal,” and she slapped him playfully to finish it.

Sensing that he had pushed the boundary about as far as it could go, Gregor smiled apologetically. “What can I say? I didn’t know that Nords weren’t used to drinking something as strong as Cyrodilic brandy,” he said and winked at Quentin. “I’m sorry, my dear,” he added, turning to Raelynn, and taking her hand in his own. “It won’t happen again.”

“Oh I shall hope it does,” Selena said with a chuckle, “just send him to collapse in our front yard next time — my rose bushes have needed to be tended to for quite some time.”

Quentin flashed his wife a confused look, to which she looked away and he decided to change the subject; “anyway, yes Lady Deserine — lovely to see you out and about, especially in such nice company and especially since that business in Wayrest with you-know-who...” he said, his voice lowering. Even at his side, Selena’s smile dropped and her gaze shifted away from Raelynn.

The Breton’s expression changed and she slowly closed her eyes, back straightening as the affable expression was wiped from her face. “What business would that have been, then?” she asked, her mouth hanging open and her eyes wide with expectation.

Quentin felt the chill immediately and practically recoiled, regretting his choice of topic. Wishing he could undo what he’d said — he had just thought they were having such a nice rapport… “Well, all that. You know, with Sir Gaerford…” he glanced down, having been forced to spit the words out.

Raelynn took a deep breath and her fingers tightened around the stem of her glass. “All overblown rumours,” she clarified bringing a more well-meaning smile to her face, but making it clear she would say no more, and they should ask no more. “Gregor, I’d very much like to watch the sunset from up there,” she said, pointing a finger in the direction of the bow of the ship.

“Of course, my love,” Gregor said smoothly, picking up the vibe and understanding full well that a nerve had been struck. He bid the Imperials goodbye with a respectful nod and escorted her towards the front without saying a word. Internally, a battle between curiosity, respect and concern was raging. Sir Gaerford? Wayrest? Had he just gotten a glimpse into the dramas of Raelynn’s lovelife? But he kept his tongue and once he had wrestled the initial urge of inquisition into submission, Gregor found himself pondering the implications of the way she’d tensed on his arm and feeling worried about the petite blonde woman.

“My father once told me a story about an officer’s party he had attended on a boat in the harbor of the Imperial City,” Gregor began, his voice so low and his tone so gentle that only Raelynn could hear. “A lot of important men were in attendance and the evening progressed much as you would expect from such company. Lots of war stories being swapped back and forth. A respectful affair, by all accounts. Until they realized after midnight that they seemed to have lost one of the Legates in attendance. All night they searched the ship and eventually the rest of the harbor but found nothing. Concern grew. A search party of some of the less inebriated men even dove into the water.” He paused for dramatic effect and smiled. “Come the morning, they found the man in the crow’s nest, fast asleep. One of the men had dared him to climb up and down as part of a wager and when he arrived at the top, he found he could not find his footing on the way back down in the darkness.”

Gregor looked up at the crow’s nest of the Morning Star and laughed quietly. “Imagine that; a man used to sending hundreds of Legionnaires into battle, stuck up there all night while they tore up half the Waterfront looking for him.”

She half-wanted to ask him the point of the story, to bite at him for it. The residual irritation over her personal life being discussed in the open, but she thought better of it, smiling back at him with a soft laugh of her own that helped her to soften up again. The look of appreciation that she gave him, was it real? Or part of the act? Was she smiling at Gregor Mercurius, or Gregor Sibassius? “You’d be surprised just how often the people in the highest positions are able to make such silly fools of themselves.”

Her arm wrapped tighter around his as they came to the railings of the bow. She let her eyes wander the horizon, the appetite gnawing at her as she observed the beautiful colours and felt the breeze touch her bare shoulders. Raelynn stepped in front of him, placing a hand on the railing, and finally lifting the glass to her lips - taking a sip that rivalled Gregor’s own. “Hold me,” she said, turning her head to her shoulder, but daring not meet his eyes. As if to have the feeling that this was part of the game, she took his hand and placed it around her waist. She wasn’t really asking, merely directing.

“Tell me something else, too,” she said. Her eyes on the water.

He hesitated for a moment, looking down at her with his usual unreadable demeanour. Then he softened a little. Gregor took her in his arms, one arm around her waist where she’d placed it and the other around her shoulders, and the tenderness with which he did so could not be faked. That level of vulnerability drew out a protectiveness in him that would not be denied by sense or reason.

“When I was a boy, my friends and I would work on the fields outside the city gate in the summer,” Gregor soothed. “It was hard work and we took it seriously. When the day drew to an end the sky would bloom just like this.” He gestured with his fingers to the beautiful display of color that was the sunset. “Without fail, we could hear the farmer’s wife begin cooking up the stew that she made for each of us in their homestead, and we’d spend the last moments of our shift running through the orchard, weaving between the trees, just hucking apples at each other until she called us for dinner.” He breathed in deeply and sighed, a smile on his lips. “I can still see that sky, hear our laughter and smell that stew on evenings like this.”

Raelynn pressed back against him just enough so that she could feel the timing of his breaths in his chest push back against her. Her eyes closed at the sound of his voice and she let his words become a picture in her mind. “I used to watch the sunset with my mother,” she whispered back. “No hard work, or apple hucking. We’d just sit on our balcony with tea and fresh strawberries in the late afternoon in summer.” Orchards and scents of stew drifted away, as the idyllic scene of a quiet summer took their place. “She would sew, and I would read.”

The disappearing sun sent the last of its light to shimmer across the glass in her hand, and she took another sip - slower this time. “You can have another drink,” she told him, bringing them back to where they were.

Now it was Gregor’s turn to picture the scene that Raelynn painted. It was beautiful too, and told him a bit more about who she was. It suited her, he thought, long evenings with her mother and a good book. Gregor brought his glass up and, feeling much more at ease, took a reasonable sip. He drew slow circles with the tips of his fingers in the small of her back and placed a soft kiss on the top of her head, his mind empty. It was like he had known her for years. “Are you alright now?” he asked, humming the question into her hair.

A breath caught in her chest, the feeling of his fingers on her back, moving across the thin silk gave her shivers - pleasant and stirring. The kiss, unexpected. “Yes,” she replied truthfully, but straightening her back and shoulders. Raelynn blinked, as if breaking the momentary spell that he’d cast over her. “I’m fine,” she added with a smile, turning around to face him. She caught his eyes with her own, resisting the temptation to kiss him altogether. Gregor was proving to be more of a distraction to her than she wanted. Her lips pulled into a pout. “Nobles and their gossip, I loathe these events,” she said with a shrug — stepping away, and out of Gregor’s presence. “I’d like another drink,” she said - holding out her glass to him, as if to remind him that underneath their story and their act, this was a business transaction.

Gregor blinked and took the glass from her. “As you wish,” he said, voice and tone back to being neutral, and he turned away from her to search for a waiter with a new glass of wine. With Raelynn out of sight and himself beyond the grasp of her perfume, his wedding ring weighed heavily in his pocket and he was struck by a pang of guilt and regret. “What are you doing?” he whispered to himself, but presented the first waiter he encountered with an affable smile all the same. He finished his own drink as well before exchanging the two empty glasses for full ones and he returned to Raelynn with a repetitive mantra in his head: it’s just business.’ He handed the glass to her with a curt inclination of his head before looking back over the rest of the ship. “I had expected Razul earlier,” he muttered as he settled against the railing next to her, now keeping a little distance between them.

“He’s over there,” Raelynn answered as she took the glass, her eyes on the large Redguard making his way over the deck. He was dressed flamboyantly. Purple trousers and a white linen shirt, the buttons open to reveal the hair on his chest, his large build the indication that he enjoyed his hedonistic lifestyle. Still, there was something charismatic about him. Raelynn eyed him up from her vantage point, holding her glass as her eyes narrowed. “He’d look better with a beard, don’t you think?” she asked aloud.

Razul had a round face, and beady yellow eyes that would only stand out more prominently if he had some neat facial hair - styled well. Like Gregor’s perhaps. His actual hairstyle was nothing too exciting either - just a messy afro of thick black hair. It was clear that Razul had the idea that it was only the clothes that made the man, and paid little attention to anything else. Just as she thought it, his serpentine gaze caught hers, and he hunched his shoulders, almost to make himself even bigger - more impressive.

As he approached, he sidelined Gregor entirely, and moved in on the Breton, “Raelynn!” he beamed, holding his arms out, and wrapping them around her, without the foresight to ask permission. She had been expecting it, and as such had already steeled herself against his form as she was suddenly enveloped in it. What she had not expected was the boldness he displayed with his hands. They found their way to her bottom and felt their way around her curves until she expertly turned away. Making it look more like a natural maneuver than a woman escaping a pest. She didn’t appreciate his forward nature, but she didn’t want to embarass him either.

“Razul,” she answered, waving a hand to Gregor, “I’d like to introduce you to my companion this evening.” She simply wanted to nip his hunger in the bud, and so she placed a gentle hand on Gregor’s elbow to usher him forwards.

Gregor’s eyes narrowed at the sight of Razul’s perceived sense of liberty with Raelynn’s womanly attributes, revolted by the Redguard’s total lack of respect. Not even a very drunk Fjolte would ever be so ungentlemanly. Against all restraint and logic, Gregor kept his mind close to his reserves of magicka, ready to teach Razul a lesson he would never forget at a moment’s notice. But that’s not what Raelynn wanted, of course.

“Gregor Sibassius, sir,” he dutifully introduced himself and curtsied. He would show the man due respect but he would not shake his hand, and his smile had run far away from his face. “It’s an honour to meet you, and I am impressed by your ship.” That part, at least, was true. Gregor was far from an expert but he wouldn’t be surprised if there was truth to what they said about the Morning Star, judging by the sleekness of its hull and the craftsmanship that went into its smooth, wooden construction.

“Fastest ship in High Rock,” Razul replied proudly. If there was one thing he enjoyed more than beautiful women, it was people blowing smoke up his arse. “I bet you do like her,” he grinned, slapping a hand on the railing where Raelynn had shared her quiet moment with Gregor. She flinched behind his back, since his attention was now on Gregor. He liked having something over on other men. “She’s a beauty, needs a strong captain too - doubt an Imperial like yourself could take the wheel on her,” he said, sniffing hard and hocking it over the side of the railings and into the water below. “What do you do then?” he asked curiously, and almost aggressively, a so far unimpressed expression on his face. So this was who Raelynn would spend her time with? He could shake him, Razul was sure of that.

Gregor turned to follow Razul’s hand, his scarred cheek basking in the dusk, before looking back up at the Redguard’s eyes. He saw nothing there but vapid arrogance and stupidity. “I kill monsters,” he said flatly, the loose strand of hair that Raelynn had styled for him casting a long shadow over his face.

Razul nodded, lips turning to a frown before he glanced at Raelynn. “Does he now? You seen him kill a monster?” he asked, at which point Raelynn rejoined the conversation - sensing something stir within Gregor.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” she lied, moving to Gregor’s side, the slight trail of fabric of her dress sweeping behind her. “But let’s not get caught up, Razul — you already know why I’m here.” As she spoke, she reached a hand towards the redguard, pulling lint free from his shoulder - her very brief touch seemed to placate him and he turned his attention back to her. “We’ve spoken in the past about me using your ship…” she added, leading him towards that.

He nodded, nostrils flared. “And I keep telling you, no. I can’t take those kind of risks… Transporting your things.” Where Raelynn and Gregor both could manage to be inscrutable, Razul could not, and it was clear there was an awkward fear in his eyes.

Seeing that in his eyes distracted Gregor from his feelings of disgust and he had to resist the urge to look at Raelynn, potentially giving away to Razul that he didn’t know what he was talking about. What was it about Raelynn’s goods that was so dangerous? Gregor stood down from his visibly agitated posture and clasped his hands behind his back, reduced to watching and waiting for the conversation to play out.

Raelynn wrapped her arm through Gregor’s again, leaning close to him - as if by doing so made her appear as more of a non-threat. “But Razul, it’s just paintings and antiquities. I hope you haven’t been listening to any rumours? You’ve worked with my father and had no troubles, I’m simply another branch of his operation,” she said while wearing a cool countenance. “Gregor here was helping me source some wonderful art, actually. I think it would sell well in Daggerfall. I just want to send it over there.”

She could visibly see the cogs working behind Razul’s eyes so turned her attention to Gregor, running her finger over his cheek affectionately. “Isn’t that right?” she asked him, her eyes wide like a doe - they would look almost innocent if it wasn’t for the fact she was delighting in her own lie.

Mollified by his requirement to play their little game, Gregor allowed himself to relax as Raelynn touched his cheek and he nodded with a smile. “Yes, and you have a very fine eye for it, too,” he concurred, glancing at Razul as he tried to calculate the necessity of an extra push. “My father is an avid collector,” he said to the Redguard by way of explanation, lowering his tone conspiratorially, “and Raelynn here has the same sense for it. I immediately knew I was dealing with a woman of good taste, the way she looked at a Turner piece.” He looked back at her and squeezed her arm. “So I lended her my tracking talents for a more artistic pursuit and, well,” he sighed, “now transportation is the last hurdle.” Gregor finished his yarn with a poignant look in Razul’s direction.

The captain nodded along, and what had been boredom in his expression turned to interest as Gregor spoke. Raelynn was a shrewd businesswoman, he knew that much. But this Sibassius gentleman had brains of his own. “Yeah I see, I see,” he added - trusting immediately in Gregor and turning away from Raelynn.

She’d counted on it, that men would trust only men. She hated it, it gnawed at her inside that she’d lowered herself to this, but it still meant her goals would be met, and the fact that Razul had softened made her relax — even amongst the anger. Once again, she looked up into Gregor’s eyes, knowing she had to continue to butter him up too, lest he suddenly lose his nerve. “You know how much I love it when you say those things about me,” she flirted, biting her lip and teasing a finger down his neck. “It’s so hard to find a man with that eye too,” she purred. “Don’t forget that you stopped me from overlooking that beautiful painting of an orchard… With the workers running through it…”

"Ah, yes, like a scene straight from my childhood," the Imperial mused, expertly staring into the middle distance. Now that he felt like they were on a roll he was starting to enjoy himself.

"These paintings are that valuable, Gregor?" Razul asked with a raised brow.

"Hm? Well, yes, to the right buyer," Gregor replied and focused his gaze back on Razul. He was about to exhaust all he knew about the art trade -- it was his mother that had had a passing interest in art, not his father -- on top of a heaping of improvisation, and he dearly hoped that it would be the final nail in the coffin for Razul's reticence. "Usually it's a matter of staying aware of which young artist, or rediscovered master of old, has the nobility's favour, but then you're truthfully already behind the curve. The real money is to be made in guiding the nobility's favour. That's where Raelynn's collection comes in. Sourced from all over the Empire, from artists that have had mild to moderate success in their own circles. Find the right patron of arts in Daggerfall, sell him on the qualities of the pieces, overlooked by less insightful collectors elsewhere…"

He let the train of thought hang in the air for a moment. "Collectors all copy each other, you know. When one has decided that an artist is favourable and the work has clearly identifiable artistic merit, they'll all want one." He leaned forwards and went in for the kill. "Guess who owns the entire supply on this side of the Niben?"

Razul regarded him for a moment longer, holding his breath as he glanced between Gregor and Raelynn. He felt a small sense of admiration for the man. No wonder that he could have a woman like Raelynn Deserine in his arm - he was smart and charming. The redguard observed the way that she looked at him, the way that his words clearly impressed her too. The way that she bit down on her lip spoke volumes to Razul about how she desired Gregor.

On her side, what Razul had seen was true, she did feel that the veneer slipped and that feeling returned. His words, and the way he actually seemed to know what he was talking about. Gregor was full of surprises.

"Tell me then," Razul said finally. "Keep talking, no wait," he mumbled, waving over a waiter with more drinks. He turned his nose up at the offerings. "Pisswater…" he scoffed, "Gregor-" he said, a new respect for the man that only the promise of septims could bring. "I have something better below deck. Stros M'kai rum and ginger wine. I'd like the two of you to come down… We can finish this conversation there."

“It would be our pleasure,” Gregor replied, seizing the initiative in the knowledge that Razul wanted to hear it from him and not from Raelynn. His distaste for the Redguard continued to grow, and he was simultaneously glad that he could be a vehicle for her to advance her ambitions and disappointed that it was necessary in the first place. A second, smaller voice piped up in the back of his mind, reminding him of a topic that had been glossed over: what was Raelynn really selling? Was he gambling with his integrity by supporting her so blindly in the pursuit of mithril? He thought about Fjolte again, now fully understanding why Raelynn had not even mentioned tonight’s event to him. The Nord would have been woefully out of his depth. But perhaps Raelynn had not counted on Gregor’s attachment to his independence, for he resolved to question her about the true nature of her cargo at the first opportunity.

He looked at her and caught her eyes with his own. What was he going to do again?

Razul escorted the two to his private quarters. The inside of which felt small and cramped, it was disorganised and there were things everywhere. From books, clothes thrown onto the floor, dead flowers in a vase that seemed to have been there for years without being touched. The layer of dust too, was thick in some places - particularly on the bookshelves, and less so around the corner where he slept. His bed was unmade, the sheets crumpled in the centre.

Raelynn ran a finger across her collarbone as she apprehensively took her seat. It was going to be difficult for the dirt of the room not to cling to her dress, and so she sat as close to the edge as she could - looking more like a pretty statue than an actual woman.

Razul fumbled through a cabinet, retrieving two bottles at last. The rum, and the wine, and three glasses. While he poured, Raelynn retrieved her envelope and placed it on the desk before her. “So then, Razul — are we here to discuss the terms of a deal?” She smiled, placing a hand in Gregor’s lap, her thumb drawing small circles as a reminder she was still there, and that she was still in control. For as much as she knew that Gregor was her ticket to the table with Razul, it still made her feel insecure.

Razul nodded, pushing the glass towards Gregor. “Try that, it’s got a kick to it though, be warned. It’s not an Imperial’s drink,” he laughed, taking a long sip from his own glass. “If it weren’t for the fact you’re a monster hunter, and the woman on your arm, I’d think you to be a poof.”

Gregor responded to Raelynn’s touch by placing his hand over hers and squeezing reassuringly. He wanted her to be the one to close this deal as well. Another man might have experienced an inflated sense of self-importance by the way Razul behaved, but the Imperial did not require this kind of sexist preferential treatment to feel secure about himself.

Suddenly grateful for the practice round with Fjolte two days ago, Gregor accepted the rum and emulated the sip that Razul himself had taken. It was a fierce drink, to be sure, and quite foul to Gregor’s sweeter palate, but it paled in comparison to the shein. He managed to keep a straight face, aside from the flaring of his nostrils, which he could not control. “Very good,” he said after he swallowed, staring at Razul over the rim of the glass. His patience was wearing thin.

“As much as I would enjoy sitting here and trading insults with you, I feel obligated to remind you that it is Lady Deserine that you’re dealing with,” he said and put the glass down on the first available surface he could find -- an old book. “I’m only active on the acquisition side of things. She’s the real expert.”

Razul shrugged, downing the rest of his glass and motioning for Raelynn to take a drink. “Well, what do you have to say? What’s your offer?” he asked, shifting his attention from Gregor to Raelynn, fighting in his eye contact - to be polite, and to give in to desire. The cut of the dress was sinful.

“Razul, you have given my companion so much attention up until now, I might start to question you…” she smirked, which got him to flash her a defiant look.

“You’d know,” he spat back, pouring himself more of the rum. “Drink.”

She did as asked, the heat of the ginger combined with the sweetness of the rum was deeply unpleasant. She liked her alcohol dry, cold, and crisp. Not this old syrup from a dusty bottle, but she could hold her liquor quite well and swallowed it down with little trouble. “I have three shipments I’d like to make. Camlorn, Daggerfall, and then Hegathe. I know it’s your route, I know it takes you a month on the Morning Star to make it…” Raelynn pushed her glass forwards, having ignored his petty jibe. “There will be couriers to collect each shipment. You just have to hold it and drop it off. I’ll pay you half upfront, and half when you return…”

“How much,” he asked flippantly, watching the Breton.

“Five hundred septims when you sign this,” she pushed the envelope across the desk to him. “Another payment of five hundred before you leave,” she added, looking him right in the eyes. “One thousand when you return…”

His eyebrows nearly lifted off of his face. “Just paintings is it?” he asked, tilting his head, but suddenly not wanting to offend her - not with that amount of coin on the table. He glanced to Gregor; “you’ve seen and collected the paintings yourself?”

Gregor picked up his glass of rum again and turned to Raelynn. “Which ones did you select for shipment?” he asked innocently and threw the rest of the rum back. This was too bald-faced of a lie to commit to without hesitation, and the question was partially meant to deflect back to Raelynn and partially to buy himself time to think.

Razul sensed something may have been amiss, surely Gregor would know? But then again, he did say that Raelynn was the logistical mind of the operation.

“Oh honey…” she cooed, gripping his thigh under the table. “I chose the Turner’s for Camlorn, my father will be taking that delightful selection of Noble portraits we found two Sundas’s ago, and of course in Hegathe my buyer wants the Hammerfell series from that artist… You know, the colourful ones by Mr Warhold. Where the dessert is pink and the sky is green… I’m sorry, I know you had your heart sort of set on that one yourself…” she added, with a touch of regret in her voice, and she then took his hand into hers, bringing them both onto the table. Her fingers interlaced with his and her thumb moved over his knuckles gently. “Maybe on the next run we’ll pick something out for our suite? Hmmm?”

Razul rolled his eyes in his seat, “enough already I don’t need to hear about your damned love nest. Raelynn.... I don’t know. I don’t know,” he mumbled, retreating to his glass. Two thousand septims was not to be snuffed at.

Her head turned quickly, and she pulled the envelope away from him. “Well, that’s alright, I don’t need the fastest ship in High Rock… I’m sure that someone will take the shipments — Gregor, you mentioned another ship to me just the other day… Do you still think he’d take our shipments?” she asked, turning away from Razul entirely.

Grateful for Raelynn’s quick thinking, Gregor played with his glass while he shot a pained look in Razul’s direction. “Do you really think we should discuss that in front of the captain?” he asked in a low voice, then pretended to be stared into submission by Raelynn’s relentless icy gaze. When there were two guardsmen in the pulp novels of his youth, there’d always be a good one and a bad one in interrogation scenes. “Yes,” he sighed, “yes, he would,” in the apologetic tone of a man who doesn’t like to disappoint a newfound friend.

“He was also cheaper,” Raelynn remarked, bringing a thoughtful finger to her lower lip as she contemplated. Deliberately ignoring Razul — he was no longer in the room as far as she was concerned, and she wanted him to realise that. “I just wanted the best, but most important of all is that these paintings reach the buyers.” She shrugged, before smiling at Gregor.

“Wait, wait, wait-” Razul interrupted, throwing a hand out between himself and the two.

“Yes?” Raelynn asked, as if his presence bored her now, as if she’d already moved on.

“I can do it, I can take the paintings. I’ll do it, I’ll do it,” he said, the words tumbling out. He wasn’t about to let someone else undercut him. Not if what Gregor had explained to him was to be believed. “Give me the papers, I’ll sign.”

“Oh but,” Raelynn said, her lips pinching together and pulling to the side, her shoulders dropped and she exhaled. “I simply can’t let you sign it now. Sleep on it,” she said, removing her hand from Gregor’s, to place it on top of Razul’s. “Sleep on it for now, and if you still wish to undertake the job, come by The Long Well in the morning, I feel like I’ve put you on the spot.”

Razul thought about it, looking down at her hand on his, and his heart raced in his chest a little. She was going to make him sweat it out. But he nodded and exhaled, realising he’d held his breath the whole time she had been speaking. “I’ll be there first thing,” he said at last, his fingers tapping on the table.

Raelynn’s face turned back to a large smile, her eyes sparkled with roguery, and she had to restrain and keep down the pride that was swelling inside. “Well then, I think that settles this for now…” she said, looking around and then finally her eyes landed on Gregor. “Maybe we should head back home. It’s been a long day for us both,” she expressed, stroking his cheek again as she took hold of the envelope. She wanted her gentleman to excuse them both.

“Yes, that would be prudent,” he said, taking the hint, and handed his glass back to Razul. “Thank you for the drink and your hospitality, sir,” Gregor said as he got to his feet and held out an arm for Raelynn to take. He, too, enjoyed their triumph, but now that his work for the night was essentially done, a different emotion vied for control, and he was slow to tear his gaze away from the Breton woman. “We look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

They left as quickly as they’d arrived, and the relatively short walk back to The Long Well was near silent. Raelynn was occupied with the thoughts of her victory, and the oncoming workload she’d have as a result, she had little time, or want, to say anything. She simply held Gregor’s arm - even if there was suddenly an oppressive tension in the air.

Upon entering her chambers, she unhooked herself from him and moved across the floorboards, Shona had done a nice job in clearing away the odds and ends that had cluttered her suite during the preparations - and there was a nice scent to the room. She’d washed the surfaces down with something fragrant. It was incredibly pleasing to Raelynn, who’d felt that she was about to choke in Razul’s own living space.

She placed the envelope down onto her desk and finally looked back to Gregor, “you did well tonight,” she said with gratitude. Trying to work out what was going through his mind, eyes flitting from his eyes and away again - as if she didn’t want to look there for too long.

He crossed in two long strides what had taken her five smaller steps and his arm was suddenly around her waist again, hand splayed against her back, while his other hand was hooked under her chin, forcing her to look up at him. He dwarfed her in every sense with his physicality and the forcefulness of his movements. A small spark of electricity into her back, not enough to be painful but enough to jolt her, served to inform her that he was dangerous, even if he was unarmed.

Gregor’s eyes stared mercilessly into hers, merely an inch or two away from hers, and their lips were so close they were almost touching. His grip was iron. The fog of attraction was gone from his gaze. Fire blazed there now, roaring to life from smoldering embers, beneath the thunderous brow that betrayed his anger.

“You asked for an accessory,” he growled, his voice dark and full of unspoken violence. “I was an accomplice back there. What do you sell? Is it really art? What rumours are there to speak of?”

There it was. Right in front of her, the very thing she had been suspicious of when he had arrived at her door only days prior. He’d been in her grip then, and she was in his now. He had so many questions, and the darkness that he’d pulled and conjured from Oblivion took her by surprise but didn’t frighten her, the hold on her chin, holding her under his gaze like that - that was like liberation.

She reached her hand out across the desk as far as his hold would allow, straining to grab a silver letter opener from the desk. “You were an accessory,” she said. “The situation changed, Razul is particular…” she explained, no fear in her voice and if anything there was a degree of smugness about it - even with the tickle of the magicka over her spine, she wasn’t in the business of bending. “What rumours? What rumours?” she asked, almost mocking his tone before giggling. “Sit down,” she told him firmly, the laughter drying up and leaving a cold, equally menacing expression on her own face. Ice and steel to his fire.

They were up against a wall in a flash, Gregor’s hand now behind her neck, his fingers wrapped tightly in her hair. “Enough,” he hissed, his pupils contracted to two deadly points of pitch blackness. “I don’t appreciate being used. I do honest work. I lied for you because I’m a man of my word, but now you need to tell me what it is that I lied about.” He pulled back a little and regarded her in full, a sneer on his face. “I held you.”

“Ask me nicely,” she hissed back, narrowing her own eyes back at him, trying to pull free from his grip. “I don’t appreciate being held against a wall,” she added, curling her lip, looking back over to the sharp object on her desk. “I’ll tell you if you let me go,” her voice was suddenly a soft whimper, and her lower lip shook. “Just sit down,” she repeated, where his eyes became so intense, hers shifted in their sockets, water appearing at the edges. If he wanted to feel like a threat, she could let him have that.

“You should have thought about that before you used me like a pawn.” Gregor’s voice had dropped into a low thrum that reverberated in his chest. He turned her head, forcing her to look straight at him, and leaned back in close -- closer than before, and he whispered in her ear.

“You have no idea who I am or what I’m capable of.”

And then she was free. Gregor strode to the other side of the room like a storm, turned back to face her and leaned with his back against the wall, next to the window. The path to the door was unobstructed, as if he was daring her to make a run for it. The silversmith crossed his arms over his chest and stared at her with a sulphuric fury. “Tell me what you’re really selling, please.”

She huffed out a breath like a petulant child when he let her go, eyes dried up and she stared scornfully at him for only a moment. “You’re Gregor Mercurius, a silversmith. Or have you also lied to me?” she asked, although it was more of a statement than anything else as she paced across the room to the desk. She took the letter opener, looking at him - daring to point it in his direction, almost playfully.

She soon turned it away, and walked to her cabinet. The door opened with a creak that pierced the heavy silence in the room. Only that and Gregor’s heavy, angry breaths made noise. She retrieved from the cupboard a bottle and two glasses and crossed the room once more. “I should have had this on ice,” she commented, ignoring Gregor’s anger for that moment, placing the glasses on the desk. “I’m selling paintings…” Raelynn said as she shifted the bottle so she was holding it at the base, the letter opener in her other hand. She ran the blade deftly over the neck of the bottle, and it shot open with a pop, spilling a white froth with it onto the floor. “And this time? Ebony weapons.” The way she said it was as daring as it was nonplussed. “Can we celebrate now?”

Gregor had no idea what he was expecting, but it wasn’t that. His eyes widened and the tension that had kept his face locked in an angry mask slacked. “Of course,” he said, more to himself than anything else. “With a shipment like that, it’s safer if the captain doesn’t know what he’s carrying. The risk of a pirate attack increases if word gets out and the weapons themselves are valuable enough to tempt a man into committing an inside job…” He pushed himself off the wall and approached the desk in slow, heavy footsteps. It was evident in his bearing that he wasn’t back to his usual polite and demure self, but his anger seemed forgotten and Raelynn’s transgressions forgiven. “And, of course, the Empire would like to know what you’re doing with enough high quality weapons to arm an elite fighting force,” he said with a wry smile.

He sat down on the chair and laid his right leg over his left, leaning back in the seat. He looked up at Raelynn with a newfound respect in his eyes. She’d played him like a fool, true, but he could not help but admire the audacity of the plan. “I just like to be informed, that’s all,” he said nonchalantly.

Raelynn poured two glasses of champagne out, passing one to the now calmer Gregor. “Ignorance protected you,” she said sincerely. “If you’d known the truth, you might have slipped on a word. That would have been dangerous for us both, I can trust myself to keep the truth in… I’ve known you for two days Gregor, that wasn’t a risk I could take — for me, or for you.” She had calmed some too, her childish petulance had slipped away and she took a seat beside him. “I’m sorry I withheld the truth, but I would do it again.”

Unlike on the boat, or the day they had originally met - her posture was relaxed in her chair and she too, swung one leg over the other. She closed her eyes as she took a sip, enjoying the way the bubbles felt. “Now tell me this, did you enjoy it?”

Gregor inspected the champagne for a moment as he swirled it around in his glass. “I don’t need your protection,” he said with certainty. He looked up at her eyes afterwards and shrugged almost imperceptibly. “But I understand your reasoning. I’m sorry I felt the need to force the truth out of you… but I’d do it again.” Gregor smiled and drank.

As for her question, he took his time in answering it, watching her, a slight tilt to his head and a remnant half-smile around his lips. “Yes,” he admitted. She was so beautiful. “Very much.”

“I know you would,” she commented with a laugh before rubbing the back of her neck with a frown at the reminder of his temper. “I suppose…” she began, placing the glass on the side table between the chairs, examining her hands with a sigh. “You did a good job,” she said again, before tugging at the fingers of the glove on her right hand. Raelynn glanced sidelong at him, she could see he was watching her, and not only that - but she could feel it too. It was unlike anything she’d felt before.

Slowly, the velvet came away from her elbow, slipping down her forearm to her wrist until she had pulled it off her fingers, revealing that she’d been wearing a ring of mithril the whole time. She held it up to the moonlight, before stretching the hand towards him. “Take your prize…” she breathed, watching him, his movements, everything subtle about him — she watched it all.

Gregor reached out and took her hand into both of his. With one he gently held her, a far cry from the forceful domination he had displayed just two minutes earlier, and with the other he pried the ring from her finger. He held it up against the light as well, close to his practiced eyes, and took a deep breath. “Magnificent,” he whispered. He inspected the maker’s mark and nodded to himself. “Yes, Stuyvenzandt, Third Era… makes sense.”

He slipped the ring into his pocket, still holding up her hand, before he cupped it with both palms and looked at Raelynn again. “Thank you,” he said sincerely and pressed his hands against hers. There was something boyishly apologetic about him and he cleared his throat. “I enjoyed holding you,” he confessed.

That made her smile, and she stayed quiet for a while after that, it was very telling that it meant something to her too, that she couldn’t find the words to truthfully express that. “There is one last thing you could do for me tonight,” she said, looking at him with a small smirk, bringing her fingers to her lips again, as if it was an incredibly coy request.

"Ask away," Gregor said, ignoring the pang he felt at the thought that their night was almost over.

“I’m afraid that I can’t get this dress off without help,” she said quietly, turning to look towards the window, not knowing whether to laugh or feel annoyed by the inconvenience, even if she did sense an opportunity too. “The buttons are at the back, would you be so kind…?” Raelynn asked, slowly pulling herself out of the chair, turning her back to him to show him that there was indeed, a line of buttons from her shoulder blades to the small of her back.

With feelings so conflicted that he didn't actually know what he was feeling, Gregor finished his champagne and began to take off his own gloves, eyes on the nape of her neck and the arch of her back. He got to his feet and placed the gloves on the desk next to his empty champagne glass. In doing so, he eclipsed the moonlight through the window entirely and cast Raelynn in his large shadow, and he stepped up close behind her.

With slow, methodical movements, he began to undo the buttons of Raelynn's dress one by one. Each undone button revealed a little more of her bare skin and while his breathing was slow and deep, his heart was pounding in his chest. He had to shift the fabric of her dress to unfasten some of the buttons, as they were clearly designed with petite servant's hands in mind, and his fingers brushed against her skin when he did so. The lower he went the more he had to rely on feeling and less on seeing, and he hovered over her until he was breathing into her neck.

When he was done he waited for a moment, inhaling the heady scent of her perfume, before lifting his hands and hooking his fingers under the shoulder straps of her dress. Like a man about to undress his woman Gregor slid the dress off of her shoulders, but stopped just in time to preserve her modesty. He brushed his bare fingertips over the length of her shoulder blades and whispered into her ear: "There, all done."

Her own heart raced too, with each slow movement of his she felt a tension build and fade away in the spaces of seconds. The champagne had gone to her head, and the adrenaline from being in his iron grip all contributed to her shuddering breaths as he so slowly and carefully released her from the silk. His bare skin on hers was more full of electricity than the shock he had purposefully given her, and the same vulnerability she had felt on the bow came back. This was the most pure she had felt in a long time, the most interesting moment she’d experienced. She wanted to be trapped in it, to find a way to just be still like this - suspended on this string.

Raelynn felt waves of confusion, not knowing whether she wanted him to squeeze the life from her or just hold her soft - or leave and never come back. That he went back for another touch, a gentle and intimate stroke that sent chills again, she tipped her head back against his, leaning into him - or had he pulled her that way? “Thank you,” she whispered back, his smoldering embers enough to warm her through.

As much as she wanted to press her desire further, there was merit to continuing to pull Gregor's strings. Raelynn still wanted to know more about him, to get to the bottom of his mystery. But not tonight… She could feel that he wanted it too -- there was the matter of him being incredibly angry with her. That could not be rewarded. It pained her to break their proximity, but she headed off slowly to change.

After just a few minutes, she reappeared from behind the partition, silk replaced with a relaxed satin tunic, and a long robe over the top in a deep plum hue. Without her heels, she was at least four inches shorter and quiet as a ghost on her feet. She moved across the floor, seeing that Gregor had taken his seat again and she resumed hers. Smiling and exhaling. "That's better," she sighed with relief. "Dresses like that are not meant to be worn for too long, beautiful as they are."

Relief and disappointment in equal measure washed over Gregor when Raelynn stepped away, and he sat down on the chair with trembling fingers. How close had they gotten? Strictly speaking nothing between them had passed that couldn't have passed between friends and that was what convinced Gregor to remain seated instead of jumping back up and leaving. She teased him, but ultimately she respected him and his marriage. That was the most optimistic and forgiving way to look at it and Gregor decided to try to believe in that over anything else. While Raelynn was changing, he put his gloves back on and fished his wedding ring out of his pocket, turning it over in his hands a few times before slipping it back on. Briar would have cried if she'd seen him just then. He took a deep breath and steeled himself.

He returned her smile when she reappeared, making a point out of not inspecting her new clothes too closely, and raised the glass of champagne. "To victory," Gregor said, and then an idea came to him. "Say, what would a man have to do to obtain an ebony longsword around here? Straight, long blade, double-edged, with a cruciform hilt? You know, the way they used to make them in the days of the Septims," he asked and raised his eyebrows inquisitively.

Her glass touched his carefully, and she joined him in taking another sip of it. Unlike the rum from Razul’s personal collection, it was exceptionally crisp and completely to her taste. Expensive, golden, sparkling, and light on the tongue. She was relaxed in the seat now, warm and comfortable without the tightness of her dress constricting her ribs and waist. She breathed easy too, knowing that her plan had been a success. “If I told you that, Gregor,” she began, turning to face the moon as it poured in from the window, “I’d have to kill you.”

She left the words to hang in the air, spoken so nonchalantly that it was unsure whether or not she meant it — finally a crack appeared as her lips curled into a smirk atop the rim of her glass while the fingers of her free hand tapped the arm of her chair.

"Oh, come on," Gregor said with a laugh. "My sword is a fine piece, make no mistake, it used to belong to my father, but there's a limit to what steel can do. With an ebony blade… I would be unstoppable." Gregor stared into the middle distance for a moment and smirked, obviously picturing himself with a black blade, before he returned to Raelynn and his champagne. He took a sip and mirrored Raelynn's posture. Like this, they were just associates drinking to a successful operation. "Please?"

“They aren’t easy for me to procure, but… perhaps.” Raelynn shrugged, turning back to face the man, attraction still lingering. If Gregor was picturing himself with the dark blade, so was the Breton. “Pay for it outright? Work to pay for it? Or loan the piece?” she asked him, a rogue sparkle lit up her cool blue eyes. “I can’t just give away my trade secrets, nor can I just hand over valuable goods.” There was a levity to their conversation that was pleasant, she didn’t mind playing along with his questions — he was no longer a man with a suspicious curiosity that came from malice.

After another sip of the champagne, her glass was empty and the effects had left her feeling bold. “What if you were to make me something unique?” she asked, quiet now, feeling the residual heat of their moment as she did. Her empty glass made its way back to the side table, and she ran her finger in slow circles around the rim, waiting for his answer. Whether it would be serious, or if he’d continue to play as if it were a game.

Making a unique piece of jewelry for another woman could be construed by some as being inappropriate, but surely not if it was part of an exchange? If Raelynn was to reward him with such a fine weapon, then it was just business.

Looking at her, seeing the sparkle in her eyes and the way her finger dragged over the edges of the glass, Gregor knew it wasn't just business. Still…

"Of course, I'll work for it," he said, already thinking about potential designs, stylistic elements and materials. "I never expected you to hand something like that out for free." Gregor drained his own glass and leaned out of his seat to refill both his and hers. He looked her earrings while he did and he remained like that, hovering above his seat, for a moment before getting up entirely. He walked around her in a slow circle and squatted down on his haunches next to her, the slight frown of a craftsman at work on his brow, and he placed his hand behind one of the earrings. Gregor's fingers brushed a few loose strands out of the way. He could feel that her ear was warm to his touch, but he ignored it.

"Understated design, silver fitting, flawless ruby," Gregor said quietly. He glanced down her plunging neckline for a second before he remembered that she wasn't wearing a necklace. A glance at her fingers showed that she hadn't been wearing any rings except the mithril piece she'd already paid him with. There wasn't much to go on. He straightened back up and returned to his chair.

"Describe your tastes for me, please," he said and interlaced his fingers beneath his chin.

The Breton held a breath as Gregor took to observing her earring, she felt as though he was looking less at it and more at her. She held her head incredibly still, daring not to meet his eyes. This was different from the day before and she didn’t dissuade him from what he was doing. Thinking quickly, she occupied herself with more of the champagne.

“I…” she began and for the first time, her words sounded distracted and stilted. “I like Aldmeri design, silver over gold, actually. Or, white gold,” Raelynn continued, finding her confidence. “I have a preference for square cuts over round stones, I like sharp edges - symmetry. But, delicate, feminine." She eyed the glass, the room behind it a haze. She wasn't sure if she was making sense, under Gregor's gaze she wasn't sure of anything.

Gregor nodded. He was trying to stay focused on the new task she’d given him but it was hard to ignore her behavior instead of just the contents of her words. Signs that she was… affected by him. Or, he sternly reminded himself, it was just the champagne and the stuff that Razul had made her drink. The fresh memory of her bare shoulders beneath his fingers jumped to mind and he rubbed his brow, shielding his eyes from her for a moment.

“You like diamonds and rubies,” he said, having regained his composure, and looked her in the eyes again. Gregor compared the color of her irises with the tint of her skin. “Sapphires over white gold,” he murmured, half observation, half idea. “What kind of piece are you looking for?” he asked, raising his voice back up to conversational levels.

"There's a stone," Raelynn said, saying it too quickly to realise. If she had considered it more, and been of a more sober mind she might have left it alone, but whatever spell Gregor had cast had pierced her adamantine armour just enough. "An exquisite diamond, a blue diamond… It belonged to my family," she continued, sitting back into the seat, arching her back into a slow and satisfying stretch. "It is no longer in our possession, and…" She paused, looking at Gregor closely, debating with herself on whether this would be a good time to stop or not.

"It was, stolen -- in a way, and I've always wanted to reacquire it." Raelynn sipped slowly from the glass, feeling a near silent, years old anger take hold. It watered her eyes. "It was a precious heirloom of my family and now it's…" her eyes closed and she rolled her shoulder, trying to let go of the venom that was pooling. "Maybe a unique piece, with that diamond… A piece like that would be priceless to me."

The artisan in Gregor raised his eyebrows at the suggestion and he sat up straight in his chair. The chance to work with a gemstone like that was any smith’s dream, if it was truly the way Raelynn described it. “Are you sure you want me to forge that piece?” he asked, taken aback. “I’m not even a master yet.”

"To have it back, to have something special… Yes," she told him. "I'd have it wrapped in copper wire and on a string if it meant that it was mine." Her breath shuddered at the mere thought, and greed flashed across her eyes before she regained her own composure. "But, the stone is… Too difficult to procure, I will take a piece of your design… I'd be honoured to wear your work."

That wouldn’t do. “Now that you’ve wet my appetite, I’m afraid we’re going to have to get that diamond back,” Gregor said with a dangerous gleam in his eyes. Making something else now, something small and insignificant in the knowledge that there was a stone out there that Raelynn would much rather be wearing -- it was simply unacceptable. “Do you know where it is?” he asked, oblivious.

"I do," she answered hesitantly. "I do," she repeated, the tone different - pointed. "But it's not of importance, Fjolte is not ready for such a mission."

“I’ll go with him,” Gregor fired back quickly and spread out his hands. His intuition told him that there was more to this story than Raelynn was letting on, and he thought about the encounter with the older Imperial couple on the boat. Was this related to Sir Gearford?

She gave him a grateful smile, instinct half telling her to reach and touch him -- the champagne. "You're not ready either, I've only known you for two days…" she teased. "How do I know you haven't been sent by a rival business to do terrible things to me? Hmm?" She continued, tilting her head to the side. She knew how to steer him.

The Imperial scoffed quietly and sank back into his chair. “After what I did for you aboard the Morning Star? You still don’t trust me?” He glowered at her but there was no malice in it. “If I wanted to do terrible things to you, I had every opportunity when I had you up against the wall,” Gregor said in a low voice. He drank more champagne and cocked his head while he looked at her. “How can I prove that you can trust me? I want to work with that diamond. And I want that sword.” His made had been made up. Anything to keep him on the road a little while longer…

She turned, practically curling in her seat to face him. The dip of her waist accentuated with the plush velvet fabric hugging at her. Her bare legs slipped from the part in the fabric, and she knew it, stroking one foot against her ankle - hoping it might distract and tempt him some. "Tell me a secret," she said in a breathy whisper - as if even the furniture was listening to them. She spelled out the words with her lips provocatively and a flicker of mischief crossed her eyes. "Show me yours and I'll show you mine." Raelynn finished by draining the last of her champagne with excitement.

He remembered how she'd styled his hair and admitted to liking the things in life that were a little rough around the edges. Gregor's heart quickened at the idea of telling her -- telling anyone, for that matter. He'd never acknowledged the truth out loud before. But there was something about her that made him think she might find it… thrilling. Gregor swirled the rest of his champagne slowly.

"I love the feeling of taking a life," Gregor said, a low thrum to Raelynn's whisper. "To run someone through and watch the light leave their eyes…" He inhaled deeply, as if it was something he could smell if he tried hard enough. "To be alive while another is dead at my hands, punished for their sins. It makes me feel powerful like nothing else."

His gaze was unwavering, boring into Raelynn's soul. In the low light of the room and in the shade of his brow, his eyes were infinite darkness.

From that infinite darkness, the room began to shrink around them. Everything beyond the table and chairs was nothing, just black and they were at the centre of it. A grim aura hung over Gregor, and perhaps that darkness that moved around them was his own shadow - eclipsing everything that was around it. All but himself, and her. There was something caged inside of him. She gripped at her thigh as he spoke, hanging on his words, swept up in his presence and the deep tone of his voice was like a magnet, drawing her out of her seat towards him. "Should I be afraid of you?" She whispered again sardonically, the words pinned to a melody.

Gregor raised one hand and turned it over so that his palm was facing the ceiling. A small flame sprang to life between the claw-shape of his fingers, casting skittering and dancing shadows over the walls, driving out the silver light of the moon until only the baleful, reddish glow of the spell remained. He stared into the fire. “Maybe,” he whispered.

Then he snatched his hand shut. The flames disappeared and the moonlight crept back into the room, returning life to Gregor’s features. “Don’t give me a reason,” he said, the spark of amusement in his eyes. She reacted how he had hoped she would. He wanted to keep her interested in him, and he told himself it was because she was a conduit for rare and expensive items to flow his way. The way his hair stood on end told a different story.

As his flame extinguished, it left a chill behind that ran through her from head to toe, leaving behind a trail of goosepimples across her bare arms and legs, the look in her eyes was of pure delight. But he had done as she asked, and now it was her turn. His secret she would keep, a weapon if need be, a reflection to confront him with perhaps.

"When I was twenty years old it was arranged that I would be married," she began - the cold that the flames absence had left was present in her voice and she looked forwards, her lips in half of a sneer. "Tristyn Gaerford… a Lord of Wayrest. A beautiful person. I was enamoured with him," she continued, her voice quieting down some, which would force Gregor to lean her way now.

"My father gave him the family diamond to set into a ring for our engagement. It had been my grandmother's, my mother's, and now it fell to me. It was my turn." There was a pride in her voice, and she smiled up at the air. It was clear that the pride was soured, however, in the way that she pouted for a moment. "All I wanted was to be his wife. My father picked him and he was so happy for his daughter… But my betrothed he…" she stopped and chuckled wryly into the frigid air around her. "He never wanted to consummate our relationship. He would be so affectionate in public but… There was no passion, he… couldn't even bring himself to kiss me. I felt so… alone."

She took the opportunity to turn to Gregor, and her eyes were ice. Emotionless, beautiful orbs of crystalline ice. "Do you know how that feels?" She asked him, scratching a finger over the upholstery of the chair.

“Yes,” he replied, her misery reflected in his face, as a dozen different memories surfaced of Briar turning away from his touch. She’d stopped desiring to be intimate with him after the crushing weight of the disappointment became too much to bear. “In a sense.” He cleared his throat and focused his eyes back on Raelynn, on her story. “Go on,” he said softly.

"I told myself that he was simply waiting for marriage before he'd be passionate, and I was happy with that eventually," she explained, pulling at a thread from her robe and watching as it unfurled from the fabric. Making a long ruche across her hip. "So you can imagine my surprise when one afternoon I stumbled across him being fucked by his stableboy…" she laughed, all she could do was laugh until she stopped. "I couldn't do it, be his cloak in public to hide his secret. I couldn't do it. It got messy, it got emotional… Long story short he kept my ring, and my diamond." She sighed, sinking into her seat.

Gregor had to fight a chortle at the unexpected revelation of Sir Gaerford’s true nature, but fortunately Raelynn’s own laughter covered for him. When she was done he sighed. It was easy to picture how lonely she had been with nothing but her confusion and self-doubt for company, and he now fully understood what the retrieval of the diamond would mean to her. It was the part of her that she was forced to leave behind. With it, she would be complete again.

“Any man would be lucky to have you,” he said. “Any real man, I mean.” Gregor smiled and winked. He knew that Fjolte wouldn’t hesitate to jump on the chance to do something like this for her. “We’ll get the diamond back for you, don’t you worry.”

He leaned forward in his seat and placed a hand on her knee. “I’ll make something beautiful out of it,” the silversmith promised. “More beautiful than you’ve ever seen. And then it’ll be like it never happened at all.”

Her nose scrunched and she huffed out a sigh. "You'll have to prize it from his new happily unfucked wife's fingers," she spat, malice present in her words. She'd said enough, she'd been vulnerable enough tonight without explaining to Gregor where the real heartbreak had been. Where the sting had truly landed. In the argument with her father when he commanded her to stay. To live a fake life, unloved. To keep up appearances and strengthen his career through Wayrest. It was a political engagement gone wrong and he'd never let her forget it.

It was only Gregor's hand on her thigh that brought her back around - and the irony of him laying his hand after that story was not lost on her, it burned all the same. The sweet burn that lingers… "I'm sure it will be…" she said quietly, placated again.

Gregor returned to his seat and shrugged. “Then so be it. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a happily unfucked wife. We’ll send in Fjolte, all charm and rugged exoticism, and leave a happily fucked wife behind instead, minus one ring,” he ventured, the champagne beginning to loosen his tongue and his speech, though his half-smile betrayed he was half-joking.

"One day, perhaps," she chuckled. "Until that day I have plenty to keep me busy, so will you," Raelynn said to him, tilting her head. "If it's gold you want, then I can offer you plenty of work, Gregor…" she offered, watching to see how he would take that. He'd made offers to stay for his sword but now she wanted to know if he was really serious. "We'll be seeing a lot of each other if you're to pay for an ebony weapon… More of Fjolte and his rugged charm," she added with a smirk. "And you really want to stay around?"

“For a while, yes,” Gregor replied with certainty. “Thanks to your generosity, I have acquired what I came here for much faster than I had expected, though Fjolte believes you have access to enough mithril to forge a suit of armor from…” he said and let the statement linger expectantly. “Either way, that means I have time to spare. If this is to be my last adventure, I want it to be a memorable one.”

Over the rim of his glass, Gregor drank in her eyes.

Raelynn enjoyed the way that he looked at her, enjoying being the subject of his gaze - there was a spark everytime his ebony eyes shot her way and she was all too happy to play on that. She arched her back slowly again in what was simply a natural stretch after a long evening. The Breton ran her fingers carefully over her collarbone to part the fabric of her robe just so too, as if simply trying to cool down from the heat. Such simple movements, and yet so calculated. A pleasant warmth filled her at the mere thought that he was watching. "Maybe Fjolte is right," she remarked seriously as her body relaxed again. "How do you know what I've got hidden away out of sight?…"

“What indeed?” he replied, a little too quickly, with his eyes on the skin that her parting robes had revealed, and the shapes they still clung to. He imagined her stretching and squirming like that beneath him. Suddenly self-conscious, Gregor’s eyes shot back up to hers and he chuckled. “Well, you are a woman full of surprises. What’s your going rate for an ebony longsword?” he asked, eager to get some concrete information before the easy atmosphere of their conversation stole the desire for serious topics away from them.

"Oh that varies. There are lots of things to consider… Size and weight of the blade, the age, the detailing on it." Her elbow found its way to the arm of the chair and she placed her head into her hand -- the drinking had made it feel heavy. "Thousands, at least," she offered him - waiting to see his reaction.

He immediately realized he had been too optimistic and deflated a little. Then he remembered what she had said about the diamond -- it was priceless to her. But Gregor could also tell that she wasn’t eager to jump feet first into the idea of retrieving it. He was going to have to work his way up to that. Pleased with the prospect of an interesting and unique project to occupy him, he smiled. “That sounds a bit high to me, but we’ll work something out,” the Imperial declared with supreme confidence and got up from his chair to refill their glasses again.

Holding out her full, bubbly glass for her to take, Gregor motioned with his head. “Come on, up you go. We haven’t finished the bottle yet.”

"If you want me to finish the bottle, I'll need something sweet to really enjoy it…" she said with a coy smile, sitting herself upright in her seat, perhaps too much so. Her back straight, and legs tucked under, one in front of the other. "My desk drawer, I have chocolate truffles…" she giggled girlishly, bringing her hand to her lips as if to hide the smile that had grown at the thought of the indulgence. "They're very good, I promise. Bring them over," she said with a wave of her hand - permitting him access to the desk, where she knew something else was waiting too…

Gregor chuckled at that but did as he was asked. Pulling open the desk drawer indeed revealed a paper bag containing an assorted collection of chocolate truffles, but it was the object next to it that grabbed his eye; a glass dagger. He picked it up without asking permission and held it up against the light, marveling at the way the material caught and refracted it. The dagger was beautiful, old, and if Gregor wasn’t mistaken, quite clearly never used.

He looked down at Raelynn and handed her the bag of sweets with raised eyebrows before turning his attention back to the weapon. “You’ve never used this on anyone, have you?” he asked.

Rather than sit still and pretty, she took that as an invitation to get out of her seat and walk to his side, her eyes too, were on the blade, marvelling at the way the fractals in the glass reacted to light. She shook her head at his question. "Beautiful, isn't it? Third Era, made in a Shimmerene style. That material in the handle is rumoured to be Indrik antler…" she said with some slight disbelief, but enough mystery there still to at least make it seem that it could be true. "Truly some masterful work, Altmer culture sings from it, don't you think?" She asked, leaning against the desk to watch as Gregor continued observing the blade.

Gregor had to admit that it did. It was an interesting piece to him because of it. Altmeri culture was frowned upon in Cyrodiil ever since the Great War. Especially Altmeri weapons. He'd never seen anything like it. "It's beautiful," he admitted and held out the dagger for Raelynn to take. "Do you know how to use it?"

She took it from him with as much care as Gregor had taken in handing it over. "I know how to clean it, polish it, sharpen it… Restore it to look like this. When I received it, it was coated in sand," she explained, holding it up, displaying the find carvings in the blade itself - the intricate ridges. "It took me hours. All I had was a tiny brush at first… The whole time I did this, all I could think about was how many throats it had sliced through. How many quick deaths it had brought under the shadowed guise of night…" She hummed, running a finger across the flat of the blade. "Who used it, what it meant to them… Now? This beautiful blade is to be sold, and nailed to the wall of some noble simply for show…" There was a pain and regret in her words, and the way her hungry eyes regarded the blade spoke volumes of how she felt about that fate for the blade. "I haven't killed with it, but this blade was a killer alright…" she smiled, for a little too long.

Was she like him, and did she just not know it yet? Gregor wondered, and the longer she smiled at the dagger, the more he thought that maybe she was. The idea of the petite blonde being a killer in disguise was as chilling as it was… exciting. Gregor suddenly stepped in behind her, like he had been when he had unbuttoned her dress, and grabbed her wrists. He guided the positioning of her feet with a few gentle nudges of his boots and when she had adopted a strong, slightly wide-legged stance, he moved her arms until her off-hand was in front of her and the dagger was raised over her head.

"Defend yourself with your off-hand hand," he said in her ear and hoisted up part of her robes, revealing the length of one of her legs, and placed the ends of it between her fingers. "Preferably with a buckler but a cloak will suffice in a pinch. You can use it to grab your enemy's weapon without cutting yourself. Then strike," Gregor said emphatically and moved her hand forward and down in a slash. "Keep your weapon out of your enemy's reach until you intend to use it. Like a scorpion."

He'd taken hold of her and moved her around like a puppet and she was all too happy for him to do so. It was the perfect, heady mix of thrilling and arousing and her lips parted to gasp when he moved he had her slash forwards. "Like a scorpion…" she repeated back slowly and softly. Who did he think that she was? And why did she enjoy this so much? She'd danced with many a handsome noble, and never had she felt this level of chemistry. The breeze nipped at her bare leg as it flowed in from the open crack of the window. "Do you think I'll need to know this?" She asked him, turning her face just enough to glimpse his profile behind her, the shape of his brow and strong nose.

“Everyone needs to know this,” Gregor answered and turned his head to look at her as well; her eyes, straining to see his face, and the slight parting of her lips. He remained like this, holding her, looking at her, for a second or two before he let go of her wrists and stepped back. He needed a few slow, deep breaths to calm the racing of his heart.

Why did he keep putting himself in that position with her, if it only served to make things hard for him? “If my father is to be believed, anyway. It’s a dangerous world out there. Maybe trouble will come calling won’t day and there won’t be a Fjolte around to fight for you,” he said and clasped his hands behind his back, as if he desired to shackle himself for fear of what his hands might otherwise do.

"Fjolte doesn't use a blade," she quipped, placing the dagger down onto the desk. "Maybe I don't need to either. I know the one place to strike a man to kill him, painfully, and quickly," she said as she ran her finger over the handle. "You forgot something about me Gregor," she said, turning to him - paying close attention to the way he had moved his hands behind his back. She took a step towards him - threatening to enter his personal space again.

He did not move away from her, but he did remember what it was that he’d forgotten. “You’re a healer,” Gregor said with a slow nod. It had never occurred to him before that they knew the bodies of mortals better than anyone, and that that included knowing their weak points. He could bind his own hands, but he couldn’t stop her. Did he want to? “And where is that?” he asked as casually as he could manage.

She hoisted herself up onto the desk, taking the dagger into her hand. Fully aware of what she was doing and she slowly parted her legs for him, part of her robe covering her modesty, the flash of flesh of the inside of her thighs revealed, surrounded by the rich purple of the robe. She held the dagger carefully towards the top of her thigh, pointing the tip against her skin. "Right here…" she answered. "Just one cut here and death would come within a minute…"

It took everything in his willpower not to step between her legs, pull her close and kiss her. Gregor’s eyes had a will of their own and they followed the lines of her legs up to the last patch of silk still covering her most intimate parts, before flitting up to her eyes and seeing the way she was looking at him. Then, and only then, did he look at the dagger and where the tip was pressing. “Plenty of time to be killed within a minute,” he said.

Slowly, with the pace of a man that needed to control his every move, Gregor approached until he stood between her legs after all -- but unlike in the mental image that had flashed through his mind, all he did was take her hand and the dagger within it and lift it up until the tip pointed at her throat, angled so that it would shoot straight up until her skull. The fingers of his other hand were tucked under her chin so that she looked up and into his eyes, just like earlier -- but gently, and without strength. “One thrust and they drop like a marionette without strings…” he said, remembering how his ice spike had killed the Dunmer in the cave this way.

With the blade at her neck, she was held into absolute stillness by it. Literally, on the edge of a knife. To poke her lower lip out probably wasn't the normal response to such a situation. "This is all the fun my buyer will miss out on when he pins this to a wall to gather dust. A shame…" she whispered, and only then did her chin tremble under the tension. "Try holding yourself up to walk when that part of your leg has been slashed, you'll fail. Of that last minute of life you'll be awake for twenty seconds at best…"

“A shame indeed,” Gregor murmured. He admired her nerves of steel. He accepted her defense of the leg as the weak spot and stepped back once more, breaking the knifepoint tension of the moment. He turned the blade over in his hands so that he offered the grip to her. “I’ll take your word for it. Hell, I might even put it to use,” the Imperial said with a dark smile.

She was so many things that Briar wasn’t, and she appealed to parts of him that his wife didn’t even know existed. It was dangerous to stick around. He knew that. But what was the harm in entertaining her for a night? As long as nothing happened, he was just brokering favour with someone that had access to the materials he wanted. Briar wouldn’t like it if she was there to see it, absolutely, but this was the kind of thing that he could keep from her without feeling too bad. It was just business. Gregor sank back into his chair and it was as if the moment with the dagger had taken more out of him than it should have.

“Now, those chocolate truffles,” he said. “You promise they are really quite excellent?”

The Breton slid off the desk now that the moment had seemed to pass, watching Gregor like a hawk watched a mouse in the long grass. The small box of chocolates was on the desk and she took it into her hand -- holding it out for him to take first pick as she circled back to her own chair. "They were a gift from a gentleman…" she explained, "take one."

Gregor was a strong man, stronger than most men were when they were alone with her. Where she had armour, so did he. He was keeping something to himself, Raelynn was sure of that, the wife. Maybe cooling off on him would bring him closer. He wasn't going to simply be as easy to toy with as anyone else, despite the fact that he was clearly interested in her, and she in him, more so than anyone she'd met for a while.

He picked one that looked like it was made with white chocolate as well as dark and plopped it into his mouth. Raelynn hadn't lied; it was delicious, richly flavored and the chocolate melted away in his mouth. Gregor made a few noises to indicate that his taste buds were satisfied, as was customary, and washed it down with champagne. The different flavours went together very well. He decided that he was quite fond of Raelynn's palate, though he still preferred his heartier and more savory red wine & cheese combo.

"A gentleman?" he asked, his curiosity piqued. "Have you had any success with the lesser sex here in Jehanna?" Gregor wondered if Fjolte knew of this.

"I don't kiss and tell," she answered, watching him closely still before taking a chocolate of her own. Dark, with salt sprinkled across the top. It was rich too, the crunch and flavour of the salt cutting through the sweet, soft centre. The champagne was a nice way to chase it. The night suddenly felt decadent. "I'm a bachelorette, Gregor. I see men if it suits me to."

“What a luxurious freedom that must be,” Gregor said and looked at her with a wistful look. “I know you wanted to be married, but enjoy this while you can.” The champagne was definitely getting to him now. He gestured apologetically with his free hand while he took another sip with the other. “And I didn’t mean to pry, of course. I’m sorry.”

"I wanted to marry because I thought it would make someone else happy…" she admitted, breaking her gaze to look away. "I'm glad I didn't, and glad I exercised my own freedom… Even if things are colder now. I…" Raelynn stopped, choosing not to end that point, and so she drank again instead. "That is hardly prying… You're curious, I'm just used to keeping everything to myself. My--" she stopped again and fired a glance back at him, with an almost mischievous look on her face - as if she couldn't believe she was about to say what she was about to say. "My success with the lesser sex has been not so successful. Nothing exciting, all very boring really. A dinner here and there, a gift every now and then… Never a real connection."

The older man nodded sagely. “Courting can be like that.” Gregor wanted to add something reassuring, that a woman like her would find a handsome, dashing rogue sooner rather than later, but the words died in his throat and something else formed instead, whispered by mercurial forces in his mind. “Are you bored now?” he asked, his voice quiet, almost naughty.

She plucked another chocolate from the box, a soft caramel that was almost too sweet for her. She smiled at Gregor, at his question and shook her head before swallowing down the caramel. "No," she whispered back, "are you?"

After helping himself to another truffle as well and finishing his glass of champagne -- they were nearing the end of the bottle now -- he smiled back and laced his hands together over his abdomen, reclining comfortably in the chair. He’d had a more entertaining and, as much as he shouldn’t acknowledge it, tantalizing day than he had experienced in years, and it showed in his eyes. She had brought excitement into his life and for that, he was grateful. “No.” His voice had dropped into a whisper to match hers. “Far from it.” His smile widened into a soft laugh. “Consider it a victory.”

"Hmmm," she breathed out, her voice thick and husky. "A victory today is just more work tomorrow," Raelynn said - although it sounded much more like a repetition of a phrase or mantra she'd heard, as opposed to anything profound she could think of on the spot. Her hand reached out towards him, heading for his until he folded them away and she sighed to herself. "You know, your work for the night is done - I can't keep you here." Thoughts of it all came back. The sunset, the tenderness in his voice and the safety she felt in his arms - to the unbridled fury he'd displayed, and then his sensual touch, his warm breath. The knife. The way he had pushed her feet apart. Every moment was butterflies and as they got to the bottom of the bottle, she wanted to know if he could hold onto the night and stay with her. "You must be dying for bed…"

It had been a rather enervating day, that was true. Gregor, mistaking Raelynn's intentions entirely, wasn't surprised that she was subtly trying to get him to leave and he took no offense. "Thank you for looking out for my health," he said with a chuckle and got to his feet. "You're right, and I've kept you up for far too long as well, considering your appointment with the dear captain early tomorrow." He smoothed over his clothes. "Will you require me to be at that meeting as well?"

"If you think there's anything you can learn, but, Fjolte will be here in the morning so don't feel obliged," Raelynn answered, unable to look him in the eye, even as she got to her feet too, it was as though she just looked through him.

“Well…” Gregor began, feeling awkward and wondering if he had misread the situation. Then again, what was the alternative? Staying with a woman in her bedchambers late into the night only had one possibly outcome and that was one that he simply couldn’t do, as much as he wanted to. His wedding ring burned on his finger. “Alright, then I suppose I’ll hear from you when you have need of me.” He curtsied and tried to catch her eye. “I am at your service for as long as I am in Jehanna.”

He paused briefly and added: “Or if you just want to talk, that’s fine too. You know, if you get bored.” Gregor conjured a smile.

Silent footsteps carried her to the door and she opened it slowly, half tempted to turn the key and feign ignorance - but that was a pathetic game to play and instead, she let it swing open, wrapping the velvet around herself to cover any peaking flesh - aware that there were still a few drunk patrons likely down the hall. "I'm sure that work will keep me busy enough," she spoke over her shoulder, her words unnecessarily cold, but she felt rejected, in a way. Bitter that their night had ended like this, it washed over all of the excitement for now. She wasn't able to separate those feelings from each other, not in the moment.

"If I require you, I'll send someone," she added, seeming determined to sabotage the end of the night entirely.

He had to resist the urge to wave his wedding ring in her face. What had she expected? They'd had as much fun as his marital state could allow. But Gregor bit his tongue. "Very well," he said curtly, unable to stop himself from reciprocating her coldness. "Good night, my lady."

And with that, he was out the door.

Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Stormflyx
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19th Sun's Dawn
Early Morning

It was the same damn crow again.

The same crow that perched on the windowsill and cawed incessantly at the break of dawn, like clockwork, that woke Fjolte from his sleep. Through drowsy eyes he made out it's form. He always felt that it was just staring at him, doing it on purpose. The noisy ringing from it's sharp beak over and over again until the Nord was up and shooed it with a hand, only to be left with a gift too. A lump of chalk white shit smeared over the sill.

Fjolte frowned, but couldn't be too angry at the bird. Today was not a day for sleeping in, and as he looked over his shoulder and back at his bed it pained him to have to get dressed and leave the heavy sleeper behind. A beautiful raven haired and blue eyed Imperial woman. She was simply a visitor to Jehanna and Fjolte had been more than obliging to give her a tour. She slept on her front and he almost lost himself staring at the perfect curve of her naked back, half covered with the sheet and tumbling curls cascading across her shoulders. "Sweet, sweet Renee," he whispered, biting his lip as he fought off the temptation to wake her with kisses up and down her spine.

But he had work to do.

He dressed quickly, shifting the waistband of his trousers just enough to disguise any lingering arousal from the public eye until the moment had passed. He had to find Gregor -- with no idea of where to look at all. Raelynn had told him he wasn't staying at The Long Well, and to simply bring him along for the job as backup. He'd noted a frost at the mention of him, and he wanted to ask what had happened at the noble event, especially seeing as the deal seemed to have been closed.

It took almost an hour of pacing, asking various Innkeeps whether they had seen the Imperial whom he described as being "dark, handsome, and groomed by the God's themselves." When he came upon the last Inn in Jehanna, he was lucky to see that the man had reserved here - which was just as well, Fjolte had started to worry that he'd just left Jehanna altogether without a word of goodbye.

"Yes, I have a Mercurius staying here, quiet man - likes his wine," the hawk nosed innkeep said after hearing Fjolte's description. "Keeps to himself, quite a pleasant guest to tend to," he added from behind a yawn before pointing in the direction of Gregor's room.

Fjolte made his way to it, knocking at the door with his huge hand - he barely felt the hardwood on his knuckle even if the thud would say otherwise. "Gregor?" He called out, pressing an ear to the door to see if he could hear signs of life. "You there?" He followed it up after receiving no answer.

The door swung open to reveal a shirtless Gregor, glistening with sweat and breathing heavily, a few loose strands of hair dangling in front of his face. One hand was on the door and in the other he held his father's sword, now relaxed by his side. "Fjolte!" the Imperial said with a grin and held out his empty hand for the man to shake. "I would hug you but I don't want to ruin your clothes. Come in, come in!"

The room behind him was simple and pleasant, a little more messy than Raelynn's chambers but not nearly as bad as Razul's quarters. There was a book on the nightstand next to his unmade bed and a menagerie of fine tools on the table by the window; in the middle of the clutter was the mithril ring, the obvious target of a thorough inspection that Gregor had conducted recently. His coat and armor hung over a chair and a half-eaten breakfast plate was left discarded on the floor.

After eyeing Gregor up and down curiously, Fjolte’s sharp eyes were drawn immediately to the discarded platter of fruit and bread - and having only had himself an apple after an hour of hard work, he made a line for it as he entered. “You eating this?” he asked - not waiting for an answer before he tucked in anyway. “Why are you so sweaty?” he asked, muffled through a mouthful already of bread. He was very curious as to what he’d been getting up to alone.

Gregor chuckled as Fjolte began eating his food, but he didn't mind. He wasn't hungry anymore anyway. As for what he was doing, he wasn't finished yet, so he might as well answer the question with a display. "Sword drills," the silversmith said and took up position.

The room was wide enough for him to perform five moves in rapid succession, the steel blade whistling through the air as he advanced one step at a time, parrying imaginary blows and beheading phantom opponents with powerful two-handed strikes. Once he reached the other side, he turned around and repeated the process. He was methodical and precise, devoid of the inspiration that a true master swordsman possessed, but rigorous in his clean and clinical application of the drills he knew, and there was a well-practiced rhythm and cadence to his movements.

Fjolte simply watched him as he moved, stuffing his face with the leftover breakfast. Since Gregor was not done, he found himself to a seat, and sat spread legged and hunched over - plate in one hand, taking mouthfuls of food with the other hand. “Nice work,” he commented - appreciating the crisp style that the Imperial demonstrated. Fjolte had never been one to take to a weapon like a sword - not even a battleaxe felt right in his hands. He prefered close contact and showing off his acrobatic skills. Most didn’t expect to be bested by a man who didn’t carry steel in his hands, but Fjolte had long realised that his entire body was steel - he’d worked at it enough. Climbing craggy rock faces, swimming, running, lifting heavy weighted objects daily… He was as unpredictable as the wind itself.

Something else about Gregor caught his eye now that the man was stripped bare of a shirt - a tattoo on his arm. He hadn’t recognised the artwork before and now seemed as good a time as any to enquire about it; “that’s a nice tattoo too, a beautiful woman,” he commented appreciatively, placing the now-empty plate onto the table behind him. If he wasn’t now bloated with the bread, he might have gotten to his feet to swing a fist or two Gregor’s way and join him in his dance.

Gregor finished the rest of the drill and stood up straight, wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. "Thank you," he said to both compliments. He placed the sword against the wall and wiped himself down with a washcloth. A proper bath would have to wait until later. He turned his arm up so that he could look at the tattoo himself and a wistful smile toyed with his lips.

"It's my wife," Gregor said softly and ran two fingers over the lines of the ink. It depicted her standing with her back to him, her raven hair being tousled by the wind that blew across the bridge that day, her dress similarly affected. She had one arm placed on the railing to support herself and the other was raised, her fingers splayed, trying to catch the breeze. "Briar."

“That’s some detail that the artist captured on there, you must have sat for a while,” Fjolte remarked. He recalled Gregor’s marriage being something of a touchy subject to him, and he was immediately grateful to have not given some kind of boyishly crude comment about the woman before he’d known her identity - because that always went down well. “I like it, it’s a classy piece… Suits a man like you…” Should he ask about the wife? Probably not, but he saw the way that Gregor looked at it and the words just came out anyway, “happier times?”

He looked up at Fjolte's final words and the smile ran away from his face. The Nord didn't mean anything malicious by it, Gregor knew that, so he just sighed and nodded. "We were young, newlywed, and traveled often for my father's business. We had no worries, no dreams and little responsibilities. There was just time to be ourselves and to be with each other." He stopped himself there and turned his arm down to hide the tattoo from himself. "Those were the best years of my life."

Despite the fact that there seemed to be resignation in Gregor's voice, Fjolte always like to believe in hope. He sighed, nodding along with the Imperial's story, staring somewhat longingly into the distance. He could imagine himself in that position too, with a woman special enough to take care of and travel with. Maybe one day he'd have a painting of a memory too good not to put onto his body forever.

He stood up, rolling his shoulders to approach Gregor. "I always think that we've never had the best years. They're always the ones to come yet.”

She smiled at Gregor, at his question and shook her head before swallowing down the caramel. "No," she whispered back, "are you?"

“Perhaps,” Gregor said, distracting himself by searching for his shirt. He found it half beneath the bed and put it on before turning back to face Fjolte. He clapped his hands together and squared his shoulders. “So, my friend, what can I help you with?”

"Work," Fjolte said softly before clearing his throat, wiping his beard free of crumbs. "Raelynn sent me for you. To work with me. She said there's something nice in a tomb a day or two from here and she wants it." He rubbed his hands together, beaded bracelets clicking with the movement. "She wants us to get it."

So she hadn’t forgotten about him. Gregor nodded slowly while he digested what Fjolte had said. It seemed like she was intending to honour their deal, despite the way their night had ended. Gregor had been upset and annoyed the whole day afterwards and spent it in his room, quietly fuming with a bottle of wine and a good book, but he had calmed down enough to accept her request. “Tomb raiding, eh?” he asked and smirked. “Like the Indyonus Jason novels? I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Give me a moment to clean myself up and get dressed and then I’ll see you downstairs.”

"Yes… Those novels…" Fjolte replied, with a raised brow and a shrug. He'd never heard of them. He did as was asked and left the room, closing the door behind him.

He took to waiting outside of the Inn, basking in the early morning sun quite happily. The bracers on his legs catching the rays and shining even more than usual. His skin was coated in a light sweat around his brow as he pointed his face in the direction of the warmth, eyes closed. His breathing was so slow, as if he wasn't breathing as all - and all the world around his was quiet. Hands gently interlaced and in his lap, resting soft. Not an ounce of tension sat in him as he meditated, waiting for Gregor.

The Imperial appeared after fifteen minutes, washed and groomed, back in his armor and with his sword across his back. As much as the clothes that Raelynn’s tailor had provided were stylish and comfortable, he felt more at home in his sturdy traveler’s gear. Gregor tried to break Fjolte’s meditation with a cough. “What else do you know about the tomb?” he asked.

The Nord's eyes opened, and in his post meditative state he appeared more serene than Gregor may have imagined he could, and just as wise and thoughtful as a priest in a temple. His words came out low and soft but from a deeper part of his chest than usual. "It starts as a cave by the mouth of the mountains on the border, where the sea touches. The full moon of this night will steady the tide enough to reveal it." The way he spoke sounded almost like something from the pages of a prophecy, entirely out of his usual tongue - but they were simply the repetition of Raelynn's own explanation.

He climbed up from his knees to his full height, "we should leave now or we'll miss our opening."

The dramatic quality of Fjolte’s words weren't lost on Gregor and he bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, limbering up like an athlete before a competition. “Sounds exciting,” he said with a boyish streak. “I’m ready when you are. Any idea how Raelynn found that place?”

Fjolte smirked, he only half-knew her secrets and he knew better than to tell Gregor, but wanted to give him an answer all the same, "she reads messages in her tea leaves - sent down from the God's themselves…" He let that hang in the air for a moment before giving a laugh and slapping Gregor's back. "Truthfully I've no idea, but she has packed us provisions… So I'll thank my beautiful Lady for that," he said, his usual merry tone had returned and he opened his satchel to reveal a slew of various glass vials - in each different coloured liquids shining like jewels.

Gregor peered into the satchel and raised his brows. “She’s an alchemist as well, then?” he asked, recognizing the liquids for what they were. He knew nothing about potions, however, and didn’t know what they were for. Well, except for healing, everyone knew that one, and he did see some vials with red liquid. Surely, that could only be one thing? “Thank her from me as well,” he muttered.

"Thank her yourself when we get back, or, she'll be thanking you, I bet." Fjolte shrugged as they headed out on their way, flipping the cover back over his satchel. "An alchemist, yeah she does things - mostly makes tonics and teas and perfumes. Occasionally the good stuff like this." He smiled, happy to have her help, as always. "I suppose now I have a mage up my sleeve I might not need them, eh?" He nudged Gregor with his elbow.

So he was to see her again when they got back? Gregor wasn’t sure how to feel about that. He hoped that they could go back to the way they were together before he had gotten up to leave that night, and then he immediately felt guilty for hoping that. It wasn’t right to desire that kind of tension and closeness with another woman. But… he couldn’t deny how he felt. Gregor grit his teeth for a moment before Fjolte rescued him from his thoughts with his elbow.

“Hm? Oh, yes, well, that depends on what those potions do,” he said, and looked sidelong at Fjolte’s face expectantly.

"Red for healing, she made a blue thing for your magicka… Something or other," he muttered, trying to remember what was in there. "She stopped giving me the green ones after I err…. I may have abused them a bit," he admitted with a slight grimace "but she put two in today…"

That prompted a laugh from Gregor. “I’ll make you a bet; if I guess correctly what you abused them for, you owe me twenty septims. If I get it wrong, I owe you twenty. Deal?”

"I can't afford to lose twenty septims, Gregor," he answered quickly, a shit eating grin on his face.

Sniggering, Gregor clapped him on the back. He enjoyed their easy camaraderie immensely. “Very well, I’ll let you off the hook. That’s actually quite ingenious, you know. It never occurred to me to use stamina potions for that purpose.” His smirk faded a little and he turned more serious. “Does it really work?” he asked.

Fjolte had to think about it, and he did so by staring up above. "Well, yes and no. Makes you feel like a God for a short while I'd say. Nothing can compare to just… A good, frantic… thorough, intense, 'can't keep your hands off' experience though. No time for potions when that bell rings…" He bit down on his lip at the thought and shook his head, "you know the type."

It was obvious, though it had already been obvious before, that Fjolte was an experienced man in the arena of lovemaking. Gregor nodded and thought back to a few of his experiences with the young girls of Bravil. He thought of Briar as well, on their wedding night in particular. And then he thought of Raelynn and winced -- the way she’d leaned into him after he had unbuttoned her dress. That same energy had been there, but neither of them had acted upon it. “I do,” he said and tried to bring his thoughts back to the purely theoretical application of such a potion. “Good to know. Thanks.”

"Well, enough of that talk," Fjolte said, sensing something different about Gregor that him want to move away from it. "We're still a pair of gentleman afterall, doing gentle things, yes?" There was mischief in his eyes, and he already knew that Gregor was excited at the idea of searching for treasure. It would be even better for his Imperial friend if they happened upon some trouble along the way. A bandit or two, or something else.

“Naturally,” Gregor replied, glad for the intervention. Fjolte could read his moods well and he was tactful enough to adapt to them. It was a rare skill, and one that Gregor appreciated. He didn’t like to talk about his feelings very much. With Fjolte he didn’t have to. “Though I don’t suspect we’ll be very gentle if we encounter any resistance in this tomb. I’m itching for a good fight,” he said truthfully. “It’s been a quiet week so far. That’s nice too, but… not what I’m looking for on my last adventure.”

"Gregor the Great will have his day I'm sure," Fjolte jabbed. Not entirely sure how he felt about Gregor itching for a fight -- even if it was just as he suspected. "It has been quiet, I thought I'd have seen more of you since the whole noble affair went to well, and since Razul was singing your praises the day after… But it seemed like Raelynn wasn't… In her best spirits after that," the Nord rubbed the back of his neck nervously. He wasn't sure if this was going to upset the apple cart, or if he'd simply been overthinking Raelynn's sourer-than-usual manner. "She's had a bee in her bonnet over something, anyway."

“That’s my fault,” Gregor said and looked up at Fjolte apologetically. That much was true. “The evening went well. Raelynn and I made for a good team. I chatted Razul up about the art trade, warmed him up to the idea of selling paintings to Breton nobles, and then Raelynn sealed the deal expertly by wounding his pride and suggesting that we didn’t need him. It was like artistry, really,” he recalled with a smile, and then his face soured. Now for the lie.

“But… well, there was this older Imperial couple on the boat and they brought up something about Raelynn’s past that quite clearly upset her. I couldn’t restrain my curiosity and later, when we were walking back to the Long Well, I pried where I shouldn’t have. She didn’t take kindly to that,” Gregor said. Aside from his wife, he felt bad about Fjolte as well. The man was obviously in love with Raelynn. Who was he to stand in the Nord’s way and distract her like that? And, considering his marriage, it wasn’t like there was a point to their flirting anyway. ‘May the best man win’ didn’t apply, because Gregor didn’t even want to win. Or… maybe he did, but he couldn’t. And so it was better to leave certain things -- a lot of things -- out of his recollection of the evening, and leave Fjolte to believe that Gregor wouldn’t be a threat to his chances with her. Because he wouldn’t be. He couldn’t be. A white lie to keep everyone happy, that was clearly the best option.

Fjolte breathed out a sigh of relief, “thank goodness that’s all — she’ll be fine soon then,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I was thinking it was something even worse than that, it’s not often I’ve seen her get this way. There’s only one time I’ve ever… caused her an upset that brought the storm in, shall we say.” He laughed slightly, sucking in a breath through his teeth. “But storms pass on their own,” he smiled, slapping Gregor on the back again. “That’s not comparable to my… fur paw,” he scrunched his nose, knowing it wasn’t the right word, but rolling with it anyway.

“I’m glad it went well. She wanted to have me break onto his ship another night and… Well,” the Nord glanced either side of him, lowering his voice. “She wanted me to threaten him, if it didn’t,” he confessed easily, nonchalantly in fact.

Gregor wondered how much Fjolte knew about the shipments she was actually peddling -- if he’d still be willing to do something like that if he was aware that the whole thing concerned weapons, and not art. Gregor himself had expected the revelation to bother him the next day, when he was no longer buzzed or in Raelynn’s enchanting presence, but even in his sour mood he had found that it didn’t. It was quite exciting to be on the other side of the law for a change. Or in a gray area, he supposed, because merely selling weapons didn’t bring any harm to anyone. It was up to the persons they were sold to whether those weapons were used for evil or not. That wasn’t Gregor’s responsibility.

“Always a backup plan,” Gregor said. “She’s smart, she knows what she’s doing. I understand why you’re so impressed with her. Maybe I should recommend her business to my father, if he ever has any intentions of expanding into High Rock,” he mused out loud, working more to impart the notion on Fjolte that his opinions of her were purely professional.

“Maybe you should,” he replied with an encouraging nod. He didn’t suspect anything of Gregor, nothing out of place or strange — Fjolte knew that his new friend was a married man, troubles aside, he was honourable, there would be little that Gregor could say or do that would change that opinion anytime soon, and any worry that Gregor had went completely over Fjolte’s head. He didn’t have the sharp senses of Raelynn - the honed instinct for trouble…

‘Smart, beautiful, sends me off on exciting adventures and then pays me for it. Always on time too, she’s a woman of her word - I’ll give her that,” Fjolte remarked with a confident nod. “A dream situation, honestly,” he sighed happily. “Made better now with good company of course, eh?”

Gregor had tried to live his life as an honest man but the reality was that lying came easily to him, and he grinned with all the carefree enthusiasm of a man that absolutely wasn’t going to upset his new friend’s romantic aspirations. “You’re too kind,” he said, relieved that Fjolte appeared to buy his explanations and obfuscations without a hitch. He was only going to be here temporarily, he reminded himself. Best not to rock the boat.

Then a sly smirk appeared on his face. “Speaking of good company, I heard you had quite the time since I last saw you. Those Imperials on the boat I mentioned earlier? Do the names Quentin and Selena mean anything to you?”

The Nord scrunched his nose, and a blank stare appeared, “I don’t think so? Who are they?” He asked, looking at Gregor to see the smirk. “Oh God’s what did I do?” He asked, bringing both hands to his mouth. “Is Raelynn angry at me? I try not to shit on the doorstep when I drink I really do…”

“Angry at you? I don’t think so, Fjolte, don’t worry, it was quite amusing for everyone involved,” Gregor said and placed a reassuring hand on his arm. “You don’t remember waking up on someone else’s property and making it up to them by moving hay bales for the rest of the morning?”

You could practically see the septim drop, as the ghostly white of his apprehensive face regained colour and grew darker with redness. “Oh, yeah, that…” he breathed out, relieved, before laughing. “I had no choice Gregor,” his shoulders shook. “Camile… She was spectacular. I mean-“ he stopped dead in his tracks and looked directly at Gregor with a look that all men recognised. “She was incredible. Just… Anyway… No details, gentlemen things,” he blundered through, wiping his mouth as if it would push the secrets back in.

“Farmer Claudius’ wife… I heard her complaining about how loud the roosters were and well, I realised that… It wasn’t the roosters, it was… Camile, and we’d woken up the family and I couldn’t just… Oh Gods,” he laughed, laughing louder the more he thought about it.

Gregor laughed too and he shook his head. “Well, you’ll be pleased to know that they never learned it was Camile that made all that… noise,” he said and elbowed Fjolte in the side, as if to say ‘well done there’. “Claudius was quite satisfied with your apologies and the work you put in that morning. He ended up telling the story to Quentin and Selena and they were the couple that Raelynn and I met on the ship. That’s where we heard it.” Feeling mischievous, Gregor added: “And Selena’s of the opinion that you’re free to fall asleep in their yard, something about rose bushes that need tending.” He winked.

With quick thought and a wink, the Nord quipped, “just the rose bushes? I don’t mind an older woman,” he said aloud, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I might have to pay her a visit,” he joked with a long laugh before sighing, his tone flat. “She’ll have been embarrassed by that."

“If she was, she hid it well,” Gregor reassured him. “And she didn’t bring it up again afterwards.” Talking about her so much brought back some of the things he’d felt that night with her -- things that had been relatively easy to put out of his mind over the past five days, but he was now reminded of in full force. “Let’s get her this treasure, whatever it is, and I’m sure she’ll be over it in no time.”

"Yeah, let's just… Do that," Fjolte sighed, the enthusiasm in his voice dwindling as he tried to picture her face - and then tried not too. "Let's just push on, it'll be a few hours yet…" he mumbled, his legs moving faster in the direction of the tomb.

By the time that the two reached the cliffs and ocean, the day had been well spent and night was upon them. A long trek, both with stretches of conversation and then equal stretches of absolute silence. Both men had things to reflect upon, and both needed nature and the elements to help clear their thoughts - blow away the settled dust with a sharp breeze for clarity, even if it more confronting than comforting. Fjolte gazed through at the image of himself humiliating the only person he cared to impress, with nothing more than a joke between Nobles. It wasn't always a nice thing to be the butt of a joke -- he didn't want Raelynn to think of him that way, the simple joker in a deck of cards when his potential was to be so much more than that.

Maybe it wasn't Raelynn who was embarrassed. Maybe for the first time, it was Fjolte.

He shook it free as he and Gregor walked through a ravine that the sea had carved through the mountain. It was steep, slippery, and salt licked. They could walk only one at a time for the path was so narrow and rugged. It made the Nord's bare hands sore to hang on to the sharp edges, but as he stepped through just some more, he felt it widen, and the familiar crunch of sand under his foot.

As they made it through, and out onto the secret cove - only revealed when the moon was full, he couldn't help but notice how… Romantic of a scene it was. Under the moonlight the sand was white, caressed with blue as it took to the ink darkness of the night. It was beautiful, a secret semicircle under the height of the hanging cliffs. A slight swam over the sand too, reflecting spots of light, crystals that had been exposed from the worn rock glittered. It was a midnight paradise.

It took his breath away, and Fjolte could have bathed in that feeling for a while had he been alone, but Gregor was behind him and they had a job to do - and they were against the clock too. Soon the tide would come back through and drown the beach and all of it's secret splendour in a cold, harsh abyss once more. He didn't want to be beneath that.

"Come, Gregor," he said, pointing over to a clear cave entrance - marked by an archway of rough amethyst and quartz jutting from the rock. "We should keep moving unless you need to rest before we head in?"

“Nonsense,” the Imperial said in-between deep, heavy gulps of air. The descent through the ravine had left him exhausted; his fingers were trembling with the exertion and he was quite severely out of breath. The mere sight of the cove alone made the trip worthwhile, however, and the natural beauty that surrounded them perked him up a bit. He was eager to see what the tomb that awaited them looked like. Who made it? Who was buried there? What, exactly, was the treasure supposed to be? Gregor clapped a reassuring hand on Fjolte’s shoulder. “I’m right behind you.”

"Yeah, stick behind me I'll take care of you sweetpea," Fjolte jibed. He did enjoy the brotherly banter he had with Gregor, neither of them seemed to take a thing the other said seriously for the most part, until it was time to be serious - and then they handled their issues like men. With another joke, a drink, and a clap.

The Nord was the first to step down into the cave - once again the ground beneath him was slippery - eroded so smooth it was like walking on sheet ice. The walls too, were hollowed smooth. Wet, and like clouded glass. Thick walls of clouded and smoked glass. He took one step that threatened to knock him onto his back - footing too hard to find, and if he was going to be bowled over he'd bring Gregor down too. He reached behind himself, trying to grab the Imperial to help steady himself but he saved himself in time, his hand finding a crack in the wall.

"Careful," he panted, pulling himself back up, his fingers gripping the crack hard. If he'd had a torch to hold up against the wall, he might have had reason to fear any further exploration. He might have noticed that the crack was one of three, dragged through the rock…

Following rather cautiously, especially after Fjolte almost fell over, Gregor kept his hand against the wall and took small, measured steps forwards. “What in the hells is this place?” he asked out loud, though he did not expect his friend to know the answer. Instead, Gregor conjured a fireball in his hands and sent it down into the cave. It screamed through the tunnel for a while until it impacted on level ground. It was hard to tell from this distance, but Gregor suspected that it was solid rock down there and not this slippery half-ice, or whatever it was. “There, see?” he said to Fjolte. “Just a little ways down and then we’re in the clear. Come on.”

“The cold asshole of High Rock apparently,” Fjolte answered - watching the fireballs trajectory until it stopped, following the smoke laden direction with Gregor still behind him. Instinctively, the man held a hand out behind him - his palm flat, to prevent the Imperial from walking ahead.

As they came to end of the initial tunnel, Fjolte realised he had been slouching, unable to stand to his full height until now and he felt the stretch in his back as he stood upright. It wasn’t nearly as slippery anymore and he found his footing quite easily. “Well then,” he began, surprised to see that it wasn’t nearly as dark as he’d expected it to be, the shine of the walls held the moonlight all the way through, lighting the way with an opalescent quality. “Raelynn’d be fucked if she had to do this herself, she’d never get through that shit in those heels of hers,” he commented dryly walking the designated path with little trepidation. He was too aware of the fact that time was against them.

“So, any guesses on the treasure she wants?” he asked, making polite conversation.

The idea of Raelynn even making it out to the cave entrance in the cove was already ridiculous, let alone descending into the underground tomb complex, and Gregor chuckled at the thought. "She didn't tell you exactly what she's looking for?" he asked, surprised and a little concerned. His eyes went around the fluorescent walls and his ears strained for any sound that could tell them what to expect. He thought he could hear running water. "How will we know that we've found what we're looking for?"

“A plate of some kind,” Fjolte answered, immediately thinking of a plate of food - which, would be incredibly welcome indeed. “She said we’ll know it when we see it, in that kind of... “ he stopped, glancing down with a smirk, “mysterious way she does. When she gets an idea, or when she’s feeling excited...” He continued forwards the sound of dripping water becoming louder the more they explored. “You done anything like this Gregor?” he asked, with hopes of good conversation, before stepping forwards. The Nord felt a puddle beneath his feet that just seemed to get deeper with every step. “Shit,” he hissed, as before long he was up to his ankles.

"Not quite like this, no," Gregor replied, distracted by their environment. He was glad his boots were waterproof when they began to wade into a layer of water. "I hope the tomb hasn't been flooded…" he muttered and conjured another flame in his hands so that they could see better what they were doing.

Ahead of them the tunnel opened up into a vast underground grotto. The same half-light that clung to the walls in the tunnel spread across the high, vaulting ceiling of the cave like spiderwebs. Water poured out of the rock in several places, falling down for dozens of yards before ending up in the lake that spread from the mouth of the tunnel all the way to the other side of the cave. It was as beautiful as it was alien and unsettling. In the center of the lake appeared to be their goal: a structure clearly built by the hands of civilization, half-submerged, crafted from ominous black rock.

Gregor was about to open his mouth to comment on the walkway he saw just beneath the surface of the lake that would lead them to the tomb-structure when something moved in the water. He doused his flame and ducked into the shadows of the tunnel, motioning for Fjolte to do the same with urgent chops of his hand.

Whatever it was, it was huge. Gregor was reminded of a giant crocodile or something similar with the way it lazily cut through the stillness of the lake without disturbing it. "Shit," Gregor whispered, eyes wide. He'd fought Spriggans and wolves. This was different. He didn't know what it was, but his instinct told him that it wasn't any normal creature.

Fjolte saw it too. The moving shadow under the already dark surface. “So, er… are you feeling like being brave?” he whispered in Gregor’s ear as they both got down and into cover. He peaked again, over at the treasure in the centre and noticed that there was a single hole in the top of the cave that was letting the moonlight pour in. Just one beam of light that hit did centre of the black rock. He found it a beautiful place too, but in the way that only meant it was threatening and dangerous. Beautiful to look at a painting of a place like this, hung on a wall in a safe, warm, and comfortable living space. It felt too daunting to be in it.

The rock face here was slimy, he noticed as he placed his fingers on it to steady him. Algae and moss growing through the cracks and flaws in the surfaces. “What the fuck is that thing?” he whispered again, his voice heavy with the stress of it. “I don’t think this is going to be like the bandit camp…”

Before Gregor could say anything, the creature tipped over in the water and began to disappear beneath the surface. The angle of its descent meant that a long, powerful tail snaked out of the water, and like the arm of a man slowly waving farewell, it slipped into the black pool and the beast vanished from sight entirely.

Without its movements in the water the cave took on an entirely unearthly quality, so dead and motionless was it. It was even more terrifying now. Where was the monster? If it was swimming around below the surface, out of sight, it could strike at any moment…

"I don't know, but we need to distract it," Gregor whispered. "Otherwise I fear it's going to ambush us on the way there." He pointed at the moonlit monolith in the center of the lake. "Any ideas?"

Fjolte brought his thumb to his lips, and furrowed his brow. “As much as I appreciate your sword skill Gregor, I’m the acrobatic one here. Fast too, I can make it to the.. Plinth plate thing…” he gestured with his hand in it’s direction. “Can you throw magic? Make a sound in another tunnel... “ he groaned, he wasn’t the best at thinking up plans - and he looked down at Gregor with expectant eyes. The Imperial was the clever one, and there was something about Gregor that had Fjolte believe he was certainly more cunning than he had let on so far.

“I don’t want to split up from you,” Fjolte finally uttered. “We’re stronger together if that thing gets to us. Two of us, one of him. Why don’t we just damn well get the jump instead?”

Looking around the lake Gregor could see that there were several tunnels and underground rivers that all ended up there, as if the cave was a nexus for whatever complex subterranean system had formed beneath the cliffs, but none of them were particularly easy to get to without swimming and that was the last thing he wanted to do. Maybe there was merit to what Fjolte said. Sometimes the simplest solutions were the best. "We don't know where it is, though," he said and rubbed his chin. "But I agree that it's probably best if we don't split up. I can throw a fireball to the other side of the cave and see if that grabs its attention, and then we make a run for it together?"

“We’ve got one advantage, that’s that we know that it’s here, but it doesn’t know that we’re here… We should be as sneaky as we can. Fuck, Gregor. I don’t know, is this damn thing worth it?” He whispered, looking at the strange rock again. He didn’t want to let Raelynn down but he also wanted to at least return to her. The creature was massive and unknown. He had his fists and a few shots of bottled vigour. He clenched his jaw, eyes scanning the room for any sign of it reappearing.

Gregor looked at Fjolte with a steady gaze. There was steel in his eyes, though it was hard to say if he was brave or fearless. Raelynn's perfume hung in the halls of mind, thick and cloying. He could feel her against him and hear her whisper of gratitude in his ear. "I'll not have Fjolte Soriksen known as a coward," Gregor hissed and clapped the Nord on the back. "We can try to sneak across the walkway but if it senses our ripples in the water I'll drive it away with magic and we make a run for the island… tomb… whatever that is. If we have to fight it, let's do so on solid ground, and not in its own territory. Agreed?"

Fjolte’s head tilted slowly and he shook his head, “I’m not a coward! But come on…” He closed his mouth and his nostrils flared as he eyed the structure as if he was working out how quickly he could reach it. “You’re not fighting it alone, no screaming heroics -- none of that shit. We fight it together, agreed?”

The Nord didn’t wait for an answer, it wasn’t a question, not really. That was an order, and he made sure to be the first to skulk out from the shadows and make his way out across the tomb, quiet as a mouse. For being such an imposing and large man, he could be as quiet as a whisper. He didn’t even breath, just moved step by step - one at a time.

Of course he wasn’t thinking of fighting it alone. Gregor rolled his eyes and followed Fjolte, doing his best to emulate the Nord’s movements -- the excruciatingly slow way he managed to put his feet down into the water, especially, was impressive. It barely reacted to the weight of him. Gregor looked down at his own boots and stifled a growl of disappointment. He wasn’t being quite as sneaky as Fjolte was, and his eyes furtively searched the surface of the lake for any disturbances.

But his search was in vain. It moved below the water, staring up at the stone walkway and the faint, shimmering light of the rock dome beyond. Its eyes were cold and cunning, devoid of mirth or sympathy or fear -- only an eternal hunger resided there, for it was an immortal spirit of the Daedra cloaked in flesh and bone, a fragment of Mehrunes Dagon with a single purpose: to devour. The Daedroth was not like any other predator, however. It knew what these fleshy intruders were after. It was the same thing that any mortal that had ventured into these caves was after. For more than two hundred years, the hellish beast had made its lair in the lake, venturing out into the sea to hunt, or waiting patiently for anyone or anything -- horkers, sometimes -- to delve too deep, where only its jaws and teeth were waiting for them. If it narrowed its eyes and looked closely… yes, ripples, crossing the walkway slowly.

It waited.

They had made it over the walkway, the entrance to the tomb was only just big enough for Fjolte to squeeze through. He held the bag tightly so that the bottles would not rock and clink from within the fabric. It was so still, just too still, and through the gap was just a staircase. A simple staircase, spiralling into further darkness. The Nord looked over his shoulder to ensure that Gregor had made it.

Where boots would shuffle on stone, his did not and he crept down the stairs like a shadow man, barely taking a breath as he did so but remaining ever alert. At the bottom there was only more tunnel, no prize yet. He looked back at Gregor once again with an expression that said more than words could; what now?

The darkness was so oppressive that even Gregor was beginning to question the wisdom of their perseverance. He hoped to all the high heavens that Raelynn hadn’t been aware of how dangerous the tomb might turn out to be. An intrusive thought popped into his head -- what if Raelynn had sent them here to rid herself of two disappointing associates? -- that wouldn’t leave and Gregor grit his teeth silently. Fueled by an irrational anger, Gregor moved around Fjolte and took point.

The interior of the structure that revealed itself after they crept through the tunnel was one of the strangest things that Gregor had ever seen. Blocks of stone were arranged in asymmetrical patterns to create a three-dimensional labyrinth in a large, underground space; a path back up, but irregular and unpredictable. The cave above them had been natural but this space was carved out of the rocks by artificial means; the walls were smooth and rose to a flat ceiling at a perfect ninety degree angle, and it was illuminated by strange, blue lights hanging from the walls that Gregor couldn’t identify. Stairs, platforms and ladders connected the stone blocks and created a winding, meandering path towards… well, towards what? Presumably their prize would be at the top of the path, but Gregor couldn’t be sure. Why would the staircase have brought them deeper into the earth, only for this illogical design to lead back up again? Who had made this place? How old was it? The sound of running water was even stronger here and Gregor realized that a river flowed through the floor, cutting it in two, and higher up there were large, wide aqueducts that criss-crossed from wall to wall, carrying more water through the rectangular void in the bedrock.

“What in Oblivion…” Gregor muttered.

Something had changed in Gregor, Fjolte could feel it. He was on the cusp of anger or rage and maybe that was fueled by fear and anticipation of the unknown. Whatever it was, Fjolte was keeping a sharper eye on him now.

It wasn't until Gregor spoke that Fjolte really took notice of their surroundings. He was a man who loved nothing more than sprawling mountains and dense forest - but this tomb took his breath away. He was speechless for a moment as he stepped out into it. "You ever seen anything like this?" He asked, his mouth hanging open as he eyed up the same path back up. "We're going that way," he said -- pointing his finger in the direction before stepping hesitantly towards it.

“Absolutely not,” Gregor replied. The whole place was a marvel of masonry and geometry in ways that he had never seen before. Gregor followed Fjolte as they headed towards the start of the path upwards. They crossed the river that flowed through the room across a small footbridge -- the water was streaming quickly, evidently on its way further down into the earth. Gregor wondered where it all ended up, and doubted that it was a mystery that would ever be discovered.

Behind them, the Daedroth rose from the river -- hulking and massive, taller than a troll and heavier than Gregor and Fjolte put together twice over. The sounds of its movements were drowned out by the noise of the speeding water and it climbed onto the floor with slow confidence, saliva dripping from its crocodilian fangs…

Fjolte hadn't seen a thing like it either, definitely not in Skyrim, and even he'd travelled around there too in tombs, tunnels, and caves. Nothing had been this incredible to behold. But he couldn't shake the feeling free of how wrong it all was. His gaze journeyed to the corner to see a shape - white and thin.

A skeleton, the remains of perhaps the last person who'd disturbed the tomb. A poor adventurer who would be as eternal as the walls around him. As he focused on him, he caught a glimpse of his weapon too, a long steel rod that had seen better days - worn by the water and by time. It was speared into the ground beside him. The Nord said a quiet prayer, wondering if he and Gregor were the first to find him… What a grim thought. If they were to die down here too, how long would their bodies remain without visit? How long would their families mourn.

He began to speak, to draw Gregor's attention to the bones. "We're not-" as he turned to look the Imperial's way his eyes shot wide open and his pupils so shocked by it they shrunk to the size of dots over his irises, "alone!" He finished, louder - at the glimpse of the behemoth of a creature behind them. So silent it was, it was damn fate that had Fjolte turn his head. That damn pile of bones were the remains of a hero of this hour. "Watch out!" He cried - stepping to Gregor's side, never away.

What greeted Gregor when he whirled around, drawing his sword in one fluid movement as he did so, was a mass of teeth, claws and scales. For a moment he was sure that the impossible had happened and that the dragons had returned from the mists of time to hunt them down underground, and then his panicked brain made sense of what he was looking at. Or at least he realized that it wasn’t a dragon. Gregor had still never seen anything like it and he yelled in alarm while he did the first thing he could think of: blanket the creature in flames. There weren’t many animals in Tamriel that weren’t afraid of fire.

The Daedroth not only shrugged off the assault of magical fire, it opened its maw and unleashed a belching gout of flame of its own, so powerful that it dispersed Gregor’s -- by comparison -- pitiful spell. The Imperial backed away immediately and pulled Fjolte with him, practically leaping out of the path of the fires of Oblivion. Maybe it was a damned dragon after all. “Up, up!” Gregor yelled and ran, thoughts racing frantically. “I have a plan!”

Fjolte didn't need to be told twice. It was climb, or be eaten by fire, he knew what he preferred. With ease he squatted down to his haunches, holding position for a second before he sprung up, easily clearing at least half of his own height in an impressive jump that landed against a partial platform which he then hung from, before pulling himself up. He would scale this easily, but Gregor couldn't. Not anywhere near as fast and Fjolte wasn't leaving him behind. "What now?" He yelled.

The Daedroth was much quicker in the water than it was on land and even with Gregor’s lack of acrobatical climbing skills, the two of them were faster than the beast as it clambered after them. “Keep going!” Gregor commanded. “We have to use its weight against it -- find a way to make it fall!” He was confident that they had enough tools at their disposal between Fjolte’s fists and his own sword and sorcery. It was just a matter of execution.

Much to his surprise, however, the Daedroth eyed them both warily as they continued to put distance between themselves and it and it leapt into the water of one of the aqueducts, which carried it out of sight and beyond the walls of the chamber. Gregor watched it go, panting hard after Fjolte had pulled him yet another level higher, and shook his head. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

"You and me both," Fjolte breathed as they reached another level. "We have to find better ground. FUCK,” he shouted out. Not liking one ounce of the situation. If they ambushed here, the fall would be enough to severely injure them - they had to find a more advantageous spot. "What in Oblivion is that thing Gregor? It's like an Argonian fucked a bear and then that thing fucked a horker and they fucked the Argonian again--" he spat as he kept going. One foot in front of the other. Again and again. "Come on, faster."

“I don’t know,” Gregor said once more in-between his heavy breathing. It was impossible to keep pace with Fjolte and he was beginning to regret not taking his athleticism more seriously when he was a youth. He was strong, of that there was no doubt, but not suited for an obstacle course like this. “But I don’t think it’s an animal. The fire breath, the way it looked at us…” Something clicked. “Mara’s mercy, I think it’s a Daedra,” he said breathlessly. “It must have been down here for centuries.”

Fjolte cast a sidelong glance at Gregor, running his hand over his face to sweep away his hair. "How are we going to kill it? It shook off your fire like it was nothing." There was scorn in Fjolte's eyes as he kept running, jumping, climbing, and dragging Gregor with him. The beast on their tails. He didn't want there to be a dead end ahead of them. He felt almost like if he got enough height… He could jump down and tackle it. That was what he started looking for - a route to scaling the wall to get a jump - if Gregor's plan sounded like it wasn't going to work.

“It’s got a tough hide so the flames didn’t work, but everything is vulnerable to momentum,” Gregor explained. He was practically dragging his feet with quiet desperation and his face was bathed in sweat, loose strands of hair sticking to it and getting into his mouth. He kept spitting them out, his arms too heavy to raise them to his face. “I know more spells, stronger spells -- a fire rune that detonates with force, ice spikes to drive it back, and there’s my sword…” He paused and took a deep, burning breath. “And there’s you. We’ll have to dance with it, maneuver so that it’s with its back to a drop, and then make it trip and fall. Does that make sense?”

"We're going to die running from it at this rate!" Fjolte called out, stopping - rummaging through the bag to grab a vial of the green potion for Gregor. "Drink it. Drink it now or you'll never reach the top."

With trembling fingers and shaking hands, Gregor uncorked the vial and threw back the contents without question. Almost immediately he felt an invigorating strength flood his limbs and he could breathe without pain. “Wow,” he said and looked at Fjolte with wide eyes. “She sure knows what she’s about. You know, I can see why you’d use this for -- nevermind,” Gregor muttered and stopped himself. The stamina potion was getting to his head and making him giddy. He had to focus. He threw himself after the Nord and found that he was able to pull his own weight again. “Let’s go, let’s go,” he said, both to encourage himself and Fjolte.

Pleased to see Gregor in better shape, the Nord felt more hopeful about the inevitable fight with the creature. It only then dawned on him that Gregor had said it was a Daedra, he never thought he'd see the day. He didn't know what he thought… Only survival and blood now. Only fighting his way out and finding the prize for Raelynn and making it out before the tide came back in, down here - he'd lost sense of time, direction, and what was real. Finally they made it to the top of the steep path, and even Fjolte was feeling the sting and burn through his lungs - his face red and hands scraped - bleeding. But there was still fighting to do. "Gregor…" he mumbled out through his breaths as the Imperial got to level ground too.

With a bloodcurdling roar, the Daedroth emerged from the aqueduct next to the highest platform just as Gregor scrambled to his feet next to Fjolte. There was no stealth to its movements anymore; it burst through the surface of the water with great force and launched itself across the gap between the aqueduct and the platform, landing with an almighty crash and digging its long claws deep into the stone to keep its footing. They were so high up and the Daedroth so large that the top of its head scraped against the ceiling when it rose to its full height. Every instinct in Gregor’s body told him to run in the face of such an apex predator, but the Imperial snarled and drew his sword again. The Daedroth spread its arms wide and roared again, declaring its challenge to the two intruders.

“Shut up,” Gregor hissed and prepared an ice spike in the palm of his empty hand.

Fjolte simply charged for the Daedroth - running fast and hard towards it, using a rock to build momentum, like Gregor had said, timing his jump as Gregor powered up his ice spike. The Nord flew towards the Daedroth’s side, with his powerful leg outstretched to hit it. He just wanted to get it to turn, so he’d annoy the thing like a gnat — confident he could move faster than it could. He’d annoy it, whistling kicks and punches while Gregor worked at it from the distance.

The fear changed. He was no longer afraid of the thing, he was excited by it. Adrenaline coursed through him as he made contact with it’s scaled body - landing a vicious thud to it’s elbow before he used the same momentum to throw himself back - away from its claws. “Now Gregor!”

Gregor obeyed and unleashed the ice spike spell, which slammed into the distracted Daedroth with great speed. Most of it shattered on impact, such was the toughness of the beast’s scales, but it recoiled from the blow with a loud hiss and scratched at its shoulder where the very tip of the spike had buried itself. The Daedroth turned to glower at Gregor and made to charge him, but Fjolte was in the way. Enraged, the beast dashed into a sudden shoulder charge that sent the Nord flying after hitting him square in the chest. Gregor’s heart sank into his shoes but Fjolte wasn’t thrown clear of the platform, if only barely. He wasn’t out of danger, however; the Daedroth came after him with slavering fangs and gleaming claws.

“No!” the Imperial yelled and charged, all self-preservation forgotten in the face of his friend in need, sword raised high overhead and catching the blue light brilliantly. Recognizing the bright steel as something dangerous, the Daedroth backed away at the last second and evaded Gregor’s two-handed downward slash, and it was forced even further back as Gregor went on the offensive, repeating the same perfected, rhythmic movements as he had been drilling in his room.

Until the Daedroth decided it had had enough and lunged forward with its hideous maw, forcing Gregor to abruptly drop and roll away, lest his head be crushed between the Daedra’s jaws. He hoped he’d bought Fjolte enough time to get back on his feet.

It took a moment for Fjolte to find his bearings, he blinked fast as his head hung over the cliff’s edge, but his body kept him on the platform. The realisation of the drop sent his heart racing. The charge had knocked him for six and his eyes landed on another skeleton in the distance. In the brief quiet he wondered if that was Gregor and he was waking from the dead, centuries after the Daedra had attacked him. That thought was as fleeting as anything, and reality came back to him as the Nord drew himself to his knees, a sharp pain ran down his shoulder. That would have to be seen later, it felt almost as though the joint of his shoulder was filled with crunching sand.

He had no choice but to take his own stamina potion, and he scuttled out of the way of the Daedra while Gregor danced with it. He was cutting through the air with his steel, and as the liquid worked its way through Fjolte’s body - he felt every muscle tense and his heart pumped faster. At his side, the body of another fearless warrior who had fallen. Was this one the friend or companion of the one down below? Laying at the side of this warrior was another tool, and in his current state, with every sense heightened, adrenaline flaring out of control, he took the tarnished steel into his hands and ran for the Daedra, who had managed to force Gregor to take to the ground.

“For Sovngarde!” He called out, the blood of the Nords coursing through him, wild and untamed — magnified by the potion. He appeared at the side of the Daedra just as it was about to take another swipe at Gregor - Fjolte swung first, the old steel singing through the air until the flat hammerhead made contact with the face of the beast, powered by the amplified strength and resolve of the Nord.

The Daedroth screamed in pain, part of its face caved in by the terrible blow, as blood and mucus spurt from its destroyed left eye socket and teeth dangled uselessly from its upper jaw. Gregor grinned and leapt back to his feat. "For the Emperor!" he yelled, invoking the battlecry of his own race, and swung his bastard sword at the battered monster.

It caught his blade in midair, good eye turned towards him, burning with agony and rage. Dark blood ran down its arm as Gregor's steel cut into its fingers, but before the Imperial could react the Daedroth drove the claws of its other hand into his side. He gasped, eyes wide and mouth agape, as shocking pain lanced through him.

Gregor could heal himself, Fjolte knew that much, but it was going to be damned useless unless he had the time to do so. He was reminded of the potions, and without a second thought, Fjolte shoved Gregor out of the way and towards the wall while the Daedra readied itself for another attack. He shoved the satchel too into Gregor’s arms. The fall would hurt him, but better that than he get hit again. “RED ONES,” Fjolte called out, his deep voice carried through the whole labyrinth.

He dragged the end of the war hammer over the stone ground. It was an alien feeling - holding a weapon in his hands. After he’d only mused on such a thing earlier that day, but he needed reach and power. It was a kind stroke of fate that had left him such a weapon when he needed it. He adopted a stance to hold its weight, looking th Daedra dead in its last eye. “Oi,”he yelled at it, tapping the steel against the rock beneath him as if it were a bell. The creatures head cocked from side to side and it roared again. Fjolte went for another swing, his own back was turned to the edge of the cliff as he tempted the Daedra that way. He hoped that Gregor was alright - but too preoccupied to look.

The Daedroth, more cunning than a low beast, recognized that going toe to toe with the hammer-wielding mortal was dangerous. Instead, it breathed a plume of fire at Fjolte, hoping to envelop the Nord and burn him to a crisp -- or see him fleering off the edge and into the chasm below.

Meanwhile, Gregor repeated Fjolte's words in his mind, clinging on to consciousness, fighting through the pain, shock and blood loss to pull the healing potions from the satchel. His side was entirely soaked with crimson and a pool of blood began to form beneath him. His head was spinning and his ears were ringing. Would be become another skeleton here? He simply tilted his head back and dropped the contents of the potions into his throat, one after the other. That brought some vitality back to him and color returned to his ashen cheeks, the magic within the potions already working to stem the bleeding and knit the puncture wounds back together. He pressed his hands to his side and added his own magic to the mix. Fjolte needed him.

It was one dramatic end or the other now, and Fjolte, threatened and cornered by flame or a fall took the option to drop, if Gregor had any chance to finish the deed or get out, it was this. “Ugly piece of shit,” Fjolte spat as he saw the mouth of flame open, he took one last swing, failing to land his hit before he fell over the edge of the cliff.

The Daedroth approached and looked over the ledge, turning its head so that its good eye could see what had happened to its enemy.

“Over here,” a low growl sounded from behind, and the Daedroth turned its head slowly to see the other man back on his feet, sword at the ready. The monster bellowed in frustration and charged, tired of fighting and eager to retreat with its prey between its jaws to a place where it could heal.

Gregor dropped into a low stance and waited, adrenaline surging through his limbs. Every split second felt like an eternity while the Daedroth’s claws and teeth closed in on him. He remembered what his father had taught him about fighting against a mounted enemy. Using those lessons against a crocodilian behemoth seemed like a strange application of techniques, but he was sure that the same principles applied. Momentum, defense, evasion… Gregor breathed out and moved.

He expertly spun out of the Daedroth’s path and turned his dodge into a devastating two-handed strike, a wide slash that whistled through the air with the promise of evisceration while the blundering Daedra barreled into thin air. Hector’s old steel came through and the spinning blade ripped right through its shoulder, ribs and abdomen, sending an arterial spray of blood across the platform.

The beast howled in pain and its calculated charge turned into a headlong dash as it lost control of its own momentum, skidding across the platform and over the edge. It managed to hook the claws of one arm into the stone and held itself there through raw strength and force of will, fighting to hoist itself back up, the claws of its feet scratching uselessly against the sheer rock surface, finding no purchase. Gregor dropped his sword and raised his hands, still stained with his own blood, a great and terrible wrath etched upon his face.

Each bolt of lightning more powerful and brilliant than the last, Gregor unleashed a barrage of violent magic against the Daedroth, the claps of thunder slamming into the walls of the underground labyrinth and echoing with great force. Gregor added his own voice to the noise and roared out his fury, pouring every last drop of magicka he had within him into the assault.
Finally overwhelmed, the muscles of the Daedroth gave out as shock magic wracked its body and it plunged into the depths of the structure, bouncing off several bridges and platforms on its way down, each crash accompanied by a sickening crunch.

It landed on the floor, nothing more than a limp sack of meat and bone, before dissipating into a cloud of crystals, its immortal soul banished to the realms of Oblivion.

Fjolte hung from the handle of the war hammer with his eyes closed as the barrage of thunder and lightning ricocheted around the walls. It was as if they were outside, in the midst of a terrible storm. Each clap made him flinch, but in spite of that he could sense the danger fleeting. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw the Daedra plummeting beside him, and he almost thought he would be wrapped in its body and dragged down with it... The pick of the hammer had held good in the rock. He’d thrown it in with enough force that it had left behind a cobweb of cracks against the glacial stone.

Danger gone, he dragged himself up at last, his bloody and torn hand appearing first over the cliffs edge - landing on the flat ground with a loud slap. He heaved himself up, and when his weight was on the platform, he pulled free the war hammer, and looked at Gregor, panting. “It’s done?”

“Oh Gods, you’re alive!” Gregor exclaimed, flooded with relief, and scrambled to drop to his knees next to the Nord. He helped to pull him fully onto the platform and sat back, nodding. “It’s done,” he said, still trembling and looking pretty pale in the face, but otherwise seemingly alright. “May it never return.”

"Yes…" he panted, his own shoulder shaking and swollen. "I'm alive… Wasn't going to let you hog all the sweet gratitude…" Fjolte puffed out, slightly delirious from everything. Still, his hand moved and he gripped Gregor’s hand in turn, shaking it firmly. “We have… Get the plate. The tide… Soon.”

“Right, yes, the treasure,” Gregor muttered and climbed to his feet, swaying in place as he looked around. As strange as this tomb was, whoever had constructed it had fortunately not gone to great lengths to hide the plate and Gregor found it, or what he assumed what had to be it, in an alcove in the wall, next to where Fjolte had unceremoniously dumped him to heal himself, along with a collection of strange and unrecognizable objects. Had it been an offering to the dead, placed at the end of a difficult climb? There was symbolic value to that, Gregor mused while he stuffed the white plate into the potion satchel, but who knew what this place really was?

He returned to Fjolte and helped him back up. His magicka was spent but there was still one healing potion left in the satchel, and he gave that to Fjolte. “Drink up, and let’s go.”

Unlike the stamina potion, when Fjolte took a sip of Raelynn’s healing tonic, he felt nothing but serenity flood through him. To the point that every drop of fury and excitement he still felt just seemed to be diluted in the warmth of the restoration the flooded him. His shoulder tingled, and the swelling went down - but it was still uncomfortable. He was sure it could be seen to by proper hands soon enough, they had to make their way out now — and he was all too happy to leave the place, and the memory of the terror behind.

There was one thing he couldn’t leave behind though, the damned steel war hammer, and he slung it over his shoulder with that small flicker of Nordic pride burning.
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Hank Dionysian Mystery

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20th Sun's Height,
Late Afternoon
Jehanna, High Rock

The room was all but silent. It was simply the sounds of silver being polished in the corner by Shona. Today she wore a yellow dress and sandals, and her hair had been styled quite fashionably into two burns. The Lady had allowed it, for today the Lady was excited.

She had received a gift again, another white box, wrapped with black ribbon - bigger than the last box too. In between adding more polish to her cloth, she stole glances at Raelynn behind her desk, writing. She had been writing for hours — that wasn’t unusual for her, but today she had very specific writing to be done. Not that Shona really understood it, just that whenever Raelynn took out her accounts book she always seemed sour about it, but today she was rather pleased. Shona turned back to the silverware and left her Lady to it.

Raelynn too, observed Shona. Watching the care she took with any and all of her belongings, even the minor things, like books, she took great care to dust and put away back to their shelves. There had never been torn or creased pages when they were in the maid’s gentle hands. She was just grateful to be here, and so every now and then Raelynn let her dress as she pleased.

As well as the white gift box, there was a row of items lined up across the desk - each also sitting in a box and amongst some paper padding. A clock, a teapot, a steel blade adorned with jewels, and a rather stunning choker necklace, finished with black lace and ruby. Across the parchment, she detailed each.

The sun of late afternoon warmed her back, and she sighed against it, stretching in the seat happily in a powder blue shirt that seemed to further bring out the blue in her eyes, instead of the usual cold tones that emphasised the steel grey. Her hair, relaxed and past her collarbones in styled curls - as if they were setting to be styled again later. A candle burned on the desk offering a rich amber scent into the room which was far more exotic than her usual floral perfume.

Her quill scratched at the parchment when the knock at the door came, and she glanced up - meeting Shona’s gaze. She didn’t need to speak, the girl was already to her feet and answering it. She hung her head as usual, this time less surprised to see two pairs of feet, but still smiling to know that it was Fjolte.

The Nord entered first, covered in dirt and blood still from the tomb. He and Gregor had slept it off, but the exhaustion was still present. His face was smeared with mud, hands scratched and scraped - and Gregor’s condition was hardly better. The legs of Raelynn’s chair scraped across the floor as she stood, her expression that of immediate concern. “Fjolte,” she said, nodding at him, and then briefly meeting Gregor’s gaze with her own, “Mr. Mercurius.”

That immediately annoyed him. After all that had happened between them, he was back to being Mr. Mercurius now? Maybe she was just toying with him, he reasoned, and forced himself to calm down. Gregor sighed almost imperceptibly and handed the potion satchel, with plate, back to Fjolte for him to hand to Raelynn, but not before pawning something wrapped in crumpled paper from it. “Miss Deserine,” he said and inclined his head respectfully, clasping his hands -- and the mystery object -- behind his back.

“Raelynn,” Fjolte began as he stepped over to her desk and let the satchel drop onto the surface - almost on top of her gift box, and almost sending the clock flying off. “It’s in there.”

She frowned, swatting him out of the way with a hand to take the satchel herself - placing it down much more carefully. “Careful, you brute,” she said, slapping him gently too, with a smirk, even if his lack of regard was of concern to her. “What happened? You both look terrible,” she sighed, stepping forward and closer to the two two of them, her own delicate appearance a direct contrast to them both. She looked to Gregor, not wanting to meet his eyes but still she inspected him from head to toe. “Are you hurt? In need of any help?”

“The tomb wasn’t empty,” Gregor said curtly. He reconsidered his plan of giving her the object he held behind his back, what with the way she was treating him, but he found that his defiance was cut down at the knees by her beauty and his desire for them to be… friends, again. “Fjolte’s shoulder needs to be looked at, even if he might never admit that himself,” Gregor said and smiled when he looked at the burly Nord. He then thought about himself and what evils the Daedroth’s claws might have left behind in his side that he, not being an expert healer, couldn’t know about. “And... I suppose my flank could do with a check, just to make sure the potions and I didn’t miss anything.”

She first approached Gregor, rolling up her sleeves carefully - the silk frills being tucked away again so that she was free to work. She could tell which side bothered him, and she stepped around, placing her two hands there, blood and gore did not seem to bother her. She could already sense a tenderness there, but not anything that would kill him. After her brief inspection, she moved to Fjolte, looking at his shoulder too - a dislocation that would be easier to mend than Gregor’s internal wound.

“I can’t do you both at once,” she commented, which caused Fjolte to raise a brow when she wasn’t looking. “Shona,” she spoke quietly over her shoulder as she continued to move around the room, gathering several files from various shelves. “Please take Gregor for a hot bath, add a tonic to his water and bring him back to me when you’re done.”

The girl nodded and stepped beside Gregor, still unsure of the older gentleman, but she would do as she was told.

“Fjolte, take off your shirt and sit.” Raelynn said, carrying on with her duties as Shona began to try and usher Gregor outside of the suite.

Gregor cleared his throat and held up a hand to Shona. “One moment, please,” he quietly said to her and stepped up to Raelynn’s desk, where placed the wrapped object on the wooden tabletop. “I don’t rightly know what this is for, but you’re an alchemist and I seem to remember that this is a valuable ingredient, so… here,” he said and rolled back the paper to reveal what it was. “A souvenir from the tomb’s guardian.”

It was the still-beating heart of the Daedra, larger than a man’s and purple to boot.

It immediately took her breath away, and visibly too. She stopped in her tracks from her routine, and clinical motions. Even Fjolte, who was half out of his shirt stopped to look at it, curious as to how and when Gregor had retrieved it. But, there wasn't much of the way out of the tomb he remembered.

Raelynn brought her hands close to it, but didn't touch it - instead, just let them hover over the moving flesh, her eyes widened with wonder and her lips curled. "It's… Thank you, I…" she stammered. "Thank you Gregor," she said eventually, meeting his eyes properly, no quick glances for etiquettes sake, a real, raw look.

"Well, I got this!" Fjolte said, breaking the silence as he indicated to the new weapon that was propped against his chair. That look. The way she'd forgotten her words. Over a piece of meat? He frowned.

“You’re welcome,” the Imperial said, his voice having softened a little. He held Raelynn’s gaze for a few seconds, his eyes alive with an unidentifiable emotion, before turning back to Shona and allowing her to guide him out of Raelynn’s chambers and towards the bathroom. Gregor glanced at Fjolte and saw the frown there. Immediately a pit of guilt formed in his stomach and he chided himself silently under his breath once the door was closed. “Lead the way,” Gregor said to Shona and conjured up a warm smile for the loyal servant.

It was only the next room. Raelynn had taken that as her own private bathroom. The bathhouse of Jehanna was fine, but she preferred to stay close to home. Of course it wasn't just hers, she let her associates wash there after a successful job.

As Shona opened the door, the scent of lavender seeped out, and a long table was revealed to be covered in various glass bottles and cases of creams and lotions. A centrepiece of roses sat too, offering colour and their scent. A large bathtub sat in the center of the room by a hearthfire, and Shona busies herself with lighting it and preparing the bath. She examined several vials along the table, settling on a golden coloured one which she recognised as a masculine perfumed oil that Raelynn had made herself. It wasn't the same as she would use for Fjolte - his was pine and chestnuts. This scent was, richer - like firewood and fresh earth after rain.

She tipped it into the bathtub as she began filling it with the hot water. She waved a hand at Gregor as the water filled the bathtub close to the rim. She swept her hands over her own dress and flung them outwards. Undress.

While she waited for him to get into the water, she moved to a drawer, removing a roll of tools and combs.

Gregor wasn’t used to servants tending to him in the bath, but given the gauntlet that he had been through, he decided he wasn’t against the idea. With a few winces and soft groans of complaint he slipped out of his blood-stained clothes and armor, and tutted at the sight of the fabric, leather and chainmail pierced where the Daedroth had tore through him. The chainmail, especially, wouldn’t be cheap to repair, but as he fingered the small holes in the metal he decided that it wasn’t urgent enough to demand immediate attention.

He suddenly remembered that Shona was waiting for him, he put down his clothes and stepped into the hot water. His side was still caked with dried blood and it was an immense relief to feel that being washed away. “Are you going to groom my hair?” he asked Shona and turned his head to look at her so that he could see her response.

Shona nodded and smiled, unbothered by his nudity. She brought her stool and gently put it behind him and took her seat. In one hand she had a cloth which she used to carefully dab at his face -- wiping away the dirt with the water, letting it dampen his hair before she began to comb anything. For now, he could decide for himself how comfortable he was with it. But her washcloth continued down his cheeks to his neck in steady and firm movements.

He hadn’t been washed like this since he was a child and memories of his mother singing to him in the bath jumped back into his mind. Gregor smiled at that. Normally he would have considered this undignified -- a man could wash himself, thank you very much -- but he was so exhausted that the reminder of simpler and carefree times was welcome. He rested his head against the rim of the bath and closed his eyes, inhaling and exhaling slowly and trying to work the tension out of his limbs.

She was pleased to find little resistance from Gregor, and so she continued on. Running the comb through his hair to remove tangles and knots. She combed gently until it was smooth and soft, and then applied an oil, massaging from the roots down. Her fingers pushed and rubbed around the back of his ears too and she could feel him easing up and relaxing.

Once his hair had been treated, she slipped around to his side, taking his hand into hers. She picked up a soft bristled brush, and lathered it with soap before carefully running it over his nails, to remove the blood and dirt from his nail beds. She barely looked at him, just at the work she was doing. Her mind on the task at hand. Satisfied with his clean hand, she took a second washcloth and worked his arms into a lather too. Her head tilting from side to side until she caught the tattoo on his forearm, it was about the only thing that really stirred her from her work and she smiled at it, being more gentle over the top of it - worried she might scrub it away and down into the water.

He’d noticed her slowing down for a moment and opened one eye in time to see her smiling at the tattoo. Gregor wondered how often Shona got to go out and meet new people and hear new stories and he observed her silently for a moment before he spoke up.

“That’s my wife,” he said, his voice a low murmur in the quiet serenity of the bathroom. “We were traveling to the Imperial City for my father’s business. It was a beautiful day, in the spring, I think. The sun was out and there was a warm breeze across the Niben Bay. We were crossing the bridge to the City, she was walking in front of me and I thought to myself that she was the most beautiful woman -- hell, the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. I promised myself that I would remember that moment forever.”

The maid withdrew her hands from the bath, and from Gregor, she placed one hand on her chest and rubbed it back and forth before balling it into a fist with a smile. Beautiful. Shona enjoyed his story, and showed as such by bringing her hands together, as if in prayer and bowing her head just so to him, thank you. She took the brush into her hand again, and moved herself to his other side, her brown eyes softer than usual at having listened to his love story.

It was hard for him to tell what her sign language actually meant, but the truth was in her facial expressions anyway. Gregor smiled back and then felt a deep pang of sympathy for the girl. Fjolte had explained the circumstances of her employment for Raelynn, of course, but Gregor hadn’t seen her treat the girl any differently because she was a mute. Maybe Shona appreciated not receiving any special treatment. That said, Gregor couldn't help but wonder if she was truly happy. There were a lot of things that Shona would probably never do or experience because of her disability. He settled back into the bath and resolved to express his gratitude for her good service properly when she was finished.

With the same brush, she worked on Gregor's other hand - slowly cleaning it all away for him with the same technique. To lather, to brush, to massage. When she was finished, he seemed to be far more relaxed, and the water was darker but he was clean. She stood up from her stool and busies herself with folding his spoiled clothing. Placing it in a neat pile before removing from the towel shelf, alternative folded garments. Completely plain but comfortable looking. She let them sit on the table, taking in her arms the chainmail and armour pile - or as much of it as she could carry.

The pace with which Gregor helped himself out of the bathtub would have made a snail look like a Khajiit skooma addict in desperate need of his next fix, such was the state of his relaxation. He dried himself off with a towel, eyes half-closed, breathing in the pleasant scent of the tonic that Shona had selected for his bath. It was a good choice. It made him feel handsome every time he smelled it. The clothes were soft and clean and therefore wonderful. After Gregor slipped into them and looked down on himself, clad in a white, loose-sleeved shirt, cream-colored trousers and tan gentleman’s shoes, he thought he looked like a villager from Cyrodiil about to celebrate the midsummer festival and chuckled.

Shona nodded in approval at his new clothes, and the radiance he exuded after the bath. She didn't stare at him for too long, and there was nothing salacious in her eyes when she did. Her eyes were too innocent for that. She did, however, swing the door open for him - gesturing for him to return to Raelynn's chambers with her hand.

Before he left the bathroom to rejoin Fjolte and Raelynn, Gregor paused to grab Shona’s hand. He brought it to his lips and placed a gentle kiss on her knuckles. “Thank you,” he said and took her hand in both of his, “for your excellent care. It’s been a rough few days, but now it’s like nothing even happened. I shall be sure to pass my compliments on to your mistress.”

Shona looked up at him, a slight blush appeared on her cheeks and she nodded at him in response, smiling again - but bigger this time, before leading the way quickly, bashfully, down the hall.

Gregor might have been led away from the room, but he hadn't left. Not really, he was there in that heart on the desk that Raelynn continued just to stare at. Not touching it, just watching. Her expression was one that Fjolte couldn't read, he just observed her in the silence - how her clean fingers hovered over it. It was like she wanted to hold it to but the gore around it prevented her.

"Raelynn," he said at last, clicking his fingers which seemed to bring her back from whatever deep thought she'd been lost in. "We found the plate." He uttered, frustrated that she still wouldn't look at him, it was gnawing at him -- that look the two of them had given each other. Over that.

The Breton lifted her chin to see Fjolte, his eyes narrowed as he sunk down into the chair, shirtless. He had a physique that seemed like he'd been carved from stone. Solid, proud muscle that was made more severe by whatever it was that bothered him so much. But he was tired, and she didn’t want to press it with him. “I know you did. You did a good job,” she breathed with a smile before stepping towards him, hands bare and golden.

He rolled his neck and then his shoulders, watching her still. How her eyes darted around the room and always landed back on the heart on the table.”Put that thing away,” he said - feeling a sudden brashness rising in his chest. “I don’t want to look at it,” he breathed in a way that was less sharp, averting his eyes from Raelynn.

She almost saw fit to scald him for it, speaking out of turn - so crude of him, but… It was still living flesh from a creature he’d presumably fought. She chalked it up to that and did as he asked. She picked up it carefully, well aware that Fjolte was watching - even if he tried to hide it. The way it felt as it beat in her hands was… She turned her back and released a shuddered breath, locking it away into a drawer for now.

“Thanks.” Fjolte said bluntly, resting an elbow on the arm of the chair, tucking his hand under his chin. He felt proud, strong, and his arm and shoulder flexed as he gripped hard on the chair with his other hand.

Raelynn knew that she had to soften him, and so she began again - warming up her hands with magicka, mustering some inner warmth in her spirit too. “Alright then,” she said, moving towards him, trying to catch his eye again. “How can I help you?” she asked him, making her voice intentionally thick and overly feminine.

That got his attention, his brow quirked and he lifted his chin from his hand, softening his fist too. He hadn’t realised it was balled like steel. “My shoulder…” he mumbled, but before the words had left his mouth her hands were on him and he gave a sigh of relief. “Mmhmm… Right there” he moaned, tipping his head back to look her in the eye.

“What was in the tomb, Fjolte?” she asked - her voice barely a whisper and her eyes aglow with the gold magic that left her hands. She worked them across his shoulder, massaging him firmly. She had an alarming amount of strength in them, for being so petite and delicate.

If he had been feeling any bitterness, it was washing away now with every stroke of her hand -- and he realised that it had all been exhaustion and leftover delirium. “Gregor said it was a Daedra. It was huge,” he uttered, his head rolling from side to side under the touch of Raelynn’s hand.

“Mmm, and you fought it?” she asked, nipping her fingers into a knot that didn’t seem to bother him.

Fjolte groaned as her felt it unfurl, “yes. We both did, chased it up to high ground then teased it over the edge. Gregor’s magic…” he continued on, exhaling a long breath from his nose as he struggled to keep his eyes open. “He killed it with lightning and it fell… Then we escaped. It was huge, so, so huge… Breathed fire.”

“You’re so brave,” Raelynn cooed close to his ear which sent a chill down his spine. “I’m proud of you,” she added before releasing a stream of energy into him from her hand - leaving it free of her spell to play with his hair.

He liked that. He’d never felt her be this way with him -- whatever she was whispering in his ear, Fjolte believed it. “Yeah… It was so powerful and strong. It tried to throw me from the cliff we were on but I punched it… Broke it’s elbow or something and so it just flipped me over. Gregor launched ice at it like I’ve never seen before and it tried to run away after that but we wouldn’t let it…” he said, only slightly changing the story.

“Wow,” Raelynn whispered, her eyes widening, impressed. “You’re very strong.”

“Mmhm” he answered back. “Didn’t see him pick up that heart though, didn’t know he had it…”

So he was still stuck on that, Raelynn thought - he seemed less angry now, sure, but it had bothered the Nord. “But you brought me the plate,” she said encouragingly. “And you brought me a new weapon - that’s old steel, very valuable.”

“No! That hammer is mine,” he responded quickly, fidgeting in his seat as his eyes shot open.

In that moment, Raelynn exercised her own strength too, hooking two fingers under his collarbone and with her other fingers she pinched at the vertebrae in his neck. It wouldn’t hurt, but would serve to keep him still. “No,” she replied - authoritative now that the honey in her voice had dried up. “It’s mine. I sent you there, I paid you. It’s mine. You know our agreement...” This was now less about exercising strength, as it was simply the Breton’s way of reminding Fjolte who was in control. She let go of him.

He found himself frustrated again, itching beneath the skin with something but he still rose from his seat. “So pay me.” He said, expressionless, as he crossed his arms over his bare chest. He didn’t know what to make of this. It felt wrong. It felt senseless to be angry over something so minor, he chided himself internally. It felt wrong to be angry at Raelynn, so he sighed and relaxed his arms. “I’m exhausted, Raelynn. I’m sorry,” he admitted.

“It’s fine, I know you are. Your payment is over there, three hundred. I counted it myself…” Raelynn said, smiling at him. He nodded back at her, working through everything in the back of his mind. Gregor was a mysterious man, he had been surprised to hear that Raelynn was an alchemist and, his intentions were innocent - to provide her with a rare resource. No matter how disgusting it was. No wonder she was so pleased with it, she’d likely never seen one before… It was fine. ”You’re tired, hungry, in pain.” he reminded himself, exhaling all of his tensions away.

“We both almost got killed to that thing, you know,” he explained as he picked up the coin purse - staring longingly at the war hammer against the chair. “If it hadn’t been for your potions, we would have.”

“Go home and rest. Come back tomorrow, I want to see your shoulder again and I have… Nicer work for you,” she said with a smile, hoping that offer would be tempting enough to rouse a smile from him. It was.

“Oh yeah? Like what?” he asked, almost forgetting everything now and thinking only ahead, disregarding what had happened to make way for the thoughts of tomorrow.

“Oh, can’t tell you that Fjolte, that would ruin my surprise,” she said playfully as she tugged her sleeves free to fall back over her wrists. “But there’ll be no fights with Daedra, I promise.”

The room felt different. Fjolte was already gone, and only Raelynn sat in the centre by her sidetable now. One leg crossed over the other as Shona led Gregor back through. There was a strip of bandaging laid out over her desk, and Fjolte's war hammer was across the desk too, but everything else was much the same. That was, apart from the bottle of red wine, the glass, and the plate of cheese, fruits, nuts, and seafood that was presented on the table.

Raelynn watched him curiously as he re-entered, a hand below her chin as her foot swung from side to side. "Do you feel better?" She asked him.

“Immensely,” he said truthfully, immediately eyeing the red wine and the cheese with a hint of ravenous gluttony in his eyes. It had taken the bath and Shona’s attentive care for his hunger to finally catch up with him. “Shona is a master of her craft. I’ve already expressed my gratitude to her but you should know that she did an excellent job.” He tore his eyes away from the food and smiled at Raelynn, unsure of how she would behave after the way she had initially avoided his gaze changed so starkly changed when he gave her the Daedra heart. “Where should I sit?” he asked.

"That she is," Raelynn replied, smiling over at Shona. Her hand moved from under her chin, and she waved it in a certain way that the girl understood as her being asked to leave. Gregor's things were placed on an armoir, and then the maid quietly left leaving Raelynn alone with Gregor.

In the light of approaching dusk, his sickly, exhausted complexion had all but disappeared, and she simply watched him for a while before nodding her head in the direction of the seat beside her. "Come and sit here, you must be starving, please eat."

He inclined his head gratefully and sat down on the appointed chair. Normally he would consider it bad manners to start eating immediately after being invited to do so but Gregor couldn’t stop himself. After helping himself to a generous portion of fruits, cheese and seafood, he ate quickly without looking at her, intensely focused on the consumption of nourishment, until he felt like his stomach would have enough to do for the next thirty minutes. Gregor washed it down with a gulp of red wine and sank back in his chair with a satisfied sigh.

“That’s better, thank you,” he said and nursed the glass of wine tenderly. It was everything he could have asked for in that moment.

Raelynn simply watched him eat, and let him do so without speaking a word. Eventually she stared off into the distance until he was done. She couldn't stop thinking about the heart. The way he'd placed it down, that Fjolte had no idea about it. She held a breath, closing her eyes to reimagine it in her mind. The way she'd felt about him all over again.

"You're welcome. From what Fjolte explained you had quite the adventure, it's the least I can do." Her tone was cordial, and yet she there was clearly a wall up in the overly professional way she held herself. That there had only been one wine glass, this wasn't for them, it was for him. "I'm very pleased at your work, Gregor," she added, flashing a semblance of a smile at him.

There was seemingly nothing left of the way she’d looked at him after he had given her the heart. Gregor knew that was for the best -- their relationship should stay professional. But he couldn’t help but feel disappointed, and a little hurt. Selfishly, stupidly, he wanted her to be open and warm and attracted to him. This wasn’t any of that. “Quite the adventure indeed,” he concurred and rubbed his flank with his empty hand. He wouldn’t be surprised if the Daedroth and its strange, otherworldly lair would return to haunt him in his nightmares. It was hard to tell now what kind of scars the terror and the exhaustion had carved into his psyche. “I hope it was worth it.”

Something in his words cut her, things had been tense with Fjolte, she didn't want it from him too. "It was, to me," she said quietly. His words chipped at her wall and she removed herself from her seat and walked away from him towards the desk and satchel. "I didn't know there was anything else down there," Raelynn felt the need to say it. Gregor didn't like surprises, and the thought crossed her mind as to whether he thought she had known. "If I had, I wouldn't have sent either of you…"

Gregor nodded. “I know,” he said, his previous irrational paranoia forgotten. The sincerity in the tone of her voice softened him. Did she feel guilty about what had happened to them? People had strange ways of dealing with guilt. He knew that much. Himself included, probably. “I’m glad to hear that it was, then.” He shifted in his seat and cast a quizzical look at her. “What did we retrieve, anyway? I must admit I have no idea what that object is.”

When he asked, she immediately turned her attention back to him and put on her usual smirk. She didn't feel as devious and playful inside about it, especially so when she met his eyes. "It's a moon dial," Raelynn explained, picking it up carefully. "In terrible condition, but nothing a good clean and a bit of restoration won't fix. It's Khajiit, from Elsweyr. It displays information relating to their ja-Kha'jay. The phases of our twin moons determine what form a Khajiit will take at birth… Interesting, isn't it?" She smiled, finding that talking about something else entirely helped alleviate the stifling reaction she had to Gregor's energy.

It was, and he nodded to indicate as much. "And I presume it's rare, or old, or both?" he asked. "The tomb, if that's what it is, was a very strange place… built by hands unfamiliar to me and dug deep into the rock, beneath an underground lake. We weren't the first go down there unawares. That is a dead man's hammer," Gregor mused and pointed to the weapon Fjolte had retrieved. He wondered why the Nord had left it there, but didn't pry.

“Rare, old, special…” she answered, running a finger across the dusty surface to reveal shining stones in a semicircle. “It’s actually…” she began slowly, shrugging slightly. “I don’t know if I will sell it on.” Her gaze was drawn to the hammer, she had assumed it had been lifted from a corpse - her trained eye could tell it had been used frequently. Light scratches on the surface were an indicator of that for a start. “It’s nice, a piece like that has a history of its own, there is actually a family insignia on the handle.” Her thumb brushed over it, it was like a stamp - etched into the steel. The shape of a bear above a banner. It was incredibly detailed. “I think the owner was of quite a good societal ranking, would fetch a very nice price.”

"Especially now that's it's been used to slay a Daedric beast," Gregor said and frowned. "Didn't Fjolte want to keep it?"

She nodded, "he did, but the wear on this is too much," Raelynn explained, walking her way back to Gregor, circling him almost. "It needs to be restored properly or any further damage will be irreparable. I'll have it fixed for him…" The Breton took her seat again, it felt like she was sinking into his energy and she blinked slowly as she got comfortable, motioning to the wine, "drink more. I got it for you."

"He's going to like that," Gregor thought and smiled. Not one to turn down an excellent red vintage, because that's what it was, Gregor did as he was told and drank more -- he drank until his glass was empty and then he poured himself some more. "Do you want some?" he asked and stole a glance at Raelynn. "I don't mind sharing."

Her head tilted as she mulled his offer over, she didn’t want to. Or, at least she knew it might risk turning the meeting into more of what had already happened… But the way he looked, and his scent, that scent. So masculine and attractive - it was all too inviting for her to turn down. “I’m not a red drinker,” she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “But… If I taste it first,” she held out her hand for his glass, something impish crossed her features for a split second and she had to look away from him. Everything about him… It was that heart. She was off her game, she knew it.

He caught the way she looked at him, how her demeanour changed, and he felt the same flutter in his stomach that he'd felt on the ship and in her room afterwards. Gregor, still sore and exhausted and desperately in need of some affection, allowed the wine to rise straight to his head. He handed her the glass and tutted. "You're not? That won't do, I'm afraid. If you ever attend a function at the Imperial City you'll find that it's all they drink, and you'll be judged for your taste." He tapped his chin and smiled thoughtfully. "We're going to have to make a red drinker out of you."

She chuckled softly at his suggestion, barely able to draw herself away from his eyes - and as she reached to take his glass their fingers brushed. Electricity, again. She let her hand linger and the sensation of her skin on his gave her shivers,. a forbidden touch always felt so much stronger. But it didn’t last, and to distract herself from it, she raised the glass to her lips - breathing in the scent first. It was rich, woody, and with hints of spice. She took a tentative sip, closing her eyes as she did so. It was so well bodied, warm too - she knew that red was served warm and maybe that was why she wasn’t so taken with it. This was… Nice, there was something about Gregor wanting her to enjoy it that was influential.

“It’s different,” she commented with a sigh. It would be too obvious to put the glass back in his hand - too soon to steal his touch again so she placed it on the table. “Maybe I can learn… Are you sure you don’t mind sharing it with me?” she asked him, her eyelashes almost fluttered.

He felt it too. It made his breath catch in his throat for just a moment. Gregor watched her as she drank and found that he was enamored with the way she'd styled her hair that day, and the way her eyebrows frowned just a little while she was evaluating the wine, and how dainty her grip on the glass was. "I'm positive," he said softly and chuckled. "I'm a bit of a lightweight so a whole bottle is too much for me anyway," he admitted. "Fjolte drank me under the table in less than an hour."

“He’s a Nord,” she chuckled, rising from her seat again to fetch herself a glass. “It’s in their blood to drink to excess…” As she gave him a passing glance, she felt the heat in his eyes - his desire permeated the atmosphere, and if she didn’t act quick she would be the one to succumb to him. She didn’t take to losing control, or her nerve. So he was going to bring her a heart? She could do better.

With her back to him, she raised a brow and knew exactly where to play him. She picked out her glass, a small, crystalline thing. She paused there, running a hand over her collarbone to find a chain necklace. “I want to show you something,” she said in a beguiling manner, turning her head over to look at him from over her shoulder. She made sure that her expression was innocent and doe-like before she turned on her heel to face him, beckoning him over with her finger while the other hand still moved under her shirt, slowly. “Come here, bring the wine.”

The list of commands that she could've given him that he wouldn't have obeyed was very small, and that wasn't one of them. His eyes flitting from the movements of her fingers beneath her shirt to her eyes and back again, Gregor got to his feet and picked up the bottle of wine. His steps towards her were slow, but inexorable. He joined her side and looked at her expectantly, lips slightly parted and pupils dilated. "What is it?"

From beneath the fabric of her shirt a key emerged in her fingers - just a small thing and Raelynn deliberately left the collar parted, revealing a glimpse of tantalising flesh. "Close your eyes," she practically whispered, trying to suppress a smile in order to appear as serious as she could. "And no peaking… I'll know…"

A deep, rumbling laugh hummed in his chest. Gregor looked down her collar until he had his fill and then met her gaze over the rim of his glass. The silversmith took a large sip and swallowed slowly without breaking eye contact or even blinking. "Alright," he acquiesced in a low voice and closed his eyes.

Off she went, quiet as a mouse through the chambers tapping things as she went as her own attempt to throw him off her location. A teapot in the corner, and then her desk… She did it several times until the next sound was that of a key unlocking a trunk. The familiar popping sound of a lock coming undone somewhere, and stranger still, the sound of something metal being drawn. She remained silent on her way back to him - goods in hand, wrapped in velvet cloth. A delighted smirk that he couldn't see. With his eyes closed, she drank in his form unashamedly - every inch of him. He didn't know, this really was a stolen look. "Hold out your hands…"

Still keeping his eyes closed, content to play along with the game, Gregor cocked his head and listened closely to the sounds be could hear. He raised an eyebrow at the rasping metal sound. Was that a weapon? He was quite sure that she wasn't going to kill him like this, but he still felt his heart rate increase. Gregor put the bottle and his glass down and held out his hands as instructed. "Is it my birthday already?" he quipped.

It was a shortsword, wrapped in the cloth. But a rather remarkable one, and it was not the shortsword that she was really showing him. It was the tease of a deal they'd made for under the velvet, the blade was dark ebony. But she wouldn't let him open his eyes yet. Raelynn placed it into his open hands but the permission to open his eyes was not spoken. She stepped around him. "I don't know when your birthday is," she whispered into his right ear. Turning to his left, "but I would like to," she whispered again. "Open your eyes…"

“29th of Morning Star,” Gregor whispered back and then opened his eyes when Raelynn gave the command. He looked at her at first, pointedly ignoring the object in his palms, the sight of her bringing simmering heat to his eyes, before he smirked faintly and finally began to inspect what she’d handed to him. He immediately sucked in a sharp breath and grabbed the shortsword by the grip to hold it up in front of him. It was beautiful, almost black and flawless, and the first thing he noticed was how heavy it was. And yet, when he swung it lazily through the air around him, perfectly balanced. Gregor ran his thumb over the edge and winced -- without meaning to, it’d sliced a little into his skin, cutting right through the callous he had there. “So sharp,” he said and pulled his hand back, watching as a small bead of blood welled up. He was not upset, only impressed with the weapon.

"How does it feel?" She asked, having poured herself a glass she began circling him with her slow, swaying steps. She was surprised to see that the blade had cut him. An easy fix for a mage like her. A cut like that required little more than a kiss. "I want you to show me… Show me how you'd use that. I want to see you." She brought the glass to her lips and took several steps back - giving Gregor the floor.

He felt a little put on the spot and it went against the tranquil vibe the bath had given him to dig up his swordsmanship drills from his memory, but the lady wanted what the lady wanted. Gregor straightened up, clicked his heels together and swished the blade in front of his face like an officer at a parade. “As you wish,” he said and took up position close to the wall. He dropped low and adopted the scorpion-stance he’d taught Raelynn with the dagger. It had been years since he’d practiced with a shortsword, so he hoped he still remembered.

Even if his mind wasn’t sure, his body still knew. Gregor sprang into action with a series of powerful thrusts, turning his body to utilize its momentum each time, and exhaling sharply at the end of every movement. He advanced a step each time, slowly speeding up, and when he reached the other side of the room he performed a spin during which he dropped the shortsword and caught it with his other hand, rapidly reversed and jabbed the blade, backhanded, into the throat of an imaginary enemy. He held his posture for a moment before he relaxed and turned back to Raelynn. “Like that,” he said and smiled.

In the time he had taken with his demonstration, Raelynn had made herself comfortable on her desk, sat sideways - her waist accentuated by her womanly pose. Her glass was empty too and there was no mistaking the look in her eyes as anything other than burning desire. "You're very skilled," she complimented him sincerely, unable to tear her gaze from his body, at the way he held the handle and it caused the muscles in his forearm to almost bulge. "Fjolte told me that you finished the Daedra in the tomb. Is that true?"

Gregor laughed, self-conscious. He didn’t like to brag. His father had told him it was poor form, and that his actions would speak for themselves without his commentary. That said, Raelynn hadn’t been there, so… “Yes,” he admitted. “After it had raked my side with its claws, Fjolte threw me the potions while he distracted the beast, but that ended up with him dangling rather precariously below a ledge above a very deep fall, using the warhammer like a climbing pick.” He realized how that made Fjolte sound so he added: “An ingenious way of staying alive, considering that the Daedra was breathing fire at him. Like a dragon.” It sounded ridiculous out loud and Gregor shook his head, clearly still in disbelief at everything that had happened. “I taunted it, slashed it with my sword as it came barreling through and then I used a few thunderbolt spells until it lost its grip and fell. It died on the way down, leaving behind the heart that I gave you,” he finished and fidgeted with the ebony shortsword. “It was… riveting,” he settled on, though it was obvious that thinking too much about the encounter unsettled him by the way his empty hand rubbed his side again and the furrowing of his brow.

"That's quite a story, Gregor, it must have been there for centuries," she commented, watching where the Imperial's hands moved to. Of course, she also noticed that Gregor and Fjolte's stories were both different, so the real truth would remain between them, still, she noticed a flicker in Gregor's eyes as the tension between them broke. It was as if it was interrupted by something else and her own instinct to care took over her in turn. "Show me your wounds," she said - without command or any kind of provocative tone. She slipped carefully from the desk and made her way to him, leaving her empty glass behind. "Let me see what I can do…"

He nodded and lifted his shirt up over his head, revealing his muscular physique, but turning so that Raelynn could inspect his side. The atmosphere had turned serious and Gregor welcomed it. He needed Raelynn the healer for a moment. “It stabbed me here,” he murmured and pointed to the three new scars on his flank, circles about the size of a septim with the unmistakable glaze of new skin. “Tore right through my chainmail like it was butter.” He shivered at the memory of the talons digging deep into his flesh. “I’d never been hurt like that before.” Gregor’s voice was soft and there was a vulnerability in his eyes, the kind that only people felt after they had just been reminded of their own mortality. He would have died without those potions.

Raelynn stood at his side, listening, watching… At the end of it she sighed and placed a hand on his arm. "Come on, I want to do this properly," she told him softly, her hand squeezed him in an encouraging manner as she stepped away - collecting the throw pillows from her chairs and tossing them lightly to the floor until they made a long line across the rug by the fireplace. "Lie on your side," she said as she got down to her knees. Rarely had she treated someone like this in her chambers. Often she would be escorted to their own beds and homes, stepping in and then back out. Even those that dragged themselves through to her with open wounds were treated in the chair. But… Gregor's wound was different, and she knew that.

The Breton brushed her long hair back over both shoulders and began rubbing her hands together, a golden energy coalesced into her palms that in the now darkened room lit her up in gold too, adding a warmth to her features and even to the spun silver of her hair. Raelynn watched as the ball of magic grew in her hands, humming ethereally into the silence.

It was comforting to be treated this way and Gregor laid himself across the pillows without further comment. He shifted until he was comfortable and closed his eyes, though he could see the light of Raelynn’s spell from behind his eyelids. He had not subjected himself to anyone’s attention and expertise quite so fully in years. “Thank you,” he whispered in advance and waited for her to begin.

Raelynn let the stream of magicka trickle into him, holding her hand like a cup inches above the wound. She watched carefully as it illuminated him from inside, spilling it's way into three clearly defined stab wounds, exactly as Gregor had said. She could see it all glowing from the outside now, and with her free hand she gently massaged his lower back with the flat of her palm, as if she was erasing the internal wounds by doing so. She could feel him when she closed her eyes, sharing her energy like this allowed her to be connected to him, her breaths moved in time with his and she visualised the wounds from the inside, in her mind's eye. He had been lucky, the claws had only just missed his stomach. Only just missed his spine… She ached in her own from the sympathy. "You're alright now," she breathed out, sensing one of the marks disappear - healed. Two to go.

He could scarcely begin to describe the feeling of relief when the tension and dull ache of one of the stab wounds disappeared, and he actively had to stop himself from moaning out loud. Gregor had been a little hesitant to open up like this and had closed his eyes in a reflexive instinct to protect himself, but now his eyes opened to look up at her. She was like an angel, bathed in that beatific glow of Restoration magic, and he placed a hand on her knee as a gesture of appreciation. “That hits the spot,” he said softly and smiled somewhat sheepishly.

His second stab wound was more difficult. There was a crack in his rib, severe too. It was a wonder he'd been been able to hold himself up, but she assumed it was the residual effects of the potion. She moved her hand from his back, and instead placed that one upon his head, stroking her fingers through his hair. This part would hurt and she wanted to subdue him as much as possible.

She let more magicka in, directly over his affected rib and it caused the bone to become tense, uncomfortable as it mended itself. It wasn't like flesh pulling together, this was hard bone forming again at a rapid pace. It was like touching a bruise with something dull - like a low vibration in his chest.

That was decidedly less pleasant. He winced and closed his eyes again as his whole body tensed up with the pain. The fingers of the hand he’d placed on her knee involuntarily pressed into her skin and he grit his teeth, squirming beneath her touch. It was the sensation of her fingers through his hair that kept him calm, otherwise he might have swatted her away and crawled into a corner to lick his wounds like a cat after a fight.

"Shh, shhhhh…" she whispered to soothe him as the last of the healing took place and his second stab wound melted away in a wisp of magic. "I'm sorry," she added so her fingers continued combing him. "It won't hurt anymore," Raelynn breathed out, a sheen of sweat ran over her own forehead and yet she felt a chill as she continued working on the vulnerable Gregor. She winced too at his grip around her skin, it hurt her to see him in pain and his desperate grasping was an extension of that made physical on her body. But she was nearly finished. The last stab hadn't penetrated as deeply, and it was just a matter of letting it fill and fill and fill from her healing hands until it was enough.

She'd left the easiest to last, and for good measure she still placed her glowing hands on his body, stroking him and coating him in a golden blanket of warmth. "There… See?"

He waited a few moments to see if what she said was true and he found that it was. A breath that he hadn’t realized he had been holding exhaled slowly and his tense muscles relaxed again. Gregor practically melted into the pillows as a result and his hand lay slack across her knee. The touch of her hands directly on his side was pleasant, a physical, tangible reminder that he was whole again, and he leaned into it. “That was worse than I thought it would be,” he said honestly. “It was that bad, huh?”

"Not bad, but not good… You would have had a painful and long recovery," she explained. "Off your feet within a few more days," Raelynn sighed. It had tired her out and she found herself coming down to the floor too on her own side to face him properly. She left a respectful distance between them, but still reached out a hand to tuck his hair behind his ear again. "The potion kept you going until you got back here… I, shouldn't have made you practice with the blade," she confessed, biting her lip as she felt a pang of guilt hit her. "I should've checked you first."

“None of us are perfect,” he said and shrugged a little. Gregor wondered if this is what it would be like to wake up with her in bed together and felt his heart beating powerfully in his chest again, despite the distance she’d kept. He was exhausted and more than a little frayed and she was so beautiful, kind and gentle. Mirroring her movements, Gregor reached out to fix her hair in turn and he placed his hand behind her ear afterwards, cupping her head gently, his thumb brushing against her cheek. He smiled and his eyes were like molten caramel. “It’s fine. You fixed me.”

His touch was soft, a far cry from the man he'd been when he had her by the back of her neck. He was so full of surprises, there was a place in his eyes where she could be truly herself and she searched for it as he touched her. As fun as it was to play her power games, it was nice to remove that mask and with Gregor that was possible. He wasn't here to hurt her, and she hoped there was a place in her eyes for him too.

Raelynn felt tired too, spiritually, in a way. Using that magicka had been intense and taxing, to create that connection… It required a certain kind of strength and in the drunken, cooldown state, she moved her own hand on top of his, wrapping her fingers through his own and her heartbeat quickened as she did so. "I couldn't stand to see you broken…"

The last of his defenses melted away. He wanted this, not the shadow of affection he had with Briar back home. This was real and raw and tender and he felt his desperate desire for it well up so strongly in his chest that he almost cried. He could see in her eyes that this wasn’t a game, or selfish desire, or a brief moment of passion. Raelynn’s words were true. Gregor moved a little closer to her. “Come here,” he whispered.

For all of her behaviour, and for all of her teasing, and for all of the longing she felt for Gregor - when those words left his lips she froze. She was on the precipice of true vulnerability with him, and it was what she wanted… But was it better to just long for it? To live only in the fantasised ideals of it all? Her lip trembled, and her breath caught in her chest. She wanted to close the distance, but her body didn't move. The wall between them was Raelynn's fear of trust, of the unknown. "I don't know… how," she breathed out, the air in her lungs began to feel uncomfortable, like it was both burning hot and freezing cold.

There she was. The real Raelynn. Gregor’s heart broke for her. What kind of childhood had she had? What kind of parents? The story of Sir Gearford was still fresh in his mind, and he wasn’t surprised that this was hard for her now. He stroked her cheek with his hand. “It’s alright,” he breathed. Now it was his turn to comfort her and to guide her. “I’m not going to hurt you.” He took her hand in his own, kissed it and pressed it against his own cheek, letting her feel him. “What does your heart say?” he asked in a quiet whisper, his eyes watching her without pressure, without expectation. All he wanted was for her to be herself.

Her hand did caress his cheek. He was so tender. Raelynn took her time with his words, with his question. "I don't think my heart and I speak the same language…" The words were quietly sardonic, and she hadn't meant to sound cryptic or avoidant of the question, and in fact putting that into words relieved some of the pressure in her chest and she exhaled the breath she'd been holding. "I want you to kiss me…" she finally said, looking at him closely. "Do you want to kiss me?" She asked him, looking up into his soft gaze, everything else around them was a blur and a haze in the sunset.

Gregor moved his head so that he could kiss her hand again. She was so soft, so perfect -- he briefly wondered what she thought of his beard, if it was too rough or too prickly. He looked into her eyes again. “Yes,” he said, and his smile broke into a soft laugh of mischief as he had an idea. “Come with me,” Gregor whispered and sat up on his knees. He hooked his arms below her shoulders and her waist and lifted her off of the ground. Holding her up meant that her face was very close to his and she could reach out to kiss him if she wanted to, but Gregor got to his feet and carried her to the edge of the partition -- to the part of the room he hadn’t been to before. “Permission to enter?” he asked in a low voice and looked at her as she lay in his arms. It made him feel so strong.

"I don't know about that…" Raelynn replied, finding some of humour for him as the tightness in her chest released more. "Take your shoes off first," she added, some playfulness returning to sparkle in her eyes as she wrapped her arms around him. No matter what, there was always something she had to make him do.

“Your wish is my command,” the Imperial said and he slipped out of the shoes she’d got for him, his bare feet cool on the floor of the suite. He stepped beyond the partition and towards the bed, gently placing her on the sheets before getting down on the bed with her. He propped up his head with a pillow and sighed, content, with how soft the bed was. “That’s better,” he hummed, on his side and facing her. “Yes, I want to kiss you,” he reiterated and touched her cheek again, his fingers now traveling down her neck and over her collarbones. “May I?”

The feeling of desire was back, and she tipped her head back in response to the feeling of his fingertips brushing her neck and collarbones. Raelynn nodded, moving closer to him now - the bed was soft, covered in fresh throws and a fur and even after only one glass of wine, her head began to spin. Perhaps it was the intoxicating scent he wore. "Yes," she whispered as her nose almost touched his, "kiss me,"

Gregor leaned in and kissed her. It was a gentle kiss, just a peck on the lips at first, and he was frozen there as hot chills ran down his spine and goosebumps spread across his arms. The sensation of her lips against his was electrifying. He pulled back a little and kissed her again, leaning into it as his body turned and his shoulders hovered over her. His hand found her shoulder, and then her neck, and then the back of her head, his fingers woven into her hair.

His lips were as soft as the inside of a rose, and she moved gently against them with her tongue as her hands moved across either side of his face and back into his hair. What started as tenderness sparked a flame, as he moved over her, his shadow covered Raelynn in a shroud, and in his darkness she felt safe. The Breton moaned into his mouth and her fingers stroked the back of his neck - it was incredible to have him like this, to taste him - the spice of the red wine had stained his lips. She had never had a kiss like it.

The walls and corridors of his mind disappeared in a haze of desire and he opened his mouth to taste her tongue with his own. She was all there was, their heat and their bodies, and the deep affection and fondness he felt for her. Where her pleasure escaped her as a moan, Gregor’s did so as deep, rolling growl as he kissed her deeply, and he eclipsed the light even further by moving on top of her entirely. His body was reacting to pure instinct -- all he wanted was to be with her, as close as possible, to occupy the same space that she did and for them to melt into one another. His fingers ran through her hair and his other hand ran down her side, grabbing at her hip through the fabric of her shirt.

She hooked a leg around his waist and pulled him closer still. Whatever hesitation and fear that had been there before was overtaken by lust, at the thought of a release of the tension that had built… That what had happened the last time they were together wasn't how it was always going to be. She ran her own hand over his bare chest in stark contrast to how she'd been so tender earlier. Her nails left light red lines across him while his fingers worked their way over her hip. He was so handsome, powerful. He was masculinity in all of it's forms. "What do you want now?" She asked, her voice little more than a honeyed breath as she pulled away from him, afterall, he'd had his kiss now…

“You,” he answered without hesitation. The way she looked up at him was even better than all the times he’d pictured it in his mind, willingly or unwillingly. She had a way of invading his most private thoughts even when he hadn’t wanted her there, but Gregor fully surrendered to everything he’d felt ever since laying eyes on her. She was beautiful, inside and out -- even her cold, calculating, ruthless side stoked the fires of his heart. It made him want her for himself even more. Every man wanted to tame the seas, and Gregor had found his tempest. “All of you.”

He laid himself down behind her, the big spoon to her little spoon, and wrapped his powerful arms around her torso, taking the hand that she reached towards him with into his own. As his head cleared up, Gregor was immediately struck by a pang of guilt but he buried it beneath the serene warmth and affection of the moment. That was for the Gregor of the day after to deal with. Now, there was only Raelynn, and he breathed in her scent, cuddling up close to her, their bodies touching as much as possible. He hooked his legs around hers and planted a kiss in her neck, just below her ear. “Amazing,” he repeated in a deep hum. He hoped that she felt safe in his embrace.

Raelynn shifted up against him, letting her head rest in the crook of his neck as she gazed towards the window with heavy lidded eyes. Her hand squeezed his and everything seemed to slow down as they did - falling into slumber in each others arms. She didn't realise when she woke that morning that Gregor would make her world stop, not once, but twice. Or maybe it was that he stopped it and then started it over again. "Just hold me," she said in one last tired breath before her eyes closed for a good rest, the most intimate for a long time.
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Hidden 6 mos ago 6 mos ago Post by Stormflyx
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21st Sun's Height
Early Morning

Unlike the day prior, the sun was not visible through the window as morning broke out - instead, outside the sky was an angry grey - clouds formed thick and heavy and there was so far only a light rain. It was enough to tap against the glass and stir the woman from her sleep. As she opened her eyes, she made sense of the details of the room as she always did. The paintings that hung and the wooden paneling that coated the wall.

Raelynn then became aware that she was not alone, the soft breathing behind her reminded her of the nights events - the details that were cloudy when her sleep broke. At some point in the night, they had both made their way under the covers and had separated, but as she turned her head to look over her shoulder he was still close.

He looked so peaceful in his sleep and she couldn’t resist rolling over to face him, tucking her arm under her head and for just a few moments she stared at him happily until she went back to inspecting the room. There were scrunched balls of creased sheets and blankets that were the evidence of their night of play.

The Breton laid her head back down on the pillow with a content sigh, there was something relaxing about the sound of rain, his breathing, and the perfume that still lingered. The fragranced oil that had combined with his own scent was a delight to her senses, invoking a feeling of safety and comfort within her. She began to toy with his hair, hoping that it might stir him from sleep.

His eyes opened slowly and his mind awoke even slower still. The terror with the Daedroth and the exertion of the sex the evening before had sent Gregor into such a deep sleep that he felt like a man surfacing from the abyss. Where was he? Groggily, his eyelids cracked open and he looked at the woman that was playing with his hair. He saw bright blue eyes and he hummed in his parched throat. Briar, of course. That was strange. She usually didn't wake him. And since when was he back home? Going by the last thing he remembered, he should still be in High Rock.

Then he saw the blonde hair and the sun-kissed skin. His eyes shot open and everything rushed back to him a waterfall of recollection. The Daedroth, the healing session, the sex, the passion -- what had he done? After the initial wave of guilt and confusion, Gregor felt that the longer he looked at her and the more aware he became of the room and its sounds and its smells, the more his regret was pushed to the back of his mind, as if she was casting a spell on him. He had always highly disapproved of adulterers and been of the opinion that there was never a good reason to be unfaithful. And yet, with the way she smiled at him and the warmth that softened her eyes, Gregor saw plenty of good reasons.

You're an animal, he chided himself. Was this an extension of that part of himself that he had been denying for so long? Gregor had admitted it to Raelynn and she had only been more aroused by him, and when he had come back to her covered in blood and with deep internal injuries, she hadn't scolded him and withdrawn from him in fear.

At the end of this long and silent reverie, Gregor stifled a yawn. "Hey you," he croaked.

“Good morning,” she answered in a whisper with the sheet now pulled around her still naked form as if it were a dress, clinging to her shape. “Did you sleep well?” Raelynn asked, her eyes wide and curious while her lips pouted to plant a tender kiss on his bare shoulder.

"Like the dead," Gregor replied. He was still do relaxed that moving felt like a terrible chore, so he simply decided not to. On the other hand, he was thirsty as hell and hungry, too. He hadn't eaten much of the food that Raelynn had set out for him and their romp on the sheets afterwards hadn't made matters any better. "Did you?"

She nodded, crawling closer to him, moving her lips over his shoulder and across his neck. “Have you ever had a Daggerfall breakfast?” she asked, her voice lively. Something about having him in her bed had roused something within her, and her normally still and organised mind was overflowing with vibrancy - even despite the beige setting outside, the gloomy mood was not going to creep in and disrupt her momentary paradise with Gregor.

He responded to her closeness by turning his body towards her and burying his face in the nape of her neck, the muscular Imperial almost childlike in his drowsiness. "I don't think so?" came the muffled reply from between her collarbones, where he placed a few kisses of his own. He then looked up at her eyes with a boyish mischief. "Is that a fancy word for what's between your legs? Because I could do with more of that…"

That made her laugh, but she didn’t want to encourage him too much and so she nipped at his ear, “don’t be silly,” she chided with humour in her tone. “I’m being serious…” she purred before leaning back to look at him. “I never cook… But you make me want to cook,” the haughty Breton admitted with a flush on her cheeks. “Eggs, pastries, sweet toast…” she listed off - the thought alone awakening her actual hunger. “With tea, juice... “

That got his attention and Gregor sat up straight against the pillows. "You can cook?" he asked, more surprised than anything. It was an unusual skill for a woman who had a servant to tend to her every need. Well, not her every need, Gregor thought as he looked at the aphroditian shape of her body beneath the clinging sheet, but he looked back at her eyes and focused on what she was saying. "That sounds lovely, actually," he said and smiled. As if on cue, his stomach growled and Gregor winced, slightly embarrassed.

She had to think about his question, how hard was it to cook, exactly? “I don’t know… I’ve never tried it, but I’d like to…” Raelynn finally said as her cheeks grew darker. She tossed her hair over her shoulder, and was about to kiss his lips when there was a loud, abrupt knock on the door.

”Miss Deserine,” was the voice that followed - deep, masculine, and eloquent - muffled by the door.

“Damn,” Raelynn cursed, sitting upright in the bed. What time was it? Had they overslept? She placed a finger over his lips and shot him a look and with that the spell of paradise was disrupted. "Stay here," she whispered before getting up to leave, shaking herself free of the sheet to find her robe.

Gregor's nerves were still so frayed that he almost leapt out of his skin when somebody knocked on the door, but he did as he was told and remained where he was. It hadn't sounded like Fjolte -- thank the Gods for that -- but that only served to make Gregor wonder what other male visitor she might have been expecting. His mind meandered back to their evening after Razul's event on the Morning Star and he remembered their conversation about her results in the dating arena. "Ah," Gregor mouthed to himself. He watched Raelynn as she searched, naked and unbelievably beautiful, for a robe, and sank back into the pillows. If he made himself as small as possible, surely nobody would notice he was there. Gregor stifled a laugh. He hadn't felt like this since he was a young lad of eighteen.

Finally she found what she was looking for, and she pulled it on - ignoring the chuckles from behind her as she made her way around the partition and into the open workspace of her suite. Shona had already been through, as evidenced by the fact that the glasses and plate of food had been promptly removed and the surfaces wiped. Raelynn breathed a sigh of relief that the servant had taken it upon herself to stow the Ebony Sword away and out of site.

The gentleman knocked again, and it was the demonstration of his impatience that sparked Raelynn’s ire enough to snap back, “wait a minute,” she fired back - her hot temper spraying out, like a cat that had been stroked backwards and had reacted by displaying her claws. Her normally quiet footsteps became little stomps across the floorboards and she swung open the door.

She was greeted by an older, hook-nosed gentleman with greasy hair - wisps of it framing his tired, sagging face. “Yes?” she snapped again.

“My Lord has brought you a gift…” he sneered, staring down his nose at her, in his arms a long box. White, with a black bow. Raelynn immediately softened at the sight.

“Oh,” she replied and cleared her throat. "Leave it on the ottoman," she said with a gesture of her hand.

"Your dress for the evening," the man said.

"I already have one," Raelynn interrupted -- still curious about the contents, but slightly defiant in her words.

As the man placed the box where she had asked, her turned on his heel - his bloodshot grey eyes and gaunt face looked down at her once again with a less than amused expression. "He wants to see you in this one." There was a finality in his dry tone, and he didn't wait to be excused, taking himself to the doorway and closing the door behind him. Raelynn screwed up her own features, sticking a tongue out and making a crude gesture with her fist. Before remembering that she had another guest.

A few seconds after the door closed, Gregor appeared from behind the partition, now dressed in his underwear -- but nothing more. He looked at Raelynn, and the wrapped gift on the ottoman, with a raised eyebrow. “I believe somebody has made plans for you this evening,” he said, stating the obvious, but curious to see what her reaction would be. She was still quite mysterious to him, as were the workings of her business and her private life, and he desired to know more.

If he was looking for a reaction, he wasn't getting one - unless it was the raised eyebrow and flagrantly longing inspection of his body. All of it. The way his hair was still messy from her desperate hands threatened to send her heart racing all over again. "You're not off the hook. I've got plans for you too…"

Now that they were out of the bedroom, it was as if all of the promise of breakfast and seconds had been broken. It was strictly business with Raelynn again, even if she was naked save for the robe. The visitor had put a halt to all of it. "Unless you're otherwise engaged?"

Gregor smiled and leaned against the wall besides the window with his arms crossed. “I just made plans for breakfast with a beautiful woman, I’m afraid,” he said. “Your plans will have to wait.” She wasn’t off the hook either.

"I'm afraid we may have overslept for breakfast," Raelynn replied, the hurt crept over her countenance and she found that she didn't want to see it in him. "Shona has already been through… Fjolte is most likely on his way, I'm sorry." She fidgeted with her hands, not knowing quite what to do with them - not quite knowing how Gregor would take to being let down, but she didn't want to risk being caught by the Nord, not today.

As soon as she mentioned Fjolte’s name, Gregor’s demeanor changed. He nodded. “Of course, I understand,” he said with sincerity. He had no desire to hurt the man’s feelings either by being caught with Raelynn in the morning like this. “Where are my belongings?”

Where were his belongings? Raelynn searched the room, she hadn't paid attention when Shona had brought them in -- she certainly didn't think she'd need to rush him back into his clothes the morning after, and yet that's where they were. Finally, she spotted them on the armoir by the door, untouched. "Over there," she said - realising that she needed to dress too… Her hair was a mess, she had no clothes on, and she still had his scent all over her. Panic struck her and she excused herself with a gesture of her hand and headed back to the partition to fix that.

“Wait,” Gregor said and intercepted her with an arm around her waist. “Call on me if you need me.” He placed his other hand around her as well and pulled her against him, fingers splayed against her buttocks, and he kissed her briefly, but full of force and desire. “Or want me,” he added in a low growl, before he let her go and turned to get dressed himself.

She had wanted to stay there, his words were just enough to stimulate her, and it took all of her willpower not to throw all of her caution to the wind and drag him back to bed with her. But, it was time - today was too important of a day. “Stop that, and don’t be here when I get back,” she warned him - her face stern and serious until she turned her back. Then it was a smirk, or was it a happy and contented smile? A grin? She wasn’t sure how she felt -- only that there was the memory of the night before, and a lingering feeling of danger, the thrill of being caught…

It barely took him a record time of two minutes to get dressed and return his sword to its rightful place across his back. Shona had done an excellent job of washing the blood out of his clothes and Gregor felt his esteem for the mute servant rise even higher. Raelynn was still hidden behind the partition when he was all done and, feeling even more like his old self than he did before, Gregor opened the window and slipped out of the suite, dangling on the ledge for a moment before dropping and rolling into a crouch when he hit the ground. It was fortunate that her suite wasn’t on the side of the street, or this would have looked remarkably awkward. Resisting the urge to grin, Gregor stalked away through the backyards and alleys of Jehanna towards his own inn.

Meanwhile, Fjolte had been walking on his way to Gregor’s inn. With the promise of an interesting job on the horizon, he wanted to share that with his new Imperial friend. They’d been through the ringer together, and truthfully, it felt good to have a reliable friend in Jehanna. A brother in arms - for the hard times and especially for the good. While intelligent, and undoubtedly full of their own talents - the Nord just couldn’t connect with the Breton’s of Jehanna. Even with Raelynn, as beautiful and alluring as she was, and even for the way he saw and thought of her… She was hardly going to chug an ale and punch a bandit with him. Not at all. But Gregor? Now that was a man to call your brother alright.

He carried himself excitedly up the stairs and towards Gregor’s inn room - just as he had days before. No Daedra, no fighting, just interesting work. He could barely contain himself. The Nord took an apple from his pocket and shoved it into his mouth, holding the fruit in place with his teeth as he rapped with both hands on Gregor’s door.

Just in time, Gregor thought when he heard someone knock on the door. He was busy smoothing over his clothes in the mirror after having haphazardly thrown them on and climbing back into his room through his window. He could’ve used the front door, but it seemed more fun to complete the outing the way he used to in the old days. “Just a second,” he called out and fixed his collar, took a step back to admire himself, and nodded before striding over to the door and opening it.

The sight of Fjolte rather comically holding an apple between his teeth greeted him and Gregor laughed, before plucking the apple from his mouth. “Ah, perfect, breakfast. I’m starving.” He grinned and clapped the Nord on the shoulder, holding the apple up for him to take back. Gregor had given his talent quite a euphemistic name when he called it ‘being agreeable’ -- the truth was simply that he was an excellent liar. “Good morning, my friend. Have you eaten? Because I really am starving.”

Fjolte almost protested, scrunching his nose as the apple was taken from him. “Oi!” he laughed, letting the man win. It was fine, he had more food in his pocket - which he demonstrated by pulling out a second apple anyway. “I hadn’t, but fine, I’ll share…” He noticed that Gregor was looking happy this morning, sharp and attentive. It was good that he’d had a rest - they’d both been exhausted and had long gone past the point of being over it the last time they’d been in each others company. Whatever ‘it’ was. As he had done so before, he strolled in and helped himself to a seat. “Sleep well?” he began before taking a bite from his apple - just about wiping out half of the thing in one crunch. “Slepf lie a log myseff” he said, through a mouthful of the fruit.

Grateful, Gregor bit into the apple rather ravenously and Fjolte had to wait for an answer while he chewed and swallowed. Unlike him, the Imperial wasn’t one to eat with his mouth full. “Very well,” he said truthfully. Now that he had been awake for a little while and shaken off the depths of sleep, Gregor found that he was fully rejuvenated. “Shona drafted a bath for me. I was practically dragging my feet on my way to my bed after that.” He sniffed at himself and nodded, satisfied. Behind the masculine bath tonic that the servant had picked out for him, he could still detect Raelynn’s fragrance. “Still smells good. Quite a miracle worker, that one. So, what have you got for me?”

With a knowing nod, Fjolte looked over at him with a grin. “Yeah, she’s good. Real good,” he sighed, slouching forwards in the chair. “Work actually, apparently an interesting job, and so I hoped you’d join me.” He took another bite of the apple, and gave himself time to chew and swallow this time before snapping his fingers and pointing at Gregor. “We should leave soon, I think I’m running late and Raelynn doesn’t like to be kept waiting… Just, I slept in. That fight… It took the wind out of my sails, Gregor,” he said quietly, his voice strained. He couldn’t even look at the man as he admitted it.

Gregor sighed. “Me too.” He rubbed his side again -- it seemed like that was going to become a recurring involuntary physical response to the trauma. The strain in Fjolte’s voice was evident. “Nothing to be ashamed of, my friend. It was… horror. I have no other words for it. I slept well last night, but I fear for the sanctity of the nights in my future,” the Imperial said and chewed on the inside of his lip. “I think that monster is going to live on in our dreams for a long time.”

“Yeah, you can say that again,” Fjolte muttered to the floor as he dragged himself up. “It’s only by chance that we both made it… For a piece of rock too, I just…” He sighed, running a hand over the back of his neck. “It would have been a senseless loss.”

Unexpectedly, Gregor stepped up to Fjolte and pulled him in a brotherly embrace for a moment. Then he leaned back, his hands on Fjolte’s arms, and emphatically said: “Yes, but it serves no purpose to dwell on what could have been. Think about what actually happened: we went toe-to-toe with an ancient Daedra and defeated it. We cast a demon back to the hells it came from, you and I. A monster that must have been down there for hundreds of years -- since the Oblivion Crisis, or even before. Do you know what that means?”

The hug was nice - welcome even, and it did lift his spirits and set about to rekindling his inner strength. He flashed a smile, nodding slowly. “Thank you, Gregor,” he said - sounding more like himself. “And, no, I don’t. I mean… We did give it a damn good fight, right?”

“We did,” Gregor agreed, and punched Fjolte playfully in the chest. “It means we’re bloody heroes, man. The envy of all the knights in High Rock! We didn’t strictly speaking rescue a damsel from a castle guarded by a dragon, but killing a fire-breathing beast from Oblivion in order to retrieve something a damsel wants is close enough in my book.”

That put some air in Fjolte’s chest and pride in his step, he tensed his arms and playfully punched at Gregor’s chest. “I’d knock the godsdamned jaw off a dragon for any damsel, we’re bloody big damn heroes!” he laughed - finally able to agree with Gregor and track down his infectiously optimistic spirit. “You’re right. We lived, we got a good story, and we found Raelynn a new toy… Fuckin’ heroes. Now come on, there’s plenty more heroes work to be done,” he chuckled, swinging at Gregor’s arm - making the whooshing sound with his mouth and following it up with another hearty laugh. “Let’s go.”

That was more like it. Gregor laughed with Fjolte, relieved that he had been able to lift the man’s spirits, and gestured towards the open door. “Lead the way.”

As soon as his back was turned to him, Gregor’s face fell and returned to a pensive frown. He rubbed his flank again.

In a different turn of events, as Fjolte and Gregor rounded the corner to Raelynn’s suite - the door was already open to the world as Shona walked out, a pile of folded bedsheets in her arms. She avoided Gregor’s gaze on her walk, smiling at Fjolte and hurrying her steps. She wasn’t sure whether or not she felt awkward to have stumbled across him sleeping beside Raelynn. The mistress certainly didn’t care about whether the maid had seen anything as it had remained unmentioned so far.

As they crossed the threshold, they would find Raelynn walking back and forth - carrying various items around as if she was packing for a trip. The same boxes that had been lined on her desk the day before were now piled on the floor carefully. Only the unopened giftbox from her gentleman caller was spread on the desk now. The matte white of the box a stark contrast to the shiny quality of the black ribbon. She had found herself something warm for the colder day. A long sleeved, plush velvet dress in a rich shade of ruby that ran to the floor - concealing her feet and the heels she wore to disguise her short height. “Good morning Fjolte,” she trilled, almost stopping in her tracks at the sight of Gregor. She’d expected him to be back, but not quite so soon -- not after her warning. “Mr. Mercurius,” she said as her greeting - but it wasn’t in quite as nonchalant a way as the day prior. Not now that they had their little secret.

“My lady,” Gregor said and inclined his head respectfully, deliberately breaking eye contact for the benefit of the Nord next to him. It was in everyone’s best interests to make it seem like nothing untoward had occurred. He had wanted to give Shona a warm smile to express his gratitude for her services rendered, but she’d avoided his gaze. He was suddenly very glad that she was mute.

"I hope you're both well - just in time too. I have need of your strong arms," she said, indicating to some larger goods that needed to be packed in the corner. A marble bust of some aristocrat, a painting, and a model ship. "Roll up your sleeves," she commanded with a click of her fingers before making her way to the desk, writing something down on a roll of parchment.

Fjolte shrugged. He had no sleeves to roll up but he made the motion anyway for he and Gregor's amusement and made moves for the bust. "Help me with this one," he said, bending his knees to ready himself to lift it. "What's this all for anyway? A shipment?"

"It's all for auction, actually - a sale, tonight…" Raelynn answered, back still turned to them both.

Gregor snorted and shook his head before he rolled up his own sleeves, once again displaying the tattoo. He felt cold regret and hot shame cut through him like a knife through butter and he hesitated for a moment, frozen to the spot, before tearing his eyes from the shape of his wife outlined in ink. She didn’t have to know. Jehanna was a thousand miles from Bravil. It could just be a fling, a moment of weakness… or a series of moments… something to forget all about when he went back home. It was his last adventure, after all. It was just something he had to get out of his system.

He knelt down next to the bust and wrapped his hands around it before nodding to Fjolte. “On three,” he said. “One, two…”

The Nord moved with Gregor, and between the two of them the bust would be easily manoeuvred to it's padded box. He glanced at Gregor, how the man looked at his tattoo. Maybe this time apart was making him miss her, and the thought made Fjolte smile in a way. "So this what's interesting then? Us lifting things around for you - let me guess… We're your delivery boys," he frowned, rolling his eyes because that wasn't interesting at all.

"Yes," she responded curtly, "but you'll be attending the ball after your duties are complete." Raelynn explained, unbeknownst to them she was smirking at the parchment.

Fjolte looked at Gregor. He was the more noble of the two and yet they were both invited…

Gregor returned the look and a highly amused grin was already forming on his face. “Excellent,” he said to the Nord in a low voice, too quiet for Raelynn to make out what he was saying. “Let’s drink these pansy Bretons under the table. After that shit with the shein, I’m ready for anything.”

Fjolte returned the mischievous look, immediately understanding that they were in for a night of fun they definitely would forget if the last drunken evening was anything to go by. "Oh yeah?" He called back to Raelynn, making an amused and devious face to Gregor. "Need us to brush up to the folk, eh? Help them lighten up?" He asked suppressing a giggle.

Raelynn looked over her shoulder briefly at the two of them, she couldn't help but feel that they were up to something. She didn't say anything, and instead got back to her work. Suddenly getting the feeling that she was going to regret this..

“Come on, let’s pack the rest,” Gregor said to Fjolte, still thinking of ways how the evening could derail spectacularly. He’d behaved and played the part excellently on Razul’s ship while Raelynn played him like a fool. A little revenge was in order -- taking control away from her during a moment where she needed them to stay in their lanes seemed like the perfect opportunity. It would be a fine line to walk, however, because he didn’t exactly want to sabotage her plans either.

She felt the need to say something after all, and turned on her heel to face the men as the moved the marble across the room. “You’re not exactly invited... So you’ll be keeping a low profile. Won’t you?”

The silversmith looked up and wiped at his brow with the rolled up sleeves of his coat. He gave Raelynn a scolding look. “Of course,” he said curtly. “We’re professionals.”

When the woman had turned around, Fjolte shook his head, mouthing to Gregor, ”absolutely not”. He could barely even imagine the types of people who would be attending the affair. By the looks of the items they had to all be incredibly rich, incredibly well-educated, and incredibly… stiff. They brought the bust above the box, and once again Fjolte squatted down - glancing at Raelynn, and he felt as if they’d been too quiet. “Yeah, Gregor - just lower it on three…” he said, a little too loud, with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. He slammed his mouth shut and felt a rumbling laugh trying to escape him.

“One,” Gregor began but began to laugh and averted his gaze from Raelynn, fighting to keep his face under control but chortling through closed lips. The bust threatened to slip out of his grip as his arms trembled so he took a deep breath and focused. “One, two, three!” he grunted and lowered the bust into the box with Fjolte.

He winced and rubbed his side as he straightened up. Raelynn had done a great job healing him, but she couldn’t take the tenderness of his body away. His brain simply hadn’t forgotten yet that he had been stabbed by the long talons of a killer-croc and liked to remind him when he exerted himself.

“That reminds me,” he said and gestured vaguely at Fjolte. “We need to get our stories straight, for all the nobles that we’re going to impress tonight. You caved its face in with the hammer and blinded it, and then avoided the fire breath by expertly leaping down towards certain death -- but you saved yourself with the hammer, dangling over the gap like an acrobat attempting the stunt of a lifetime, and then when I sent it over the edge with my thunder magic you kicked it when it was on its way down so that it fell into a pool of lava,” he embellished expertly and tapped his nose. “Alright? They’re going to love that.”

It was the hushed tones that worried Raelynn. That they were talking but she couldn’t hear it. Fjolte was nodding along with a grin, and excitement in his eyes -- but Raelynn had steel in hers. There wasn’t much she disliked more than when people didn’t take her seriously, and she sauntered over, her hands on her hips. “Care to share what’s so secretive, boys?” she asked - an eyebrow raised at them both. She had a keen sense for mischief, particularly where Fjolte was concerned. “I don’t want to regret you both being there…” she warned.

Having let go of the heavy marble, Fjolte’s hands were free to shove into his pockets, and he rocked on the balls of his feet. “We were just saying how after all that happened in the cave… It’ll be nice to do something more fun, and less dangerous. Right, Gregor?”

“Right,” Gregor agreed. “You’ll have to apologize for our giddiness. We’re just glad to still be alive, truthfully, and the opportunity to kick back and enjoy a luxurious, high society event is exactly what we need,” he lied smoothly and placed a reassuring hand on Fjolte’s shoulder.

They weren’t wrong, but they weren’t being truthful either. Raelynn let it slide. Maybe it was the guilt left over from having sent them down there, maybe it was Gregor’s influence again. Maybe she was giddy too. As she brought herself back to her desk, she removed the lid from the smaller gift box. Unwrapping the paper carefully - she was allowed to be giddy too.

“This isn’t the kind of ball you’re expecting, gentleman,” she teased as her fingers freed the item from the wrapping. “I might not know who you are…” she said, the mischief clearly had been infectious. She picked up the gift while her back was turned to the boys, and upon turning they would see that much of her face, save for her mouth and chin was covered with a mask. Bright white lace - starched into a stiff and form fitted mask. There was feather detailing, the striking peacock feathers were styled and shaped like a crown in a half-circle over the top, and beaded with turquoise stones. It blended perfectly to the white gold of her hair, her scarlett lips curled and her sapphirine eyes lit up to create an enchanting smile upon the parts of her face that could be seen - mystery behind the rest. “It’s a masquerade...”

Now that was exciting. Gregor had only ever heard of masquerades and never attended one. Raelynn looked immensely alluring, her eyes like pools of cyan in the white mask, and he had to close his mouth when he had been about to say as much. “Looks like we have some shopping to do,” he said instead and looked at Fjolte, wondering how they were going to find him a mask that wasn’t going to look ridiculous on his wild and untamed features. “A masquerade…” he repeated and rubbed his hands together. Images of men and women elegantly gliding across smooth marble floors flitted through his mind, their eyes on each other, delighting in the game while they tried to work out who everyone was. It showed in a sparkle in his eyes and a smile that played around his lips.

"God's…" Fjolte sighed, "this is hardly my element Raelynn," he glanced sidelong to Gregor. He'd have to take the lead on this, but the Nord did look forward to the opportunity to wear a real dress suit - at least for one night. Maybe stepping into it would awaken the manners and etiquette that were simply laying dormant within him. Hell, the thought of wearing the mask even just to pretend to be someone else was incredibly exciting too. He could be a Prince if he wanted and could get away with it. It did leave one question in his mind…

"It's nice to be invited -- or not invited as you say, but why will we be there? What are you wanting us to do?" It seemed the obvious thing to ask. Fjolte knew there was always a catch with Raelynn.

And a catch there was. She placed the mask back into the box carefully before clearing her throat. "You'll both be there to watch over me, and to watch over my stock. I was strictly forbidden from bringing guests," Raelynn explained - placing her hands behind her back. "I've got a contact inside who will sneak the two of you in after the ball has started, you'll enter via the kitchens and then you'll join the affair. You must arrive dressed, and say the code word ataxia." Fjolte's eyes squinted as he repeated the word under his breath, and she looked at both of them - hoping they'd taken it in. "Understood?"

“Where is it being held? Is there a dress code, aside from the masks? I assume visible weapons are forbidden as well? Can we be sure that you will be the only person there wearing exactly that mask?” Gregor asked, unleashing a barrage of questions as he began to pace about the room. Before Raelynn could answer, he closed the distance between them in two long strides but turned to the box and the mask within, inspecting it closely and memorizing the details. “You look fabulous in this,” he whispered sidelong to Raelynn but making it look like he was mumbling to himself.

She couldn't audibly respond to his compliment, but the simmering look in her eyes said enough. If only Fjolte wasn't here they could… No. Raelynn took in a deep breath of restraint - Gregor had questions, important ones too and so she tore her gaze from him and met Fjolte's eyes instead. "The ball will be held at Lord Desena's manor. It's a short ride from here," she answered, making her way across the floor to the Nord. "Strictly formal, very formal," she clarified as she came up to him and began fidgeting and tugging at his shirt to inspect it. "So this won't do Fjolte. Gregor will take you to my tailor."

She took a step back from the Nord, placing a hand under her chin as her eyes narrowed. "Try a blue or green suit… Something a little more eccentric… I think you'd look dashing in something fitted and colourful."

Her intense gaze was enough to make him smile, "colourful, got it!" He grinned.

"Weapons…" Raelynn said with a thoughtful frown, clucking her tongue. "If you get caught with it you'll be thrown out. That's all I'll say," she cast a look in Gregor's direction. He'd know what she meant. "And yes, I shall be the only one in that mask… It is completely bespoke and designed… for me." The last part was said quieter, as if she didn't want to draw any further attention to that fact. "Any more questions?"

The Imperial thought about it for a few moments. “Where exactly are we to meet the contact? Supplier’s entrance, or something?” He’d seen the way Fjolte reacted to Raelynn’s gaze and touch and he felt guilty again. All thoughts of derailing the evening were forgotten and he was determined to help Fjolte make a positive impression and to teach him the ways of polite society.

"You'll drop off the goods and act as if you're heading back, take a turn on the path when you come across a hut and wait it out there to get dressed… Head back up and to the back of the manor where you dropped off, you'll see a herb garden and that's the kitchen. What's the codeword?" She asked, to neither of them in particular but it was Fjolte who answered.

"Ataxia," he said clearly to her, "drop off, wait in the hut, get changed, herb garden, enter."

The desire to do this job right practically radiated off of Fjolte and Gregor smiled at him. It was endearing. “No further questions, your honour,” he joked and pretended to tip his hat at Raelynn. “It will be done.” He motioned for Fjolte to come with him.

"I'll see you tonight," Raelynn said - not knowing if she would see them. But simply the knowledge that they would be there was enough. She watched them leave, and her eyes remained on the door for a while after they'd gone.

"A suit," Fjolte said, glancing at Gregor with a quizzical expression as he followed him along. "Tell me what you know about wearing a suit."

“No drastic movements -- certainly nothing acrobatic,” Gregor began and continued his explanation while they left the Long Well and entered Jehanna. “That’s the most important point. Suits are tailored to fit your measurements so you risk tearing otherwise. The good news is that, because the suit is tailored, it does most of the talking for you, as it were. All you have to do is maintain good posture and you’ll look like a million septims. Back straight, shoulders squared, chest out, arms at your side or behind your back.” It was still grey and chilly, though the rain had fortunately stopped. Gregor stopped at a crossing and recalled the path he had taken to get to the tailor the last time. “This way.”

"There goes my plans for a lateral split across the ballroom floor then…" he joked. "Good posture I can do, but I'll be honest. A night spent with all these people who would otherwise look down their nose at me? Feels like a waste of my time were it not for the job at hand. I suppose there'll be food," he sighed, "and drink!" The Nord's elbow found it's way to Gregor's arm. "It's just for a night. I can pretend to be a Prince for a night."

As they made their way through the streets, Fjolte got to thinking about Gregor and his life back home, the experiences he'd already had. "So, this mask ball, is it your first?"

“It is,” Gregor replied. “I’ve always known what they are but it’s not something for the son of a simple merchant to attend. Perhaps if I grew up in Bruma, with my mother’s extended family, I would have attended one before… but what with all the Nords there, I don’t think they host them either,” he said and laughed. “It’s a very Breton thing to do. You know how they’re all in love with intrigue and squabbles and so on, right? This is a way for them to attend the same event without any trouble brewing. Even if they do recognize each other, the rules demand that they pretend to be total strangers. It turns all the normal hostility and power struggles into a game, just for one night.”

Fjolte's brow raised and he shook his head. "What's wrong with a big piss up? A hearty Nord knees up?" He laughed, happy to accept that there were different strokes for different folks, but also happiest with just that- a hearty knees up. "Speaking of, Gregor," he began while lowering his voice. "You don't think there's going to be some trouble, do you? Because I do…"

It was an astute observation. “The fact that Raelynn is jumping through such hoops to get us inside does not bode well,” Gregor said but he followed it up with an uncertain look in Fjolte’s direction. “But I have nothing to compare it to. Maybe this is a standard precaution she always takes for these events.” He fell into thought and wondered out loud: “I wonder if my sword will fit beneath a large cloak…”

"She's never been to an event like this while I've known her. Never sold her products in this way either, so you're probably right and this is just a precaution - she wants to enjoy herself… Not worry about the goods in the back of her mind all night. But I'm still going to slip a knife in my boot," he said, briefly meeting Gregor's eyes. "As a precaution."

“Agreed.” The idea of them having to possibly fight and defend Raelynn at such an illustrious event was bizarre, but Fjolte was right -- he had a bad feeling about this. He was glad that the Nord would be with him. They walked in silence for a while longer until Gregor recognized that they were close the tailor’s shop and workplace. “It’s just down here.”

Having thought it over, Fjolte had decided he was looking forward to the suit, to trying it on and getting in touch with a different side of himself. The eccentric side, as Raelynn had put it - and as they walked closer to the shop, that excitement built in his chest and he grabbed Gregor's arm with a hard squeeze. "I'm going to hope it's dull on the danger front so we can enjoy ourselves… A glass, a shot, another shot… Get up to some trouble… Maybe a prank or two. How about that?"

The Nord was still chuckling at the thought as they walked into the tailor's shop. It was the smell that hit Fjolte first. Clean, it was the smell of well polished wood and brand new upholstery. It already made him feel good, like he was in good hands.

A man approached from behind the counter. "Good morning gentlemen, how can I help you both today?"

“A suit for my friend here,” Gregor said and gestured to Fjolte, with a knowing smile for the store clerk. He knew this was going to be a challenge for the tailor, considering how unusual it must be for them to get a customer with the hulking Nord’s measurements. “Suitable for a formal event but not too dark. Green, blue, something colorful -- a lively man deserves an eye-catching outfit, after all. As for myself… a black cloak. Felt or satin or something like that.” He rubbed his fingers together. “Fine, elegant, but understated. No frills.”

"You know I have a rather nice suit in a colour, if we took some of the stitching out and dressed it a certain way… It wouldn't fit like a glove but with a silk lining… You'll look like royalty." The older man said to Gregor with a friendly smile before making his way to the back. It was a wonder the bones in his legs did not creak. At the last moment, he turned to look back at Gregor too - raising a thin finger into the air, "I have something for you too, Sir. Oh yes, we remember you here… Give me some time."

For Gregor, the man came back with exactly what he had asked for: a large, stately cloak, big and wide enough to encompass him entirely, fashioned of a beautiful black fabric that shimmered when it moved. Aside from some patterned stitching at the edge of the shoulders it was unadorned with frills, as he’d put it. It would go splendidly with the suit he still had from the outing on Razul’s ship. “It’s marvelous,” Gregor breathed as he held it up and turned it this way and that to see how the light changed.

"Damn, Gregor…" Fjolte remarked, equally as impressed. "It's like it was made for you," he added with a nod of appreciation. "One thing is to be sure, we're both going to look like a million septims."

Eventually the tailor walked back around - looking slightly nervous with his selection for the Nord. "A more eccentric choice for you Sir," he said as he placed the goods down and very carefully and methodically lifted up the jacket. It was a charcoal grey in the light and initially, Fjolte saw nothing quite so special about it until the tailor turned it slightly and it became apparent the jacket was patterned. A midnight blue tartan ran over the material and the Nord's eyes lit up.

"Oh yes," he smirked, admiring it with an imaginative stare as he began picturing himself in it, moving through the sea of people in that. "Oh yes indeed… What do you think Gregor?" It was very clear that Fjolte was happy with the choice so far - that it was different enough for him to not blend into the Breton's, for that would be impossible, but to also add a shine and degree of polish to his rugged features.

The Imperial put down the cloak so that he could properly inspect the patterned suit. A slow smile spread across his face as he looked between the Nord and the fabric. "Splendid. The color goes very well with your eyes and the pattern will make it clear you're not trying to emulate traditional Breton high fashion, and instead you've got your own style. That's what we should go for, I think."

"Alright, I just hope there's enough fabric to contain the boys…" Fjolte remarked boyishly, flexing his arms -- the muscles bulging under his light shirt.

The tailor gave a soft chuckle, and momentarily was reminded of his own adventurous youth. "Will either of you be taking a fair lady to this occasion? I can provide a matching handkerchief for you both," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

“Not to this occasion, but I have a fair lady back home who would absolutely appreciate a handsome handkerchief from faraway Jehanna,” Gregor said with a smile. Now that he had been outside of Raelynn’s presence for a while and was instead traipsing around with Fjolte, the resolve to return to Briar while pretending nothing had happened was strengthened. It would be for the best, for everyone.

"Just the suit for me," Fjolte remarked, nodding in Gregor's direction. "If you really want to impress your woman, my friend, write her some poetry too. Women love poetry. And a dried rose of Jehanna…" he laughed as the tailor got to work on taking his measurements. "A handkerchief, a poem, a rose… So very chivalrous - she'll come over all soft for you…" There was mischief in the Nord's eyes, but a sincerity in his voice. Perhaps a nice gift from Gregor's travels would rekindle their spark.

“A dried rose? Perhaps, though I have roses in my garden,” Gregor said and his gaze unfocused while he recalled memories of home. “Every summer they bloom several times, and each bloom I find the largest and most vibrant of them all and give it to her.” He smiled again, though he found that his reverie was tainted and soured by the thought of Raelynn.

What he had felt with her last night was incredible, but… the reality was that he was risking his marriage, his whole life, and had already betrayed his honour. Gregor had always considered himself to be a civilized and respectful man. Between the way he’d felt when he had killed the bandits, or the Daedroth, with Fjolte and the things that he had done and felt when he was with Raelynn, he was starting to lose sight of who he really was. Or, as an even darker voice in the back of his mind whispered, he was starting to discover who he really was. The thought made him shiver.

“Have you ever written any poetry?” Gregor asked, diverting attention away from himself and onto Fjolte. Not only was he eager not to have to dwell on these things, he was also genuinely curious whether the Nord had dabbled in such artistic pursuits… and, if so, how funny the results were.

"I have," Fjolte replied with a proud nod. He then cleared his throat and a smug grin crept across his lips. "The Lady of Falkreath loved cider, and the man at the orchard had spied her, she spotted him too, and after a brew, she had something else inside her."

The tailor tutted at him, looking upwards sharply and giving him a slap across the knee. "Filth!" He commented, but the look in his eye was not one of anger, and the smirk that even toyed on his lips was telling of the fact that he also enjoyed the poem.

Gregor burst into sniggering laughter. It was so very Fjolte and he was pleasantly surprised that it actually rhymed. He was also surprised to see the tailor enjoying himself. "Well, well, well," Gregor said and brought his hands together slowly for a round of amused applause. "It appears we have ourselves quite the wordsmith! I shall definitely have to remember that one for my own lady," Gregor said with a sardonic twinkle. "Don't worry, I will make sure you receive credit where credit is due."

That made the Nord smile, and soon enough - the tailor was done. "It will take me several hours to finish the alterations for you, Sir - perhaps you have other business to attend to?" He asked.

Fjolte glanced to Gregor - if there was anyone he could kill time with it was the Imperial - but between finding a mask, grooming, and getting ready for their work, day drinking was not on the agenda. "We do," he answered politely, stepping down from the pedestal. "But we'll be back," he said in a friendly manner before heading towards Gregor. "So… Masks. Where do we find masks?"

"You should try Soleil," chimed the old tailor as he retreated back to the counter. "Lots of beautiful antiquities in there, the owner is on the strange side… Three streets over… You'll know it when you see it," he smiled peacefully.

"This must be it," Gregor said and craned his neck to look at the entire storefront. The name of the establishment, Soleil, featured prominently next to the painted visage of a harlequin in full attire. The window hadn't been cleaned in a while and he had to squint to see the items on display. Much of it was strange and unrecognisable, but he saw a few colorful costumes and what looked like a trapeze. "Let's take a look inside."

Stepping into the store revealed that the tailor had evidently sent them to the right place. The walls were lined with not only masks, but also a wide variety of different costumes, props and an especially sizable display of make-up and grime -- everything anyone could need to dress up as someone or something else, in short. Gregor turned to say as much to Fjolte when the sound of a ringing bell distracted him and he turned his head towards the source of the noise instead.

From behind a shelf appeared an elf, tall and thin to the point of being gaunt, the golden skin of his face painted with white, red and black so that one half of his face appeared to be smiling and the other weeping. His clothes were colorful, his feet stuck in oversized shoes and a large cap'n'bells rested on his head. It chimed softly when he moved, and so it did when he approached, his posture hunched and his hands wringing together. Gregor expected a greeting but the jester said nothing and merely looked at them expectantly.

Fjolte mouthed a curse and grabbed Gregor's arm, stepping back slightly as the Jester approached. "Nope," he whispered from behind a clenched jaw. That was too much for the Nord to handle, and he turned his back on the shopkeep, even if the bells continued to jingle from his hat. Fjolte walked off to peruse the other aisles with haste, leaving Gregor alone with the mime.

Gregor had to resist the urge to laugh at Fjolte's swift exit. He wasn't a big fan of Altmer and there was something undeniably creepy about the silent elf, but he remembered what the tailor had said and wasn't entirely surprised. "Good day," Gregor said, and the jester replied by taking off his hat and bowing with a flourish.

The Imperial nodded in understanding. "My friend and I are looking for masks for tonight's masquerade. I was hopeful you could help us in this endeavour.

The Altmer clapped his hands together once and performed a little jig, his gangly feet light on the floor, bells ringing away. It was obviously affirmative and he beckoned for Gregor to follow to the wall of masks, where they found Fjolte already looking at the selection. The variety was substantial and ranged from the sophisticated half-masks like the one Raelynn had to full-face masks of animals, monsters and even Argonians… though they could be dragons, Gregor mused. The jester made a show of looking up at the masks and deliberating over which one to pick for Gregor.

"See anything you like?" the Imperial asked Fjolte in the meantime.

Meanwhile, Fjolte had indeed found something to let his eyes fall over. The wonderful shape of a woman's behind as she bent with hands to the floor. The Nord stared, his mouth hanging open at the sight and he only just managed to close his mouth to answer Gregor and found that his throat was dry, "uh, yeah, yeah I did…" he answered back, unable to peel his eyes from what he was seeing. The woman then lifted a leg up, up, up into the air.

"Don't try it honey," she purred, and only then did Fjolte snap out of it. "I'll eat you alive…" the woman said, before stretching back into a standing position. A dunmer, with flaming red hair. "It's rude to stare, but since you are - does this leotard look good?" She asked, tilting her head as she eyed herself in the mirror. "Good stretch, but the colour… Hmmm…"

Fjolte nodded again, "looks… looks great, yes, wonderful, perfect… You look great, terrific actually… Really quite splendid - can you do that leg thing again?" He found himself blurting out, hoping that Gregor had seen her too.

All the Dunmer did was roll her eyes at him, and blow a strand of hair away from her eyes. "No time, I have places to be pussycat," she replied with a pout before sashaying his way, curling a finger under his chin to close his mouth. She left him standing there and came out into the open of the store, running her fingers up the Altmer's arm with a happy grin. "I'll take this one!"

Gregor had seen it too, and he could hardly blame Fjolte for his response. The Dunmer woman's body was supremely sensual and the leotard did absolutely nothing to mitigate the impact. The combination of flaming red hair and dark ashen skin had its own exotic, beautiful quality and the Imperial didn't have a mouth hanging open that he had to close, but he did find himself needing to clear his throat and blink a few times to regain his focus.

The jester circled around the Dunmer while making faces and gestures of approval and admiration, finishing with him fighting to close his jaw for a moment before shooting a pointed look at Fjolte. Gregor felt like the Nord was being made fun of, but he wondered if he would even notice. The thought made him laugh and he turned away so that he could chuckle silently into his collar in peace.

The Dunmer twirled in the centre for the Altmer, smiling happily still. When she came to her stop, her blood red eyes met Gregor's, and she fished for her coins. "This should be enough my favourite friend," she hummed as she placed several coins on the counter. She paused and looked up on the wall, at a mask that was hanging quite out of the way of the others. "That's your style I think," she whispered to Gregor with a wink, before turning back to Fjolte to give him a playful wave.

"I'll be seeing you…" she said mysteriously, her voice husky and rich, and then she was gone.

"By Kynareth…" Fjolte breathed out at last, whistling after her. "She was a breath of fresh air…" he had to drag his gaze from the window and to the masks, completely unsure of what to pick. "Which one did she say for you?"

It was almost seductive enough to make him forget about Raelynn for a moment. Gregor watched her go as well and only when Fjolte asked him something did he turn back to look at the masks. “That one,” he said and pointed up at a black mask that was shaped to resemble the upper face of an owl, with its beak where Gregor’s nose would be. It was fashioned from what looked like iron or some other kind of dark metal and burnished to have a silver sheen at the edges of the feathers and the beak. “She has a good eye, whoever she is, because I love it.”

The jester immediately grabbed a ladder and set it against the wall so that he could retrieve the mask. Gregor decided that he liked the shopkeeper, even if he was mute and eccentric -- he was attentive and helpful too. He looked at the rest of the masks and an idea came to him. “We should get matching masks, but not an owl for you…” He tapped his chin with his finger. “Ah! What about that one?” Gregor pointed out a large mask of solid bronze that depicted a snarling lion, metal mane flaring out to the sides. “King of the pack, and all that,” he murmured to Fjolte and laughed at the memory.

His eyes widened, and Fjolte looked genuinely excited by it. "God's yes…" he hissed low, rubbing his hands together. "This is going to be a good night, Gregor. I can tell. Us in our suits, Raelynn in a dress… Beautiful, mysterious women everywhere…" He admired the mask that the Dunmer had selected for Gregor, it was incredibly well suited to him.

"We're going to be gentlemen of mystery," he said, leaning on the counter, almost forgetting that they'd been expecting danger - now the Nord was simply looking forward to a night out of a different kind. "Think they'll have any shein there?" He laughed, jabbing Gregor with an elbow.

Gregor groaned at that and placed a hand on his throat. “I hope not,” he said, esophagus still burning at the slightest mention of the dark elves’ devilry drink. “Red wine and brandy for me. Hells, I’ll even take the whiskey. But shein… never again.”

The Altmer descended with the owl mask in his hands and handed it to Gregor for him to try, before moving the ladder a few feet to the side and climbing back up in pursuit of the lion mask. Gregor placed the mask on his face and tied the black straps together behind his head, tucking them behind his ears and ruffling his hair to cover them. He inspected himself in the mirror first and immediately smiled at the sight. He had always been fond of owls. They were dignified and majestic animals, and using one as the basis for a mask was just playful enough to be charming. With the straps behind his ears and hidden by his hair it looked like it was stuck to his face by some sort of magic, as all the best masks did. “What do you think?” he asked and looked at Fjolte.

"Gregor?" Fjolte said as he placed his hands on his hips and begam pacing. "I can hear you, but I can't see you. There's just some other good looking prick here…" he continued, carrying on the act of pretending to search for the man before he could keep it up no more. With a laugh, he reached for his own mask, wiping a tear from his eye as he fitted his own to his face. Fjolte's mask was bigger than Gregor's, and at first the Nord had worried it would be comically so, but when he tried the mask on he found that it fit rather nicely afterall. The lion's mane ran around his head, hiding his own messy locks which was probably for the best. His normally soft and gentle eyes were made piercing by the frame of bronze around them, leaving only the strong jaw of his face revealed. "We look good."

That he could agree with. “Even better once we get your suit,” Gregor reminded him and slapped the Nord on the shoulder. He turned to the shopkeeper. “We’ll take them.” He responded to that by raising his hands in celebration and beckoned for them to follow to the counter.

Gregor thought about paying for his own mask for a moment and then laughed to himself -- of course he wasn’t going to. This was a business expense. “Are you familiar with Raelynn Deserine?” he asked.

The jester pondered the question for a while before nodding, but then pointed to his ledger and shrugged.

“She has no account here?”

The jester shook his head.

“Damn,” Gregor muttered. He wasn’t a very frivolous spender but not particularly frugal either, and the last week of good living in Jehanna had been unkind to his wallet. It was only then that he realized that Raelynn had forgotten to pay him for the lunar dial, and he smirked sheepishly -- an easy thing to forget, considering what had happened between them. “We’ll be attending as her minders, you see, in her employ, so this is an… unforeseen expense,” he explained and rubbed his neck.

The jester mimed laughter -- even that was silent -- and handed the masks back to Gregor and Fjolte with a knowing smile. He gestured towards the door.

“Oh… are you sure? Well, alright, thank you very much,” Gregor replied hesitantly, but the jester’s enthusiastic nodding and repeated gesturing to the door -- on the house, you are free to leave -- was unmistakable.

Blinking after stepping outside and adjusting to the sunlight, Gregor turned to Fjolte and smiled. “So, what next? Do you want to see a barber?”

“For a wash - yes. For a cut, absolutely not!” Fjolte replied, running his hands through his hair almost protectively as they walked through the streets. “No way is a barber trimming a hair off me,” he laughed. “But if that’s the way to prepare for a fancy occasion, we should do that.”

Gregor narrowed his eyes and held a lock of Fjolte's hair between his fingers. "Are you sure about that? You could do with a very minor trim, just to get rid of the split ends. It'll make your hair look healthier but it won't visibly be any shorter."

Fjolte eyed Gregor up and down, he trusted the man - he did, but this was his hair. The Nord’s pride and joy was his hair, and even a slight trim would be felt. But this was Gregor, and the man seemed to know what he was talking about when it came to these things - he could stand to be a little more refined. “Alright, alright - only if you do yours as well.”

“Sure,” Gregor said and reached over his shoulder to bring the ends of his ponytail into view. “I could do with a little trim myself. You won’t regret it, I promise. It’s part of a normal hair maintenance routine. Don’t get me wrong, you have fantastic hair, but everything can improve with some tender love and care.” The Imperial patted Fjolte’s shoulder. “This way.”

Fjolte gave a carefree shrug, and followed after Gregor.

"You look beautiful in that dress," came a soft voice from the corner. Raelynn's eyes flicked away from her reflection in the mirror as the two assigned handmaids worked at dressing her. Her cool gaze met a tall gentleman. Tall and thin with neat chestnut hair and grey eyes. He was young, but in his eyes, it was apparent he had seen much more than he should have, much more than he alluded to.

She ran her fingers over the front of the dress, the layers of chiffon that made up the skirt were plenty, and added to a more pronounced hourglass shape. The torso was stiffer - the corset boned, pulling her waist in tight. She hadn't worn such an illusion before. "Thank you, Hugo," she replied with a smile.

"But it's not quite perfect," he added, stepping forward, motioning with the handmaids to keep going with the lacing on the back. "Just a bit more," he said - his expression stoic and unchanging as he watched the two women pull at the strings - and then to Raelynn whose eyes widened at the force.

"That's quite," Raelynn said through a shallow breath, "tight enough," she exhaled. It felt as though her chest was being crushed. The petal soft fabric pinched uncomfortably as her waist was brought in even further.

"Now it's perfect." Hugo commented, a smile flickering at last. "Hurry and meet me downstairs, guests are arriving."

From the confines of the shack, dressed in his suit, and groomed impeccably -- Fjolte gazed through the slats over the window, watching as the last guests poured into the doors of the manor. His mask was resting on a chair, and he moved his thumbs idly in the pockets of his trousers. To the tailors credit, they were a wonderful fit.

"I think we're good to go back," he said at last, looking over his shoulder to see Gregor looking just as immaculate. Together, their perfume had left the shack smelling masculine and opulent. Leather, steel, firewood, and fresh mountain air had combined into a presence all of its own.

Gregor nodded, picked up his mask and fastened it to his face. Between the black-and-white suit, the shimmering cloak, the owl mask and his own dark hair, he thought he looked a bit like a villainous vampire from the pulp novels he used to read as a child -- a spectre at the feast. It amused him and he was eager for the two of them to make their entrance… and for Raelynn to see him like this. He fingered the mithril ring, the one that she’d given him, that he now wore on his left hand. It would be his signal. Here I am… Try as he might, he couldn’t manage to fully banish intrusive fantasies of her and him sneaking away to an empty room on an abandoned floor of the mansion and having their way with each other while the party and the auction whiled away below them. But he wasn’t here for pleasure, he reminded himself. This was business. And he shouldn’t be thinking about those things anyway.

“Agreed, let’s go,” Gregor said and slipped past Fjolte out of the shack. They went back down the path they’d followed after dropping off the shipment, wrapping around the back of the mansion, the sounds of the guests arriving fading away with every step. Gregor kept an eye out for trouble but their voyage to the herb garden was fortunately uninterrupted, and he recognized the place as such immediately. It reminded him of the herb garden his mother had behind the house. When Gregor, his brother and his father were out in the yard practicing with their wooden swords, his mother would be tending to the plants and looking up to watch and smile, shouting encouragement and praise every so often. Only ever for Gregor and Marcus, of course. Hector, she reasoned, didn’t need her help.

He pointed to the door that the garden path led to, through the basil and rosemary. “That must be it. What was the password again?” Gregor was confident that he’d remembered, but he wanted to be sure -- and helping him out would put Fjolte at ease. Gregor suspected that the following hours would be sufficiently challenging, in their own way, for the Nord.

Fjolte had also found Gregor's appearance to be dark and mysterious - villainous in an almost charismatic sense. It suited him, to be cloaked in shadow like that. If the Imperial was the night, then the Nord was the day - his mask as blinding as the sun now that it was polished. The lion majestic and wild, compared to the stealth and silence of the owl that Gregor tonight encapsulated.

Even hearing the sounds from inside set his nerves ablaze, and he shoved a hand in his pocket again as they approached a short and round Breton in an apron. "Ataxia," he said, casting a glance to Gregor - a shake of his head as if to express disappointment but he meant nothing by it.

"Lost yer way did ya?" He replied loudly, glancing back into the kitchen. "Bloody guests wandering off all the time, get in lads and don't do it again, yeah?" The kitchenhand added with a wink - it sounded like an admonishment, but his eyes had a sparkle in them. Like he'd just made quick and easy money. The sparkle seemed to diminish somewhat when he met the intense, piercing stare of the man in the owl mask. It was as if those eyes looked right through him, the shadow cast over him didn't help and he felt a shiver run down his spine.

"Garden's are off limits - understand?" He sighed, flinching at the owl before closing the door behind both Gregor and Fjolte. "Understand?"

“Our apologies,” Gregor said smoothly, playing along with the game. He smirked into his beard when he saw the Breton flinch at his appearance -- that was precisely the desired effect. “Understood. We’ll stay inside. Which way to the ballroom?”

He rolled his eyes and sighed. "Follow me," he said and began leading them through the kitchen. Food was laid out across the benches. Everything from roast chicken to roast pheasant, trays of canapes and pyramids of profiteroles.

The offerings hadn't gone unnoticed by Fjolte, who on the walk through was eyeing up a particular pastry in the pyramid. It had the most chocolate sauce on it, and it seemed to be the biggest too. He bit his lip. The smells weren't helping, rendered fat and various meat gravies boiling and bubbling away in large pots and pans. Burnt butter. Caramel. Fresh bread.

If this was the food on offer for the evening, he was about to be a very busy man and he wondered just how long it would be before his pants didn't fit…

"I see you eyeing those pastries, Lion. Stop it," the Breton hissed, his head turning to look at Fjolte with harsh judgement. "You'll wait your turn," he huffed before carrying back on his way.

Finally, they came upon the exit of the kitchen, and the ballroom was in sight.

It was illuminated by several crystal chandeliers, and matching crystal sconces across the deep plum walls. It was as lavish a set up as Fjolte had ever seen - round tables bordered the room, each with a bucket of wine at the centre and glasses all around. Tall flower arrangements stood beside them, and around the edges of each table lay golden place settings.

"I could steal a fork from here and retire," Fjolte whispered in Gregor's ear.

There must have been at least fifty people, each in formalwear and each in a bespoke masks. He saw more animals. A rabbit, a stag, a snake… One woman even wore a mask that made her look like a peacock - feathers and all. Of course, there were those who simply had part of their face obstructed. The gentleman at the centre of the room for example, he wore an expensive looking suit like Gregor's, a cloak that was black and lined underneath with red silk was clipped onto his shoulders and his mask simply covered one half of his face, vertically so.

He turned on his heel to bring his woman to the floor, a shorter partner with ashen hair, in a luxurious golden dress that cinched at her waist. The white mask with the feathers - Fjolte recognised it at once, "Raelynn…" he said to Gregor as he watched the Phantom twirl her in time with the music.

It wasn’t just Fjolte that was humbled by the room’s opulence. Seldom had Gregor found himself in such a luxurious chamber. He didn’t spend much time gawking at the interior, however, and instead his eyes furtively searched through the crowd for the mask that he would recognize. Fjolte beat him the punch, and Gregor’s eyes followed where his did. She was beautiful like this, in white and gold -- even more so than normal. Gregor drank in the sight of her for a few moments, his eyes two pits of gemstones glittering in the dark. Who was the man next to her? Gregor knew that she would have a date for the evening but seeing her dance with another made his nostrils flare. Don’t be childish, he immediately admonished himself. But he couldn’t help it. Raelynn had her ways of making him abandon reason.

He took a deep breath and tore his eyes away from her. She was too busy dancing to look in their direction. The moment of recognition would have to wait. “Let’s get something to drink, shall we?” Gregor asked and smiled up at Fjolte.

Unbeknownst to Gregor, Fjolte had watched him as he observed their employer. Had it not been for the owl over his face, the Nord might have caught the glimpse of his hunger that had flashed over him. Whatever Gregor had felt, whatever those pangs of longing were — Fjolte felt them too. The man at her side was unlike her two bodyguards in many ways. He was tall, but of a slim build. He held himself well but it was the posture of a man who had never had his body shaped by the practiced swing of a sword.

Fjolte gave a bloated sigh in the end, “he looks like a quick breeze would take him out…” He said nothing about the fact that the stranger gave off an unfriendly vibe. The way that he seemed to look through Raelynn instead of at her - the way he held her out — like a child showing off his new toy. As Gregor had, he too admonished himself, shaking it off and remembering where he was — who he was with. “Yes, a drink,” he replied, with a clear ounce of cheer back in his voice. He even gave a devious rubbing of his hands. “Now then Gregor my good friend, shall we see if they have anything for your womanly taste?”

Once again, Gregor was glad that Fjolte was there. The Nord had a knack for saying the right thing at the right time to cheer him up, and he chortled when Fjolte said the same things he was thinking. “He does,” the silversmith said, and then rolled his eyes at his next comment. “Oh come off it, Fjolte, it’s not womanly, it’s sophisticated. Don’t let the guests hear you say something like that or they’ll all be offended. See that?”

He pointed to a waiter meandering through the room with a plate full of champagne glasses, just like the ones he and Raelynn had shared. “Now that is a woman’s drink. It has bubbles in it. Come, let’s have some,” Gregor said and moved to intercept the waiter, sticking to the walls and staying out of the guests’ way. He took two of the glasses and walked back to Fjolte.

“Beware, Fjolte, lest this drink shrivels up your beard and I’ll have to call you Fjoltina from now on,” the Imperial said with sardonic languidity. “It’s not bad, really. Try to make it look natural when you have a sip, alright?”

He might as well have talked to a wall. Fjolte took the glass and lifted it to his lips quickly, taking a large gulp of it - practically inhaling it. As it went down, he found the sharp and dry taste less than pleasant, and he winced. Even the tingle of the bubbles did nothing for him. “Tastes like… Sucking on a coin,” he said, sticking his tongue out in discontent. “All those bubbles will do is have me burping like a mountain troll, no thanks, next,” he remarked with a laugh. Unaware that a rather fetching woman in an indigo dress and a mask that looked like a storm cloud had been watching him quite happily until then.

Gregor sighed, but he had to resist the urge to laugh along with Fjolte. There was something decidedly ridiculous and equally hilarious about the oversized wanderer sneaking into the home of the rich and powerful and berating their lifestyle right in front of them. He spotted the cloud-masked woman’s facial expression -- the part that he could see, anyway -- sour and cleared his throat, placing a hand on Fjolte’s elbow and turning him away from the woman. “Try to blend in, please? That did not go unnoticed. But no more champagne for you, duly noted. I’ll try to find you something stronger,” he said in a low voice, before he glanced over his shoulder at Raelynn. She was looking in his direction. Were they locking eyes? He couldn’t tell from this distance, and with the mask casting a shadow over her face. On the off chance that they were, Gregor raised his glass to her, the mithril ring sparkling in the mood lighting.

“Aye, aye,” Fjolte replied. He wasn’t at some Inn drinking with his hotpot tonight. This was not only work, but a respectable place. As much as he liked to play the fool, he had to be as majestic as the animal whose spirit he wanted to embody. “Maybe… Maybe a red wine, I liked that stuff,” he mumbled, before turning away from Gregor to occupy himself while the Imperial went off in search of suitable tipples.

From the centre of the room, as the music ended, Raelynn had made out the sparkle of something, but having been spun around she decided it could have been anything, a trick of the light or even the crystals reacting to the candles. In any case, she squeezed Hugo’s hand gracefully. “My Lord, please excuse me while I take a breath, you’ve worn me out…” she smiled, nodding her head.

His head inclined to her, and he placed a hand under her chin. “Yes, yes. Don’t be long. I wish for us to dance again… But I should speak to my guests. Go ahead,” he said stoically, casting a bored gaze at her before he watched the woman walk away.

She moved slowly, stood completely upright in the dress, towards the window — taking a glass of champagne as she went. The breeze that whispered in was divine, and she stood under it, flapping a hand in front of her face. Her eyes darted around the room for sign of Gregor and Fjolte. Perhaps she should have chosen their masks, at least then she would know who they were but… That would have stolen away the fluttering excitement she felt at the idea of a dark stranger whisking her away, his identity unknown… She smiled at the thought.

“That looks awfully tight,” a voice came from beside her. Gregor placed the two glasses of red wine in his hands on the windowsill and took a step closer. Between the beard and the owl mask, his face was inscrutable, save for his eyes; they peered out keenly from within the dark iron, blacker than black, and yet full of light. “Allow me.”

“It’s fine,” Raelynn replied in a soft whisper of a voice to the man at her side. His voice familiar, but his whole presence so different. It wasn’t until she met his eyes and took him in that she recognised who it was. How could she not know those eyes by now? “You look…” her eyes closed briefly and she smirked, “you look wonderful.” The excitement she felt grew, that Gregor was stealing her away from Hugo in his own home.

He inclined his head gracefully. “Thank you. You look… radiant,” Gregor whispered. He wanted to reach out and touch her, caress her cheek, or hell, sweep her into his arms, but he didn’t. He could see the way she felt in her eyes, and in the slight parting of her lips. It immediately made his heart jump into his throat. It would be so easy, what with the mystery Phantom distracted… but Gregor didn’t have the heart to leave Fjolte to his fate. “Are you sure you don’t want me to loosen the corset a little?”

Raelynn lifted the glass to her mouth, hiding her words behind it but moving her lips clearly for him to see. “I only want you to touch it with the promise to tear it off entirely. Don’t you dare offer anything other than that.” She sipped, her expression calm but she was anything but inside.

How he longed to take the wheel and steer his ship straight into the storm… the thunder that flashed in her eyes was more alluring than anything. “Very well,” he whispered and drank deeply from his red wine, as crimson as blood, eyes fixed firmly on hers, daring her to risk everything and gamble the night away with him. “The kitchen entrance is that way. Come with me and I’ll make sure you can never wear that corset again.”

As restricted as her breath was, his words still managed to draw out a shuddering breath from the very depths of her lungs, and she tensed on the spot. She loathed being here, and yet the fantasy of the night had taken over her and she felt it swell in her chest. It almost felt that he wasn’t even Gregor, and she wasn’t Raelynn. They were two absolute strangers, capable of satisfying their darkest desires. The masks made anything possible. What would she do to him? What would she let him do to her? Anything.

She couldn’t. They couldn’t. She bit her lip. She could feel her heart racing, she could see her heart racing too… “Everytime I sat down today I was reminded of you,” she whispered. “And I loved it.”

It took Gregor a second to understand what she meant. “Did you, now?” he purred and chuckled into his drink. Flames flickered in his gaze and the promise to bring Fjolte something to drink was entirely forgotten. “Think of me again when you sit down next to Longshanks over there when the dinner starts.” He took another step closer. “Think of me when you feel that beautiful dress brush against you…” Gregor’s voice had dropped into a deep, thrumming whisper. “Think of me, and when all this is done, I will come find you and give you enough reminders to last you a week.”

Raelynn had to clench a fist to keep from giving away anything else. It took her a moment to regain her composure, and even when she did her voice was a whimper. A sweet, and submissive whimper, “as you wish,” she tried to smirk, but instead her eyes met his again with a seriousness behind her words. Like she’d do anything he asked, and her eyes were expectant. The Breton knew she couldn’t stay at his side for any longer, should temptation take over completely. They still had work afterall — and so she stole away from his side, his desire committed to memory.

Left alone by the window, Gregor also needed more than a few seconds to calm his racing heart and remember what he was supposed to be doing. He straightened up, picked up Fjolte’s glass of wine and made his way to the hulking Nord as casually as he could muster. He deliberately did not search the room for Raelynn again -- that woman was far too dangerous for him to be around. He had to be on his best behavior now. Keep an eye out for trouble, keep a low profile, and later…

“Here you go,” Gregor said and gave Fjolte his glass. “Took me a while to find a waiter that wasn’t carrying more champagne.”

Fjolte took it with an appreciative nod. In the time they’d been apart, he’d been mirroring the gestures and manners of some of the men around him - quietly and to himself - but mirroring all the same. “It’s easy to get lost and swept up here, isn’t it?” He asked. “I keep looking at all these beautiful women… The food… The drinks… Everything is so incredible. How the other half live, eh?”

He regarded Fjolte for a moment and smiled. “Nice posture. You’re doing well. As for the women… I know, right?” Gregor replied and let his eyes wander around the ladies in the room. They all looked so dull and plain to him. “Very beautiful. See anything you like?”

“That’s the problem. I can’t see anything I don’t like…” Fjolte sighed through his teeth. “Tell you what though, that wolf mask is doing the rounds pretty well…” he remarked, pointing at a tall, broad shouldered man in a copper mask that made the shape of a wolf head, scowling out. “I’ve seen him go past about four times already.”

The cloying haze that Raelynn had cast over his mind cleared up when he saw that Fjolte had seen. That was the bearing of a man on a mission, and not of someone that was relaxed and enjoying themselves. "Perhaps Raelynn isn't the only one to have brought someone to keep an eye on things," Gregor mused, but there was something about the wolf mask that rubbed him the wrong way. Intuition struck. "We should follow him."

Gregor was right, and Fjolte nodded in his direction. “You go first, I’ll follow behind. We don’t want to spook him too much…” His eyes narrowed behind the mask, and he eyed the room one last time, his demeanour changed and he seemed to grow a little taller when he straightened up, ready for action.

Making it look like he was merely taking a leisurely stroll around the room, glass in hand and his eyes on the guests, Gregor circled through the room on the opposite side of the wolf-masked man, slowly gaining on him but not fast enough to draw any attention. The more he watched him, the more Gregor was convinced he was up to no good. Was this why Raelynn had smuggled them inside? Had she foreseen something like this happening? The man ducked into a servant’s entrance and Gregor’s pulse quickened. “There!” he hissed to Fjolte and followed, hand inside his cloak, fingers tight around something hidden from sight, carried close to his breast.

Fjolte followed up behind Gregor, able to blend behind a gaggle of women enjoying champagne and canapés, ogling some men on the other side of the room. Fjolte almost lost his concentration, like he could be a fox in a henhouse in that little circle… But alas, he trucked on and followed after Gregor, clenching his fists at his side. “On three… We jump him.”

The words of his friend reminded him that it was obviously better to take the man alive for questioning and Gregor let go of the object in his cloak, bringing his hands down to his side. He nodded. The servant’s entrance was narrow and a few rapid corners saw the wolf-masked man slip out of sight. They could still hear his footsteps, however, and they pursued him by ear until the corridor opened up into a storeroom that Gregor figured must run parallel to the ballroom. Aside from crates and barrels, there was a hatch in the floor -- down to the wine cellar, perhaps? Before Gregor could say anything about it to Fjolte, the door behind them closed. There was more than one wolf-masked man. Without warning, they were surrounded. It was as if the men materialized from the very shadows.

“Hands up,” a voice growled.

The Nord didn’t show the surprise on his face, and instead went straight to ignorance, raising his hands with a hapless expression — “woah woah, this isn’t where they’re hiding the profiteroles?” He said, with an amused tone. Now might be a good time for his mage friend to throw a spell or two, they were outnumbered that was sure, but they’d faced worse odds together.

Gregor brought up his hands. One of the wolf-masked men beat him to the punch and threw a glass vial on the ground, which shattered and released a burst of gas or vapor -- Gregor scarcely had time to realize what it was before his vision began to swim. He fired off a blast of lightning magic in desperation that barely missed one of the men before he fell to his knees and toppled over. “Fuck!” the masked man hissed and flinched.

The last thing Gregor heard before blackness enveloped him was mocking laughter.

Fjolte woke first. It was the frigid wind that passed through that shot him awake. He had no idea of how long he’d been laid out on the cold dirt, but there was a painful stiffness in his leg that suggested it had been a while, the dull ache of a cramp. He coughed, dust clearing out of his lungs and he rolled onto his side - suddenly spluttering. Gregor was beside him.

The Nord’s head was ringing, and as he pressed his fingers to his temple he found blood there, part dried. It took him a while to remember. “Fu…” he tried to say, working his jaw. Whatever had happened, had done a number on him. It took him seconds more before he examined the room. It was less of a room and more of a tunnel. Nothing around them but cold stone, hollowed out smooth by hand. Spaced had been etched into the wall around them, and he could make out at the bottom of the tunnel that there were stairs back up to the hatch. “Greg…” he groaned, dragging himself up to sitting—“or.”

“Gregor,” he repeated, more clarity in his tone as he gave the man a nudge. “You dead?” He asked, half concussed and half serious. “Raelynn… Where’s Raelynn…” he offered out to the wind, his throat as dry as sticks so it sounded like a squawk. “Fuck.”

At the end of the tunnel, a lid was pushed clear of a coffin set into the wall…

“I’m busy,” Gregor muttered in his alchemy-induced sleep. “The slugs… have to stop the slugs…”

"Get up you-" Fjolte observed him, pausing to think of his words, "well dressed sack of shit!" Giving him a solid kick to encourage him. He could hear a hiss at the end of the tunnel. A hiss and the unmistakably hollow sound of bone. The visuals caught up, as a skeleton brandishing a sword dragged itself free of the coffin.

"GET UP!" Fjolte repeated with more urgency now -- unaware at just how much worse the situation was about to become.

The kick jolted Gregor into action and he sat up straight, head still swimming and his mind stuck in his dreams much in the same way that a lost soul might get stuck in the bog. “The slugs!” he slurred and pointed one arm dramatically in the direction of the hissing skeleton. “Torch the slugs!”

Not yet ready for such a complicated action, Gregor’s brain short-circuited and flames came out of his other hand instead, setting Fjolte’s pants mildly on fire.

"HEY!" The Nord resorted to shouting at Gregor, furiously patting his pants down only to find he was left with a burn hole inside of his thigh. "Watch the jewels, man!" He complained, placing hands protectively over his crotch. The threat of his manhood being burnt off distracted him from the skeleton.

And the next three that rolled from the coffins.

“She loves jewels,” Gregor mused and thoughtfully rubbed his chin, smearing dust and ash all over his beard. “D’you have jewels?” he asked and swiveled his head to look at Fjolte, narrowing his eyes at the sight of the Nord clasping his hands over his -- ah, yes, jewels. “No, no, no, not like that, you oaf,” the Imperial tutted and slowly climbed to his feet. He swayed on the spot for a few seconds after straightening up, until something fell out of his cloak; a long, thin object wrapped in cloth.

“Oh,” Gregor whispered, overwhelmed with immense sadness as he reached for the object with grabby-grabby hands and failed to retrieve it, on account of having entirely forgotten how to bend over. “My… my thing!”

Feeling very impatient now, Fjolte pursed his lips and took a quick breath. "I don't want to have to do this but you've left me no choice!" He wheezed, bringing his hand round flat to slap Gregor in the face. The noise echoes and reverberated through the tunnel. The Nord brought his hands to his cheeks and gasped at it, instant regret - even though he had been left with no choice.

That finally awoke Gregor from the depths of his slumber. “What the fuck?” he asked and pressed a hand to his cheek, looking up at Fjolte with quite possibly the most indignant expression his face he had ever worn. “What was that for?”

The four skeletons advancing down on them were his answer. “Oh shit!” Gregor yelled and dove for the cloth-wrapped object on the floor. He quickly reached inside the folds and pulled out a long and glittering blade: it was his bastard sword, smuggled inside within the confines of his large cloak. “You take the two on the right, I’ll take the two on the left!” the Imperial declared and added action to his words when he sent a wash of searing flame down the crypt. Why the hell were they down here?

Charging at the nearest skeleton, Fjolte made contact with its form, shoulder bashing it to the ground with ease. The second made a swing for him with an axe, and so he ducked and rolled, the manoeuvre only gave him a glimpse of the other side of the tunnel, and the wave of skeletons that were scampering from that end. There must have been at least eight more. "Gregor, behind you!" Fjolte warned, leaping back up to his feet.

The axe wielding undead took that moment to swing again, landing the blade of the axe into Fjolte's shoulder. The Nord yelped out, kicking the creature away - the axe still embedded in his flesh.

The situation was bad, and drastically getting worse by the second. Whatever alchemical concoction the wolf-masked men had used -- Gregor remembered now -- still affected him and he found it hard to sustain the flow of magicka for his spells, and the jet of flame flickered out after reducing the two skeletons to a clanking mess of bones skittering away across the floor. That would have been fine, were it not that even more skeletons had appeared, as Fjolte had dutifully pointed out. Gregor gritted his teeth, threw his cloak over his shoulders and grabbed his sword with both hands.

With Fjolte covering one end of the crypt, Gregor covered the other and fought the skeletons as they arrived. He spun, slashed and stabbed his way through, wrecking the first and second skeletons with ease -- their weak, shambling forms no match for his father’s sword -- but the third parried his blow and the fourth slashed him across the ribs with its own blade. Gregor heard that Fjolte was wounded as well, but there was no time to aid him. The silversmith roared and bashed one of the skeletons in the face with the pommel of his sword, shattering bone and throwing it to the ground. “Come on!” he growled as he flexed his hand, but the magic wouldn’t come. Forced on the defensive, Gregor found himself having to give up the ground he’d gained, evading and blocking the attacks of three skeletons simultaneously as they drove him back to Fjolte.

Back to back with Gregor, and just as exhausted - Fjolte panted, the pain in his shoulder was getting the better of him. Like a dog with a thorn in its paw, he yanked the axe out with a firm tug - throwing it recklessly to the next skeleton with a hoarse cry to accompany it. How could they have come face to face with a Daedroth, and be bested by skeletons? He could feel the fabric of his jacket sticking to him. The blood from the wound oozed out, leaving him feeling cold on one side.

"One more push Gregor," he huffed, kicking another one back. "We can take them!" He continued, trying to sound as triumphant and encouraging as he could.

A long panel of light broke the darkness and a silence followed. The hatch opened, and Fjolte instinctively turned his head to see what it was, he could only see a womanly shape in the centre of the stairs. The details were lost in the haze, but he heard a voice. A powerful and fierce roar from the end of the tunnel, "Close your eyes!" It commanded, and although scared, he trusted and did as he was told.

Even with eyes closed, the blinding light flashed and burned at him. There was a warmth to it too, but it wasn't painful like a flame, it was something else entirely…

The skeletons froze and Gregor sent them crashing away from him with a final wide swipe of his sword before he whirled around, knelt down, averted his gaze and closed his eyes, as commanded. He didn’t know why he obeyed. There was something about the voice… but surely, it couldn’t be?

As the light died away, Fjolte opened his eyes - it took some time to adjust to the sight, the outline of a familiar face on the stairwell. The first feature to come into focus was her mouth, and how it seemed to move in slow motion as if she was talking.

Raelynn held her arms out to them both, watching them react to her at a slow pace, they'd been drugged, and drugged well. "Come to me," she kept calling out from the safety of her circle or protection. "Hurry! Fjolte! Gregor, I need you!"

So it was her. She looked like an Avatar of Mara, surrounded by a halo and a circle of pure light, wreathed in gold and pearly white. Gregor did as commanded and jogged towards her, his body still incapable of managing a faster pace. He was panting hard and only then noticed sharp jolts of pain shooting through his torso with every step. Had the skeleton broken his ribs? Gregor hissed and practically stumbled into the circle of Raelynn’s magic, before bravely turning around, sword raised, ready to fend off any of the skeletons in case they decided to press the attack.

A hand reached out for Gregor, taking his shoulder and pulling him back up the stairs, he was in no shape to fight, she decided. Raelynn watched as Fjolte came too, slower than the Imperial, but fast enough to escape the clutches of the undead. Her circle was doing enough to repel them, but she still saw fit to cast her spell again. One last warning shot to whistle through the belly of the crypt and see to it that both parties could retreat.

Unlike what her petite size would suggest, her hands were strong as she dragged the two up the stairs and back out of the hatch. Fjolte’s legs were weak beneath him but he held himself upright, clumsily finding his way over each step. The pain was becoming unbearable in his shoulder - a burning hot sting that only something rusted and blunt and foul could produce. The man winced, leaning forward as his legs wobbled. “That was…” he breathed, “too close. Too fucking close.”

The storeroom was now devoid of masked wolves, but the revolting smell of the gas that had been used to incapacitate them still clung to the air. Gregor was seething. Despite the bleeding wound on his ribs, the Imperial paced up and down the room before he swung his sword and tore into the barrels and crates with unrestrained ferocity, his face twisted into a snarl of wrath behind his owl mask. Wood splintered and shattered beneath the steel. He abruptly turned to face Raelynn, breathing hard. "Where are they?"

Now on his knees, Fjolte flinched -- eyes glued to Gregor and his nerves scratched by the flaring temper. "Gregor," he panted out as Raelynn moved to his side, applying her magicka to close his shoulder wound. "We'll find them, slow down…" he offered, holding out his gentle hands, raised to attempt to pacify the Imperial.

Raelynn watched too, the temper was not a surprise to her, but she could do nothing, she had the Nord to patch up. The woman blinked quickly, trying to take a breath to soothe the adrenaline that coursed through her too. "They took Hugo and his father, discreetly, to the vault," she explained - her voice level and as calm as it could be. "It's only that I was separated from him that they didn't escort me too and I was able to find you both…"

He stood there for a few moments, blade by his side and shoulders rising and falling with his deep breaths, before he nodded. “Do what you can for Fjolte,” Gregor said and pulled the hood of his cloak over his head. “Then we kill them all.”

Raelynn's eyes flashed in his direction, a glare as hard as steel, "calm yourself," she began - a frost crept across her tongue. "This is not a bandit's cave. We're at an event where I have relationships to maintain… We can't slaughter people here, whether they're criminal or not…"

It looked like Gregor was about to defy her wishes, but he turned his back to her after a few moments and resumed pacing up and down the storeroom, his boots crushing the wooden splinters underfoot. He left behind a trail of crimson droplets as he went, but he seemed not to notice.

Gregor may not have noticed, but both Fjolte and Raelynn did. She'd done the best she could for the Nord, and then she glanced to Gregor - unable to see his face. It was only then that his demeanour disturbed her. With a graceful helping hand, she had Fjolte back on his feet and the two shared a look too. "Fjolte, check that the next room is clear and wait foe us there - your arm feels alright now, yes?"

"Well enough," he replied with a nod, rolling said shoulder forwards to demonstrate before giving the Breton's arm an appreciative squeeze. He quietly took his leave to the next room, looking back over his shoulder at Gregor one last time.

As the door closed, Raelynn stepped towards the Imperial. "You're hurt," she said, placing a hand on the back of his arm as she closed the distance. "I need to help you."

Her touch helped to focus the roiling waves of his mind and Gregor stopped in his tracks. He exhaled slowly and turned his body towards her. He drew the cloak back so that she could see and tend to his injury. A long cut had ripped through his suit, left a gash in his skin and bruised or broken his ribs. “Go ahead,” he said, his voice softer now.

Unlike with Fjolte, she placed her hand carefully against him, brushing her fingers across the places it didn't hurt. "There…" she whispered, letting the flow of magicka into him, through the skin and into the open wound until she felt the skin knitting back together. Raelynn could feel the energy filling his chest. "Is that feeling better?" She asked, stealing a fleeting glance at him - finding the singular spot of light in his eyes.

“Yes,” he said. He was still tense and angry but her soft and gentle treatment had returned some sense of reason to him. Gregor shook his head like a wounded animal trying to clear the fog in its brain and brought up his empty hand. Electricity arced between his fingers. Now that the drug was wearing off and his magic flowed through him again, he could feel that it was fueled by his anger. There was great killing power at his fingertips. He knew what Raelynn had said, but if they gave him the slightest provocation -- just the tiniest reason -- that would be the end of them. He would make sure of it. “Let’s go.”

Before they left the room, the shadow as Gregor moved again fell over Raelynn - or perhaps she had willingly stepped into it, but whatever had fallen on her had her touch the inside of his wrist with her finger. "There will be plenty of opportunities for you to do what you love…" she whispered, not daring to look him in the eye, she watched the lightning dance over his knuckles. "I promise you that…"

No sooner had her fingertips grazed him, she tore them away, leading them both out of the cellar room, a smirk briefly took hold of her lips.

That quickened Gregor’s pulse. She wasn’t afraid of him, or disgusted. Just like when he had told her about his darkest secret. Could it be that he had found someone that accepted him entirely, and would even utilize it? Did that make her evil? Gregor smiled at the thought. With his blood up like this, the answer was easy. Let her be evil. It’s what he wanted. He had been good for far too long -- like a dog in chains. She was going to set him free.

With his back straight and his shoulders broad, he followed her in long strides.

With the crypt behind them, the three made strides back towards the servants door, and as she placed a hand out to open it, Raelynn glanced back at the two men. "Follow me closely, the two of you are bloodied - I know where the vault is, stay by my side and move quickly. The guests won't notice…"

She was right. With the music and revelry keeping them occupied, none of the guests turned their heads to the three masked individuals who appeared from the servants entrance. Her own heavy use of magicka had slowed her down, the pain in her chest didn’t help and their quick escape to the vault was taking its toll on the woman. She placed a hand on her stomach as she hurried on forwards, she could hear Fjolte and Gregor behind her, and before long they were out of the ballroom altogether.

It was like stepping out of the fireplace and into the fire, the door to the vault was guarded by two of the masked men, and Raelynn observed them both - placing a hand out behind her to stop Gregor and Fjolte from pushing past and alerting them to their presence. They had the upper hand. For now.

“Gregor, a spell will catch them off guard, and then Fjolte you’re to get in there straight after.” She said, turning to look over her shoulder — she hadn’t intended to, but her eyes caught Gregor first.

He nodded. If it were up to him entirely he'd see the thieves put into the ground for what they did to him and Fjolte, but that wasn't what Raelynn wanted. When her gaze met his, he felt his anger falter. This was her evening. There was still an auction to conduct later. They had to do this as clinically as possible.

Spell prepared in his hands, Gregor swept around the corner they had been hiding behind and threw a fireball against the vault door, landing between the two thieves and showering them with sparks -- not enough to hurt them, but enough to singe their clothes and distract and confuse them immensely. Now was Fjolte's chance.

The Nord moved quickly now that Gregor’s part was done. His agility was impressive, and he made it to meet the distracted guards before they had a chance to spot him. With ease and efficiency, he grabbed both guards at the back of necks, twisting his hands around their suit jackets to keep a solid grip and before either of them had too much time to react, he had slammed their heads together with a dull thud.

It had been enough to knock the two of them out, and Fjolte let them drop quietly, holding their deadweight in his own hands until they were lying either side of each other - sparked out cold. “What now?” he mouthed - glancing between Gregor and Raelynn - who had now snuck from around the corner too.

There was no sound from within the vault, and her blue stare moved straight to Gregor. “We need to get in, that’s where Hugo and Lord Desena are being kept.” With a wave of her hand, she commanded Fjolte to start prizing it open.

He got to his task and observed the mechanism on the door, grabbing it tightly - in a decent show of his strength, he had moved it just enough to be loose enough to turn fully. After three quick spins the mechanism opened the door with a creak. "Help me push then," he whispered, leaning up against the door to move it.

Gregor was impressed by Fjolte's skilful knockout technique and he joined him at the door with a smile visible beneath his mask. "Well done, my friend," he whispered back. Together, they put their strength into it and the door swung open, revealing the vault beyond.

His eyes scanned over the scene - a small room, but filled with goods for the auction. At the back of the room, two men had been tied with their hands behind their back. The Phantom, and an older man - rounder too. Another thief stood beside them. Unlike the other wolves, his mask was bigger - the lips curled more ferociously, and the teeth sharper. The Alpha. The leader of the pack.

"Hold it right there," Gregor said and drew up to his full height. He kept his sword pointed low and instead held up a placating hand. "Stop this madness!"

From the back of the room, the Alpha’s eyes locked on to Gregor, peering behind him with an empty green stare to his unconscious comrades. “There's no madness here...” He uttered softly as his head cocked to his side. “But you should have left well alone…” he added - in a sinister and cold tone. “Nobody will be hurt if you leave us alone.”

Raelynn staggered forwards behind Gregor and Fjolte, the latter who placed out his arm to stop her from entering any further into the room, “Hugo!” She called out, stepping over the threshold and into the vault. The Phantom lifted his head and looked across the room at her.

“Raelynn?” He mumbled, “You shouldn’t be up here. You’re supposed to be downstairs,” he continued.

Another four wolves moved into the room from behind display cabinets. The glass and mirrors and low lighting casting the illusion that there were more, and so many more with each movement they made. A long line of masked demons, each with a weapon in hand.

“What is it you want?” Gregor asked, unsure of what to do, but eager to keep the Alpha talking -- lest he do something undesirable with his dagger. The Phantom, or Hugo, was evidently hurt. Were they trying to get information out of him? If they wanted to rob the vault clean of belongings, they already had every opportunity to do so and there were enough riches there to make it worth their while.

From behind the mask, the Alpha smiled and held his hands out. “Chaos,” he replied. The word piercing the air around him with a deathly chill. “I want to make a statement,” he added. “To those who were born above us, that we’re not doomed to be beneath them…” He stepped gracefully behind the Lord, running a free hand across his forehead, the dagger arriving at his throat to sit inches from his skin.

He kept his eyes locked on to Gregor, seeing through the cosmetic darkness and into the real shadows within. “What do you want?” he asked, his smile as cold and straight at the edge of his dagger.

“You’ll always be beneath them if you cannot rise above their faults and vices,” Gregor retorted. “Violence is not the path to supremacy.” Fine words, but the truth was that Gregor didn’t know what to do. His instincts were telling him to attack and kill all these insolent thieves were they stood, but… he glanced sidelong at Raelynn. “What should we do?” he whispered.

“You didn’t answer my question,” the Alpha mocked, and then the blade came closer to Lord Desena’s throat. “One more chance.”

Raelynn and Fjolte seemed frozen by indecision, and were of no use. Gregor grit his teeth and glowered at the Alpha. There was something about his cold stare and heartless smile that made him look like he could see straight through Gregor. “Fine,” he spat. “You want the truth? I’m no better.” He lifted his arm and pointed his sword straight at the thief’s heart. “We almost died in that crypt you threw us in, coward. I want a fair fight and then I want your head on a spike.”

The Alpha laughed, a grating sound - like metal on metal. “But you didn’t die, did you?” he grinned, as if that made it any better - his tone sharp and nasal. He held the Lord in place with the dagger as his human shield. “I simply started a process, that you will one day be thankful for.” He pulled Lord Desena’s head back further, revealing his throat in the moonlight. “Shallow cuts first…” he whispered, before nicking the bare and taut skin with the blade, a petal of blood formed.

The Lord’s feet twitched and he almost struggled, Hugo’s eyes widened beside him; “stop that!” he exclaimed, shuffling towards the Alpha desperately. Raelynn stayed in her spot, bringing a closed fist to her chest - afraid that any move she were to make would change the situation into something worse.

“You’re right, I should stop,” the Alpha mocked as his comrades stood perfectly still like statues, unmoving. “I should really, really consider which one of you aristocrats would send the most powerfully devastating message…” He smacked his lips together, and drew back the blade. “The old Lord, years from his grave… The handsome, yet strange and cruel heir to his fortune and seat… Or the beautiful woman -- a bystander at their ball.” Menace flashed over his eyes as he pointed the blade at Raelynn.

Hot anger flared in Gregor’s chest and he stepped in front of Raelynn, the darkness moving to eclipse the light and shield it from harm. “Think again,” the Imperial spat. He looked at Fjolte, desperate for a way to communicate with him and coordinate a plan of attack, but he didn’t know how. He had to hope that the Nord would pick up on his meaning through subtext. “If you hurt any of them any further, we will kill you.”

Raelynn’s heart raced in her chest, and she reached a hand for Fjolte, taking hold of his arm tightly. “I feel faint…” she whispered, her hands trembling. The Nord looked back at her, and placed his hand over hers and squeezed gently, running his thumb over the back of her wrist comfortingly. His way of telling her it would be alright.

“You’re not going to hurt the Lords,” Fjolte said, “you don’t need to do that to them -- I’m sure they’ve learned a lesson… As for your statement,” he growled in the direction of the Alpha. He shot a glance to Gregor, he had to believe that the man would trust him. “You want this woman? Come and take her from us,” he hissed - he immediately regretted it, but the smile on the Alpha’s face made it worth it.

Too enticed by Fjolte’s words, he withdrew his dagger and stepped to the side of Lord Desena, and to bring him further, the Nord dragged Raelynn out in front of him. “Take your shot,” he said -- eyes on the Alpha, but directed at Gregor.

Gregor almost hissed at Fjolte to ask him what the hell he was doing, but he stopped himself at the last moment and let the Nord carry on with what seemed like a plan. As soon as the Alpha stepped out from behind Lord Desena, everything clicked in Gregor’s mind and Fjolte’s words confirmed it. He had expertly baited out the would-be killer. In the brief moment before he unleashed his spell, Gregor felt his esteem and admiration for his friend rise even higher.

Then the room was filled with the bright flash and dry clap of a thunderbolt spanning the length of the vault. It was brilliantly reflected in all the display cabinets and mirrors and the noise echoed off the walls of the small space, blinding and deafening everyone present -- except Gregor himself, who obviously knew what was coming. Through squinted eyes he saw how the lightning struck the Alpha in the chest and threw him back against the wall. Immediately afterwards, Gregor sprang into action and dashed towards the Lord and his son to protect them from any retaliation from the four remaining wolves.

Fjolte felt an awful regret for having done it, and more so for having to push Raelynn away behind him. He couldn’t risk her being hurt, as she tumbled to the ground, he watched as she struggled to regain her footing but before he could help her - the four wolves had pounced on him…

The Alpha struggled also to find his feet again, there was great pain in his chest from where the lightning had struck him, splitting through his stoneflesh to feel like an almighty punch. Just dull, bruising pain that had taken the air out of him. “That’s it,” he wheezed out - even when beaten he couldn’t resist the opportunity to taunt the Imperial. It was just the two of them now, and of course the Lords. He snarled and in his hand an orange glow coalesced, everything in the room was now his puppet and he controlled the strings. He quickly settled on a chair, lifting it high with his telekinesis - dropping it with enough force on Gregor’s back to shatter it. “Sit down! Join me on the floor,” he mocked.

The impact of the chair was enough to send Gregor staggering to his knees and he grimaced. “Fuck you,” he growled. So the Alpha was a mage. That complicated matters, but Gregor had fought a bandit sorcerer before. He had made sure to learn a Ward spell during his time with the tutor in Bravil, specially for situations like this one. Gregor dropped his sword by his side and raised both hands, forming in one of them a glowing, shimmering shield of liquid magicka while the other sent forth a blast of flame towards the Alpha.

The Alpha had no shield in his hands, but he was able to find one - lifting a table with his telekinesis and positioning it front of him quickly - it caught most of the flame, but the heat was still blinding and sent him backwards. The burnt table dropped as he released it from his spell, and he dusted down his jacket with his hands - patting out the ash in clouds of grey smoke.

There was opportunity in Gregor’s anger - and so the Alpha began his spell again to rob him of the dropped sword. He pushed it far across the floor. Too far for the Imperial to retrieve it without first turning his back. “I’m going to carve a new animal out of you,” he growled in Gregor’s direction - eyes flashing red as his hands worked another spell - a great ball of bright light that he shaped into a huge orb before firing it at Gregor to hurt his vision while he made a move to run behind the glass displays.

Unsure what the spell might be, Gregor dropped low and let the ball of light sail overhead. By the time he realized it was a mere magelight spell and he looked up, the Alpha had already disappeared behind the glass cabinets, the infinite fractal reflections hiding him within the maze. “Coward,” Gregor repeated, but he got to his feet and tended to Lord Desena and Hugo instead. He pulled his dagger from his boot and cut through the rope that bound their hands. “My lords, are you alright?”

At the far end of the room, Fjolte had engaged the wolves in a dance. His feet moved faster than they could, pulling him out of harm's way for the most part. He was all that stood between them and Raelynn. Everything was at stake, he and Gregor were outnumbered… But they’d faced worse odds, for much less of a reason to be fighting. The Nord roared at them, locking one of the wolves into a headlock, and then proceeded to use him as a battering ram into the next.

As the two were pushed back, Fjolte rolled his shoulders forward and took on the next. It was time for some acrobatics, bar room manoeuvres weren’t going to cut it. The man lurched forwards in such a way that it seemed he was launching for the thief to his left, instead he used the momentum to bring him into a backflip, using the movement in his hips to turn him in a full circle in the air, and he landed a kick square in the chest of the thief - sending him back into one of the glass cabinets with an almighty shatter. As came back to the ground, the two of them were back on their feet, and one swung his sword at the Nord’s back. Fjolte caught his wrist and twisted it, causing the sword to drop, and then kicked back at the enemy behind him.

He made it look easy, his moves were precise, and each one had enough power behind it to stop the thieves in their tracks momentarily. He wasn’t perfect, however - and soon enough one of the masked men pushed back at him, Fjolte tried to block and avoid, grabbing the man’s arm but he was strong too, and pushed him into the glass cabinet. Together, they were on the ground - surrounded by shards of glass and the Nord’s head had hit the corner of the cabinet and was cracked open - his blood slipping out over his forehead - painting his eye crimson in a single stripe. “Fuck,” he gasped, feeling the sting immediately, and then the way it made the room spin.

The assailant was about to bring a dagger upon the Nord, until he raised his arms in an ‘x’ shape to block him, and then for some strange reason he grabbed at the man’s beard, and twisted - he screamed out in agony at the unexpected move. The hand in his beard then became a splayed palm over his whole face - he tore off the mask, using the sharp edges to club his assailants skull.

Afterwards, it wasn’t just his own blood he was painted with.

Hugo pulled himself to his feet, thankfully - but shaken, and helped his father too - relieved that his throat had not been slit. “Raelynn,” he muttered, his eyes scoured the room for her, and he spotted her folded over by the door - lying still. “Raelynn!” he called out even louder -- and yet he made no motions to reach her, looking instead to Gregor. “Well?” he spat, almost accusingly at whom he assumed was simply her bodyguard.

Gregor looked at Hugo with exasperation. “Gods, man, there are still villains about! Are you going to fight them, or are you going to tend to Raelynn?” he returned, no regard for the man’s station in the heat of the moment, nor did he wait for Hugo to answer. It was a rhetorical question. “Get her out of here and close the door behind you!” Gregor ran to his sword, rearmed himself and relieved the beleaguered Fjolte by swinging his sword and sending spikes of ice at the wolf-masked thieves, forcing them back and away from his bloodied friend.

“Up and at ‘em, Fjolte,” Gregor groaned as he hoisted him back on his feet. “The leader is still in here somewhere and he’s a mage, be wary.” He brandished his blade with a flourish and snarled at their opponents, daring them to go through Fjolte and himself in pursuit of the nobles.

“You fight well,” came a voice from behind the cabinets, before the body followed. As the Alpha stepped out, his body appeared to be shimmering as if he were in a layer of armour - and his hands were once again orange. “I give you one last chance to resist, or bad things are going to happen…” he laughed stepping in the space between the current fight, and Raelynn in the doorway. “To everyone.”

“Enough!” Gregor roared and charged the Alpha, leaving Fjolte to take care of the others. He kept a firm hold of his sword this time and used his free hand to cover his advance with a jet of roaring flame.

“Stop it,” he laughed again, pulling an armoire from the wall in front of him with the telekinesis - another shield from the flame. But his overuse was taking its toll slowly. One hand flashed to a deep red and he placed it on his own chest - feeling from that hand his own energy drain - but a surge of power followed it. His laugh rang out through the room now - even as the flames took the armoire completely - setting a bonfire in front of him, the heat stung him, and he could feel it burning the skin of his face… More worryingly, he felt the intensity heat up the alloy of his mask - as it warmed around the edges, he felt it burn hotter than flame and meld to his skin.

“Don’t tell me you want to save these people?” he questioned, a desperation in his voice. “The boy is cruel and his father selfish…” he spat, launching the now flaming armoire back where it had been. “The lady is killing herself with her own vanity,” he trilled out. Behind the mask his eyes were glowing red, and the smoke filled the room slowly. “Come on… A man like you,” he said to Gregor sardonically, “you could be one of us…”

Gregor could sense his desperation like a shark could blood in the water. His advance was relentless and he lifted his sword into a ready stance, tip pointed straight at the Alpha. “Then the gods will punish them all,” he said, not caring for the man’s words at all. “But you… will have to make do with me.” Having backed him into a corner, Gregor attacked, dashing forwards and thrusting his sword at the wolf.

“We got what we wanted,” he sneered - refusing to move from the spot. He had resigned himself to this fate, but not before he played one last card. “The woman? The Lord, The Son?” he sang out cryptically in the last split second before Gregor’s sword would make contact, and then his hand moved. The orange spell powered up by his use of equilibrium. There was a whooshing sound in the room, followed by the clear sound of a blade piercing flesh…

The sword went through him without resistance, slicing apart the Ironskin spell and running him through so hard that Gregor pinned him to the wall. The Imperial reached out and crushed the man’s fist in his own, trying to break off the spell before the Alpha could finish casting it, but the sound behind him was unmistakable. “No,” Gregor whispered and looked over his shoulder, eyes wide, desperately searching for Raelynn.

The body dropped. He just slipped right out of Fjolte’s hands and to the ground - his own leader’s dagger pinned in his chest like a dart. Immediately behind him was Lord Desena, breathing heavily, the shock having taken over him. It was an unlikely save indeed, but… For having thrown Raelynn in the middle of the fighting parties, Fjolte was not going to let any of the nobles get hurt. “I…” he panted, stepping back. “I… didn’t know if that was going to work,” he confessed, bringing his hand to the back of his neck. The last of the thieves had surrendered completely, falling to his knees, his empty hands above his head. “I didn’t know,” Fjolte muttered, in a state of his own shock. Nothing about this was right.

Hugo finally stepped forward, to the surrendered thief whom he gave a sharp kick too, “you will never see the light of day again, thief,” he spoke down as Lord Desena watched on, before collapsing to his bottom in relief.

Ignoring them all, Gregor pulled his bastard sword free and unceremoniously let the Alpha fall to the ground in a heap of slack limbs and pouring blood before running to Raelynn’s still prone form -- Hugo had been no help at all, evidently -- and he skidded to his knees beside her. “Raelynn?” he asked and cradled her head in his hands. “Are you alright?”

Her eyes opened, having been lifted from the ground - the danger over. She saw a pair of dark eyes through the smoke, the same that had greeted her by the windowsill - they brought immediate comfort and she raised her arm to touch his cheek, despite it feeling so heavy and limp. Her mouth opened to speak, but only a groan came out. She dropped the hand she was struggling to hold onto her chest, fingers grasping at the corset of the dress.

“Told you it was too tight,” Gregor growled and hastily used his dagger to cut through the laces of Raelynn’s corset, lifting her up with one arm so that he could reach her back with the other. “There, better?”

The Breton immediately drank in the air around her and her hands fumbled over Gregor’s arms, gripping him tightly - as if she had forgotten there were others around. A rush of blood ran to her head and she coughed until she was fully conscious in the room, “Gregor,” she said, taking him into her own arms tightly and placing her head into his neck.

He dropped his dagger and returned her embrace with his own. “You’re alright,” he hummed into her ear. “The thieves have been defeated and the Lord has been saved. Everything is alright.”

“Thank you,” she whispered back, her arms still trembling and she wanted to stay with him, but there were too many others around. Hugo was here, Fjolte was here. She pulled herself away regretfully, “Thank you,” she said again, taking in deep breaths.

Also suddenly self-conscious, Gregor accepted her gratitude with a professional nod before he retrieved his dagger, climbed to his feet and offered his hands to Raelynn to help her up. “Fjolte?” Gregor asked meanwhile, turning his head to look at the Nord. “Are you hurt? How did you fare?”

“Well,” the Nord breathed out, taking a long hard look over the carnage of the room. “I… I think we torched the slugs,” he smirked. His hand was over his head - the blood was hot and sticking through his hair but he remained as light-hearted about it as always.

“Slugs?” Hugo interrupted. “Slugs? We were nearly killed -- this is hardly the place to make jokes,” he said, his eyes narrowing in the Fjolte’s direction.

“No,” came the voice of Lord Desena, who was still on the floor catching his breath. “Now is the time to say thank you to Miss Deserine and her men for their quick thinking, Hugo.”

That seemed to placate the tense Breton, he scratched at his collarbone nervously and stepped down, moving across the floor to Raelynn, eyeing up the Imperial from behind as he helped up the woman. “Yes, my father is right… You all three have our thanks on this night…”

Gregor chortled into his beard, much of the tension of the fight banished by the joke -- he vaguely remembered the dream that Fjolte had so rudely, and yet fully necessarily, awoken him from. He turned to face Hugo and the elderly Lord Desena and bowed respectfully. “You are most welcome, my lords. I am gratified that we were able to repel these invaders. Still… I’m not sure what they wanted,” Gregor admitted and he looked at the Lord, ignoring his son in favor of his clearly wiser father. “Their leader said, just before he… well, he died, that they had already gotten what they were after. Is anything, or anyone, missing?”

Fjolte’s eyes scanned the room again, and he breathed out a single word, “chaos…”

The Lord, now getting to his feet nodded in agreement. “We’re all well and alive -- but we can’t hold an auction now… Everything is all but destroyed. They caused enough trouble to put a stop to our evening,” he sighed as he ran his fingers through his moustache.

“That was worth dying for, was it?” Hugo asked, tutting and shaking his head as he moved to Raelynn’s side. He put a hand either side of her and moved close, kissing her forehead. “I’m sorry you had to see all the fuss.”

Gregor had to tear his eyes away from Hugo as he pretended his affection with Raelynn. He’d already seen how the man looked at her. Instead, he removed his mask slowly and exhaled, calming his own pounding heart and adrenaline-fueled nerves. Gregor joined Fjolte’s side and placed a brotherly hand on his shoulder. “Damn fine work,” he said in a low voice. “That trick with Raelynn as bait? Quick thinking. I’m impressed.”

“Could have gone badly, could have gotten all three of us hurt or worse… I just… Didn’t know what else to do,” he sighed quietly, turning his back on the rest of the scene. “You fought better than I’ve seen you fight yet, Gregor. I’m proud to stand beside you,” Fjolte said, meeting the man’s eyes with his own, his words were truthful, and he found himself choking in his throat, and so he pulled his hand to his mouth to discreetly cough into it. “You know, when you’re not trying to burn my dick off.”

There was only so much humor Gregor could endure in his current state before breaking out into laughter, and he did so without shame, clapping Fjolte on the shoulder once again. “Please, my friend, you held off four of these bastards by yourself. Hell, you showed them all the corners of the damned room. The honor is all mine.” Then he looked at Hugo and Raelynn again and whispered. “And is it just me, or is that man one of the most useless tossers you’ve ever seen?”

“Useless? Maybe. To me… He just looks like the kind of prick who enjoys picking the wings off of flies…” he mumbled bitterly as he watched him with Raelynn, scooping the shoulder straps back up on her dress, pulling the lacing again so that it wasn’t falling down. More still, how she just let him. “As for my fighting,” he began - changing the subject and turning away from the scene, “Of course I did, they had no chance against me. And that creepy leader had none against you.” His brow furrowed, head tilted. Fjolte looked closely at Gregor and sighed, “you didn’t listen, or… You didn’t take in any of his words did you?”

Gregor returned his gaze to Fjolte and shrugged. “No, I heard him alright. But what is there to do? Raelynn wants to cultivate a business relationship with these people. It’s not my place to judge whether they’re worthy of their status and their wealth. As for his comments about her vanity…” He glanced at the corpse of the Alpha against the wall and shrugged again. “Jealousy? I don’t really know what he meant. Frankly, I don’t care all that much, either.”

Fjolte nodded along with Gregor, pleased to hear those words, but it wasn’t quite what he had meant. “But, what about what he said -- the other thing, you know, about starting a process? That you could be one of them? You didn’t… You don’t believe that do you?”

The Imperial shook his head. “He was a dead man walking and he knew it. Desperation drives men to say crazy things. They plead, they bargain, they say anything they think can buy them some time. I have no intention of becoming like them, believe me.”

“I know,” Fjolte sighed, ashamed at himself for even asking. “So much for a simple evening though.”

From behind the Nord, the almost comically short Lord appeared, finally having settled himself, he rubbed at his neck, “gentleman, I owe you a heavy debt tonight. If you hadn’t come to us… I fear myself or my son would be grievously injured right now… You’re both quite the heroes. It’s not much, it’s not a lot at all but I’d like for you to take yourselves to the kitchens when you’re ready and I’ll have the chefs prepare you a decent meal before you leave.” His small grey eyes dotted around nervously, and a redness took hold of his round cheeks. “I… I don’t think it’s quite enough of a repayment but it’s the least I can offer right now. I really…. I really, truly am grateful,” he mumbled, tripping over his own words occasionally, but meaning every one of them all the same.

Sensing the need for diplomacy, Gregor inclined his head gracefully. “Your gratitude is very warmly received, my lord. Fret not, my associate and I understand that everyone is still in a state of shock. A hearty meal from your kitchen sounds delightful. Doesn’t it, Fjolte?”

“Yes Sir, my Lord…” Fjolte replied, bowing his head in the man’s direction. “We just did our jobs… Not even that… It’s what anyone would have done,” he smiled. Now that the offer of food was on the table, his smile was more of a flicker of excitement than anything else. The smells came back to him from his first walk through the kitchens. “Will you be joining us? Will Raelynn and Hugo?” he asked with raised brows.

Lord Desena took a glance at his son and Raelynn, giving an incline of his head and a thoughtful hum. “My son is rather private, I suspect he’ll take Miss Deserine to dine privately, before they retreat for the evening,” he smiled. “I’m glad he has her this evening, she’s a very caring young woman.”

“She is,” Gregor agreed, disappointed that he was liable not to see her again for the rest of the evening. Unless… a plan began to form in his mind and he smiled. “Very well. We shall make our way to the kitchens, then.”

The hush of night had fallen over the Desena estate. Fjolte had already gone home, Gregor having waved him ahead with the excuse of having to use the latrine before leaving. Instead of doing that, he had sequestered himself away in a servant’s pantry and counted down the hours. He was, if nothing else, a man of great patience if the situation called for it. He amused himself by conjuring potential designs of a piece of jewelry fit for a large diamond in his mind’s eye. Gregor’s imagination was powerful and an important instrument in his craft. Once he was satisfied that all was quiet and that both family and staff had tucked in for the night, Gregor emerged from the pantry whisper-silent. He had remembered which way Hugo and Raelynn had gone when they parted ways outside of the vault and he made his way to that part of the manor.

He moved through the corridors cloaked and hooded in the darkness-taken-form of his outfit with all the stealth of an owl, his boots muffled on the expensive carpet. Gregor kept a close eye on the doors of the rooms that he passed, looking for a room where the glow of candlelight spilled out from. If he knew Raelynn at all, he suspected that she was still awake and processing the day’s events, and was definitely doing so in her own room. Protocol dictated as much, considering her courtship with Hugo looked to be quite formal. Nothing so passionate as the way she treated her lover. Gregor smirked at the thought, delighting in having one up over the loathsome Desena junior.

When he came upon a room that was so illuminated, Gregor quietly lowered himself to the floor in front of it and spied into the space beyond through the gap between the floor and the door itself. Lo and behold: a woman with ashen blond hair was seated by the window with her back to him. Unless Hugo had a sister like this that Gregor didn’t know about, he had found her. His pulse quickened immediately and he resisted the urge to laugh boyishly. Gregor rose to his full height, adjusted the mask on his face and pulled the cowl of his hood even further over his visage before knocking gently on the door.

The young Breton had been sat in an armchair facing the expansive grounds of the manor. The evening had completely died down, all of the guests had left without so much as an inkling as to what had happened. Even Raelynn was left unsure, she’d been unconscious and struggling for much of it. It was a horrid feeling to have been so out of her own body for the evening. Her ribs still ached, and everytime she took too deep of a breath she cursed the damned dress.

He’d hung it up carefully against the wardrobe, and it hung in the moonlight like a ghost. A beautiful dress, but… Not Raelynn’s style. Her pale blue eyes looked it over, up and down. It should have been looser across the neckline - a less restrictive fabric. The skirt ought to have been pleated down the middle - even the colours weren’t what she would have picked to pair with a white mask. She sighed regretfully, and got back to combing through her hair when she was startled by a knock at the door.

She swept her hair over one shoulder and rose from the seat - a simple satin gown covered her form now, completely bare underneath. She stepped apprehensively towards the door, a mixture of curiosity and fear took over her. She didn’t feel unsafe, but not knowing what had happened in the lost time in the vault played tricks on her mind. “Yes…?” she spoke softly, worried her voice would wake the entire manor if she spoke in anything louder than a whisper. Her hand touched the doorknob and she turned it, the click of the mechanism as it opened was louder than she would have liked too. She didn’t enjoy being a guest in someone else's house all that much, the door opened and her eyes adjusted to the darkness - finding only a tall, dark shadow in the frame.

“Good evening,” Gregor said, his low voice matching her muted query and cautious footsteps. With her reduced to nothing but a gown like this, lacking the heels that usually gave her height and presence, Gregor towered over her and he reveled in how intimidating he must seem for a brief moment before he threw back his hood and revealed himself. “I do believe I made you a promise earlier. Here I am.”

She restrained herself from speaking his name, and simply drank him in - as much as she could in the dark. She brought her hand to her mouth and ran a finger over her lips, the surprise aroused her enough as it was, and she remained silent for a moment. “Who might you be?” she asked, meeting his eyes with her own, a playful sparkle sat in them. This was a game and fantasy just as much as it was a promise.

Gregor smiled at that. He didn’t mind indulging her in her fantasies. “A stranger,” he said, playing along, and a long stride brought him across the precipice and into her room before he closed the door behind him, taking care to let it slip silently into the lock. “Who stowed himself away after the ball and stalked the halls in search of a young woman when night came.” He took another step closer to her. “And now he has her, alone in her room,” Gregor continued and began to circle around her with slow steps, eyes locked onto hers, “right under the lord’s nose…”

She moved backwards as he came forward, facing him every step of the way, following his circle. “And what does he want with the young woman?” she asked, trying not to smirk. When he passed by the window, the light of her candle caught him, outlining in him with a warm glow - highlighting his most handsome features for but a split second before his own darkness eclipsed them again. Raelynn wasn’t sure who she preferred.

Suddenly Gregor stepped close to her and hooked his finger below her chin, letting his eyes freely and indecently wander across her body and the curves that were visible beneath the satin gown. “To have what the lord cannot,” he replied and brushed her lips with his thumb. “Everything that the propriety of courtship forbids. The stranger doesn’t care for such things… he simply takes what he wants…”

Unable to resist him, she parted her lips and kissed his thumb, slowly and sensually as her eyes remained fixed to his. “Is this stranger a gentleman?” she asked quietly, reaching out her own hand to his cloak, to take hold of him for herself. “Or is he just a rogue?” Raelynn asked, desperately trying not to smile up at him. She bit down gently on his thumb while she waited for his answer.

“A gentleman by day, raised in good manners, with gainful employment and an honorable bearing,” Gregor murmured and moved his hand behind Raelynn’s head, his strong fingers finding purchase in her hair. His other hand moved to her waist and he pulled her close to him. “But a rogue by night,” he whispered, their faces mere inches from one another, “when all others are asleep and only the sinister and the rambunctious still walk. How does the young woman feel about that?”

“She would tell you that she is a rogue too,” Raelynn answered, finally smiling up at him with a devious glint in her eyes. “She is neither sinister, nor rambunctious… Maybe she is a harlot… Lascivious…” she said, speaking quieter than ever. “Maybe this young woman feels… Excited by the rogue…” Her lips brushed his as she brought herself onto her toes to reach him.

"I can't… I can't believe we just did that." Raelynn said in a tired sigh, words still failing her.

Gregor smirked at that. It was a very daring and dastardly thing to do, and that satisfied parts of him that had lain dormant for perhaps his entire life. He hummed in agreement and pulled Raelynn and himself closer together, draping one of the sheets over their naked forms. "I suppose that's our way," he said softly into her ear. "We do whatever we want."

Raelynn leaned back into him, her skin tender and sore, and reached to stroke his cheek. "You can't get too comfortable… Don't fall asleep," she said -- a hint of sadness in her voice as her fingers ran across his cheek and through his beard.

He sighed. "I know," the Imperial muttered. He wanted nothing more than to stay with her until the morning, but they could not risk discovery. Raelynn still had her game left to play with Hugo and his father. He also knew that the longer he remained where he was, the harder it would be to leave. Clinging on to what little willpower he had left, Gregor got out of bed and began collecting his clothes from the floor.

Her hand had reached out for him as he began to leave, for one last lingering touch - for it to not have to end. But her body was too tired to do more than that, and without him there to hold her, she fell deeper into the bedding and towards sleep. "When… Will we see each other again?" She asked - her voice thick and worn out, her eyes barely able to stay open, an outstretched hand pointed towards him.

With his clothes in his hands Gregor turned to look at her, and he leaned back over the bed to kiss her hand. "Whenever you want," he replied. "You know where to find me."

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Hank Dionysian Mystery

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3rd First Seed
Jehanna, Town

It was the first day for several days where it had not rained heavily, and the sun had broken through. There was still a chill in the air, and despite the brief break in the clouds— the threat of squall remained up above, and the scent of rain still lingered. It had soaked through the stone walkways and into the brick of the houses and shops that lined the town.

One such place where that scent could not be found, was the flower market of Jehanna. Come rain or shine, it opened every fifth day without fail, and even today - amongst the dreary, and mist strewn streets - carts and trolleys were set up in their rows, sellers tending to their wares. Through the middle of the aisles, a woman walked slowly, her head turning this way and that to peruse the offerings. She took her time, the heels of her laced leather boots falling softly on the stone beneath her feet. Velveteen trousers in black, striped with white provided plush warmth from the chilling kiss of the early morning, and she hugged a matching cloak around her torso and arms. The white fur lining of the hood draped perfectly over her dainty shoulders, and across her collarbones.

The woman was the height of sophistication - barely blending in with the people around her in their simple linen aprons and petticoats. Even her presence carried her higher than the other men and women in the row, in fact she barely acknowledged them. It was as though this market was her own street, and she was free to enjoy it at whatever pace she desired.

Her scent trailed behind her like a ghost. Sweet vanilla, bright orange, the softness of lavender and just a hint of the biting warm spice of peppercorns, as alluring and distinctive as any of the flowers in their boxes and vases. She came eventually to a stall which held her attention, picking up a huge bouquet of wildflowers, all in varying shades of blue. From a powder blue, through to cornflower, azure, and then to the almost black of midnight.

Raelynn Deserine held the bouquet out and remarked upon it with a gentle smile — the world around her, again, did not exist, or it did and it’s existence was merely for her… She was drawn to the thistles in the centre of the arrangement. So unique, so sharp, surrounded by the ultimate defence and yet it bore the most stunning colour in its strands of petals.

“Beautiful, don’t you think M’lady?” Said the seller, thumbing over his apron with a smile at her - gazing into as much of her grey eyes as he could from his vantage point.

Raelynn brought a thumb to her lip and nodded slowly. “Quite…” she replied after further examination. “I’d like them, but more thistle in the arrangement…” She wasn’t sure why she found herself so drawn to the thorny wild flower she’d paid little attention to in the past, but when she observed it today, she found a beauty within that she simply couldn’t resist.

The florist took the bouquet from her, and got to work with her request while the Breton lady further mused on the correct order for the rest of her morning tasks. She still had certain items to procure…

An Imperial man in riding clothes, his black hair still damp from the mists outside Jehanna and his boots splattered with mud, also slowly perused the stalls and wares, unsure of what exactly he was looking for. He enjoyed flowers, sure -- he even grew roses in his garden back home -- but he found that he was devoid of inspiration on what to buy today. His face was therefore set into a scowl more fierce than he actually felt and the shopkeepers whose advice he could have used avoided speaking to him… or even meeting his dark gaze. In his hands the man carried a letter and he ran his thumbs and fingers over the parchment obsessively while his eyes scanned the flowers, and his brow furrowed even deeper.

My love,

First things fist: I have arrived in Jehanna safe and sound, and continue to find myself in good health and prosperity. The country here is beautiful and verdant, and the people sophisticated and kind. I believe that you would like it here.

A fortuitous turn of events has led me to a merchant’s business by name of Deserine that may be able to help me in my quest. Just as I cautioned, however, mithril is rare and expensive and the merchant is not willing to part with it without adequate compensation. I find myself in their employ in the meantime, working to build up enough credit to obtain the mithril I need. Things are going well, and I suspect I will not be gone longer than the months I estimated before leaving.

I have also made a friend here. He is a Nord by name of Fjolte Soriksen. A true man of the wilds, large and loud and very, very friendly. We work together for the merchant sometimes, and other times we make merry and I spend my evenings in laughter. I should like to invite him to our home, should he ever find himself in Cyrodiil, so that he might meet you. Please let me know if that would be appreciated.

My love, I miss you. Every day my longing for you grows greater. I hope that you are well. I shall endeavor to bring you the most beautiful flower in all of Jehanna when I return. Accompanied with this letter is a sample of the floral beauty on offer here. Please give our families my warmest regards.

Forever yours,

With a slow and frustrated sigh, Gregor looked up at the sky, hoping that the sun would break through the clouds and banish the shadow that hung over his soul. It did not answer his call and he forced himself to return his attention to the sea of colors, the only brightness in the otherwise dreary day. That is to say, until his eyes fell on a woman in black and white, similarly perusing the markets. His breath caught in his throat. The letter weighed as heavy in his hands as an anvil. That she should find him now, of all moments. Were the gods taunting him? He was fixed to the spot, unable to speak or to turn and walk away.

And so the gods taunted her too, upon turning her face to carry along her way, she saw him there. Dampened and with just enough dirt on his clothing to suggest heavy travelling, or scaling of the wild roads. Something recreational and calming, a show of the noble masculinity that was at rest within him. Raelynn said nothing at first, turning her eyes away — as if to feign that she had seen him in the first place. It had been over a week since they’d… Since their evening together.

Since Gregor had left her in their bed, to save their being caught. She was immediately reminded of waking alone, pained, and lonely the next day. That had been the first day of heavy rain. Raelynn had been forced by the vicious weather to stay in the Manor for one whole day longer. A torturous day, when all she wanted was to be alone and to process everything - she had instead been confronted with servants, with Lord Desena, and with Hugo.

After a moment of deliberation, she realised she couldn’t ignore him. If nothing else, it was simply rude. With her bouquet in arms, she walked slowly to Gregor. He was the blockage in her path, the environment around her would cease to be solely hers again until she made right with the Imperial. She approached with as warm of a smile as she could bring out upon her countenance. Harsh weather like this agreed with her, she felt powerful in it — and it was hard to tone that down to friendliness.

“Mr Mercurius,” she smiled, dipping her chin and lowering her head in polite curtsy to him. “A pleasure to see you this morning…”

He swallowed. There was no getting around it now. But the more he looked at her, the more he found that he no longer wanted to. The things they had done were inexcusable -- Gregor knew that. He had lingered after the ball for hours only to ambush Raelynn alone in her chambers at night, with a single purpose. He had forgotten and betrayed all of his wedding vows. She was a poison, anathema to his life and all of his duties, and yet… seeing her like this, her smile, her piercing eyes, Gregor remembered why her hold over him was so strong. At first he had been surprised and a little hurt that she hadn’t called upon him, and with time that hurt had turned into guilt as he remembered his wife back home. Had they both crossed personal boundaries that night?

“My lady,” he said and returned her smile with one of his own before dipping into an Imperial curtsy himself. “The pleasure is all mine. It’s… been a while. I trust you are well?”

“I am today,” she answered frankly, indicating to the scene around her. “I’ve been holed up inside from the rain. This fresh air has been, well, a breath of fresh air…” Raelynn smiled, blinking slowly at the Imperial. There was a certain awkwardness and she didn’t know why. The things they’d done to one another, there shouldn’t be any at all. The Breton decided she didn’t want to think about it.

“My apologies, there has been very little work this last seven days. Fjolte has visited but I’ve had nothing to give him. I think he decided in light of that to go on a retreat into nature,” she smiled with a light-hearted chuckle. “You haven’t been bored, have you?” She asked, tilting her head to the side curiously.

The casual way with which she spoke put him at ease and he laughed while stepping up to her and offering her his arm. “No, no, I’ve kept busy well enough. I went riding today, as you can probably tell, and the days before as well. The guards do a good job of keeping the forest paths clear of dangers so that the local nobles can ride. Did you know that?”

Raelynn took his arm as it was offered, supposing to herself they’d walk for a while now. As she brushed over him, even with the layers of fabric in the way she felt a slight spark of electricity between them. More so than ever before, he was forbidden. “I did not know this,” she said to him with a content sigh. “But, it is strange you should cross my path today— it is for the purposes of finding sufficient riding boots that I am out of my chambers.”

“Really?” Gregor replied with a quirked brow. “Then perhaps we can help each other today. I happen to know of a very fine equestrian leatherworking shop, but…” It was a ridiculous idea. Asking Raelynn, of all people, to help him with this completely defeated the purpose of doing it in the first place. And yet… he could feel the spark of electricity as well. It was exciting because it was so illicit, as were all things with her.

He sighed. “I need a flower. Something beautiful, to accompany a letter for the homefront. I find that I’ve simply no inspiration today.” Gregor gestured over the sea of flowers. “I don’t know what to pick. Would you be so kind as to lend me your feminine eye for a moment?”

His question took her by surprise, and a breath caught in her throat as she considered it. A letter for the homefront. Raelynn had little notion as to what he meant, and something about the way it made her feel dissuaded her from asking any further questions. “I can… I can lend you my eye, yes,” she said at last with a nod. “Something beautiful…” she mumbled, releasing herself from his arm to walk closer to a stall. She turned back to look at him, “do you… Want for something with a fragrance? A bright colour? Something with longevity?”

“A bright color, I think,” Gregor nodded. “Something that survives being packed and dried and shipped for weeks with its beauty intact. It’s a far trip to Bravil, you see.” He followed her to the stall at a distance with his hands clasped behind his back, the tails of his black coat brushing against his boots softly. “Is there such a flower?”

Raelynn looked down, pressing her thumb to her lip— “I would think that there is only one flower worth sending as a memento of your time here,” she said quietly, making her way down the rows with keen eyes looking out for a particular flower.

After a moment of two of searching, she happened upon them. With great care she lifted one from the metal bucket by it’s long stem, turning back to look at Gregor with it pinched delicately between her fingers. “A Jehanna Stargazer…” Raelynn said, holding out the flower to him. It was a lily, petals white around the edges that faded from pink into a deep indigo - the stamens orange and contrasting to the petals. It was as elegant a flower as any.

He took the flower gingerly between his finger and his thumb and marveled at it for a moment before he said anything. It was perfect. “It’s beautiful,” Gregor said and looked back at Raelynn, a strange mixture of emotions in his eyes -- gratitude, admiration, and something more. He blinked and the usual darkness returned to his gaze. He smiled and bowed his head. “Thank you, Raelynn. This is exactly what I was looking for.”

“One thousand painters could try and one thousand painters would fail to capture it,” she breathed, eyes lifting between the flower and Gregor. It felt nice to help him, to see the way that he looked at the flower, and how that intensity transferred in his glance at her too. She felt a swell of emotion in herself. “To me, the flower makes me think of Jehanna and her cold winters - the icy, shrewd peaks that surround us, and yet beneath even that there is incredible beauty and softness… It’s a beautiful flower, I’m sure the homefront would be delighted by it.” Raelynn smiled, and then she recognised that she had to turn away from him — she busied herself by looking back over the flowers on display, caressing them gently with her fingers. She wanted his touch…

He was surprised by her poetic description. It was a side of her that he hadn't seen yet and Gregor couldn't resist a smile at knowing that there was a sensitive, artistic soul behind those eyes as well. "Well said," he hummed and purchased the flower from the shopkeeper in a short exchange of septims. "I'm sure she will." He'd said the words before he realized and glanced at Raelynn to gauge her reaction. Could they be normal friends that talked about such things? Was this even friendship? Even now there was a spark between them. It wasn't sexual, but it was… affectionate, and intimate in its own way. Once again, Gregor knew that he shouldn't. It felt like a twisting of the knife to acknowledge Briar's existence with Raelynn, after everything.

But the alternative was walking away, and he didn't want that either.

"So, you wanted boots," Gregor said as he rejoined Raelynn's side, the flower now wrapped in paper to protect it as he cradled it in the crook of his arm. "I assume you have a stylistic preference?"

Part of her wanted to walk away. Part of her wanted to take the flower and wrap her fingers around it until it broke… Instead, she did nothing. She did nothing but let that anger sit in her stomach like a huge question. Why? Why did she feel that way when he mentioned her? It was just like the physical strangeness in her body after their intense evening, this was just an alien feeling too - a parasite of emotion she thought she understood, and still she just wanted it to be silenced. To drown it out with all the water of the ocean behind her, or bury it beneath an avalanche. "She will," Raelynn said with a smile and from behind empty eyes.

With a blink, and after swallowing it down she moved on. She allowed him to move the conversation on, she needed him to. "Yes, boots. I'm to go riding. I've never actually…" she admitted nervously, stepping onwards. "I'd like a heel, if that is possible."

“Ah, let me guess,” Gregor said with a knowing smile. It didn’t extend to his eyes either. “Hugo wants to take you riding.” It had been exhilarating and thrilling to take Raelynn under his nose, but now that he was confronted with the evidence of their continued courtship the silversmith found that it annoyed him. Hugo didn’t deserve her.

But who was Gregor to make that kind of judgement? Raelynn wasn’t his, either; her choice of partner was not his business. “A heel should be possible. The soles need an indentation for the stirrups in the middle, but what happens on either side of that is up to the rider’s preference,” Gregor reassured her, trying to force the snobbish lord out of his mind.

"He has a new horse, he'd like for us to ride together," Raelynn explained, turning her face away with a slight smile. As annoying as Hugo seemed -- the thought of riding horses out in the open was deeply romantic, and the Breton had been taken aback by the suggestion. "It's not very often I leave Jehanna," she added before turning her face forwards again. She had nothing to feel so coy about, she was a single woman.

She couldn't help but chuckle at Gregor's advice. It was nice to listen to him talk about something he knew about. He was a practical man, of course he knew these things. "I'm glad it would be possible, I don't think I'd like to be seen dead in a flat shoe… Of any kind. Or ever," her nose turned up and her eyes narrowed. She meant it.

It was his turn to laugh. “Naturally,” he added. “What kind of lady would be willingly subjected to such indignities? We shall have to be very firm with the cobbler, but fear not: a heel you shall get.” Gregor shot her an amused glance.

"Not a lady as short as this one," Raelynn replied - a flash of mischief in her eyes as she placed herself at the centre of the joke. "Where is this leatherworker then? And I… I daresay I owe you for what you did in the vault." She cleared her throat and stole a sidelong glance at him before continuing. "Would you allow me to buy you a meal?"

“By the north gate, strategically located near the stables,” Gregor answered her first question. He raised an eyebrow at her second question and a smirk forced itself onto his face. “I was of the opinion that I was already quite handsomely compensated for that little incident,” he said in a low voice, and then added in his usual volume: “But I wouldn’t dream of turning down such an invitation. I should like that very much.”

"Your compensation remains in my chambers in a coin purse," Raelynn said quickly, stopping in her tracks to look at him dead on. She let her stern words sit in the space between them for a moment before carrying on ahead of him. "Anything else was… A performance based bonus." She tossed her hair over her shoulder and gave him a flirtatious expression. It was just too easy fall into that habit, he brought it out of her.

Gregor grinned deviously. “See, I was talking about the dinner that Lord Desena thoughtfully provided for Fjolte and myself,” the Imperial said casually and stroked his beard with his free hand. “But it’s gratifying to know that this bonus of yours remains so close to the surface of your mind….” He looked at her and nudged her playfully with his elbow.

Raelynn's mouth formed a pout, and she shook her head. Displeased that she'd fallen into his trap of words. She huffed out an almost comically petulant breath and stepped on ahead, placing a free hand on her hip. "Let's get my boots. Less of your jests too," she warned half-heartedly, "or your meal will soon be little more than a slice of bread and ham."

Satisfied at having vexed her with his cleverness, Gregor buried his smirk into his beard and bowed his head, suitably chastened. “Of course, my lady. My deepest apologies,” Gregor said in a dutiful tone of voice. “This way.”

On the way there Gregor made a little detour and paused outside of a courier’s office, itself located near the gates. “A moment, please,” he asked and stepped inside the place. It smelled like horses and hurried men. Gregor found the clerk and managed to arrange a reasonable price for the delivery of the letter and the flower, with instructions that it should be pressed and dried to maintain its beauty for the journey. Once he handed them over he felt lighter immediately, symbolically having washed his hands of the burden of responsibility, and he returned to Raelynn with a spring in his step. The letter would buy him more time in Jehanna and the flower would placate her moody temperament, Gregor knew.

“Thank you for your patience,” he said as he offered Raelynn his arm again. “I hope you didn’t mind.”

The Breton had kept herself busy - or more precisely, a pair of playful young girls had. She was kneeling on the ground when he left the office, taking out select flowers from her own blue bouquet. A hydrangea each for them both, which she had pushed into their hairstyles in a way that made them match. On the brown haired girl, the flower was positioned on the left side, and on the red haired girl it was on the left.

"There now, you can be both be Ladies too…" Raelynn told them. The two young girls giggled before thanking her and skipping away with their heads held high and proud. She watched them before taking Gregor's arm again. "Not at all, you had your own business… I understand that."

His gaze softened as he watched the girls skip away, the flowers Raelynn had given them standing out against the muddy road and the grey stone of the buildings and the sky. Briar had over the years developed difficulty in dealing with children, and when Gregor looked at Raelynn he saw the untapped and untainted motherhood that she still possessed. He was suddenly beset upon by a powerful longing to do this with her every day -- to walk the streets arm in arm with her, if only just to be near her and to see her like this. He forced himself to focus on what they were doing and smiled. “Thank you. You’re a natural,” he said and gestured towards the girls. “Do you have any nieces or nephews, perhaps?”

While walking, she found herself struck at the personal nature of the comment, and the following question. Her face softened in a way that suggested she wasn't entirely sure of how to answer or respond. "No nieces, no nephews. I… I work with children, they get sick too…" Raelynn explained. "It takes a different hand to settle a child than it does to settle an adult." She cleared her throat and tried to recall an example.

"I once was called to the bedside of a young boy, he was terribly sick from the cold and he was delirious and frightened," she said, her voice low and her tone carried importance. "The only way he would let me near enough to touch him was if I read him stories, placated him with grand heroic tales," she laughed at it. "Fairy dust and magic stars…"

“You understand your craft well,” Gregor said with genuine admiration. He looked at her fondly and saw yet another side to her. How many different facets of Raelynn was he yet to discover? He could have never predicted that such a woman would await him beneath the sculpted icy veneer of their first meeting. It was a sobering reminder never to judge a book by its cover. “The children of the world are lucky to have you.” Gregor chuckled. “And some others are too,” he added softly.

Their feet had almost carried them to the leatherworker’s shop, but there was enough time left for one more question. “How would you placate me, if I were angry and delirious with illness?” Gregor asked, part playful and part sincere in his curiosity.

"They don't stay children forever," Raelynn said thoughtfully. "One way or another, they stop believing in that kind of magic and see the world and its people for who they truly are, Gregor." For all of the warmth she'd displayed, there was a bitter sting to those words.

Not wanting to divulge further, she set about to thinking on his question. The Breton sighed and locked eyes with him, was he fishing for a certain answer? What did he want her to say? Raelynn smirked and bit her lip - narrowing her eyes mischievously, "I'd make you tea with honey and fairy dust," she began, wrapping her arm tighter through his and lowering her voice. "I'd bring you bread, cheese, and magic stars," she continued, tilting her head back to direct her words to his ear. "Then I'd tell you stories while combing unicorns wishes through your hair."

The bitterness in her reply surprised him and Gregor let it pass without comment when she obviously wished to move past the sentiment. Her subsequent answer to his question made him smile at first and then laugh in earnest, a rumble of amusement in his chest and the back of his throat. “Well played,” he admitted. “I believe that makes us square. You jest, by the way,” Gregor said in a low voice and looked her in the eye, “but I do believe that would work splendidly on me, as long as you did it.”

"If you were truly angry and delirious with illness, I don't know what I would do." Raelynn said, pleased to have made him laugh at least - and to have jabbed him back for his earlier joke, still it was a reasonable question and she couldn't shake the image loose. In her mind, she pictured him lying beside her by the fireplace after she'd tended to his wounds. How they lay side by side gentle and tired for the first time. Her head turned, almost as if she was reaching to place an affectionate kiss on his shoulder but she thought better of it. He's not yours.

"I'll just try my best, if the moment should come… I'll know then." She finished.

“Fair enough,” Gregor said with a nod. He believed her when she said that she would know. From what he had seen, she was nothing if not resourceful and capable. “Strong intuition is all you need sometimes.”

They stepped up to the store, marked by the saddle that hung over the sign above the door which Gregor held open for Raelynn. The interior smelled, predictably, immensely like leather, and Gregor inhaled the fragrance gratefully. It was a smell he had always enjoyed for as long a he could remember, and the way he ran his fingers over the saddlebags on display on their way to the counter made him look like he had almost forgotten that Raelynn was there.

“Gregor, my dear fellow,” the voice of the leatherworker called out and the Imperial looked up to see the now-familiar face of the kindly, older Breton. “Back yet again? Those boots not doing it for you?” His gaze fell on Raelynn and his smile widened. “Or are you my prospective buyer for the day, madam?”

Amused, Gregor smiled at the man. “Luellin, how could that be? These are the finest boots I’ve ever sat astride a horse with and you know it. Modesty does not suit you.”

Luellin chuckled and waved dismissively. “Save your sycophantic jabbering for the gods in the afterlife.”

“Very well,” Gregor said and inclined his head. “Yes, we are here for Miss Deserine, as it so happens. She requires riding boots of her own. With heel, Luellin.”

On cue, the leatherworker raised his eyebrows and placed a hand on his mouth. ”With heel? Say it isn’t so, my dear fellow! Why didn’t you call ahead to let me know that I would be expecting a proper lady in my premises?”

Gregor grinned. “Oh stuff it, you.” He turned to Raelynn and whispered in her ear. “I’ll leave you to it. He’s a little eccentric, but you’re in good hands.”

Luellin waited expectantly, a beatific smile on his face and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

"My associate is correct," Raelynn began as she stepped up to the counter to greet Luellin, having to consciously tear her eyes from Gregor. "I am looking for some well fitting riding boots."

The store was beautifully set up and arranged, with every surface polished and cleaned down. Nothing was cluttered and she found that the overall aesthetic was pleasing to her eye. Despite it being filled with craft materials, and various wares it was an incredibly relaxing store -- made only more so by the dutiful and kindly nature of the owner.

Her gaze tracked the room, it was warm and inviting and Raelynn almost wondered if it would be a nice place to simply sit and read and wait for the work to be done. With a sigh she turned her attention back to Luellin, brushing a strand of hair back behind her ear. "I wonder if you may have maroon leather, perhaps of deer pelt origin. A heel of at least two and a quarter inch. Laces, too. Brown or black lacing." Her finger was pointed out as she listed, very succinctly, her requirements for the boots.

"I am… A novice rider, and the occasion is special so I'd like to impress." Raelynn finished, bringing her hands together and in front of her.

Now that the time had come to discuss business, Luellin listened attentively. "Your ladyship has fine taste in materials," the Breton said. "But perhaps too fine for a novice's riding boots, if I may be so bold. You will need the firmness of the boots to help keep you in the stirrups. Deerskin leather is a beautiful material but it's quite soft. My recommendation would be tough cow hide."

He then smiled. "But I agree with maroon. That will truly make your eyes pop!" he said and emphasized the last word by mining an explosion with his hands.

She appeared disheartened at the thought of cow leather, but relented with a brief shrug. "If that is your recommendation, then I suppose cow hide it shall be." Raelynn wondered how easily they would be to break in, and her lips turned to a thoughtful frown. "I shall need some woolen socks then, or they will be uncomfortable on the ankle. Thank you for your help, Sir."

“I shall go out back and shear the goat straight away,” Luellin quipped with a wink, but he actually invited Raelynn to put her foot up on a little stand so that he could measure her size.

Gregor, meanwhile, meandered through the workshop with naught but his thoughts for company. He quickly came to the realization that he was deeply conflicted. Having spent most of the past week convinced that his actions concerning Raelynn were grave mistakes and that he had crossed a line far beyond moral depravity, it was jarring and unsettling to be back in her company and find himself joking about their sexual adventure without a care in the world. Even Raelynn herself knew that their relationship would ultimately be fruitless, considering her active courtship with Hugo. For her it was much easier to excuse the indulgence, but when it came to Gregor himself, he simply could not parse his behavior through any lens of reason. Hell, she made him take leave of reason entirely.

And he loved it. Gregor wanted nothing more than to surrender totally and absolutely to the effect she had on him, to whisk her away to somewhere private and secluded and alternate between having his way with her and strolling arm in arm through the woods or over the fields. He wanted to kiss her, to hold her, to take her, to listen to her speak and to whisper in her ear. But he knew what his duties were. He knew where his place was. It simply could not be. And yet, now that he had seen her again, the thought of removing her from his life entirely and returning home to Bravil with the mithril ring in his pocket frightened him too much to contemplate it. He was not ready to return home and leave the dreamlike affair with Raelynn behind. He hated himself for it, and yet he could not deny it. Gregor found a chair by the entrance and sank down on it like an old man, his brow furrowed and the fingers of his right hand endlessly fidgeting with his wedding ring.

Luellin straightened back up and motioned for Raelynn to follow him to the rack of riding boots in the back half of the store. “Maroon, maroon,” he whispered to himself, “a dark and bloody balloon… Ah, yes.” He took two of the display boots and held them up for her to inspect. One was plain but shone like a soldier’s shoes on parade, whereas the other had a matte finish and intricate stitching on the leather. Both were maroon and featured a respectable heel. “Your opinion on these two, madam, if you please,” he said and smiled.

If it were her choice, Raelynn would choose the well stitched pair. The broguing was to die for and a true testament to Luellin's craftsmanship-- but her taste differed to Hugo, and she found herself veering to the option he might admire best. She thought on his words of invitation - replaying them in her mind…

"I have purchased a new mare, I wish to see you ride it. We'll go together."

It had hardly been a romantic way to ask, he was a man of few words and was intense about those he did choose to say. He was exactly the kind of noble gentleman that her father would approve of. While she knew the polished boots would be his choice, she still found herself drawn to the other. "May I try them on?" Raelynn asked, bringing a half closed fist to her chin in thought.

“Naturally,” Luellin said and guided Raelynn towards the chaise and mirror used for fitting sessions.

From his seat by the door, Gregor watched them move through the shop. Seeing Raelynn so deep in thought, doing her best to meet the standards that were expected of her, was endearing. Then he felt a pang of pity for her. Hugo struck him as the type to make demands of his woman the same way he made demands of everyone else in the world. Gregor hated that kind of entitlement, and he wouldn’t stand for seeing Raelynn bow to it.

Gregor got to his feet and rejoined them by the chaise. “Anything catch your eye?” he asked Raelynn, hands clasped behind his back and a kindly smile on his face.

As the Imperial approached, Raelynn had finished lacing the polished boots and she stood up, removing her cloak with ease and placing it folded on the chaise. She wore a simple tunic in white silk, and without the weight and darkness of the cloak, she appeared a lot brighter and like more of herself - willowy figure and all. "I like these," she mused as she walked slowly with a sway to the mirror, pointing her toes and moving her feet and legs in such a refined and modelesque manner to watch the boots. Her brow creased and she sighed from her nose.

"I also like the brogued pair, they seem like they'll take a better shape… They're also higher - I like a higher boot," she continued, talking to herself first and those around her second. "There's something decidedly alluring about a boot that skims the thigh… But the polish on these…" While looking at herself in the mirror, Raelynn's eyes caught Gregor's in the reflection, and in that second, her posture softened and she turned around to face him properly. She found herself seeking his opinion… "what are your thoughts?" She asked, biting her lip at the corner. There was little indication in his countenance of what he thought, and that made her nervous… His opinion suddenly meant a lot to her.

Gregor kept his thoughts to himself until his opinion was solicited, as he had hoped that it might, and then he pointed towards the stitched pair. “That seems like much more your style,” he commented and then nodded towards the polished boots she was wearing. “That suits a different rider. Sober, serious, uptight… pompous… wretched… sniveling... “

Luellin raised a brow.

“Not you,” Gregor said and tried not to smirk. “But that pair -- that is you.” He looked back up at her eyes. “Right? What do you want?”

As she eyed her reflection, she lifted her head higher - peering down at the boots. What Gregor had said influenced her, but not as he had intended. Could he really gather such an impression simply from the boots? They were only boots after all. She stood taller in the mirror, and a severe expression fell over her features, an ice cold quality took over her eyes and her fingers worked at styling the tunic, tucking it into her trousers in just the right way. "That sounds something like me…" she said. "I don't know what kind of rider I shall be. These boots will suffice, Luellin."

Had she missed the point of what he was saying, or was she just not listening to him? Either way, with the way she looked at herself in the mirror Gregor was more convinced that it was a choice she had made by herself, for herself, and that was enough. Without further comment, Gregor nodded in acceptance of her judgement.

Luellin clapped his hands together. “Splendid. Take them off and I’ll make the necessary adjustments to perfect the fit. You can wait here, I won’t be long.”

When he had bowed out of the store and moved to his workstation, Gregor sat down on the edge of the chaise and let his eyes wander over the selection of boots on display before they ended back on the brogued pair that Raelynn had discarded in favor of the polished pair. He picked up one of the boots and ran his hands over the leather. “This really would look very lovely on you, you know,” he said and shot Raelynn a smile.

Her eyes followed Luellin as he left and as she made her way to sit and put on her original boots. The quiet of the store only allowed for the tension between them both become louder - it was at the edge of the chaise that she sat down. Leaving miles between them, but a powerful spark between. "Most things do," Raelynn said. She gave a prolonged glance to the brogued shoes in his hands. "It wouldn't hurt to try them on too."

He grinned. “That’s the spirit.” Gregor held out the boots for her to take.

Raelynn smiled back and took it from him and leaned forwards to begin the process of lacing it.

"It's comfortable," she remarked, turning her ankle from side to side and swinging her leg over her knee. She definitely enjoyed the feeling of the leather skimming her thigh, and she ran her finger across the height of the boot slowly. "I like this…" she added, tilting her head. "The heel is higher," her toes pointed forwards, accentuating the shape and curve of her leg even more.

"Do you like it?" She asked Gregor, kicking her leg gently over her knee.

He found that he did. The boots were much more overtly feminine and they brought out Raelynn’s legs in ways that the other boots did not. In fact, Gregor was still busy letting his gaze linger on her legs and how far up on her thigh the rim was when she asked him the question and it took him a second look back up at her and digest what she’d said. “Yes,” he said and nodded. “Yes, I do,” he repeated, more vigorously. “The other boots are quite dignified, don’t get me wrong, but these are simply gorgeous on you.”

She hummed appreciatively at his compliment. "You're right," Raelynn said. "I'm going to look rather fetching on horseback in these," she added before turning in the seat to face him. The Breton reached out her hand and placed it briefly on his thigh. "Thank you for your help."

Gregor placed his hand over hers before she removed it and brushed the back of her hand with his thumb. “You’re most welcome,” he said. “Anytime.”

Luellin returned with the polished boots in his hands and his eyes immediately fell on the stitched boots that Raelynn had put on. He tutted at Gregor. “You’ve made her change her mind, haven’t you? You’re a devil, you are, keeping an old man hard at work…” he lamented and sighed, but there was no malice in it and the twinkle in his eye betrayed him. “I suppose it can’t be helped. Don’t you worry, madam, I’ll find a pair of those in your size, just a moment.” And with that, he disappeared again.

"You know, Gregor, I think I shall take both…" Raelynn said with a content sigh, lifting her leg to admire how it looked on her - glancing between the way it looked in front of her, and then how she looked side on in the mirror. The Breton found herself leaning into the chaise only just, running a free hand over her hip as she did so, almost forgetting that Gregor was there. "Do you think he has matching gloves? I do like the feel of leather," she smirked at herself.

He quirked a brow at that. “I suppose he probably does,” Gregor said, but not before he let her forget herself for a moment, his eyes following the trail her hand left over her hips. “And sure, why not both? Then you can choose depending on your mood.” He glanced around the store and let his eye fall on what he was looking for before looking back at Raelynn. “He’s going to love it,” he managed to get himself to say.

Mind made up, she took off the second boot and began to dress herself back once more in her own - the absence of the leather made her frown, she already wanted to be back in the new boots. The Breton couldn't help it, people were allowed their indulgences, and hers was clothing. "It's been a long time since I've been out like this," she said at last, crossing her legs as she sat and waited for Luellin to reappear- the tension simmering again between her and Gregor. "He likes me to look perfect, I shall feel it in those," she smiled.

A few seconds of silence passed. “You always look perfect,” Gregor said softly.

Luellin reappeared with the stitched boots in tow. “This pair, yes?” he asked Raelynn and shot Gregor a warning glance -- no more opinions from you, wise guy.

"Actually, I'd like to take both today," Raelynn answered as she rose from the seat, taking her cloak over her arm and walking with pride away from the changing area. "The Lady cannot choose…" she remarked with mischief in her eyes and humour in her voice - leaning on the stereotype for Luellin's amusement. She had just made him run around, afterall. "Will that be alright?"

Luellin laughed. “Of course. You are more than welcome to spend as many septims in my humble shop as your heart desires. I shall go fetch the other pair.”

Gregor stepped up to the counter as well and placed a pair of leather gloves on the wood. “And these for me, please.” He looked sidelong at Raelynn.

"They look rather small for your hands," Raelynn said, looking at Gregor.

“You look rather small for my hands too, but that worked just fine, didn’t it?” he replied without missing a beat.

From the back, Luellin audibly laughed again.

Her mouth opened as she gave a sharp gasp and she felt her nostrils flare "Well," she whispered, aware that Luellin had exceptional hearing. "There goes your lunch of Illiac Bay Oysters."

He pretended not to hear her. "You're right, these are too small," Gregor mused casually after having tried on one of the gloves. He smiled innocently at Raelynn before ducking away from the counter to find a larger pair of gloves.

Her eyes followed him as he went, and she gave a smirk behind his back. "I know," she said quietly as he wandered off.

Luellin returned in the meantime with both of her boots, wrapped and bagged and ready for carrying. "That brings us to a total of two-hundred and fifty septims," he announced sweetly.

Gregor returned with a larger pair that fit more comfortably -- matte black leather that went splendidly well with his coat and his boots. "And twenty for you, my dear fellow," Luellin said to him. Gregor nodded and fished the coins out of his purse.

Raelynn too reached into her purse and brought out the coins - able to count them quickly, and pile them even quicker. "Keep the change," she added with a smile, before turning to Gregor, glancing at the gloves curiously. "Are you done?" She asked him with a smile, her mild embarrassment having faded.

"Yes," he replied and lifted the bags with Raelynn's boots with one hand. "Thanks for everything, Luellin," Gregor said to the man, who nodded gracefully and smiled warmly before returning to the workshop.

On their way back to the door Gregor paused when they were in the darkest and least illuminated part of the store, out of sight of Luellin and anyone else. He turned to Raelynn, eyes invisible in the gloom, and wrapped his free hand around her throat without warning, the leather of his glove creaking with his grip.

"How does that feel?" he asked, his voice barely more than a hum.

With that touch, it was almost like every sore point he'd made his mark upon across her body stung all at once. Her eyelids immediately fluttered and she found no words, only a near silent breathy moan in his direction that said enough.

Deeply satisfied by her response, Gregor let go of her throat and hooked a finger beneath her chin, looking into her crystalline eyes and the immediate arousal he saw within. “Good,” he whispered, before turning back around and heading for the door. “To lunch!”

It took her a second or two more to compose herself, to breathe away the instant throbbing ache for him. It would have to stay in the shop, and once she had passed over the threshold and was back into the street, she was grateful for the chilling caress of the misty breeze. "Yes, lunch," she replied - resisting the urge to rub her neck. "What would you like?"

He had to stop himself from blurting out ‘you’. Gregor thought about it for a while and looked around while he did so. “I could go for something sweet,” he said at length. “Pancakes, cheesecake, that sort of thing. You?”

With a smile, she nodded up at him. "Lavender dumplings." Without a second thought, she wove her arm back through his and set with determination in a particular direction. "I know the perfect place, come."

“Lavender?” Gregor mumbled to himself, wary and curious in equal measure about how something edible could be made from the fragrant lilac flower, but more than willing to let Raelynn surprise him all the same. He kept pace with the rapid footsteps of the diminutive ashen blonde rather easily with his own long strides and he wondered what Hugo would think if he saw them like this. Then again, the odds of Hugo mixing with the peasants like this inside Jehanna were probably zero.

“For someone who doesn’t get out much it sure looks like you’re enjoying yourself now, though,” Gregor said eventually, speaking truthfully and wondering why she remained indoors as much as she did.

It was through a back alley that she led him, far away from the grander and more accessible haunts of Jehanna. Down a winding and dark staircase until they came upon a longer path. “I am,” Raelynn replied contentedly, looking ahead, even if she wanted to steal a glance from him. “I’ve enjoyed the turn of events today, but I shall be making up for the lost time later.”

“In regards to work, you mean?” Gregor asked, still curious about the way she ran her business.

“Yes,” she said with a nod. “I actually received a missive from my father today,” she found herself admitting — her steps slowing down. “With some opportunities, contacts to be made, other things,” she sighed. “Are you enjoying yourself?” She asked quickly, looking ahead, changing the subject.

“Why the sigh?” he asked, ignoring her own question. “That sounds like a useful message to receive.”

Her chest tightened, and she sighed again as her shoulders dropped. “It’s just a letter. They’re always… Stiff, generic.” Her voice grew quieter, and she turned her face completely, as if simply observing the scenery along the path. “But it is what it is,” she finally said, turning back to look at Gregor with a smile, and the same emptiness behind her eyes as earlier.

The relationship with her father was clearly a sore topic. That didn’t come as a surprise given the events surrounding her engagement to Sir Gaerford, but it saddened him all the same. Gregor thought fondly about his own father and wondered what Hector would make of Raelynn. That thought was immediately followed by a pang of guilt when he remembered how much his old man liked and approved of Briar. Thinking about Raelynn in that way was folly.

“I suppose it is,” Gregor said softly and squeezed her hand in a show of support. “As for your question, yes, I am very much enjoying myself. What are lavender dumplings?”

Raelynn squeezed back, and once again fought the urge to place her head upon his shoulder. A voice in the back of her mind advising her against it. It took a lot to not fight against and defy the voice, but it just seemed that to become intimately comfortable with Gregor now was dangerous ground. The squeeze of she gave him was all longing, and less about acknowledgement.

“They’re pastries,” she answered with a flicker of a smile. “Made by Khajiit, with berries, lavender, soft cheese, and… Moon sugar,” she turned to him - eyes glistening in the midday gloom with something impish. “Not enough to affect you, but they certainly tingle.”

That lit up Gregor’s eyes. “Moon sugar? Truly?” he asked and whistled. “Now that’s something I’ve never tried before. Not enough to affect me, you say? Hm. Well, I suppose that’s for the best, lest we end up like drooling cats in a corner somewhere,” Gregor mused, amused.

“Oh, unless we stuff ourselves silly we’ll make it home quite fine,” she chuckled back at him, nudging him playfully before taking a corner, to find what was quite frankly, a hole in the wall of an establishment. It was the absolute opposite of The Long Well. The paint was peeling off the walls, and no two chairs were the same. Every table wobbled and every cushion was a different colour to the last.

Regardless of all of those things, the place was full and they were lucky enough to find a seat to begin with. Behind the bar were two Khajiit women in exotic looking dress taking orders and feeding them back to the kitchens. It was a busy establishment that looked as temporary as anything, as if tomorrow they could simply pack it up and move on.

“Take your seat — I’ll order,” Raelynn offered, her eyes sparkling. “What do you wish to drink? I recommend the tea…”

“I’ll have whatever you recommend,” Gregor said as he sat down and looked around. There was a lot to take in in the small, busy shop. From the mismatched furniture to the eclectic crowd of customers -- it was an exotic delight. “Wouldn’t know where to begin choosing anything in here anyway. How did you find this place?”

“Fjolte, actually,” Raelynn smiled. “When he first arrived here, and when he first started working for me, he brought me here.” There was a fondness in her voice that blew through any part of the melancholy that sat around from moments ago. “He told me they made the best cheese fondue, so if you’d like to try that too on his recommendation, it’s on me.”

He rubbed his hands together, getting well and truly excited about the lunch now. “Yes, please. I should’ve known, by the way. This has Fjolte written all over it. Although,” he said and hesitated briefly, “we drank shein based on his recommendation and that was… well, it was a disaster,” the silversmith admitted and he smiled sheepishly. “Either way, I’m sure the fondue will be good.”

“Ah,” she said, motioning knowingly with a point of her finger. “Was that the evening with the farm work by any chance?” Raelynn said, leaving her cloak over the back of her chair. “I want to hear all about it when I get back…” She wagged a finger in his face playfully before heading off through the crowd - weaving through the people carefully. Even in her heels she was still shorter than most around, but she carried herself as if she was the tallest in the room.

She returned only minutes later to resume her seat, sitting with perfect posture directly opposite Gregor. Even in midday, there was a darkened ambience in the place that invoked the illusion that it could easily have been midnight outside. Her heart fluttered in her chest at the sight of him, cloaked partially in moody shadows and maybe she looked for just a moment too long before she caught herself, and placed her hands in front of her and looked at those instead. “So… Care to tell me more about the shein? Or is this a no girls allowed to know kind of tale?”

Gregor squirmed in his seat. “Kind of?” he tried, unsure of how Raelynn would react. He was eager not to relay Fjolte’s adventure with the barmaid to Raelynn, since he was sure that would be seen as a betrayal of trust in the Nord’s eyes. “Well, not really,” he settled on, having decided what to say. “We were one-upping each other with our favorite drinks, as you do. We went from wine to brandy to whiskey and then he suggested shein. I didn’t know what it was, but not one to back down from a challenge I agreed. The bar… tender,” Gregor said tactfully, “tried to warn me but I didn’t listen. Not long after that we were stumbling around on the street, rolling around in the grass, that sort of thing. I may or may not have experienced an… oral expulsion.” Gregor laughed, groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Never again.”

Raelynn laughed along with him, trying to imagine the two of them together making a state of themselves. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so drunk in my life,” she commented. Her eyes narrowed in his direction as she sat deep in thought, exhaling slowly. “He thinks very highly of you, you know. I think he quite enjoys having another man around.”

Gregor nodded slowly. “I think the world of him too,” he said. “He’s one of the most honest and benevolent men that I’ve ever known.” The snort that followed had an undeniably cynical quality. “Certainly of better and stronger moral fiber than myself. I feel like I don’t deserve his friendship sometimes.”

“He’s the most loyal person I’ve had in my employ,” Raelynn said. “I don’t deserve him either,” she said honestly, the sight of a Khajiit carrying tea took her attention. The young maiden placed it down with a polite purr and nod at both Gregor and Raelynn.

“Black tea from Torval, this one is proud to serve it…” she said with a smile, pouring out two cups from the teapot delicately. “Your food will be along soon, beautiful guests of our house…” she continued with a bow of her head before slinking away again.

“I’m glad that he met you, Gregor,” Raelynn said quietly after the Khajiit had left, picking up her tea straight after and looking down into the contents instead of into his eyes.

Raelynn’s honesty about herself was surprising and Gregor regarded her with renewed curiosity. There was nothing about her behavior or her bearing that had suggested to him, until then, that she did not think particularly highly of herself. Or perhaps she did think highly of herself, of her intelligence, cunning and skill, and just not highly of her own character. It explained the vulnerability she had shown him in brief flashes.

“I am too,” Gregor said and leaned forward in his seat to place a comforting hand on her knee and pick up his own tea. It smelled deliciously fragrant and strong.

He leaned back into his chair and suddenly blurted out: “Do you think that we are good people?”

Her cup was placed back down onto the table and she straightened up at the question. Her tongue ran over her teeth, her gaze settled on Gregor’s eyes intensely. “Sometimes,” was her immediate answer, and she left the words to hang in the air, to move through the hot plumes of steam that rose between them from the tea pot and their respective cups.

“I do dishonest things to survive. So do you,” she commented frankly. “You have seen but a slight amount of the things I have done. Only what I show you, and there are a lot of skeletons in my closet… As I suspect there are in yours.” If Gregor was to ask a loaded question, a loaded answer he would receive.

Gregor swirled his tea and drank slowly, savoring the taste, watching Raelynn closely through the steam and the gloom of the establishment. She was unapologetic in her frankness about the nature of her business now -- that wasn’t something she saw as a moral weakness, Gregor surmised from the firm tone of her voice. That made sense to him, at least, since it was probably an attitude she had inherited from her father. So was it the way that she treated people that she was ashamed of?

“Fjolte loves you,” he said, ignoring what she suggested about his own closet. He sipped the tea again. It was really quite marvelous. “You know that, right?”

Somewhere behind them, people were laughing and enjoying their own moment, and that joy attempted to float over to their table, but it died in the air. Raelynn rubbed a finger behind her ear. “Yes,” she answered. She did not tear her eyes from his, his deep and dark orbs that were burning as fiercely as her own. “So it seems, did you.”

“I did. It was unmistakable, from the way he spoke of you.” He inhaled deeply and sighed. “That’s why I don’t feel like I deserve him. I really tried, you know. That night after Razul’s party…” Gregor’s mouth curled into a sardonic smirk. “I left because I wanted to be a loyal friend. And a faithful husband, for that matter.” Gregor shifted in his seat and lowered the cup of tea to his lap. His expression had turned serious again -- not accusatory or upset, just the face of a man who wanted Raelynn to listen closely to what he was about to say.

“You are the first and only skeleton in my closet, Raelynn,” Gregor said. “Before I came to Jehanna, I had never been unfaithful or disloyal to anyone, or inflicted harm on anyone who didn’t deserve it.” He waved dismissively. “Dead bandits don’t count,” Gregor added. He inclined his head towards her, not just indicating her but also as a show of respect from a defeated warrior to the victor. “You’re… different. Special.”

He ran a hand through his beard and a slow smile spread across his face. “Irresistible,” he mouthed.

If he had been trying to compliment her, to fan at the embers of whatever it was between them, the ice that came over her expression denied it. Her hands withdrew from the centre of the table, and took hold of her cup. “And what a closet it is,” she spoke, low but severe. Her own head cocked. “I may be the only skeleton in there but you made room for me…” Her jaw clenched and she broke eye contact, staring down at her tea.

“Yes,” he said quickly and held up a hand. “Yes, I did. I make no apologies for my own behavior and my own faults. You’re not some… temptress, who pulled me from the path of godliness,” Gregor explained. “There are… things going on in my life. Problems at home. It’s no excuse, I know, but it’s the reason.” He inhaled sharply and clenched the cup of tea tightly. “I was unhappy. That opened the door to seeing you in ways that I…” He trailed off and sighed, unable to find the right words to finish the sentence. “You are irresistible to me. Not as a diversion, or an indulgence, but as a woman. Everything about you.” It almost sounded like he was pleading for her to understand. “I’m simply too weak to walk away. But you know what? This,” he said and gestured to the both of them, “doesn’t feel like a mistake to me. Does it feel like a mistake to you?”

“I understand,” Raelynn nodded slowly, tucking her hair behind her ear, letting go of the tea. “Your problems at home,” she repeated, bringing her hand to her chin, tilting her head up. “I’m just the fantasy, where it’s safe to have one. You come here on your quest, with your empty closet and you meet me and you see a challenge,” she shrugged, her nose scrunched. “Have the cold woman, have the friend, be the hero — and then what? You finish your quest and you return home with memories of me under your skin and on your body until you pay it back to your wife in penance, or in flowers…” She sighed, bringing the cup to her lips but it only tasted bitter. She didn’t feel like understanding him.

“I don’t feel like it was a mistake, but maybe more of it would be.” Raelynn uttered quietly, closing her eyes.

“You’re a cynic,” Gregor said. “That’s fine. I understand. Between your father and what happened with you and Sir Gaerford, you are inclined to see the worst in men. I don’t blame you for that, and I can’t make you believe me. I can only reiterate what I said before. You are not a challenge or a fantasy to me. Have you forgotten that I already have what I came here for? The ring you gave me has enough mithril in it to make a very fine piece with,” he reminded her. His tone was stern but not unkind. “I could return at any time and call the quest a resounding success.”

He spread his arms and his gaze softened while he looked at her. “Why do you think I’m still here?”

“I don’t know,” Raelynn sighed, and looked away. “You’re astute. I am a cynic.” Quickly, her head snapped back to face him, a storm brewed behind her eyes. “But keep telling me about myself, and why I view the world as I do,” she said, brushing her fingers over the wood grain on the surface of the table. “I’m curious,” her eyebrows raised as she waited for his answer.

Aware that he may have overstepped his bounds, Gregor tread carefully when he answered her request. “I believe,” he began, “that you have been frequently disappointed by the men in your life. Even here, in Jehanna, you told me that your dating efforts were fruitless. You feel alone. You’re a very strong woman -- I am certainly no match for you when it comes to your resourcefulness, your ambition and your authority -- but there is another side to you.” He smiled when he recalled the memories. “When you asked me to hold you on Razul’s ship, I saw it for the first time. We connected then and there. The way you talked about those long summer afternoons with your mother on the balcony… I felt that. You’ve been starved of that kind of affection for too long.” His smile faltered and he looked away. “And so have I. We’re not so different, in that regard. It’s just that our stories have played out differently. Your betrothal ended. My marriage is currently…” Gregor closed his mouth, opened it, and closed it again, unable to say the words until he mustered the courage. “Falling apart,” he finished.

“We can’t have children,” Gregor said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “I think it broke her heart. She’s always in pain and I don’t know how to reach her, or how to make it better.” He put the teacup on the table with trembling fingers. “But you… I understand you. I could reach you. And you let me, and it felt so right…” He took a deep breath and leaned back into his chair, weary and suddenly much older in the half-light of the shop. He clasped his hands across his lap and looked at her with heavy-lidded eyes. “Correct me if I’m wrong.”

She had listened to his words, and at one point had looked away — she was unable to watch his mouth form the words that she was hearing. The laughter from beyond their table was silent and only she and Gregor were there now. “I am not starved,” she lied, although it was hidden well behind the veneer she was only just keeping together. “I am not starved because I do not crave anything. Dating is fruitless because don’t crave affection. I am satisfied with my life,” she stopped, her voice shaking and so she took a long sip of the tea.

“I’m sorry for your wife’s troubles, I am sorry she is hurting.” Raelynn swallowed down something, rising bitterness? Anger? Upset? And once more she turned her eyes to Gregor, soft this time— and her voice a whisper. “Please don’t make me the comparison to her, please don’t.” Raelynn shook her head subtly, she wasn’t sure why her reaction to this topic was to be defensive and difficult. Being confronted with everything only made her reach for the bricks she’d knocked down and rebuild her wall — to see it all as a chip in her foundation.

“Do you want to save your marriage?” She asked, her jaw clenched again as she attempted to regain her composure.

Gregor bit his lip, defeated. He could tell she was retreating from him. Of course she was hurt by the confrontation with the very things that would most likely stop them from developing their relationship any further. If Gregor did the right thing, it would be like everything between them had never happened -- should never have happened. She was protecting herself. “As you wish,” he said and swallowed hard. “You don’t owe me anything. I’m sorry.”

As for her question, he faltered when answering. “I… yes. Or at least, I wanted to. Shouldn’t I?” Gregor asked, visibly insecure and uncertain. “A good man would try.”

Then he suddenly sat up straight and frowned. “I did try. For years, I tried. But it’s like… she wants me to fix things, to make her feel better, but she also pushes me away. I don’t know if this is something I can fix.” Gregor paused and breathed. It was the first time he had ever admitted it out loud. “I don’t know if I can save my marriage,” he said, asserting the thought out loud, looking at a point over Raelynn’s shoulder. “Maybe it’s just… beyond my reach.”

Then fear came over him. He could feel the foundations of his life slip beneath his feet. Gregor grabbed the armrests of his chair with both hands. “But… then… I don’t know,” he whispered and sank back into the chair. “I don’t know.”

It broke her heart to see him stumble so. Any thoughts and preconceptions about Mrs Mercurius were gone, and in the moment Raelynn couldn't remember how she'd imagined the woman to be up until now, up until Gregor had spoken about her. Now she could just see their shattered life. Broken glass that had spilled even under her door - she knew that if she reached out to Gregor, it would hurt her too. She'd made that mistake, they'd made it together.

"I think that it's only fair to all involved that you… Figure that out," the Breton said after a long pause. Fighting back her instinct to embrace him, to invite him home with her to comfort him. She thought of Hugo too, he was a good man, and now he was at risk of being wounded. Together they'd created an environment that was dangerous to step on. "I'm sorry Gregor."

It took a few seconds for the implication of her words to sink in. Gregor looked at her and could feel, like waves rushing into shore, an urge, a deep longing, to speak, to cry out -- to ask her if they could be together if he divorced his wife. But he closed the gate shut on that madness before it could see the light of day. That was not anywhere near the type of burden he had any right to place on her. She was not responsible for giving him a safety net to help him make such a decision. Gregor reminded himself of what he had thought in Luellin’s shop -- he was not entitled to her support. The way she had phrased her statement had left the door open just enough to shine a little light into the darkness of his room, and he would have to make do with that -- but the decision should be made for himself and for Briar, first and foremost.

“You’re right,” he said softly. “It is. And… I’m sorry, too, for dragging you into this… making my problems your problems. You don’t deserve that.” Gregor cleared his throat and sat up a little straighter. Knowing that he had a decision to make and that life would continue afterwards, either way, had steeled him a little. “In the meantime, I hope that we can remain…” How on Nirn was he going to phrase this? “Associates,” he tried, but it tasted wrong. “Friends,” Gregor tried again. That seemed better. “Close friends?”

She watched as Gregor chose his words, it was as if Raelynn could see his thoughts moving around behind his eyes. He at least seemed to have composed himself, but inside she was less so. Her chest ached, and her stomach turned in knots with every word he said. She couldn't stay. Raelynn wanted to run out and back home… To tear away down the pathways and over the stone until she reached The Long Well and could absolutely drown her sorrows in the bath - with Shona at her aid.

Raelynn needed Shona. She needed a closed door to sob behind and to be out of the small tavern that was beginning to suffocate her. "I'm sorry," she said, breaking her silence at last. "I really, I have to get back to my work…" Without giving him time to react, she stood from her seat and placed her hands neatly in front of her. "Please, I insist you stay… Eat… Think…" she added, waving a hand over the tea - her own cup had the smudge of her lipstick against the rim. Red, as always.

As she turned to make her way out she paused again, "Oh and Gregor," Raelynn began. "I was not dragged anywhere. I'm not a good person, I walked that path willingly…"

His fear swung the other way. Fear of losing his life became fear of losing Raelynn, but he was frozen to the spot by the weight of his woes. Gregor looked up at her with a heavy heart. “That may be, but I’m glad you did,” he said. “You make my life brighter.”

She regarded him with a sad expression, unsure of how their morning had brought them here. Everything had seemed so perfect until it wasn't. Raelynn picked up her bags and gave him one last look. "Take care of yourself, I'll be… I'll be seeing you." The last of her words were touched with a cracking fragility, that suggested that when she turned her back as was walking out, she may have cried. He would never know.

Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Stormflyx
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Stormflyx S U P E R L O V E

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11th First Seed

It always surprised Fjolte just how quickly the time passed — especially when he was doing nothing. It was as if the days just slipped right through his fingers and were carried away and out of his reach forever. He frequently mourned the days where nothing happened, and when he heard no word from Raelynn, and no word from Gregor, he had taken himself to the mountains. He could always find something to be done there, to detox himself of the cosmopolitan life of Jehanna and cleanse out the politics and danger with nature.

The wild tundra was his playground, and he had informed Raelynn of his sabbatical with a bunch of fresh yellow daisies. He stopped worrying about being needed after a day, and had forgotten pretty much everything else after that. Any emotional ailment was mended by the harsh mountainscape and the activities it allowed. Rock climbing, diving, caving. Even the wounds he sustained were mended by nature herself, near frozen alpine water and plants along the way.

Being back in Jehanna was jarring to say the least. His room felt small and constricting, the air was always heavier and hard to swallow down. When he had called on his employer, she had not been there. Shona had tried to explain where she was but the Nord could barely understand her body language. He only understood that she was not in danger, and that was enough.

The temptations of city life were not lost, no matter how often he slipped back into the embrace of the wild, he would surely find an altogether different embrace when he rejoined society. Last night had been especially fruitful. He was looking good, his body toned further from the relentless graft, his beard had grown out and looked rugged enough to entice the fairer sex. Two fair maidens lay at either side of him. A blonde, and a darker haired woman. He smiled to himself, and gave a smile of acknowledgment to the sky above. Bless you Kynareth, he thought — despite such things being so little to do with the divines at all.

The Nord thought briefly of the masquerade ball, of all that happened there. Being enclosed in the walls of the Inn seemed to bring back everything that he’d pushed aside. He needed to talk to Gregor. He frowned, it was such an inopportune time to think of the Imperial, when he was sandwiched between two beautiful women — but something wasn’t sitting right with him, and he reluctantly tore himself away.

He quickly dressed himself, and set about the streets of Jehanna…

“Fjolte!” Gregor called out, surprised but gratified that he had managed to find the Nord so easily -- before he’d even reached the man’s accommodation. He waved to him to catch his attention. Gregor was wearing his traveling clothes again, the familiar black and red overcoat now finally properly rid of the bloodstains of their fight with the Daedroth, and his sword was sheathed across his back. The ancestral Mercurius ruby set into the pommel caught the sunlight rather handsomely. He looked like had been sleeping poorly, but there was a hungry fire in his eyes and a forceful energy in his limbs. “Gods, you look good!” he said, impressed by how fit Fjolte appeared.

He had been dead set on his path when Gregor appeared to his side, the hand waving in the air and he couldn't ignore it. He looked so smart, as always - but there were some terrible dark circles under his eyes. "Ah! Just the man I was looking for," he said with a happy grin, wrapping his arms around the Imperial without checking that he was comfortable with that. He had missed him. "You're looking as dapper as always yourself," Fjolte added, shaking Gregor at the shoulder. "It's been weeks!"

“Far too long, far too long,” Gregor concurred. He then realized what Fjolte had said and cocked his head at him. “You were looking for me?”

Fjolte nodded, "Aye! Checking you're still here. Wanted to talk to you, have ourselves a mess around even. That's if you have time for me, of course."

Gregor smiled. “Sounds great. I was looking for you too, actually. Have you had breakfast yet?”

The Nord quirked a brow at that, but didn't say anything about it -- thinking only of food now. "I could murder some potato bread and eggs… And sausage, ham… Bacon. All of it," Fjolte sighed. "Lead the way!"

As commanded, Gregor brought them to a local eatery that had been a local favorite of his since he had arrived in Jehanna. The staff knew him by face and greeted him warmly, which he reciprocated with charm. Despite the sleeplessness that was evident in his appearance, Gregor was full of life and vigor. “Sit, sit,” he said to Fjolte and gestured towards a comfortable chair at a table in the back. “I’ll get you what you want.” He stepped up to the counter and drummed a little tune on the top with his knuckles while he waited, bouncing up and down on his heels.

“I’ll have the usual, and my friend over there wants the whole menu,” he said with a grin and pointed at Fjolte when one of the maids was ready to take his order.

She followed his gaze and laughed conspiratorially. “Careful with your generosity, mister, or you’ll ruin that body of his,” she retorted and let her gaze linger on Fjolte for a moment longer before she turned to the kitchen to have his order prepared.

Gregor chuckled and returned to the table, taking a seat opposite him. “The food is on its way. Now tell me -- you first -- what did you want to talk to me about?”

Relaxed in his seat, the Nord let his eyes wander the room and the patrons that sat at their tables, enjoying the morning too. Just regular people, going about their day. Fjolte brought a hand to his chest and let his fingers rub over his ribs. "Had a lot of time to think out there, about that night at the Lord's." He sighed, and brought his hand back to the table. "Tried not to, but got thinking about it all when I got home yesterday too. Those thieves, they were good. Too good, if you ask me. Don't you think?"

What with everything that had happened since, Gregor hadn’t considered it. The thieves… their fight in the vault already seemed like so long ago, the memory faint and insignificant in comparison to the great, life-changing plans that dominated Gregor’s mind. “I suppose so,” he said slowly. “But not that good, because we beat them. Right?”

"I just got to wondering… If there are more? I don't know… We beat them only just. Ahh, it's nothing. Just paranoid mumblings," he shrugged, turning his lips at the corners. "Just seemed a bit organised, a movement, even. I don't know Gregor, I've been alone for a bit I'm going mad probably."

“Well, now that you mention it…” Gregor mused and rubbed his beard. “They did seem pretty fanatical about the whole thing. Like they were willing to die for a cause. Which begs the question… what cause?” He wagged a finger at Fjolte. “You might be onto something here, young man. But I wouldn’t know where to start investigating something like that. Do you?”

"No idea, friend," Fjolte replied with a shrug. "Raelynn would know, was thinking to ask her about it. Gods know I could use some work right now," he chuckled. "But the cause… They wanted to make a bloodbath of a noble surrounded by their riches… Just seems too strange to be a one off, Gregor."

“I have work for you,” Gregor said quickly, capitalizing on the sentiment as soon as Fjolte displayed it. “And it’s for Raelynn, though she doesn’t know about it yet. I want it to be a surprise. Are you in?”

His blue eyes narrowed, and Fjolte thought about it. "A surprise, ey? What is it you're proposing here?"

Gregor shook his head. “I need to know whether or not I can count on you first. So, are you in?”

His face turned to an expression that displayed offense, and he spread his arms out before laughing, "Gregor! Have I not proven it to you already?" He shook his head, but there was no malice. "Fine, fine, I'm in. Got bugger all else to do…"

Relieved and pleased, Gregor clapped his hands together. “Capital! Now, as for the details. Do you know the story of what happened between Raelynn and Sir Gaerford?”

"No," Fjolte replied, a brow raised curiously. "Who is Sir Galeford?"

“Gaerford,” the Imperial corrected him and smiled. “You must promise never to speak of this to anyone else, ever, alright?”

"Grayferd, yes, yes… I won't tell a soul." As if to demonstrate, Fjolte placed a hand over his mouth. "It'll die with me," he said, muffled.

“Good. Sir Gaerford is a noble from Wayrest that Raelynn was betrothed to, once upon a time. Things… ended poorly. He has a preference for men, apparently,” Gregor said flatly, “that he did not tell Raelynn about. Instead he just made her feel lonely and unwanted, which broke her heart because she loved him very much, until he was discovered and she ended the engagement. It was messy and emotional. She spared him the public disgrace of revealing his sexuality to the world, and he repaid her by keeping the Deserine family diamond that she gave him."

Gregor smirked darkly. "That's where we come in. I want to get her that diamond back. It means a lot to her, so it's the right thing to do aside from probably being very lucrative, because she is wealthy and would be most grateful to us for its return. If you catch my drift."

Something changed in Fjolte's expression, the smile faded and he was left looking dismal. "That… That explains so much," he muttered, looking down to the ground. He paid little attention to the story about the diamond, he could only picture Raelynn - confused and hurt. He'd seen that look on her before and it always did steal away the beauty she had.

Something instinctual came over him, this was a private story of Raelynn's that she had confided in Gregor, and he didn't know that she'd like the diamond returned as a surprise… "Why the secrecy, why can't we tell her?"

“Because she’d never agree to it,” Gregor said. “It might be too painful of a topic to contemplate for very long, and it would doubtlessly be on her mind the whole time if she knew we were trying to retrieve it. But she wants it back. I know that for sure. Thus, it’s better as a surprise.”

The Nord nodded along, agreeing with the Imperial. He had no more resistance to offer, he trusted Gregor. He did however, take a breath in and brought his finger down onto the surface between them. "Not to mention that's where Sirion is, ey?" Fjolte said, expecting that if Gregor knew about this Gaerford, he would surely know more of Raelynn's affairs. "She'll not want to think about him either."

Gregor narrowed his eyes. "Who's Sirion?"

That was a surprise As the Imperial's narrowed, Fjolte's widened and he swiftly drew back his arm and tucked it under his chin. "Who's who now? I don't…" he muttered, looking anywhere but at Gregor. "I didn't say that," he tried to smile, it was sheepish and awkward. "I said, err, now that you mention it where is my… sirloin." He scratched the back of his neck awkwardly, squinting.

The Imperial laughed and shook his head. “You’re a terrible liar, Fjolte. Come on, out with it. Who is it?”

Fjolte brought his fist down on the table, and clenched his jaw like he was holding the words in until he simply couldn't. "Her brother, he's her brother," he groaned, before pointing a finger at Gregor, "I did not just mention that. And I'm saying nothing else. Not til you tell me something!"

That was a surprise. “She has a brother? In Wayrest?” Gregor asked in disbelief and raised his eyebrows practically up to his hairline. He wanted to ask more questions but he acknowledged Fjolte’s demand with a nod. “Alright, alright, that’s fair. What do you want to know?”

"I didn't know she had a Sir Grayford, so don't look at me like that," Fjolte shrugged. "Is there something wrong?," he asked frankly. The Nord may have let details slip away from him from time to time, and he may not have always paid attention to things around him - but he could see in the shadows under Gregor's eyes that something was amiss.

His first instinct was to deny that something was wrong, but Gregor closed his mouth again. Fjolte was his friend and had been nothing but kind and understanding. The need for secrecy had seemed obvious before, but… Gregor began to wonder if, perhaps, he could tell Fjolte about what had happened after all. But he didn’t feel comfortable doing so just yet, so he decided to reveal part of the truth.

“Well… yes,” Gregor admitted. “Being out here, working for Raelynn, working with you -- the Daedroth, what an adventure that was! It’s all given me plenty of time to think and evaluate what I… want from life, I suppose, but also what I can do in the life I currently have. I don’t know… it’s just that… I don’t think I can save my marriage,” he said. The accompanying pained expression that flitted over his face deepened the bags under his eyes and the gauntness of his cheeks. “We’re not right for each other anymore. I don’t know how to help her or how to make her happy, and she deserves somebody that does. Realizing that… well, it hasn’t helped me sleep, let’s put it that way.”

"Well," Fjolte began with a breath in, having listened to Gregor's tale. He ran a hand through his beard, sad to have heard it. He remembered how hopeful that the man had been that he could have saved it. "Sometimes we just change, our lives change, as people and as souls we move and grow over time. What used to fit doesn't… The winds erode some of us, some of us take deeper root to where we are, some of us are like the stream and rush onwards." He sighed, scratching at his chin.

"I'm sorry to hear it my friend, I really am… How will you tell her? I mean, have you thought of that?" He asked, casting a glance back to Gregor with concern worn across his face.

Fjolte’s words were surprisingly profound and Gregor found that listening to them, really listening to them, helped to soothe his aching heart. “Thank you,” he said quietly, averted his gaze and blinked a few times. After a deep breath and cracking a few knuckles, he turned his attention back to the Nord. “I have the entirety of the journey back to Bravil to think about that,” he muttered.

“When my work here is done, when Raelynn has the diamond, I’ll go. There will be lots of matters to take care of, things to arrange. She should have the house... I think I’ll come back here,” Gregor said and looked around, smiling faintly. “Jehanna agrees with me. I like the Bretons and their society. I’ll deliver my masterpiece to the Guild in Cyrodiil, obtain my mastership… and then maybe I’ll open up my own smithy here. What do you think?”

“I think that sounds marvellous,” he smiled agreeably at Gregor’s idea. “These Bretons are in good need of someone to make their trinkets, you’d make your fortune here, I know it.” Fjolte relaxed back in his chair, it creaked as he did so and his smile changed. “I think that it’s so confusing because you’ll always love her, and she’ll always love you… That love simply changes, that’s all.” He heaved another big sigh, lips curling into a boyish smirk, “so if taking you to Wayrest and seeing to it that you don’t get hurt, killed, or make a complete arse out of yourself takes your mind off it… Well my friend. I’m all yours.”

Gregor doubted that she would always love him. Leaving her would devastate her. He knew that, and yet he saw no other option that wouldn’t make himself miserable for the rest of his life. Gregor knew what he wanted. Who he wanted. But he smiled those thoughts away and grinned. “Excellent. Thank you, Fjolte, from the bottom of my heart.”

The maid arrived balancing two plates of food -- one quite modest, just some local cheeses, nuts and fruits, and the other filled to the rim with a bit of everything that the eatery had to offer -- and placed them in front of the two men, her gaze lingering on Fjolte with a coy smile. “Here you go, boys, your meals, please enjoy.”

Fjolte only had eyes for the plate in front of him, and he was at a loss with where to start. “Thank you m’lady,” he uttered up at her with an excited grin. “I most certainly will enjoy it.” Having lived solely off of rabbits and other game meats for over a week, the sight was to die for, grease pooling in the bottom with enough potato bread to soak it all up. He stabbed a sausage with his fork and took a large bite — eyeing up Gregor’s breakfast. “That a Bravia breakfast?” He asked, chewing away. “Half surprised you’re not skin and bone eating that.”

Gregor quirked a brow. “Bravil,” he said. “Not particularly, no, but we do believe that a light breakfast is preferable. I don’t know how you Nords do it, but for the rest of us mere mortals,” Gregor continued and smiled, “eating that much food in the morning incapacitates us until noon.”

“We Nords have steel stomachs, we’re weaned on meals this size,” he laughed. “But truly, my secret is a big breakfast, a small lunch, and smaller dinner, and then an even smaller second dinner. Sometimes the other way…” Fjolte smiled, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. “Ma always said if I wanted to grow up big I should eat enough to grow. I listened.”

“Funny,” the silversmith said and chuckled. “My mother always told us off. ‘You’re not a boar, don’t stuff yourselves!’ It was important to her that we didn’t eat too much, or too little. It had to be proper. The right amount. Just so. If she could see me now I think she’d glare at me just for sitting at the same table as you.”

That made him glance down at his food, and he pushed the eggs across the plate with the back of his fork thoughtfully. “She might give you a glare, but I’d win her over with my charm in a shake of a lamb's tail,” Fjolte chuckled.

After wolfing down the eggs and bacon with his usual finesse, Fjolte looked across at Gregor and cleared his throat. “But more importantly, my friend, we have to get to Wayrest. What exactly is your plan so far? How are we to get back this diamond?” He rubbed his chin yet again with the back of his hand, taking down an enormous mouthful of water with a heavy gulp. “And, what are we going to tell Raelynn? This journey will take us ten days at least there and back if we go on horseback and ride on some quick fucking stallions-- she’ll be without us for all that time… I suppose she’ll have to rely on some of her other employees,” he mumbled, answering his own question. He didn’t like the thought of leaving her longer still, especially as he hadn’t even seen her since he’d returned.

“You want to steal a diamond from a noble - we’re going to have to have a watertight plan of attack my friend.” Fjolte said at last, with a sigh as he looked to Gregor with expectant eyes. “Last thing we want is to be thrown into a cell over that way.”

What to tell Raelynn, indeed? Gregor realized he hadn’t thought about that at all, and had only concerned himself with the details of what to do when they actually got to Wayrest. “I suppose… we’ll have to tell her that I’ve gone to Wayrest for silversmithing business, and I’ve asked you to come along as my friend.” He smiled. “Just two boys on the road, you know? It’s not a total lie, either, because Raelynn mentioned that she would like for me to craft a new piece of jewelry with the diamond as its centerpiece. With the mithril from the ring she gave me and the Deserine family diamond, whatever I create could also double as my masterpiece for my mastery exams with the Guild,” Gregor explained and winked.

“As for the plan of attack, here’s what I’m thinking. Raelynn knows that Sir Gaerford added insult to injury by giving the diamond -- I believe it’s currently in a ring -- to his new wife. If he has repeated the same pattern of behavior with her as he did with Raelynn, she is also currently… well,” the silversmith said in a low voice, “happily, or unhappily by my estimation, unfucked. Raelynn’s words. Now, of all things in this world, what are young noblewomen trapped in a castle with a loveless husband exceedingly vulnerable to?”

Gregor looked at Fjolte suggestively.

Fjolte's face dropped, his eyebrows straightened and he shook his head. "Are you whoring me out for a job, Gregor? That what you need me for is it?" His lips pursed, and he momentarily put down his cutlery.

“Come on, Fjolte! Are you really willing to pass up the opportunity to stick it to the man that hurt Raelynn by seducing his wife under his own roof and making off with a diamond that doesn’t rightfully belong to him?” Gregor said and gestured animatedly with his fork. “Forget about me for a second. I’m just the man with the idea. The ultimate benefactor of this whole scheme is Raelynn herself. Wouldn’t you be willing to do this for her? Also, Sir Gaerford’s wife is liable to be exceedingly pretty, you know. Nobles have nothing if not fine taste in women.”

The Nord scoffed, balling his hand into a fist as he rolled his eyes. "I'm not a cock for hire, Gregor," he laughed in disbelief at being asked this. "Committing adultery? Being with another man's wife? Whether she's getting some or not--" he gasped, leaning forwards to run a hand through his hair. "It wouldn't feel right. What if she's so lonely that she decides she wants more and here I am, sticking it to her, her husband, and then making off with her jewel? I don't know Gregor… I wouldn't feel good about it."

Fjolte took a moment to think about Raelynn, her story, and of how much the diamond meant to her. He couldn't believe Gregor would play that card, but it was a solid one to play. "That will be a last resort, Gregor. If we can't get it any other way…" he groaned and slumped forwards more. "She probably is beautiful though…"

“I bet it’ll feel right when you’re getting some of that tight, desperate…” Gregor trailed off and mouthed the last word, conscious of the other patrons around them. The light of mischief in his eyes sparkled brightly for a moment, before he turned more serious. “But alright, fair points. You don’t have to actually sleep with her. Getting her alone in a room somewhere so that we can take the ring from her is enough, we can leave after that. Aside from the seduction ploy, do you have any ideas? We don’t have to do it my way, per se, but it’s the best plan I could think of.”

"If you're so bloody well into that idea why don't --" Fjolte stopped himself before he went too far, raising his hand apologetically. "Sorry, don't mean to offend," he added.

The Nord took a moment to take a bite of the potato bread, and he chewed thoughtfully, searching his brain for anything decent but it came up empty. "Gods blessed me with brawn, not brains. We'll do it your way…" he relented.

Gregor tapped against his wedding ring with his thumb. “I’m not divorced yet, Fjolte. I know it’s a lot to ask and I wouldn’t have come to you if it was something I could do myself,” he lied smoothly. The truth was that he estimated Fjolte to be more likely to successfully seduce Lady Gaerford than he himself would be. The Nord was probably the exact opposite of Trystan; a wild storm of a man, untamed and raw and sincere. If his wife was anything like Raelynn, Gregor figured that she would have come to resent Sir Gaerford and everything he stood for. By comparison, Fjolte would be tantalizingly exotic and refreshing.

“Thank you,” he said empathically and placed his hands together in front of his chest. “Raelynn is going to love it, I promise.” Gregor felt a twinge of guilt at deceiving and using Fjolte for his own plans and desires but it was quickly washed away by the thought of Raelynn’s reaction to seeing the tiara he planned to make for her… and what that would mean for them, together. His heart practically skipped a beat as he imagined it once more, the fantasy having already kept him up through most of the previous nights.

“If it makes her happy,” Fjolte sighed, waving a dismissive hand at Gregor before he took another swig of his water. “Then it’s worth it,” he breathed out, scratching behind the back of his ear with his index finger. “Might be nice to romance a few other Wayrest girls anyway, I’ve been through Jehanna by now,” he chuckled almost darkly. He gazed off into the distance with a boyish smile, the mischief in Gregor’s eyes catching the baby blue hue of his own. “And whatever I end up doing, it’ll be good to work with you again, friend.”

“That’s the spirit,” Gregor grinned and raised his mug of water in a mock toast. “The ladies of Wayrest won’t know what hit them. Somebody should warn them that the King of the Pack is coming, otherwise this’ll practically be unfair. Defenseless, doe-eyed maidens, caught unawares…” The Imperial trailed off and chuckled. “Ah, if only I were a younger man.”

“Now now, I know you’re not divorced just yet, so I mean no disrespect,” as if to demonstrate that, Fjolte placed his hand over his heart with a sly smirk. “But I’ve seen the way the women here look at you too, you’re a handsome chap. You’re also not that old, friend,” the Nord laughed. “I think that Camille might have tried it on with you, had I not been there, of course.”

“Perhaps, but we’ll never know if we keep spending time together,” Gregor said and laughed. “I can’t compete with you!” An idea came to him. It was a devious question to ask, and potentially risky, but Gregor wanted to know whether Fjolte suspected anything. “Say,” he began, and cleared his throat to indicate that he meant what he was about to say seriously. “Do you think… do you think Raelynn likes me?” he asked cautiously, with all the airs of a man who didn’t really dare entertain the notion he was asking after.

That question was unexpected, and the way that Gregor brought the conversation back to Raelynn when they had been so light-hearted made him curious as to why, but he thought no more about it and got to thinking about his answer instead. “I think she does,” he said, truthfully, with a shrug. “I saw how she looked at you when you gave her that heart. Wasn’t really a friendly glance,” his mouth pulled to the side and his eyebrows raised. “But who knows who Raelynn does or does not like? She seems very set with our good friend Hugo Desena right now.” His gaze fell back to his plate. “She changes her mind like the weather, Gregor.”

Gregor was silent for a few moments. “A tempest,” he said eventually, his voice soft, eyes fixed on Fjolte. Was he really getting in his friend’s way? If he was honest, Gregor didn’t think that Fjolte ever had a chance with Raelynn to begin with. They were so different. He was too pure and selfless for someone like her. “But you’re right, I find her hard to read as well,” he added as he spoke up and returned his attention to his food, feigning casual indifference as best as he could. “I’m just glad that she’s true to her word,” he said between bites.

"Mmm," Fjolte hummed in agreement before returning to the last of his breakfast. "She is indeed." As he took a bite of bread, he eyed Gregor curiously and chewed slower. "Do you like her?" He asked, thinking it was only fair.

Could this be the opportunity towards opening up an honest line of communication with Fjolte? Gregor figured he could at least be honest about this, and then see how the Nord would react. “Yes,” he admitted, and then smiled sheepishly. “Not something I should be thinking about, I know, but… you know how it is. She’s intelligent, beautiful, capable -- what’s a man to do? Close his eyes and stuff his ears?”

Fjolte found that he was only surprised for a moment, it had been like he had said when he first met the Imperial. That he had eyes, and that Raelynn was beautiful. It would take an incredibly strong man to resist, or one like Sir Gaerford. “I know what you mean,” the Nord shrugged. He wasn’t without his own attraction to the woman. “Honestly Gregor, I’d rather she spent her time on a man like you than that prick she spends her days with right now.” He felt guilty to admit it, and he looked down briefly as if he regretted the words. “I don’t mean to suggest anything about Hugo, that was rude of me, and uncalled for.”

“It’s alright, I don’t care much for the man either,” Gregor reassured him and smiled. So Fjolte didn’t mind him and Raelynn being together? Or did he mean ‘a man like you’ literally, and was he just praising his character? “He was quite rude to me in the vault and I’ve seen the way he looks at Raelynn. It was like there was just… nothing there, behind his eyes.” Gregor picked at his food for a bit before he sighed and looked at Fjolte again.

“Don’t you want to be with Raelynn yourself?” he asked.

The Nord leaned back in his chair and took in a deep breath and smiled, “No,” he answered sincerely. “You could say that the ship already sailed, friend.”

That was a surprise. “What… what happened?” Gregor asked. “If you don’t mind me asking. If that’s too private, I understand completely.”

Fjolte let his arm hang over the back of his chair, glancing down as he recalled the evening. “There had been a violent storm, and Raelynn had celebrated her birthday as she always does, apparently… I hadn’t known her for too long at this point,” he explained, gesturing softly with his hands, his entire posture softened in the seat and his eyes sparkled. “I was bringing her flowers, handpicked them, even in the storm. By the time I got to The Long Well they were destroyed. I had feelings for her, you know?” he sighed. The Nord paused before giving a carefree shrug of his shoulders again, as if to say ‘who could blame me’.

“I got there and she was just… Drunk. Drunker than I’ve seen a woman get. A mess, you know?” Fjolte brought his hand to his mouth and shook his head. “Could smell it on her. If I were to light her hearth the whole place would blow up,” he laughed sardonically. “She was crying too, cried her make up off and the whole front of her dress was just wet with it,” he dabbed at his own front to indicate. He then felt bad for painting this picture of her for Gregor, but it was just as much his own secret as it was hers. “She was suddenly so overjoyed to see me, with flowers, in the doorway and she, well… She tried to, flirting and stuff…” a bashful expression overcame him, and he left it at that, sparing the details.

“Long story short, I couldn’t— wouldn’t do it. Not like that. I put her to bed, and then I realised that I just… I just don’t want to see her cry like that again, you know?” Fjolte rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and looked away from Gregor, regretting telling him, but at the same time feeling free of the weight of it. “Like I said, love changes.”

The Imperial sat stock-still during Fjolte’s story and for a while afterwards. The only moving part of him was his jaw, working away, chewing on the inside of his lips, like a man wracked by anxiety or deep in thought. Love changes. Fjolte had laid bare the depth of his feelings for Raelynn and Gregor found that he felt, that he knew, that he could trust him, utterly and completely. More than anyone else, Fjolte would understand him, and Gregor was struck by the beauty of the Nord’s soul.

“I’m in love with her,” he blurted out, simultaneously exhaling the breath he had been holding in. “Gods preserve me….” Gregor’s voice was shaky. “I’m in love with her, Fjolte. I didn’t know how to tell you before. You’re so…” He trailed off and shook his head. “I thought you would hate me, or judge me -- you have every right to do so. I’m married, and I’ve known the whole time that you had feelings for her. I thought you still did, and that I was getting in your way and that I was being a horrible friend. But I couldn’t stop myself,” Gregor rambled on, looking more haggard than ever. “Maybe I wasn’t, but I thought that I was, and things… still happened. When we were alone. I’m sorry.” Gregor groaned and buried his face in his hands.

“I don’t deserve you as a friend, I really don’t,” he said, his voice muffled.

Now that was a surprise, and Fjolte’s face expressed as much. All he could do for a while was watch Gregor, listen, and find a way to understand him. The Nord did not tense up, he did not clench a fist or his jaw, he just listened. All that happened was that he breathed deeper, filling his whole chest with the air before exhaling. “It’s not up to you to decide whether you deserve me, Gregor. And there is no ‘way’ when it comes to Raelynn. I love her,” he admitted with a smile, placing a hand on his chest. “With all of this, I do. But we’re two different people. She’s as changing as the clouds above and I’m as solid and wild as the tundra on the ground. So I love her how I can and that’s just…” His hand moved to the back of his head and he scratched. “As I am, I won’t change for her, and she won’t change for me. The only person who decides on the ‘way’ of this, is Raelynn.”

Fjolte still didn’t want to ask about what ‘things’ had happened, that could be left between Gregor and Raelynn, he had no business in it. “You’re my friend for the long haul, Mercurius. Written in the stars that one,” he smiled, pointing up to the ceiling of the Tavern. “So, as your friend… I suppose I vow to get you that diamond. Because… Something tells me it’s important to your heart.”

All of the guilt and the tension that had poisoned Gregor's mind and kept him awake throughout the night was wiped away like shadows as the sun broke through the clouds. An immense relief washed over him, followed swiftly by an overwhelming love for the man in front of him that welled up in his heart and spilled out over the edge. Gregor drew another shaky breath but there was no containing it -- hot tears fell from his eyes, ran down his cheeks and disappeared into his beard. There was so much he wanted to say and a powerful desire to pull Fjolte into a tight embrace, but limited by the public venue they found themselves in and hamstrung by the depth of his emotions, Gregor could only say one thing. "Thank you," he whispered.

With a smile, he observed as Gregor’s tension melted away, and he felt nothing but happiness in his own heart - like it had grown a size larger to hear that Gregor had found love. There was much to arrange and to mend, but how could he be anything other than happy for the man? Now, he just had to find a way to allow Gregor to dress in that radiance from head to toe, to bathe in it and enjoy the love that he was feeling. It didn’t even cross his mind as to whether Raelynn loved him back, and perhaps that was for the best — a question for another day.

The Nord finally gave a quick chuckle, shaking his head at the Imperial in front of him. “You see what happens when you eat a woman’s breakfast? Cry like a girl.” He made an amused face, but upon a closer inspection - his own eyes were misty too.

That broke through the spell and Gregor laughed, a slow snigger at first that turned into a proper full-on belly guffaw, until he was clutching his sides and had his knees drawn up from the force of his laugher. He felt a thousand pounds lighter. "Damn," he managed eventually and gestured towards Fjolte's plate. "Better give me some of that right now, or I might drag you to the flower market and the spa," he joked and wiped at his cheeks, still giggling.

“I’m not too manly for the spa, I’ll tell you that much,” Fjolte laughed while wiping away his own tears now. There were many things he wanted to ask Gregor, and things that he needed to tell him — but for now, he let the Imperial have his moment. It almost seemed as if the shadows under Gregor’s eyes had gone with the relief of having confessed.

He brought himself back to the table, placing his elbows on the surface. “So, more importantly when do we leave for Wayrest? Let’s get this godsdamned diamond already.”

"Today," Gregor said firmly, the mention of Wayrest bringing him back from his extreme mirth. "Unless you have something to take care of first. As far as I'm concerned we just drop Raelynn and message and then I'm good to go."

“I was going to say, if we tell her we’re going to Wayrest the jig will be up,” Fjolte said with a tilt of his head. “She’ll fucking know. So I say we go now,” he said, suddenly sounding triumphant, bringing a Nordic fist down on the table hard enough to make the plates jump. “What say you Gregor?” He asked, leaning in close to the Imperial to whisper it - with bright and expectant eyes.

He considered it for a moment before nodding vigorously. “Ah, to Oblivion with it, you’re right. The faster we’re gone, the sooner we’ll be back. I have everything I need on me,” Gregor said, patted his pockets and fingered the hilt of his bastard sword. “What’s the fastest way there? Overland, I assume? We should see if there are any trading caravans departing for Wayrest today.”

“Caravan would be the way, would get us to Evermor, and then onwards from there…” Fjolte wasn’t the best at setting travel plans. Not serious ones, he was a man who simply followed along wherever he wanted — actually having to organise passage to Wayrest made him feel slightly anxious. It wasn’t something he wanted to fuck up. “We get to Evermor, we can stock up on supplies and get good horses and take the last leg ourselves?”

“Works for me,” Gregor replied. He wolfed down the rest of his breakfast and got to his feet so fast he almost tipped over his chair as it scraped backwards across the floor. “Let’s do this.”

13th of First Seed
Western Reach, between Jehanna and Evermor

“And that’s when we learned it could breathe fire,” Gregor said and threw the chicken bone over his shoulder. The light of the campfire bathed his features in warm orange, a stark contrast against the backdrop of the night and the pines that towered over them in the dark.

Aren barked out a laugh. “You’re shitting me,” the Dunmer said, scarlet eyes wide and a hand stroking his black goatee. “I was with you until that, now I don’t know if I believe you.”

The Imperial shrugged. “It’s the truth. It nearly burned Fjolte here to a crisp. He had to… well, tell it in your own words, my friend,” Gregor said and looked to Fjolte to back him up.

The caravan had paused for the night after their second day of traveling. They were making good time and Gregor found himself in good spirits, and thoroughly enjoyed all the natural beauty that High Rock had to offer. The Reach was a hilly, forested area and not even the rumors of flesh-eating barbarians that allegedly roamed those parts could sour Gregor’s appreciation of the fresh air and the dense woods.

The people that made up the caravan were an eclectic bunch. Mostly traders from all over Tamriel and a few other hired guards, like Fjolte and Gregor himself were. Aren was one of the merchants and he specialized in antiques from lost civilizations; that had brought them to Gregor and Fjolte’s adventure in the seaside crypt and the Daedroth within. It was a good arrangement with good company, that would see them not only travel to Evermor free of charge but even put a pretty septim in their pockets. He just hoped they wouldn’t have to come through on their pledge to defend the caravan from attack.

"Don't know that it nearly burnt me to a crisp, but aye," Fjolte replied, halfway through a meat kebab. "Didn't breathe fire for long after I hit him on the nose and boxed his ears," he continued. The Nord even dragged himself up from sitting to standing and swung a demonstrative fist at the air. "Just like that," he huffed out. "Then I did this--" Fjolte slowly lifted his leg until he was perfectly balanced on one foot, tip toed, like a mantis. "Then I struck again, while Gregor here had some magic to show him!" He leapt forwards, flying through the air for a brief moment with a kick before landing back on his feet.

"All for a chunk of rock," he sighed, shaking his head.

“What kind of rock?” Aren asked, not terribly interested in the details of their fight. He directed the question to Gregor.

“A Khajiiti moon dial,” Gregor answered truthfully and picked up a second chicken leg.

Aren’s eyes took on an avaricious gleam. “Well, well, well, a real treasure,” he said. “I’m impressed. Who has it now?”

Having seen the look in the Dunmer’s eyes, Gregor shrugged and watched him carefully. “I don’t know. It’ll be long sold by now.”

Before anyone could say anything else, an arrow whistled past Aren’s ear and buried itself in the logs of the campfire. “Get down!” Gregor yelled, but a second arrow had already arrived and buried itself in the neck of a Breton man that had been sitting by the fire and listening to their conversation. He keeled over as his eyes rolled into the back of his head. From beyond the light of the campfire came a terrifying scream, and another, and another -- until they blended together in a single bloodcurdling wall of noise. Gregor had thrown himself to the ground, but this was no position to fight back from. He looked up just in time to see shades emerge from the gloom, clad in furs and bones and with warpaint on their bodies. They carried wicked weapons and Gregor saw the source of the death-wails in their mouths: skull-shaped bone whistles. The sound they made was just like the screams of a woman being murdered. It made Gregor’s hair stand on end.

When the barrage of arrows had ceased and the Reachmen charged, Gregor leapt to his feet and looked to Fjolte. “To me!” he roared and drew his sword with a satisfying rasp.

"What the fuck," Fjolte exclaimed, the sound terrifying and burning through his ears. It was an assaulting sound that could have been enough to throw him off guard. He was in no position to get to Gregor, he was too busy pulling the other travellers to the ground - one very shocked, elderly woman whom he brought down in a manner that was as gentle as it was deft. "Stay down my lady, stay on the ground, alright?" He spoke, as reassuringly as he could to her -- meeting her eyes until she nodded back and squeezed his hand, frightened. "We'll sort this, I'll come back for you," he promised, bringing her hand to his lips to plant a comforting kiss on her knuckles before he charged after Gregor.

"This ain't good," he said, his brow so furrowed that it cast a shadow over his face. "I can't get up close and personal," he hissed - his hands bare, no armour on his person.

No sooner had he said it, did a veil of light envelop him that made him feel powerful, almost untouchable -- the same veil fell over Gregor too, and as the Nord turned his head, he made out the form of another Imperial, a red haired woman, whom Fjolte recognised as being another of the hired guards.

"Get in there, both of you -- I'll push them back" the mage called out.

Aren rose to his prodigious full height and produced two daggers from within the folds of his robes, a derisive snarl on his face. “You dare fight a Dunmer?” he spat towards the charging Reachmen and joined Gregor and Fjolte’s side.

Impressed and heartened with the red-haired mage’s spells and Aren’s fearlessness, Gregor turned to face their foes with grim determination. No sooner had he done so than the first of them, gibbering and foaming at the mouth, leapt at him and sought to disembowel him with his stone axes. Gregor hastily blocked the strike with his sword, digging his feet into the earth, and pushed the Reachman back. The rest of the barbarians charged into the fray as well and the situation quickly devolved into a frantic melee.

Gregor and the Reachman exchanged blows and parries, each searching for an opening in the other’s defenses, but the frenzied berserker was blisteringly fast and Gregor was forced on the defensive, his sword making elegant arcs through the air as it continuously moved to intercept the Breton’s axes. Growing frustrated, Gregor threw out his hand and forced the Breton back with an uncontrolled belch of flame. Mockingly, the Reachman squealed as he pretended to be afraid of the fire before grinning viciously and charging back in. Frowning, Gregor tried the spell again but his opponent shrugged off the flames this time, a magical glimmer on his skin protecting him from the heat, and one of his axes slashed across Gregor’s forearm. The Imperial almost dropped his sword and cursed. The magical shield cast on him had held and spared him from bloodshed, but the pain from the impact could not be softened. It fueled his anger and he went on the offensive, blade flashing in a series of powerful slashes, determined to wipe the grin off the warrior’s painted face.

"Take heed, enemies, for the strength and courage of our Divines carries us through our strife," the Mage shouted out with unbridled conviction from behind Aren, Gregor, and Fjolte - her words invoking magicka into her palms which she sent forth to the fighting trio. Her rallying cry of courage hit them each in the back and rushed through to their chest, blooming like flowers inside of them. A new sense of strength and drive would quench them.

Fjolte felt it immediately, it was like one of Raelynn's potions had been breathed into him from the lips of the Imperial at their backs and with that invigoration, he took on an opponent of his own. A spear-wielding reachman, far shorter in height than the towering Nord. The reachman lunged, attempting to go straight for the chest - the heart. Fjolte dodged it, slamming his wrist sideways against the pole of the spear in his attempt to knock it from his hands, and step closer. These men were out for blood, and blood they would get.

Blanketed in magical armour, and with the strengthening armour, he roared out into the face of his challenger. Fjolte continuously moved his forearm against the spear at each thrust. Dodging and countering. Dodging and countering, moving the enemy away. With each successful hit, he felt the integrity of the weapon start to give out. He was going to snap the fucking spear out of the man's hands and beat him with whatever was left of it.

The mage’s spells empowered Gregor’s assault and it wasn’t long before the Reachman stopped grinning, his face twisted into a snarl of concentration. Gregor wasn’t proving the easy prey he had hoped to find. The Imperial’s morning practice routines were paying off and he slipped comfortably into the well-practiced step, strike, step, strike pattern of attack, the strength of his blows forcing the Reachman to stop trying to parry his sword and merely evade it instead. Gregor’s mind was clear and with every passing second he felt like he could tell more and more what his enemy was going to do next, where he would duck or jump to in order to evade the sword. There! The next swing would force him left. The Breton did as predicted and Gregor’s hand shot up, already aiming at the space the berserker was going to occupy within the next moment. It wasn’t fire that he called upon this time; it was ice, a long, terrifically sharp spike of it, and it slipped through Reachman’s magical defenses and between his ribs with ease. The warrior gasped, eyes wide, and stumbled to a halt as the magical chill of the ice spike spread through his body.

“Dodge this.” His face as hard as stone, Gregor raised his sword high and brought it down clean across the Breton’s neck. His head rolled away as his body collapsed into a twitching heap.

Only feet away from Gregor, Fjolte was still working on his own Reachman. He swung a fist at the enemy, knuckles making contact with the bone armour and it stung him more than he’d hurt the attacker. “Shit,” he wheezed, realising he needed to change his tactic, the jagged edge of the bone had torn through the back of his hand and the blood sprayed out and into the dark air. Now might have been a good time for a steel warhammer, he briefly thought before lowering his posture. He took a step back. This wasn’t an ordinary foe, and he couldn’t simply brawl his way out of this one.

His movement slowed, and the emphasis was placed on the balls of his feet - and then he brought his right leg back, the knee of the left at an angle to the ground, his right arm came up to protect his face and as he waited for the enemy to adjust to the change, Fjolte moved in this stance - switching between legs and arms, almost like a dance.

From his side, the Reachman growled low. The pole of his spear had splintered, and while the first punch had hurt Fjolte, it hadn’t left him completely free of harm either, a dull ache had assaulted his ribs and he leaned into it, as if afraid of stretching his body in the wrong direction and feeling the growing, gnawing pain. He rushed forwards yet again with the spear, watching as the Nord before him changed his technique - he was slower now, moving gracefully in the dark and shimmering with his ironskin. His chest was rising and falling with deep, calming breaths. It unsettled the Reachman, and when he thrust his spear this time the Nord easily avoided it by bending his back, standing up fully when it was withdrawn.

The three defenders of the caravan were outnumbered and another Reachman took the dead man’s place. Gregor brandished his blade, the redhead’s magic giving him strength and preventing any feelings of fatigue, but the slender wildling that stood before him now showed no fear. He was beautiful, beneath the warpaint and the fur and the bared teeth, with long dark hair and bright eyes like copper, and that gave Gregor pause for a moment.

The attack that followed made him regret that immediately. The Reachman, armed with an axe and a dagger, moved like quicksilver and Gregor sucked in a sharp breath of alarm as he moved to evade and block the ferocious slashes and thrusts. Despite the barbarian’s slim build and short stature there was an unyielding strength behind the blows and Gregor knew immediately that he was outclassed. He had to end this, fast. The Imperial shot a bolt of lightning at the Breton and his eyes went wide in astonishment as his opponent evaded the bright flash with a raptorian jerk of his head.

“I’ll carve the Cross in your chest,” the Reachman hissed in a voice that was entirely at odds with the fairness of his features, and he beat his pale chest with the clenched fists in which he held his weapons. Before Gregor could say anything in return, the warrior was on him and three deft strikes within the span of one second saw the silversmith disarmed, the glittering longsword skittering away across the ground. Gregor backpedaled away frantically and attempted to hold the Reachman at bay with both ice and fire, but like his comrade before him the Breton walked through the flames without a care in the world and he swatted away the shards of ice with catlike reflexes, breaking the spikes mid-air with the edges of his weapons.

Two sidelong glances confirmed that Aren and Fjolte were still occupied with their own opponents. “Help!” Gregor yelled all the same -- the Reachman was upon him and leapt at him with a savage roar.

“I don’t think so,” came the stern voice of the mage, and she sprung forwards in Gregor’s direction, satisfied that the other fighters were holding their own, there was nothing else she could do to help them and so she turned her attention to her fellow Imperial. In the clutch moment of the savage Reachman touching down on Gregor, from his side a loud rumble disturbed the very air around them and with an echoing blast, a blue light erupted into a swirling mass of energy and from within a towering Golem brought through an ice cold wind that gave bite to the battlefield. His huge arm lurched forwards and tossed the Reachman out of the air - for now.

The redhead swooped down beside Gregor, her gaze penetrative and her thin lips in a severe frown. “Are you alright, comrade?” she asked, holding out a hand to steady him. The Frost Atronach now the shield between the clear leader of this pack, and the two Imperials.

To their left, Fjolte felt the cold that blew from the Atronach in action on his skin and it was like being back in Skyrim. That brief touch of snow and of frost fueled him almost as much as the mage’s spell had. He laughed, running his hand across his forehead as he saw the spearman fret, his stamina depleting.

The Nord needed to reach Gregor, and this enemy was the only thing in the way now. He was satisfied with the state of him, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to keep up any longer and so with that in mind he tore towards him, falling forwards with one hand outstretched so that he fell into a fast cartwheel, bringing down his legs with a collected force to strike the Reachman dead centre. He stumbled back, spear still outstretched as he watched Fjolte land in a crouch, this time when he moved with the spear, the Nord was ready - clasping the pole in his hands in an almighty clap. He pushed back, the tip of the pole jabbing it’s wielder sharp in the hip. Then again, and again, and again.

Fjolte twisted his hands with a fast enough movement to finally snap the bladed tip of the spear clean off. It fell behind him and the Nord sprang back up to his feet, his weight taking ownership now of the pole. When he brought it upon his enemy it splintered again, the cracking of the wood second only to the loud cracks that it made when it was brought upon the bare flesh of the the Reach’s barbarian warrior. The last one was the one he allowed his full might to shine through, bringing it with a whistle to the man’s jaw. His helmet fell before he did, and as if in disgust, the Nord finished the destruction of his primal weapon by breaking it completely in half over his knee and dropping the pieces beside the body, broken too.

“Gregor!” he called out, making a dash to his friend’s side.

The warrior’s axe had caught Gregor in the arm. He grimaced as he pulled the weapon free and placed his hand over the tear in his clothes and the injury beneath, bringing his knowledge of Restoration magic to bear to mend the flesh wound. “Thank you,” he said to the mage between his heavy breaths and marveled at the sight of the Frost Atronach for a moment before he heard Fjolte call out to him, and he smiled at his friend at his approach. “I’m alright, but it’s not over yet,” he said to the pair of them and lifted his sword again.

Aren joined them, robes disheveled and hair a mess, but the barbarian he had been fighting lay dead and bloody on the ground. “Bloody savages,” the Dunmer spat.

After his rough landing, the Reachman had leapt back to his feet and he remained there, watching them, now armed with only a dagger but no less fearsome because of it. From the darkness of the night behind him three more Reachmen emerged, wielding bows and slings -- the archers that had signaled the beginning of the assault. “I am Bone-Claw,” he declared and dragged the jagged edge of the dagger over his palm, spilling his own blood. His eyes began to glow and a hidden, intricate patchwork of tattoos beneath his skin became visible as it radiated the same baleful, yellow hue. “And you… are carrion!” he roared, his voice deep and supernaturally powerful.

“Gods, what’s happening to him?” Gregor asked, eyes wide in disbelief, but there was no time to answer. The monster that was Bone-Claw charged and the arrows of his warband whistled over his shoulders, seeking their hearts.

The red-haired mage stepped forwards, brushing the side swept fringe from her eyes with a scowl. “He’s a child of the Reach, baptised in blood and all manner of cruel magic and shaped by ritual, be on your guard!” she commanded, raising her own arm up to the sky fiercely, her Atronach followed suit, his form groaned with the motion and he adopted a powerful stance to catch the momentum of Bone-Claw.

Fjolte gritted his teeth, the courage of the mage was impressive but she had no armour - just cloth and a leather harness to hold it all in shape - but her hands were glowing near constantly and she flung barrage after barrage of spells into the trajectory of the ranged fighters. “Be careful!” Fjolte called out to her. She merely looked over her shoulder and smirked before moving again, lightning spiralling around her forearms, making her glow in the darkness.

A bolt caught and tore through an archer, sending him back to the ground with a heavy thud and a crack, he’d landed on a jagged rock and it was unlikely he’d get back up. Fjolte danced behind the woman, his ironskin still holding for the time being, but he could feel the vigour fading. As if the transformation of Bone-Claw had dissolved it from his form with the sheer intimidation and fear, and complete lack of understanding. As he turned to look once more at the harrowing figure, a rock hurtled towards the Nord, clipping the side of his head with a sharp edge so tremendously that Fjolte heard the tearing of his flesh in his ear. It threw out his equilibrium and he fell to the ground, dazed.

“Fjolte!” Gregor yelled and jumped over Fjolte’s body to stand guard over him, using a Ward spell to block incoming projectiles, suspending arrows and rocks in mid-air in front of him as they thudded into the magical shield. “Are you alright?”

Bone-Claws, unholy magic from the realm of Oblivion unchained within him, barrelled into the Frost Atronach with as much power as a charging Werebear. True to his name, the Reachman had grown large bone claws that sprouted from the knuckles of his hands, piercing the skin and leaving it jagged and bloody around the base. The Atronach teetered, hung in the balance and ultimately held, slamming back down onto the ground with both feet. Bone-Claws howled and a rapid series of punches saw him drive his claws into the ice repeatedly, boring holes in the hulking glacier-giant and shattering more of its form with each blow. It seemed impossible, but the small warrior forced the Atronach back with his supernatural strength. His hair floated in the air around his head like a man submerged, and lit from beneath by the glow of the power in his skin it looked like a crown.

Gregor cursed. “Get up, Fjolte, we need you!”

"Always… My… Head," Fjolte panted angrily, bringing the flat of his palm to the bleeding gash. The sounds of the Frost Atronach being chipped at brought him around enough to spring himself back to his feet. "Let's torch the slugs," he growled, looking Gregor in the eyes with more anger than he had carried before. The lightning magic dying down as the mage continued to deplete her own wells of magicka.

“I don’t have enough left,” the mage shouted back at them, the fire in her eyes dimming low, and where there had been strands upon strands of electricity circling her, now there were only small sparks. “My summon…” she gasped as her eyes caught the scene - a lump in her throat choked the words, and she watched in horror as Bone-Claws tore him apart. She could feel him weakening too - as if his life was a part of hers and she sank to her knees as if she were in pain. She remained that way for only a second, before the fire reignited in her narrow eyes, and she held out a fist. “I’ll buy you boys some time… But then it’s on you both alone,” she flashed a glare at Gregor before firing out her last bolt of lightning towards the Atronach…

The Imperial did not miss. The arc of lightning coated the Atronach like a spiders web and crackled around the gargantuan. It groaned out in it’s last breath - pained. An otherworldly rasp that seemed to come from somewhere else entirely and as the magic warped into the summon, it bellowed out before dying, claws of the Reachman buried within its chest. Everything that held it together exploded forth, shattered spikes of ice and stone blew in the radius of the creature and the frost did not leave either, it spread across the forest floor - a thick blanket of perfect snow in an imperfect circle. Crystals rained down, almost peacefully around the pile of rocks left behind and several glacial stalagmites ran the circumference of the grave. After the explosion, there was silence...

“Shezzar’s bones,” Gregor whispered as he climbed back to his feet -- the Atronach had exploded so violently that he had instinctively dropped to the ground. Fire surging through the air some thirty feet away grabbed his attention and he saw the unexpectedly ferocious Aren squaring off against the archers with flames whirling around him and gore-drenched daggers flashing dangerously in the night.

That left Bone-Claws for them to deal with.

The enraged Reachman burst through one of the ice crystals that now coated the earth and charged towards him and Fjolte. His skin was covered in frost, his inner light struggling to shine through, and his movements were more sluggish than before. “This is our chance!” Gregor yelled to Fjolte and he answered Bone-Claws with the cold metal of his sword. Now they were evenly matched in speed and Gregor roared back at the slavering, bloodthirsty monster of a man while they danced and tried to eviscerate one another. A particularly clever backwards riposte saw Gregor’s bastard sword slice through one of the bone claws and cut it off at the base. “Get him!”

Two of them. One of him.

Even though he'd been slowed down he still carried on his shoulders a mighty presence that was crushing down upon the Nord, near suffocating. He'd never faced such an opponent. But Fjolte enjoyed a challenge. The fear and apprehension that was moving tumultuously inside of him parted and made way for excitement. He let Gregor take the front, to occupy him with the threat of steel. He charged to flank Bone-Claws. His fists balled into iron, and they made satisfying purchase with his ribs in an agile and unstoppable attack of three solid punches. One, breath. Two, breath. Three, breath. Retreat.

He jumped back, the crunch of snow underfoot invigorating enough to send him straight back in. This time he slammed his elbow hard against the Reachman's face, staggering him on the spot and as quickly as Fjolte had moved in, he was back out again with a fast backflip - lifting himself a good height from the ground. He landed with a smirk. They were going to win.

Seizing the opportunity that Fjolte's deft footwork and devastating punches had created, Gregor ducked low and swiped his sword beneath the reach of the dazed monster's claws. The tip of his sword sliced clean through Bone-Claws' thigh and hot blood gushed in rapid pulses across the snow, steaming where it landed on the cold ground. Bone-Claws screamed, an unnatural noise that forced Gregor to clap his hands over his ears.

That's when he saw the blood wasn't just steaming. It was smoking.

Tendrils of raw magical power lashed out of the Reachman's body. His own blood had triggered the transformation and sacrificing more of it increased his power. The arterial wound would kill him, that much was certain, but in the little time he had left, Bone-Claws would be a threat like never before. When he moved it was like he was moving between worlds, his body at the epicenter of a larger, shimmering shade that enveloped him, horned and sallow-eyed: the spirit of a Dremora Lord.

"I smell weakness!" the entity roared across time and space and twin blades tore a hole in the fabric of reality, coalescing into shape a split second before attacking Gregor with dazzling speed, almost faster than the eye could follow. Raw instinct took over and Gregor parried and dodged frantically, coming less than an inch away from dying three times within as many seconds. Bone-Claws screamed and twitched within the blood-magic and the Daedric power that now possessed him entirely, and Gregor tried a wild thrust at the man's heart to put an end to this madness and an end to his misery. The ethereal Dremora deflected it effortlessly and sent Gregor crashing into the dirt with a brutal kick.

"What the fuck?" Fjolte hissed through clenched teeth, sparing no moment in rushing towards the Dremora, making sure to hold his arms at shoulder height, to protect his face - this was his shield. He danced around the opponent, excited still, this was no longer a fight. It was a test at how many of the attacks he could dodge until the last of the blood was spilled from the leg wound that Gregor had expertly inflicted.

If there was one thing that Fjolte could do, it was out move just about anything. The Nord tempted the Dremora too him - and as it went for a swinging hit, Fjolte backflipped, managing an easy complete rotation in midair before landing easily on the snow. It was beginning to melt now, snow didn't belong here, and nor did this Dremora. "Gregor?" He asked aloud, not moving his intense glare from the scarlet orbs of the Dremora. "Some magic…" he added in between each of his acrobatic movements. Everything around the Nord was nature. Every rock and boulder on the forest floor belonged to him, every tree was part of Fjolte's world and when he focussed on that energy - everything that flowed around them, he only seemed to move faster. He was a furious force on the snow, his expression fierce and unyielding to the creature.

Prone on the ground, but still very much alive and kicking, Gregor pushed himself up on his hands and knees. The wind had been knocked out of him and he felt like he’d bruised his entire ribcage, but magic -- that he could do. Gregor straightened up, raised his hands and focused on the blur of occult darkness that moved to skewer Fjolte. The trail of blood that it left behind told him that Bone-Claws didn’t have much life left to him. It was almost over.

Alternating between fire, ice and lightning, Gregor leveled an elemental barrage of spells at the Dremora, slowing it down by forcing it to employ its own magical defenses to stop the thunderbolts and fireballs it couldn’t avoid. He grimaced with the strain of draining his magicka reserves like this so rapidly.

The Dremora could tell that it was fading. “I’m not finished!” it roared and lashed out with one final strike, lunging for Gregor and seeking to impale his heart on its twin blades.

Gregor’s eyes shot open wide and he gasped as the apparition moved -- too fast to stop, too late to block. But when the tips of the blades were inches away from his heart, the Dremora abruptly flickered and disappeared in a flash of purple energy. Bone-Claws, exsanguinated and charred from the raw forces of Oblivion, fell dead to the ground.

Fjolte couldn't believe his eyes, he dropped to the floor, exhausted and just stared at the body as his breath caught up to him, his heart racing in his chest from the spectacle of it. The side of his head felt hot, and the steam of blood had reached his neck. His knuckles too, were shredded from the bone armour. He simply punched the snow and buried his hands in it. The ice cold bringing fast relief to his aches. "You 'righ Gregor?" He asked - his mouth barely able to form the words.

From their side, the mage once again spoke up - this time her voice was quieter, softer - carrying none of the authority she'd held before. "I'm h-hit," she stammered, sitting up from the ground. There was an arrow clear through her shoulder. "Is it over?" She followed up, blinking over at the torched husk of a body.

Aren returned to them, having left behind the corpse of one of the archers -- the other two were gone. He stared at the body of Bone-Claws, breathing hard and wiping blood from his blades. Even the grim and unflappable Dunmer was wide-eyed at the sight of the remnants of the strange entity that had terrorized them. “Yes, it’s over,” Aren said and jutted a thumb over his shoulder. “The rest of them fled when this… thing, for lack of a better word, began to… glow.” He frowned, dissatisfied with being unable to find the right words. “That voice… I’ve heard it before. That was a Dremora, sure as sure. Is that what these savages do? Bind the spirits of Daedra to their flesh in exchange for power?”

Gregor, having finally caught his breath, sat up straight and rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know,” he said at last. This was far beyond his area of expertise. He looked towards the red-haired mage instead and only then noticed that she was injured. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said to Fjolte and crawled over to where his fellow Imperial lay, gesturing for her to turn her shoulder to him. “Let me take a look at that.”

Meanwhile, Aren knelt down next to Fjolte and offered his hand to the Nord. “And what about you, big man? Are you injured?”

Fjolte placed a hand full of snow against the gash on his head, the immediate relief brought colour to his cheeks. "Aye, aye… Seen worse injuries than this'un. Once had my own leg hanging by a thread after I fought a troll, y'know?" He mumbled, his eyebrows raised and he nodded. "I'll survive," he concluded -- having nothing to say about the Dremora either. He just gazed down at the corpse nonchalantly now that the danger was past them.

Meanwhile, the mage had sat herself up and was scowling, "Damned Reachmen. At least it's clean through, nothing important hit, just needs pulling through if one of you will do the honours before we go back to camp." Her eyes flitted between Gregor and Aren, "you all fought valiantly, as it goes."

“Just doing our jobs,” Gregor mumbled while his fingers sought purchase on the arrow shaft. He gripped it firmly and pulled it free from the mage’s shoulder. “There we go,” he said and placed his hands on either side of her shoulder before the familiar glow of Restoration magic sealed the entry and exit wound. He looked her in the eye and gave her a nod that indicated his mutual respect. “Your magic was invaluable, sorceress.”

Aren nodded and clapped Fjolte’s shoulder. “Well fought, outlander.” He straightened back up and looked around while he stretched out his back, shoulders and arms, as if he had just awoken from a long nap on an uncomfortable sofa. “That’s quite enough excitement for one day, I should think. What do we do with these?” he asked and nudged the dead Bone-Claws with the toes of his boot. “Bury them? Burn them? I don’t know their customs.”

“A good team needs a good balance, my magic is nothing without a sword to aim it at, Sir, but your words are very kind,” the mage said, grimacing with a hiss as the arrow was pulled clean - but the warmth of the magic brought colour back to her cheeks. “You’re a mage too, colour me surprised to see you have a healer's touch about you,” she remarked with a raised brow and a smile, before glancing too, to the claws over the ground.

Before she had a chance to say anything else, Fjolte narrowed his eyes and spoke out, “destroy them. Dark magic like that is just dangerous, we don’t want Reachmen to collect them and do something else with them.” The Nord stood, glancing down at the mage as she drew herself to her feet too. “God’s know what they can create from forsaken bones…”

“A healer’s touch indeed,” Gregor said with a knowing smile and a memory of Raelynn’s hands on him in his mind. Fjolte’s grim declaration brought him back to the present and he nodded in agreement. “Whatever this man may have been in life, in death he is nothing but a monster and his corpse should be destroyed.”

Aren shrugged. “Very well,” he said and conjured the same hot flame he had wielded to ward off the Reachmen, something that came easy with the Dunmer blood that burned in his veins. The searing gout of fire turned the already charred body of Bone-Claws into brittle ash and even his claws cracked and splintered in the fierce heat. What remained, the wind carried away.

Fjolte watched on as it all turned through the wind and was whispered away. Just like that - nothing but dust. It strangely made him think about death, and its meaning. One day, he hoped to be granted entry to Sovngarde, but would the path there be found in his remains being scattered to the wind, just specs of dust. What would he leave behind beyond lines of dust in the winds. "Well then…" he said with a shrug and a sigh, before turning his gaze to the woman. "Let's get you to the camp, some hot tea or mead into you. God's know I need some myself," he admitted with a mirthless chuckle.

"I'll agree it to it, Nord." She quipped back with a smile. "Those hands of yours might be required elsewhere, let's see that nobody else is hurt."

Early Afternoon, 15th of First Seed
Wayrest, High Rock

Gregor looked up at the sign that was fixed to the shop’s facade above the front door. Deserine, it spelled out in elegant lettering. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly through his nose. If Fjolte was correct, this was likely to be where he would find Sirion, Raelynn’s fabled younger brother. Considering the task they had arrived to the city with, the smart thing to do was to leave well enough alone and minimize his footprint. But he couldn’t resist. The opportunity to learn more about Raelynn and her family was one that Gregor couldn’t pass up on. Even now, after not having seen her for more than a week, she dominated his heart and mind. His hand reached up to absent-mindedly fix the collar of his coat, the blood and dirt of their fight with Bone-Claws washed out of it by now, and he threw the folds of his cloak elegantly over his shoulder. Having left his sword back at the inn that he and Fjolte were staying at, Gregor looked the very image of the sophisticated gentleman.

Satisfied with his appearance, he pushed open the door and stepped inside, a faint smile playing on his lips, and waited for his eyes to adjust.

A bell attached to the door frame rang out. A single, sharp chime that pierced the silence that had settled in the small shop. Small enough that the counter was but a few steps from the entrance. In built display cabinets lined the walls, and the round window at the front was set at the perfect point in the wall to catch the sun, warm rays spilled onto the pristine floor - wooden, with a running rug from doorway to counter.

An untrained eye would find it to be a modest establishment - only a few wares were displayed and none of them seemed very exciting. Books, cutlery, and a row of vases. There was a long book on the counter however, filled with descriptions of items; Sapphire and Diamond Necklace, Aldmeri Glass Chandelier. Of course the valuables were kept under lock and key, out of sight.

The chiming bell summoned the proprietor from his office behind the counter - and a few moments after, having settled down his quill and his work, he stepped through the archway.

A tall young man, young looking in the face - but mostly in his emerald green eyes. Magnifying spectacles rested on the bridge of a strong nose, and there was not a blemish or frown line upon his skin. His hair was short, a chestnut brown - slicked back with wax into a style that suited someone older than he was. A smudge of ink ran from the tip of his thumb to the bottom of his palm, as well as there being speckles of it across the back of his hands. Silver polish stained his cuticles and sat underneath his otherwise neat nails. It was clear the young man had not expected a potential customer through the door - the evidence in the way his workman hands and fingers twitched together before he ran them down the length of his apron. "Good afternoon, Sir-" he said with a smile, his voice was youthful too, the breath underneath it nervous and inexperienced.

He eyed the customer, an Imperial if he'd ever seen one. Thick, dark hair groomed well. Like it was the way he always wore it. He carried himself too, with the confidence of an intelligent and well-to-do man. He carried no weapon, but held himself upright in a way that suggested he was free of its weight, the proprietor deduced. His smile was curious also. "How may I be of service?" Sirion Deserine asked, letting his hands fall into the front pocket of the apron.

So there he was. Gregor was surprised at the superficial lack of a resemblance to his blonde, blue-eyed sister, but the Imperial did not show it on his face. He merely observed Sirion for a few moments before he turned away to hang his cloak over the back of a chair, sensing the young man’s uncertainty and therefore seizing the opportunity to establish dominance over the imminent conversation. He turned back slowly and took a step closer to the counter with the unhurried gait of a man with nowhere better to be. “Afternoon,” Gregor replied at last and inclined his head ever-so-slightly. He gestured towards the hands that Sirion had hidden within his apron. “You work with your hands?”

Sirion blinked behind the glasses, observing Gregor with less of a keen eye as his sister had, but observing all the same. The confidence he exuded was uniquely his own, and in a way, was unsettling for a reason that the young breton couldn't identify. "I do, yes," he replied. He brought a hand out of the pocket and ran it over his chin, clearing his throat as he did so. “Restoring, fixing, tinkering…” His green gaze flickered to the coat on the back of the chair. Did this gentleman want to spend a generous amount of time here? He straightened his back and cleared his throat again, a good customer like this would be good on the books… “If there is anything you wish to see, please -- it’s my pleasure to help you.” Sirion bowed his head forward. That’s how his father had taught him to greet people, and he was slightly embarrassed he’d only just remembered that.

Gregor’s smile widened. He hadn’t expected to find that he and Sirion had anything in common, but it would seem that he was mistaken. “What a pleasant surprise. I’m a silversmith myself,” he said, ignoring the invitation to peruse the store, and only broke eye contact to look down at his hands as he removed one of his self-made rings from his fingers; forged from silver and featuring a row of small amethysts. It was suitable for a man in its understatedness, but quite delicate and elegant all the same, and he closed the remaining distance to the counter in order to hold up the ring for Sirion to take and inspect. “Tell me what you think of the craftsmanship,” Gregor said and added in a reassuring tone: “Feel free to be honest. I won’t bite.”

With the ring in hand, any inklings of social awkwardness seeped away, and he held it in the direction of the window, letting the light dance across the cut stones. He raised a brow in agreement of it before reaching into his apron and pulling free a sharp tool, it looked like a curved needle on a stick and he pressed the point carefully against the gap between the stone and the socket. “Hmmm,” he mused aloud, a smile appearing at the corners of his mouth. “It’s nice, amethyst is a good beginners stone to work with, easy to procure. The style is… Unique in its own way. But, in the respect of it being a more abundant stone, it’s more difficult to showcase amethyst so that it stands out. This is a fair effort, Sir.” When he looked away from the ring, and back to Gregor - he found himself feeling shyer again, wondering if what he had said was offensive, or the words of a know-it-all. “It’s very nice,” he added with a smile.

That elicited a laugh from Gregor and he waved dismissively at Sirion’s last words. “That was a fair assessment, no need to sugarcoat it for me, and you’re right. I was still an apprentice when I made it. Amethyst was the best I could get my hands on. The expensive materials are for the customers, after all,” he said and his eyes sparkled with amusement. “You know your stuff. I suppose that’s what you Deserines have in common, no?”

As the young man handed it back, his brows raised at the mention of his familial name - and the indication that the man knew of them. “Oh, you know my father?” he asked instinctively. At the thought that he did indeed know his father, Sirion straightened himself up again, having found that he’d slouched over the counter during his brief appraisal. “I mean, thank you. Yes, we know some things. Jewellery isn’t really my area of expertise, I mean, anyway.” He fumbled, finding his palms were beginning to sweat for no real reason at all. He slipped them back into the pockets.

Gregor slipped the ring back on and wisely let the question about the Deserine patriarch pass without comment. It could be an advantage to let Sirion believe that he did know his father. “Then what is your area of expertise, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Well, I actually am quite interested in the history and artifacts of the deep elves. The machinations,” he admitted with a slight smile and a shrug of his shoulders. “Anything made of alloy… Just not, not jewels,” he laughed slightly. “Hard to get a hold of Dwemer relics, so I, I happen to enjoy cartography too. It’s delicate work, soothing.”

It was easy to picture the young man in his workshop, tinkering away in the eternal pursuit of deciphering the secrets of the inimitable animunculi of the Dwemer, or poring over old maps in search of an undiscovered buried city. Gregor found that his interest was piqued and he momentarily pushed his curiosity regarding Raelynn aside. “A fascinating area of study, by the sounds of it,” he said as he finished nodding along to what Sirion was saying. The Deep Elves were older than the period of history that Gregor was generally interested in -- the rise and fall of the Septim Empire -- but their mysterious nature had an undeniable attraction to it. “This is probably a cliche question, but… do you have any idea where they might’ve gone?”

“Well, that.. That really is the question, isn’t it?” Sirion asked quietly, with a nervous laugh. “Who really knows? I have… Theories but I’ve never, well, I’ve never explored the ruins of the Dwemer myself. But I believe that they were punished for their hubris by the Gods, they were removed but not killed or destroyed… They are just, behind the curtain - so to speak. They once,” he paused, and brought his thumb to his lip, furrowing his brow. “They were once in the centre of the stage of Nirn, but now they wait in the wings for another act,” he chuckled nervously. “That makes… Quite frankly no sense.” There was a slight grimace on his face but he laughed it off again.

Gregor fell silent for a bit. “Another act?” he asked and raised his eyebrows. “You believe the Dwemer may yet return to Nirn?” It struck him as a ridiculous suggestion. It had been more than a thousand years… maybe even two thousand years. Gregor wasn’t quite sure of the dates, but he knew it was a fabulously long time. “I don’t know about that, my friend. It seems a little fanciful. But you’re the expert, so…” He trailed off and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t think I would want to be around to see them return, if I’m honest. I have seen a few of those machines of theirs with my own eyes, and those things are just what they kept around to defend their cities while they still lived in them,” Gregor said and lowered his voice. “Imagine what they might return to reclaim their cities with, hm?”

“Oh my, well -- perhaps they might, perhaps not. Perhaps in one thousand years from now, Sir!” Sirion clarified, not wanting to worry the man with his delusions of grandeur. “I just find something so truly mysterious about their disappearance… All of those empty ruins and cities - yes, yes. I suppose they would get something of a shock to see Nirn now, you’re right!” he said with another nervous laugh. It even took him a moment to catch on to what Gregor had said, about having seen the machines himself. Sirion’s eyes widened in awe, and he removed his glasses at last, pinching them at the bridge between thumb and forefinger. “You-you’ve seen some?”

“I have,” Gregor said and looked over Sirion’s shoulder as he recalled the memories. “People had been disappearing from a small mining village in Skyrim and the jarl posted a reward for anyone who could get to the bottom of it. Myself and a few of the locals banded together and followed a few tracks that led away from the village. Sure enough, those trails led to a cave that turned out to be a Chaurus nest. But as we kept going we kept finding human artifacts; sandals, earrings, that sort of thing.”

His gaze flickered back to meet Sirion’s. “Then Falmer. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Used to be near-mythical, of course, but they’re real enough. We chased the Falmer into the depths of the caves, determined to eradicate them, until we encountered Dwemer architecture deep underground. That’s when the spiders started coming out of the walls. Not real spiders, mind you, but mechanical things. We turned back when we heard something larger rolling around in the deep. Falmer are one thing, creatures of flesh and blood, but those machines?” Gregor shivered at the thought. “None of us were willing to tangle with that. We hoisted a few Falmer corpses on the spikes they like to make -- you know, as a warning to them to stay hidden -- and that was that.”

The young Breton had been hanging on every word, his elbows resting still on the surface of the counter, the glasses folded and at his side, his gaze meeting the dark eyes of the Imperial. “I see… That sounds, really rather incredible,” he said finally.

Either the man was telling the truth, and he was not quite the gentleman he was masquerading as -- or he was telling lies or exaggerating a much simpler truth. Sirion wasn’t quite sure which was the better option. And his thumb found its way to his lips again as he bit at it nervously. His father had frequently warned him about people who told extraordinary stories like that. But he saw no reason not to believe Gregor, really. The thought of Falmer being displayed on spikes was grizzly though, a contrasting behaviour to what the Imperial was displaying now. Sirion didn’t like to imagine such violence, and he stepped back from the counter, smiling sheepishly. “Well, none of us know what’s to happen in this world from one day to the next, I shall keep on with my studies of the Deep Elves. Maybe one day I’ll learn their secrets but until that day I am a merchant…” he said, almost tripping on the words as he broke the conspiratorial conversation and returned it to business.

Gregor smiled. “Of course,” he said and made a show of looking around before his gaze settled on the list of objects that was on the counter. “You run this store by yourself?” he asked, pretending to be absent-mindedly making conversation while he tapped his lips with his index finger, eyes flitting from word to word on the list without taking anything in.

"It is my father's store, I am managing it under his tutelage," Sirion answered with a smile. "About one year now," he added before slipping his hands behind his back. "Is there something in particular you're interested in?" The young man asked, eyes flitting between the book and what he could make out of Gregor's face.

He looked up briefly and shrugged before staring back down at the pages. “Not sure… I’m here on business, and I was wandering around to kill time, but I am an admirer of the finer things in life…” Gregor mumbled. “The sapphire and diamond necklace,” he said, louder, and placed his finger just below the fine script. “What make is it?”

"That one, I think… It was from Daggerfall. It's not too old," Sirion explained - unsure of that the man meant by 'make'. He felt put on the spot, but attempted to exude confidence anyway. "An heirloom of a noble family. It's very beautiful," he finished, hands fidgeting behind his back. "You're a silversmith -- you can look at it yourself, if you'd like to, Sir."

“I’d like to, yes,” Gregor said and straightened up. “Daggerfall, you say? Perhaps your father procured that necklace himself then, hm?”

"Yes, anything from Daggerfall is his work," Sirion answered with a nod. He then cleared his throat and excused himself and snuck back into his office.

With the wall between them, he let out a long breath. The man was intense. He wasn't without charisma, but Sirion found himself out of his depth with such a customer. The fact that there was still a strange energy surrounding him had also never left the Breton's attention. Was he some kind of spy? Or just nosy? He seemed to be interested in his father and in the Deserine name, or perhaps this was just neuroses talking. It had been weeks since he'd had something of a serious customer and that was something that he needed to change. Sirion unlocked the drawer that housed the necklace, taking out the piece. In the dark of his office it didn't look like much at all, but the moment he rounded the corner with it again. It sparkled in the sunlight, and feeling calmer for having breathed out of sight, Sirion carefully placed it down on the counter.

"Quite a heavy chain to hold the plating for the stones - but it still looks very pretty, don't you think?" The Breton asked, bringing out his tool again to hold links of the chain up. "Even though it features diamonds - the jewelsmith allowed the sapphire to be the centrepiece."

Gregor agreed with Sirion’s assessment. Allowing the sapphire to shine was a tasteful choice. He had no intention of purchasing the piece, but he found that it could serve as inspiration instead. “Yes, the chain is a little heavy for my tastes…” he said and while he was pretending to think, he looked back up at Sirion. “You know, I heard the name Deserine when I was Jehanna last week as well. No relation?”

Sirion's brow furrowed and he tilted his head. "My sister resides there, yes. She runs some tasks there…" His voice quietened, and he tried to recall when last he had spent time with Raelynn, his eyes were drawn to the sapphire. The blue stone that reminded him so much of her now. "My sister lives there," he repeated, meeting Gregor's eyes.

“Do you miss her?” Gregor asked quietly.

Sirion found himself taken aback by the question, and he found himself struggling to answer it for a while. Did he? Did he miss how cold Raelynn was towards him? Did he miss the bitterness and disdain? "I do miss… my sister," he answered, his eyes remained locked to Gregor's and he found something of a confidence in himself. "Why do you ask?"

A smile crept over Gregor’s countenance and he looked down at the necklace. The blue gleam of the sapphire was reflected in his eyes. “Perhaps with the stones reversed?” he asked, the question directed at nobody in particular. “A diamond surrounded by sapphires...” Gregor rapped his knuckles on the counter and nodded. “Olive green and glacial blue, set in gold, with mithril filigree lining…”

"Well, that would be the work of a master craftsman. This piece, while it is very beautiful, it was not made by the hand of a master craftsman," Sirion observed. He stepped back, letting the Imperial continue his inspection of the piece, holding on to a sigh. It was clear this man wasn't going to buy anything.

Gregor looked back up at Sirion, his face inscrutable -- except for a hunger in his eyes, devoid of malice but intense all the same. “And she would like it, you think?”

"Uhhh…." He replied, the shift in energy made him instantly uncomfortable. "I… yes? Any woman would like a piece like that I'm sure."

Satisfied, Gregor nodded and pushed the necklace back to Sirion. He looked around and his eye fell on something in the display cabinets, not valuable enough to be locked away. It was a silver brooch, the metal shaped in such a way as to resemble a flower. A Jehanna Stargazer. He smirked at the coincidence, sensing the hands of the gods at work, and tapped on the glass. “I’ll take the brooch, if you please.”

"Of course!" Sirion responded, snapping to attention before retrieving it from the glass. As he lifted it out, he noticed that the silver was tarnishing on one of the petals, just a small amount - but enough to have reach into his pocket to pull out some equipment. This time, a tiny brush, and a small jar of polish. "Just a moment, Sir," he said in Gregor's direction.

Sirion picked up his glasses and placed them back on carefully, the now-dipped brush held precisely, bristles aimed at the offending spot. Quickly, in tiny circles he ran the brush over the petal. Only the ambient sound from outside, and the sweeping of the brush against the brooch could be heard. "It should be in perfect condition, for her-- for you. For… To have," he fumbled out again.

Satisfied, he removed the polish residue with a clean square of cloth and took a piece of paper from behind the counter and began wrapping it with as much intense precision as he had polished it. His folds were exact, without measuring he had found the centrepoint and it wrapped perfectly into the paper - tied off with brown string in as neat of a bow as one would expect from Sirion. "Twenty-five, for you Sir."

The boy’s awkwardness was endearing and Gregor decided that he liked him, while simultaneously wondering how much Sirion had picked up on -- or if he was merely confused. Gregor counted out the coins from his purse and handed the septims to the proprietor. “Thank you for your time,” Gregor said as he retrieved his cloak from the back of the chair. His eyes sparkled again and he chuckled. “See you around, Sirion.”

"Where in Oblivion have you been all afternoon? And why do you look so smug?" Fjolte asked, huge arms folded over his chest. He donned a loose grey linen shirt and a pair of respectable looking trousers. His hair combed back and styled in all its glory like a single long ponytail, no sign of the shaved barbarian sides. He narrowed his eyes at Gregor and sighed through his nose, holding a hand flat out towards him, "You know what? I'd rather not know -- got my own mission to think about," he rolled his shoulders forwards, as if readying himself from behind the merchants stands in the marketplace as they were packing away.

If his research had been correct, the Lady Gaerford took a stroll later in the afternoon to visit the stable, and if his research had been correct, she'd be about to head back to the manor soon enough. Fjolte scratched at his beard, waiting patiently for the sight of a woman with raven hair, and blue eyes. "You owe me for this Mercurius…"

“I’m aware of that, not to worry,” Gregor said, scanning the crowd from behind Fjolte’s shoulder, keeping himself mostly out of sight. It would be his job to sneak into the manor later that night, once Fjolte had learned where Lady Gaerford kept the ring she’d received from her husband. He was about to elaborate on his afternoon jaunt when his breath caught in his throat.

Katarina Gaerford had appeared into view, and Gregor had to blink away the afterimages of Briar that burned on his retina. Ravenhaired and blue-eyed, she was the spitting image of his wife -- from a distance, anyway. Looking more closely Gregor could see that Katarina was plainer and both her gaze and poise lacked the spirit that Briar had possessed, but the resemblance was still somewhat uncanny. “There she is,” Gregor said in a hushed tone and pointed her out to Fjolte.

"She's very beautiful," Fjolte acknowledged with a small smile. "Makes my work easier…" As he had done with his shoulders, he rolled his neck, feeling it crack as he readied himself. "Here goes nothing, I'll leave a window ajar for you before I leave…"

With all said, he was off - and he moved as if he was every bit the lost traveller in the sprawling scape that was Wayrest. He walked slowly, his mouth open as if in awe, eyes squinting up at the sights. If he hadn't been so handsome, he'd look gormless. It would be only a few steps now until he met Katarina's path - a foreign obstacle in the road, a charming rogue with nowhere to go… He kept moving until finally it happened - his body collided with Lady Gaerford's, and he feigned surprise immediately, staggering back in shock - "Gods, my Lady, I'm so sorry for my clumsiness!" He was grateful for the fact he'd not completely barrelled her over to the floor. "My head is in the godsdamned clouds today!"

To be continued…

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Hank Dionysian Mystery

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17th Frost Fall

There was a crack in the sky.

A thin line of space in between the seemingly endless blanket of cloud. They were each the colour of stone and heavy with snow - moments from breaking. The crack was a long path off into the horizon until it was simply a dot there. The little sunlight that could be found in the bitterly cold afternoon fought its way to spill onto the ground through that line. Even then it was unimpressive. The slightest illumination that hit they greying, sleet covered streets of Jehanna.

There was a crack on the wall.

A long line from floor to ceiling against the wall with the hearth, when the weather turned rough outside it still held up, even if the foundations of the humble house shook. It was a strong home, fairly unimpressive in size but the inside had been decorated with love and care. Paintings hung in precise spots, in guilded frames - each on polished frequently so that the smell lingered through the hallway. The floor too, was waxed and cleaned and tended to with care. Everything had a purpose, and everything belonged to her. Including the crack in the wall, which was perhaps the greatest piece of art. The tale of time, like the rings inside of a tree, the crack in the wall was the history of the house that Raelynn had procured.

It had been a good year, business was finally booming. The sale of ebony weapons had landed the merchant an excellent profit, and there had been more shipments since the first. In and out, in and out. Weapons were big business, especially considering the state of affairs in the neighbouring province of Skyrim.

And so she bought a house.

The Inn had gotten too risky for a start, and there was the fact that the place itself was a haunted room. The ghosts of an almost love had lingered there, refusing to leave.

The spot by the hearth remained cold no matter how many flames burned, and the bed felt empty too, no matter who was invited in.

There was a crack in her heart.

But, it was healing. Slowly but surely it was mending, the house had helped. Decorating the place with Shona had given her a project that mattered. And he'd never been here, his ghost was left behind to be alone and haunt itself.

Today had been a day like any other, and she sat in the corner of her velvet lounger, legs curled beneath herself in a soft, woolen dress as she read from her books by the open fireplace. At her side, a table that was dressed with hot tea, fresh scones, and seasonal fruits. There was no work today, the shipment had been sent already, Shona was at her own home. It was just Raelynn, her books, and her house.


Captain Lofoten Hearty-Sails was a man of many talents. Among them, he prided himself in particular on his ability to read people. The art of picking up subtle clues in the minute changes in facial expressions, the movements of the eyes, the fidgeting of fingers, it was all obvious to him -- though that had not come naturally. It was a well-practiced skill, finely honed over the years as captain of his trading vessel, and it had saved his hide more than once.

But when there wasn’t any danger lurking around the corner, the usefulness of the skill diminished to that of a party trick, mere entertainment; something to do to pass the time. And so it came to be that Captain Hearty-Sails spent large portions of his voyages casually observing his passengers and filled idle time by imagining what their lives must be like, based on the little things he deduced with his keen gaze, and what secrets they might be hiding.

On this voyage there had been one passenger that stood out amidst the others. An Imperial man, tall, dark and handsome, whose seemingly endless brooding and austere countenance had fascinated the Captain greatly. What secrets might such a man be hiding? He walked the planks of the deck in endless circles, when the weather permitted it, like a caged bear, but not with a restless stride -- it was the slow, cumbersome gait of a man trying to move mountains. There was clearly a great weight that rested on his mind, or his conscience, and Lofoten had imagined the Imperial in a dozen different scenarios and tragedies by the time his ship was on its final approach to the harbor of Jehanna. He had made a few attempts to strike up conversation, and while the Imperial was unfailingly polite, he had failed to surrender even a single morsel of personal information, and out of respect for the man’s privacy the Captain had quickly stopped trying. He knew when a man wanted to be left to his thoughts.

Winter had come, a heavy-handed oppression of color and life and joy at the hands of the sky-gods, and bathed Jehanna in grim half-light. The citizens, as they did every year, had armed themselves against this natural tyranny and decorated their city with countless lights and charms and took to the streets in full force, spiting the cold and darkness in order to host festive markets, plays and parties. Lofoten smiled at the sight, his hands resting easily on the wheel of his ship, and his gaze fell on the figure that stood by the prow -- the Imperial man, staring at the city with great intensity, as if he was willing it to come to him more quickly by force of determination alone. It was the first time that the Captain had seen the man’s attention captivated by anything other than his own reverie, or the mysterious velvet box that he carried with him at all times. Something awaited him there, in Jehanna, and Lofoten thought he could read a mixture of apprehension and desperate longing in the tense slouch of the man’s shoulders. For a moment, the Captain felt a pang of great empathy for the man, and his visible uncertainty. Was he to arrive to good news, or bad? It was the microcosm of a drama that might very well define the course of the man’s life, and the Captain tipped his hat to him, unseen behind the man’s back.

“Godspeed,” he whispered.


Gregor watched the house from a distance.

It was smaller than he had expected, and yet the more he looked at it, the more perfect for her it seemed. Raelynn had excellent taste but she did not indulge in lavish extravagance, and the house was a poignant reminder of that. It was sturdy, and simple, and not particularly handsome, but there was an undeniable charm and endearing reliability about its stones and shape that appealed to him -- and her, evidently. Even its location, on the outskirts of the city, hugging civilization’s skirts but steering clear of its unsavory bustle, was perfect. Gregor chided himself for having thought any different at first glance. Of course Raelynn had known what she was doing when she purchased the place.

The silversmith clutched the velvet box as a fearful child might hold on to a stuffed animal for courage and pressed it even closer to his chest, inside of which a tightness had taken hold that almost banished the breath from his lungs. A season and a half had passed since he had last seen her, and his life had changed forever. Everything he had done, and sacrificed, had seemed like calculated decisions at the time, but drawing ever closer to the resolution of his path had bled him dry of his confidence. The agonizingly long sea voyage back to Jehanna had seen him descend into anxiety and worry. With nothing left to do but wait, at the end of the series of monumental decisions that had dominated his mind until then, Gregor found that he was afraid. Afraid that it was all for naught. Afraid he had dramatically misunderstood the situation. Afraid that, even if he had done everything right, she had changed her mind about him.

It took every ounce of his considerable willpower to tear his boots away from the pavement and force them to carry him to her door. Gregor felt like his knees might betray him with every step, like his legs were turning to jelly, and he almost turned around halfway. Bizarrely, absurdly, he heard whispering and discovered that he had started mouthing a prayer. He closed his mouth and swallowed, fighting past his nerves to steel himself and straighten his face into his usual, inscrutable self.

And then he was there. All there was left to do now was to raise a hand and knock. He bought himself some time by looking down at the state of his clothes -- a long black coat with matching gloves, elegant and with finely embroidered lapels in silver thread, over a white shirt and dark navy pants, tucked into high gentleman’s boots. Immaculate, unfortunately; not a single thread out of place. Nothing to improve. No, there was truly nothing left to do but knock.

Gregor inhaled deeply and knocked twice on the door.

She wasn't expecting anyone, and so it wasn't until the second knock rang out that she lifted her intense gaze from the book and towards the door. Even if she wasn't expecting, it wasn't exactly unusual for people to call at her home for any variety of reasons. Raelynn simply sighed, removing her cheek from resting on her hand. A redness remained there, and she placed the book carefully on the side table before making her way to the door.

The house grew colder there, where the breeze from outside blew in from underneath, an unthreatening whistle. From a coat stand, she grabbed a long robe and wrapped herself in it as she approached, without thought grabbing the handle to greet--


Her heart stopped, and in the brief moment that she remained in the threshold she noticed that the snow had started. Just a light snow, drifting lazily down from above. The flakes fell and sat in his hair, kissed his beard, and landed on the shoulders of his heavy coat until they melted away just as quick. She took a breath, a long, slow breath before instinct took over and she slammed the door closed without uttering even a word. She didn't need to, just a shrill and piercing look with her cold eyes was enough.

She stormed down the hall and away from the door, pottering back and forth, running a hand desperately through her tousled hair. It was a mess, barely styled, barely brushed. Her clothes were simple. Just a simple dress that pinched at her waist and showed off little else. Raelynn stole a glance back at the door. What would he be thinking? Why was he even here? She noticed that his scent had trailed in too, even without her allowing him too, the ghost of his perfume had followed her down the hall regardless.

There were no words she could think of to speak, but she tiptoed back towards the door, the tips of her fingers lingered over the handle and she pressed an ear to it, unsure of what she was waiting for. The sound of retreating footsteps? Or an explanation?

Gregor was rooted to the spot after she slammed the door in his face. He could hear muttering and giggling behind him and he slowly looked over his shoulder to see a gaggle of young women hiding their amusement at his apparent misfortune behind their hands. There was a great vulnerability etched onto his face and his gaze, almost pleading, reminded the girls of their humanity. Their laughter ceased and they hurried away, uncomfortable now that the man had transferred his emotions to them with a glance.

Sighing, he turned back to face the door, his mind working overtime in an attempt to parse the look Raelynn had given him before she’d abruptly retreated into her sanctuary. What had it meant? Gregor replayed the moment in his mind’s eye, the image of her burned into his retinas. The redness on her cheek, the casual state of her hair, the plain dress -- she had been lounging, that much was evident. Perhaps she simply felt ambushed? Gregor could understand that. He was savvy enough to know that women did not merely put on their face and dress themselves up for the benefit of the male gaze alone. It was their battledress, as much as his sword and armor were his. But his uncertainty gnawed at him with unprecedented force. He imagined all manner of disdain in her eyes now, as he continued to relive the moment over and over, and took an involuntary step away from the door. She’d moved on. Perhaps she even hated him. What would she even want with a man who so readily abandoned his wife? All the doubt and self-loathing that Gregor had worked so hard to suppress threatened to boil over and he felt his throat constricting.

“Stupid,” Gregor muttered to himself, his voice almost cracking as he struggled to get the word out past the emotions tied up behind his tongue. “Stupid, stupid, stupid. What were you thinking?” He turned halfway away from the door and stopped again, blinking hard and chewing on his bottom lip. His hands still gripped the velvet box tightly. He remembered that he had prepared for this reaction, caught in his anxiety during one of the lonely nights in his cabin aboard the ship, and fished in his pocket with trembling fingers for the note he had written then. He stuffed it beneath the ribbon that tied down the box’s lid and gingerly placed the container on the ground, pausing to adjust it so that its edge ran parallel to the door -- to make it just so. Gregor straightened back up and tugged on the hem of his gloves, nodding to himself while his gaze flitted from the box to the door and the windows of the house and back again.

Then, as if seized by a sudden madness, he quickly knelt back down to retrieve the box, pulled the note free and plunged it once more into the depths of his pockets, trying to unmake its existence. Gregor clenched his jaw and squared his shoulders. He cleared his throat and briefly dabbed at his eyes, just to be sure, before he opened his mouth and dared to speak.

“Raelynn? I’m sorry to call on you so… unannounced,” he managed lamely, and frowned at himself. “I’ve… you see, there’s… if you don’t want to talk to me, I understand,” the silversmith said, picking up speed and strength of voice as he went, “but I’ve brought you something that you should have, at least.” He tapped the velvet box with one hand, reassuring himself and the world of the value of the object inside. “A gift, if you will, though it’s belonged to you before.”

And then he waited.

The merchant gazed off down the hall, taking in nothing. A hand was placed over her chest, what had only just been a calm feeling had been swept away by the thunderous race of an angry heart. The image that she finally found was one inside of herself. She'd relived it so many times already, changing details so much and so often that it was hard to remember just what had been there at all. Only the feelings.

She was recalling her last meeting with the Imperial jewelsmith. How everything had been going well that morning. The walk through the town, the flowers, the detour to find boots. All of it. Raelynn's head turned to the handle, her fingers tapped at it. It had been an awful day, to the end of it when she'd left him sitting alone at a table. In that moment, it was as if she relived the same feeling all over again.

She couldn't leave him again, there was too much curiosity and not just for the supposed gift. So Raelynn opened the door, unable to meet his gaze, but the door was open. "Take off your shoes…" she breathed out, stepping back from the gentleman caller, before she turned on her heel to walk away - her own feet in thick woolen socks that shuffled over the oak flooring, barely disturbing it. Was that the right reaction? Should she have looked at him or said something else? The regret was instant and burned through her from her throat to her stomach where it sat in a tight, painful knot. Neither of them had any power, and for her part, she didn't want any. Just answers.

The woman waited by the fireplace, her shape outlined in gold from the flames, the dim light was in stark contrast to the cold haze outside as the snow began it's flurry, a squall forming. The epicentre was seemingly the Deserine house, the heat and anger was contained for now. "I don't know what you want me to say," she admitted, her back to him, her voice now less of a whisper. Bolder, but vulnerable around the edges, like a flower on the precipice of spoiling.

Gregor didn’t respond immediately. Wide-eyed, his gaze wandered through the home, taking in the beautiful furnishings and the art on the walls. He saw the place where she’d been seated when he knocked, the book and the scones betraying her fresh absence on the velvet lounger, so near the fireplace. It felt more like a home than any other home Gregor had ever been, and that included his own. Had he wounder her so, that she had felt the need to create a place as warm and beautiful as this to shelter her? He looked at her and suddenly felt self-conscious -- his socks must look quite silly, sticking out from beneath his large coat, and he took it off before speaking, gingerly draping it over his forearm.

“Nothing, nothing,” the Imperial said. “You don’t have to say anything. Not yet, anyway. Remember that you told me to… figure it out? Before I left?” He took a deep breath and held out the velvet box. “Well, I… this will say it better than I ever could. Take it. Open it. Please.”

Slowly her head turned again, to meet his gaze at last. Raelynn looked at him before she looked at the box, and the sight of him in the archway between the hall and the lounge made her feel sheepish and the worried frown that fell across her features signified as much. Carefully she reached out a hand, placing it over the top of the box with apprehension, as if she was scared the box was going to bite her. The lack of trust was clear but she took it, taking greater care not to let her own hand touch Gregor’s. Had that been what he had wanted? Her touch? She regarded him with curiosity in her eyes before doing as he asked and opening the box.

The sight inside hadn’t been what she’d expected at all, and immediately her free hand came up to cover her mouth while she gasped. Her eyes softened and she sank down onto the lounger. Her diamond was in the box, as the centrepiece of Gregor’s mastercrafted piece. It was held there by delicate mithril that had been created by his hand, and clearly not a single part of if had been wasted either. It was stunning, painstakingly shaped to hold the weight of her diamond, and two flawless sapphires either side. Those stones alone were near priceless…

“I…” she whispered. Her eyes hung over the olive green stone, focussing in on the ripple through the centre where the colour seemed brighter, concentrated. The Breton gathered herself enough to place her hand against the fabric of the chair, and she cleared her throat. “You… You made this yourself?” She asked, attempting to sound composed, as if she was simply appraising an artefact.

“I did,” Gregor said softly and bowed his head. His own gaze bounced between the medallion and Raelynn’s eyes, downcast as they were, trying to discern whether she liked it or not. “It took me… gods, I don’t even know how long,” he laughed and ran a hand through his hair, nervous and cautiously optimistic and terrified all at the same time. “Not to mention the retrieval of the diamond, which is a good story in and of itself.” He paused and looked at her expectantly. “Do you… do you like it?”

She nodded in response, finding herself speechless in a way. Raelynn looked at it for a while longer, letting the silence hover in the air between them. As beautiful as the gift was, and as much as she loved it, there was still a palpable tension between them that she couldn’t ignore. “You left Jehanna to retrieve this, didn’t you?” She finally asked, looking up from the necklace to gauge his reaction. “And then you… Didn’t come back,” she added, in a softer tone. She was not laughing with him, but she was not cross either - she simply wasn’t ready to give him any real emotion.

The smile ran away from his face at her unspoken second question, bringing back the solemn reality of what he had done in the months he had been gone. “No, I didn’t,” he whispered and placed his free hand on the wall for support. He looked down at his feet and fell silent for a moment, with only the soft crackling in the fireplace to disturb the room’s peace. With slow movements, Gregor hung his coat over the back of a chair and pulled it up to the lounge. The Imperial sat down opposite Raelynn, his face a grave mask in which only his eyes showed any signs of life. They were as warm and vulnerable as young firewood. He looked at her, opened his mouth to speak, and closed it again. Then, with finality, he removed his glove from his right hand. A small band of skin around his ring finger was paler than the rest, and remarkably unadorned.

“I figured it out,” Gregor said, his voice barely more than a hoarse breath.

“Was it difficult?” Raelynn asked quietly, with a slight flicker of the ease they had once shared. She had to restrain from reaching out and touching the emptiness there, the history that was still a mark, and always would be, but the space for a future too. Instead, her hand moved to brush and tuck her hair behind her ear. Anything to occupy them. She remembered the very first time she met him, how she had practically pinned him to his chair with her threatening distrust. This wasn’t so different, only the distrust was no longer threatening, just cautious.

Memories of screaming came to him, and Gregor swallowed hard -- he saw things being thrown at him and heard them shatter against the wall behind him. His things. Their things. His mother crying. His father’s cold stare. That one long night he spent on the streets, walking in circles. The countless hours slaving away at the forge, pouring his love and desire and desperation into the necklace, his Herculean work that would set the world right -- or so he hoped. All the documents he signed -- to give her the house, their savings, her freedom. The long journey back to Jehanna. The fear that filled his guts and stopped him from eating.

Back in the here and now, Gregor leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees, his hand around his wrist. He drew a long breath and tapped against the floor with one of his feet, before shaking his head slowly while his gaze was cast down. What was the point of telling her all of that? She wasn’t responsible for these burdens. “It was as difficult as it needed to be,” Gregor said eventually and looked up to meet the cold dawn of her gaze again.

“I never thought I’d see you again,” she said, tearing her eyes away from him, the hold she had on the velvet box softening until she placed it between them. “I didn’t… I didn’t know whether to wait for you, if you wanted me to.” She paused, there was no guilt that she felt, just more regret. One or two or three instances of weakness, something to try and make her feel better, like it was simply a fling and the same intensity and the same feelings that Gregor had given her could be found elsewhere. “It’s just me now, if that’s what you wanted to know… I mean,” she fumbled before getting to her feet and wrapping her arms around herself.

Frustration grew and she furrowed her brow. “What do you want?” Raelynn asked, working her hands in the sleeves of the robe. She chided herself for it, it was direct and abrupt and what she’d wanted to say, was that she was proud of him. Proud that, no matter what it was he’d figured out, she was just glad he’d done it. But those words had died in her throat before they’d had a chance to escape.

This was what it had all been building towards. Months of work, struggles, tough decisions, and waiting. The waiting had been the worst. Gregor followed her up on his feet and thought about putting his own arms around her placatingly before wisely
deciding against it. They would have to do this at her pace. He dropped his hands by his side instead and looked at her -- really looked at her.

“You,” he said simply.

She knew that he meant it. No man in Tamriel made a necklace like that with his own hand, and travelled across provinces to deliver it by his own hand if it were not true. Her breath got lost when she heard it, and remained still as if dragging it out for effect, in reality she was once again scared to press forward. Gregor and Raelynn had been there before. The floor of her quarters in the Inn, when he had picked her up. When they had kissed. He’d had to help her then too. But that had been a different Raelynn.

The Breton didn’t need anyone’s hand to press, pull,or push her forward — and so she moved of her own accord, steel in her eyes as she closed the distance between them. On her toes she reached up, holding his face in her hands to pull him close and kiss him. Just like that, nothing more than a kiss, but with nothing less than her love.

She struck him like a bolt of lightning from pale winter skies and flooded him like a tsunami that rushed far inland. Stunned, it took a moment for him to process what was happening, and his hands hovered frozen in the air, useless and stiff. But he returned her kiss as soon as he regained his senses and wrapped his arms as tightly around her as a drowning man might around a piece of driftwood. His heart burst into a thousand stars and a wave of relief, immense, liberating relief, washed over him, powerful enough to almost force him onto his knees. When they finally broke their kiss and he looked at her, his cheeks were wet. He tried, and failed, to say something. Instead, he pulled her close once more, one hand around her waist and one wound into her hair, and he buried himself in her neck, as if he was trying to melt into her. Gregor took a deep, shuddering breath and tried not to fall apart with joy.

In the midst of his joy, she finally spoke with the clarity she’d wanted to earlier. The confidence that had betrayed her and hidden away. In his kiss she’d found it, in the kiss that she’d given him, she’d found it. Slowly she pushed him away from her neck, holding him gracefully so that she could look at him, and he at her. “I want…” she began, closing her eyes only briefly while she took a breath. “I want the love that I’ve always wanted, that I dreamed of, and that I deserve,” Raelynn said clearly — as if it had been her mantra, something she’d been telling herself and wishing aloud for in the empty months, during her own time of growth.

If Gregor had been in a war zone with his own family, torn up and torn apart, then Raelynn had done it to herself too. The effect that the Imperial had on her had been a profound one, a longing for more and to be more, even with the unanswered questions and even knowing after he had gone that he might never come back. He needed to know that. It was also a warning, in a way, that she wouldn’t stand for a relationship with him like any of her past… With Tristan, with Hugo. “No lies, no secrets.”

It was so typical of Raelynn, so endearingly her, that Gregor had to resist the urge to laugh. Instead, he smiled and nodded. “No lies, no secrets,” he echoed, and then raised a pointed eyebrow -- Raelynn had made quite the habit of keeping secrets from him, or only telling him the truth at the last second, for as long as he had known her. But that was what he liked about her. She wasn’t a timid woman. She was a force of nature, as capricious and unknowable as the sea, and yet vulnerable and, in her own way, innocent. He knew she wouldn’t be easily pleased, satisfied with the occasional gift or simple display of devotion. She wanted real love. And so did he.

He decided to speak nothing of it and instead brushed her cheek with his fingers, admiring her like it was the first time he’d ever laid eyes on her, not giving a damn that she hadn’t prepared for his arrival. To him, she was now more beautiful than ever. “I love you,” Gregor said softly, but he emphasized each word with as much feeling as he could muster.

Gregor was solid. There was something different about him this time. There was no barrier between them, there was nobody else in the room and so Raelynn felt safe enough to fall into his gravity. With a smile, an easy and slight smile, she whispered back to him; “and I love you.”

Saying it to him felt so freeing. Her first secret had been liberated, and it was one she hadn’t known she’d been keeping. Her eyes widened in surprise of her own words, they hadn’t gotten lost there. Where her earlier well wishes had died, declarations of love seemed to grow and come to life.

Now Gregor laughed, but clearly not at anyone’s expense. It was a delightful release of pent-up nervous energy and he broke up his laughter with a series of kisses planted firmly on Raelynn’s forehead. “Thank the gods,” he said and laughed again, before holding up his trembling hands behind Raelynn to inspect them. “I need to sit down,” he said and promptly did so, but still grinning from ear to ear, and he took one of Raelynn’s hands into his own. “I was so afraid this would not go the way I had hoped.” Gregor took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, and in an attempt to find distraction he looked around the room once more.

“Your home is beautiful, by the way,” he added.

At that, she looked around the walls of the lounge before taking a seat beside him. It was still strange that he was here. Like a dream she'd probably wake up from soon, but she pushed that thought of doubt aside and leaned against his side, letting her head rest against his collarbones. "It wasn't always as nice, it was so empty and dirty when I bought it," she sighed wistfully. The Breton stayed quiet. The warmth inside compared to the snowstorm outside was comforting, and the way that she was all of a sudden sat with Gregor felt so intimate. She could smell him, the scent of leather, steel, and something earthen was intoxicatingly masculine and it made her feel so safe with him. He was beautiful, and he was here. "I'm sorry for slamming the door in your face," she whispered.

“It’s beautiful because you made it this way,” Gregor said with a smile and squeezed her hand gently. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to have her close like this, her head against him, her hand in his, and while he had obviously missed her, he was all the more acutely aware of the true depth of his longing for her now that he had her again. A serene peace filled him and he closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in his new reality and letting the scent of her and her home comfort him. He chuckled when Raelynn apologized. “Don’t worry, I understand. If you didn’t think you’d ever see me again, I must have given you quite a fright when I turned up like that.” He shifted so that he could look down into her eyes.

“I’m also sorry. For not saying anything when I left. I probably should have, but… we were leaving to steal your diamond back, and I was sure that you would’ve never given the operation your blessing if I actually… you know, told you about it,” Gregor rambled sheepishly. “But the point is that you have it back now. All’s well that ends well. I hope.”

"Well, when you put it like that maybe I'm not that sorry about it after all," she chuckled, reaching up to push back his hair.

The mention of the diamond disturbed her own peace, all of the emotional catch up had meant that it had slipped her mind, and she practically bolted upright, "the diamond," she gasped. "My necklace," she smiled, reaching for the box excitedly, a pleasant shiver ran up her spine as she handed it to Gregor. "I want you to put it on me…" Her eyes were wide, expectant, and she bit her lower lip as she waited for him to respond, her hands brushing her hair over one shoulder to expose the skin of her neck. "I want to see how it feels."

Her excitement was infectious and Gregor smirked, glad to see the sincerity in her eyes when she looked at the box with girlish joy. “Of course,” he said and got out of the chair in order to drop down on one knee in front of her. With deliberately slow movements, a man about to crown a new Empress, Gregor lifted the necklace out of the box and held it up in the air for a moment. The diamond and the sapphires caught the warm light of the fireplace brilliantly. Then he lowered it and gingerly placed the chain around her neck, leaning forward so that he could see what he was doing as he closed the fasteners. That motion brought them close again and Gregor slowed down even more, savoring the moment, his lips a mere inch away from her ear. She smelled as divine as she always did and an almost imperceptibly low growl rumbled in his chest.

Then it was done, the necklace fastened behind her neck, and Gregor leaned back to inspect her. A slow smile crept across his face and lights danced in his eyes at the sight. It was perfect. The medallion radiated against her sun-kissed skin, the brightness of her eyes echoed in the sapphires and further bringing out the forest shade caught within the diamond. His hands slowly ran down her shoulders. “Perfection,” he whispered.

The feeling of the mithril on her skin was divine, more so than it had ever been as a simple ring on her finger, and the weight of the stones only confirmed their opulence. Her breath shuddered out, and another chill ran up her spine. She felt powerful in it, and more beautiful than she ever had. "I love it," she whispered appreciatively into Gregor's ear. "I really love it… I… I never imagined anyone would do this," she added - praising him in soft whispers as her hands worked over his arms. "Thank you."

Raelynn pulled away from him, a thought stuck in her mind and while it sat there she swung one leg over the other in a playful manner. "You know, now that I think about it… I have a gift for you too…" Would he remember what she'd promised him?

A lot had happened since they had last spoken of it, but a fierce spark appeared in Gregor’s eyes all the same, and he drew a sharp breath. If she spoke of what he thought she spoke of, then he most certainly remembered. He scoured her gaze for the truth, but she shielded herself well once more and Gregor smiled wryly, resigning himself to being at the mercy of her whim. “Is it... what I think it is?” he asked, trying to play coy, but she would’ve undoubtedly already seen and heard his excitement.

There had only been one sword that she hadn't sold, or added to any shipments. It was… Unique, to say the least, and she just hadn't wished to part with it. Her brow raised, and she giggled at Gregor's reaction. "Wait here," she said, placing a hand on his shoulder before she excused herself from the room.

After several long minutes, she returned. Resting on her hands was a long blade, but covered in a strip of fabric. There was an intense excitement in her chest, she was nervous and in a way, found herself feeling similar to the Lady of the Lake she had read about in a novel once. A nymph who appeared from a magical place to bestow an incredible sword to a noble hero. She walked it over to Gregor, and sat down carefully - the sword remained perfectly balanced the entire time. She met his dark eyes with her own and nodded. "Take a look. It's yours…"

She didn’t have to tell him twice. Gregor peeled back the strip of cloth and unwrapped the blade. Like Raelynn had done when she had seen the necklace, he gasped and froze at the sword that was revealed. It was ebony, like she had promised, but of the finest make Gregor had ever seen. Streaks of pale purple ran through the black metal, like a chemical flame captured in the rippling edge of the claymore for all eternity. As a silversmith ebony wasn’t a material that Gregor often worked with, but he knew enough to recognize the violet fire for what it was: an imperfection in the ore, carefully preserved throughout the forging process, that only served to make the weapon more beautiful than it otherwise could have possibly been. His gaze trailed down the length of the blade to the hilt. An almost sensual moan escaped him when he saw the gold crossguard, slightly angled forward to better catch an opponent’s weapon to disarm them, and polished to perfection. He could even see his own distorted reflection in the precious metal. The hilt itself was wrapped in black leather strips, trimmed with violet edges to match the flamberge blade, and topped with a gold pommel that contained a flawless amethyst.

“Gods above, Raelynn,” Gregor stammered and took the blade in reverent hands. He could immediately tell that the balance was perfect. It was heavier than he was used to, being both a two-handed weapon and forged from denser material than his steel sword, but his grip adapted immediately, as if the claymore itself was telling him how it wished to be held. The Imperial rose to his feet and moved around the room with slow steps, testing the weapon by swinging it in slow vertical circles around him. He finally tore his gaze away from the sword and looked back at his lover with equal parts profound gratitude and flabbergasted disbelief. “This is… one of a kind,” he managed. “A sword fit for a king. Where did you even get this?”

She was immediately smug in her response, his reaction had been thrilling to say the least… "I know we said no secrets but… Maybe some are allowed to be kept." Danger flickered over her glacial gaze and she smirked, leaning back into the lounger - satisfied. "I simply have my ways… The right contacts…" Raelynn deliberately skirted around the truth. He wasn't going to get it, and maybe that was for the best. Did it really matter? It mattered that he was happy, and that a debt had been paid. Her fingers ran over her necklace and her smirk became a simple smile again. This was the part of the dream where reality would come in, a snap, a loud noise - pull it all away to nothing. "So you like it then?" She asked, knowing the answer already, she just wanted to hear it, to watch him as he said it.

How could he even answer that? He looked at the claymore again, wide-eyed, and simply marveled for a while. “I do,” he said at length. “Of course I do. I like it so much I might be afraid to actually use it.” Gregor thought about that for a second and cracked a smile. “Ships are safest when moored in the harbor, but that’s not why they are made....” he mumbled, perhaps too low for Raelynn to hear. He grabbed the hilt firmly with both hands and, after checking to make sure he had enough space in the room, whirled around on his axis and slashed the blade through the air. The ebony whistled with raw power as it sliced through an imaginary enemy’s neck and after Gregor completed the arc of the sideways strike, holding the pose for a moment, it was as if he could feel the rippled edge of the blade hum in satisfaction.

Then he slowly straightened back up and lowered the claymore once more. “The sword has spoken,” Gregor declared. “Who am I to deny the will of such a magnificent weapon? I shall wield it with pride.” He looked at Raelynn and exhaled slowly, a blissful smile on his lips. “Thank you, my love.” My love. How good that felt to say…

Watching him with the sword reminded her of the first time she gave him such a blade. Only this was different, it suited him so much more, the colours in the ebony complimented his complexion and when he brought the sword high enough it lit up his eyes in a menacingly attractive way. She wanted to see him use it properly, she thought to herself. To wield it when facing down a real foe, and to see it draw blood. A dark thought, but an enchanting one.

"I'm glad you do," she said at last, her eyes never leaving him. "It suits you, I knew it would," she sighed. She looked at him, a familiar sensation growing within her as he stood above her, sword in hand, only just out of breath and a few hairs out of place from the motions. She wanted him. Here, now. The hand that gripped her thigh said as much. She knew it was too soon already to fan at those flames, as tempting as they were.

"You must be hungry," she offered, blinking suddenly and relinquishing the grip on her leg. "Are you?"

It was a surprisingly mundane question so soon after the exchange of such extraordinary gifts and the whirlwind of emotion that their reunion had been thus far, but Gregor had to admit that it was equally as perceptive. He was, in fact, hungry. "I am," he admitted freely and returned the sword to its cloth shroud. He seemed much less like a warrior and much more like the pensive silversmith he usually was as soon as the claymore left his hands. Gregor rubbed them together and looked wistfully at the plate of food that Raelynn had been nursing before he arrived. Reminding him of his mortal needs had sharply increased Gregor's awareness of them and he felt his stomach growl. "It's been a long journey."

"I'll bet," Raelynn responded before standing again. "Now that I'm not in the Inn… It's not like I can simply order," she pouted rather seriously. "But I've learned a thing or two. Even if it tastes dreadful, I have good wine - and plenty of it." The Breton headed back through the archway, inviting Gregor to join her in the kitchen.

Like much of the rest of the house, it was small, but none of the space felt cluttered. There was an apparatus set up over another, smaller fireplace, with several pots and pans stacked on a shelf beside it. Raelynn had not exaggerated on her collection of wine, either. A towering wine rack was set in the corner, filled with all manner of bottles and was fit like a feature wall into the kitchen. "It's red that you enjoy, isn't it?" Raelynn asked, even though she knew the answer already. Maybe that was why she'd filled the tower with so many of them in the first place.

Raelynn was going to cook him a meal? Gregor knew a thing or two about preparing a hearty meal himself -- nothing fancy, but the recipes he knew were nutritious, easy to make and always scored well with Gregor’s fellow travelers on the road. He decided not to speak up, however, since the idea of watching the highborn Breton potter around in the kitchen amused him greatly. Gregor took a seat at the kitchen table and admired the wine rack with approval. Even his father would have been impressed, and Hector was a passionate sommelier. “You remember well,” Gregor confirmed.

He was reminded of the night at the inn, when they had shared champagne to toast on their victory. It was probably that very trade deal, now that Gregor thought about it, that had provided Raelynn with the resources and the opportunity to procure the mastercrafted ebony claymore. That realization made him smile. It was like the whole universe had lined up for him. “So… how have you been?” he asked after he finished making himself comfortable in the chair, leaned back and with one arm over the railing. “What have you been up to? How’s business?”

As Gregor settled himself, Raelynn got to work - or at least, she tried to. Firstly by removing the lid from a wooden box on the bench. It was filled to the brim with salt, and she lowered her hands into it, digging away at it until she found a selection of carved meats, curing in the salt. Pheasant breast and thigh pieces that had been prepared and left there by Shona. "I've been…" she began, brushing off the excess salt to reveal the plump meat. Beyond that, she didn't really know what to do. Only that it should be cooked. "Just, business," she answered absent-mindedly as she lit the fire.

"Fjolte never came back after the two of you left, at least I assume you left together… I suppose he went back to Skyrim in the end. So it was just Shona and I. I hired some others," she explained, taking a quick glance at Gregor in his chair. "Just mercenaries passing through, one of them taught me how to fence so I even went out on my own expeditions with a crew for a while," she smiled.

Her voice tapered off as she placed a pan over the flame, adding the meat to it carefully, a welcoming sizzle rang out from the pan as the heat permeated to the fat, rendering it. "Did you do anything else, over these months?" She asked quietly, wondering if it was a stupid question, but she was curious.

“Fjolte isn’t here?” Gregor asked, visibly crestfallen. Raelynn had dominated his mind, of course, but he had also been looking forward to seeing his merry Nord friend again. “My father says war is brewing in Skyrim… maybe that’s why he went back.” The Imperial sighed and mouthed a quick prayer for the man’s safety.

Picturing Raelynn at the head of a field expedition was another source of amusement for Gregor, but then again, why wouldn’t she learn how to fight? He hadn’t forgotten her attraction towards the power of a man armed and dangerous, so it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that she might have sought to learn such skills herself. “How did your expeditions go? Slay any ancient Daedric beasts?” Gregor quipped with a smile, though it faded quickly. The fond memory of his exciting adventure into the underground lair with Fjolte made the Nord’s departure all the more sour.

“As for myself and what I’ve done lately… not really, no,” Gregor answered. He couldn’t keep a note of melancholy out of his voice. “Putting my affairs in order took up a lot of my time and effort. It doesn’t take as many years to deconstruct a life as it takes to build one, but still…” He trailed off and stared at a point over Raelynn’s shoulder, his gaze fixed into the middle distance. “And then there was the packing, the preparations… oh, that reminds me,” he continued and brought his focus back to the here and now. He looked at Raelynn somewhat sheepishly. “I’ve rented a room in one of the inns, which is where my belongings are now. Should I… retain that room?”

The implications of the question were left unspoken, but Gregor knew that Raelynn would sense what he meant. They hadn’t seen each other for months, and even before then their acquaintance had been as brief as it had been powerful. Was she ready for him to move into her home? Did she even have space for him and his things? The logistical implications of either answer to that question were something that Gregor wanted to address sooner rather than later. He had given all of their savings to Briar, along with the house and most of their shared valuables. His tools and his sword were the only things of value that Gregor had brought with him -- and the Deserine diamond necklace, of course. If he was going to have to provide for his own lodgings, Gregor needed to find work. Or, preferably, a workshop, since the Cyrodilic Guild of Silversmiths had awarded him the rank of Master before his departure.

"Very little slaying, more trudging through mud and all manner of terrible conditions. Sleeping rough in the mountains, finding our way through dark caverns… But, we were spirited about it…" she answered truthfully, making her way to various other spots in the kitchen as she listened to Gregor. From a cupboard she brought out a basket of bread loaves and began dressing the table accordingly. Placing the bowl in the centre, from wire basket on the counter she grabbed a handful of carrots and wild onion, chopping them roughly before adding them into the pan with the cooking bird. A gamey scent hovered around the kitchen now like an earthy perfume, the sweetness of the carrots prickling though with the tang of onion. A slosh of red wine into the pan created an almighty sizzle until it stabilized, and so the dish was just left to simmer and Raelynn came to her own seat.

His question… It was bound to have been asked sooner or later. Her answer came before she had time to think it through, a quick blurting of words that must have been waiting in the pool of emotions left by their reunion. "I don't want you to pay to stay in an inn."

After that, Raelynn cleared her throat and looked to the window, at the heavy snowfall that was still coming down - showing little sign of stopping. "You'll catch your death out in that, we'll probably be snowed in… It's too late to leave." She glanced down at the table, at her hands and she realised her fingers were drumming over the surface.

"Stay the night," she said timidly, reaching out to take his hand with her own. "We can resume the matter come morning but for now let's just- let's be us, here."

With the earthy fragrance of the simmering dish in the air of the kitchen and the quiet hush of snowfall pressing against the cozy home, sundering them from the outside world, Gregor couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else. “Of course,” he said softly and as her hand took his, he gave her another one of his patented gentle squeezes.

Suffused by the radiance of her own home, Raelynn looked to him like a vision out of an old dream -- the ones that felt like you had left a part of yourself behind upon waking from them, for the dream had been an expression of one’s purest and innermost desires. But here she was, real and tangible and desperate for him to stay. Was she afraid she was going to wake up too?

Gregor smiled, the emotion pouring into his eyes like rainfall through dry earth, softening them and filling them with warmth. “We have all the time in the world now,” he said, speaking just loudly enough to be heard over the quietly simmering meal. “And there is nowhere else in the world that I’d rather be than here and now, with you.” With a wink, he blew her a kiss.

That made her laugh, and she playfully slapped the back of his hand. "You're not fifteen, Gregor," she joked in his direction, blushing at the gesture anyway. This meal was much different to their last. The things they'd said to each other, what he'd said to her. They didn't matter anymore, did they?

"If you're planning on staying around, once the snow has cleared I wanted to travel out into the mountains again. You could come with me, if you wanted to of course." It wasn't a question, but it was certainly posed like one. "Maybe we'll find a Daedric beast to slay together, and lost jewels from a bygone era," she smirked as excitement flashed over her steady countenance. "Or we could find some lost cave, or a secret hot spring and make camp there… Or find nothing, and squabble with each other until we make it home again…"

“Bah, humbug,” Gregor grumbled, though his eyes continued to betray his mirth. “Age is just a number. So what if I’m not fifteen? Maybe you make me feel fifteen again.” He smirked and ran a hand through his beard. “Which I wouldn’t be too quick to judge about, if I were you. Fifteen-year-olds have a lot of stamina,” the Imperial said slyly.

Before she could chastise him for the uncouth comment, Gregor moved on to respond to the rest of what Raelynn had said. “I would quite like that, I think,” he said and nodded agreeably. “I’ve always found the mountains to be quite… bracing. It would be my pleasure to travel with you.”

Then he smirked again. “Unless, if your prediction comes to pass, we end up squabbling the entire journey, but then at least we can say that we overcame an additional challenge along the way.”

The Breton chuckled again, differently this time, it was a provocative and husky sound and she started leaning towards him, her eyes heavy lidded and seductive. "A lot of stamina is nothing compared to the raw strength and experience-" she whispered, drawing closer to him as she did so, until a loud popping sound quickly caused her to withdraw. The pot.

"Godsdamnit," she cursed, jumping up from the seat to tend to the pan as it bubbled over. She removed it from the heat and set it down on the counter. "I think it's ready," she exhaled - suddenly flustered in more ways than one.

Raelynn had a way of supercharging the air with seductive energy in a way that he had never seen a woman do before, and Gregor had to blink repeatedly to clear his head and remind himself that he was, in fact, still in a kitchen, after the pan threatened to boil over and the moment was abruptly disturbed. He could’ve sworn he was in a rose petal-laced boudoir bedroom just from the way she whispered to him, and he felt a spark run down his spine. Suddenly, it was like they hadn’t been apart at all and Gregor knew for sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he made the right decision.

“Good, good,” Gregor said, clearing his throat as he followed her to his feet, only to subsequently be unsure why he had done so. He looked at her somewhat awkwardly and pressed his hands together. “Is there… any way I can help?”

"Uhhh…" she mumbled out, wiping her brow with the back of her hand, "just grab a bowl and help yourself." With the heat having died down, she turned back to Gregor and placed a quick kiss on his cheek. The usually cold and distant merchant liked the way that the warmth of the domestic lifestyle felt, she knew it was only Gregor that she felt safe enough to relax around like this. Even after months apart, he still had that effect on her.

"I'll pour us some wine," Raelynn said over her shoulder as she reached for two glasses, and a bottle. "Maybe you can tell me just how you got my diamond back… Unless it's another of your secretive boy's tales?"

Having grabbed a bowl and helped himself, as instructed, Gregor sat back down and tried not to make it too obvious that his first spoonful of food was a cautious venture. But, to his pleasant surprise, it wasn’t half-bad, though the whole thing could have done with some more seasoning and with more carefully diced vegetables. On the other hand, the splash of wine she added really helped bring some more flavor to the dish. Gregor ultimately felt he had nothing to complain about. “Thanks for dinner,” he said with sincerity and a smile. “You sell yourself short. This is good food.”

"You've Shona to thank, not me. She makes it… Easy for me to cook," she admitted with a shrug. "Maybe you'll make our breakfast?" Raelynn added coyly with a smile, taking a test bite from her own bowl as she watched Gregor eat. He can't have been eating anything too exciting on the boat, she thought to herself, wishing that she had some cheeses to serve afterwards. "So come on then, story time," came a tone of authority from her voice as she moved his glass towards him.

“I just might,” Gregor said in a slow drawl as Raelynn pushed the glass towards him. He picked it up with an appreciative nod. “Ah, very well, story time..”

He cleared his throat, took a sip of wine and began to speak. “The most important thing to remember is that Fjolte had to be talked into doing his part of the plan, and that it wasn’t his idea. As for the plan itself, it was as follows. I remembered how told you me that Sir Gaerford’s new wife would most likely still be, in your own words, ‘happily unfucked’, so I convinced Fjolte to seduce her and thereby gain entry into the Gaerford mansion. A lonely woman, untouched by her husband, suddenly swept off her feet by a handsome, musclebound rogue from the wildlands?”

The silversmith chuckled and shrugged. “How was she supposed to resist him? We surveilled the property for a while until we identified who the new lady of the household was and then we ambushed her at the markets. And by that, I mean that Fjolte stole her heart in two minutes flat. Once inside, he managed to talk her into giving up all manner of secrets -- she was only too eager to have a new hunk of a man to talk to, poor thing. One of those secrets included where she kept her ring, and therefore your diamond, at night. Once he had this information, Fjolte left a window open for me and I broke into the mansion after dusk,” Gregor explained. He held a hand in front of his face, peering at Raelynn from between his fingers. “Remember the ball, and the mask I wore? One of the guards saw me as I made my way out but--”

At that point, Gregor started laughing. “I’m sure they still talk in Wayrest of the giant man-owl that stalked the Gaerford manor that night. Nobody recognized me, of course.” He was quite clearly enarmored with his own cunning as he recalled the tale and he took another sip of wine while his eyes glazed over with a smug look. “It went about as smoothly as we could have hoped for. Fjolte managed to extract himself from Lady Gaerford’s desperate embrace and we had already left the city the next morning. The rest is history.”

He paused for a moment, and then gestured towards Raelynn with his glass. “Oh, I and I met your brother.”

The Breton had been listening, and enjoying the way that Gregor explained their heist - and she enjoyed the mental image she conjured of her ex-fiance finding out he’d been robbed later… It gave way to a small laugh in between his words, and she picked at her own food between sips of wine. Everything was going well, and in the back of her mind she could picture how it would be to have dinner with Gregor every night for the foreseeable future; that was up until his final word.

The glass was lifted to her lips, the ruby red liquid passing into her mouth when the very mention of her brother had her cough it back in surprise. It was hardly ladylike, but it was such a shock to hear that. As far as she was aware, Gregor knew nothing about Sirion or her family, she hadn’t told him about them, and for good reason. “What?” she asked abruptly, her tone had changed and the air around her soured. Raelynn raised a finger to wipe her lip. “I didn’t… He’s not…” she stammered out. Gregor had caught her off guard. She knew that her brother had the shop in Wayrest - she hadn’t even thought it a possibility that Gregor would find it. “What happened?” she asked, her lips thinned as she took in a calming breath, and her eyes narrowed.

Intrigued, Gregor observed the way Raelynn reacted to this revelation closely. For someone that had been such a staunch advocate for openness in their relationship, she was remarkably soured by the idea that Gregor had uncovered one of her secrets. As much as their love was genuine, there was still a lingering tension between them, Gregor felt -- a remnant of the game of alternating trust and wariness they had played. And there were still many layers of Raelynn to peel back.

“Nothing happened,” he said truthfully. “I talked to him in his shop for a little while, about his work, his education, things like that. He struck me as a studious and focused young man.” Gregor smiled and laughed softly. “He judged one of my jewelry pieces as a ‘fair effort’, and then corrected himself to call it ‘very nice’ when he realized he was being rude. I thought that was endearing. And he was right, about that piece. I often reminded myself of what he said while I was working on your necklace. It had to be more, much more, than a ‘fair effort’. He does not know it, but he contributed a little to its beauty now.” Gregor saw the way Raelynn had narrowed her eyes at him. “I didn’t tell him about you or about our association, if that worries you,” the Imperial said in a placating tone. “Though I think I might have accidentally led him to believe that I know your father instead.”

His shop is nice, isn’t it?” she asked, locking eyes with him even as she drank once more from the glass. “Easy to stumble upon it, with it being in such a prestigious space in the city…” Raelynn added with a wry smile. “He’s a harmless young man,” with her glass on the table, she began to run the tip of her finger over the rim. “He wouldn’t offend a soul if he could help it.” Discussing him, and even complimenting him clearly made her uncomfortable, but seeing as those cards were now on the table, she felt as though she had no choice to.

“He’s not so cut out for this line of work, and yet, it is handed to him on a silver platter,” she uttered through gritted teeth, frowning. “I last saw him during Rain’s Hand.” Raelynn’s jaw tensed until she relented and sighed. “He visited for my birthday. Brought me a silken robe - supposedly all of the good women of Wayrest are wearing such things now. It is beautiful, actually,” she groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose - she wasn’t sure why this is what she was telling Gregor, it had nothing to do with his own story. “He didn’t turn his nose up at my dwellings… I was still at the Inn then. My parents didn’t come at all to see me. I received a note from my father in Last Seed - they travelled to Wayrest to see Sirion for his birthday, and my father is expanding elsewhere and, well… Now Wayrest belongs to Sirion completely,” she said with an empty laugh.

Gregor got up from his chair and stepped around the table until he was behind Raelynn’s chair. With tender touch, his hands found her shoulders and he gently massaged the tension he found there. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “The way your father treats you is scandalous. I agree with you -- Sirion is not cut out for this line of work. To be honest, I think he knows that too. He spoke much more passionately of the Dwemer and their mysteries. The boy is a scholar, not a merchant.” Gregor leaned down and planted a kiss on the crown of Raelynn’s head. “I’m proud of you and everything you’ve achieved in spite of the mountain you have to climb to do so.”

"I merely guide others to the mountain," Raelynn whispered, looking up at Gregor to meet his gaze, the comforting warmth and familiarity of his eyes soothed her just as much as they way his hands did. "My achievements were born from the blood of my men, I arm tyrants with dangerous weapons," she shrugged. "Sirion polishes rings and tinkers with old pots. I hope he stays a scholar."

She had not spoken so openly of the true nature of her business before. “Are you calling me a tyrant now?” he quipped with a lopsided grin and glanced sidelong at the cloth-draped sword that waited for him in the living room. He used the moment to think about what she said. Gregor had recently been forced to admit to himself that he wasn’t as moral of a man as he had previously thought himself to be, and he had already accepted that Raelynn was an arms dealer before. But his curiosity was still piqued, wary and intrigued in equal measure. Who was she supplying, exactly?

“I assume Sirion doesn’t have as much of a say in that as he would like. Your father is grooming him, no?” he asked, shelving the topic for another time.

"Mmm, you're not a tyrant. You're a rogue. The right kind of dangerous. Don't you remember what you did to me after our evening on the ship?" She smirked fondly at her own memory of it.

Then she was forced to think about Sirion again, and her father. The Breton nodded, "he needs an heir," she sighed. "Why would he choose his daughter for that when he has a son?"

“Oh, I remember,” Gregor purred. His hands moved from her shoulders to her throat for a brief, tantalizing moment, before he let go of her and returned to his seat and to his glass of wine. It was so easy to be like this with her that it took even him by surprise. He recovered behind the dark red swill as he took a big sip and a deep breath.

“Because his daughter has an intellect as sharp as a dragon’s claws,” he retorted to her rhetorical question as if it was the most obvious answer in the world. “If your father had any brains of his own, he would see that. Sirion wouldn’t know the definition of ‘aggressive expansion’ even if it leapt up and bit him in the face.” He thought about his own family. Would Hector have ever considered Julia a suitable heir, had she shown any skill in the mercantile field? Gregor sighed. “I know, I know. Expecting anything meritocratic out of our society is wishful thinking. That’s part of the reason I went into the crafts instead of politics or business. I don’t agree with the way those games are played, and I have no patience for its rules.”

Raelynn ran a hand over her throat, where Gregor's had just been and closed her eyes, breathing in his scent before he removed himself from her personal space, it left her feeling empty - even if he was still close. "It's better that you were a craftsman," she said with a smile, running her finger over the necklace appreciatively. "I wouldn't have this if you didn't."

"I don't much like rules either. That's probably why I bend and break them so much I suppose… I'm glad you're who you are," she repeated, reaching out her hand to touch Gregor's from across the table once more. "Can you still love a bitter and jealous woman?" she asked with a laugh, trying to find something nice from the entire situation, trying to make it sting less to talk about her family now that there was a glimmer of a chance that he would be part of it. The Breton began to draw small circles against the back of his hand affectionately, waiting again just to hear his words.

Gregor raised the knuckles of Raelynn’s hand to his lips in order to place a kiss there. “Bitterness and jealousy couldn’t have built a home like this,” he said and looked deeply into her eyes. “It doesn’t define who you are.” He was silent for a moment and saw another woman’s blue eyes where Raelynn’s were. “I know what that looks like. You… you are so much more. You’re stronger.”

The softness of his lips and his words were what she had needed, even if she hadn’t known that. “How can it feel so much like you never left?” Raelynn asked, looking away from him as a blush rose upon her cheeks once more. “You were supposed to be a fling, here and then gone. But now you’re back, and it’s as if that fire never went out at all, no matter how I tried. You were always there, burning in the back of my mind,” she whispered, bringing a hand slowly to her chest. “You never left at all.”

“We should, or rather shouldn’t, have been lots of things,” Gregor agreed and chuckled. “But even when you were miles and weeks away, you gave me the will and the courage to do what needed to be done. On the way back, I was afraid I had made a mistake, that I was somehow wrong about you, but… now that we’re together again, I know I made the right decision.” He smiled, the smile of a hopeless romantic that recognizes when his heart has been captured. “I missed you terribly,” he said softly.

"I tried not to miss you," Raelynn confessed, biting on her lower lip. "I didn't have that knowledge that you'd be back… But I suppose I held onto the sword, there was always some hope that you might return." She sighed, turning to glance out of the window and out at the snow that was falling in a grey white blur as afternoon faded into the dark gloom of evening. "But I did miss you, maybe only now as I see you again do I realise just how much," the Breton squeezed his hand before she couldn't stand it anymore and brought herself to his side and then even onto his lap. "I missed us."

Gregor realized that it must have been hard for her, too, just in a different way. He accepted her onto his lap with open arms, wrapping them around her so that she was enveloped in his embrace. “When you asked me to hold you, on Razul’s ship, and we swapped childhood stories while staring at the sunset,” Gregor reminisced, “do you remember? I immediately knew then that we had something special. I tried very hard not to acknowledge it, but… well, we both know how long that lasted.” He could laugh about it now. “They always say to follow your heart, don’t they? I feel like I now truly know what that means.” His thumb found her lips, brushing against them for a moment, before his own lips followed and he kissed her, slowly and deeply.

"How could I forget that?" She breathed out onto his lips, running her thumb across his jawline. "It was about the most honest thing I'd shared with anyone, for as long as I can remember." Soon, her fingers were gently stroking his hair, twirling the ends around into little curls that simply bounced back out. "I want us to find more happy memories like that. Do you think that we can?" She asked, innocently, pressing the tip of her nose to his.

“Yes, of course,” Gregor said in an agreeable murmur. He nuzzled her with his eyes closed, breathing and basking in the closeness and intimacy. Gregor could almost physically feel his soul finding peace. “It won’t be long before we’ll be creating happy memories together, as well.” He inhaled slowly through his nose and thought about his youth, searching his memories for something happy and pure. “You spoke of your mother then. I remember my mother, when we would have people over later, drifting through the house like an apparition of pale skirts and fragrant flowers, tidying up, putting the bouquets in order, handing out our best clothes to wear, freshly washed,” Gregor recalled, his voice deep and warm in his chest. “She’s always been a passionate host. It was infectious. Even if it was only friends of the family coming over for dinner, she made it feel like something to be excited about.” He chuckled and kissed Raelynn again. “Your turn.”

Half distracted by Gregor’s lips and hands, and half distracted by his words, it took Raelynn a moment to think of something to present for her turn that was even half as beautiful as the image the Imperial conjured. She could practically smell the flowers and the scent of clean linens. “My father worked away a lot,” she began, kissing Gregor back, her tongue grazing his lips. They still held the rich taste of the wine there. “When he was home, he would retreat to his study and complete his paperwork. I’d find him in there, smoking his cigars.” She sighed happily and tilted her head back to rest on his shoulder. “I remember moonglow through the windows, a haze of smoke, the scratching of his quill on parchment and the way the aromatics sank through the air. It was so quiet in his study that I could hear the embers of his cigar with every draw of his breath, the leaf crumbling away.” She smiled, curling her legs around Gregor as she found a sleepy sense of comfort in the sharing of memories. “He never asked me to leave, and I would just read there for hours in his shadow.”

It was surprising to hear her speak so fondly of her father. In hindsight, that made the way he had treated her as an adult even more heartbreaking. Little girls loved their fathers and it was clear that Raelynn had loved hers. She probably still did, despite everything. Gregor pulled her even closer, one hand seeking purchase in her hair while the other was firmly wrapped around her waist. “There’s much beauty in finding comfort in the serene silence of each other’s company,” he said softly. “It’s a lovely memory.” He fell silent and subsequently noticed he had begun slowly rocking back and forth in his chair, as if Raelynn was a swaddled babe that needed soothing. She was so vulnerable like this, so beautiful and so entirely his. “Can you hear that?” he asked, his voice scarcely more than a whisper.

“Hear what?” she asked, opening her eyes to look at him, her hands still toying with his hair. “I don’t hear anything,” she continued, pausing. For some reason, a question like that represented danger, in a way, or she had become accustomed to listening for danger. It took a while for the real answer to filter through, and she was half-embarrassed when she realised what he had meant. “Oh… I see, I can’t hear anything. It’s silence, you were...” she murmured, not needing to explain the fact it had been a trick question.

"Precisely," Gregor said and smiled. "That's how we'll talk about this moment, years from now. 'Remember the night I came back to you? It was snowing so hard, you could hear a pin drop, it was that quiet. The kitchen smelled like wine and spices… your hair was down and you were wearing a simple dress… and you smelled like--" Gregor paused to breathe in her scent. "Like scones and tea and lavender.'" Then he leaned back a little so he could look her in the eyes. He wanted to say something else, something profound, but he was lost for words in her beauty and her love. So instead he just blinked slowly, reassuringly, and hummed in contentment.

“Mmm,” Raelynn hummed back to him. “The night that you arrived at my house, after months apart. Behind the door you were dusted with fresh snow, with the labour of your love in a velvet box.” She reached up to tuck a strand of his hair back behind his ear, and with a smile she said, “it was the first night we were really together. We were never apart again thereafter.” It was a bold choice of words, but she felt brave enough to say them - and truthful too. She couldn’t really imagine him not being in her home after tonight. “How does that sound?”

His heart swelled with love. It was more than he could have hoped for. Gregor had already resigned himself to having to build her trust and their closeness back up after his disappearance act, but he had clearly underestimated Raelynn's grace and her own desire to be with him. "That sounds perfect," Gregor said and his voice cracked a little as he spoke. He cleared his throat and tried to play it off as nothing, but when the wetness of his eyes betrayed him even further, he chuckled in sheepish embarrassment and buried his face in her chest.

If Gregor was thinking about the building of trust, then Raelynn was too - asking herself whether she had forgiven him too easily? Had there really been anything to forgive? And if there was, being with him now like this just felt so right. If nothing else, even if things didn’t go as planned, if they didn’t work anymore, if they fought like lions and hurt each other in the end… At least they’d tried, and they’d done it the right way - with nobody else in the picture. He was worth this chance. They were worth a chance.

“Stop that,” she fussed, lifting his chin gently so she could look at him, even as emotional as he was he was still incredibly handsome and if anything, his tears were endearing. He really had given up everything for her, hadn’t he? He’d spoken of his mother and the way she created such beautiful parties. How had his mother reacted when he had returned home? It wasn’t for Raelynn to know, but she thought about it regardless. Even if Gregor did not wish her to have that burden, she felt it still and couldn’t help but to tear herself from him at that realisation.

Not wanting it to feel awkward, as she got to her feet, she plucked up her glass and stood up straight while a mischievous smile played across her lips. “A map,” she suggested. “Let’s find the places we want to see, to explore…” She was getting ahead of herself, she knew it. The entire afternoon had been a ride that had whisked her away, it would be some time before her feet found solid ground again. “Where should we go first?” she asked, heading away from the kitchen.

He did his best to do as she commanded and dabbed at his eyes after she had gotten to her feet. Gregor followed her up and out of the kitchen afterwards. It had wounded him a little that she had felt the need to admonish him for his display of emotions, but he also knew that it was a strange day for both of them and it would take time for her to get used to sharing such vulnerabilities with him. He'd probably made her feel awkward, given that she retreated into the world of fantasy as she began to dream about their future travels. That was alright with him -- tonight could be for dreaming. The real world could wait until tomorrow.

"Have you ever been to Alinor?" the Imperial asked. "I can't say I'm a big fan of the High Elves but they say it's beautiful there, all glass and light… I suppose visiting it couldn't hurt." Gregor mouthed a prayer for forgiveness from his father while Raelynn's back was turned to him. "Or Morrowind -- I hear it's a strange and harsh land, but magnificent in its own way. It'd certainly be something different." He posted himself up against an archway and crossed his arms, watching her while she searched her home for a map.

"And Hammerfell is so warm," Raelynn added, taking a scroll from a shelf to the floor by the fire. "It's all sands and golden coasts," she said as she brought herself to the floor too, lying on her side as she unrolled the map, placing something heavy on each corner to keep it flat. "We could discover secret marketplaces, and dress in light linens… Drink wine on a balcony every night while the sun sets over the dunes," she said dreamily. "Gregor?" The Breton suddenly asked, her head tilting to the side curiously. "Where have you been? In your life? Where have you travelled?" Propping herself up on an elbow, she rubbed the empty space beside her to invite him over.

Raelynn painted a magical picture and Gregor hummed at the thought of meandering through the sand-swept streets of cities like Sentinel or Gilane, bathed in the burnished golden light of the sun setting over the Abecean. “Oh, not far,” Gregor said in response to her question, and he was struck by a sudden lament -- it had never bothered him before, but now he was suddenly cross with himself for having left so much of Tamriel unexplored. Seeing Raelynn by the map reminded him that there was plenty of time yet to rectify that mistake, and that he had now found the best possible traveling companion to do that with. “I’ve never left the Empire, but I’ve been to every city in Cyrodiil and most of Skyrim as well. Roderic had clients and suppliers all over the place and my father used to send me on errands quite often as well.”

The tattoo on his forearm itched at the thought. Briar used to accompany him. What was he going to do with that ink now? Leave it as it was? Cover it up with something else? He didn’t regret the years of the first half of his marriage at all, but he wouldn’t be surprised if Raelynn didn’t appreciate the image of Briar etched into his skin for all eternity.

“What about you?” he asked and resisted the urge to scratch his arm.

"Not far," Raelynn said. Watching Gregor closely. "I've been all over High Rock, and of course I studied in Winterhold for some years. I didn't see too much of Skyrim though…" she said, sighing quickly before looking off into the fire, suddenly overwhelmed by everything. The tea was cold and her scones were drying out in the room. Her book was still sitting on the table. The afternoon was going to be spent reading, followed by an early supper and then bed. Raelynn didn't know what else to do. There were still so many questions she had, and the weight of a responsibility now. Gregor had chosen her, he'd travelled from home, torn apart his family for her.

"Do you want more wine?" She asked, changing the subject again. "Something sweet? Are you warm enough?"

“More wine sounds good,” Gregor smiled and sat down by the map opposite Raelynn. He turned his head sideways so that he could somewhat read what the upside down map said. “You said you wanted to return to the mountains, right?” he asked. The silversmith pointed to the mountain range south of Morthal. “Skyrim has the most beautiful mountains in the world, and it is said that these peaks hide the lost city of Labyrinthian. I spoke to a caravan master once that sometimes made the trek through the pass and he told me about it. According to him, it used to be the seat of power of the Dragon Priests, back before there was even an Empire to speak of. Imagine finding a relic of that civilization,” Gregor ventured and looked up at Raelynn with a glimmer in his eye. “That would fetch a handsome price, no? And make for a good story to boot.”

"Something as valuable as that is something I don't know that I could sell… especially if there is a good story to accompany it," Raelynn said, her voice soft again as she watched Gregor tracing lines across the map. "A buyer would never know any of that…" she clarified with a smirk. "Imagine that we come across this lost city, and a terrible beast lurks there. A beast that would seek to harm us to protect this seat of power…" Her eyes flashed with greed, and she forgot about the wine, adventure was on her mind now. "We'd have to fight our way out together." Her own finger ran just below Gregor's over the ink lines until they touched. "If we risk our lives it hardly seems fair to let some noble take it off our hands for any amount of gold."

Gregor laughed with a shrug. “And yet that’s exactly what Fjolte and I did when we recovered the moon dial. We had to fight a beast and then we sold it for gold. Though you, of course, were not just ‘some noble’. Maybe that’s the difference,” he said, looking up from where their fingers had touched on the map to meet her gaze. He was drawn to the excitement and avarice he saw there -- such wilfulness excited him in turn.

Suddenly and without warning, he pounced on her from across the map and pinned her to the floor with her hands beside her head. “How would you defend yourself from this beast, then?” Gregor growled, his face hovering little more than an inch or two above her own, feeling his heartbeat accelerate in his chest as his body remembered what it had done to hers the last time they had been in this position.

"I still have that moon dial," she purred up at him, breathing heavily in his grip. "And I told you, I can use a sword… That's what I'd do… I'd go for the legs, be nimble but vicious… Like a viper in long grass," she explained, staring up at him in delight. She didn't wish to push back against his advance, she liked it when he felt strong - that much her own body remembered. "I could even poison my blade," she added with a smirk. "Give the beast a slow and torturous demise." Her delight did not fade at such a thought, and the Breton brushed her own leg across Gregor's gently. "Would that work?" Raelynn asked, tilting her head beneath him to convey some kind of sudden innocence.

He shivered when her leg brushed against his. Her statement about the poison was undoubtedly not an empty boast. She was an alchemist, after all. Between their blades, his magic and her brews they could be quite a formidable fighting force, Gregor thought. "That should work just fine, my little viper," he purred. The thought of fighting side by side with her and emerging victorious, bloodied but exhilarated and alive, was an arousing one and he lowered his head for a kiss, his fingers moving until they were intertwined with hers.

With one leg pressed against his, and Gregor distracted enough with the kiss, Raelynn was able to quickly move her weight and roll him onto his back instead. She squeezed his hands with her own as she found her way on top of him. "Don't underestimate your viper," she whispered into his ear.

His eyes widened and he looked up at her visibly impressed. "New tricks indeed," Gregor said and smiled. "I'll be sure not to make that mistake again." The swift movement had brought out the messiness of her undone hair and twisted the fabric of her dress so that it sat a little more taut around her body, and Gregor admired the view without shame. "What now?" he asked in a low voice, his eyes sparkling like gemstones in the dark. It was as much a question as it was an invitation to determine the course of the evening and do with him as she pleased.

Raelynn knew the answer, of course. She knew what she wanted and he was underneath her. It wasn't until she stopped to think about his question that she realised her own heart was beating faster, and that there was a feeling of growing desire between them. "I want nothing more than to make love to you," she whispered truthfully, leaning forward to kiss him quickly and hide the growing flush on her cheeks. His beard tickled her lips and she smiled. "Right here," she chuckled but there was a heaviness to it.

"But there are so many things I want to do first, that we didn't… The first time." The Breton kissed him again, a longing kiss that spoke of her desire. "Do you understand?" She asked him, holding his hands gently with her own.

He nodded. There hadn’t truly been an ‘us’ to speak of before. They had danced around the truth and silenced their need for questions in the heat of passion, instead of exploring who they really were and who they could be -- together. “I think so, yes,” Gregor said. There was no sense of urgency to indulge any more, no sense of shame on the horizon to spur them into action before its arrival. They could take their time now. Do things properly.

“Where do you want to begin?” he asked and relaxed into the floor, brushing against the back of her hands with his thumbs.

That put her at ease. Enough for her to lay herself down on his chest, hand in hand still. "Wouldn't it be nice to go for dinner and not have to hide?" Raelynn asked, feeling the gentle rise and fall of his chest. "Attend a party as ourselves, no hiding behind another name… Or a mask," she added playfully.

"If you're to stay here, we should collect your belongings and maybe we should get something, or you should, pick something out. Something that makes you feel at home." She tilted her head up to look at him, to try to see just what his reaction would be to her suggestions. "It's a very womanly house as it is. I want you to make it yours too."

Everything she said was music to his ears. She was ready to take the plunge with him and become a real couple -- live together, go out together, make a home together. Gregor grinned and hugged Raelynn tightly. “Oh, that sounds wonderful,” he hummed in her ear. “Though I don’t know what I’d even want that could improve on this place… I love the art, the furnishings, the lights, the flowers. It feels like such a warm home already.” He kissed her cheek while he thought about it. “Maybe… a rack for my old sword over the mantlepiece? The presence of a weapon always adds a martial and masculine touch, don’t you think?”

She chuckled at that, releasing one of his hands so she could stroke his chest. “You need more than a sword rack.”

As she said it, she tugged at his shirt between her thumb and forefinger. “You shall need an armoire for your clothing. Perhaps a rack for your armour too. Some books of your fancy, a crafting table…” Raelynn listed off, closing her eyes to imagine the way Gregor’s things would differ to hers. A darker wood? Something burnished even. Whatever it was, she simply wanted Gregor to belong here too.

"Oh, right, of course," Gregor said and smiled sheepishly. After a few seconds he added: "You might be able to tell that I've never furnished my own home."

While that was also true, the real truth was that he hadn't expected -- or wanted to place the burden of expectation upon -- Raelynn to go out of her way to spend so much money on him. She was wealthy, of course, but Gregor was used to earning his own keep. He opened his mouth to say something to that effect, but closed it again without having spoken. If she wanted to, why let pride get in the way? Because he was the man and she was the woman? It was her money and she deserved to spend it however she pleased. If she wanted to spoil him… Gregor smiled and then laughed.

"Careful now, or you'll really whet my appetite. A new set of gardening tools, heaps of crafting materials, a marble statue of myself…" he chuckled.

"Now now, maybe I'd like a marble statue of you to admire for myself," Raelynn purred, letting her finger trace the flash of bare skin that the opening of his shirt allowed her too. She took a long look at him, lying with her on the floor, his hair tousled from movement and his expression content and aglow with from the hearthfire. It was as perfect an evening as she could imagine, and never one she would have until it happened when she least expected it.

"You could hunt some game and we can have it mounted in our bedroom," she suggested, drawing herself upwards so that her head fit against the nape of his neck. "Maybe we could even host small parties of our own here, too. I just," Raelynn sighed. Turning into him more to hide her own shying expression, "I want you to love it here, I want us to be happy."

“We will be,” Gregor murmured. “I’m sure of it. As long as I have you,” he said, drew Raelynn’s face back up to his with a finger hooked beneath her chin and kissed her, slowly and fully, while his legs curled around hers and his arms pressed her tightly against him, “I’ll have everything I need to be the happiest man on Tamriel.”

"I love you," she whispered between kisses, before pressing back into him passionately, her tongue finding his. She felt blissful in his embrace. Blissful and completely safe.

“I love you too,” he whispered back.

The warmth of the fireplace and the comfort of their embrace was so soothing that Gregor noticed a few minutes later that Raelynn’s breathing had slowed and her body had relaxed against his. Stifling a yawn of his own, Gregor kissed the top of her head gently before he got to his feet, one at a time, cradling Raelynn’s half-sleeping form in his strong arms. She stirred a little but Gregor whispered a sweet nothing in her ear and she drifted off back to sleep. He let his feet carry him out of the living room and they found the bedroom without thinking -- it was like he’d already known this house for years.

Gregor carefully lowered her onto the mattress and tucked her in. The other side of the bed was cold and too neatly made to have been used by anyone recently. “Mine now,” he whispered to himself and grinned at the thought. That was his place. He looked up at the ceiling and pressed his hands together over his chest, his newfound good fortune spurring renewed feelings of devotion towards the gods, and gave a silent prayer in thanks.

Then he joined his lover in bed and slept like the dead.
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