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.