Hank is a Co-Admin that helps run the Guild.


Recent Statuses

5 days ago
Current For the oldfags among us: my name is from an old Flash animation series on Newgrounds called Madness. Used to be the full thing (Hank J. Wimbleton) but Hank is what stuck.
23 days ago
Ripping out the floor of the nursery-to-be with my bare hands is a remarkably effective way of feeling like a manly man for a moment.
2 mos ago
Thanks for all the congratulations and well wishes, everyone. Much love!
2 mos ago
For those still unaware; I'm going to be a father! Girlfriend is currently 26 weeks pregnant with a little girl. :)
5 mos ago
It's my birthday! :D


Original join date: August 2008
Moderator since: 20 January 2016
Co-admin since: 5 May 2017

26-year-old Dutch guy living in Amersfoort, NL, with my girlfriend. I love Italian food and German beer. Also Belgian beer. And Dutch beer... just beer, really. Other than roleplaying my favorite pastimes are playing videogames, going on roadtrips through eastern Europe and scrunching up my face when the DJ drops Russian hardbass.

In the old version of the Guild I was the record holder for 'Most Infraction Points Without Being Permabanned'.

My primary roleplaying genres are fantasy and science fiction. Big fan of The Elder Scrolls, Warhammer 40,000, Mass Effect, Fallout and others.

Most Recent Posts

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.

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.
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.

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.
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.”
As you command.
Their victory rang hollow and Laura’s joy turned to ashes in her mouth.

“No,” she said, her voice hoarse, as the vertibird began to ascend. Her eyes were fixed on McDowell, super sledge in hand, armor covered in blood and viscera. He had cleared the landing space, distracted the enemy sniper, dragged her out of the collapsing tunnel. He was stubborn, foolhardy and rude, but he was a brother. Wasn’t this a Brotherhood? “No!” Laura exclaimed, louder, and turned her head to lay the full weight of her accusatory gaze on the Paladin. Even within the confines of his unmoving armor, one hand on the railing to steady himself, she could see the stiffness in him. Something unyielding. He had made up his mind. She’d been so glad to see the vertibird and the others and shocked to learn that the pilot had passed, but all that paled in comparison to the emotions she was feeling now.

It would be so simple. One shot between the pauldron and the cuirass of the T60 power armor would shear his arm clean off; the Paladin would be dead within a minute. Then she could convince Lancer Brown to descend and rescue McDowell. For a long, horrible second she seriously contemplated the idea and her fingers tightened around the grip of her .50 caliber rifle. And then she looked away, the moment gone, her angry resolve broken. The Paladin was her commanding officer. Waiting for the Knight-Sergeant jeopardized the entire mission by exposing them to the risk of a lunging Deathclaw taking down the vertibird. It was his call to make, not hers. Her anger was replaced by fear. Now she knew what she was worth to the New Canaanite. What any of them were worth.

She trained her rifle on the landscape below, like a good soldier was supposed to, but she couldn’t see for the tears in her eyes.

featuring @Stormflyx

After the vertibird had landed, Laura jumped out of it and onto the ground below with a wince and a groan. Her sprained ankle, heavily abused during her frantic sprint back to the warehouse after Chowder’s arrival, was protesting vigorously to the idea of carrying her weight. The same fear she’d felt before crept into her chest again. She had to be able to keep up. Moss wouldn’t save her if she got left behind, she knew that much now.

She listened to the Paladin’s orders impassively and kept her gaze averted. When he was done, Laura glanced at Owen and Patty and pointed to her foot. “I need the doctor to take a look at this. Be with you in a minute.”

Hobbling over to where Dr. Kinsley was, Laura grabbed her attention with a halfhearted wave and conjured up a wan smile. She couldn’t hide the fact that she had been crying, however, and made no attempt to do so. “Good to see you made it in one piece, doctor. I got your message.” She had recognized her handwriting from the ‘prescription’ that she’d written Laura earlier. “Chowder’s a real hero, you know that?”

The doctor eyed Laura's walk, the slight drag of her foot with each step. Another sprain, she thought - and Moss wanted her to do a search of the area, she had tsked at the suggestion, but otherwise kept quiet on it. She wasn't going to further upset the apple cart. Still, Harper had readied her medical roll, and gave the young Initiate a small smile.

Laura's appraisal of Chowder's deeds was more heartwarming than she'd expected it to be. Harper cast a glance to him, curled up and resting now under her seat. She thought on how proud Alex and Victoria would have been to hear that. Their ever present ghosts occupying her mind, "he's a good dog," she said softly in response, the words catching in her throat.

"Sit," Harper said, indicating to an empty chair with a wave of her hand. The wetness and redness on Laura's cheeks and in her waterline did not go unnoticed. "I'm glad to see you too, Grimshaw. Are you alright?" She asked, her brows arching in a measure of concern, her voice lowered more than usual.

The Initiate did as she was told and sat down on the appointed chair. She did not reply to the doctor’s question at first and it looked for all the world to see like she was sinking, deflating, into the seat of old wood and long memories. Then she sighed and wiped at her cheeks. “Knight-Sergeant McDowell and I explored the warehouse before you guys arrived. We found those Deathclaws that came out of the ground in there, chained up to the wall, with a bunch of Super Mutants watching over them. It was so strange…”

Her voice drifted off until her eyes snapped back into focus. “They spotted us and I collapsed the tunnel behind us with my explosives during our retreat. I thought that would keep them down there, but I guess you should never underestimate a nest of Deathclaws, huh? Well, anyway, he pulled me out of the collapse after the blast knocked me over. I’d be paste if not for him,” Laura explained and she smiled faintly. There is work left to do. So stoic. “I’d be dead if not for Gregory. Big, stupid, brave Gregory.”

Cradling her sniper rifle on her lap, as if the cold metal of the killing instrument could somehow bring her any comfort, Laura shook her head. He got his hero’s death after all. “So, no, I’m not really alright, doctor. I’m sorry.”

Once the Initiate had sat, Harper drew down to her knees to better assess her. While placing her hands on Laura's ankle, the doctor listened to her words. As she began undoing the laces of her boot she continued to listen without comment or interruption, carefully taking the boot off and placing it beside them both. It sounded like they'd been through their own share of hell, and perhaps those left with the aircraft had been lucky. Would she have survived the conditions they had been in? Would Brown, Algarin, and Brown? She looked over towards them, watching them where they were. With a shake of her head she sighed.

"Don't be sorry," she eventually said, placing a hand on Laura's leg gently, giving her a faint smile as she turned her head to face her again. "Everyone is in shock, you're allowed to process this however you need to. Don't be sorry."

Laura was a grown woman, and yet when Harper caught her eyes, she saw a young girl, innocent of all of this and untouched by violence and the reality of survival in the wasteland. It was an injustice to the woman that Harper knew she was, and the woman who had apparently blown the tunnel… But it was something she couldn't switch off. No matter how much she tried. With tears in her eyes and a choked voice, she was a child again. She withdrew her gaze with another shake of her head, focussing again on Laura's ankle.

"I don't really want you walking on this…" Harper remarked with a click of her tongue. "But I can bandage it, and you can do your mission… But then you rest…" For a moment, she found herself holding her ankle, running a thumb carefully over the bruised skin.

It was comforting and a little surprising that Dr. Kinsley said there was no need to be sorry. For all of its strength, that kind of compassion and understanding was rare in the Brotherhood. But then the doctor hadn’t been for the Brotherhood for very long, either. They were both relative outsiders and newcomers. Laura nodded and cleared her throat. “Thank you, doctor,” she said, a little more power to her voice. She looked down at Chowder as well and her face broke out into an earnest grin.

“You should’ve seen him, doctor. He came running so fast, faster than anything I’ve seen, barking all the way, guiding those ferals flawlessly into the ranks of the enemy. We were under siege by raiders, you see. That’s where I got this,” Laura explained, and lifted the large rifle in her arms. “The Paladin sent me out to hunt down the enemy sniper. Chowder found me after I was done, and then we ran back to the warehouse together.”

She fell silent for a moment and looked back at the doctor. A frown had appeared on her face. “There was a moment, before that… before the Paladin sent me outside… it was like he’d lost it. He was talking about going back down into the tunnel, speaking incoherently, jabbing his finger at everyone. Then he recovered and came up with the other plan. I wanted to do it right to help him keep his cool,” she blurted out and the tightness of her jaw suggested what she thought now, in hindsight, of her concern for the Paladin’s state of mind. Then Laura sighed. “Well, anyway, Chowder did great.”

That was a cause for concern. So the Paladin had lost it? She glared at him while his back was turned, unaware that there was quite as much ice in the stare as there was. Harper bit at the corner of her lower lip before she got to wrapping Laura's ankle. The wound the heavy bandage tightly, and, considering that the Initiate had quickly moved the conversation on, Harper would too. But she certainly wouldn't forget it.

"He was probably just showing off," she huffed dismissively, waving a hand at Chowder. Her words were harsh, but there was an uptick of a smirk across her lips. "Poor guy is tuckered out now, excitement has caught up to him… I'll let him sleep while Brown and I fix up the bird here."

Laura laughed at that. “He’s earned it,” she agreed before looking down at her swaddled foot. It felt much better now that it had some support. She just hoped that it would still fit in her boot. “Looks good, doctor. I’ll do the perimeter recon and then take that rest you ordered.” The Initiate tucked her hair behind her ear and wiped at her cheeks and eyes again, exhaling a deep sigh while she did so. “How do I look?” she asked suddenly, keeping a neutral expression while she presented her face to the other woman for inspection.

"Rest, and elevate it," Harper added, with a finger pointed at the ankle. "See me afterwards. I'll stick you and Brown together… Two working legs between you…" she commented in less of a structured sentence, and in more of a spoken train of thought, giving her forehead a rub with the back of her hand. "And you look good, all things considered. Better than me…" she grimaced, the ghoul splatter still present on her person. "But that's a given, you've still got plenty of years of youthful glow ahead of you."

“Says the radiant twenty-seven year old redhead,” Laura joked with a smile. “That’s what you look like, at any rate.” Talking to Kinsley had made her feel much better even though it couldn’t blunt the loss of McDowell completely. It was good to know that there was somebody among the recon team that cared about her as more than just a tool to complete a mission with. She hoped the rest of them were more like the doctor and not like Moss. She put her boot back on, got up and tested her weight on her foot. It still felt a little sore but it would carry her just fine for now.

She placed a hand on the side of the vertibird. “See you in a minute, doc. Take good care of her,” Laura implored with a smirk and gave the machine a hearty slap.

“Oh! I almost forgot.” Laura lifted the strap of her laser rifle over her head and held out the entire weapon for Kinsley to take, along with the fusion cells that powered it. “Take this, just in case any creepy-crawlies come calling, alright?”

Harper held out her hands and took the weapon, her eyebrows raised and her mouth hung open. "Huh," she said, shrugging her shoulders in surprise. It was a fancy gun - or at least Harper thought so. Big too. Her eyes widened at it, and it made her wonder when exactly had been the last time someone had willingly given her something. "Well, gee, thanks kiddo," she added, turning the weapon over to observe it.

Eventually she nodded, and looked back to Laura. "Be careful on it. You start running you risk further damage, you fall on it you risk further damage… If it gets too much, turn back around." The serious tone was back, as if it had made her feel uncomfortable to sit in the happiness of a gift for too long. "Definitely no setting explosives…" Harper warned with a sharp glance.

“No explosives, no running, got it,” Laura grinned. She waved the doctor goodbye and returned to the others, a little bit of a spring back in her step.
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The door opened mercifully quietly and Laura slipped out with wide eyes and a low profile. It was quiet, save for the low rumble of the radstorms in the distance and the parched wind that haunted the hellscape of the wasteland. The raiders had stopped shooting for now. The first thing she did after she settled into cover behind one of the abandoned cars was to grab up a fistful of dirt and sand and rub it on her face until her skin had the same drab brown tone as the earth. Combined with the neutral dark-gray tones of her fatigues, the Initiate would be much harder to spot than the hulking power armored Knights had been.

She glanced sidelong at the warehouse and then risked a peek over the hood of the car towards the direction of the raiders and immediately spotted the tell-tale gleam of brandished weapons, trained on the damaged front door of the building. She ducked back into cover. There was no way to tell which of the rifles she’d seen was the .50 cal -- not from this distance, and not so briefly. She dared not risk a longer peek, however. Laura would have to trust that Estevez and McDowell would make for a suitable distraction.

Daniel for his part picked a suitable window, before waiting a minute or so until he believed Laura had enough time to set up in a good spot. Gregory of course went outside berserk as Daniel had come to understand was his nature and thus he wasted no time in peering out of his cover, checking the scene with his optics for the elusive sniper. "I'll look for him but chances are he'll find me first, then's your one chance. When I saw him he had a hood and bandana with the same raider armour as the rest but by know he could have done anything to change his look. He has the longest rifle though, easiest way to tell of course." The Knight said over comms. He shot two raiders, then a third who it seemed was looking to sneak up on the Knight Sergeant.

But nothing of the main target, until a shine of optics. Yet… The shine was far too much, and it became clear to the young Knight it was a propped shard of glass to give a reflection for deception. "He's up near a car Eastwards, the-... ." Alas, he didn't have a chance to finish his sentence. A bullet hit the lad square in the forehead, shattering his headlamp and sending him dazed to the ground. Through what he suspected was a concussion Daniel hoped Laura would kill the bastard and protect McDowell, because for himself Daniel was sure as hell as out of action.

As soon as she saw the muzzle flash of the large firearm and heard its report echo back from the hills, Laura sprang into action. She knew where he was now but she was too far away to get a killshot. For all of its advantages, laser shots don’t do well over long distances. Keeping her head down and her movements quiet, Laura advanced towards the sniper’s position in the carpark. Fear sank its icy daggers into her gut when Estevez’s voice cut out abruptly and she hoped it wasn’t because he’d been shot dead, but there was no time to contemplate that possibility. She focused on the mission, a clear objective, and swallowed away her emotions.

The .50 caliber rifle fired again, sounding a little closer now. Laura slipped from cover to cover like a ghost, moving perpendicular to the sightlines of the raiders and using the sloping quality of the foothill landscape to her advantage. She was presented with half a dozen opportunities to take down any of the other raiders that had their sides or their backs turned to her as she moved past them but she let each moment pass without incident. It wasn’t worth giving away her position to tackle lesser prey.

Once she was within a few dozen meters of the sniper, Laura took a deep breath behind the cyan-colored shape of an old vehicle and waited. Seconds crept by agonizingly slowly before the sniper pulled the trigger again, the noise of its discharge loud enough to be felt in her guts now. Laura jumped to her feet, the scope of her laser rifle practically glued to her face, and with a triumphant snarl she found the bandana-clad raider squarely within her sights, his own scope fixed on a target in the distance -- probably McDowell. The raider’s face was hidden behind a gas mask and he was clad in a black jumpsuit with strips of cloth, dyed green and brown, that broke up his silhouette. But not even the makeshift ghillie suit could hide him from Laura now. He caught her movement from the corner of his eye, however, and he turned his head to look at her.

Laura fired.

A perfect killshot. The sniper’s head dissolved into a molten pile of ash that blew away in the wind and the rest of his body went slack, spread-eagled across the hood of the car he had been using as a firing platform. Laura exhaled slowly and allowed herself a smirk. The first time she had taken a life had bothered her, but not anymore. Not when it was life or death. Her mission complete,Laura made to return to the warehouse but stopped and looked back towards the sniper -- and, more importantly, his weapon. The rest of the raiders were still distracted elsewhere, but not for long. She had to act now.

Laura sprinted up to the dead raider and wrestled the sniper rifle from the claws of his hands. It was a modified hunting rifle, surprisingly light and in excellent condition. She resisted the urge to whistle appreciatively; it was pre-war, military-grade, and she recognized the scope as being of higher magnification than her own and the switch on the side suggested it was night-vision capable. Glancing up quickly to make sure she still had time, Laura slung her laser rifle across her back and fished the rest of the dead raider’s ammunition from the pockets of his jumpsuit. His gear was homemade but it was clear he had taken his role as sniper seriously. Again, her eyes widened in surprise, as the man had been carrying enough .50 caliber bullets to keep the weapon supplied for the foreseeable future. “Thanks, pal,” she whispered.

Having finished stuffing her pouches with magazines and bullets, Laura began to sneak back to the warehouse in earnest, clutching her newfound prize in her gloved hands. She made it about 30 meters of the way back when something else made her freeze in her tracks.

A dog’s barking, getting rapidly closer.

Laura shot to her feet and looked out over the graveyard of cars.

Good. Good. Good. The four fast paws of the faithful blue heeler tore across the ground, the same dust he'd left Harper in had followed him, even if she hadn't. The same crowd of dead things too. He barked, continually, intermittently when he could. When he could catch up with himself, when he wasn't getting too close to the ghouls to nip at them and corner them in all of their mindless screaming. He had brought them so far from that danger.

The cracked ground below, and the obstacle course of branches and upturned things had given him a healthy distance and had allowed him to keep it. They couldn't clear a jump like he could. Most of the time they stumbled. The sniper shots had been like a welcome call to him, the sound of people and he'd brought his whole damned flock of forsaken with him. In his line of site, a shape - and on the air just enough of a scent to have him power through his fleeting stamina just a bit more.

It he barked for her attention even more, she was not alone but it was his job to get to her. With Laura in his sight, he had a new target and mission. He closed the distance between them, flock still on his mind and so he barked again, taking grip of her wrist in a gentle mouth, dragging her backwards, swiveling her incidentally to face the wave of rotskins clearing the mist now - their groans and agony like a deathly thunderstorm all of its own.

Chowder pulled at her to run.

“Chowder!” Laura exclaimed and mistook his tugging on her wrist for play fighting, as inappropriately timed as it was -- there was still a firefight going on. The noise of the approaching horde of ghouls was enough to disabuse her of that illusion and she cursed, eyes wide at the sights and sounds of the wave of abominations breaking on the far edge of the car park. The raiders were now well and truly distracted and gunfire broke out all over. It was heartening that the dog had survived the crash, but why on earth had he brought a horde of ferals to their position? By accident, or with a purpose?

There was no time to dwell. He was telling her to run, not asking to play. Laura clutched the sniper rifle to her chest and set off in a full sprint back towards the warehouse, the barrel of her laser rifle slapping against her butt, vaulting over cars and sliding beneath other obstacles as she went, pushing the limits of her lithe athleticism, with Chowder in tow. The screams behind her were straight out of a nightmare. With one last glance over her shoulder to make sure the ferals hadn’t followed them, Laura slipped back around to the side entrance of the warehouse, threw the door open, flung herself and Chowder inside and locked it behind her in one fluid movement. She was breathing hard and fast and wiped at her forehead with her sleeves, the dust she’d smeared on her face coming off with it. Chowder looked to be just as exhausted as she was, but fortunately unharmed.

She squatted down next to him. “What’s that you’ve got there, boy?” Laura muttered in-between sharp intakes of air and pulled out a piece of paper from an unbuttoned pocket in his (adorable) backpack.

Vertibird down. Algarin, Brown, Brown, Kinsley alive. Surrounded by ghouls. Fixing the vertibird. Look to the skies.

Laura read the note again, and again, and a fourth time, mouthing the words. “Look to the skies,” she breathed. A slow grin spread across her face as the reality of the situation sank in. Chowder had saved the others from the ghouls and brought them here, buying them time to fix the vertibird. There was a way out. Help was coming. Laura embraced Chowder in a spontaneous and passionate hug, showering him with kisses on his forehead. “Oh, Chowder, you’ve saved us! Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?!”

For that victorious moment, Chowder let Laura fuss him - but he was not as settled as he had been on the Prydwen. His eyes were alert, heart pounding in his chest and while he gave the woman a friendly lick, he soon made his way to the door. His nose was to the ground as he paced back and forth, sniffing desperately, his tail wagging lazily until he brought himself down to the ground and gave a cry. He couldn't relax yet. Not yet.

Exhaustion and stress threatened to overwhelm Laura for a moment and she had to bite back tears at the sight of Chowder’s distress. “They’re coming, they’re coming,” she whispered and blinked repeatedly. “The doctor and all the others, they’re coming. You did good. I have to tell the Paladin, but you did good. I’ll be right back,” she said and straightened up, swallowing hard and wiping at her eyes. She steeled herself with a deep breath and made sure that her helmet was fastened properly.

“Paladin Moss!” she yelled as she ran back into the front shop, brandishing her new weapon and the piece of paper she’d pulled from Chowder’s backpack, waving it around as if it was a talisman that would deliver them from all evil. “The others -- they’re still alive, and they’re fixing the vertibird! Chowder, the dog, you see, he’s here and he brought this message!” She paused to catch her breath and held out the paper for the Paladin to take. “Pleased to report that the sniper is dead, sir. Oh, and a whole horde of ferals came with Chowder and the raiders are busy dealing with them now,” she added. “That happened too.”

Without saying anything, or even accepting the paper to read it for himself, inscrutable behind the steel of his armor, Moss stepped outside and threw his vertibird signal grenade onto the dirt. It started beeping.
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