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2 mos ago
Current Don't take criticism from people you wouldn't take advice from.
4 mos ago
if grizzled superheroes getting called back into action, or an Elder Scrolls horror-fest interest you, then I have the roleplays for you!
5 mos ago
Happy hump day, all!
5 mos ago
Currently winding down a lovely vacation. Saw my sister get married, so I guess I have a brother now which is a lovely feeling! I hope you are all doing well!
8 mos ago
Happy Sunday! Today is a new day to do whatever you want to do, to make it as beautiful as you like.


You could probably stab Storm in the throat and she'd be like *gurgles* "fascinating"
Tough girl

- a testimonial by @Hank

Most Recent Posts

Rediscovering Brandi Carlile.

The sun bore down on the centre seating platform of the Arena. It was a blistering heat that any non-Redguards struggled with. Searing and never ending, the sands below only absorbing it and creating a ghastly heat from underneath. At least there was a strong awning to hold down a spot of shade. The woman sat beneath it looked as out of place as the warriors that poured in. Her skin was pale as moonlight and her eyes as piercingly blue as the glaciers that surrounded Morthal. Upon her head, cascading curls of silver white hair that fell to her chest and sat in perfect strands.

Her expression was stoical and as hard-to-read as ever. Only a quirked eyebrow every now and again to indicate her thoughts on the warriors down below. At least there was wine, she thought, as she picked up a goblet and took a long sip.

The man at her side was a Captain of sorts, his name Ravana, and he was as extravagant as one would have to be to orchestrate such an affair. A Redguard, with violet eyes and long hair in a careful braid. His clothes too, were in shades of plum and lilac with accents of gold. Raelynn Hawkford glanced sidelong at him from her chair as he leaned over the railings, delighting in the madness.

Raelynn simply rolled her eyes, and gazed on unimpressed -- even if the noise of the arena was unbearable, she could hardly cover her ears in the company that she was in. She settled for more wine, gazing appreciatively at the golden bracelets that adorned her wrists, each studded with varying luxurious stones. A small smile danced over her lips.

She continued her idle observation of the event with the glass in her hand when something caught her eye -- or rather, someone. A man leaving the tunnels who she immediately recognised. Her eyes widened, and her grip on the goblet tightened. Her reaction did not go unnoticed, either.

"Ah, see a fighter you like my lady?" Asked Ravana, turning his gaze to the Breton with a handsome smirk. "I hear that one is a troublemaker," he added, running his thumb over the tips of his fingertips slowly as he drank in the sight of his woman.

"I believe that's true alright," Raelynn uttered softly, her attention taken only by the warrior. She didn't know what happened to the men in the pits who survived, they'd more than likely be placed back in for the next round. Her eyes narrowed as she desperately pondered on how to help the man who had once helped her.

"Darling?" she spoke, looking at Ravana with a warm expression.

He looked back, turning away entirely from the pit, "yes?"

She bit her lip slowly, softly, and glanced down to her lap. "You know, perhaps one of these fighters - whomever wins shouldn't have to fight again. As you know, I've felt very cooped up in our home when you're not around..."

His eyes narrowed too, as if he could see where this was going but he couldn't resist the petite young woman in front of him. He sighed, and placed an elbow on the railing. "Carry on..."

"Maybe one could be employed as a bodyguard of sorts," she remarked, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and tilting her head. "We wouldn't have to pay them, they'd still be prisoners of the arena of course but... In the time between events they can assist me with what I need to do..."

He laughed. He laughed long. "Oh my darling, they're savages... I will not be trusting any of them to be anywhere near you. If you are so in need of a bodyguard, I have my own men who can take care of you. Now, sit back and watch, finish your wine," he added with a note of finality.

She'd have to think of another way.
21st Sun's Height
Early Morning

Unlike the day prior, the sun was not visible through the window as morning broke out - instead, outside the sky was an angry grey - clouds formed thick and heavy and there was so far only a light rain. It was enough to tap against the glass and stir the woman from her sleep. As she opened her eyes, she made sense of the details of the room as she always did. The paintings that hung and the wooden paneling that coated the wall.

Raelynn then became aware that she was not alone, the soft breathing behind her reminded her of the nights events - the details that were cloudy when her sleep broke. At some point in the night, they had both made their way under the covers and had separated, but as she turned her head to look over her shoulder he was still close.

He looked so peaceful in his sleep and she couldn’t resist rolling over to face him, tucking her arm under her head and for just a few moments she stared at him happily until she went back to inspecting the room. There were scrunched balls of creased sheets and blankets that were the evidence of their night of play.

The Breton laid her head back down on the pillow with a content sigh, there was something relaxing about the sound of rain, his breathing, and the perfume that still lingered. The fragranced oil that had combined with his own scent was a delight to her senses, invoking a feeling of safety and comfort within her. She began to toy with his hair, hoping that it might stir him from sleep.

His eyes opened slowly and his mind awoke even slower still. The terror with the Daedroth and the exertion of the sex the evening before had sent Gregor into such a deep sleep that he felt like a man surfacing from the abyss. Where was he? Groggily, his eyelids cracked open and he looked at the woman that was playing with his hair. He saw bright blue eyes and he hummed in his parched throat. Briar, of course. That was strange. She usually didn't wake him. And since when was he back home? Going by the last thing he remembered, he should still be in High Rock.

Then he saw the blonde hair and the sun-kissed skin. His eyes shot open and everything rushed back to him a waterfall of recollection. The Daedroth, the healing session, the sex, the passion -- what had he done? After the initial wave of guilt and confusion, Gregor felt that the longer he looked at her and the more aware he became of the room and its sounds and its smells, the more his regret was pushed to the back of his mind, as if she was casting a spell on him. He had always highly disapproved of adulterers and been of the opinion that there was never a good reason to be unfaithful. And yet, with the way she smiled at him and the warmth that softened her eyes, Gregor saw plenty of good reasons.

You're an animal, he chided himself. Was this an extension of that part of himself that he had been denying for so long? Gregor had admitted it to Raelynn and she had only been more aroused by him, and when he had come back to her covered in blood and with deep internal injuries, she hadn't scolded him and withdrawn from him in fear.

At the end of this long and silent reverie, Gregor stifled a yawn. "Hey you," he croaked.

“Good morning,” she answered in a whisper with the sheet now pulled around her still naked form as if it were a dress, clinging to her shape. “Did you sleep well?” Raelynn asked, her eyes wide and curious while her lips pouted to plant a tender kiss on his bare shoulder.

"Like the dead," Gregor replied. He was still do relaxed that moving felt like a terrible chore, so he simply decided not to. On the other hand, he was thirsty as hell and hungry, too. He hadn't eaten much of the food that Raelynn had set out for him and their romp on the sheets afterwards hadn't made matters any better. "Did you?"

She nodded, crawling closer to him, moving her lips over his shoulder and across his neck. “Have you ever had a Daggerfall breakfast?” she asked, her voice lively. Something about having him in her bed had roused something within her, and her normally still and organised mind was overflowing with vibrancy - even despite the beige setting outside, the gloomy mood was not going to creep in and disrupt her momentary paradise with Gregor.

He responded to her closeness by turning his body towards her and burying his face in the nape of her neck, the muscular Imperial almost childlike in his drowsiness. "I don't think so?" came the muffled reply from between her collarbones, where he placed a few kisses of his own. He then looked up at her eyes with a boyish mischief. "Is that a fancy word for what's between your legs? Because I could do with more of that…"

That made her laugh, but she didn’t want to encourage him too much and so she nipped at his ear, “don’t be silly,” she chided with humour in her tone. “I’m being serious…” she purred before leaning back to look at him. “I never cook… But you make me want to cook,” the haughty Breton admitted with a flush on her cheeks. “Eggs, pastries, sweet toast…” she listed off - the thought alone awakening her actual hunger. “With tea, juice... “

That got his attention and Gregor sat up straight against the pillows. "You can cook?" he asked, more surprised than anything. It was an unusual skill for a woman who had a servant to tend to her every need. Well, not her every need, Gregor thought as he looked at the aphroditian shape of her body beneath the clinging sheet, but he looked back at her eyes and focused on what she was saying. "That sounds lovely, actually," he said and smiled. As if on cue, his stomach growled and Gregor winced, slightly embarrassed.

She had to think about his question, how hard was it to cook, exactly? “I don’t know… I’ve never tried it, but I’d like to…” Raelynn finally said as her cheeks grew darker. She tossed her hair over her shoulder, and was about to kiss his lips when there was a loud, abrupt knock on the door.

”Miss Deserine,” was the voice that followed - deep, masculine, and eloquent - muffled by the door.

“Damn,” Raelynn cursed, sitting upright in the bed. What time was it? Had they overslept? She placed a finger over his lips and shot him a look and with that the spell of paradise was disrupted. "Stay here," she whispered before getting up to leave, shaking herself free of the sheet to find her robe.

Gregor's nerves were still so frayed that he almost leapt out of his skin when somebody knocked on the door, but he did as he was told and remained where he was. It hadn't sounded like Fjolte -- thank the Gods for that -- but that only served to make Gregor wonder what other male visitor she might have been expecting. His mind meandered back to their evening after Razul's event on the Morning Star and he remembered their conversation about her results in the dating arena. "Ah," Gregor mouthed to himself. He watched Raelynn as she searched, naked and unbelievably beautiful, for a robe, and sank back into the pillows. If he made himself as small as possible, surely nobody would notice he was there. Gregor stifled a laugh. He hadn't felt like this since he was a young lad of eighteen.

Finally she found what she was looking for, and she pulled it on - ignoring the chuckles from behind her as she made her way around the partition and into the open workspace of her suite. Shona had already been through, as evidenced by the fact that the glasses and plate of food had been promptly removed and the surfaces wiped. Raelynn breathed a sigh of relief that the servant had taken it upon herself to stow the Ebony Sword away and out of site.

The gentleman knocked again, and it was the demonstration of his impatience that sparked Raelynn’s ire enough to snap back, “wait a minute,” she fired back - her hot temper spraying out, like a cat that had been stroked backwards and had reacted by displaying her claws. Her normally quiet footsteps became little stomps across the floorboards and she swung open the door.

She was greeted by an older, hook-nosed gentleman with greasy hair - wisps of it framing his tired, sagging face. “Yes?” she snapped again.

“My Lord has brought you a gift…” he sneered, staring down his nose at her, in his arms a long box. White, with a black bow. Raelynn immediately softened at the sight.

“Oh,” she replied and cleared her throat. "Leave it on the ottoman," she said with a gesture of her hand.

"Your dress for the evening," the man said.

"I already have one," Raelynn interrupted -- still curious about the contents, but slightly defiant in her words.

As the man placed the box where she had asked, her turned on his heel - his bloodshot grey eyes and gaunt face looked down at her once again with a less than amused expression. "He wants to see you in this one." There was a finality in his dry tone, and he didn't wait to be excused, taking himself to the doorway and closing the door behind him. Raelynn screwed up her own features, sticking a tongue out and making a crude gesture with her fist. Before remembering that she had another guest.

A few seconds after the door closed, Gregor appeared from behind the partition, now dressed in his underwear -- but nothing more. He looked at Raelynn, and the wrapped gift on the ottoman, with a raised eyebrow. “I believe somebody has made plans for you this evening,” he said, stating the obvious, but curious to see what her reaction would be. She was still quite mysterious to him, as were the workings of her business and her private life, and he desired to know more.

If he was looking for a reaction, he wasn't getting one - unless it was the raised eyebrow and flagrantly longing inspection of his body. All of it. The way his hair was still messy from her desperate hands threatened to send her heart racing all over again. "You're not off the hook. I've got plans for you too…"

Now that they were out of the bedroom, it was as if all of the promise of breakfast and seconds had been broken. It was strictly business with Raelynn again, even if she was naked save for the robe. The visitor had put a halt to all of it. "Unless you're otherwise engaged?"

Gregor smiled and leaned against the wall besides the window with his arms crossed. “I just made plans for breakfast with a beautiful woman, I’m afraid,” he said. “Your plans will have to wait.” She wasn’t off the hook either.

"I'm afraid we may have overslept for breakfast," Raelynn replied, the hurt crept over her countenance and she found that she didn't want to see it in him. "Shona has already been through… Fjolte is most likely on his way, I'm sorry." She fidgeted with her hands, not knowing quite what to do with them - not quite knowing how Gregor would take to being let down, but she didn't want to risk being caught by the Nord, not today.

As soon as she mentioned Fjolte’s name, Gregor’s demeanor changed. He nodded. “Of course, I understand,” he said with sincerity. He had no desire to hurt the man’s feelings either by being caught with Raelynn in the morning like this. “Where are my belongings?”

Where were his belongings? Raelynn searched the room, she hadn't paid attention when Shona had brought them in -- she certainly didn't think she'd need to rush him back into his clothes the morning after, and yet that's where they were. Finally, she spotted them on the armoir by the door, untouched. "Over there," she said - realising that she needed to dress too… Her hair was a mess, she had no clothes on, and she still had his scent all over her. Panic struck her and she excused herself with a gesture of her hand and headed back to the partition to fix that.

“Wait,” Gregor said and intercepted her with an arm around her waist. “Call on me if you need me.” He placed his other hand around her as well and pulled her against him, fingers splayed against her buttocks, and he kissed her briefly, but full of force and desire. “Or want me,” he added in a low growl, before he let her go and turned to get dressed himself.

She had wanted to stay there, his words were just enough to stimulate her, and it took all of her willpower not to throw all of her caution to the wind and drag him back to bed with her. But, it was time - today was too important of a day. “Stop that, and don’t be here when I get back,” she warned him - her face stern and serious until she turned her back. Then it was a smirk, or was it a happy and contented smile? A grin? She wasn’t sure how she felt -- only that there was the memory of the night before, and a lingering feeling of danger, the thrill of being caught…

It barely took him a record time of two minutes to get dressed and return his sword to its rightful place across his back. Shona had done an excellent job of washing the blood out of his clothes and Gregor felt his esteem for the mute servant rise even higher. Raelynn was still hidden behind the partition when he was all done and, feeling even more like his old self than he did before, Gregor opened the window and slipped out of the suite, dangling on the ledge for a moment before dropping and rolling into a crouch when he hit the ground. It was fortunate that her suite wasn’t on the side of the street, or this would have looked remarkably awkward. Resisting the urge to grin, Gregor stalked away through the backyards and alleys of Jehanna towards his own inn.

Meanwhile, Fjolte had been walking on his way to Gregor’s inn. With the promise of an interesting job on the horizon, he wanted to share that with his new Imperial friend. They’d been through the ringer together, and truthfully, it felt good to have a reliable friend in Jehanna. A brother in arms - for the hard times and especially for the good. While intelligent, and undoubtedly full of their own talents - the Nord just couldn’t connect with the Breton’s of Jehanna. Even with Raelynn, as beautiful and alluring as she was, and even for the way he saw and thought of her… She was hardly going to chug an ale and punch a bandit with him. Not at all. But Gregor? Now that was a man to call your brother alright.

He carried himself excitedly up the stairs and towards Gregor’s inn room - just as he had days before. No Daedra, no fighting, just interesting work. He could barely contain himself. The Nord took an apple from his pocket and shoved it into his mouth, holding the fruit in place with his teeth as he rapped with both hands on Gregor’s door.

Just in time, Gregor thought when he heard someone knock on the door. He was busy smoothing over his clothes in the mirror after having haphazardly thrown them on and climbing back into his room through his window. He could’ve used the front door, but it seemed more fun to complete the outing the way he used to in the old days. “Just a second,” he called out and fixed his collar, took a step back to admire himself, and nodded before striding over to the door and opening it.

The sight of Fjolte rather comically holding an apple between his teeth greeted him and Gregor laughed, before plucking the apple from his mouth. “Ah, perfect, breakfast. I’m starving.” He grinned and clapped the Nord on the shoulder, holding the apple up for him to take back. Gregor had given his talent quite a euphemistic name when he called it ‘being agreeable’ -- the truth was simply that he was an excellent liar. “Good morning, my friend. Have you eaten? Because I really am starving.”

Fjolte almost protested, scrunching his nose as the apple was taken from him. “Oi!” he laughed, letting the man win. It was fine, he had more food in his pocket - which he demonstrated by pulling out a second apple anyway. “I hadn’t, but fine, I’ll share…” He noticed that Gregor was looking happy this morning, sharp and attentive. It was good that he’d had a rest - they’d both been exhausted and had long gone past the point of being over it the last time they’d been in each others company. Whatever ‘it’ was. As he had done so before, he strolled in and helped himself to a seat. “Sleep well?” he began before taking a bite from his apple - just about wiping out half of the thing in one crunch. “Slepf lie a log myseff” he said, through a mouthful of the fruit.

Grateful, Gregor bit into the apple rather ravenously and Fjolte had to wait for an answer while he chewed and swallowed. Unlike him, the Imperial wasn’t one to eat with his mouth full. “Very well,” he said truthfully. Now that he had been awake for a little while and shaken off the depths of sleep, Gregor found that he was fully rejuvenated. “Shona drafted a bath for me. I was practically dragging my feet on my way to my bed after that.” He sniffed at himself and nodded, satisfied. Behind the masculine bath tonic that the servant had picked out for him, he could still detect Raelynn’s fragrance. “Still smells good. Quite a miracle worker, that one. So, what have you got for me?”

With a knowing nod, Fjolte looked over at him with a grin. “Yeah, she’s good. Real good,” he sighed, slouching forwards in the chair. “Work actually, apparently an interesting job, and so I hoped you’d join me.” He took another bite of the apple, and gave himself time to chew and swallow this time before snapping his fingers and pointing at Gregor. “We should leave soon, I think I’m running late and Raelynn doesn’t like to be kept waiting… Just, I slept in. That fight… It took the wind out of my sails, Gregor,” he said quietly, his voice strained. He couldn’t even look at the man as he admitted it.

Gregor sighed. “Me too.” He rubbed his side again -- it seemed like that was going to become a recurring involuntary physical response to the trauma. The strain in Fjolte’s voice was evident. “Nothing to be ashamed of, my friend. It was… horror. I have no other words for it. I slept well last night, but I fear for the sanctity of the nights in my future,” the Imperial said and chewed on the inside of his lip. “I think that monster is going to live on in our dreams for a long time.”

“Yeah, you can say that again,” Fjolte muttered to the floor as he dragged himself up. “It’s only by chance that we both made it… For a piece of rock too, I just…” He sighed, running a hand over the back of his neck. “It would have been a senseless loss.”

Unexpectedly, Gregor stepped up to Fjolte and pulled him in a brotherly embrace for a moment. Then he leaned back, his hands on Fjolte’s arms, and emphatically said: “Yes, but it serves no purpose to dwell on what could have been. Think about what actually happened: we went toe-to-toe with an ancient Daedra and defeated it. We cast a demon back to the hells it came from, you and I. A monster that must have been down there for hundreds of years -- since the Oblivion Crisis, or even before. Do you know what that means?”

The hug was nice - welcome even, and it did lift his spirits and set about to rekindling his inner strength. He flashed a smile, nodding slowly. “Thank you, Gregor,” he said - sounding more like himself. “And, no, I don’t. I mean… We did give it a damn good fight, right?”

“We did,” Gregor agreed, and punched Fjolte playfully in the chest. “It means we’re bloody heroes, man. The envy of all the knights in High Rock! We didn’t strictly speaking rescue a damsel from a castle guarded by a dragon, but killing a fire-breathing beast from Oblivion in order to retrieve something a damsel wants is close enough in my book.”

That put some air in Fjolte’s chest and pride in his step, he tensed his arms and playfully punched at Gregor’s chest. “I’d knock the godsdamned jaw off a dragon for any damsel, we’re bloody big damn heroes!” he laughed - finally able to agree with Gregor and track down his infectiously optimistic spirit. “You’re right. We lived, we got a good story, and we found Raelynn a new toy… Fuckin’ heroes. Now come on, there’s plenty more heroes work to be done,” he chuckled, swinging at Gregor’s arm - making the whooshing sound with his mouth and following it up with another hearty laugh. “Let’s go.”

That was more like it. Gregor laughed with Fjolte, relieved that he had been able to lift the man’s spirits, and gestured towards the open door. “Lead the way.”

As soon as his back was turned to him, Gregor’s face fell and returned to a pensive frown. He rubbed his flank again.

In a different turn of events, as Fjolte and Gregor rounded the corner to Raelynn’s suite - the door was already open to the world as Shona walked out, a pile of folded bedsheets in her arms. She avoided Gregor’s gaze on her walk, smiling at Fjolte and hurrying her steps. She wasn’t sure whether or not she felt awkward to have stumbled across him sleeping beside Raelynn. The mistress certainly didn’t care about whether the maid had seen anything as it had remained unmentioned so far.

As they crossed the threshold, they would find Raelynn walking back and forth - carrying various items around as if she was packing for a trip. The same boxes that had been lined on her desk the day before were now piled on the floor carefully. Only the unopened giftbox from her gentleman caller was spread on the desk now. The matte white of the box a stark contrast to the shiny quality of the black ribbon. She had found herself something warm for the colder day. A long sleeved, plush velvet dress in a rich shade of ruby that ran to the floor - concealing her feet and the heels she wore to disguise her short height. “Good morning Fjolte,” she trilled, almost stopping in her tracks at the sight of Gregor. She’d expected him to be back, but not quite so soon -- not after her warning. “Mr. Mercurius,” she said as her greeting - but it wasn’t in quite as nonchalant a way as the day prior. Not now that they had their little secret.

“My lady,” Gregor said and inclined his head respectfully, deliberately breaking eye contact for the benefit of the Nord next to him. It was in everyone’s best interests to make it seem like nothing untoward had occurred. He had wanted to give Shona a warm smile to express his gratitude for her services rendered, but she’d avoided his gaze. He was suddenly very glad that she was mute.

"I hope you're both well - just in time too. I have need of your strong arms," she said, indicating to some larger goods that needed to be packed in the corner. A marble bust of some aristocrat, a painting, and a model ship. "Roll up your sleeves," she commanded with a click of her fingers before making her way to the desk, writing something down on a roll of parchment.

Fjolte shrugged. He had no sleeves to roll up but he made the motion anyway for he and Gregor's amusement and made moves for the bust. "Help me with this one," he said, bending his knees to ready himself to lift it. "What's this all for anyway? A shipment?"

"It's all for auction, actually - a sale, tonight…" Raelynn answered, back still turned to them both.

Gregor snorted and shook his head before he rolled up his own sleeves, once again displaying the tattoo. He felt cold regret and hot shame cut through him like a knife through butter and he hesitated for a moment, frozen to the spot, before tearing his eyes from the shape of his wife outlined in ink. She didn’t have to know. Jehanna was a thousand miles from Bravil. It could just be a fling, a moment of weakness… or a series of moments… something to forget all about when he went back home. It was his last adventure, after all. It was just something he had to get out of his system.

He knelt down next to the bust and wrapped his hands around it before nodding to Fjolte. “On three,” he said. “One, two…”

The Nord moved with Gregor, and between the two of them the bust would be easily manoeuvred to it's padded box. He glanced at Gregor, how the man looked at his tattoo. Maybe this time apart was making him miss her, and the thought made Fjolte smile in a way. "So this what's interesting then? Us lifting things around for you - let me guess… We're your delivery boys," he frowned, rolling his eyes because that wasn't interesting at all.

"Yes," she responded curtly, "but you'll be attending the ball after your duties are complete." Raelynn explained, unbeknownst to them she was smirking at the parchment.

Fjolte looked at Gregor. He was the more noble of the two and yet they were both invited…

Gregor returned the look and a highly amused grin was already forming on his face. “Excellent,” he said to the Nord in a low voice, too quiet for Raelynn to make out what he was saying. “Let’s drink these pansy Bretons under the table. After that shit with the shein, I’m ready for anything.”

Fjolte returned the mischievous look, immediately understanding that they were in for a night of fun they definitely would forget if the last drunken evening was anything to go by. "Oh yeah?" He called back to Raelynn, making an amused and devious face to Gregor. "Need us to brush up to the folk, eh? Help them lighten up?" He asked suppressing a giggle.

Raelynn looked over her shoulder briefly at the two of them, she couldn't help but feel that they were up to something. She didn't say anything, and instead got back to her work. Suddenly getting the feeling that she was going to regret this..

“Come on, let’s pack the rest,” Gregor said to Fjolte, still thinking of ways how the evening could derail spectacularly. He’d behaved and played the part excellently on Razul’s ship while Raelynn played him like a fool. A little revenge was in order -- taking control away from her during a moment where she needed them to stay in their lanes seemed like the perfect opportunity. It would be a fine line to walk, however, because he didn’t exactly want to sabotage her plans either.

She felt the need to say something after all, and turned on her heel to face the men as the moved the marble across the room. “You’re not exactly invited... So you’ll be keeping a low profile. Won’t you?”

The silversmith looked up and wiped at his brow with the rolled up sleeves of his coat. He gave Raelynn a scolding look. “Of course,” he said curtly. “We’re professionals.”

When the woman had turned around, Fjolte shook his head, mouthing to Gregor, ”absolutely not”. He could barely even imagine the types of people who would be attending the affair. By the looks of the items they had to all be incredibly rich, incredibly well-educated, and incredibly… stiff. They brought the bust above the box, and once again Fjolte squatted down - glancing at Raelynn, and he felt as if they’d been too quiet. “Yeah, Gregor - just lower it on three…” he said, a little too loud, with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. He slammed his mouth shut and felt a rumbling laugh trying to escape him.

“One,” Gregor began but began to laugh and averted his gaze from Raelynn, fighting to keep his face under control but chortling through closed lips. The bust threatened to slip out of his grip as his arms trembled so he took a deep breath and focused. “One, two, three!” he grunted and lowered the bust into the box with Fjolte.

He winced and rubbed his side as he straightened up. Raelynn had done a great job healing him, but she couldn’t take the tenderness of his body away. His brain simply hadn’t forgotten yet that he had been stabbed by the long talons of a killer-croc and liked to remind him when he exerted himself.

“That reminds me,” he said and gestured vaguely at Fjolte. “We need to get our stories straight, for all the nobles that we’re going to impress tonight. You caved its face in with the hammer and blinded it, and then avoided the fire breath by expertly leaping down towards certain death -- but you saved yourself with the hammer, dangling over the gap like an acrobat attempting the stunt of a lifetime, and then when I sent it over the edge with my thunder magic you kicked it when it was on its way down so that it fell into a pool of lava,” he embellished expertly and tapped his nose. “Alright? They’re going to love that.”

It was the hushed tones that worried Raelynn. That they were talking but she couldn’t hear it. Fjolte was nodding along with a grin, and excitement in his eyes -- but Raelynn had steel in hers. There wasn’t much she disliked more than when people didn’t take her seriously, and she sauntered over, her hands on her hips. “Care to share what’s so secretive, boys?” she asked - an eyebrow raised at them both. She had a keen sense for mischief, particularly where Fjolte was concerned. “I don’t want to regret you both being there…” she warned.

Having let go of the heavy marble, Fjolte’s hands were free to shove into his pockets, and he rocked on the balls of his feet. “We were just saying how after all that happened in the cave… It’ll be nice to do something more fun, and less dangerous. Right, Gregor?”

“Right,” Gregor agreed. “You’ll have to apologize for our giddiness. We’re just glad to still be alive, truthfully, and the opportunity to kick back and enjoy a luxurious, high society event is exactly what we need,” he lied smoothly and placed a reassuring hand on Fjolte’s shoulder.

They weren’t wrong, but they weren’t being truthful either. Raelynn let it slide. Maybe it was the guilt left over from having sent them down there, maybe it was Gregor’s influence again. Maybe she was giddy too. As she brought herself back to her desk, she removed the lid from the smaller gift box. Unwrapping the paper carefully - she was allowed to be giddy too.

“This isn’t the kind of ball you’re expecting, gentleman,” she teased as her fingers freed the item from the wrapping. “I might not know who you are…” she said, the mischief clearly had been infectious. She picked up the gift while her back was turned to the boys, and upon turning they would see that much of her face, save for her mouth and chin was covered with a mask. Bright white lace - starched into a stiff and form fitted mask. There was feather detailing, the striking peacock feathers were styled and shaped like a crown in a half-circle over the top, and beaded with turquoise stones. It blended perfectly to the white gold of her hair, her scarlett lips curled and her sapphirine eyes lit up to create an enchanting smile upon the parts of her face that could be seen - mystery behind the rest. “It’s a masquerade...”

Now that was exciting. Gregor had only ever heard of masquerades and never attended one. Raelynn looked immensely alluring, her eyes like pools of cyan in the white mask, and he had to close his mouth when he had been about to say as much. “Looks like we have some shopping to do,” he said instead and looked at Fjolte, wondering how they were going to find him a mask that wasn’t going to look ridiculous on his wild and untamed features. “A masquerade…” he repeated and rubbed his hands together. Images of men and women elegantly gliding across smooth marble floors flitted through his mind, their eyes on each other, delighting in the game while they tried to work out who everyone was. It showed in a sparkle in his eyes and a smile that played around his lips.

"God's…" Fjolte sighed, "this is hardly my element Raelynn," he glanced sidelong to Gregor. He'd have to take the lead on this, but the Nord did look forward to the opportunity to wear a real dress suit - at least for one night. Maybe stepping into it would awaken the manners and etiquette that were simply laying dormant within him. Hell, the thought of wearing the mask even just to pretend to be someone else was incredibly exciting too. He could be a Prince if he wanted and could get away with it. It did leave one question in his mind…

"It's nice to be invited -- or not invited as you say, but why will we be there? What are you wanting us to do?" It seemed the obvious thing to ask. Fjolte knew there was always a catch with Raelynn.

And a catch there was. She placed the mask back into the box carefully before clearing her throat. "You'll both be there to watch over me, and to watch over my stock. I was strictly forbidden from bringing guests," Raelynn explained - placing her hands behind her back. "I've got a contact inside who will sneak the two of you in after the ball has started, you'll enter via the kitchens and then you'll join the affair. You must arrive dressed, and say the code word ataxia." Fjolte's eyes squinted as he repeated the word under his breath, and she looked at both of them - hoping they'd taken it in. "Understood?"

“Where is it being held? Is there a dress code, aside from the masks? I assume visible weapons are forbidden as well? Can we be sure that you will be the only person there wearing exactly that mask?” Gregor asked, unleashing a barrage of questions as he began to pace about the room. Before Raelynn could answer, he closed the distance between them in two long strides but turned to the box and the mask within, inspecting it closely and memorizing the details. “You look fabulous in this,” he whispered sidelong to Raelynn but making it look like he was mumbling to himself.

She couldn't audibly respond to his compliment, but the simmering look in her eyes said enough. If only Fjolte wasn't here they could… No. Raelynn took in a deep breath of restraint - Gregor had questions, important ones too and so she tore her gaze from him and met Fjolte's eyes instead. "The ball will be held at Lord Desena's manor. It's a short ride from here," she answered, making her way across the floor to the Nord. "Strictly formal, very formal," she clarified as she came up to him and began fidgeting and tugging at his shirt to inspect it. "So this won't do Fjolte. Gregor will take you to my tailor."

She took a step back from the Nord, placing a hand under her chin as her eyes narrowed. "Try a blue or green suit… Something a little more eccentric… I think you'd look dashing in something fitted and colourful."

Her intense gaze was enough to make him smile, "colourful, got it!" He grinned.

"Weapons…" Raelynn said with a thoughtful frown, clucking her tongue. "If you get caught with it you'll be thrown out. That's all I'll say," she cast a look in Gregor's direction. He'd know what she meant. "And yes, I shall be the only one in that mask… It is completely bespoke and designed… for me." The last part was said quieter, as if she didn't want to draw any further attention to that fact. "Any more questions?"

The Imperial thought about it for a few moments. “Where exactly are we to meet the contact? Supplier’s entrance, or something?” He’d seen the way Fjolte reacted to Raelynn’s gaze and touch and he felt guilty again. All thoughts of derailing the evening were forgotten and he was determined to help Fjolte make a positive impression and to teach him the ways of polite society.

"You'll drop off the goods and act as if you're heading back, take a turn on the path when you come across a hut and wait it out there to get dressed… Head back up and to the back of the manor where you dropped off, you'll see a herb garden and that's the kitchen. What's the codeword?" She asked, to neither of them in particular but it was Fjolte who answered.

"Ataxia," he said clearly to her, "drop off, wait in the hut, get changed, herb garden, enter."

The desire to do this job right practically radiated off of Fjolte and Gregor smiled at him. It was endearing. “No further questions, your honour,” he joked and pretended to tip his hat at Raelynn. “It will be done.” He motioned for Fjolte to come with him.

"I'll see you tonight," Raelynn said - not knowing if she would see them. But simply the knowledge that they would be there was enough. She watched them leave, and her eyes remained on the door for a while after they'd gone.

"A suit," Fjolte said, glancing at Gregor with a quizzical expression as he followed him along. "Tell me what you know about wearing a suit."

“No drastic movements -- certainly nothing acrobatic,” Gregor began and continued his explanation while they left the Long Well and entered Jehanna. “That’s the most important point. Suits are tailored to fit your measurements so you risk tearing otherwise. The good news is that, because the suit is tailored, it does most of the talking for you, as it were. All you have to do is maintain good posture and you’ll look like a million septims. Back straight, shoulders squared, chest out, arms at your side or behind your back.” It was still grey and chilly, though the rain had fortunately stopped. Gregor stopped at a crossing and recalled the path he had taken to get to the tailor the last time. “This way.”

"There goes my plans for a lateral split across the ballroom floor then…" he joked. "Good posture I can do, but I'll be honest. A night spent with all these people who would otherwise look down their nose at me? Feels like a waste of my time were it not for the job at hand. I suppose there'll be food," he sighed, "and drink!" The Nord's elbow found it's way to Gregor's arm. "It's just for a night. I can pretend to be a Prince for a night."

As they made their way through the streets, Fjolte got to thinking about Gregor and his life back home, the experiences he'd already had. "So, this mask ball, is it your first?"

“It is,” Gregor replied. “I’ve always known what they are but it’s not something for the son of a simple merchant to attend. Perhaps if I grew up in Bruma, with my mother’s extended family, I would have attended one before… but what with all the Nords there, I don’t think they host them either,” he said and laughed. “It’s a very Breton thing to do. You know how they’re all in love with intrigue and squabbles and so on, right? This is a way for them to attend the same event without any trouble brewing. Even if they do recognize each other, the rules demand that they pretend to be total strangers. It turns all the normal hostility and power struggles into a game, just for one night.”

Fjolte's brow raised and he shook his head. "What's wrong with a big piss up? A hearty Nord knees up?" He laughed, happy to accept that there were different strokes for different folks, but also happiest with just that- a hearty knees up. "Speaking of, Gregor," he began while lowering his voice. "You don't think there's going to be some trouble, do you? Because I do…"

It was an astute observation. “The fact that Raelynn is jumping through such hoops to get us inside does not bode well,” Gregor said but he followed it up with an uncertain look in Fjolte’s direction. “But I have nothing to compare it to. Maybe this is a standard precaution she always takes for these events.” He fell into thought and wondered out loud: “I wonder if my sword will fit beneath a large cloak…”

"She's never been to an event like this while I've known her. Never sold her products in this way either, so you're probably right and this is just a precaution - she wants to enjoy herself… Not worry about the goods in the back of her mind all night. But I'm still going to slip a knife in my boot," he said, briefly meeting Gregor's eyes. "As a precaution."

“Agreed.” The idea of them having to possibly fight and defend Raelynn at such an illustrious event was bizarre, but Fjolte was right -- he had a bad feeling about this. He was glad that the Nord would be with him. They walked in silence for a while longer until Gregor recognized that they were close the tailor’s shop and workplace. “It’s just down here.”

Having thought it over, Fjolte had decided he was looking forward to the suit, to trying it on and getting in touch with a different side of himself. The eccentric side, as Raelynn had put it - and as they walked closer to the shop, that excitement built in his chest and he grabbed Gregor's arm with a hard squeeze. "I'm going to hope it's dull on the danger front so we can enjoy ourselves… A glass, a shot, another shot… Get up to some trouble… Maybe a prank or two. How about that?"

The Nord was still chuckling at the thought as they walked into the tailor's shop. It was the smell that hit Fjolte first. Clean, it was the smell of well polished wood and brand new upholstery. It already made him feel good, like he was in good hands.

A man approached from behind the counter. "Good morning gentlemen, how can I help you both today?"

“A suit for my friend here,” Gregor said and gestured to Fjolte, with a knowing smile for the store clerk. He knew this was going to be a challenge for the tailor, considering how unusual it must be for them to get a customer with the hulking Nord’s measurements. “Suitable for a formal event but not too dark. Green, blue, something colorful -- a lively man deserves an eye-catching outfit, after all. As for myself… a black cloak. Felt or satin or something like that.” He rubbed his fingers together. “Fine, elegant, but understated. No frills.”

"You know I have a rather nice suit in a colour, if we took some of the stitching out and dressed it a certain way… It wouldn't fit like a glove but with a silk lining… You'll look like royalty." The older man said to Gregor with a friendly smile before making his way to the back. It was a wonder the bones in his legs did not creak. At the last moment, he turned to look back at Gregor too - raising a thin finger into the air, "I have something for you too, Sir. Oh yes, we remember you here… Give me some time."

For Gregor, the man came back with exactly what he had asked for: a large, stately cloak, big and wide enough to encompass him entirely, fashioned of a beautiful black fabric that shimmered when it moved. Aside from some patterned stitching at the edge of the shoulders it was unadorned with frills, as he’d put it. It would go splendidly with the suit he still had from the outing on Razul’s ship. “It’s marvelous,” Gregor breathed as he held it up and turned it this way and that to see how the light changed.

"Damn, Gregor…" Fjolte remarked, equally as impressed. "It's like it was made for you," he added with a nod of appreciation. "One thing is to be sure, we're both going to look like a million septims."

Eventually the tailor walked back around - looking slightly nervous with his selection for the Nord. "A more eccentric choice for you Sir," he said as he placed the goods down and very carefully and methodically lifted up the jacket. It was a charcoal grey in the light and initially, Fjolte saw nothing quite so special about it until the tailor turned it slightly and it became apparent the jacket was patterned. A midnight blue tartan ran over the material and the Nord's eyes lit up.

"Oh yes," he smirked, admiring it with an imaginative stare as he began picturing himself in it, moving through the sea of people in that. "Oh yes indeed… What do you think Gregor?" It was very clear that Fjolte was happy with the choice so far - that it was different enough for him to not blend into the Breton's, for that would be impossible, but to also add a shine and degree of polish to his rugged features.

The Imperial put down the cloak so that he could properly inspect the patterned suit. A slow smile spread across his face as he looked between the Nord and the fabric. "Splendid. The color goes very well with your eyes and the pattern will make it clear you're not trying to emulate traditional Breton high fashion, and instead you've got your own style. That's what we should go for, I think."

"Alright, I just hope there's enough fabric to contain the boys…" Fjolte remarked boyishly, flexing his arms -- the muscles bulging under his light shirt.

The tailor gave a soft chuckle, and momentarily was reminded of his own adventurous youth. "Will either of you be taking a fair lady to this occasion? I can provide a matching handkerchief for you both," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

“Not to this occasion, but I have a fair lady back home who would absolutely appreciate a handsome handkerchief from faraway Jehanna,” Gregor said with a smile. Now that he had been outside of Raelynn’s presence for a while and was instead traipsing around with Fjolte, the resolve to return to Briar while pretending nothing had happened was strengthened. It would be for the best, for everyone.

"Just the suit for me," Fjolte remarked, nodding in Gregor's direction. "If you really want to impress your woman, my friend, write her some poetry too. Women love poetry. And a dried rose of Jehanna…" he laughed as the tailor got to work on taking his measurements. "A handkerchief, a poem, a rose… So very chivalrous - she'll come over all soft for you…" There was mischief in the Nord's eyes, but a sincerity in his voice. Perhaps a nice gift from Gregor's travels would rekindle their spark.

“A dried rose? Perhaps, though I have roses in my garden,” Gregor said and his gaze unfocused while he recalled memories of home. “Every summer they bloom several times, and each bloom I find the largest and most vibrant of them all and give it to her.” He smiled again, though he found that his reverie was tainted and soured by the thought of Raelynn.

What he had felt with her last night was incredible, but… the reality was that he was risking his marriage, his whole life, and had already betrayed his honour. Gregor had always considered himself to be a civilized and respectful man. Between the way he’d felt when he had killed the bandits, or the Daedroth, with Fjolte and the things that he had done and felt when he was with Raelynn, he was starting to lose sight of who he really was. Or, as an even darker voice in the back of his mind whispered, he was starting to discover who he really was. The thought made him shiver.

“Have you ever written any poetry?” Gregor asked, diverting attention away from himself and onto Fjolte. Not only was he eager not to have to dwell on these things, he was also genuinely curious whether the Nord had dabbled in such artistic pursuits… and, if so, how funny the results were.

"I have," Fjolte replied with a proud nod. He then cleared his throat and a smug grin crept across his lips. "The Lady of Falkreath loved cider, and the man at the orchard had spied her, she spotted him too, and after a brew, she had something else inside her."

The tailor tutted at him, looking upwards sharply and giving him a slap across the knee. "Filth!" He commented, but the look in his eye was not one of anger, and the smirk that even toyed on his lips was telling of the fact that he also enjoyed the poem.

Gregor burst into sniggering laughter. It was so very Fjolte and he was pleasantly surprised that it actually rhymed. He was also surprised to see the tailor enjoying himself. "Well, well, well," Gregor said and brought his hands together slowly for a round of amused applause. "It appears we have ourselves quite the wordsmith! I shall definitely have to remember that one for my own lady," Gregor said with a sardonic twinkle. "Don't worry, I will make sure you receive credit where credit is due."

That made the Nord smile, and soon enough - the tailor was done. "It will take me several hours to finish the alterations for you, Sir - perhaps you have other business to attend to?" He asked.

Fjolte glanced to Gregor - if there was anyone he could kill time with it was the Imperial - but between finding a mask, grooming, and getting ready for their work, day drinking was not on the agenda. "We do," he answered politely, stepping down from the pedestal. "But we'll be back," he said in a friendly manner before heading towards Gregor. "So… Masks. Where do we find masks?"

"You should try Soleil," chimed the old tailor as he retreated back to the counter. "Lots of beautiful antiquities in there, the owner is on the strange side… Three streets over… You'll know it when you see it," he smiled peacefully.

"This must be it," Gregor said and craned his neck to look at the entire storefront. The name of the establishment, Soleil, featured prominently next to the painted visage of a harlequin in full attire. The window hadn't been cleaned in a while and he had to squint to see the items on display. Much of it was strange and unrecognisable, but he saw a few colorful costumes and what looked like a trapeze. "Let's take a look inside."

Stepping into the store revealed that the tailor had evidently sent them to the right place. The walls were lined with not only masks, but also a wide variety of different costumes, props and an especially sizable display of make-up and grime -- everything anyone could need to dress up as someone or something else, in short. Gregor turned to say as much to Fjolte when the sound of a ringing bell distracted him and he turned his head towards the source of the noise instead.

From behind a shelf appeared an elf, tall and thin to the point of being gaunt, the golden skin of his face painted with white, red and black so that one half of his face appeared to be smiling and the other weeping. His clothes were colorful, his feet stuck in oversized shoes and a large cap'n'bells rested on his head. It chimed softly when he moved, and so it did when he approached, his posture hunched and his hands wringing together. Gregor expected a greeting but the jester said nothing and merely looked at them expectantly.

Fjolte mouthed a curse and grabbed Gregor's arm, stepping back slightly as the Jester approached. "Nope," he whispered from behind a clenched jaw. That was too much for the Nord to handle, and he turned his back on the shopkeep, even if the bells continued to jingle from his hat. Fjolte walked off to peruse the other aisles with haste, leaving Gregor alone with the mime.

Gregor had to resist the urge to laugh at Fjolte's swift exit. He wasn't a big fan of Altmer and there was something undeniably creepy about the silent elf, but he remembered what the tailor had said and wasn't entirely surprised. "Good day," Gregor said, and the jester replied by taking off his hat and bowing with a flourish.

The Imperial nodded in understanding. "My friend and I are looking for masks for tonight's masquerade. I was hopeful you could help us in this endeavour.

The Altmer clapped his hands together once and performed a little jig, his gangly feet light on the floor, bells ringing away. It was obviously affirmative and he beckoned for Gregor to follow to the wall of masks, where they found Fjolte already looking at the selection. The variety was substantial and ranged from the sophisticated half-masks like the one Raelynn had to full-face masks of animals, monsters and even Argonians… though they could be dragons, Gregor mused. The jester made a show of looking up at the masks and deliberating over which one to pick for Gregor.

"See anything you like?" the Imperial asked Fjolte in the meantime.

Meanwhile, Fjolte had indeed found something to let his eyes fall over. The wonderful shape of a woman's behind as she bent with hands to the floor. The Nord stared, his mouth hanging open at the sight and he only just managed to close his mouth to answer Gregor and found that his throat was dry, "uh, yeah, yeah I did…" he answered back, unable to peel his eyes from what he was seeing. The woman then lifted a leg up, up, up into the air.

"Don't try it honey," she purred, and only then did Fjolte snap out of it. "I'll eat you alive…" the woman said, before stretching back into a standing position. A dunmer, with flaming red hair. "It's rude to stare, but since you are - does this leotard look good?" She asked, tilting her head as she eyed herself in the mirror. "Good stretch, but the colour… Hmmm…"

Fjolte nodded again, "looks… looks great, yes, wonderful, perfect… You look great, terrific actually… Really quite splendid - can you do that leg thing again?" He found himself blurting out, hoping that Gregor had seen her too.

All the Dunmer did was roll her eyes at him, and blow a strand of hair away from her eyes. "No time, I have places to be pussycat," she replied with a pout before sashaying his way, curling a finger under his chin to close his mouth. She left him standing there and came out into the open of the store, running her fingers up the Altmer's arm with a happy grin. "I'll take this one!"

Gregor had seen it too, and he could hardly blame Fjolte for his response. The Dunmer woman's body was supremely sensual and the leotard did absolutely nothing to mitigate the impact. The combination of flaming red hair and dark ashen skin had its own exotic, beautiful quality and the Imperial didn't have a mouth hanging open that he had to close, but he did find himself needing to clear his throat and blink a few times to regain his focus.

The jester circled around the Dunmer while making faces and gestures of approval and admiration, finishing with him fighting to close his jaw for a moment before shooting a pointed look at Fjolte. Gregor felt like the Nord was being made fun of, but he wondered if he would even notice. The thought made him laugh and he turned away so that he could chuckle silently into his collar in peace.

The Dunmer twirled in the centre for the Altmer, smiling happily still. When she came to her stop, her blood red eyes met Gregor's, and she fished for her coins. "This should be enough my favourite friend," she hummed as she placed several coins on the counter. She paused and looked up on the wall, at a mask that was hanging quite out of the way of the others. "That's your style I think," she whispered to Gregor with a wink, before turning back to Fjolte to give him a playful wave.

"I'll be seeing you…" she said mysteriously, her voice husky and rich, and then she was gone.

"By Kynareth…" Fjolte breathed out at last, whistling after her. "She was a breath of fresh air…" he had to drag his gaze from the window and to the masks, completely unsure of what to pick. "Which one did she say for you?"

It was almost seductive enough to make him forget about Raelynn for a moment. Gregor watched her go as well and only when Fjolte asked him something did he turn back to look at the masks. “That one,” he said and pointed up at a black mask that was shaped to resemble the upper face of an owl, with its beak where Gregor’s nose would be. It was fashioned from what looked like iron or some other kind of dark metal and burnished to have a silver sheen at the edges of the feathers and the beak. “She has a good eye, whoever she is, because I love it.”

The jester immediately grabbed a ladder and set it against the wall so that he could retrieve the mask. Gregor decided that he liked the shopkeeper, even if he was mute and eccentric -- he was attentive and helpful too. He looked at the rest of the masks and an idea came to him. “We should get matching masks, but not an owl for you…” He tapped his chin with his finger. “Ah! What about that one?” Gregor pointed out a large mask of solid bronze that depicted a snarling lion, metal mane flaring out to the sides. “King of the pack, and all that,” he murmured to Fjolte and laughed at the memory.

His eyes widened, and Fjolte looked genuinely excited by it. "God's yes…" he hissed low, rubbing his hands together. "This is going to be a good night, Gregor. I can tell. Us in our suits, Raelynn in a dress… Beautiful, mysterious women everywhere…" He admired the mask that the Dunmer had selected for Gregor, it was incredibly well suited to him.

"We're going to be gentlemen of mystery," he said, leaning on the counter, almost forgetting that they'd been expecting danger - now the Nord was simply looking forward to a night out of a different kind. "Think they'll have any shein there?" He laughed, jabbing Gregor with an elbow.

Gregor groaned at that and placed a hand on his throat. “I hope not,” he said, esophagus still burning at the slightest mention of the dark elves’ devilry drink. “Red wine and brandy for me. Hells, I’ll even take the whiskey. But shein… never again.”

The Altmer descended with the owl mask in his hands and handed it to Gregor for him to try, before moving the ladder a few feet to the side and climbing back up in pursuit of the lion mask. Gregor placed the mask on his face and tied the black straps together behind his head, tucking them behind his ears and ruffling his hair to cover them. He inspected himself in the mirror first and immediately smiled at the sight. He had always been fond of owls. They were dignified and majestic animals, and using one as the basis for a mask was just playful enough to be charming. With the straps behind his ears and hidden by his hair it looked like it was stuck to his face by some sort of magic, as all the best masks did. “What do you think?” he asked and looked at Fjolte.

"Gregor?" Fjolte said as he placed his hands on his hips and begam pacing. "I can hear you, but I can't see you. There's just some other good looking prick here…" he continued, carrying on the act of pretending to search for the man before he could keep it up no more. With a laugh, he reached for his own mask, wiping a tear from his eye as he fitted his own to his face. Fjolte's mask was bigger than Gregor's, and at first the Nord had worried it would be comically so, but when he tried the mask on he found that it fit rather nicely afterall. The lion's mane ran around his head, hiding his own messy locks which was probably for the best. His normally soft and gentle eyes were made piercing by the frame of bronze around them, leaving only the strong jaw of his face revealed. "We look good."

That he could agree with. “Even better once we get your suit,” Gregor reminded him and slapped the Nord on the shoulder. He turned to the shopkeeper. “We’ll take them.” He responded to that by raising his hands in celebration and beckoned for them to follow to the counter.

Gregor thought about paying for his own mask for a moment and then laughed to himself -- of course he wasn’t going to. This was a business expense. “Are you familiar with Raelynn Deserine?” he asked.

The jester pondered the question for a while before nodding, but then pointed to his ledger and shrugged.

“She has no account here?”

The jester shook his head.

“Damn,” Gregor muttered. He wasn’t a very frivolous spender but not particularly frugal either, and the last week of good living in Jehanna had been unkind to his wallet. It was only then that he realized that Raelynn had forgotten to pay him for the lunar dial, and he smirked sheepishly -- an easy thing to forget, considering what had happened between them. “We’ll be attending as her minders, you see, in her employ, so this is an… unforeseen expense,” he explained and rubbed his neck.

The jester mimed laughter -- even that was silent -- and handed the masks back to Gregor and Fjolte with a knowing smile. He gestured towards the door.

“Oh… are you sure? Well, alright, thank you very much,” Gregor replied hesitantly, but the jester’s enthusiastic nodding and repeated gesturing to the door -- on the house, you are free to leave -- was unmistakable.

Blinking after stepping outside and adjusting to the sunlight, Gregor turned to Fjolte and smiled. “So, what next? Do you want to see a barber?”

“For a wash - yes. For a cut, absolutely not!” Fjolte replied, running his hands through his hair almost protectively as they walked through the streets. “No way is a barber trimming a hair off me,” he laughed. “But if that’s the way to prepare for a fancy occasion, we should do that.”

Gregor narrowed his eyes and held a lock of Fjolte's hair between his fingers. "Are you sure about that? You could do with a very minor trim, just to get rid of the split ends. It'll make your hair look healthier but it won't visibly be any shorter."

Fjolte eyed Gregor up and down, he trusted the man - he did, but this was his hair. The Nord’s pride and joy was his hair, and even a slight trim would be felt. But this was Gregor, and the man seemed to know what he was talking about when it came to these things - he could stand to be a little more refined. “Alright, alright - only if you do yours as well.”

“Sure,” Gregor said and reached over his shoulder to bring the ends of his ponytail into view. “I could do with a little trim myself. You won’t regret it, I promise. It’s part of a normal hair maintenance routine. Don’t get me wrong, you have fantastic hair, but everything can improve with some tender love and care.” The Imperial patted Fjolte’s shoulder. “This way.”

Fjolte gave a carefree shrug, and followed after Gregor.

"You look beautiful in that dress," came a soft voice from the corner. Raelynn's eyes flicked away from her reflection in the mirror as the two assigned handmaids worked at dressing her. Her cool gaze met a tall gentleman. Tall and thin with neat chestnut hair and grey eyes. He was young, but in his eyes, it was apparent he had seen much more than he should have, much more than he alluded to.

She ran her fingers over the front of the dress, the layers of chiffon that made up the skirt were plenty, and added to a more pronounced hourglass shape. The torso was stiffer - the corset boned, pulling her waist in tight. She hadn't worn such an illusion before. "Thank you, Hugo," she replied with a smile.

"But it's not quite perfect," he added, stepping forward, motioning with the handmaids to keep going with the lacing on the back. "Just a bit more," he said - his expression stoic and unchanging as he watched the two women pull at the strings - and then to Raelynn whose eyes widened at the force.

"That's quite," Raelynn said through a shallow breath, "tight enough," she exhaled. It felt as though her chest was being crushed. The petal soft fabric pinched uncomfortably as her waist was brought in even further.

"Now it's perfect." Hugo commented, a smile flickering at last. "Hurry and meet me downstairs, guests are arriving."

From the confines of the shack, dressed in his suit, and groomed impeccably -- Fjolte gazed through the slats over the window, watching as the last guests poured into the doors of the manor. His mask was resting on a chair, and he moved his thumbs idly in the pockets of his trousers. To the tailors credit, they were a wonderful fit.

"I think we're good to go back," he said at last, looking over his shoulder to see Gregor looking just as immaculate. Together, their perfume had left the shack smelling masculine and opulent. Leather, steel, firewood, and fresh mountain air had combined into a presence all of its own.

Gregor nodded, picked up his mask and fastened it to his face. Between the black-and-white suit, the shimmering cloak, the owl mask and his own dark hair, he thought he looked a bit like a villainous vampire from the pulp novels he used to read as a child -- a spectre at the feast. It amused him and he was eager for the two of them to make their entrance… and for Raelynn to see him like this. He fingered the mithril ring, the one that she’d given him, that he now wore on his left hand. It would be his signal. Here I am… Try as he might, he couldn’t manage to fully banish intrusive fantasies of her and him sneaking away to an empty room on an abandoned floor of the mansion and having their way with each other while the party and the auction whiled away below them. But he wasn’t here for pleasure, he reminded himself. This was business. And he shouldn’t be thinking about those things anyway.

“Agreed, let’s go,” Gregor said and slipped past Fjolte out of the shack. They went back down the path they’d followed after dropping off the shipment, wrapping around the back of the mansion, the sounds of the guests arriving fading away with every step. Gregor kept an eye out for trouble but their voyage to the herb garden was fortunately uninterrupted, and he recognized the place as such immediately. It reminded him of the herb garden his mother had behind the house. When Gregor, his brother and his father were out in the yard practicing with their wooden swords, his mother would be tending to the plants and looking up to watch and smile, shouting encouragement and praise every so often. Only ever for Gregor and Marcus, of course. Hector, she reasoned, didn’t need her help.

He pointed to the door that the garden path led to, through the basil and rosemary. “That must be it. What was the password again?” Gregor was confident that he’d remembered, but he wanted to be sure -- and helping him out would put Fjolte at ease. Gregor suspected that the following hours would be sufficiently challenging, in their own way, for the Nord.

Fjolte had also found Gregor's appearance to be dark and mysterious - villainous in an almost charismatic sense. It suited him, to be cloaked in shadow like that. If the Imperial was the night, then the Nord was the day - his mask as blinding as the sun now that it was polished. The lion majestic and wild, compared to the stealth and silence of the owl that Gregor tonight encapsulated.

Even hearing the sounds from inside set his nerves ablaze, and he shoved a hand in his pocket again as they approached a short and round Breton in an apron. "Ataxia," he said, casting a glance to Gregor - a shake of his head as if to express disappointment but he meant nothing by it.

"Lost yer way did ya?" He replied loudly, glancing back into the kitchen. "Bloody guests wandering off all the time, get in lads and don't do it again, yeah?" The kitchenhand added with a wink - it sounded like an admonishment, but his eyes had a sparkle in them. Like he'd just made quick and easy money. The sparkle seemed to diminish somewhat when he met the intense, piercing stare of the man in the owl mask. It was as if those eyes looked right through him, the shadow cast over him didn't help and he felt a shiver run down his spine.

"Garden's are off limits - understand?" He sighed, flinching at the owl before closing the door behind both Gregor and Fjolte. "Understand?"

“Our apologies,” Gregor said smoothly, playing along with the game. He smirked into his beard when he saw the Breton flinch at his appearance -- that was precisely the desired effect. “Understood. We’ll stay inside. Which way to the ballroom?”

He rolled his eyes and sighed. "Follow me," he said and began leading them through the kitchen. Food was laid out across the benches. Everything from roast chicken to roast pheasant, trays of canapes and pyramids of profiteroles.

The offerings hadn't gone unnoticed by Fjolte, who on the walk through was eyeing up a particular pastry in the pyramid. It had the most chocolate sauce on it, and it seemed to be the biggest too. He bit his lip. The smells weren't helping, rendered fat and various meat gravies boiling and bubbling away in large pots and pans. Burnt butter. Caramel. Fresh bread.

If this was the food on offer for the evening, he was about to be a very busy man and he wondered just how long it would be before his pants didn't fit…

"I see you eyeing those pastries, Lion. Stop it," the Breton hissed, his head turning to look at Fjolte with harsh judgement. "You'll wait your turn," he huffed before carrying back on his way.

Finally, they came upon the exit of the kitchen, and the ballroom was in sight.

It was illuminated by several crystal chandeliers, and matching crystal sconces across the deep plum walls. It was as lavish a set up as Fjolte had ever seen - round tables bordered the room, each with a bucket of wine at the centre and glasses all around. Tall flower arrangements stood beside them, and around the edges of each table lay golden place settings.

"I could steal a fork from here and retire," Fjolte whispered in Gregor's ear.

There must have been at least fifty people, each in formalwear and each in a bespoke masks. He saw more animals. A rabbit, a stag, a snake… One woman even wore a mask that made her look like a peacock - feathers and all. Of course, there were those who simply had part of their face obstructed. The gentleman at the centre of the room for example, he wore an expensive looking suit like Gregor's, a cloak that was black and lined underneath with red silk was clipped onto his shoulders and his mask simply covered one half of his face, vertically so.

He turned on his heel to bring his woman to the floor, a shorter partner with ashen hair, in a luxurious golden dress that cinched at her waist. The white mask with the feathers - Fjolte recognised it at once, "Raelynn…" he said to Gregor as he watched the Phantom twirl her in time with the music.

It wasn’t just Fjolte that was humbled by the room’s opulence. Seldom had Gregor found himself in such a luxurious chamber. He didn’t spend much time gawking at the interior, however, and instead his eyes furtively searched through the crowd for the mask that he would recognize. Fjolte beat him the punch, and Gregor’s eyes followed where his did. She was beautiful like this, in white and gold -- even more so than normal. Gregor drank in the sight of her for a few moments, his eyes two pits of gemstones glittering in the dark. Who was the man next to her? Gregor knew that she would have a date for the evening but seeing her dance with another made his nostrils flare. Don’t be childish, he immediately admonished himself. But he couldn’t help it. Raelynn had her ways of making him abandon reason.

He took a deep breath and tore his eyes away from her. She was too busy dancing to look in their direction. The moment of recognition would have to wait. “Let’s get something to drink, shall we?” Gregor asked and smiled up at Fjolte.

Unbeknownst to Gregor, Fjolte had watched him as he observed their employer. Had it not been for the owl over his face, the Nord might have caught the glimpse of his hunger that had flashed over him. Whatever Gregor had felt, whatever those pangs of longing were — Fjolte felt them too. The man at her side was unlike her two bodyguards in many ways. He was tall, but of a slim build. He held himself well but it was the posture of a man who had never had his body shaped by the practiced swing of a sword.

Fjolte gave a bloated sigh in the end, “he looks like a quick breeze would take him out…” He said nothing about the fact that the stranger gave off an unfriendly vibe. The way that he seemed to look through Raelynn instead of at her - the way he held her out — like a child showing off his new toy. As Gregor had, he too admonished himself, shaking it off and remembering where he was — who he was with. “Yes, a drink,” he replied, with a clear ounce of cheer back in his voice. He even gave a devious rubbing of his hands. “Now then Gregor my good friend, shall we see if they have anything for your womanly taste?”

Once again, Gregor was glad that Fjolte was there. The Nord had a knack for saying the right thing at the right time to cheer him up, and he chortled when Fjolte said the same things he was thinking. “He does,” the silversmith said, and then rolled his eyes at his next comment. “Oh come off it, Fjolte, it’s not womanly, it’s sophisticated. Don’t let the guests hear you say something like that or they’ll all be offended. See that?”

He pointed to a waiter meandering through the room with a plate full of champagne glasses, just like the ones he and Raelynn had shared. “Now that is a woman’s drink. It has bubbles in it. Come, let’s have some,” Gregor said and moved to intercept the waiter, sticking to the walls and staying out of the guests’ way. He took two of the glasses and walked back to Fjolte.

“Beware, Fjolte, lest this drink shrivels up your beard and I’ll have to call you Fjoltina from now on,” the Imperial said with sardonic languidity. “It’s not bad, really. Try to make it look natural when you have a sip, alright?”

He might as well have talked to a wall. Fjolte took the glass and lifted it to his lips quickly, taking a large gulp of it - practically inhaling it. As it went down, he found the sharp and dry taste less than pleasant, and he winced. Even the tingle of the bubbles did nothing for him. “Tastes like… Sucking on a coin,” he said, sticking his tongue out in discontent. “All those bubbles will do is have me burping like a mountain troll, no thanks, next,” he remarked with a laugh. Unaware that a rather fetching woman in an indigo dress and a mask that looked like a storm cloud had been watching him quite happily until then.

Gregor sighed, but he had to resist the urge to laugh along with Fjolte. There was something decidedly ridiculous and equally hilarious about the oversized wanderer sneaking into the home of the rich and powerful and berating their lifestyle right in front of them. He spotted the cloud-masked woman’s facial expression -- the part that he could see, anyway -- sour and cleared his throat, placing a hand on Fjolte’s elbow and turning him away from the woman. “Try to blend in, please? That did not go unnoticed. But no more champagne for you, duly noted. I’ll try to find you something stronger,” he said in a low voice, before he glanced over his shoulder at Raelynn. She was looking in his direction. Were they locking eyes? He couldn’t tell from this distance, and with the mask casting a shadow over her face. On the off chance that they were, Gregor raised his glass to her, the mithril ring sparkling in the mood lighting.

“Aye, aye,” Fjolte replied. He wasn’t at some Inn drinking with his hotpot tonight. This was not only work, but a respectable place. As much as he liked to play the fool, he had to be as majestic as the animal whose spirit he wanted to embody. “Maybe… Maybe a red wine, I liked that stuff,” he mumbled, before turning away from Gregor to occupy himself while the Imperial went off in search of suitable tipples.

From the centre of the room, as the music ended, Raelynn had made out the sparkle of something, but having been spun around she decided it could have been anything, a trick of the light or even the crystals reacting to the candles. In any case, she squeezed Hugo’s hand gracefully. “My Lord, please excuse me while I take a breath, you’ve worn me out…” she smiled, nodding her head.

His head inclined to her, and he placed a hand under her chin. “Yes, yes. Don’t be long. I wish for us to dance again… But I should speak to my guests. Go ahead,” he said stoically, casting a bored gaze at her before he watched the woman walk away.

She moved slowly, stood completely upright in the dress, towards the window — taking a glass of champagne as she went. The breeze that whispered in was divine, and she stood under it, flapping a hand in front of her face. Her eyes darted around the room for sign of Gregor and Fjolte. Perhaps she should have chosen their masks, at least then she would know who they were but… That would have stolen away the fluttering excitement she felt at the idea of a dark stranger whisking her away, his identity unknown… She smiled at the thought.

“That looks awfully tight,” a voice came from beside her. Gregor placed the two glasses of red wine in his hands on the windowsill and took a step closer. Between the beard and the owl mask, his face was inscrutable, save for his eyes; they peered out keenly from within the dark iron, blacker than black, and yet full of light. “Allow me.”

“It’s fine,” Raelynn replied in a soft whisper of a voice to the man at her side. His voice familiar, but his whole presence so different. It wasn’t until she met his eyes and took him in that she recognised who it was. How could she not know those eyes by now? “You look…” her eyes closed briefly and she smirked, “you look wonderful.” The excitement she felt grew, that Gregor was stealing her away from Hugo in his own home.

He inclined his head gracefully. “Thank you. You look… radiant,” Gregor whispered. He wanted to reach out and touch her, caress her cheek, or hell, sweep her into his arms, but he didn’t. He could see the way she felt in her eyes, and in the slight parting of her lips. It immediately made his heart jump into his throat. It would be so easy, what with the mystery Phantom distracted… but Gregor didn’t have the heart to leave Fjolte to his fate. “Are you sure you don’t want me to loosen the corset a little?”

Raelynn lifted the glass to her mouth, hiding her words behind it but moving her lips clearly for him to see. “I only want you to touch it with the promise to tear it off entirely. Don’t you dare offer anything other than that.” She sipped, her expression calm but she was anything but inside.

How he longed to take the wheel and steer his ship straight into the storm… the thunder that flashed in her eyes was more alluring than anything. “Very well,” he whispered and drank deeply from his red wine, as crimson as blood, eyes fixed firmly on hers, daring her to risk everything and gamble the night away with him. “The kitchen entrance is that way. Come with me and I’ll make sure you can never wear that corset again.”

As restricted as her breath was, his words still managed to draw out a shuddering breath from the very depths of her lungs, and she tensed on the spot. She loathed being here, and yet the fantasy of the night had taken over her and she felt it swell in her chest. It almost felt that he wasn’t even Gregor, and she wasn’t Raelynn. They were two absolute strangers, capable of satisfying their darkest desires. The masks made anything possible. What would she do to him? What would she let him do to her? Anything.

She couldn’t. They couldn’t. She bit her lip. She could feel her heart racing, she could see her heart racing too… “Everytime I sat down today I was reminded of you,” she whispered. “And I loved it.”

It took Gregor a second to understand what she meant. “Did you, now?” he purred and chuckled into his drink. Flames flickered in his gaze and the promise to bring Fjolte something to drink was entirely forgotten. “Think of me again when you sit down next to Longshanks over there when the dinner starts.” He took another step closer. “Think of me when you feel that beautiful dress brush against you…” Gregor’s voice had dropped into a deep, thrumming whisper. “Think of me, and when all this is done, I will come find you and give you enough reminders to last you a week.”

Raelynn had to clench a fist to keep from giving away anything else. It took her a moment to regain her composure, and even when she did her voice was a whimper. A sweet, and submissive whimper, “as you wish,” she tried to smirk, but instead her eyes met his again with a seriousness behind her words. Like she’d do anything he asked, and her eyes were expectant. The Breton knew she couldn’t stay at his side for any longer, should temptation take over completely. They still had work afterall — and so she stole away from his side, his desire committed to memory.

Left alone by the window, Gregor also needed more than a few seconds to calm his racing heart and remember what he was supposed to be doing. He straightened up, picked up Fjolte’s glass of wine and made his way to the hulking Nord as casually as he could muster. He deliberately did not search the room for Raelynn again -- that woman was far too dangerous for him to be around. He had to be on his best behavior now. Keep an eye out for trouble, keep a low profile, and later…

“Here you go,” Gregor said and gave Fjolte his glass. “Took me a while to find a waiter that wasn’t carrying more champagne.”

Fjolte took it with an appreciative nod. In the time they’d been apart, he’d been mirroring the gestures and manners of some of the men around him - quietly and to himself - but mirroring all the same. “It’s easy to get lost and swept up here, isn’t it?” He asked. “I keep looking at all these beautiful women… The food… The drinks… Everything is so incredible. How the other half live, eh?”

He regarded Fjolte for a moment and smiled. “Nice posture. You’re doing well. As for the women… I know, right?” Gregor replied and let his eyes wander around the ladies in the room. They all looked so dull and plain to him. “Very beautiful. See anything you like?”

“That’s the problem. I can’t see anything I don’t like…” Fjolte sighed through his teeth. “Tell you what though, that wolf mask is doing the rounds pretty well…” he remarked, pointing at a tall, broad shouldered man in a copper mask that made the shape of a wolf head, scowling out. “I’ve seen him go past about four times already.”

The cloying haze that Raelynn had cast over his mind cleared up when he saw that Fjolte had seen. That was the bearing of a man on a mission, and not of someone that was relaxed and enjoying themselves. "Perhaps Raelynn isn't the only one to have brought someone to keep an eye on things," Gregor mused, but there was something about the wolf mask that rubbed him the wrong way. Intuition struck. "We should follow him."

Gregor was right, and Fjolte nodded in his direction. “You go first, I’ll follow behind. We don’t want to spook him too much…” His eyes narrowed behind the mask, and he eyed the room one last time, his demeanour changed and he seemed to grow a little taller when he straightened up, ready for action.

Making it look like he was merely taking a leisurely stroll around the room, glass in hand and his eyes on the guests, Gregor circled through the room on the opposite side of the wolf-masked man, slowly gaining on him but not fast enough to draw any attention. The more he watched him, the more Gregor was convinced he was up to no good. Was this why Raelynn had smuggled them inside? Had she foreseen something like this happening? The man ducked into a servant’s entrance and Gregor’s pulse quickened. “There!” he hissed to Fjolte and followed, hand inside his cloak, fingers tight around something hidden from sight, carried close to his breast.

Fjolte followed up behind Gregor, able to blend behind a gaggle of women enjoying champagne and canapés, ogling some men on the other side of the room. Fjolte almost lost his concentration, like he could be a fox in a henhouse in that little circle… But alas, he trucked on and followed after Gregor, clenching his fists at his side. “On three… We jump him.”

The words of his friend reminded him that it was obviously better to take the man alive for questioning and Gregor let go of the object in his cloak, bringing his hands down to his side. He nodded. The servant’s entrance was narrow and a few rapid corners saw the wolf-masked man slip out of sight. They could still hear his footsteps, however, and they pursued him by ear until the corridor opened up into a storeroom that Gregor figured must run parallel to the ballroom. Aside from crates and barrels, there was a hatch in the floor -- down to the wine cellar, perhaps? Before Gregor could say anything about it to Fjolte, the door behind them closed. There was more than one wolf-masked man. Without warning, they were surrounded. It was as if the men materialized from the very shadows.

“Hands up,” a voice growled.

The Nord didn’t show the surprise on his face, and instead went straight to ignorance, raising his hands with a hapless expression — “woah woah, this isn’t where they’re hiding the profiteroles?” He said, with an amused tone. Now might be a good time for his mage friend to throw a spell or two, they were outnumbered that was sure, but they’d faced worse odds together.

Gregor brought up his hands. One of the wolf-masked men beat him to the punch and threw a glass vial on the ground, which shattered and released a burst of gas or vapor -- Gregor scarcely had time to realize what it was before his vision began to swim. He fired off a blast of lightning magic in desperation that barely missed one of the men before he fell to his knees and toppled over. “Fuck!” the masked man hissed and flinched.

The last thing Gregor heard before blackness enveloped him was mocking laughter.

Fjolte woke first. It was the frigid wind that passed through that shot him awake. He had no idea of how long he’d been laid out on the cold dirt, but there was a painful stiffness in his leg that suggested it had been a while, the dull ache of a cramp. He coughed, dust clearing out of his lungs and he rolled onto his side - suddenly spluttering. Gregor was beside him.

The Nord’s head was ringing, and as he pressed his fingers to his temple he found blood there, part dried. It took him a while to remember. “Fu…” he tried to say, working his jaw. Whatever had happened, had done a number on him. It took him seconds more before he examined the room. It was less of a room and more of a tunnel. Nothing around them but cold stone, hollowed out smooth by hand. Spaced had been etched into the wall around them, and he could make out at the bottom of the tunnel that there were stairs back up to the hatch. “Greg…” he groaned, dragging himself up to sitting—“or.”

“Gregor,” he repeated, more clarity in his tone as he gave the man a nudge. “You dead?” He asked, half concussed and half serious. “Raelynn… Where’s Raelynn…” he offered out to the wind, his throat as dry as sticks so it sounded like a squawk. “Fuck.”

At the end of the tunnel, a lid was pushed clear of a coffin set into the wall…

“I’m busy,” Gregor muttered in his alchemy-induced sleep. “The slugs… have to stop the slugs…”

"Get up you-" Fjolte observed him, pausing to think of his words, "well dressed sack of shit!" Giving him a solid kick to encourage him. He could hear a hiss at the end of the tunnel. A hiss and the unmistakably hollow sound of bone. The visuals caught up, as a skeleton brandishing a sword dragged itself free of the coffin.

"GET UP!" Fjolte repeated with more urgency now -- unaware at just how much worse the situation was about to become.

The kick jolted Gregor into action and he sat up straight, head still swimming and his mind stuck in his dreams much in the same way that a lost soul might get stuck in the bog. “The slugs!” he slurred and pointed one arm dramatically in the direction of the hissing skeleton. “Torch the slugs!”

Not yet ready for such a complicated action, Gregor’s brain short-circuited and flames came out of his other hand instead, setting Fjolte’s pants mildly on fire.

"HEY!" The Nord resorted to shouting at Gregor, furiously patting his pants down only to find he was left with a burn hole inside of his thigh. "Watch the jewels, man!" He complained, placing hands protectively over his crotch. The threat of his manhood being burnt off distracted him from the skeleton.

And the next three that rolled from the coffins.

“She loves jewels,” Gregor mused and thoughtfully rubbed his chin, smearing dust and ash all over his beard. “D’you have jewels?” he asked and swiveled his head to look at Fjolte, narrowing his eyes at the sight of the Nord clasping his hands over his -- ah, yes, jewels. “No, no, no, not like that, you oaf,” the Imperial tutted and slowly climbed to his feet. He swayed on the spot for a few seconds after straightening up, until something fell out of his cloak; a long, thin object wrapped in cloth.

“Oh,” Gregor whispered, overwhelmed with immense sadness as he reached for the object with grabby-grabby hands and failed to retrieve it, on account of having entirely forgotten how to bend over. “My… my thing!”

Feeling very impatient now, Fjolte pursed his lips and took a quick breath. "I don't want to have to do this but you've left me no choice!" He wheezed, bringing his hand round flat to slap Gregor in the face. The noise echoes and reverberated through the tunnel. The Nord brought his hands to his cheeks and gasped at it, instant regret - even though he had been left with no choice.

That finally awoke Gregor from the depths of his slumber. “What the fuck?” he asked and pressed a hand to his cheek, looking up at Fjolte with quite possibly the most indignant expression his face he had ever worn. “What was that for?”

The four skeletons advancing down on them were his answer. “Oh shit!” Gregor yelled and dove for the cloth-wrapped object on the floor. He quickly reached inside the folds and pulled out a long and glittering blade: it was his bastard sword, smuggled inside within the confines of his large cloak. “You take the two on the right, I’ll take the two on the left!” the Imperial declared and added action to his words when he sent a wash of searing flame down the crypt. Why the hell were they down here?

Charging at the nearest skeleton, Fjolte made contact with its form, shoulder bashing it to the ground with ease. The second made a swing for him with an axe, and so he ducked and rolled, the manoeuvre only gave him a glimpse of the other side of the tunnel, and the wave of skeletons that were scampering from that end. There must have been at least eight more. "Gregor, behind you!" Fjolte warned, leaping back up to his feet.

The axe wielding undead took that moment to swing again, landing the blade of the axe into Fjolte's shoulder. The Nord yelped out, kicking the creature away - the axe still embedded in his flesh.

The situation was bad, and drastically getting worse by the second. Whatever alchemical concoction the wolf-masked men had used -- Gregor remembered now -- still affected him and he found it hard to sustain the flow of magicka for his spells, and the jet of flame flickered out after reducing the two skeletons to a clanking mess of bones skittering away across the floor. That would have been fine, were it not that even more skeletons had appeared, as Fjolte had dutifully pointed out. Gregor gritted his teeth, threw his cloak over his shoulders and grabbed his sword with both hands.

With Fjolte covering one end of the crypt, Gregor covered the other and fought the skeletons as they arrived. He spun, slashed and stabbed his way through, wrecking the first and second skeletons with ease -- their weak, shambling forms no match for his father’s sword -- but the third parried his blow and the fourth slashed him across the ribs with its own blade. Gregor heard that Fjolte was wounded as well, but there was no time to aid him. The silversmith roared and bashed one of the skeletons in the face with the pommel of his sword, shattering bone and throwing it to the ground. “Come on!” he growled as he flexed his hand, but the magic wouldn’t come. Forced on the defensive, Gregor found himself having to give up the ground he’d gained, evading and blocking the attacks of three skeletons simultaneously as they drove him back to Fjolte.

Back to back with Gregor, and just as exhausted - Fjolte panted, the pain in his shoulder was getting the better of him. Like a dog with a thorn in its paw, he yanked the axe out with a firm tug - throwing it recklessly to the next skeleton with a hoarse cry to accompany it. How could they have come face to face with a Daedroth, and be bested by skeletons? He could feel the fabric of his jacket sticking to him. The blood from the wound oozed out, leaving him feeling cold on one side.

"One more push Gregor," he huffed, kicking another one back. "We can take them!" He continued, trying to sound as triumphant and encouraging as he could.

A long panel of light broke the darkness and a silence followed. The hatch opened, and Fjolte instinctively turned his head to see what it was, he could only see a womanly shape in the centre of the stairs. The details were lost in the haze, but he heard a voice. A powerful and fierce roar from the end of the tunnel, "Close your eyes!" It commanded, and although scared, he trusted and did as he was told.

Even with eyes closed, the blinding light flashed and burned at him. There was a warmth to it too, but it wasn't painful like a flame, it was something else entirely…

The skeletons froze and Gregor sent them crashing away from him with a final wide swipe of his sword before he whirled around, knelt down, averted his gaze and closed his eyes, as commanded. He didn’t know why he obeyed. There was something about the voice… but surely, it couldn’t be?

As the light died away, Fjolte opened his eyes - it took some time to adjust to the sight, the outline of a familiar face on the stairwell. The first feature to come into focus was her mouth, and how it seemed to move in slow motion as if she was talking.

Raelynn held her arms out to them both, watching them react to her at a slow pace, they'd been drugged, and drugged well. "Come to me," she kept calling out from the safety of her circle or protection. "Hurry! Fjolte! Gregor, I need you!"

So it was her. She looked like an Avatar of Mara, surrounded by a halo and a circle of pure light, wreathed in gold and pearly white. Gregor did as commanded and jogged towards her, his body still incapable of managing a faster pace. He was panting hard and only then noticed sharp jolts of pain shooting through his torso with every step. Had the skeleton broken his ribs? Gregor hissed and practically stumbled into the circle of Raelynn’s magic, before bravely turning around, sword raised, ready to fend off any of the skeletons in case they decided to press the attack.

A hand reached out for Gregor, taking his shoulder and pulling him back up the stairs, he was in no shape to fight, she decided. Raelynn watched as Fjolte came too, slower than the Imperial, but fast enough to escape the clutches of the undead. Her circle was doing enough to repel them, but she still saw fit to cast her spell again. One last warning shot to whistle through the belly of the crypt and see to it that both parties could retreat.

Unlike what her petite size would suggest, her hands were strong as she dragged the two up the stairs and back out of the hatch. Fjolte’s legs were weak beneath him but he held himself upright, clumsily finding his way over each step. The pain was becoming unbearable in his shoulder - a burning hot sting that only something rusted and blunt and foul could produce. The man winced, leaning forward as his legs wobbled. “That was…” he breathed, “too close. Too fucking close.”

The storeroom was now devoid of masked wolves, but the revolting smell of the gas that had been used to incapacitate them still clung to the air. Gregor was seething. Despite the bleeding wound on his ribs, the Imperial paced up and down the room before he swung his sword and tore into the barrels and crates with unrestrained ferocity, his face twisted into a snarl of wrath behind his owl mask. Wood splintered and shattered beneath the steel. He abruptly turned to face Raelynn, breathing hard. "Where are they?"

Now on his knees, Fjolte flinched -- eyes glued to Gregor and his nerves scratched by the flaring temper. "Gregor," he panted out as Raelynn moved to his side, applying her magicka to close his shoulder wound. "We'll find them, slow down…" he offered, holding out his gentle hands, raised to attempt to pacify the Imperial.

Raelynn watched too, the temper was not a surprise to her, but she could do nothing, she had the Nord to patch up. The woman blinked quickly, trying to take a breath to soothe the adrenaline that coursed through her too. "They took Hugo and his father, discreetly, to the vault," she explained - her voice level and as calm as it could be. "It's only that I was separated from him that they didn't escort me too and I was able to find you both…"

He stood there for a few moments, blade by his side and shoulders rising and falling with his deep breaths, before he nodded. “Do what you can for Fjolte,” Gregor said and pulled the hood of his cloak over his head. “Then we kill them all.”

Raelynn's eyes flashed in his direction, a glare as hard as steel, "calm yourself," she began - a frost crept across her tongue. "This is not a bandit's cave. We're at an event where I have relationships to maintain… We can't slaughter people here, whether they're criminal or not…"

It looked like Gregor was about to defy her wishes, but he turned his back to her after a few moments and resumed pacing up and down the storeroom, his boots crushing the wooden splinters underfoot. He left behind a trail of crimson droplets as he went, but he seemed not to notice.

Gregor may not have noticed, but both Fjolte and Raelynn did. She'd done the best she could for the Nord, and then she glanced to Gregor - unable to see his face. It was only then that his demeanour disturbed her. With a graceful helping hand, she had Fjolte back on his feet and the two shared a look too. "Fjolte, check that the next room is clear and wait foe us there - your arm feels alright now, yes?"

"Well enough," he replied with a nod, rolling said shoulder forwards to demonstrate before giving the Breton's arm an appreciative squeeze. He quietly took his leave to the next room, looking back over his shoulder at Gregor one last time.

As the door closed, Raelynn stepped towards the Imperial. "You're hurt," she said, placing a hand on the back of his arm as she closed the distance. "I need to help you."

Her touch helped to focus the roiling waves of his mind and Gregor stopped in his tracks. He exhaled slowly and turned his body towards her. He drew the cloak back so that she could see and tend to his injury. A long cut had ripped through his suit, left a gash in his skin and bruised or broken his ribs. “Go ahead,” he said, his voice softer now.

Unlike with Fjolte, she placed her hand carefully against him, brushing her fingers across the places it didn't hurt. "There…" she whispered, letting the flow of magicka into him, through the skin and into the open wound until she felt the skin knitting back together. Raelynn could feel the energy filling his chest. "Is that feeling better?" She asked, stealing a fleeting glance at him - finding the singular spot of light in his eyes.

“Yes,” he said. He was still tense and angry but her soft and gentle treatment had returned some sense of reason to him. Gregor shook his head like a wounded animal trying to clear the fog in its brain and brought up his empty hand. Electricity arced between his fingers. Now that the drug was wearing off and his magic flowed through him again, he could feel that it was fueled by his anger. There was great killing power at his fingertips. He knew what Raelynn had said, but if they gave him the slightest provocation -- just the tiniest reason -- that would be the end of them. He would make sure of it. “Let’s go.”

Before they left the room, the shadow as Gregor moved again fell over Raelynn - or perhaps she had willingly stepped into it, but whatever had fallen on her had her touch the inside of his wrist with her finger. "There will be plenty of opportunities for you to do what you love…" she whispered, not daring to look him in the eye, she watched the lightning dance over his knuckles. "I promise you that…"

No sooner had her fingertips grazed him, she tore them away, leading them both out of the cellar room, a smirk briefly took hold of her lips.

That quickened Gregor’s pulse. She wasn’t afraid of him, or disgusted. Just like when he had told her about his darkest secret. Could it be that he had found someone that accepted him entirely, and would even utilize it? Did that make her evil? Gregor smiled at the thought. With his blood up like this, the answer was easy. Let her be evil. It’s what he wanted. He had been good for far too long -- like a dog in chains. She was going to set him free.

With his back straight and his shoulders broad, he followed her in long strides.

With the crypt behind them, the three made strides back towards the servants door, and as she placed a hand out to open it, Raelynn glanced back at the two men. "Follow me closely, the two of you are bloodied - I know where the vault is, stay by my side and move quickly. The guests won't notice…"

She was right. With the music and revelry keeping them occupied, none of the guests turned their heads to the three masked individuals who appeared from the servants entrance. Her own heavy use of magicka had slowed her down, the pain in her chest didn’t help and their quick escape to the vault was taking its toll on the woman. She placed a hand on her stomach as she hurried on forwards, she could hear Fjolte and Gregor behind her, and before long they were out of the ballroom altogether.

It was like stepping out of the fireplace and into the fire, the door to the vault was guarded by two of the masked men, and Raelynn observed them both - placing a hand out behind her to stop Gregor and Fjolte from pushing past and alerting them to their presence. They had the upper hand. For now.

“Gregor, a spell will catch them off guard, and then Fjolte you’re to get in there straight after.” She said, turning to look over her shoulder — she hadn’t intended to, but her eyes caught Gregor first.

He nodded. If it were up to him entirely he'd see the thieves put into the ground for what they did to him and Fjolte, but that wasn't what Raelynn wanted. When her gaze met his, he felt his anger falter. This was her evening. There was still an auction to conduct later. They had to do this as clinically as possible.

Spell prepared in his hands, Gregor swept around the corner they had been hiding behind and threw a fireball against the vault door, landing between the two thieves and showering them with sparks -- not enough to hurt them, but enough to singe their clothes and distract and confuse them immensely. Now was Fjolte's chance.

The Nord moved quickly now that Gregor’s part was done. His agility was impressive, and he made it to meet the distracted guards before they had a chance to spot him. With ease and efficiency, he grabbed both guards at the back of necks, twisting his hands around their suit jackets to keep a solid grip and before either of them had too much time to react, he had slammed their heads together with a dull thud.

It had been enough to knock the two of them out, and Fjolte let them drop quietly, holding their deadweight in his own hands until they were lying either side of each other - sparked out cold. “What now?” he mouthed - glancing between Gregor and Raelynn - who had now snuck from around the corner too.

There was no sound from within the vault, and her blue stare moved straight to Gregor. “We need to get in, that’s where Hugo and Lord Desena are being kept.” With a wave of her hand, she commanded Fjolte to start prizing it open.

He got to his task and observed the mechanism on the door, grabbing it tightly - in a decent show of his strength, he had moved it just enough to be loose enough to turn fully. After three quick spins the mechanism opened the door with a creak. "Help me push then," he whispered, leaning up against the door to move it.

Gregor was impressed by Fjolte's skilful knockout technique and he joined him at the door with a smile visible beneath his mask. "Well done, my friend," he whispered back. Together, they put their strength into it and the door swung open, revealing the vault beyond.

His eyes scanned over the scene - a small room, but filled with goods for the auction. At the back of the room, two men had been tied with their hands behind their back. The Phantom, and an older man - rounder too. Another thief stood beside them. Unlike the other wolves, his mask was bigger - the lips curled more ferociously, and the teeth sharper. The Alpha. The leader of the pack.

"Hold it right there," Gregor said and drew up to his full height. He kept his sword pointed low and instead held up a placating hand. "Stop this madness!"

From the back of the room, the Alpha’s eyes locked on to Gregor, peering behind him with an empty green stare to his unconscious comrades. “There's no madness here...” He uttered softly as his head cocked to his side. “But you should have left well alone…” he added - in a sinister and cold tone. “Nobody will be hurt if you leave us alone.”

Raelynn staggered forwards behind Gregor and Fjolte, the latter who placed out his arm to stop her from entering any further into the room, “Hugo!” She called out, stepping over the threshold and into the vault. The Phantom lifted his head and looked across the room at her.

“Raelynn?” He mumbled, “You shouldn’t be up here. You’re supposed to be downstairs,” he continued.

Another four wolves moved into the room from behind display cabinets. The glass and mirrors and low lighting casting the illusion that there were more, and so many more with each movement they made. A long line of masked demons, each with a weapon in hand.

“What is it you want?” Gregor asked, unsure of what to do, but eager to keep the Alpha talking -- lest he do something undesirable with his dagger. The Phantom, or Hugo, was evidently hurt. Were they trying to get information out of him? If they wanted to rob the vault clean of belongings, they already had every opportunity to do so and there were enough riches there to make it worth their while.

From behind the mask, the Alpha smiled and held his hands out. “Chaos,” he replied. The word piercing the air around him with a deathly chill. “I want to make a statement,” he added. “To those who were born above us, that we’re not doomed to be beneath them…” He stepped gracefully behind the Lord, running a free hand across his forehead, the dagger arriving at his throat to sit inches from his skin.

He kept his eyes locked on to Gregor, seeing through the cosmetic darkness and into the real shadows within. “What do you want?” he asked, his smile as cold and straight at the edge of his dagger.

“You’ll always be beneath them if you cannot rise above their faults and vices,” Gregor retorted. “Violence is not the path to supremacy.” Fine words, but the truth was that Gregor didn’t know what to do. His instincts were telling him to attack and kill all these insolent thieves were they stood, but… he glanced sidelong at Raelynn. “What should we do?” he whispered.

“You didn’t answer my question,” the Alpha mocked, and then the blade came closer to Lord Desena’s throat. “One more chance.”

Raelynn and Fjolte seemed frozen by indecision, and were of no use. Gregor grit his teeth and glowered at the Alpha. There was something about his cold stare and heartless smile that made him look like he could see straight through Gregor. “Fine,” he spat. “You want the truth? I’m no better.” He lifted his arm and pointed his sword straight at the thief’s heart. “We almost died in that crypt you threw us in, coward. I want a fair fight and then I want your head on a spike.”

The Alpha laughed, a grating sound - like metal on metal. “But you didn’t die, did you?” he grinned, as if that made it any better - his tone sharp and nasal. He held the Lord in place with the dagger as his human shield. “I simply started a process, that you will one day be thankful for.” He pulled Lord Desena’s head back further, revealing his throat in the moonlight. “Shallow cuts first…” he whispered, before nicking the bare and taut skin with the blade, a petal of blood formed.

The Lord’s feet twitched and he almost struggled, Hugo’s eyes widened beside him; “stop that!” he exclaimed, shuffling towards the Alpha desperately. Raelynn stayed in her spot, bringing a closed fist to her chest - afraid that any move she were to make would change the situation into something worse.

“You’re right, I should stop,” the Alpha mocked as his comrades stood perfectly still like statues, unmoving. “I should really, really consider which one of you aristocrats would send the most powerfully devastating message…” He smacked his lips together, and drew back the blade. “The old Lord, years from his grave… The handsome, yet strange and cruel heir to his fortune and seat… Or the beautiful woman -- a bystander at their ball.” Menace flashed over his eyes as he pointed the blade at Raelynn.

Hot anger flared in Gregor’s chest and he stepped in front of Raelynn, the darkness moving to eclipse the light and shield it from harm. “Think again,” the Imperial spat. He looked at Fjolte, desperate for a way to communicate with him and coordinate a plan of attack, but he didn’t know how. He had to hope that the Nord would pick up on his meaning through subtext. “If you hurt any of them any further, we will kill you.”

Raelynn’s heart raced in her chest, and she reached a hand for Fjolte, taking hold of his arm tightly. “I feel faint…” she whispered, her hands trembling. The Nord looked back at her, and placed his hand over hers and squeezed gently, running his thumb over the back of her wrist comfortingly. His way of telling her it would be alright.

“You’re not going to hurt the Lords,” Fjolte said, “you don’t need to do that to them -- I’m sure they’ve learned a lesson… As for your statement,” he growled in the direction of the Alpha. He shot a glance to Gregor, he had to believe that the man would trust him. “You want this woman? Come and take her from us,” he hissed - he immediately regretted it, but the smile on the Alpha’s face made it worth it.

Too enticed by Fjolte’s words, he withdrew his dagger and stepped to the side of Lord Desena, and to bring him further, the Nord dragged Raelynn out in front of him. “Take your shot,” he said -- eyes on the Alpha, but directed at Gregor.

Gregor almost hissed at Fjolte to ask him what the hell he was doing, but he stopped himself at the last moment and let the Nord carry on with what seemed like a plan. As soon as the Alpha stepped out from behind Lord Desena, everything clicked in Gregor’s mind and Fjolte’s words confirmed it. He had expertly baited out the would-be killer. In the brief moment before he unleashed his spell, Gregor felt his esteem and admiration for his friend rise even higher.

Then the room was filled with the bright flash and dry clap of a thunderbolt spanning the length of the vault. It was brilliantly reflected in all the display cabinets and mirrors and the noise echoed off the walls of the small space, blinding and deafening everyone present -- except Gregor himself, who obviously knew what was coming. Through squinted eyes he saw how the lightning struck the Alpha in the chest and threw him back against the wall. Immediately afterwards, Gregor sprang into action and dashed towards the Lord and his son to protect them from any retaliation from the four remaining wolves.

Fjolte felt an awful regret for having done it, and more so for having to push Raelynn away behind him. He couldn’t risk her being hurt, as she tumbled to the ground, he watched as she struggled to regain her footing but before he could help her - the four wolves had pounced on him…

The Alpha struggled also to find his feet again, there was great pain in his chest from where the lightning had struck him, splitting through his stoneflesh to feel like an almighty punch. Just dull, bruising pain that had taken the air out of him. “That’s it,” he wheezed out - even when beaten he couldn’t resist the opportunity to taunt the Imperial. It was just the two of them now, and of course the Lords. He snarled and in his hand an orange glow coalesced, everything in the room was now his puppet and he controlled the strings. He quickly settled on a chair, lifting it high with his telekinesis - dropping it with enough force on Gregor’s back to shatter it. “Sit down! Join me on the floor,” he mocked.

The impact of the chair was enough to send Gregor staggering to his knees and he grimaced. “Fuck you,” he growled. So the Alpha was a mage. That complicated matters, but Gregor had fought a bandit sorcerer before. He had made sure to learn a Ward spell during his time with the tutor in Bravil, specially for situations like this one. Gregor dropped his sword by his side and raised both hands, forming in one of them a glowing, shimmering shield of liquid magicka while the other sent forth a blast of flame towards the Alpha.

The Alpha had no shield in his hands, but he was able to find one - lifting a table with his telekinesis and positioning it front of him quickly - it caught most of the flame, but the heat was still blinding and sent him backwards. The burnt table dropped as he released it from his spell, and he dusted down his jacket with his hands - patting out the ash in clouds of grey smoke.

There was opportunity in Gregor’s anger - and so the Alpha began his spell again to rob him of the dropped sword. He pushed it far across the floor. Too far for the Imperial to retrieve it without first turning his back. “I’m going to carve a new animal out of you,” he growled in Gregor’s direction - eyes flashing red as his hands worked another spell - a great ball of bright light that he shaped into a huge orb before firing it at Gregor to hurt his vision while he made a move to run behind the glass displays.

Unsure what the spell might be, Gregor dropped low and let the ball of light sail overhead. By the time he realized it was a mere magelight spell and he looked up, the Alpha had already disappeared behind the glass cabinets, the infinite fractal reflections hiding him within the maze. “Coward,” Gregor repeated, but he got to his feet and tended to Lord Desena and Hugo instead. He pulled his dagger from his boot and cut through the rope that bound their hands. “My lords, are you alright?”

At the far end of the room, Fjolte had engaged the wolves in a dance. His feet moved faster than they could, pulling him out of harm's way for the most part. He was all that stood between them and Raelynn. Everything was at stake, he and Gregor were outnumbered… But they’d faced worse odds, for much less of a reason to be fighting. The Nord roared at them, locking one of the wolves into a headlock, and then proceeded to use him as a battering ram into the next.

As the two were pushed back, Fjolte rolled his shoulders forward and took on the next. It was time for some acrobatics, bar room manoeuvres weren’t going to cut it. The man lurched forwards in such a way that it seemed he was launching for the thief to his left, instead he used the momentum to bring him into a backflip, using the movement in his hips to turn him in a full circle in the air, and he landed a kick square in the chest of the thief - sending him back into one of the glass cabinets with an almighty shatter. As came back to the ground, the two of them were back on their feet, and one swung his sword at the Nord’s back. Fjolte caught his wrist and twisted it, causing the sword to drop, and then kicked back at the enemy behind him.

He made it look easy, his moves were precise, and each one had enough power behind it to stop the thieves in their tracks momentarily. He wasn’t perfect, however - and soon enough one of the masked men pushed back at him, Fjolte tried to block and avoid, grabbing the man’s arm but he was strong too, and pushed him into the glass cabinet. Together, they were on the ground - surrounded by shards of glass and the Nord’s head had hit the corner of the cabinet and was cracked open - his blood slipping out over his forehead - painting his eye crimson in a single stripe. “Fuck,” he gasped, feeling the sting immediately, and then the way it made the room spin.

The assailant was about to bring a dagger upon the Nord, until he raised his arms in an ‘x’ shape to block him, and then for some strange reason he grabbed at the man’s beard, and twisted - he screamed out in agony at the unexpected move. The hand in his beard then became a splayed palm over his whole face - he tore off the mask, using the sharp edges to club his assailants skull.

Afterwards, it wasn’t just his own blood he was painted with.

Hugo pulled himself to his feet, thankfully - but shaken, and helped his father too - relieved that his throat had not been slit. “Raelynn,” he muttered, his eyes scoured the room for her, and he spotted her folded over by the door - lying still. “Raelynn!” he called out even louder -- and yet he made no motions to reach her, looking instead to Gregor. “Well?” he spat, almost accusingly at whom he assumed was simply her bodyguard.

Gregor looked at Hugo with exasperation. “Gods, man, there are still villains about! Are you going to fight them, or are you going to tend to Raelynn?” he returned, no regard for the man’s station in the heat of the moment, nor did he wait for Hugo to answer. It was a rhetorical question. “Get her out of here and close the door behind you!” Gregor ran to his sword, rearmed himself and relieved the beleaguered Fjolte by swinging his sword and sending spikes of ice at the wolf-masked thieves, forcing them back and away from his bloodied friend.

“Up and at ‘em, Fjolte,” Gregor groaned as he hoisted him back on his feet. “The leader is still in here somewhere and he’s a mage, be wary.” He brandished his blade with a flourish and snarled at their opponents, daring them to go through Fjolte and himself in pursuit of the nobles.

“You fight well,” came a voice from behind the cabinets, before the body followed. As the Alpha stepped out, his body appeared to be shimmering as if he were in a layer of armour - and his hands were once again orange. “I give you one last chance to resist, or bad things are going to happen…” he laughed stepping in the space between the current fight, and Raelynn in the doorway. “To everyone.”

“Enough!” Gregor roared and charged the Alpha, leaving Fjolte to take care of the others. He kept a firm hold of his sword this time and used his free hand to cover his advance with a jet of roaring flame.

“Stop it,” he laughed again, pulling an armoire from the wall in front of him with the telekinesis - another shield from the flame. But his overuse was taking its toll slowly. One hand flashed to a deep red and he placed it on his own chest - feeling from that hand his own energy drain - but a surge of power followed it. His laugh rang out through the room now - even as the flames took the armoire completely - setting a bonfire in front of him, the heat stung him, and he could feel it burning the skin of his face… More worryingly, he felt the intensity heat up the alloy of his mask - as it warmed around the edges, he felt it burn hotter than flame and meld to his skin.

“Don’t tell me you want to save these people?” he questioned, a desperation in his voice. “The boy is cruel and his father selfish…” he spat, launching the now flaming armoire back where it had been. “The lady is killing herself with her own vanity,” he trilled out. Behind the mask his eyes were glowing red, and the smoke filled the room slowly. “Come on… A man like you,” he said to Gregor sardonically, “you could be one of us…”

Gregor could sense his desperation like a shark could blood in the water. His advance was relentless and he lifted his sword into a ready stance, tip pointed straight at the Alpha. “Then the gods will punish them all,” he said, not caring for the man’s words at all. “But you… will have to make do with me.” Having backed him into a corner, Gregor attacked, dashing forwards and thrusting his sword at the wolf.

“We got what we wanted,” he sneered - refusing to move from the spot. He had resigned himself to this fate, but not before he played one last card. “The woman? The Lord, The Son?” he sang out cryptically in the last split second before Gregor’s sword would make contact, and then his hand moved. The orange spell powered up by his use of equilibrium. There was a whooshing sound in the room, followed by the clear sound of a blade piercing flesh…

The sword went through him without resistance, slicing apart the Ironskin spell and running him through so hard that Gregor pinned him to the wall. The Imperial reached out and crushed the man’s fist in his own, trying to break off the spell before the Alpha could finish casting it, but the sound behind him was unmistakable. “No,” Gregor whispered and looked over his shoulder, eyes wide, desperately searching for Raelynn.

The body dropped. He just slipped right out of Fjolte’s hands and to the ground - his own leader’s dagger pinned in his chest like a dart. Immediately behind him was Lord Desena, breathing heavily, the shock having taken over him. It was an unlikely save indeed, but… For having thrown Raelynn in the middle of the fighting parties, Fjolte was not going to let any of the nobles get hurt. “I…” he panted, stepping back. “I… didn’t know if that was going to work,” he confessed, bringing his hand to the back of his neck. The last of the thieves had surrendered completely, falling to his knees, his empty hands above his head. “I didn’t know,” Fjolte muttered, in a state of his own shock. Nothing about this was right.

Hugo finally stepped forward, to the surrendered thief whom he gave a sharp kick too, “you will never see the light of day again, thief,” he spoke down as Lord Desena watched on, before collapsing to his bottom in relief.

Ignoring them all, Gregor pulled his bastard sword free and unceremoniously let the Alpha fall to the ground in a heap of slack limbs and pouring blood before running to Raelynn’s still prone form -- Hugo had been no help at all, evidently -- and he skidded to his knees beside her. “Raelynn?” he asked and cradled her head in his hands. “Are you alright?”

Her eyes opened, having been lifted from the ground - the danger over. She saw a pair of dark eyes through the smoke, the same that had greeted her by the windowsill - they brought immediate comfort and she raised her arm to touch his cheek, despite it feeling so heavy and limp. Her mouth opened to speak, but only a groan came out. She dropped the hand she was struggling to hold onto her chest, fingers grasping at the corset of the dress.

“Told you it was too tight,” Gregor growled and hastily used his dagger to cut through the laces of Raelynn’s corset, lifting her up with one arm so that he could reach her back with the other. “There, better?”

The Breton immediately drank in the air around her and her hands fumbled over Gregor’s arms, gripping him tightly - as if she had forgotten there were others around. A rush of blood ran to her head and she coughed until she was fully conscious in the room, “Gregor,” she said, taking him into her own arms tightly and placing her head into his neck.

He dropped his dagger and returned her embrace with his own. “You’re alright,” he hummed into her ear. “The thieves have been defeated and the Lord has been saved. Everything is alright.”

“Thank you,” she whispered back, her arms still trembling and she wanted to stay with him, but there were too many others around. Hugo was here, Fjolte was here. She pulled herself away regretfully, “Thank you,” she said again, taking in deep breaths.

Also suddenly self-conscious, Gregor accepted her gratitude with a professional nod before he retrieved his dagger, climbed to his feet and offered his hands to Raelynn to help her up. “Fjolte?” Gregor asked meanwhile, turning his head to look at the Nord. “Are you hurt? How did you fare?”

“Well,” the Nord breathed out, taking a long hard look over the carnage of the room. “I… I think we torched the slugs,” he smirked. His hand was over his head - the blood was hot and sticking through his hair but he remained as light-hearted about it as always.

“Slugs?” Hugo interrupted. “Slugs? We were nearly killed -- this is hardly the place to make jokes,” he said, his eyes narrowing in the Fjolte’s direction.

“No,” came the voice of Lord Desena, who was still on the floor catching his breath. “Now is the time to say thank you to Miss Deserine and her men for their quick thinking, Hugo.”

That seemed to placate the tense Breton, he scratched at his collarbone nervously and stepped down, moving across the floor to Raelynn, eyeing up the Imperial from behind as he helped up the woman. “Yes, my father is right… You all three have our thanks on this night…”

Gregor chortled into his beard, much of the tension of the fight banished by the joke -- he vaguely remembered the dream that Fjolte had so rudely, and yet fully necessarily, awoken him from. He turned to face Hugo and the elderly Lord Desena and bowed respectfully. “You are most welcome, my lords. I am gratified that we were able to repel these invaders. Still… I’m not sure what they wanted,” Gregor admitted and he looked at the Lord, ignoring his son in favor of his clearly wiser father. “Their leader said, just before he… well, he died, that they had already gotten what they were after. Is anything, or anyone, missing?”

Fjolte’s eyes scanned the room again, and he breathed out a single word, “chaos…”

The Lord, now getting to his feet nodded in agreement. “We’re all well and alive -- but we can’t hold an auction now… Everything is all but destroyed. They caused enough trouble to put a stop to our evening,” he sighed as he ran his fingers through his moustache.

“That was worth dying for, was it?” Hugo asked, tutting and shaking his head as he moved to Raelynn’s side. He put a hand either side of her and moved close, kissing her forehead. “I’m sorry you had to see all the fuss.”

Gregor had to tear his eyes away from Hugo as he pretended his affection with Raelynn. He’d already seen how the man looked at her. Instead, he removed his mask slowly and exhaled, calming his own pounding heart and adrenaline-fueled nerves. Gregor joined Fjolte’s side and placed a brotherly hand on his shoulder. “Damn fine work,” he said in a low voice. “That trick with Raelynn as bait? Quick thinking. I’m impressed.”

“Could have gone badly, could have gotten all three of us hurt or worse… I just… Didn’t know what else to do,” he sighed quietly, turning his back on the rest of the scene. “You fought better than I’ve seen you fight yet, Gregor. I’m proud to stand beside you,” Fjolte said, meeting the man’s eyes with his own, his words were truthful, and he found himself choking in his throat, and so he pulled his hand to his mouth to discreetly cough into it. “You know, when you’re not trying to burn my dick off.”

There was only so much humor Gregor could endure in his current state before breaking out into laughter, and he did so without shame, clapping Fjolte on the shoulder once again. “Please, my friend, you held off four of these bastards by yourself. Hell, you showed them all the corners of the damned room. The honor is all mine.” Then he looked at Hugo and Raelynn again and whispered. “And is it just me, or is that man one of the most useless tossers you’ve ever seen?”

“Useless? Maybe. To me… He just looks like the kind of prick who enjoys picking the wings off of flies…” he mumbled bitterly as he watched him with Raelynn, scooping the shoulder straps back up on her dress, pulling the lacing again so that it wasn’t falling down. More still, how she just let him. “As for my fighting,” he began - changing the subject and turning away from the scene, “Of course I did, they had no chance against me. And that creepy leader had none against you.” His brow furrowed, head tilted. Fjolte looked closely at Gregor and sighed, “you didn’t listen, or… You didn’t take in any of his words did you?”

Gregor returned his gaze to Fjolte and shrugged. “No, I heard him alright. But what is there to do? Raelynn wants to cultivate a business relationship with these people. It’s not my place to judge whether they’re worthy of their status and their wealth. As for his comments about her vanity…” He glanced at the corpse of the Alpha against the wall and shrugged again. “Jealousy? I don’t really know what he meant. Frankly, I don’t care all that much, either.”

Fjolte nodded along with Gregor, pleased to hear those words, but it wasn’t quite what he had meant. “But, what about what he said -- the other thing, you know, about starting a process? That you could be one of them? You didn’t… You don’t believe that do you?”

The Imperial shook his head. “He was a dead man walking and he knew it. Desperation drives men to say crazy things. They plead, they bargain, they say anything they think can buy them some time. I have no intention of becoming like them, believe me.”

“I know,” Fjolte sighed, ashamed at himself for even asking. “So much for a simple evening though.”

From behind the Nord, the almost comically short Lord appeared, finally having settled himself, he rubbed at his neck, “gentleman, I owe you a heavy debt tonight. If you hadn’t come to us… I fear myself or my son would be grievously injured right now… You’re both quite the heroes. It’s not much, it’s not a lot at all but I’d like for you to take yourselves to the kitchens when you’re ready and I’ll have the chefs prepare you a decent meal before you leave.” His small grey eyes dotted around nervously, and a redness took hold of his round cheeks. “I… I don’t think it’s quite enough of a repayment but it’s the least I can offer right now. I really…. I really, truly am grateful,” he mumbled, tripping over his own words occasionally, but meaning every one of them all the same.

Sensing the need for diplomacy, Gregor inclined his head gracefully. “Your gratitude is very warmly received, my lord. Fret not, my associate and I understand that everyone is still in a state of shock. A hearty meal from your kitchen sounds delightful. Doesn’t it, Fjolte?”

“Yes Sir, my Lord…” Fjolte replied, bowing his head in the man’s direction. “We just did our jobs… Not even that… It’s what anyone would have done,” he smiled. Now that the offer of food was on the table, his smile was more of a flicker of excitement than anything else. The smells came back to him from his first walk through the kitchens. “Will you be joining us? Will Raelynn and Hugo?” he asked with raised brows.

Lord Desena took a glance at his son and Raelynn, giving an incline of his head and a thoughtful hum. “My son is rather private, I suspect he’ll take Miss Deserine to dine privately, before they retreat for the evening,” he smiled. “I’m glad he has her this evening, she’s a very caring young woman.”

“She is,” Gregor agreed, disappointed that he was liable not to see her again for the rest of the evening. Unless… a plan began to form in his mind and he smiled. “Very well. We shall make our way to the kitchens, then.”

The hush of night had fallen over the Desena estate. Fjolte had already gone home, Gregor having waved him ahead with the excuse of having to use the latrine before leaving. Instead of doing that, he had sequestered himself away in a servant’s pantry and counted down the hours. He was, if nothing else, a man of great patience if the situation called for it. He amused himself by conjuring potential designs of a piece of jewelry fit for a large diamond in his mind’s eye. Gregor’s imagination was powerful and an important instrument in his craft. Once he was satisfied that all was quiet and that both family and staff had tucked in for the night, Gregor emerged from the pantry whisper-silent. He had remembered which way Hugo and Raelynn had gone when they parted ways outside of the vault and he made his way to that part of the manor.

He moved through the corridors cloaked and hooded in the darkness-taken-form of his outfit with all the stealth of an owl, his boots muffled on the expensive carpet. Gregor kept a close eye on the doors of the rooms that he passed, looking for a room where the glow of candlelight spilled out from. If he knew Raelynn at all, he suspected that she was still awake and processing the day’s events, and was definitely doing so in her own room. Protocol dictated as much, considering her courtship with Hugo looked to be quite formal. Nothing so passionate as the way she treated her lover. Gregor smirked at the thought, delighting in having one up over the loathsome Desena junior.

When he came upon a room that was so illuminated, Gregor quietly lowered himself to the floor in front of it and spied into the space beyond through the gap between the floor and the door itself. Lo and behold: a woman with ashen blond hair was seated by the window with her back to him. Unless Hugo had a sister like this that Gregor didn’t know about, he had found her. His pulse quickened immediately and he resisted the urge to laugh boyishly. Gregor rose to his full height, adjusted the mask on his face and pulled the cowl of his hood even further over his visage before knocking gently on the door.

The young Breton had been sat in an armchair facing the expansive grounds of the manor. The evening had completely died down, all of the guests had left without so much as an inkling as to what had happened. Even Raelynn was left unsure, she’d been unconscious and struggling for much of it. It was a horrid feeling to have been so out of her own body for the evening. Her ribs still ached, and everytime she took too deep of a breath she cursed the damned dress.

He’d hung it up carefully against the wardrobe, and it hung in the moonlight like a ghost. A beautiful dress, but… Not Raelynn’s style. Her pale blue eyes looked it over, up and down. It should have been looser across the neckline - a less restrictive fabric. The skirt ought to have been pleated down the middle - even the colours weren’t what she would have picked to pair with a white mask. She sighed regretfully, and got back to combing through her hair when she was startled by a knock at the door.

She swept her hair over one shoulder and rose from the seat - a simple satin gown covered her form now, completely bare underneath. She stepped apprehensively towards the door, a mixture of curiosity and fear took over her. She didn’t feel unsafe, but not knowing what had happened in the lost time in the vault played tricks on her mind. “Yes…?” she spoke softly, worried her voice would wake the entire manor if she spoke in anything louder than a whisper. Her hand touched the doorknob and she turned it, the click of the mechanism as it opened was louder than she would have liked too. She didn’t enjoy being a guest in someone else's house all that much, the door opened and her eyes adjusted to the darkness - finding only a tall, dark shadow in the frame.

“Good evening,” Gregor said, his low voice matching her muted query and cautious footsteps. With her reduced to nothing but a gown like this, lacking the heels that usually gave her height and presence, Gregor towered over her and he reveled in how intimidating he must seem for a brief moment before he threw back his hood and revealed himself. “I do believe I made you a promise earlier. Here I am.”

She restrained herself from speaking his name, and simply drank him in - as much as she could in the dark. She brought her hand to her mouth and ran a finger over her lips, the surprise aroused her enough as it was, and she remained silent for a moment. “Who might you be?” she asked, meeting his eyes with her own, a playful sparkle sat in them. This was a game and fantasy just as much as it was a promise.

Gregor smiled at that. He didn’t mind indulging her in her fantasies. “A stranger,” he said, playing along, and a long stride brought him across the precipice and into her room before he closed the door behind him, taking care to let it slip silently into the lock. “Who stowed himself away after the ball and stalked the halls in search of a young woman when night came.” He took another step closer to her. “And now he has her, alone in her room,” Gregor continued and began to circle around her with slow steps, eyes locked onto hers, “right under the lord’s nose…”

She moved backwards as he came forward, facing him every step of the way, following his circle. “And what does he want with the young woman?” she asked, trying not to smirk. When he passed by the window, the light of her candle caught him, outlining in him with a warm glow - highlighting his most handsome features for but a split second before his own darkness eclipsed them again. Raelynn wasn’t sure who she preferred.

Suddenly Gregor stepped close to her and hooked his finger below her chin, letting his eyes freely and indecently wander across her body and the curves that were visible beneath the satin gown. “To have what the lord cannot,” he replied and brushed her lips with his thumb. “Everything that the propriety of courtship forbids. The stranger doesn’t care for such things… he simply takes what he wants…”

Unable to resist him, she parted her lips and kissed his thumb, slowly and sensually as her eyes remained fixed to his. “Is this stranger a gentleman?” she asked quietly, reaching out her own hand to his cloak, to take hold of him for herself. “Or is he just a rogue?” Raelynn asked, desperately trying not to smile up at him. She bit down gently on his thumb while she waited for his answer.

“A gentleman by day, raised in good manners, with gainful employment and an honorable bearing,” Gregor murmured and moved his hand behind Raelynn’s head, his strong fingers finding purchase in her hair. His other hand moved to her waist and he pulled her close to him. “But a rogue by night,” he whispered, their faces mere inches from one another, “when all others are asleep and only the sinister and the rambunctious still walk. How does the young woman feel about that?”

“She would tell you that she is a rogue too,” Raelynn answered, finally smiling up at him with a devious glint in her eyes. “She is neither sinister, nor rambunctious… Maybe she is a harlot… Lascivious…” she said, speaking quieter than ever. “Maybe this young woman feels… Excited by the rogue…” Her lips brushed his as she brought herself onto her toes to reach him.

"I can't… I can't believe we just did that." Raelynn said in a tired sigh, words still failing her.

Gregor smirked at that. It was a very daring and dastardly thing to do, and that satisfied parts of him that had lain dormant for perhaps his entire life. He hummed in agreement and pulled Raelynn and himself closer together, draping one of the sheets over their naked forms. "I suppose that's our way," he said softly into her ear. "We do whatever we want."

Raelynn leaned back into him, her skin tender and sore, and reached to stroke his cheek. "You can't get too comfortable… Don't fall asleep," she said -- a hint of sadness in her voice as her fingers ran across his cheek and through his beard.

He sighed. "I know," the Imperial muttered. He wanted nothing more than to stay with her until the morning, but they could not risk discovery. Raelynn still had her game left to play with Hugo and his father. He also knew that the longer he remained where he was, the harder it would be to leave. Clinging on to what little willpower he had left, Gregor got out of bed and began collecting his clothes from the floor.

Her hand had reached out for him as he began to leave, for one last lingering touch - for it to not have to end. But her body was too tired to do more than that, and without him there to hold her, she fell deeper into the bedding and towards sleep. "When… Will we see each other again?" She asked - her voice thick and worn out, her eyes barely able to stay open, an outstretched hand pointed towards him.

With his clothes in his hands Gregor turned to look at her, and he leaned back over the bed to kiss her hand. "Whenever you want," he replied. "You know where to find me."



”I’m gonna miss you Peebs,” came the soft voice of the pink-haired girl sat upon the table, cross legged as she helped herself to the chips from the bag. The grim and deathly photos spread out across the desk of little interest to her.

“We don’t get a lot of visitors here, not us anyway,” she sighed wistfully. Dipping the chip into sauce.

Pari’s gaze was on the photographs - staring at the clawed hands pictured, at the sharp teeth along the jaw. The lack of life in the yellow eyes. The bag of chips of little interest to her.

“You are?” She asked, looking up to meet the bright gaze of her colleague.

“Yeah,” the girl nodded, biting down on the potato. “I mean, look’t what I’ve gotta deal with—“ Her hand motioned to the two men in the other office. One of whom was tearing through his own bag of chips with a voracious hunger - curry sauce spilling from his chin to the polo shirt. His hair scruffy chestnut, eyes blue as ice. The girl groaned with disgust and rolled her eyes.

But Pari was drawn to the neater gentleman, the one who was leaning back in his chair, a hand running through his long dark hair, and then through his beard as he yawned.

“He likes you, you know.” The girl added with a coy smile. “Really likes you.”

Caught out in the act, Pari tore her eyes from him and looked back at the girl. “Yumi… Are you stirring the pot again?” She asked playfully, finally folding the images back into the envelope.

“Nah,” Yumi responded with a laugh. “Like I said, we don’t get many visitors and I reckon you made an impression on him,” she smiled. Smug.

Pari shook her head and tutted, it wasn’t just a pane of glass between them… As much as she felt something of an attraction to him too — they both had wounds. Deep wounds. She took a chip and dunked it. “And you like James, and he likes you…” she toyed, biting her own chip with raised brows.

Yumi gave a glare, but there was no malice behind it, and she soon started into a laugh. “Maybe he does, but I like to treat him mean,” she shrugged and laughed again. “He’s too crude, anyway.

“You and Evan are kindred spirits, since he lost his wife and that—“ she added, before realising she’d said too much.

Pari’s head tilted curiously and she placed her chip back into the sauce slowly. “What do you mean?” She asked, the heat in her voice rising.

Yumi grimaced and shrugged her shoulders again. “I… Did a bit of research on you, saw a few things, read things… You know, just a bit’a recon.” She bit her lip and scrunched her nose, running a hand across her chest as her breath held.

“Are you mad at me?” Yumi asked, her nose remained scrunched but it was clear in the rest of her body language that she wasn’t too apologetic.

She had to think about that, and decided after a pregnant pause that she wasn’t. She exhaled the breath she’d been holding on to. “No, I’m not mad. You were curious about a strange consultant on your team, nothing to be angry about,” she smiled warmly, finishing her chip. Truthfully, it felt liberating to know that Yumi knew about her past and hadn’t been deterred or had her opinion changed, hell, it was nice the she thought so highly of her in the first place.

“Can I ask you something personal?” Yumi said, her voice low and her eyes pointed at the table.

Pari nodded, poking around at the last of the chips for the crispy ones, “Sure.”

“What does it feel like to die?” The girl uttered, taking the chance to ask in her stride, she meant no disrespect in the question — that much was true, and for the first time in forever, Pari felt not recoil or anxiety about talking about it…

“It feels like…”

“Miss Bhatt, are you alright?”

Pari’s eyes shot open, rich mahogany eyes with flecks of gold sat around the pupil. “Yes, sorry. I was just thinking…”

“About your trip?”

“Yes, that and other things…” Pari said slowly, sinking back into the chair, letting the tension ease out of her shoulders as she picked up a cushion and held it to her stomach.

“You told me it was a vacation with your mother, a medical conference?” the therapist asked. An older woman, her hair was spun with grey and her glasses were on a golden chain, tipping off the bridge of her nose as she looked across the room to Pari. She was warm, and comforting. Even the office was, everything was round and soft and colourful… It set Pari at ease and she smiled across at the woman.

“And how are you and your mother now? I understand you’ve had a tense relationship since your overdose?” she asked, her head tilted while her fingers played with the pen in her hand.

“Tense…. I think so, yes,” Pari answered truthfully, even if it was a bitter truth. “She has a habit of looking for drugs and alcohol in my home when she thinks I’m not looking.”

“Mothers can be like that, we want the best for our children. Even if this makes us look overbearing.”

Pari sighed again, frowning, “but this lack of trust… It’s a giant wall between us. I’m a failure to her. I couldn’t be a doctor… I was an addict… I stole from her…” The last part came out softer, ashamed. They’d talked about it before and it seemed to sting every time. “Then to top it all off, I missed her conference.”

The therapist sat calm, lowering her pen and simply allowed Pari the time she needed to clarify on the event.

“My work… They knew I was in London and they asked me to consult on a project there last minute.” Pari paused and looked the therapist in the eye, her expression had hardened but her eyes held water in the corners. Through a clenched jaw she continued, “a really important event that meant a lot to my mother -- and I missed it.”

“What is going on? Why can’t you be there tonight Parinaaz? Can’t you see this is important for me -- this is why we’re here!” Dayita said, strain evidenced on her face - thunder etched across her brow. “You don’t just get to dump something on me like this and pretend it’s nothing, I’m your mother.” She stepped towards Pari, placing a hand over her daughter’s wrist.

“I’m really sorry, but I don’t have time for this,” Pari began, refusing to meet her mother’s eyes with her own, nudging out of her touch.

“I’m tired of “I don’t have time” or that I “wouldn’t understand” - I’m your mother, I want you to make time to make me understand, I brought you here to support me -- not to disappoint me... Again!”

“It’s like you think I planned this?” Pari said, exasperation evident in her expression and in her husky tone. They’d had this fight before. “Do you have any idea…” She sighed, placing her hands flat on the dresser and leaning into it. “I want to be at your conference, I do.” Pari said near silently, desperately.

“But do you know how dangerous my job is? And how lonely?” She choked, feeling the emotion well in her throat at her own confession. “I would love to be at your conference, I would love to be at more family dinners, God I’d love to just do nothing… But I can’t.”

It was clear in the way that her mother marched to the door, purse in hand, that the argument was about to end. That they would reach no conclusion, no agreement. That they would be stuck at the same impasse that they always brought themselves too.

“Oh just do what you want, like always— to think I thought you would do something for me!” Dayita eventually scalded, clucking her tongue, the fury leaving her own expression as she made her way towards the door -- leaving behind only the ghost of her perfume after the slam of the door.

Pari slid down to the floor, a tear running across her cheek. It wouldn’t be the last time they would have this fight. The circle would begin again, a vortex they would surely drown in before they escaped it.

“Take your time,” the therapist said, pushing a box of tissues across the table towards her client. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the woman as she took several long, shuddering breaths - holding the tension in her jaw the whole time. “Just let it out,” she said encouragingly.

Pari shook her head, “I’m okay,” she lied, breaking eye contact to stare at a vase of flowers. Peonies.

“I just, I don’t know how to reconcile everything…” she whispered, dabbing at her eye with the back of her thumb. “Be good at my job, get my work done. Be a good friend, be a good Hindu… Be a good person, don’t disrupt people’s space, be kind, help people grow, nurture them. Be a strong woman....

“Be a good daughter.”

That did it, the weight that left her chest in that breath was like the finger that had been in the dam for too long. It was instant relief and instant agony all at once. She leaned forward in the seat, placing her head into her hands to sob.

The therapist once again observed, jotting down her thoughts onto paper. Only the nib of the pen scratching the paper made noise in the room. “You try to do too much,” she said after a pause. Allowing her words the room needed to hang in the air until Pari lifted her head, ready to receive them.

“You try to fix everything and everyone around you, to avoid fixing yourself. You project the image that you have all of your ducks in a row, don’t you? So nobody asks if you actually do” she explained, running her gaze over Pari’s outfit. Her thin lips spoke the truth that Pari had been burying, and as the therapist caught her watery eyes she could see the truth ticking over. The woman’s blotchy face was in stark contrast to the rest of her. Immaculate, not a smudge or crease anywhere across the tailored trousers - the colourful shirt crisp. Even her hair was perfect, not a stray strand to be seen.

“Maybe,” Pari breathed. Her fingers nipped at the satin again, working the fabric, as if she was wringing her confession from them.

“I keep myself occupied.” She shrugged nonchalantly, taking a shuddered breath as her eyes glazed over and stared out into the middle distance. “If I don’t keep myself occupied I’ll get bored, or think too much about…” She pulled her smile to the side and chuckled caustically. “I think I just used to have a real fire, you know? Now it’s just… Artificial.”

The therapist nodded in agreement, or in understanding - the line between the two was so blurred as they dug deep. “You’ve locked yourself in a bit of a shell of routine, and what you’re trying to be contradicts that. You want to be a supportive friend but you hold people at arm's length. You want to be better with your family but you’re hanging on to guilt about what you did in the past - using work as your shield to escape that. This Divine Mission of yours? To save the world?” the therapist sighed and placed her notebook to the side, placing her hands into her lap. “You focus so much on that, that you miss everything else around you. Tunnel vision, Miss Bhatt.”

She could see Big Ben from the window. His peak in the distance. She heard him ring out, three loud bongs until silence. The echo of a smile tugged her painted lips. “You don’t get to sit quiet, you need to watch for more like this one,” she explained - carrying authority on her tongue and severity in the deep wells of her eyes. They were deep and dark, shadows haunted her stare. “We have to keep going, tomorrow it starts aga—“

“Pari for once,” Evan sighed, closing his eyes and pinching his fingers into the air with disapproval, “you don’t have to have the last word every time, yeah? Just shut up and let’s celebrate this. We won today.”

She looked at him, glowering right back at her - and even though he had admonished her, she couldn’t help but smile, and still she found herself drowning in that piercing emerald glare. The only eyes that could have cut her down from her pedestal. “Alright, alright-” she conceded, finding that it didn’t pain her to do so. There was no sting from admitting defeat. She raised her hands. “Let’s celebrate then…”

From the corner of the room, Yumi looked up from her phone screen - a large pink bubble popped against her lips. “Shopping trip,” she suggested, “and we’ll take the big red bus around. Sightseeing. I’m not letting you go without us just hanging.”

“We can do that,” Pari replied without breaking eye contact with Evan. The shadows had drifted along and away.

“My advice, or, at least my challenge for you Pari is to do more things that scare you.”

“What do you mean? I confront fear a lot,” Pari replied, almost defensively.

“That’s what I mean. You have an answer and a reason for everything, don’t you? For goodness sakes, send your mother some damn flowers. Call her once in a while… Throw her a line and you might find she loosens the collar on your neck...” The therapist said, and as Pari listened, it all felt to her like the most obvious thing in the world. So blindingly obvious that of course she’d missed it.

“I do sometimes miss the forest for the trees…” Pari said with a sigh, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “Tunnel vision,” she chuckled sardonically, raising a finger up beside her to punctuate her realisation.

“You still have that fire in you, Miss Bhatt. It never, ever left. I look at you?” The therapist shuffled forwards in her seat, taking her glasses off as if she was about to unload a great secret, or deliver a wisdom. Pari found herself leaning forward too, her hands interlaced. “For everything that you’ve survived and gone through, it hasn’t made you mean or cold. You’re too good, and you’ve worked too hard to get to where you are. Take it one day at a time. Scare yourself. Try something new. Nurture your own fire for a while, okay?”

“I’ll…” Pari stopped herself, realising she was about to tell the therapist she would try, but she knew even by herself that she needed more certainty going forward. A promise to herself that she would.

“I can do that.”
I have had a few separate people this weekend send me a picture of Marnie from new Pokemon with a "haha it u".

I have been playing the game. I don't disagree.

27 Female Human Infiltrator

Odette is of a slim build and stands at a modest 5’6”. Her features are sharp and she has a diamond shaped face with two wide sapphirine blue eyes that command attention with their steel. She puts very little work into her appearance, but is naturally striking. Her extremely porcelain skin sets her apart from most of her peers, and her white-blonde hair has, in the past, caused people to wonder if she was touched by albinism. She rebukes such notions by explaining in as prophetic and poetic a manner; “All of the colour was put into my eyes.”

She has an athletic figure, which lends itself to well to the acrobatic feats she is able to accomplish. She has the strong and muscular build of a Ballet dancer - and as such moves near silently and with complete grace. You’ll never hear her coming. Her usual manner of expression is cold, and it often feels like she is looking through a person, and not at them. She is intense, something that can be quite disarming to others. A smile from Odette is rare indeed, which makes it all the more special to witness. Even rare still, is an elusive laugh.

She will dress in skin tight clothing, usually in a soft and flexible material that allows the most movement, when possible, she likes to highlight her clothing with flashes of neon pink to match a visor that she wears out in the field. More recently she has taken to dying her hair a cool blue.

Odette, despite the poise and grace that she naturally possesses, is a fierce woman and will comfortably exploit the weaknesses of her foes. Odette is loyal to Cerberus to a fault, and as such is one of their most gifted agents. She has a work ethic that is matched by few in the organisation - many refer to her as ‘stone-cold’ or simply put, a predator. She is almost infamously private, hard to read, and unpredictable.

Odette’s intelligence could be called ruthlessly efficient, she is an incredible analyst of data which works incredibly well for her in her role as a Specialist Operative. She is able to pick up on the small details of a case that bring everything together while most people are looking at everything as a whole, Odette will rip it apart and pick at the parts she can manipulate . When pushed — and it may not take that much — Odette can be remarkably devious, manipulative, and brutal. Her plans are crafty and cunning, and employ the strengths and weaknesses of her opponents against them.

Odette is not without some more endearing qualities, and is a very sentimental person at heart. Once she takes to another individual, she takes the time to understand them past the surface level and particularly likes to pick out meaningful gifts for friends and romantic interests. She is a romantic at heart, enjoying poetry and romance novels. The woman has very expensive taste - as evidenced by the clothing she wears outside of work, it is almost always designer. She also enjoys fine dining, and more sophisticated forms of entertainment - such as plays and the opera.

  • Stealth
  • Increased Flexibility
  • Persuasion
  • Sniper

  • Tactical Cloak
  • Cryo Ammo
  • Sticky Grenade
  • Operational Mastery

  • Cerberus Issued - Titan Sniper Rifle
  • Cerberus Issued - Harpy Pistol
  • Cerberus Issued - Light Freedom/Hoplite Armour
  • Sticky Grenades

19th Sun's Dawn
Early Morning

It was the same damn crow again.

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

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

But he had work to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It waited.

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

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

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

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

“What in Oblivion…” Gregor muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregor could heal himself, Fjolte knew that much, but it was going to be damned useless unless he had the time to do so. He was reminded of the potions, and without a second thought, Fjolte shoved Gregor out of the way and towards the wall while the Daedra readied itself for another attack. He shoved the satchel too into Gregor’s arms. The fall would hurt him, but better that than he get hit again. “RED ONES,” Fjolte called out, his deep voice carried through the whole labyrinth.

He dragged the end of the war hammer over the stone ground. It was an alien feeling - holding a weapon in his hands. After he’d only mused on such a thing earlier that day, but he needed reach and power. It was a kind stroke of fate that had left him such a weapon when he needed it. He adopted a stance to hold its weight, looking th Daedra dead in its last eye. “Oi,”he yelled at it, tapping the steel against the rock beneath him as if it were a bell. The creatures head cocked from side to side and it roared again. Fjolte went for another swing, his own back was turned to the edge of the cliff as he tempted the Daedra that way. He hoped that Gregor was alright - but too preoccupied to look.

The Daedroth, more cunning than a low beast, recognized that going toe to toe with the hammer-wielding mortal was dangerous. Instead, it breathed a plume of fire at Fjolte, hoping to envelop the Nord and burn him to a crisp -- or see him fleering off the edge and into the chasm below.

Meanwhile, Gregor repeated Fjolte's words in his mind, clinging on to consciousness, fighting through the pain, shock and blood loss to pull the healing potions from the satchel. His side was entirely soaked with crimson and a pool of blood began to form beneath him. His head was spinning and his ears were ringing. Would be become another skeleton here? He simply tilted his head back and dropped the contents of the potions into his throat, one after the other. That brought some vitality back to him and color returned to his ashen cheeks, the magic within the potions already working to stem the bleeding and knit the puncture wounds back together. He pressed his hands to his side and added his own magic to the mix. Fjolte needed him.

It was one dramatic end or the other now, and Fjolte, threatened and cornered by flame or a fall took the option to drop, if Gregor had any chance to finish the deed or get out, it was this. “Ugly piece of shit,” Fjolte spat as he saw the mouth of flame open, he took one last swing, failing to land his hit before he fell over the edge of the cliff.

The Daedroth approached and looked over the ledge, turning its head so that its good eye could see what had happened to its enemy.

“Over here,” a low growl sounded from behind, and the Daedroth turned its head slowly to see the other man back on his feet, sword at the ready. The monster bellowed in frustration and charged, tired of fighting and eager to retreat with its prey between its jaws to a place where it could heal.

Gregor dropped into a low stance and waited, adrenaline surging through his limbs. Every split second felt like an eternity while the Daedroth’s claws and teeth closed in on him. He remembered what his father had taught him about fighting against a mounted enemy. Using those lessons against a crocodilian behemoth seemed like a strange application of techniques, but he was sure that the same principles applied. Momentum, defense, evasion… Gregor breathed out and moved.

He expertly spun out of the Daedroth’s path and turned his dodge into a devastating two-handed strike, a wide slash that whistled through the air with the promise of evisceration while the blundering Daedra barreled into thin air. Hector’s old steel came through and the spinning blade ripped right through its shoulder, ribs and abdomen, sending an arterial spray of blood across the platform.

The beast howled in pain and its calculated charge turned into a headlong dash as it lost control of its own momentum, skidding across the platform and over the edge. It managed to hook the claws of one arm into the stone and held itself there through raw strength and force of will, fighting to hoist itself back up, the claws of its feet scratching uselessly against the sheer rock surface, finding no purchase. Gregor dropped his sword and raised his hands, still stained with his own blood, a great and terrible wrath etched upon his face.

Each bolt of lightning more powerful and brilliant than the last, Gregor unleashed a barrage of violent magic against the Daedroth, the claps of thunder slamming into the walls of the underground labyrinth and echoing with great force. Gregor added his own voice to the noise and roared out his fury, pouring every last drop of magicka he had within him into the assault.
Finally overwhelmed, the muscles of the Daedroth gave out as shock magic wracked its body and it plunged into the depths of the structure, bouncing off several bridges and platforms on its way down, each crash accompanied by a sickening crunch.

It landed on the floor, nothing more than a limp sack of meat and bone, before dissipating into a cloud of crystals, its immortal soul banished to the realms of Oblivion.

Fjolte hung from the handle of the war hammer with his eyes closed as the barrage of thunder and lightning ricocheted around the walls. It was as if they were outside, in the midst of a terrible storm. Each clap made him flinch, but in spite of that he could sense the danger fleeting. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw the Daedra plummeting beside him, and he almost thought he would be wrapped in its body and dragged down with it... The pick of the hammer had held good in the rock. He’d thrown it in with enough force that it had left behind a cobweb of cracks against the glacial stone.

Danger gone, he dragged himself up at last, his bloody and torn hand appearing first over the cliffs edge - landing on the flat ground with a loud slap. He heaved himself up, and when his weight was on the platform, he pulled free the war hammer, and looked at Gregor, panting. “It’s done?”

“Oh Gods, you’re alive!” Gregor exclaimed, flooded with relief, and scrambled to drop to his knees next to the Nord. He helped to pull him fully onto the platform and sat back, nodding. “It’s done,” he said, still trembling and looking pretty pale in the face, but otherwise seemingly alright. “May it never return.”

"Yes…" he panted, his own shoulder shaking and swollen. "I'm alive… Wasn't going to let you hog all the sweet gratitude…" Fjolte puffed out, slightly delirious from everything. Still, his hand moved and he gripped Gregor’s hand in turn, shaking it firmly. “We have… Get the plate. The tide… Soon.”

“Right, yes, the treasure,” Gregor muttered and climbed to his feet, swaying in place as he looked around. As strange as this tomb was, whoever had constructed it had fortunately not gone to great lengths to hide the plate and Gregor found it, or what he assumed what had to be it, in an alcove in the wall, next to where Fjolte had unceremoniously dumped him to heal himself, along with a collection of strange and unrecognizable objects. Had it been an offering to the dead, placed at the end of a difficult climb? There was symbolic value to that, Gregor mused while he stuffed the white plate into the potion satchel, but who knew what this place really was?

He returned to Fjolte and helped him back up. His magicka was spent but there was still one healing potion left in the satchel, and he gave that to Fjolte. “Drink up, and let’s go.”

Unlike the stamina potion, when Fjolte took a sip of Raelynn’s healing tonic, he felt nothing but serenity flood through him. To the point that every drop of fury and excitement he still felt just seemed to be diluted in the warmth of the restoration the flooded him. His shoulder tingled, and the swelling went down - but it was still uncomfortable. He was sure it could be seen to by proper hands soon enough, they had to make their way out now — and he was all too happy to leave the place, and the memory of the terror behind.

There was one thing he couldn’t leave behind though, the damned steel war hammer, and he slung it over his shoulder with that small flicker of Nordic pride burning.
The Long Well was an inn situated on the outskirts of the centre of Jehanna, as close to the docks as it could have been. It was old, but had been built strong. Thick beams held it upright through tumultuous storms, and it’s foundations had always been able to withstand a brawl. It was a respected establishment, and while it didn’t have the polish of the inner-city inns of Jehanna, it certainly had the most charm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That made the Nord laugh, “oh I hope she isn’t…” he quipped, before letting go of Gregor’s hand and heading to the door, feeling incredibly proud of himself. The alcohol in his system giving him an unbridled enthusiasm to shout out into the dark, midnight streets “I’M THE KING OF THE PACK!” and then he was away.
11th Suns Dawn, early evening
Outskirts of Jehanna,
The Border of Skyrim and High Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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