21st Sun's Height
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."