The Man Who Would Be Thane

 
Previously: Prologue

Jarl Balgruuf prided himself on being a honorable man.

He theorized that such a thing was much easier to do when one was a commoner, for once nobility entered the equation, it complicated everything. Balgruuf levied a reasonable tax upon the citizens of his hold, but most of them were poor and barely getting by, and as such the annual quota was never met.

King Torygg of Skyrim had not been a financially prudent leader, and his widow Elisif was even less so. With the crown in contention, courtesy of the civil war, getting funding from the capital was like trying to bleed a stone. Balgruuf knew better than to write the Emperor; the old man was no doubt furious about the state of things in Skyrim, and would only be sharing coin with those who proved their loyalty and won the war.

The ancient House Battle-Born was the richest of Balgruuf's vassals. They owned their own farm and had strong ties to the Empire. They were willing to pay extra in taxes, but Balgruuf could only allow them to do so much, to avoid shifting the balance of power in Whiterun.

Like the Battle-Borns, House Gray-Mane were of a very old bloodline. However, the Gray-Manes rejected Imperial rule, and their disdain was reflected in their finances. The entire family worked odd jobs to survive; with father being a blacksmith, the elderly mother running a stall at the market, and their only daughter working in the tavern. They also had two sons who had allegedly run off to join the Stormcloaks, thus further depleting the family income.

They were several months behind on taxes, but Balgruuf actually preferred it that way with his nobles. Better they owe him than the other way around.

And it was precisely this mindset which had gotten him into this latest mess,

Balgruuf had never wanted to rely on Nazeem. When they'd first met, Nazeem was but a humble farmer who spoke excitedly about his new wife and the new house he built for her. He spoke of his desire to raise children at his manor, and his dreams for his family. He was not titled, not connected, and at the time, there appeared to be no drawbacks to taking his money.

But as time went on, and the needs of Whiterun grew, a few hundred septims quickly ballooned to thousands. A bushel of fresh vegetables turned into a dozen goats. One year, half of all the food at Dragonsreach was either paid for by Nazeem, or directly sourced from his farm.

Balgruuf was embarrassed at first; he saw no honor in taking so much from a man who wasn't a vassal, and with the new war, he knew he couldn't pay Nazeem back, at least not in the near future. Nazeem must have made the same deduction somewhere along the way, because a few years ago, he began to change.

When Balgruuf couldn't pay Nazeem back with coin, he tried to restore balance in other ways. First it was a gift of fine cloth, then a ring of pure gold, and then a decorative sword...until he began running out of trinkets to spare. So Balgruuf switched from property to privileges; he allowed Nazeem access to Dragonsreach, beyond the open forum of the great hall. First he invited the farmer to dine once a week, then access to his library, and later access to his armory, even though Nazeem was no warrior.

When it became blatantly obvious just how indebted the Jarl was to Nazeem, the latter began spending more and more time at Dragonsreach, showing up whenever he wished and staying as long as he liked. He also started dressing differently, wearing silk and adorning himself with gold and jewels. Even now, he was dressed better than the Jarl himself, sitting at a dining table in the great hall as though he were born to it.

Nazeem ordered the servants about as though they were his own, and they grew to know him quickly. They knew he enjoyed the tasted of spiced wine and abhorred the smell of mead. They knew he preferred lamb over goat, and that they were never to serve him anything with leeks.

And it didn't stop with food and frivolities; Nazeem insinuated himself into every aspect of life at Dragonsreach. He introduced himself to the Battle-Borns, and every diplomat and dignitary passing through, thus began making connections of his own, independent of Balgruuf. When he wasn't dining with the Jarl, he was dining with them, walking with them, going on hunts with them and even accompanying some on business trips to other holds.

When news of the King's murder broke and war was declared, Nazeem immediately began showing up to Balgruuf's council meetings, even though he had never been in battle himself. The Jarl wanted nothing more than to send him back to his farm to live out the rest of his days quietly, but honor dictated he could not.

Now Nazeem was openly campaigning for the title of Thane, a title which the average Jarl in Skyrim desperately tried to avoid bestowing upon anyone. Making someone Thane not only ennobled them, but placed them in the line of succession to become a Jarl. As Balgruuf's own father once told him, for a Jarl to choose a Thane was to "choose which blade to press against his own throat".

Balgruuf knew he couldn't talk his way out of making Nazeem a Thane; by now his debt to the man was well-known, and with the war looming, that debt would only grow.

But just when all hope seemed to be lost, the gods appeared to grant the Jarl a small break. He'd been wondering where Nazeem was sleeping, since he wasn't allowed to sleep at court, and rumor had he never went home. As fate would have it, Balgruuf found Nazeem at the Bannered Mare Tavern late one night, chatting up a much younger Nord woman with dark red hair.

Balgruuf wasn't supposed to be there either; he would come disguised as a commoner to listen to his people speak honestly about their lives in Whiterun. It was a risk, he knew it, but it kept him from being out of touch like some of the other Jarls. And in this case, he was finally one step ahead of Nazeem.

That's not his wife, the Jarl mused from beneath his cloak, sipping his cheap mead. Nazeem was a grown man in his late thirties, with a shaven head and smooth dark skin. He seemed out of place wearing his fine clothes in a tavern, but it was likely a calculated move. The young woman appeared to be spellbound by whatever it was he had to say, but Balgruuf knew it was the silken robes draped across his body, and the glittering rubies upon his head. To a common girl in a tavern, he was like a dashing nobleman out of a dream.

"I see those two are back at it," Saadia grumbled. She was a Redguard woman who served at the Bannered Mare.

"Oh?" Balgruuf was intrigued. "Do they speak often?"

"Every night," Saadia sighed loudly. She'd been working at the tavern for many years now. Her brown skin was starting to wrinkle and her dark hair was going gray. "His wife has no idea, of course. Then again, at this point, I don't think she even cares. He never goes home and she never comes here."

Balgruuf resisted the urge to grin.

"I think they're sick of each other," Saadia shrugged. "He's probably going to divorce her soon."

Balgruuf's eyes widened as he realized he needed to move quickly. A philanderer campaigning for a title was one thing, a manageable thing. It gave him leverage. A divorced man walking about with his freedom, however, did not.

***

White silk, he chose, white silk robes with a circlet of gold upon his head, glittering with rubies.

Nazeem felt he'd learned enough of the game by now. He was a commoner, so compared to the other courtiers at Dragonsreach, he knew he had to be extraordinary. His clothes had to be finer, his palate broader, and his overall manner impeccable. He read constantly in the Jarl's library and had hired the court mage to tutor him in the Breton and Nordic tongues. He'd even gone so far as to adopt an Imperial accent.

Though he kept a room at the Bannered Mare, he knew better than to mingle with commoners. The other courtiers might have that privilege, but he did not; he had to appear the noblest of the nobles, even though he wasn't a noble.

Yet.

It was true his new lifestyle was burning through his funds, but Nazeem could feel his payoff was coming soon. It was obvious to anyone with eyes that Nazeem had earned the title of Thane a dozen times over, and an honorable man like Balgruuf would not turn him down.

So here he sat comfortably in the great wooden hall of Dragonsreach, beneath the tall, ancient pillars and high arched ceilings, enjoying a goblet of wine. He'd heard of the beauty of the Blue Palace in Solitude, how it was a great castle made of stone and blue domes. And while Nazeem planned to visit it someday (as a Thane, of course), he already knew his heart belonged here, at Dragonsreach. It was the first great building he'd ever entered, a testament to Nordic architecture, and he would never forget the rush he felt climbing the high steps, 

There were others present this evening; Lord Olfrid Battle-Born, the Jarl's steward Proventus Avenicci, court mage Farengar Secret-Fire, and the Jarl's own brother, Lord Hrongar.

Olfrid was an old Nord who dressed in the Imperial fashion of velvet and silk, and tried to keep his graying hair dark with expensive dyes. Proventus was a balding Imperial who always seemed out of place not only at Dragonsreach, but in Skyrim overall. After years of service to the Jarl, he still didn't speak the Nord tongue, and remained willfully ignorant of their customs.

Farengar was a red-haired Nord, short, and always dressed in silk mage robes. A graduate of the College of Winterhold, he was a bit of a recluse. He was never known to leave the castle, and instead preferred others to run his errands while he poured over endless tomes of magic and history.

Hrongar was a living weapon; he was a tall, hulking Nord who shaved his head, painted his face, and wore his armor to the dinner table. Since the beginning of the war, he often led Whiterun's guards on patrols, and counseled his brother to declare for the Empire, which everybody knew Balgruuf eventually would.

"Nazeem," the Jarl called suddenly, rousing the farmer from his reverie, "how is your wife?"

Balgruuf almost never spoke to Nazeem. Usually he had Proventus do the talking for him. The farmer blinked rapidly in brief confusion, followed by surprise.

"She is well, Your Grace," he replied in a daze. "Thank you for asking."

"I understand you've been spending all your time in the city, as well as gracing us with your presence. So much you haven't been home in quite some time."

"I am planning an inspection of my farm very soon, You Grace."

"Excellent," Balgruuf grinned. "When you return, bring your wife to court with you. It's past time we met her, don't you think?"

The Jarl relished the frozen look upon Nazeem's face. He could practically hear the farmer's heart stop. Of all the things the man had hoped to hear from him, this was definitely not it.

"Yes, of course, Your Grace," Nazeem finally replied, and rather shakily.

"Tomorrow then," the Jarl beamed. "Invite her to dine with us." He didn't want to give the man time, lest he conveniently "forget" and drag it out.

Nazeem looked nauseous. "Yes...Your Grace."

***


The next morning, Ahlam was bound for the temple when she spied a well-dressed Redguard at a market stall. He was staring down at the tomatoes and yet it seemed fruit was the last thing on his mind. As she drew closer, she realized the man was her husband.

The realization was beyond awkward.

First she felt a wave of horror, as though he were some grotesque monster that wanderers always spoke of. It passed quickly as she paused to look him over. She couldn't remember the last time she saw him; he was barely recognizable now. All of his hair was gone, and even though she was aware he'd developed a taste for expensive clothes, these were by far the finest. The robes alone were worth hundreds of septims.

And that's when she felt the rage.

He must have felt something too, because he suddenly looked up in her general direction and did a double-take.

"Ahlam," he blinked, caught off guard. "I was hoping to find you."

She raised an eyebrow. "Find me?"

"Well," he waved dismissively, "run into you."

That wasn't much better. "Run into me?" she blinked, her voice low and gritted.

He reached into his robes and pulled out a coin purse to hand to her. "The Jarl requests your presence at court this evening. Try to arrive before sunset, remember to bathe, and buy something presentable to wear. I'm sure any of the ladies here at the market can help you find something suitable."

Ahlam stared at him without moving to accept the coin. "The Jarl...requests my presence?"

He shook the coin purse slightly, growing agitated. "It wasn't my idea," he grumbled.

"Of course not," Ahlam snorted softly as she slowly took the money.

"I cannot refuse a direct command from the lord of this hold," Nazeem went on. He became increasingly irritated. "So buy a nice dress and be at Dragonsreach before the sun goes down. Tell the guards you are the wife of Nazeem. They should be expecting you."

He walked off then, without further explanation, no doubt heading back to his precious Jarl, leaving her to gawk after him.

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