The Traitor at the Gate

 

Previously: City Girl

The next day dawned sunny in Riften. Zahra rose early this time to briefly stock up on some supplies at the market before leaving town. Riften was a city of thieves, killers, and all the kinds of people she wanted to avoid. She wasn't afraid of the people themselves; she was more afraid of falling back into the wrong crowd.

After all, the whole point of killing Psymia and taking her money was to join civilization in the sun.

For a reasonable sum of twenty septims, Zahra was able to book safe passage by carriage. The driver was armed, as was his Bosmer guard, and there were a few other riders. They did not stop on the open road nor camp in the wilds. Instead, they stopped to sleep in well lit towns during the journey, and rose before dawn to continue onward.

Spellbound, Zahra watched Skryim roll by in awe once more. As a child living among necromancers, she had traveled at night, and often slept through most journeys. Necromancers usually avoided the main roads and didn't particularly favor the daytime.

So this time, Zahra saw mountains, she saw rivers, she saw endless forests. The mountain air was cool and crisp, and there was no shortage of travelers on the road this time. She drank apple wine in Ivarstead, tasted boar for the first time in Heljarchen, watched a vampire casually mingle with the townsfolk of Morthal, and after four days, arrived at the mighty gates of Solitude.


Zahra could barely breathe as she numbly climbed out of the carriage. After paying the other half of her fare, she climbed the road uphill into the city.


The city itself eclipsed all expectations. It had great walls, great castles, and every building seemed to be at least two to three stories high. Everyone appeared to be clean and even the beggars wore decent clothes.

But...it was quieter than she expected. The streets were surprisingly empty, and all those sounds she heard in Riften the night before appeared to be missing. It took Zahra a moment to notice the townspeople assembling to the right of the city entrance. There was a rather large crowd, and they were solemn for the most part, until someone yelled, "Stormcloak lover!"

Zahra headed towards the voice, navigating to get to the very front. To her shock, a young man Nord stood in prisoner garb before an execution block. To his right stood what appeared to be a guard captain. To his left stood an imposing Redguard executioner with a giant axe.


"Positions!" the captain ordered. "Lock the city gate!"

While the people thronged around Zahra, grumbling furiously and calling for the young man's death, she stared ahead, mouth open in awe. She'd never seen an official execution before.

"Roggvir," the captain intoned. "You helped Ulfric Stormcloak escape this city after he murdered High King Torygg. By opening that gate for Ulfric you betrayed the people of Solitude."

Zahra only understood half of what she was hearing, but remained enthralled nonetheless.

The young man protested, "There was no murder! Ulfric challenged Torygg. He beat the High King in fair combat. Such is our way! Such is the ancient custom of Skyrim, and all Nords!"

The captain was solemn as he forced Roggvir to kneel and bend over the block. "Very well, Roggvir. Bow your head."

The young man was calm, accepting his fate with no further protest.



Zahra strained to hear his last words. "On this day...I go to Sovnga--"

He was silenced with one swift stroke of the axe. His neck spouted blood right before his body slumped to one side while his head rolled to another.

Zahra's first instinct was to clap her hands to laud the performance, but then she stopped herself, remembering that this was was not, in fact, some puppet theater. A young man was dead and around her, a grumbling crowd was dissatisfied at how quickly he died.

"They should've drawn it out more," a prim Altmeri woman next to her said. Zahra turned to behold a tall olive-skinned elf wearing a stunning dress. She caught Zahra staring. "New to Solitude?" she asked.

Zahra speechlessly nodded.

"Then it's a shame this was the first sight to greet you," the woman stated tersely. "I am Endarie. I own a clothing store with my sister, just there." She pointed at stone building that was adjacent to the town square. "It's called Radiant Raiment. We cater to a...certain clientele, but we're always interested in new business."

Zahra spoke as though in a daze. "I'll remember that."

"Staying in town long?" Endarie asked, looking her over.

"I, uh...I don't know," Zahra admitted, still dazed. "I've never seen anything like this."

Endarie's eyes narrowed. "Rest assured, it was deserved. We're not usually like this in Solitude. This is a proper city, known for its civility." She turned back to the headless corpse. "But now our king is dead, a traitor is loose, and war will be soon upon us."

Zahra blinked in disbelief. I literally just got here though.... she caught a flash of black out the corner of her eye and turned to see a grieving woman leaning over the corpse. The guards quickly pulled her away and escorted her from the dais.

"That's his sister, Greta," Endarie explained. "Poor woman. She'll never recover from the shame of this."

***


As the crowd dispersed, Zahra's feet drew her towards the grieving sister. She had no idea why she wanted to talk to this woman or what useful thing she would even say, but she approached her nonetheless.

"I'm sorry for your loss," Zahra told her. "I'm new to Solitude. I hear that was your brother?"

Greta's eyes narrowed in distrust. "Let me guess," she bit out through her tears, "you think he was a traitor."

Zahra genuinely couldn't care less. "It sounds like he was just doing what he thought was right."

That seemed to relax Greta, but only slightly. "My name is Greta. My brother's name was Roggvir."

"I am Zahra," the Redguard nodded somberly. "When is the burial?"

"First he'll be taken to the Hall of the Dead," Greta sniffed. "The priests of Arkay will perform the final rituals and by tomorrow, his body will be burned."

Zahra was appalled. Such a waste! Traditionally speaking, necromancers didn't favor cremation.

"I see," she murmured softly. "Once again, my condolences," she bowed her head slightly, before quickly walking away.

***


Her next stop was Radiant Raiment. If she was going to truly leave her past behind, she would need new clothes.

The inside of the shop was cozy, lit with candles. The walls and floor were made of stone, but unlike the forts of her childhood, they seemed much more refined, with pillars and archways. The shop smelled of fabric and perfume, and was filled with the sound of two sisters bickering.

Zahra was amused as she approached the counter, watching Endarie sweep while her sister embroidered. There was someone else there, a young blond noblewoman in a dress finer than anything Zahra had ever seen.

But before she could gawk at the blonde as she had Endarie, she noticed the presence of a fourth person. It was odd...the other three interacted with words and looks but this person, this tall Altmeri man with golden hair...he went completely ignored. They seemed to talk around him as though he wasn't really there. The only time his existence was acknowledged was if someone directly bumped into him, but soon after, it was like he was forgotten.

And then...Zahra felt it.

Their eyes locked in a knowing exchange and he soon quickly withdrew, turning and retreating to another room. She followed him immediately into what turned out to be a kitchen, where he busied himself with a pot of stew.


Zahra snorted at his back. "You know, I can smell the sorcery on you...mage."

"Takes one to know one," he muttered calmly, keeping his back to her. "I may bear the scent of sorcery, but you, Redguard...you carry the stench of death."

"You're not really their sibling," she cocked her head to the side, ignoring her growling stomach as the smell of onion, garlic, and tomato wafted over to her. "I've spoken with Endarie; she specifically said she runs this shop with her sister." She smirked. "She made no mention of you."

"I'm Norion," he finally introduced himself. "I never said I was their sibling."

"No, you just 'pass'," she snickered. "That's some powerful illusion magic you're exuding. I take it you graduated from the College?"

"Yes, and I take it you didn't," he replied, turning around. "Last I checked, the College of Winterhold looks down on necromancy."

Zahra simply shrugged off the barb. "Why here?" she asked, intrigued. "You graduate types usually become court mages. You could be whispering in the ear of a lord somewhere. Why a tailor shop?"

He met her gaze and held it. "Magic is best used when it's merely an enhancement," he stated neutrally. "I'm an orphan. The thing I wanted most in all the world wasn't power or privilege - it was family. When I graduated, I had nowhere else to go, so I found and made myself a family."

Zahra blinked, surprised by his response. "You're not...bored here?" she asked haltingly.

"No," he shook his head slightly, his voice soft. "I have a comfortable roof over my head, people to come home to, a community where I belong. I have a routine, friends, a life. Contrary to popular belief, the highest living in Skyrim isn't in some noble hall with servants and sycophants, Redguard. It's in a home, with family."

His words rendered her mute, her body numb, her heart thudding as Zahra realized just how alone she was in the world. She still didn't regret killing Psymia, but she had to face the fact that everyone she ever knew personally was gone.

As though reading her thoughts, Norion calmly turned back to his stew. "You think about that before you head back to the wild, necromancer."

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