Rayya

 
Previously: Dead Man's Drink

As Nenya gave Zahra a tour of the Jarl's hall, she also gave a history lesson.

"The House of Stuhn has ruled Falkreath for generations," the tall elf explained, leading her through the simple yet beautiful halls of wood and stone. "Siddgeir is the second Jarl I've served as steward, after his uncle Dengeir."

Zahra's head rose and fell, understanding. "Did Dengeir die suddenly? It would explain why Siddgeir is so young."

The elf's eyes darkened. "No," she began tentatively. "After the High King was murdered, Dengeir voiced his approval and wanted to pledge Falkreath to the Stormcloaks. There was a vote, of sorts, and he was eventually replaced with his nephew. The old man still has a house in town, where he's under the close watch of his brother, Thadgeir. He technically carries the rank of Thane, if not the duties."

Zahra raised an eyebrow. And I bet you're one of the Thalmor, she mused. It would be genius if it were true. Nenya spoke like an Imperial, dressed like an Imperial, and served as a humble steward in one of the lesser holds. It was the perfect placement for a Thalmor agent.


"This will be your room," Nenya showed her. It was a very small but comfortable chamber on the second floor. "There's a bath house we all use - except for the Jarl, of course - so ask any servant and they will show you. The Jarl is a late sleeper, so we only eat midday and evening meals. If you require breakfast, a servant can bring you something to your chambers.

"We don't have an office for you to work out of yet, so for now you can work at Grave Concoctions, the apothecary across the way. The Jarl has an official account you can bill all your tools and ingredients to, but you need to stay within your monthly budget," the elf warned. "This isn't Dragonsreach or the Blue Palace; you're not here to experiment or while away the hours studying theory and lore. Some of our guards still recovering from wounds, others illness. You are to make your rounds every morning at the barracks, just before shift change."

"Understood," Zahra nodded.

Nenya finally handed her a small sealed note. "Take this to Zaria and introduce yourself; she's the owner of the apothecary."

Zahra raised an eyebrow. "Zaria? But that's a--"

"Redguard name, yes," Nenya finished for her, nodding. "You'll find a lot of your people here."

***


Stepping into the apothecary instantly reminded Zahra of how much she hated Markarth.

No disrespect to the ingenuity of the Dwemer, but it was good to be back in the simpler, smaller buildings she was used to. Grave Concoctions had only one room, a large room where Zaria apparently worked, cooked, and slept.

She had shelves full of ingredients, and entire alchemy lab set up behind her desk. The older Redguard woman was dressed like a merchant and chatting away with a customer when Zahra arrived. And that was fine, because there was yet another Redguard woman who caught her attention.

Or rather, they caught each other's attention. For as soon as the two women locked eyes, they immediately moved closer to speak.

The other woman was shaven haired, wearing a beautiful style of armor Zahra had never seen before. She was armed with a scimitar, the traditional sword of Redguard warriors, and her face bore fading blue war paint.


"Sister," Zahra nodded stiffly, remembering her manners and what Hammerfell customs she could recall.

The other woman looked her up and down and snorted softly. "Little sister," she replied. "I am Rayya, Thane of Falkreath."

Zahra's mouth briefly fell open in shock until she remembered she too was of some importance.

"I am Zahra, the new court mage."

Rayya's eyebrow went up. "I had heard Siddgeir was hiring mage. Where are you from, Zahra?"

"Markarth," Zahra replied. It very felt different from saying "all over".

The Thane was confused. "And what made you leave the safety of those walls?"

"The Silver-Bloods got my husband killed," Zahra stated flatly. "There was nothing left for me there."

Rayya seemed unfazed, reminding Zahra that people died young in Skyrim all the time, and everybody was pretty much used to it.

"And how did you land this coveted position?"

"Lord Ainethach of Karthwasten," Zahra shrugged. "I helped him out with some Silver-Bloods."

Rayya snorted louder. "That's a shrewd one, Lord Ainethach. He never could secure Jarl Igmund's friendship, so he jumped for joy when he heard about Siddgeir." She paused, taking in Zahra's faded black robes. "You don't look like some snobby graduate from the College of Winterhold."

Zahra shook her head. "Private education."

The Thane seemed impressed. "Noble family?"

"Foster child."

"Let me guess, your parents were adventurers," Rayya snickered.

Zahra was nonchalant. "It ended in an early demise."

"I never knew my mother, but my father was a sellsword for Jarl Dengeir," Rayya nodded. "He trained me, took me on the road with him. He died of bone break fever when I was fifteen. Dengeir was kind enough to keep me on though."

And in exchange for betraying Dengeir, you were made a Thane, Zahra smirked. She was catching on quickly. I bet it was Nenya's idea.



Rayya briefly glanced over to Zaria, who was now working away at her alchemy.

"Zaria was born in Hammerfell, like me. She came here when her family didn't approve of her work with poisons." Rayya's head cocked to the side. "You're going to enjoy court life, Zahra. It has so many perks. You can charge all your drinks at Dead Man's Drink to the Jarl's account."

Zahra blinked. "He has an account at Dead Man's Drink?"

Rayya laughed. "Siddgeir might be a lord who had a privileged upbringing, but he's still a man of Falkreath. He likes to hunt, he likes to drink, and he enjoys the company of bards, bastards, and beautiful women." She turned back to Zaria. "You might as well go introduce yourself now before another customer comes in," she suggested. 

***

There was a dining room where the Jarl supped with his senior staff: Helvard, Nenya, Rayya, his assigned Legate, a Nord called Skulnar, and now Zahra. Despite having dined with Silver-Bloods, Zahra felt woefully out of place in her odd, ill-fitting faded robes.

Siddgeir had a handful of servants at his hall; two of them served dinner. One laid steaming dishes on the table while the other went round with a pewter jug of mead, filling goblets.

"Black-Briar mead," Siddgeir sighed after a hearty swig. "There are so few pleasures in life as sweet as cold Black-Briar mead."

Zahra spoke without thinking. "Nor so expensive," she murmured, eyebrow raised.

Nenya flashed a grin that didn't reach her eyes. "Indeed. Thankfully, our associates in the East keep us well supplied at a significant discount."

"You're not drinking?" Siddgeir asked Zahra.

"I prefer cool water, Your Grace," she replied calmly. "My husband was the connoisseur when it came to mead."

The Jarl raised an eyebrow. "He was a Nord then?"

"Yes, Your Grace."

"Good to know," Siddgeir nodded, as though making a mental check mark.

"How is your house coming, Lady Rayya?" Nenya suddenly asked. She sipped deeply from her goblet. "Have the furnishings arrived?"

"They have," Rayya beamed proudly. "You should all visit sometime."

"Rayya was recently granted Lakeview Manor upon becoming a Thane," Siddgeir explained to Zahra.

Zahra's lips twitched, teasing a smirk. I bet she was.

"I visited the manor a few times some years ago," Helvard finally chimed in. "I swam in Lake Ilinalta late one summer. I'll never forget how the waters glittered in the sunset."

"The manor itself is most beautiful, perfectly located on a hill overlooking the lake," Rayya nodded dreamily. "It's not fully staffed though. I now have two horses and a carriage driver, but I've asked Valga over at the tavern to help me find some servants for my new homestead."

Damn, Zahra blinked. They really do reward people around here for treachery.

"Shouldn't be too difficult in these times, of course," Nenya said assuredly. "Lots of people are looking for work. You won't even have to pay the usual salary. Just give them a warm bed and a few coins a week."

Dear gods...it's the Silver-Bloods all over again. Zahra wondered if she was eventually going to end up like these people. It seemed inevitable, almost like some sort of personality requirement for anyone of position. It was horrifying to sit and listen to them prattle on about all the ways they could personally benefit from the war. The food only made it worse.

Dinner was stag, caught by the Jarl himself. It wasn't a fresh kill; it had been cured with smoke. The chef had marinated it in mead, honey, herbs and butter. There were several fresh vegetables served along with some roasted potatoes. Dessert was freshly baked berry pie, dusted with sugar.

Zahra hated herself with every delicious bite. Roggvir would have loved this. He would loved living in this hall, hunting with this Jarl, fishing with Helvard, and visiting Rayya's house. It was exactly the type of life he'd always wanted.

And yet if he hadn't died - again - I wouldn't be here. The realization soured her stomach and mood. She suddenly wanted to be alone with her thoughts, and yet she knew better than to leave her first dinner with the Jarl early.

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