The Betrothal

 
Previously: The Other Woman

A knock fell on Hrongar's door, rousing him from a deep warm sleep.

"My lord?"

If Fianna was waking him, then it was past dawn and well into morning by now.

"Enter," he mumbled groggily, before yawning and turning to his side. Ahlam was still deep asleep, warm and naked beneath his covers. She was sleeping in more than usual, but Hrongar didn't mind. After a long night of passion, he liked to watch her sleep, and was loathe to leave her side.

He sat up as Fianna entered and closed the door behind her. They had developed a system in which the maid not only helped them navigate their affair, she'd earned herself a tidy profit.

"The Jarl requests your presence in the great hall, my lord," she told him.

Hrongar nodded and yawned again. He looked down at Ahlam briefly before instructing, "Have some breakfast brought here, but don't let the anyone disturb her." He looked back at Fianna. "Are there many visitors today?"

"None, my lord."

"Good," the warrior grumbled. "I don't feel like getting dressed just yet."

Fianna brought over a thick woolen blanket for Hrongar to wrap around his body before trudging down the stairs into the great hall. His brother was surprised to see him like this; Balgruuf couldn't remember the last time Hrongar had appeared in the hall without his armor.

"You summoned me?" the Jarl's brother yawned, obviously fresh from bed. Next to Balgruuf, Proventus Avenicci smirked.

Balgruuf raised an open scroll. "I have good news. Remember at the beginning of the war, when the Emperor was surprised you weren't married, and offered to marry you off to some Imperial countess?"

Hrongar shuddered. "How can I forget?"

"As the situation in Skyrim worsened, he started to become more insistent," Balgruuf scowled. "So Proventus and I began the search for a bride here, in Skyrim. We searched all the great houses who support the Empire. As fate would have it, Idgrod the Younger, of House Ravencrone, is unmarried. When her mother dies, she will be Jarl of Hjaalmarch."

The news hit Hrongar like a kick to the stomach. He could practically feel his heart stopping as he forced himself to speak. "Hjaalmarch? You want to banish me to the marsh?"

"Oh, don't be so dramatic," the Jarl rolled his eyes. "You knew this day would come. You are the brother of a Jarl. She is the daughter of a Jarl. This is how things are done. Now...her mother has accepted our proposal and awaits your formal introduction at Morthal. Make all necessary preparations and be on your way."

***


"You can't be serious."

Amused, Ahlam watched her lover angrily pace his room while stuffing her mouth with quail eggs.

He shot her a look. "I'm being very serious."

"My love, I can't accompany you on a trip to meet your future wife," she laughed. "The Jarl - either Jarl - would have my head."

"I don't want to marry this girl, Ahlam!" Hrongar barked. "Your husband is going to petition for a divorce soon. Why can't we be together?"

She stared at him, incredulous. "Because your brother would never allow it!" As soon as she said it, she finally realized just how true it was. Danica had called it from the beginning, but Ahlam hadn't fully understood what she meant until now.

"I may not be a politician, Hrongar," she continued, "but I have been paying attention to what's happening at court. The Emperor is understandably displeased with the mounting chaos in Skyrim. He seeks to reestablish order and loyalty by filling the courts of Jarls with Imperial shills. He wants to control the future bloodlines of the ruling families." She shrugged. "We both know your brother can't allow that. He already has Proventus second-guessing his every command. So instead, he finds you a Nordic girl from a house that supports the Empire."

"You have never been to Hjaalmarch," Hrongar rubbed his temples. "The land is bereft of civilization. Its capital of Morthal is a wretched little village buried in fog and marsh. The walls are weak and low, the roofs are made of thatch. The town doesn't even have a fucking blacksmith!"


Ahlam smiled ruefully. "At least she's a future Jarl. My husband is trying to replace me with a market wench."

Hrongar scoffed. "I'm not giving you up, Ahlam. No matter whom my brother shackles me to, I'm not giving you up."

"Well, that may cause some problems with your in-laws," she raised an eyebrow. "I may never have been to Hjaalmarch, but I am familiar with Jarl Idgrod Ravencrone; she's said to be a stern, unyielding woman. My presence during these proceedings would be...inappropriate."

"She'll have to get over it," he grumbled. "As my brother would say, this is how things are done."

Ahlam tried to be gentle. "Are they, though? I'm married, as you will soon be. Surely, you knew we couldn't have forever. Is it not enough that we had this?"

Hrongar was visibly taken aback. He suddenly found difficulty speaking. "Are you...unhappy? Do you want to end this?"

Her eyes flew wide open. "What? No. No...I'm grateful to you, my love. You reminded me of the joys of living. You gave me a taste of life above the clouds, but at some point we have to return to the earth. Life can't always be...apple wine on terraces, or sugared grapes in bed."

"Why not?" he asked, coming closer to clasp her hands in his. "I know my brother, Ahlam. The best hope he has of getting a divorce granted, is if I were pressed to marry you myself. Outside of that, I don't believe Balgruuf will allow it. You and I are going to be stuck with people we don't love, all in the name of duty. Shouldn't we at least get some type of happiness out of it?"

***

When Hrongar finally left for Hjaalmarch, Ahlam was by his side. He hired a covered carriage for the journey, and was accompanied by ten guards on horseback. In peace time, he'd have few guards, but his brother considered this trip a top priority.

No sooner had they left the stables, Nazeem arrived at Dragonsreach, requesting an audience with Balgruuf himself. Usually, the Jarl had visitors and meetings, and all manner of excuses to avoid the man, but today he had no such luck.

The Redguard farmer approached the dais in the great hail, clad in silk like always, his whole face beaming. There's practically skip in his step today, as though he came bearing some great news.

"You look well, Nazeem," Balgruuf coolly greeted from his throne. "You haven't been seen at court in some days, or the Bannered Mare." He cocked his head to the side. "To do what do we owe this surprise?"

"Your Grace, we haven't had much time to speak with the the war and all," Nazeem began, "but now that we have a moment, I wish to discuss my impending ennoblement."

"Of course," Balgruuf nodded patiently.

"As you know, my wife and I have been estranged for some years now, and we have no children. As a Thane, I would like to produce heirs to carry on my line. I ask that you grant me a divorce."

Balgruuf allowed himself a small, slow grin. "So you can marry Ysolda?"

Nazeem appeared surprised that Jarl knew his intentions. "Your Grace knows about Ysolda?"

"Everyone knows about you and Ysolda," Balgruuf mused. "Hulda tells me you've moved into her house."

Nazeem remained flummoxed. "Well...yes, Your Grace."

"You are at Ysolda's, your wife is at the temple," the Jarl softly snorted. "Who is at Wintersand?"

Nazeem's mouth worked, but he had no answer.

"Your request is declined," Balgruuf stated simply, calmly. "I will not have my only Thane divorcing a loyal, patient wife of many years, simply because he desires younger flesh."

"But my wife's disloyalty is the very reason for this request," Nazeem hurriedly countered. "She left Wintersand so she could be with another man...from Dragonsreach."

Balgruuf tensed slightly, before turning his eyes to Proventus. The bald steward nodded in confirmation.

"They have been perfectly discreet," he assured the Jarl. "But it is true."

The Jarl's face was a whirlwind of thoughts and denial as the pieces slowly came together. He began a process of elimination; he knew he wasn't sleeping with Ahlam. He knew it wasn't Proventus. And Farengar wasn't known for charming women. Commander Caius was extremely busy with defending the city and monitoring troop movements throughout Whiterun.

As the list grew narrower and narrower, it finally settled on a name, along with a nagging evidence he could not ignore: the increasing lateness to court, the sudden spending of personal funds, the excessive time spent in his room.

Balgruuf's head snapped back towards Nazeem. "Irrelevant," he stated in a clipped tone. "You want to become a Thane? Lesson the first: duty supersedes desire. If your wife has taken a lover, she was pushed to it after years of disrespect. And everybody saw it. Because that is what happens when a husband neglects his duty to his wife." He quickly raised his hand when Nazeem would interrupt. "Go home to your wife, Nazeem. Make peace with her. And if you cannot, than make peace with the consequences of your own decisions."

The farmer was grim, his jaw tight. "I'd love nothing more," he replied, trying hard not to sound sarcastic. "But alas, Your Grace, my wife has recently left the city. I believe she's riding in a carriage bound for the North?"

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