Previously: Rayya

Zahra wasn't intimidated by her job.

When she reported to the barracks first thing in the morning, it was like going through the motions. If a guard had any aches or deep wounds, she applied restorative magic and prescribed a common healing potion. For those feeling a bit under the weather, she took down names and symptoms, and advised them to expect a special delivery from Grave Concoctions by the end of day.

She didn't smile, hold their hands, or try to get to know them. The whole place smelled of sweat, blood, and unwashed bodies and bedding. She just wanted to do her job and get out.

They could sense this and didn't try to push for anything else. If anything, it made them sit up straighter and behave more professionally. So far, they were no more worse for wear. Two guards from the night shift had some issues with muscles; one was still healing from an arrow wound. Three more were battling the sniffles. She advised them to drink plenty of water and eat garlic with all their meals, and to have all their bedding washed.

It was gray, gloomy day in Falkreath, which Zahra found oddly comforting. It was nice to hear the patter of falling rain as she worked her tonics at the apothecary. Zaria helpfully chatted with customers to keep them at bay while she busied herself at the alchemy lab.

Zaria reminded Zahra much of Bothela back in Markarth. She wasn't quite as old, but she did have the same wit. She was a highly knowledgeable alchemist; she just so happened to favor poisons. Zahra knew right away to keep the woman at arm's length.

She'd missed breakfast and midday meal, so by the time she left Grave Concoctions around sunset, her stomach was grumbling angrily. Thankfully, dinner was served a little earlier this evening. The Jarl's uncle Thadgeir apparently went fishing that morning and came bearing gifts for the court. The kitchens roasted the fish over fire, seasoning them with smoke, pepper, lemon, and oil.

Thadgeir was an old man, with long, shaggy white hair and a thin sinewy body clad in old leather armor, even at the dinner table. He ate loudly, with great appetite, and refused to be ignored by his nephew's courtiers.

"What news of the war?" he demanded, as though he were Jarl himself.

"Our guards haven't sighted any Stormcloaks in several days," Siddgeir casually replied, holding out his goblet for a refill. "I got a letter from the Emperor today, however. He's wondering if I would like to a marry a woman from the Imperial City, Countess Something or Other. Rumor has it Jarl Balgruuf and his brother have already turned the poor girl down."

"As well they should," Thadgeir grumbled, ripping a piece of bread and sopping up some oil. "This war is headache enough. The last thing we need is some Imperial spy diluting our bloodline and reporting our every word back to the Emperor."

"Is it true he's dying?" Rayya suddenly piped up. Zahra was still amazed at how comfortable she seemed among these people. She kept having to remind herself that Rayya had known them for many years, and unlike Zahra, she hadn't grown up under a rock.

Thadgeir and Nenya both chuckled. "Titus Mede was already old man when I was young," Thadgeir snorted.

"Even if he dies during the war, it won't change anything," Nenya smirked. Zahra noticed the elf didn't repeatedly drain her cup, like everyone else. They drank mead like it was about to rot, while she preferred to remain sober. "He's a father, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather many times over. There's a long line of people waiting to replace him."

"If Talos wills it, he should at least survive the war," Thadgeir mumbled, nibbling on some more fish. "I have heard of who waits to succeed him, and it will not bode well for Skyrim if he does." He paused looking up at his nephew. "Have you replied?"

"The courier left this afternoon," Nenya nodded. "We thanked His Imperial Majesty for the generous offer, but advised that His Grace is already betrothed, and how it's in everyone's best interest if we don't offend this particular girl's family."

Thadgeir gave a slight sneer. "You're going through with it then?"

For the first time since Zahra arrived, she saw the Jarl's usually good mood dim. "Nenya insists I have no choice."

Helvard finally paused his mead-guzzling to speak. "Not just Nenya. We have all made our bed with that family, Your Grace, and now we must lie in it."

Siddgeir shot him a look. "Except I'm the one who actually has to lie down with her, Helvard."

"Remember, Your Grace," Rayya smoothly assured the young Jarl, "you only agreed to marry the girl. You made no promises beyond that."


If the Redguard Thane made Zahra uncomfortable before, it was doubly so now.

She wanted to pretend she was overthinking things, that there was no way a Jarl and his courtiers were just discussing the possible demise of the future Lady of Falkreath...over dinner.

She wanted to believe it was the Markarth effect, that she'd simply been around cannibals and Silver-Bloods for too long, and was starting to see death where there was none. But Zahra was far too smart and too well-read to allow that delusion to last. She knew fully well these courtly types wouldn't hesitate to remove whatever enemies or obstacles came across their paths.

"You going to Dead Man's Drink?" Rayya asked, pulling Zahra from her thoughts. The court mage's heart skipped at the sudden sight of the Thane.

"Dead Man's Drink?" she blinked, confused.

"My friends just got back from taking care of a bounty for the Jarl," Rayya invited. "I like to buy the first round to celebrate their survival. Come on, it'll be fun."

"All right," Zahra nodded without thinking, not sure she wanted to go, but even less sure she wanted to offend the Thane.

As it turned out, Rayya's friends were two men. One was a golden-haired Imperial dressed in robes much too fine for the tavern. The other was tall, dark-haired, with eyes like rubies.

"The golden boy is Lucien," Rayya mockingly introduced. "He's a scholar who decided to leave Cyrodiil and explore Skyrim during a war."

The stuffy Imperial was indignant. "You know fully well I arrived long before the war, Rayya," he scowled. He was spoke with a prim accent that betrayed Altmeri tutelage.

"And the tall, dark, handsome one is Kaidan," Rayya smiled, nodding to the other man. "He's an--"

"Akaviri," Zahra gasped, surprised into breathlessness. "I was beginning to think your people were a myth."

A strikingly handsome man, Kaidan was amused by her reaction. "Most people do." He had the rough accent of a Dunmeri. Along with the look in his eyes, it hinted a life of blood and wanderlust. He was dressed in practical, yet exquisite robes, and had a very long sword strapped to his back.

"These two losers are roommates here at the tavern," Rayya mused.

"Not everyone is so lucky to serve a Jarl," Lucien protested mildly.

"Nor is everyone so lucky to befriend a Thane," Kaidan cut in. He turned to face Rayya. "You promised us a room in your new house, mate."

"When the house is finished, mate," Rayya reminded him, waving over a server and ordering a round of drinks. "Gentlemen, this is Zahra, our new court mage. She hails from Markarth."

"A court mage?" Lucien looked confused. "Official robes haven't come in, I take it?"

"Zahra is a widow, Lucien," the Thane chided him. "She dresses to honor her very recently deceased husband."

"Condolences," Kaidan turned to Zahra. "He died in Markarth, I take it?"

"In a cave outside the city walls," she replied stiffly.

"He got mixed up with Silver-Bloods," Rayya explained. "You know, Kaidan once merced for the Silver-Bloods."

"Miserly fucks," the Akaviri warrior grumbled. "I took a bandit's arrow to the shoulder for old Lord Thongvor, and yet he wouldn't pay for pain and suffering."

"My husband took an Forsworn arrow to the back and throat," Zahra said quietly, looking at no one and speaking as though to herself. "Thongvor left him to rot."

Their drinks arrived, and just in time, because no one had any idea how to respond to that.

"We all have years of misery behind us," Rayya said, taking a drink and handing one to Zahra. "But we're not commiserating tonight. Tonight, we are celebrating. The Jarl's got a new mage, the boys cleared out a cave of bandits--"

"Spiders," Lucien corrected. "They were giant Frostbite spiders."

Zahra's eyes suddenly lit up. "Oh? Did you collect any venom?"

"Scholar," he reminded her, daintily sipping his mead. "Not an alchemist."

She was confused. "What's a scholar doing clearing out a cave of spiders?"

"Lucien is also a bit a of mage, good with the fire and lightning," Kaidan chuckled, accepting his second tankard of mead.

"My mother cut me off for leaving Cyrodiil," the Imperial shrugged. "A man's still got to eat."

"Speaking of eating, where's our bloody food?" Kaidan impatiently called to the server. He turned back to the women. "They're serving goat tonight. I assume you two have already dined on more sumptuous fare?"

Rayya smirked. "The Jarl's uncle brought fish this afternoon. He spent the whole evening lecturing us on Imperial politics. I thought dinner would never end."

"Right then," Kaidan nodded. "They make a good apple pie here. Care for some dessert?"

Next: Friends


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