Friends


Previously: Trying...Again

This was...new.

In Markarth, Zahra had briefly enjoyed friendship with Bothela and Miuri, but this was different. They were colleagues, and most of their conversations were work-related.

Rayya, Kaidan, and Lucien, however, were something different. Sitting on the wooden benches of Dead Man's Drink, they chugged mead and traded stories, laughing late into the night. It was both wonderful and bizarre to behold.

Was this what Roggvir was doing all those night at Silver-Blood Inn? Zahra wondered. If so, explains why he often late to bed.

It was fun. They were having fun, and this is what it looked like. This is what actual friendship between normal people looked like up close.

Fascinating.

Kaidan and Rayya had known each other the longest; they first met years ago during the rule of Jarl Dengeir, when Kaidan wandered into Falkreath looking for work. He accepted a bounty contract, even though it meant splitting the coin with Rayya. After some narrow escapes from trolls, bandits, spiders, and even a vampire once, they'd grown into fast friends.

Lucien, the bumbling boy from Cyrodiil, had hoped to study Dwemer history upon reaching Skyrim. But upon arriving in Falkreath a few months ago, he found himself unable to afford the rest of the way to Markarth. When he wrote his mother back home, she replied that he was cut off until he returned. As fate would have it, Kaidan was back in town and didn't mind bringing a mage along on his bounties.

Of the three, Kaidan was the most traveled, having been to every corner of Tamriel and back again. But he claimed to be getting a bit too old for life on the road, and had recently agreed to become Rayya's housecarl.

"And you, Zahra?" Kaidan asked. He had a tentative manner of speaking to her. His voice always softened just a bit and his gaze became neutral when turning his attention to her. "Any stories?"

"Not really," she shrugged. "Compared to all of you, I've lived a rather sheltered life."

"Sheltered?" Rayya raised an eyebrow. "You lived in Markarth. Your husband worked for Silver-Bloods."

Zahra chuckled softly, surprising herself. "Well, sure, but neither of us were born there. And when we first moved there, I worked at an apothecary while he worked at the smelter." She paused. "We were a normal couple."

"'Til he got seduced by silver coin," Kaidan sighed, waving the server over for another round. "Happens to best of us, friend. I was well-aware of what that family was long before I stepped foot in the Reach. I told myself I'd take contracts from the Jarl and only the Jarl. But then Thongvor saw me at the inn and offered a number I couldn't refuse. Next thing I knew, I was getting shot in the back on the way down from Karthwasten." He stretched slightly, absently touching his right shoulder. "Pain was enough to make that money look awfully small."

"Does it still hurt?" Zahra asked softly. "I could take a look."

"Just the memories, love," he assured her. His voice was warm and liquid. His accent was like music to her ears.

And yet, she felt no desire for him. Kaidan felt more like an older brother, rather than a potential lover. Besides, she was certain once he and Rayya started living under the same roof, their years' long "friendship" would naturally evolve into something more.

***

It became a thing after that night. Zahra would do her early morning rounds at the barracks, right at the changing of the guards, work in the apothecary during the afternoon, and dine with the Jarl's court in the evenings, and then head onto the tavern for drinks with her new friends.

She didn't talk much; instead, she took it all in, watching them interact in awe. It was cozy; while the fogs lingered and the rain drizzled outside, she got to drink warmed honeyed wine and listen to tales of wild adventures inside, by the crackling light of the fire pit. She tried to recall a time when her caregivers had ever mingled like this manner and sadly could not. Most necromancers were solitary, preferring the company of rattling bones. Sometimes they'd cohabit in twos or threes, but like her last caregiver, Psymia, most preferred to work alone.

Psymia, Zahra blinked, surprising herself. Haven't thought about that bitch in forever.

"So no stories from you, love?" Kaidan asked suddenly one night, pulling Zahra from her thoughts. She blinked, caught off guard when she suddenly realized everyone was staring at her.

"No...," she shook her head, as though trying to clear it. "No stories from me."

"You lived in Markarth," Rayya raised in eyebrow. "And yet nothing?"

"You weren't raised there, I know that, " Kaidan piped up. "Reach folk have a certain way about them, especially the ones from the city."

"No," Zahra confirmed. "My husband decided to move there after our wedding. He always wanted to see Markarth."

"Where were you married?" Rayya asked.

"Riften," Zahra told them. "I'd hoped to settle in Ivarstead, but my husband felt we'd be safer behind city walls."

"You're definitely not from Riften," Kaidan chuckled.

Zahra blushed slightly, buzzed from the wine. "No. My husband and I had traveled from Solitude, where our marriage was arranged."

Lucien's eyes widened. "You left Solitude?"

"My husband had an overbearing sister, and I had an overbearing guardian," Zahra shrugged. "We had to get away."

Rayya paused, mulling her words over. "So you had a private education and an arranged marriage?"

Kaidan's brow furrowed. "Are you an aristocrat?" he demanded. "Have we been knocking about with an aristocrat?"

"No," Zahra giggled. "I was simply raised by mages my whole life. My real parents died when I was small, so I never knew them. But when their friends found out I had aptitude for languages and the magical arts, they made me spend my entire childhood indoors, studying."

"Sounds like the life of an aristocrat to me," Rayya snickered to Kaidan.

Zahra found it interesting that neither of them immediately dismissed the possibility she could be from Solitude.

"Have either of you spent much time in Solitude?" she asked, just to be sure.

"I haven't," Rayya shook her head, picking up her tankard of mead. "My duties have mostly kept me in Falkreath. But occasionally, I travel to Whiterun and the Reach."

"I have and it doesn't agree with me," Kaidan grumbled. "Too much pomp and politics."

"From what I've read of the city, you no doubt stuck out like a sore thumb," Lucien remarked.

"Didn't you once fall for a noble girl?" Rayya asked Kaidan. Her tone was teasing, dark eyes twinkling with mischief.

He flashed her a poisonous look. "I was young," he bit out.

Rayya laughed, unwilling to let it go. "Didn't her parents marry her off to some courtier twice her age, as soon as they found out about you two?" She and Lucien cackled heartily, while Kaidan scowled at them both.

Zahra, however, felt empathetic. "How tragic," she murmured softly.

"Oh, Kaidan's taste in women has been tragic, all right," Rayya chortled. "If it's not a girl who's noble, it's a girl who's in a cult."

"Or that Dibella worshiper we met in Riften," Lucien helpfully proferred. "The one with the shackles on her bed?"

"It was one night!" Kaidan protested.

"I'll say," Lucien scoffed. "And after that one night, you were ready to run off and elope."

"At least she wasn't a vampire harlot who worked the Ratway!" Kaidan fired back.

Zahra and Rayya audibly gasped as they turned to an unapologetic Lucien.

"I didn't know Drusilla was a vampire," he shrugged.

"Other than being an Imperial woman with red eyes?" Kaidan exclaimed.

"You've got have red eyes, friend!"

The two men fell to bickering while the women laughed, and the server brought them another round.

***

Zahra returned to her room at the Jarl's longhouse a lot later than usual that night. Most of the servants were asleep when she arrived and she had to find her room in the dark. Tired and a little drunk, she sobered a little when she realized her door was already unlocked. Concerned, she lit her bedroom candles with a wave of her hand, and scanned the room.

She was confused; she didn't have anything valuable and she wasn't being paid any more than a servant. She quickly noticed that her room hadn't been broken into so something could be taken; instead, something had been left behind.

On her bed lay a brand new dress of exceedingly fine quality, sewn from black and white velvet. There was a note written in exceptionally fine hand, stating, Now you can mourn your husband in style.

It was from the Jarl.

Zahra's head suddenly cleared as her heart began to pound, wondering what possessed the lord of the entire hold to buy her a new dress. She was torn between confusion and annoyance; where her black robes so off-putting that he really felt the need to buy her new clothes?

She grit her teeth, half-tempted to keep wearing her robes out of defiance, but she knew better than to offend a Jarl. She decided to try on the dress, surprised at how well it fit. And when she saw her own reflection in her bronze mirror Zahra gasped.


Dear gods...I'm turning into one of them.

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