One of Them

 
Previously: Friends

The next morning, before Zahra could begin her rounds, she was summoned to the great hall to stand before the Jarl. She was nervous, racking her brain, trying to recall if she'd committed some sort of offense. She was going to the tavern almost daily, but unlike Rayya, she wasn't comfortable charging all her drinks to the Jarl and preferred to pay for most of them. She didn't gossip about the court, and made sure never to speak an ill word about anyone.

She arrived the great hall and bowed slightly before the Jarl, who was flanked by Helvard and Nenya as usual.

"Your Grace," she greeted neutrally, willing herself to remain calm.

"My lady," Siddgeir mused, eyes alight as they wandered over his gift. Nenya also seemed delightfully surprised by her change of clothing.

"Miss Zahra," the High Elf began, "we've summoned you to commend you on your work with the guards. As of this morning, we are staffed and operating at peak efficiency. No illnesses reported, and no lingering damage from wounds old or new."


Zahra was too surprised to relax upon hearing the good news. She didn't feel as though she'd accomplished anything serious; she just did her daily rounds and fixed problems as they arose.

"It is our pleasure then," Nenya continued, "to present you with a gift of two hundred and fifty septims, to be paid to you in full. Thane Rayya has also invited you to enjoy a holiday at her manor, now that it has been fully furnished. Since you have no pressing duties just now, we see no reason keep you." The elf paused, tilted her head slightly. "Do you have any requests, my lady?"

Zahra stared in a daze for a moment, almost unable to speak. Eventually she recovered herself.

"I thank you, of course," she blinked. "This is most generous."

"A pittance, really," Helvard assured her, casting Nenya a small side glance. "Thanks to you, I am now better able to defend the city, which is no small thing."

"If there's nothing else," Nenya nodded courteously, "then by all means, please take the rest of the day to yourself."

***


With a free day, Zahra finally got to explore the great cemetery of Falkreath.

It was another gray, foggy day in the city, but at least it wasn't raining. She walked through the small town, to its southernmost point, past the Temple of Arkay. She could see differentiate between the buildings of the cemetery; some were constructed in the newer, smaller style of wood, while the ancient stone tombs from the Atmoran age loomed above them.

To her surprise, Siddgeir was wandering the gravestones. He stopped once he spied her, and flashed her that disarming smile.

"I wondered when you'd come here," he greeted casually. His eyes always seemed to twinkle with mischief. "Word had it you'd yet to visit our city's greatest landmark."

"I guess I was just waiting for some free time, Your Grace," she replied, ignoring the annoyed feeling that came from knowing she'd always be watched here.

"Indeed," he nodded. "You have to forgive Nenya. She tends to work round the clock and assumes the rest of us are built the same." He turned to look down at the sea of headstones. "I try to honor my parents once a week. I lost them when I was very young. I always wondered what my life would've been like if they had lived."

They still would've shipped you off to Solitude for school. "Condolences, Your Grace."

He smiled ruefully at her. "I understand you lost your parents when you were young as well."

Rayya's been talking. "I never knew them," she shrugged.

"I wonder what else we have in common," the young Jarl mused.

I doubt we have anything else, Zahra raised a wary eyebrow, wondering where his housecarl was and how the Jarl could simply wander this place alone.

"Is Helvard with you, my lord?" she pointedly asked.

The Jarl sighed. "You sound just like Nenya. And yes, he's here; he just knows to keep a respectful distance when I'm visiting my dead kin."

Zahra bowed her head slightly. "Of course, my lord."

"I'm glad you like you like my present," he confessed shyly. Though an admittedly a tall, regal fellow, Siddgeir had his boyish moments. "I wasn't sure it was dark enough for you."

Zahra's voice was tight. "It suits me well, Your Grace."

"That it does," he said fondly, his eyes roaming over her again. "I have another one for you. I was hoping I'd have a chance to give it to you before you skipped out to Lake Ilinalta." He reached into his robes, producing a small wrapped package. When he unwrapped it, it revealed a gold necklace set with a large sapphire.

Zahra's eyes widened in shock. "I can't accept that."

"Of course you can," he insisted warmly, coming around her to clasp it about her neck. "A pretty girl should have nice things. They cheer you up in moments of sorrow, of which I suspect you have many."


She was stiff, feeling awkward at his close proximity. She turned to face him, as well as put some steps between them. Everything about this felt wrong.

"There now," he murmured. "You look like a fine lady from a great house."

"Thank you, Your Grace," she said flatly, numbly, even as her heart pounded in her chest. She bowed. "If you will excused me, I need to get ready for my travels."

She fled the cemetery before he could speak again, letting her feet guide her as she couldn't get her brain to think. They led her to Dead Man's Drink.

***

She hadn't stepped one foot through the door of Dead Man's Drink before Kaidan stopped her, looked her over, rolled his yes, and sighed, "Fuck the gods...you're turning into one of them."



"I am most certainly am not," Zahra grumbled. "Where is Rayya? When do we leave for her house?"

"First light," Kaidan replied, waving for a server. "She's sending a carriage to collect us from here."

"Good, good," Zahra nodded nervously. "I suppose I could stay the night here."

Kaidan raised an eyebrow. "The Jarl give you that?" he nodded subtly towards the necklace.

Her face was grim. "The Jarl gave me all of this...and a fat purse too. Which I found rather odd, when you consider the state of things in Skyrim."

"Listen, Zahra," the tall warrior began lowly, "I like you. Some I'm gonna let you know that while Siddgeir seems like a charming, handsome young man with everything going for him, you really don't want to get mixed up in all that." He paused. "Things...aren't quite what they appear to be around here."

"No shit," she rasped, eyes narrowed in growing fury. "Half of the country is starving to death while the other half tries to kill each other, and yet this small, fog-infested, would-be shithole is somehow flourishing. What the fuck is going on in Falkreath, Kaidan?"

He hesitated before answering. "I presume, you've heard references to the 'Eastern associates' at court?"

Zahra nodded. "I have."

"A while back, certain...interested parties decided Siddgeir would be a better Jarl of Falkreath than his uncle Dengeir."

"Because of his loyalty to the Empire," she nodded stiffly.

"Because of his youth and pliability," Kaidan corrected her. "He's from a ancient noble bloodline, got a great title, rules a rather fertile domain, and is currently unmarried."

Her eyes lit up as she caught his meaning. "That girl he's betrothed to."

"Her family is very rich, very powerful...and very dangerous," Kaidan stated deliberately. "They've already bent Riften to their will, now they've decided they want to sink their claws into Falkreath and have paid handsomely to do so. They financed the walls, stabilized the economy, and yes, provided a very comfortable living for the Jarl and all his courtiers...even in a time of war." He tilted his head slightly, red eyes looking a little sad. "They won't tolerate any threat to the betrothal, Zahra. Many nobles are entitled to take lovers before and after marriage; Siddgeir, however, lacks that particular privilege."

Silver-Bloods all over again. "They'll kill me," she snorted softly, scowling slightly. "That's what you're saying right? That the Jarl's affections are putting me in the line of fire?"

Kaidan remained diplomatic. "I'm suggesting that perhaps it's wise you prolong your stay at Lake Ilinalta."

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