The Art of Illusion


Previously: The Heiress

She was given a room on the second floor, and sure enough, a large wooden tub of steamy water awaited her, along with a large hunk of pine soap and small bottle of light perfume.

But that wasn't all. In addition to the bath were the clothes her aunt promised, clothes more beautiful than anything she'd ever owned. It was silk, overlaid with lace, with a dark velvet bodice. The dress was paired with new leather boots, embroidered in gold.

Her aunt had also gifted her a plain silver necklace and matching ring with no jewels, and a silver circlet set with polished moonstone.

Like a real noblewoman, Talia realized. The metal was cold in her hands, and felt unbelievably heavy for some reason.

Nobles aren't to be envied, she suddenly remembered. She'd seen enough of them drowning their sorrows in towers or leaping from castle walls to their deaths back in Solitude.

How do I know I won't be any different?



Her room upstairs was adjacent to Dessa's, but much nicer. It was like something out of a dream. Back at the temple, she'd slept in cramped cots in pitch black rooms sometimes. Here her bed was large, with thick velvet covers and clean pillows that smelled of mountain flowers. The dim light of the candles gave the whole room a rosy, cozy glow.

She had chests and wardrobes that were mostly empty now, but she wondered if some day, maybe after the war, they'd be filled with pretty dresses and fabulous shoes.

Talia winced at her thoughts. She didn't like how easily she was being taken in by all this. That woman downstairs was still a complete stranger and she had no idea what the baroness really wanted her for.

After all...how could she prove anything Sigridr said was true?

***


After her tour of the property, Talia had climbed the stairs one woman and now descended another. As she reentered the main room and faced the woman who claimed to be kin, Sigridr's eyes widened at the sight of her.

"My, my," the baroness gasped. "Look at you. Magnificent! Absolutely magnificent."

Talia blushed and uncomfortably and squirmed beneath her aunt's gaze. She was used to be encouraged during tasks and lessons, but never called "magnificent".

"Is all this really necessary?" she asked her aunt. "I mean...we live in the middle of nowhere."

Sigridr did that thing where she smiled brightly but the light didn't reach her eyes. "We are the House of Heljarchen," she stated simply. "Do we not have servants in this very house? More tilling our farm and manning our meadery across the way? Did I not mention we have a village full of tenants who pay us rent?"

Talia was confused. "So all this...is for them? No offense, Auntie, but you're no Jarl. You're not even a Thane. And me? I'm just--"

Sigridr swiftly raised a bony, pale hand to silence her. "Lesson the first, little one," she began in a low, deliberate voice, "always maintain the highest esteem of your title."

Talia raised an eyebrow. "Even if it's a minor one?"

"Especially when it's a minor," her aunt rasped. "For this world will show you even less mercy than it would a peasant. A baroness is a nothing title, so we must back it up it with lands and coin. We must always give the impression that we're on the cusp of becoming more than what we are."

Talia still wasn't convinced and was having a hard time reigning in her sarcasm. "Becoming what?"

"That's just it," Sigridr shrugged. "Today, you might only be a baroness, but tomorrow? The wife of a legate, a thane, even a jarl if you catch the eye of the right one. You never know...and neither do they. All they need to know is that it's probably best not to make an enemy of you now, lest they must face your wrath later."

Talia folded her arms across her chest. "So it's a bluff," she snorted.

"More like an illusion," Sigridr raised an eyebrow. "A very carefully crafted illusion you must learn to maintain over the course of years."

Talia's hands now moved to her hips. "So lying then," she stated bluntly, with a slight shrug. "You want me to go among our employees and tenants and essentially lie to them."

"Lying is second nature to our kind, child," her aunt assured her, lifting her goblet and taking a long drink. "The last thing you want to do whenever you visit court is tell the truth."

Talia's cynicism faltered. "You...you've been to court?"

"I've been to several," Sigridr smiled slightly. She seemed to savor the sight of Talia finally taking a seat across from her. She now had the young woman's undivided attention. "I routinely travel to Dawnstar to pay taxes to our despicable excuse for a Jarl. I've also visited the Palace of Kings in Windhelm, the castle of Dragonsreach in Whiterun, even Understone Keep all the way in Markarth." She cocked her head to the side. "I like to show my face and share my name. It also gives me the chance to learn the names and faces of some really important people."

Talia only recognized maybe half those place but she still stared at her aunt in rapt attention.

"Most recently, I was a guest at the court of Jarl Idgrod Ravencrone of Morthal." Sigridr shuddered. "An utterly vile, wretched little place. Imagine a humble village rotting in a sweltering marsh crawling with mudcrabs, spiders, and vampires. And when you arrive at the Jarl's hall, you find it's just an oversized hovel with no finery or comforts to speak of." She shuddered again. "I only visited once."

Talia was hesitant. "And you were...well-received?"

"No one was rude to me, if that's what you're wondering," the baroness replied. "But it's not like they were throwing feasts in my honor either. By the time I started traveling, I was no longer young, and I never was a great beauty, so no one of note was trying to marry me. Some remembered my father," she nodded, eyes drifting in nostalgia, "but for the most part, I was just...there. You, on the other hand," she raised an eyebrow, smirking, "you could do so well."

Talia snorted softly, leaning back her chair. "So that's why you want me here. To sell me to the highest bidder?"

Sigridr appeared deeply amused. "My dear...would you really be that upset about dancing and sipping wine in the halls of Skyrim's most famous and influential people?"

Talia opened her mouth to fire something back, but found it stuck in her chest. She didn't know how to answer that. All she could suddenly think about was growing in the shadow of Castle Dour and the Blue Palace in Solitude, and often wondering what they looked like on the inside...and resigning herself to never knowing.

"Come now," Sigridr smiled broadly, eyes twinkling. "You've been traveling and you need a hot meal."

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