Behind the Throne

 

The first (and most obvious) problem to overcome was the fact the Law-Giver brothers tasted of poverty.

It was bad enough that Harrald reeked of it; Saerlund clearly bathed more often and spent his allowance on luxuries like pine soap and lavender perfume. But as she would discover her first night at Mistveil, they both tasted deeply of malnourishment and regret.

The best part of poverty was how it affected people differently. The nobles had their pride. The commoners did not.

The real power behind any great house, especially one teetering on the edge of collapse, were the servants and guards. Many were one step up from starving; most hadn't eaten a full meal in weeks, much less a balanced one. A few septims in the palm of a hungry servant and the doors of even the most exclusive estate opened wide.


Mistveil Keep was no different. For all the Stormcloak chatter about duty, honor, and loyalty, nothing compared to the power of coin.

Vampires, especially ones of a certain age--and in particular vampires of Volkihar--didn't lodge with peasants. They considered it beneath them, and depending upon one's coven, such behavior could result in exile.

There was also  a practical reason for staying with nobility, of course; they ate better than their constituents. For a vampire to be at peak strength, they needed to consume the blood of healthy mortals. This was precisely why Tamrielic vampires traditionally favored Skyrim. It was easier for the undead to live in a cold, crisp snowy clime filled with hardy people rather than, say, a desert. And once upon a time, Skyrim had many a great house.


Katarinya went to Harrald's room first, of course; he was the warrior of the two brothers and appeared to have more meat on him. Like the rest of the castle, his chamber had seen better days. The floors were well worn and the furniture smelled aged. He had a bed befitting a nobleman, but the pillows and sheets were visibly stained.

Harrald slept deeply, oblivious to her presence. It was like he didn't even need magic to keep him under. Unfortunately, once she sank her fangs into his throat, her mouth filled with the taste of mead and scurvy.

Fuck the gods.

She hadn't tasted blood so thin since her first days of vampirism, when she fed off serfs and travelers. It was a jarring experience to know a noble to could taste so horrendous. Not even during the Great War did Skyrim's nobles taste so poorly.

She wasn't about to endure another sip. Using restoration magic, Katarinya healed the twin holes in his neck and slipped out of his bedchamber.


Saerlund appeared to have gotten the slightly bigger room, and it also seemed cleaner. It even smelled of incense, and she could see that although his bedding was faded and worn, it was clean. She wondered if he cleaned everything himself, or if he simply reminded the servants to tend to his room more often.

He even tasted a little better; she could tell he was supplementing his diet with cheese and possibly apples. But his blood was still thin and no more satisfying than his brother's.

Katarinya healed him, and silently ducked out of his room.


She had no intention of feeding from the Jarl; she could already tell Laila was the last to eat at Mistveil. Her clothes slightly hung off her body, indicating rapid, recent weight loss, and she was a very pale woman. But Katarinya couldn't resist entering the her chambers, if only for old times' sake.

Laila had the cleanest of the three chambers, as to be expected. Everything was the same as Katarinya remembered, and yet nothing was the same. Such was the way with Mistveil Keep, and with Skyrim.

Katarinya vividly remembered the last the time she was in these chambers. She wanted it to feel like yesterday, but it didn't. Time had not been kind, and there was simply no way around it. The wooden beams and floor were cracked, splintered. The furniture from her last visit was all gone, of course, but the new furniture was already old.


She recalled a time when the entire floor was covered with plush rugs, the bed surrounded by heavy velvet curtains, and all the pitchers, basins, and goblets were made of silver, not pewter. Now everything was faded and bare.

Katarinya realized she'd have to make some changes at Mistveil, and she would have to be discreet.

***


"You...girl," Katarinya called, striding across the great hall early the next morning. "What's your name?"

The Nord servant girl stopped sweeping and glanced about herself, frantic. She was never addressed, certainly not by name. "Dirassi, miss," she replied, eyes wide and brow furrowed.

"Dirassi," Katarinya smiled slightly with a prim nod, hands clasped in front of her. She was switching out of her bard character. "I'm going to need some things from you, but above all, I'm going to require your discretion, do you understand?"

The girl looked confused, even as she nodded.

"To start, I need to know about every member of this household," Katarinya began. "Who is who, who does what, where they're from, and the like. I'll be needing other things down the line, so how about we enter into an arrangement at say...ten septims a week?"

Dirassi paused, mulling it over. "Make it fifteen and you've got a deal."

Katarinya grinned. She'd been willing to go up to thirty. "Fifteen it is."

***


If she'd been posing as a noblewoman or even an expensive courtesan, the jarl's steward would have been her natural ally. But as a lowly bard, she had to move through different channels to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention.

Court wizards bore their jarls no special allegiance, and they ran separate businesses in addition to the work they did at court. In short, they were in this for themselves. Thus, they were the perfect alternative to stewards.

Or at least...they usually were. Wylandriah was a Bosmeri mage, short and thin with big eyes under her faded blue hood. Unlike the typical court wizard, she appeared rather scatterbrained.

"Did we have an appointment?" she asked Katarinya, when the vampire stepped up to her counter. "No... was it a delivery? I can't remember."

"Wylandriah," Katarinya greeted patiently, "I'm the new court bard, Katarinya, remember?"

The mage blinked at her several times, obviously not remembering. "Excuse my disorganization, but I'm in the middle of some delicate experiments."

"You mages always are," the vampire mused. "I understand you've been at Mistveil for some years now. How has the Rift fared during the war?"

"Horribly," the elf shrugged honestly. "Every village, farm, and mill are behind on taxes. In fact, only Heartwood Mill is still standing, but not for much longer."

Taxes, of course! Katarinya raised an eyebrow. When dealing with nobility, taxes were always the perfect way to launder coin. A village finally paying up its taxes during wartime was unlikely, same with a farm, but a single lumber mill out in the middle of nowhere wouldn't be scrutinized too heavily. Especially when the ruling nobles were in desperate need of coin.

Heartwood it is, she decided. She'd have to go out there at some point, of course, to cover all her bases. It was unlikely they'd be audited, but a vampire of Volkihar knew better than to leave a trace.

Next: Fattening

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