Tightening Nooses

A/N ~ Here's where things will begin to deviate.

Up until now, I've been about 95% faithful to how I wrote the original story, but truth be told, I never liked how I ended it. It launched a series of spin-offs that I am not proud of. So here's where I'll try to finally fix things properly, all these years later. After all, Katarinya deserves better.

Previously: Ripples in the Pond

"I hear Laila has given that Katarinya woman a permanent position in her household," Maven grumbled to her children over breakfast. She waved over a servant carrying a jug of clear spring water. "And to celebrate her elevation, Katarinya has purchased entire herds of cows, goats, sheep, swine, and over two dozen chickens and pheasants for the Keep. They won't be needing us to feed them anymore, that's for sure."

"I suppose she'll also be buying the Jarl more furs," her son Hemming snickered, chewing on a slice of bacon.

"No," his brother Sibbi shook his head, swigging from his cup of bitter beer. "I had a chat with the maid, Gudlaug. She says the only thing Katarinya has provided for the Keep is food."

Ingun, who had been lost in thought up until now, was suddenly roused. "You say she's only buying food?"

"Hearty food," Sibbi confirmed. "She's even restocked the granary and filled the larder to the brim. The Law-Givers will be eating very well for as long as she's at court."

Ingun raised an eyebrow. "But she's only buying food."

"She's also taken Hilde and Gudlaug as her personal maids," Sibbi continued, although Ingun didn't care about that. Once those two were completely under her spell, the flow of information would cease.

She's fattening them up. Most courtiers did what Katarinya did before: they bought gifts of furs and fine wines to curry favor. But now that she'd been accepted into the home on a permanent basis, Katarinya was doing something entirely unheard of. Not even the Black-Briars had ever fed the Keep on such a scale.

Ingun was still convinced the Widow Velethi was a vampire. Her mistake was underestimating the creature's level of deception; she hadn't noticed her ability to deceive two Wood Elves.

I'm going to talk to Wylandriah. The court mage was the key; if Ingun could figure how she of all people had been tricked, it would be the key to exposing Katarinya.


Hilde and Gudlaug turned before the mirror in Katarinya's chamber marveling at their new clothes and boots.

"Do you like them?" Katarinya mused, already knowing the answer as she lounged with a cup of tea.

"I feel like a proper lady," Hilde gasped. Katarinya had bought her a dress in blue to go with her eyes, while Gudlaug was given a dusky dress of burgundy to go with her dark hair.

"You are a lady," Katarinya told her. "Both of you are no longer common maids. If, of course, that's what you want."

Gudlaug's eyes snapped away from the mirror towards her.  "Why wouldn't we want that?"

"You're both from the Rift, are you not?" Katarinya probed. "Born and raised, I assume."

"Born and raised," Gudlaug nodded. "And abandoned. My father left my mother when I was four and my mother drank herself into Oblivion by the time I was twelve."

"My parents had a farm across the river," Hilde shrugged. "It was burned down during a skirmish between the 'Cloaks and the Imperials." She looked down. "I have no one now."

"Would you mind leaving the Rift?" Katarinya asked wryly, again already knowing the answer.

The maids exchanged looks.

"Are you planning to leave Riften?" Gudlaug asked.

"I'll be blunt," she told them. "The Empire is going to win the war. Ulfric Stormcloak will be executed and all his noble followers sent into exile. Now...I have seen the crumbling walls of Windhelm with my own eyes, and I have no desire to retire there. So before war escalates in the Rift, I plan to flee to the capital."

Hilde's eyes widened. "You're going to Solitude?"

In truth, it was her favorite city in Skyrim and she had been gone for far too long. But a suitable time had passed, she was likely forgotten by anyone of note, and so now she was ready to return.

"I plan to take a fine house and live out my days," she nodded. "But if you want to come along, I have very strict conditions."

"Of course, my lady," Gudlaug nodded eagerly.

"Firstly," Katarinya raised an eyebrow, "I demand complete loyalty. Nothing I share with you is to be shared with anyone else, is that clear?"

Both nodded vigorously.

"Secondly, we will find ourselves among elite company in Solitude. I must...remake you, reeducate and reform you to their standards." She took a dainty sip. "That will take some time of course, but we can start with the basics. However often you're bathing now, you must bathe twice as much and thoroughly wash your hair with soap. Once we arrive in the capital, you mustn't associate with servants of lower rank, nor peasants of any kind. The nobles of Solitude frown upon that sort of thing." She set down her cup and rose to her feet, the flames of the hearth flickering across her face.

"Until then, when you're not attending upon me, you will improve your vocabulary by reading and you will definitely improve your embroidery. By the time we reach Solitude, I want no one to suspect you were ever the daughters of farmers and drunks."

"Yes, my lady," they replied in unison, exchanging incredulous looks.


"Anuriel, invite Maven to dine with me tonight," Laila Law-Giver mused, standing before her mirror. "I want her to taste meat she hasn't paid for."

The Wood Elf halted at the door of the Jarl's chambers, eyeing her warily.

"My Jarl, either my eyes deceive me or you have a certain new...glint about you tonight."

Laila beamed, turning to show off her hands. Rings of silver and gold flashed; they were set with garnets, amethysts, and sapphires.

"Do you like them?" she gushed. "They're new. Once word spread about Katarinya's gift to the Keep, every merchant in Riften was practically throwing their wares at my feet. Madesi gave me these rings for five chickens! I didn't even need to give him coin, Anuriel!"

Normally, the Bosmer steward would relax when she heard the Jarl had spent no coin, but the Keep's slight change in fortunes couldn't change the inevitable.

"My Jarl," she began hesitantly. "I have news from Whiterun. Jarl Balgruuf has chosen to side with the Empire in the war."

Laila's good mood dimmed slightly as she turned back to her mirror. "Did we really expect him to do otherwise?"

"That means in addition to the might of the Empire and the Thalmor, Whiterun, Haafingar, the Reach, Hjaalmarch, and Falkreath Holds are allied against the four Stormcloak Holds," the Wood Elf calmly reiterated. "We must prepare ourselves. We cannot hold the Rift and Ulfric will not be sending us reinforcements."

"We can hold the city," Laila tightly replied, picking up a new dress and holding it against her body. "Mistveil is well-provisioned now; we can definitely hold the Keep."

"No," Anuriel shook her head, shoulders sagging from a weight she could bear no more. "We can't. We have to make arrangements, Your Grace. The Empire is coming. Harrald will want to fight and we know he will be slain."

"Then what do you suggest?" Laila demanded, throwing the dress on her bed and turning to face Anuriel. "That I abdicate? Isn't that what everyone wants--for me to abdicate and just give my throne, my Keep, my very birthright to that Black-Briar bitch?"

"Laila," the elf said in a leaden voice, "we don't have much time. You can still declare for the Empire; they will clear all of your debts and get your family to safety."

"As if General Tullius would ever believe me," the Jarl snapped. "Not to mention, the warriors loyal to Ulfric will burn us to the ground before the Imperials even arrive to accept my surrender. And after waiting so long to take my throne, do you actually believe Maven would just let us all live?"

"If we travel discreetly--"

"I am not going to rot in Windhelm!" Laila roared. "I will not go to live out my days in the rubble, knowing my sons will never be allowed to marry and that they will never give me legitimate grandchildren. Have you seen the Palace of Kings? It's as though the very ghosts of our forebears haven taken the form of broken stone. Its servants and skulk the halls like dejected ghouls--I would not wish that life upon a dog, Anuriel!"

"But it's still life, my Jarl," the steward assured her. "Your children will live. If they stay here, neither you nor I can guarantee that."



"Yes, Ingun?" the absent mage reply, hunched over the alchemy table in her study. "Come for some herbs?"

"No, Wylandriah."

"Another lesson, then?"

"Sort of," Ingun nodded, keep her voice light and casual. "It's a riddle, in a manner of speaking. Let's say a vampire wanted to live among people and go completely undetected. How would they do it?"

The Elven mage turned to her, blinking rapidly. "That's some riddle. Well, I suppose they could have a designated blood source, like a servant or a spouse."

"But then you could still smell them, right?" Ingun pressed. "You would notice things about them."

The hooded mage paused, mauling that over. "Well, yes; scent would be a factor. Vampires also have slightly different eyes from the rest of us. Some glow red, for example."

"So I'm a vampire," Ingun began again. "I am an expert at blending in among the living and passing completely undetected. How am I doing this? Is it a potion?"

The mage paused, thinking it over, before shaking her head. "Doubtful. However, an enchanted item could probably change the way we'd perceive the vampire. Like a ring or an amulet."

"Enchanted with illusion magic?" Ingun raised an eyebrow.

"Exactly," Wylandriah nodded. "If the enchantment is powerful enough, the vampire will appear to us as a perfectly normal person--normal scent, normal eyes, normal breathing."

Ingun smiled broadly at the court wizard. "Thank you, Wylandriah."


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