Prologue: Old Wounds

Previously: Demons Past

"She's swimming again."

"It's a beautiful day, Kaidan," Rayya replied absently from the table on her balcony. The Redguard Thane of Falkreath was heavily into her letters these days, rarely looking up from her parchments. "Of course, she's swimming."

"No, I mean she's swimming again," Kaidan emphasized, leaving the rear of the balcony and coming to sit with her. He picked up his tankard of mead. "Don't you find that odd for a court mage?" he asked pointedly. "She has a job and yet she never goes into town to do it."

"She had a job," Rayya corrected him. "Siddgeir just let her go in favor of Lucien. After all, he's actually at court. Seems your old roommate's moving up in the world."

The Akaviri warrior was shocked. "Zahra was sacked?"

"The Jarl gave her a decent severance," Rayya shrugged. "Five thousand septims upfront."

The Thane was missing the point. "No one told me she was sacked," he stated in a clipped tone.

"What's it to you anyway?" Rayya scoffed, still perusing her letters.

"Am I not a member of this household?"

She looked up briefly. "Of course you are."

"Then why does nobody ever tell me anything?"

"You could just ask," she shrugged.

Kaidan was getting impatient. "If I try to talk to you, you'll brush me off and say you're busy. And you have tried talking to her lately? She swims and she reads--there is no in-between. I thought we were making progress with her."

Rayya raised an eyebrow. "Progress?"

"We don't really know much about Zahra," he said lowly, deliberately in his heavy Dunmeri accent. "I thought we would by now; we've all been living together for months. But she mostly keeps to herself and speaks only vaguely about her past. And now, she just...swims."

Rayya chuckled. "Kaidan, my that your way of saying she should get a job?"

"Not only that," he shook his head. His long black hair blew lightly on the warm southern wind. "After all this time, we're basically living with a stranger."

Rayya sighed, weary. Despite having spent years longing for a title and a household of her own, now that she had both they were heavily starting to weigh on her.

"I think we all need a change of scenery," she suddenly suggested. "Now that the war has ended, the Jarl has tasked me with reopening negotiations with the Reach. I was only going take you, but I think Zahra could do with a journey as well."

Kaidan tensed. "What, you mean go to Markarth? She won't like that."

"Because of what happened with her husband," Rayya nodded.

"Do we really want to open old wounds?"

"It may be the only way to finally learn about the stranger in our midst," the Thane shrugged. "Also...we should probably keep an eye out for a potential husband. If she's not gonna make money, she can at least marry into it like a regular noble."


It was hard to describe the pleasure of immersion, of sinking below the lake's surface and listening to the hum of the water in her ears. Zahra could swim the same small stretch of lake back and forth for hours, speaking to no one and thinking of nothing.

And after her limbs began to tire and the sun grew too bright, she would rise from the like, step upon the shore and leisurely dry off before dressing and returning to the house.

Compared to the average Skyrim citizen, life at Lakeview Manor was luxurious. The manor was by no means palatial, but it was two-storied with several rooms, and even a cellar where Rayya stored her best wines. The servants kept it spotless, sweeping daily. On weekends, they scrubbed the floors, beat the rugs, and washed the bedding and curtains. They aired out the house every day that it didn't rain. And because the house was humble and the staff minimal, both Rayya (and until recently, Zahra) were able to pay them handsomely to do so.

There were two Redguard maids, Anisah and Farida. Farida was the older one, and she was an excellent cook. There was also Llewellyn the bard, who often pitched in with chores when he wasn't singing or playing music. Rayya loved living with a classically trained bard; he had a seemingly endless number of stories and even gave her lessons on the lute.

It was a good life, the best she could possibly ask for...until that idiot Jarl went and fired her.

To be fair, Siddgeir had a point. He needed someone he could count on, a court mage who actually lived at court. Zahra had no desire to live at the court of Falkreath; the great hall constantly smelled of smoke, sweat, and mead, and now that the war was over, the brash, young Jarl liked to throw lots of parties filled with equally brash, young men. They would drink and sing all through the night and well into morning, which the rest of the court found exhausting.

Either way, now her place was tenuous. Rayya was going to insist she get a new job and Zahra had absolutely no idea what she was going to do for a living.

"You're back," the Thane greeted cheerily, warmly even. Like many Redguards living in Skyrim, Rayya had an automatic soft spot for her people. "Did you have a good swim?"

"The best," Zahra sighed, her accent crisp, prosper, Altmeri. "The weather was absolutely perfect."

"I'm glad to hear it," Rayya beamed. "Unfortunately, it's going to be the last swim you enjoy for a while; we're bound for Markarth at first light."

Zahra stared at her, completely caught off guard. "...Markarth?"

"Yes," Rayya nodded. "Siddgeir has tasked me with discussing some trade agreements with Jarl Igmund. It's my first ambassadorial task as a Thane, so absolutely nothing can go wrong."

Zahra blinked. "Then why would you take me?"

Rayya remained patient. "Zahra, you've lost your position. Your salary is terminated."

The younger woman protested, "But my severance--"

"Won't last forever," Rayya shook her head. "I know I made you a baroness, but I was clear: that title comes with neither land nor income, and our comfortable life here isn't free."

"You are my Thane," Zahra insisted. "My lady. You know I'm committed to you. I'd do anything you command...except return to Silver-Blood territory. I didn't exactly leave those people on the best of terms."

Rayya raised an eyebrow. She'd thought the younger woman would protest about the death of her husband, but she seemed more concerned with her own safety.

I guess that's progress...?

"Zahra, you're no longer some peasant wandering the wilds of Skyrim by yourself. You are Baroness Ilinalta of Falkreath, traveling under the banner of its Jarl. The Silver-Bloods know better than to even try to touch you."


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