Shadows of Markarth

Previously: Old Wounds

"You knew."

Kaidan yawned; these days, he was not a morning person. Now that he was no longer constantly on the road, he could feel every aching bone and joint in his body. He felt the cold more deeply now and it didn't help that he'd just seen a few gray hairs in the mirror.

The servants had thankfully loaded the carriage with their things during the night. It was times like this Kaidan deeply grateful he was to be both housecarl and lover to a Thane. He'd never thought of himself as the type to lay up with a noble in house with servants, but now he couldn't imagine going back to the wandering life.

He met Zahra's deep scowl with an unflinching gaze. "Believe me, I'm not particularly thrilled about going to Markarth either. For fuck's sake, the beds are made of stone." And he wasn't looking forward to that.

"The city is also infested with Silver-Bloods!" Zahra snapped. "Did you even offer any protest on my behalf?"

"I told her you wouldn't like it," he shrugged. "She remembers what happened to your husband."

"And what about me?" the young women exclaimed. "I had a complete meltdown in Understone Keep--I cursed Thongvor Silver-Blood and threatened him in full view of witnesses! What do you think will happen to me when I go traipsing through the very city his family owns?"

"Nothing," he answered honestly, shrugging again.  "The Silver-Bloods supported the Stormcloaks, Zahra. The Stormcloaks lost the war. Now their influence is diminished and they have to play nice with everyone, especially the nobles. Besides," the swordsman added, "Thongvor probably doesn't even remember you."

Zahra shook her head in disbelief. "I highly doubt he could forget--"

"You were a peasant the last time he saw you," Kaidan reminded her. "Common clothes, common hair, common everything, including the husband he sacrificed to save his own skin. You think a self-entitled descendant of old money would actually remember either of you?"

Kaidan's words stung during the ride all the way from Falkreath to the Reach. On the one hand, Zahra couldn't believe that Thongvor would forget a Redguard woman cursing him and threatening to fry him with her Sparks spell. On the other hand, a part of her knew Kaidan might be right, and it cut to her core.

We were not nothing. My husband didn't give his life for nothing.

She tried to block out the deep, sickening feeling by enjoying the journey. Traveling with a Thane was vastly different from traveling alone as a commoner. They traveled with an Imperial patrol, which was the current standard protocol in the wake of war. The carriage was covered and fully owned; the driver completely compliant to Rayya's will. They stayed in the best rooms at the occasional inn, eating only the best meat and drinking the finest mead.

It was twilight in Markarth when they finally arrived. Zahra's apprehension was slightly dimmed by the fact she couldn't even recognize the city. Everything looked bigger, newer, cleaner even. There seemed to be more dwellings and more guards, and each one was clad in exquisite new armor.

Even now, with almost everyone still in their beds and the fog hanging thick, the city was breathtaking. Zahra was surprised by her reaction to its beauty; she didn't remember being this enthralled the last time she was here. Even before Roggvir's death, she didn't remember the tall buildings being so hauntingly exquisite, nor how calming the sound of rushing waterfalls.

They crossed the city without incident and arrived at the Jarl's palace, Understone Keep.

"By the Nine," Kaidan snickered. "Igmund's been spending."

"Igmund," Rayya sighed. "Igmund, Igmund, Igmund--when will you ever learn?"

"Learn what?" Zahra gasped softly. It was as though she'd stumbled into some sort of wonderland; all the rubble was gone, the broken walls repaired, the stone floors were not only swept but scrubbed and adorned with new rugs.

"Every Jarl who supported the Empire was personally rewarded with a huge chest of gold." Rayya murmured lowly.

"With which every Jarl is no doubt doing something stupid," Kaidan cackled. "Especially Igmund. Man never met a septim he didn't love to spend."

"It's how he got into his mess with the Silver-Bloods in the first place," Rayya grumbled.

Great, Zahra blinked. Fate diminished their influence in the Reach and here he is, racking up enough debt to hand it right back to them.

Understone Keep was beautiful though, far more beautiful than she recalled. Plants adorned the halls and the ancient fountains were working again. The sound of trickling water echoed through the great hall. Everything looked refined now, a far cry from the crumbling mess before.

"The Jarl's not awake yet, so we should take an early breakfast while we wait," Rayya suggested. "What's the food like in the Reach?"

"Breton," Kaidan and Zahra replied together. Kaidan elaborated, "They make pies out of everything--fruit, vegetable, and meat alike, sometimes all three at the same time."

The Thane visibly tensed slightly. "That sounds...interesting."

"It's not," her companions chorused again.

The kitchens weren't fully open, so they had to settle for basics like day old bread, apples, cheese, and cold beer. Kaidan and Rayya ate with good appetite while Zahra's stomach was in knots.

"Dear," Rayya said gently, "you've really got to relax."

"Easy for you to say," the young mage replied absently, eyes darting about the hall.

For the first time since they'd left Falkreath, Kaidan wondered if they'd made a huge mistake bringing Zahra. The young Redguard was clearly on edge, unable to stop looking around herself.

The Silver-Bloods may not have murdered her husband, but they caused his death and they were clearly no friends of hers. Even with reduced influence, they still had wealth and other resources. If they wanted her dead, they could still make it happen.

"Nothing's gonna happen to you, pet," the tall Akaviri warrior promised in a low, serious voice. He lightly touched his sword handle. "Whoever they send, I'll handle it for you."

"And then you'll put a target on both of our backs," she mumbled, wrapping her arms around herself.

"Need I remind both of you that no one in their right mind would harm an envoy under the direct protection of a Jarl?" Rayya repeated. "Igmund may still tolerate some of their antics, but rest assured Siddgeir will not. This trade mission is important to him and the entire economy of Falkreath."

"What exactly is he trying to trade?" Kaidan asked, trying to the change the subject. "Falkreath is known for its lumber. Last I checked, the Reach has no shortage of lumber."

"The Reach is known for two things mainly: silver mines and the Forsworn," Rayya corrected him. "The farmlands were decent until the Forsworn started burning everything--and everyone--in sight."

"Betrid Silver-Blood's family owned a vineyard," Zahra murmured suddenly, more so to herself. "The Forsworn killed her family and burned it down."

"Who?" Kaidan frowned.

"Thongvor's sister-in-law," Rayya told him. "The Forsworn have been an economic hindrance in the Reach for years, and now that the war's over, the Emperor himself has issued an edict to both Igmund and the High Queen herself to resolve the Forsworn problem once and for all."

Kaidan sighed. "So more uniforms on the roads, more checkpoints and the like."

Rayya nodded. "Exactly."

"That should make traveling in Skyrim a lot more fun," he said sarcastically.

"It will make it safe," the Thane pressed. "All of Tamriel views Skyrim as a wild and lawless province. Enough is enough."

A guard suddenly came to announce the court was now in session and the jarl was ready to receive them.

Siddgeir's throne was in a windowless claustrophobic chamber. The chair was stone, like the room, and seated atop two flights of stairs. He was flanked by a Redguard woman warrior and an elderly nobleman.

Kaidan did not accompany them; instead, Rayya brought Zahra.

"Your Grace," the Thane greeted in a deep, eloquent voice. "It's been a while."

"Rayya!" Igmund grinned. "Or should I say, Lady Rayya. How are things in Falkreath?"

"Flourishing, my lord."

"And Siddgeir?"

"He has his health."

"And who's this then?" Igmund asked, turning his attention to Zahra. "I know you don't have a daughter."

"This Lady Zahra, Baroness Ilinalta. She serves under me in Siddgeir's court."

Zahra gave a brief, practiced curtsy. "Your Grace," she stated neutrally, face up, eyes down.

"Come closer, my lady," Igmund commanded. "The lighting in here is terrible."

Zahra refrained from rolling her eyes as she climbed the stairs.

"You are quite a beauty, Lady Zahra," he cheerily told her. "Much like our Faleen here," he gestured towards his Redguard housecarl. "A Jarl's court should be filled with beauty, as in the old days. Do you not agree, Uncle Raerek?"

"I do," his elderly steward nodded. "In your grandfather's day, Understone Keep was filled many lovely maidens."

Zahra kept her neutral tone. "Thank you, my lords," she curtsied again, before returning to Rayya's side.

"My lord," Rayya began, taking control, "as you know, Jarl Siddgeir would like to reestablish some of the old trading agreements between our two holds."

"That is good news," Raerek agreed. "I've repeatedly discussed Markarth's collapsing trade with the other holds. We've already received envoys from Whiterun and Hjaalmarch."

"Good news indeed," the Jarl nodded. "We must dine tonight," he suddenly said to Rayya. "We can discuss all items over a fine meal instead of in this tiny room. Also...I loathe to keep the Thalmor waiting. They never let me hear the end of it."

"Tonight then," Rayya nodded. "We'll get rooms in the Silver-Blood Inn and wait your messenger."

Up until then, Zahra had wisely kept her mouth shut, but at the words "Silver-Blood Inn", her neck snapped towards the Thane.

"We're getting what?"

Next: Forgotten


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