The doors opened, a gust of snow-filled wind blew into the corridor as the jarl walked through, his thick, black fur cloak billowing behind him. His face, as always, was unreadable as he made his way to his rooms, paying little mind to those he passed along the way. He had decided to take a walk to clear his mind and had made his way to the training yard and watched some of his men sparring for a while before making his way to the Temple of Talos where he had spent time contemplating the war. Restlessness had set in and soon he had found himself walking the streets of his city until the wind turned harsh and he made his way back to the Palace.
His mind was weighed down with thoughts of the war, the sellswords he sent to Castle Dour to extract and extradite the traitor Appius that kept failing to successfully infiltrate the Legion’s Skyrim base, and now his thoughts included the thieving Breton, specifically, how did she manage to get into his personal armory. He kept thinking that if she had been able to get that far into the Palace and into one of the most secured wings of the castle, perhaps she would be able to do what the sellswords had failed to do.
He walked into his quarters, removing his cloak as he did so and draping across the back of a chair, then proceeded to pour himself a goblet of mead before walking across the room to a window to gaze out across his city. A dusting of snow rested upon the tops of the stone walls and some of the rooftops, smoke puffed out of chimneys while ice wolves howled in the distance beyond the city walls. He took a drink off his goblet, the mead warming his chilled body as his thoughts went to the days of his early youth when all was carefree and he ran throughout this city playing with his friends. His world had completely changed when he was barely six winters old when he was sent to study with the Greybeards at High Hrothgar. He had left a boy and returned as an orphaned young man, his heart cold and hard by his experiences.
A knock at his door drew his attention; the hour was late but he had been expecting this knock. He set the goblet down then went and opened the door, revealing a young guard, a slight look of fear in his young eyes. Ulfric tried to remember the boy’s name but it kept eluding him. “Can I help you?” he asked the young man.
“Sir.” The guard saluted then continued. “Ralof is asking to speak with you. He says that you will know what it’s about?”
He nodded. “Is he alone?”
The guard shook his head. “No, sir. There is a woman with him.”
He nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The jarl smiled. “Very good. I’ll speak to them in my study.”
“Yes, sir,” the guard answered as he saluted again before turning to leave.
Ulfric left the door ajar as he went into his study off the side of his bedroom and waited. It wasn’t long before Ralof and Meliandra entered the room. He glanced at the Breton, noting the way she held herself, confident but cautious, before turning his attention to his officer. His strong voice rumbling in the room as he spoke, demanding their full attention. “I trust this means there is cooperation?”
“Yes, Jarl Ulfric,” Ralof answered, looking back at his companion, a slight smile on his lips. “Meliandra has agreed to speak with you.”
Ulfric gave her his full attention. “Good. I have a lot of questions; there might be a… offer of sorts as well, one that you should give serious thought to when giving me an answer. Is that understood?”
“Understood,” she responded, a slight smile on her own face.
He saw the glint in her eye; it made him slightly uneasy. Looking back at Ralof, he dismissed the man then waited until he was alone with the thief. He walked to his desk, pulled the chair out and sat down. Indicating the chair opposite to his desk, he stated flatly, “Have a seat.”
He watched as she walked to the chair, trying to read her. She looked at him as she sat down, her amber eyes meeting his, the glint still there as she smiled at him, like a cat toying with her prey. But he was no prey. He gestured to the jug of mead on his desk. “Care for a drink?” He didn’t wait for a response, rather he reached for a tankard and picking up the jug, began pouring her one. “Did you enjoy your breath of freedom tonight?” he asked smiling.
“It was a lot more enjoyable than having to deal with that miserable excuse for a former guard in the cell next to me. It could have been better if you’d have just let me go.” She accepted the offered libation and took a drink, staring at the jarl all the while.
“I’m sure you understand why that’s impossible.” He poured himself a tankard as well, returning her gaze as he did so. “You see, I don’t know if you’re working for one of my enemies, perhaps inadvertently or maybe knowingly. Either way, you managed to do something no one has ever done before and I want to know how you did so and who are you working for?”
She held the tankard by the rim, a long, graceful finger tracing the edge as she sat back, the look in her eyes boring into his. “You have nothing to fear, Jarl Ulfric. I am not working for anyone but myself.”
While he heard the note of truthfulness to her voice, her suddenly darkened yes caused him concern. This time it was him whose eyes bore down on hers as he sat forward and crossed his arms in front of him as he rested them on his desk before him. The smile on his face was not warm as he said, “I don’t believe you. I can always return you to that jail cell until you decide to tell me the truth.”
A sneer flashed on her face for a moment, then she sighed heavily and drank more of her mead before answering him. Her voice took on an edge, one of authority as she said, “Fine. I work with the Thieves Guild. I was given a task to make sure our presence here in your Hold was known. Against the advice of my superiors, I decided that stealing something for you would be enough of a message that the Guild is still very much alive and well.”
His eyebrows arched again, this time higher. “The Thieves Guild?” He leaned in further. “Am I to believe that this is just some random theft and not some covert operation on the part of Tullius and the Empire?” He shook his head, a false laughter coming from his lips as he looked at her again, more sternly then before. “I find that hard to believe, Meliandra.”
Her eyes blazed hotly as she snapped. “Tullius?!” She slammed the tankard onto his desk. “There’s not enough gold in all of Skyrim that could ever convince me to do any kind of job for that piece of shit or the Empire!”
He smiled as he sat back in his chair. “Care to prove it to me?”
Her eyes narrowed as she stared at him, studying him. “What?”
“I asked you if you would like to prove to me that you do not work for the Empire?” He steepled his fingers before him, his smile still lingering on his lips as he said in measured breaths, “It’s very simple, Meliandra. You prove to me that you are not an agent of the Empire and I’ll permit you to continue to live.”
She took a deep breath. “And how do you propose that I prove that?”
“I want you to go to Castle Dour in Solitude. You will bring me back the double-crossing turncoat Appius Fridthjof. Simple as that.”
She opened the door and walked into the rented room to find Vorstag snoring on his bed roll while Lydia sat at the table in their room. Lydia’s head turned quickly to see who was entering their room. “My Thane!” the housecarl cried out, stirring their companion on the floor.
“Lydia, stop with that damn thane title shit, would you?” She nudged the sleeping man on the floor with her foot. “Wake up, Vorstag. We’ve got to head out of here and soon.”
“Mel?” he answered groggily. “What’s going on?”
“I’m in between a rock and a hard place, that’s what’s going on. Now get up and let’s get out of here.” She began collecting her belongings as she told them about her conversation with Ulfric and the ultimatum he had issued her, explaining to them that in order for her to leave Windhelm alive was to agree to do a job for the jarl.
“So he’s blackmailing you?” Vorstag snapped.
“Look,” she said, “I do this job, he lets me walk out of here.”
“He wants you to sneak into Castle Dour and extract an Imperial spy!” Lydia cried out. “It’s a suicide mission! I cannot let you do this!”
Meliandra spun on her heel and advanced on her housecarl. “I don’t need your permission to do anything. This is the only way to prove that I am not a spy. His own spies will be watching for me and will be reporting back to him. If I do not do this, I will be hunted down and executed.”
The room was silent save for the sound of Meliandra’s packing as her statement settled in before her companions began to quickly pack their belongings. A few minutes later they exited the room and headed out of the inn. They walked in silence as they made their way to the city gates.
A cold breeze greeted them as they descended the steps to the bridge that spanned across the water that separated the old city from the mainland. Meliandra pulled her fur cloak closer to her body and looked away as the snowflakes landed on her cheeks. She saw the carriage waiting beyond the stables and indicated to her companions they’d be taking it. She told them to get in the back as she headed to the carriage driver.
“Where ya headed?” he asked.
“Passage to Riften with extra coin if you pick no one else.”
He nodded. “Hop in back.”
As the carriage set out, Vorstag looked at her, questioningly. “Riften? Why not immediately to Solitude?”
She smiled. “Because despite being caught, I still finished what I was sent to do. The guards might have recovered the items I stole from the armory, but I was still able to get out of the palace with this.” She opened a bag to reveal a large signet ring embossed with the crest of Ulfric Stormcloak.