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~Chapter 1~

Solitude. It was a word laden with meaning. To most in the robust land of Skyrim, it was the name of the capital city of their land and the home base of the Imperial Legion. However, to one man, it was his eternal condition, and as he sat at a rickety old table in The Winking Skeever, he clutched a piece of paper in his armor-clad hand. His heart burst with anticipation as he stared down at it. He couldn’t wait to meet her at long last. He’d journeyed far and wide for the opportunity to join her in her battle against the evil dragons that had begun to terrorize the land and its citizenry. In her, he saw the promise of tomorrow for the people, a promise of survival and prosperity. More than that, despite never actually meeting her, he felt a kindred spirit as he heard the tales of her bravery and kindness. Like him, she helped all those in need and worked tirelessly to rescue those in trouble. Also like him, she traveled alone. He wondered if the loneliness weighed on her as much as it did him. He imagined it did, but whether she’d chosen her life the way she had in the name of valor or because it was merely her fate as a Dragonborn was intriguing to him, and he hoped with all his might that she would accept his offer so he could find out.

“Another one, Casavir?” the gruff bartender asked, scratching his mustache.

“No, sir. I believe I’ve had enough,” the man replied, cupping his hand over his mug of recently consumed water. His voice was so smooth and deep, it was like verbal silk caressing the air. As he stood up, the pieces of his silver armor clacked against each other, joining the chorus of sounds pervading the inn by the bard’s lute and the chattering patrons. He’d enjoyed the bard’s songs all evening, for they had taught him much about the culture and people of Skyrim, but it was time for him to retire to his chambers he had rented there. The Dragonborn would be in the city the next day and he didn’t want his crisp, sea-blue eyes to look like a raccoon’s due to exhaustion. After all, he needed to be at his best. She deserved no less.

The next morning, he outfitted himself with his finest silver armor. He affixed his gauntlets, his platemail, his greaves, and his boots with such deft skill and speed, it was like watching a ballet. It was rhythmic and graceful. His athleticism from decades of fighting and his training as a Paladin couldn’t have been more evident. As he stood in front of the full-length mirror in his chambers to give himself a once over, his thick, vivacious lips curved into a small smile at the insignia engraved into the chest of his platemail. He still recalled the joyous day it had been presented to him. It was the day he’d graduated from his training, and the insignia of curling spirals pressed together like the wings of an angel represented his commitment to his cause of spreading goodness and peace. Unfortunately, he knew the steep price that came with it. As noble and just as his cause was, the price for such lofty ideals were the vows of chastity and purity. To be sure, he’d never regretted making such promises, but it didn’t mean he was never piqued by curiosity. Still, he thanked his lucky stars and the Gods on High that a woman had never tortured his being enough for him to want to break them. He’d met many a fine lass on his travels, but none were sufficiently enticing to churn his core or make his heart thud like the stampede of a thousand horses. In that, he took much solace and comfort, for he couldn’t fathom the anguish that could result from the alternative.

Turning around, he stopped by the end table beside the door before departing for the plaza outside. There, he picked up the piece of paper he’d held the previous night. It was an invitation to the Grand Crystal Ball. He was told it was the event of the season and he couldn’t have felt more blessed that his connections within his Order had managed to procure for him an invitation to it. He hoped that the Dragonborn would accompany him as his guest. It wouldn’t be romantic in nature, of course. He thought her prowess in navigating Skyrim’s social scene would be a boon to him and he wished to make a good impression on the people. Skyrim was his fresh start, a reprieve from the horrors that haunted his past in his homeland. It was a past he was determined to put behind him and he wanted to do nothing to jeopardize his position there. Closing his eyes, he vigorously prayed that the Dragonborn would agree to his invitation and his presence by her side to slay the dragons. He finished it with an intonation of the names of all the Gods before reopening his eyes. He then laid his lips on the paper to give it a soft kiss for luck and neatly laid it in his satchel. She will accept, he thought willfully. She must.

Several hours later, he stood at the ready in the middle of the plaza. The high stone walls of the city cast a shadow over him as the sunlight slowly descended into the horizon. Still, there had been no sign of the Dragonborn. He’d waited patiently all day, but even his normally stoic temperament was beginning to wear thin. His Order connections had informed him she’d be there because of business she had with the Imperial Legion, and his connections were never wrong. Feeling a wave of fear shoot through him, he wondered if perhaps she’d finally met a beast she couldn’t conquer on her way there. The idea of her lying dead on the side of a road or in a ravine made his mouth go dry and his forehead begin to perspire. No Casavir, he calmed himself. You are being ridiculous. Her strength and power were literally the stuff of legend. Surely if dragons could not take her from this world, there could be nothing else that could perform the same tragedy. As he let out another sigh, he eyed the gate, urging it to open. Then, a second later, the doors parted, revealing a crème-white steed and a woman sitting atop it. She was well-built and curvaceous in all the right places. Her long, chocolate-brown hair draped her shoulders and her heart-shaped face framed her finely sculpted lips and nose. But, it was her cobalt-blue eyes that captivated him like no other. Swimming with strength and profundity, they summoned within him the same pleasure he’d received as a boy when reading about the marvels of the universe. With her silver armor and buckles that glistened in the orange hues coming from the setting sun, she looked like a radiant angel. In sum, she was beautiful, enchanting, and perfect. She must be the Dragonborn, he thought, feeling his knees go limp. Only a creature as divinely made as her could be the Hero of Skyrim. If she wasn’t, he couldn’t imagine who else could possibly surpass her magnificence. Taking a gulp and a deep breath, Casavir steadied himself before approaching. He set one foot in front of the other, never allowing his eyes to leave hers when out of nowhere, he spotted something shifting around behind her. Stopping in his tracks, he looked around her to see what it was. Suddenly, like a devil on her shoulder, a familiar face appeared. He had the grin of a demon and the amber eyes of a predator. Bearing the tips of his canines, the man’s lips couldn’t have been closer to the Dragonborn’s neck if he was a vampire about to devour his next meal. By the Gods, Casavir thought, appalled. What in Tamriel was he doing there? He’d never thought he’d come across Bishop there and had hoped he’d never have to lay eyes on him ever again. Worse, he never thought the Dragonborn herself would be with him. It was beyond him what possible affairs she’d have with him. It was then he knew he was correct in his original fear. She had indeed met a beast she couldn’t handle. Bishop was a disgraceful being and the type of animal parents warned their children about. Regardless of why the Dragonborn was with him, he knew Bishop could not be trusted and he would see to her safety – even if it cost him his life. Don’t worry, my Lady, he thought confidently, resuming his steps towards her. No harm will come to you. Not if I can help it.

~Chapter 2~

Casavir had to work overtime to restrain himself while approaching the Dragonborn. As concerned as he was for her welfare due to her correspondence with such a dastardly cretin as Bishop, he had no desire to startle her with quick, sudden movements. Of course, he knew quite well that she’d encountered many dangers on her journeys. Hasty movements on his part would probably not make her so much as bat an eyelash. Still, a rapid pace was unbecoming of a Paladin. Those in his station had to exhibit control, both in body and temperament. Despite how worried he was for her in Bishop’s presence, he was determined not to betray the integrity of his etiquette.

“Take your horse to the stables, ma’am?” one of the guards asked, standing by the Dragonborn with hands stretched out to grab the reins.

Jumping down from her saddle, the Dragonborn nodded. “Yes, thank you,” she replied. As she spoke, Casavir came to another grinding halt. Hearing her voice was like music to his ears. It was pure and sweet, like nectar from the most luscious wildflower from a field in the Rift. Before he could savor its sound, however, he saw Bishop climb down off the saddle and wrap his arms around the Dragonborn’s waist. “Where to now, Princess?” he asked, coming thisclose to nibbling her earlobe as he teased it with his nose. “That stupid Legion or a nice, comfy bed at the Skeever with yours truly?”

You vile monster, Casavir thought. His chest rose in irritation as he watched him fondle her. The disgusting display imbued him with a second wind, powering his legs to approach her again. He couldn’t wait to teach him a lesson about touching her, and he’d make sure it was as thoroughly unpleasant and memorable as the scene he was being forced to witness.

“We are not going anywhere,” the Dragonborn answered, prying his hands off her. “You are going to the Skeever to get us a pair of rooms while I take care of what I need to do with the Legion. We talked about this, remember?”

Smiling, Casavir was pleased to see how authoritative she was. She had moxie, and he felt his admiration for her go up a tick. Stopping in front of her, he waited for her to turn around to see him before he spoke. Much to his chagrin, though, the set of eyes that fell on him first did not belong to her. They belonged to Bishop.

“What the?” Bishop asked, his thick eyebrows rocketing up to the sky. “What in Oblivion are you doing here?”

I could ask you the same thing, Casavir thought. He was the last person he wanted to see. Appearing to want to know what the fuss was about, the Dragonborn turned around to face him. Staring up at him, her eyes were even lovelier up close, and Casavir resented Bishop more for causing him to be unable to bask in them. He had the nasty talent of being able to taint everything and anything beautiful. He was a purveyor of destruction to everything he touched, which was why it was imperative that Casavir keep her out of his filthy clutches.

“Who is this, Bishop?” the Dragonborn asked.

“My name is Casavir, my Lady,” he replied, determined to speak first. He didn’t want to give Bishop an opportunity to poison her mind against him, especially after they’d just met. Along with causing destruction, Bishop was adept at spewing lies about those he didn’t agree with. If he had it his way, Casavir would be strung up on the gallows for all the alleged misdeeds he was convinced he’d committed in his past. He wasn’t one to talk, of course. He wasn’t the model of decency himself, and Casavir prayed for an opportunity to remind him of that.

“Nice to meet you,” the Dragonborn said, extending her hand out to him.

Reaching out slowly to shake it, Casavir lightly smiled. “I’m pleased to make your very esteemed acquaintance as well.”

“Careful, Ladyship,” Bishop said. “You don’t want to get too much of him on ya. He’s like slime. Hard to get off.”

At that, Casavir tore his eyes off the Dragonborn and scowled. Still, he knew giving into his insults would only encourage him. Deciding he wasn’t worth it, he returned his gaze to the beautiful woman in front of him. As he did, he was promptly reminded of his true ambition and what really mattered. “My Lady, it is a privilege to meet you at long last. I was told you would be here and I dare say, I have waited all day for this opportunity.”

With raised brows, the Dragonborn looked at him suspiciously. “What do you mean you were told I would be here? Have you had me followed?”

“By the Gods, of course not!” Casavir proclaimed. “Allow me to allay your concerns, for I can see you have many. I am a Paladin sworn to uphold peace and virtue in the land, as is the Order of which I belong. Because of its reach, my Order has many connections and one of them is the Imperial Legion. I was told you were meeting with the commanding Legate here in Solitude and so I arrived in hopes of encountering you. Believe me, I am no stalker and I mean you no harm.”

“Pfft, yeah right,” Bishop snickered. “Where have I heard that before?”

Humph! Uttering a low huff, Casavir about wanted to smack him. What a despicable excuse for a man, he thought. His lies and the extent of his idiocy truly knew no bounds.

“Well, that’s very good to hear then,” the Dragonborn said, apparently ignoring Bishop. “And I commend you on the honorable nature of your profession and your Order. I have never met a Paladin before, but I have heard that you can perform healing magic. As much as I’d like to know if that is true, I am more curious as to your reasoning for wanting an audience with me. What business do you have with me?”

Appreciating her directness and astuteness, Casavir’s smile widened. She was not only gorgeous, but also practical and observant. It was a wonderful combination, and Casavir couldn’t help but be charmed by her. Regardless, though, he had to remember not to be too charmed. He did have his vows to consider, after all, and he didn’t want to compromise them. “I wanted to ask you if perhaps you would attend the Grand Crystal Ball with me,” he began. “I am new here. As such, I need to meet with as many of the nobles and Jarls throughout Skyrim as I can so I can best learn how to aid them with the problems that beset their lands. I am told you are quite familiar with many of them already and you know how to navigate the murky waters of the social politic. I realize this is quite uncouth and we do not know each other well at all, but be assured I would treat you with the highest respect and I would be most honored if you were to accept.” He then tilted his head to the side, imbuing his eyes with the hope that burned within him.

“Oh no, no, no!” Bishop said, waving his hands as he shoved himself between him and the Dragonborn. “I don’t think so, Cas. She’s not going anywhere with you. You’re probably lying about this ball shit anyway. Besides, she’s not the type to do such nonsense.”

Sighing, Casavir grimaced. With a shake of his head, he reached into his satchel and pulled out the invitation he had stored there. Once he had secured it within his armor-clad hand, he held it up for him and the Dragonborn to see. “As evidenced here on this official stationery from the Blue Palace, I am clearly not lying.”

“I never thought you were, Casavir,” the Dragonborn said. Laying her hand on Bishop’s shoulder, she gently pushed her way beside him. “Don’t mind him. He gets so testy about these things. He doesn’t speak for me either, so don’t accept his word as an indication of my decision.”

“What are you saying?” Bishop asked, raising his voice. Smoke looked like it was seeping from the top of his head. The display would’ve pleased Casavir in normal circumstances, but this one was anything but normal. The Dragonborn was present and he was afraid Bishop might lose control. Slowly, he put the invitation back in his satchel and cupped his hand around the hilt of his blade. You lay one finger on her and you’re a dead man, he thought.

“I’m saying I am considering his invitation, Bishop, and you’d do well to remember I am the one in charge here. I know you’re only trying to look out for me, and I always appreciate that, but I am the maker of my own destiny,” the Dragonborn said, staring at Bishop as she held him by the shoulders.

“But he’s using you! Can’t you see that?” Bishop shouted. “He’s just trying to snake his way into getting power or something – and probably your bed, while he’s at it. Trust me, my Ladyship, you can’t believe a word this man says.”

Feeling his cheeks flush with heat, Casavir about wanted to unsheathe his blade right then and there and plunge it deep within his heart. He wouldn’t dare manipulate or defile the Dragonborn! He’d sooner chop off his own arm. Even without his vows, he wouldn’t have done anything against her expressed wishes.

“Enough, Bishop. You’ve said your piece and I respect it, but I will make my own judgements. I don’t know what the matter is between you two, but as far as him being a liar, I must say he has been very straightforward in his reasons for wanting me to attend the ball with him. It doesn’t sound the least like a romantic evening and as he said, he needs to meet with all the nobility so he can further his aims for peace. I actually think he’s being very prudent and smart in his approach.”

Wanting to beam, Casavir fixed his gaze on the Dragonborn. “Why thank you, my Lady,” he said.

“Pfft, man, he’s got you snowed already! I’m disappointed in you, Princess,” Bishop yelled. He then stared at Casavir. Daggers came out of his eyes as his irises pulsated. “I don’t know how you do it. Your lies are like a bottle of wine from Skingrad. They just get better with age. But you know what? That’s all right. When she sees who you really are, and she will see it, you are going to be the one in hot water.”

“Is that a threat?” Casavir asked, tightening his grip on his hilt.

“No. It’s more like a premonition,” Bishop replied, pointing back over his shoulder with his thumb. “You think you’re so tough and your will is as strong as that armor you strut around in, but believe me, this woman is more than able to test any man’s fortitude. You’re going to be so sorry you took those oaths that your gut is going to scream for mercy.”

That does it, Casavir thought. He’d had enough of Bishop’s disrespect, his bravado, his insults. It was time to put down this mangy mutt, especially before he could cause the Dragonborn any further distress. Before he could slide his blade out from its sheathe, however, the Dragonborn laid her hand on his shoulder. “That’s not necessary,” she whispered, curving her pouty lips into a small smile as she glanced down. “Keep that where it belongs.” Her voice was almost sufficient to send him into a trance. It had a lilt and a melody that sang to his very being, like the songs performed by the choir in his Order to celebrate the holidays. The only difference was her song was infused with subtle hints of sultriness and command, and it made him feel more alive than the ones in his Order ever had. Still, his desire to protect her roared through, and as a result, he wasn’t sure what to do: stay his hand as the Lady bade or permit the tip of his blade to puncture the closest artery it could find in Bishop’s chest. Neither option was preferable. The first meant Bishop’s survival while the second didn’t cause him nearly enough damage to satisfy him. Deciding to settle himself for now, he nodded and kept his mouth closed.

“Bishop, please go and get us those rooms like we planned,” she said, turning around to face him. “You know how the Skeever runs out of them quickly and I –”

“You know what, your Ladyship,” Bishop said, holding up his hand to her. He smacked his lips together, annoyed and frustrated. “Don’t bother. I know when I’m getting the brush off. It’s clear you want to take up with his fool, so be my guest. I’m leaving, and don’t bother trying to find me, either. Whatever it is we had is over. We’re done!” He then whirled around on the balls of his heels, whispered something down to Karnwyr, his wolf, and the pair of them walked off through the open gate. As he did, the Dragonborn watched him. Casavir had no way of knowing what the look was in her eyes, for her back was still turned to him, but the quiet sigh he heard her utter told him all he needed to hear. They must’ve been close, he thought. He wasn’t sure if they had a sensual relationship or not. He hoped to the Gods it wasn’t. He despised Bishop and would never think he was a positive influence on anyone, though all of that hardly seemed to matter right now. The Dragonborn, the most divine, precious creature he’d laid his eyes on since arriving on Skyrim’s shores, was troubled by his absence, and that was all that concerned him. Resting his hand on her shoulder, he wished there was something he could do to ease her. “I am sorry about his…nature,” he mumbled, letting the edge of his chin settle just above the waves of her hair. “He has always been petulant in these matters.”

“It’s not your fault,” the Dragonborn responded. Turning to look at him again, he could see the void Bishop had left there. His heart felt numb and icy as he stared into her anguish-filled eyes. For a moment, he’d regretted trying to seek her out at all. If he hadn’t, it wouldn’t be there in the first place. Her pain is my doing, he thought ruefully.

“May I have that invitation?” she asked. “It was intended for me, after all.”

“Of course, my Lady,” he said. Gingerly reopening his satchel, he withdrew it and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she replied. Taking it from him, she read it over. “Formal dress, naturally, and here I am with nothing suitable to wear. I’ve never been to a ball before. You may regret asking this of me, Paladin,” she continued, her voice rising with joviality.

Feeling himself raised by her spirit, he cracked a small smile. “Never,” he countered. “I am simply pleased you have accepted. That is, if you indeed have.” She hadn’t officially accepted, and he knew he’d be remiss to make assumptions.

“Yes, I have. Do not fret,” she answered. “But now, I have a favor of my own to ask, if I may?”

Taken aback, Casavir nodded. He wasn’t certain what he could do for a woman who seemingly had it all like she did, but he would gladly do anything she requested that was within his means and ethics to fulfill. “I am at your service, my Lady. You need only say the word.”

“Excellent,” the Dragonborn replied. Folding the invitation up nicely, she stuffed it in her pants pocket that peeked out from underneath the hip flap of her armor. “Now that I’m going to this ball, I need to go shopping for a dress. Would you come and help me pick one out?”

A ball gown? Casavir’s brows wrinkled at the idea. He’d been asked to do many things in his life: slay diplomats and evil warlocks, kill daedra that had infested the land, and deliver important documents from city to city. But never in all his days did he think he’d be taking a woman shopping – and for a dress, no less! Still, if it’s what she wanted, he could find no reason to refuse her. “I’d be happy to,” he answered. He then offered his arm for her to hold. “I did see a store around here. It’s called The Jewel. It might have what you need.”

“Great!” the Dragonborn replied. Coiling her arm around his, she took the first step. “So tell me. Which color do you think would be best for the dress: red or blue?”

~Chapter 3~

Locked arm in arm, Casavir and the Dragonborn made a trek towards The Jewel. “I’m not sure, my Lady,” he said, perplexed. He’d never had to ponder clothing preferences before, especially ones for a woman. But as he considered her inquiry, his imagination suddenly stirred. Images of her out of her armor and in a deep, crimson red dress flooded his mind. It clung to her curves, particularly her hips, and as she moved in it, her graceful strides made him instantly blush. Casavir, he thought to himself. By the Gods, stop these illusions. They were highly inappropriate and he nearly wanted to drop to his knees then and there to pray for forgiveness. “I’m confident that a woman of your taste will not struggle to find the right dress, however,” he said, breathing hard as his boots hit the marketplace cobblestones. “You strike me as a woman with wonderful style.”

Laughing, the Dragonborn clutched his arm tighter as her leg brushed against a thicket of bushes lining the road. “That’s very kind, but I am not any better at shopping than you seem to be,” she said. “Like I told you, I’ve never purchased a ball gown. That was something my mother enjoyed far more than me. I suppose I never inherited that appreciation from her.”

Smiling, Casavir looked down at her. It pleased him to hear her reference something so personal. Everyone frequently thought of her as this legendary icon, as if she wasn’t a real person but rather a mythical being that had no human history. He himself often endured the same issue in his Order. He had performed many good deeds and his comrades treated him more like a hero, but he knew he was anything but. “Well, if you do not mind me saying so, whatever genes you did inherit made you into an incredible person, my Lady,” he replied. “Skyrim is very fortunate to have you in its service.”

“Aww,” she said, her cheeks turning a tinge of pink. “Thank you, Casavir. I believe the same must be true of you, as well. We are in similar professions, after all.”

Bowing his head, he was immediately struck by her words. If only that was true, he thought. He was no saint and nothing to admire. He had spent his entire time, the past decade he’d been with the Order, trying to atone for the sins of his past. Still, he did not want to let on that her compliment had disturbed him. She had meant it with good intentions, and he wished to be gracious upon its reception. Nodding gently, he halted before her as they arrived at the shop’s door. “I appreciate that, my Lady,” he said. Reaching for the handle, he was about to pull it open for her when she grabbed it instead.

“Don’t mention it,” she responded, pulling it open before he could. Staring up at him, her blue eyes were like dusky orbs twinkling in the faint sunlight. They almost seemed like stars themselves, stalling the breath in Casavir’s lungs. It was as if she was both an angel of the light and night with how her beauty transcended both times of day. “By the way, I don’t mind being called ‘My Lady,’ but if you ever want to call me by my name, it’s Raina,” she said. “Raina Rockchester.”

Raina. Hearing her name, the corners of Casavir’s lips quirked upwards in content. It was regal and yet exotic all at once. From his own background, he knew her name meant “queen,” at least it did back in his homeland. He loved it, and the idea of calling her by her actual name excited him. Alas, he had been trained to always formally address people of such standing as the Dragonborn. He wasn’t sure if he could find it in himself to break with such a protocol. Nevertheless, it appeared she wanted him to in this particular case, and he did not wish to deny her if that was her desire. “Very well, Raina,” he said. As her name departed his lips, the musicality of its syllables drifted into his ears and lingered in his mind. He stood there, savoring it briefly before he followed her inside.

A few moments later, he stepped over the shop’s threshold and was promptly greeted by the sounds of chatty female patrons and rich piano music playing from a mysterious source. It was curious to him how it could be playing when there was no visible instrument in his proximity, but he surmised it must be coming from a room deeper within the shop’s interior. If that was indeed the case, he would not be surprised. From the sight that was now before him, it appeared as if the shop was quite cavernous. The entry room had low hanging walls in the front and was filled with tables stocked with various shoes, dresses, and jewelry pieces. The back was the sole elevated location. There, a tall tree with many branches stood under a stately stained-glass window. Gobs of light filtered through it, illuminating the leaves of the tree like flecks of gold. It was a radiant display, and one that Casavir greatly appreciated.

“I’m going to go with this lady and try on some dresses,” Raina said, looking at him a short distance away. Returning her attentions, Casavir looked at her as she stood beside a woman who he assumed was the owner. She had a tiara on with a sapphire in the center and a flowing, white v-necked dress, marking her as distinctly different from the other staff members who were busy offering assistance to the other patrons. “All right,” he replied. “I shall await you here at this tree when you are ready.”

“Fantastic,” she said, smiling at him brightly. She then followed the lady into a side room, disappearing behind an emerald-green curtain. The moment she left, Casavir’s insides clenched. He had only been by her side a brief time, but it had been more than enough to long to remain there for eternity, and even a short duration away from her seemed to displease him. It alarmed him, and he cleared his throat trying to suppress his distress.

Taking a few steps forward, he found a bench by the tree and lowered himself onto it. He then crossed his arms, thinking about all of the nobles he would meet at the ball. He hoped to be able to have an audience with a Thane or the Jarl of Falkreath. He’d heard stories of their many wars and the severe toll it had taken on their communities. Hundreds had died and it was a known fact that the hold was known as a bastion of death. The Hall of the Dead itself was even situated there, and he wished to be able to help them. Then again, Markarth suffered a similar fate. The Forsworn and bandits there were causing a nuisance, especially along the roads that led to the city. And then there were the tales emerging from Winterhold. Most of it had been destroyed by a major geological collapse and the College of Mages was the only reason people visited it anymore. It amazed him how much carnage the land of Skyrim suffered, and the Civil War between the Stormcloaks and the Legion was not helping matters. I do despise all of this needless bloodshed, he thought, shaking his head. As much as his Order had allied itself with the Legion, he did sometimes question if their actions actually made things better or worse. He wished there could be some common ground found between the Stormcloaks and the Legion, but he knew Ulfric would have none of that. He was too bent on his ways, according to Casavir’s sources, and hopes of a reconciliation had been dashed the moment Ulfric began kicking citizens out of their homes so his forces could use them as a base. He and his militia had also killed and butchered their way through one too many towns. It was completely wrong and unjust, so Casavir and his Order felt they had no other choice but to side with the Legion. The Stormcloaks were simply too barbarous, too single-minded for them to consider anything else. The Legion was not perfect, but it was as close to it as they could get in these troubled times.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Casavir leaned his head against the wall and allowed his eyes to drift close. His desire to help the people of Skyrim was as unwavering and strong as a blade built in the Skyforge, but the notion of it was also equally exhausting. There was so much to be done and he had to be careful not to let it overwhelm him. Forcing himself to relax, the notes from the piano music soothed his nerves like a tonic. They reminded him that in just a few short hours, he would be on the ballroom floor with Raina, dancing with her in his arms. Now that was a much more welcome visual than meeting with a bunch of stodgy nobles. His mind began to wonder what it would feel like to have her silken skin so close to his own, but he was careful not to get too absorbed in it. Those were dangerous, sensual thoughts that could entice him to break his vows, and that he had to avoid at all costs.

“Casavir,” a voice said in the distance. It was every bit as musical as the piano notes, and together, they sounded like a melody composed by the Gods themselves. Knowing it was Raina’s, his eyes popped open immediately. The second they did, his heart froze and his eyes widened to the size of the shield he sometimes used. There in the center of the entry room, she stood by a lit candelabra on one of the merchandise tables. Her ivory skin glowed as the flame flickered over her. As it moved with the draft coursing through the small space, her long hair, cascading like a waterfall down her back, curled ever so slowly around her waist, making it appear like she had wings on either side of her. But, as magnificent and lovely as she was, the dress she wore was what made his heart restart itself with such a fury, it about flew from his chest. Just as he imagined before they arrived, she wore a crimson red dress that went down to her ankles, the fit of which was beyond anything he could ever dream. It hugged her curves so perfectly, so precisely, so meticulously, he could swear to the Divines that it had been made specifically for her. His eyes couldn’t help but wander over each part of her exquisite frame, and as he did, his entire mouth began to salivate and his breaths turned into something more akin to pants. By the Gods, he thought, his mind abuzz with stimulation. She is positively gorgeous. He hadn’t conceived it was possible she could look more beautiful than she did when he first saw her, but there she was, and the mere sight of her was doing terrible yet wonderful things to him.

“So,” she asked, spinning around on the balls of her heels so he could see her from every angle. “What do you think? Is it too much?”

Shaking his head through a daze, he found himself yearning to touch her, but then like an invisible leash, his subconscious snapped him away from such desires. Stop it, he reminded himself. Rising to his feet, he looked down at the ground, careful to not so much as allow himself to glance at her. Once he was close enough, he stopped and took a deep bow. “No, my Lady,” he said. “It is just right for you.” Do not look up, he commanded himself. He didn’t think he’d survive the endeavor without lying at least one finger on her, especially at this range.

“Oh that’s good,” she said. “I was so worried. I’m exceedingly bad at this.”

“I do not know why you believe so,” the lady who she’d gone with said. Her voice was youthful and mysterious, as if she had a hidden beauty. “You really do have better taste than you believe, Dragonborn. I do not understand why you worry so.”

“I’ve spent the better part of my life in the woods with a sword and shield in my hand, Victoria,” Raina answered. As she moved, part of the dress’s fabric grazed Casavir’s cheek. It electrified him, and he could feel her warmth emanating from underneath it. Stop it, he told himself again, this time aloud a little.

“Casavir?” Raina asked. “Sorry. Did you say something?”

Oh, goodness gracious, he thought. His cheeks flushed with heat. He hadn’t meant her to hear that. Straightening his posture, he took a deep, annoyed breath and looked her head-on. “No,” he answered. “I am sorry if I confused you.”

Smiling, she cupped her hand around his shoulder and stared at him tenderly. He had no idea why she was being so hospitable towards him, but he appreciated her attentions nonetheless. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I should probably get out of this thing so it won’t wrinkle. I’ll be right back, okay?”

“As you wish, my Lady,” he murmured. She then released him and turned around, walking back behind the green curtain. As she did, Casavir watched her intently. Her stride down to the way she lifted her feet sang to his soul, and it was then he realized how much of a problem he had on his hands. If he couldn’t so much as handle being with her this way, he had no idea how he was going to manage dancing with her hours from then. Attending the ball with her seemed like such a pleasant idea before, but now, it felt like something closer to torture. Still, he was determined not to let his urges get the better of him. He was a trained, professional Paladin who had sworn his allegiances to his vows and the Gods on High. He had steeled himself against every manner of dragon, demon, and beast in both his homeland and Skyrim. For those reasons, a dance with an intelligent, elegant creature like Raina could not undo him. He wouldn’t allow it – not now, not ever. I will be as resolute as is necessary, he thought, drawing the deepest breath he ever had as he reached for his coin purse to pay for her dress. It seemed like the least he could do, and as he withdrew the gold with his fingers, he hardened himself for what was sure to be the greatest battle of his life. I will win, he told himself, squeezing the gold piece to the point where his knuckles turned whiter than the snow in Dawnstar. I must, for my vows and her honor depend on it.

~Chapter 4~

Three hours later, it was eight o’clock PM. The sun had set, taking its nightly slumber, and the round, full moon had taken its place in the sky. As Casavir and Raina walked together to the Blue Palace under the starry abyss, he was careful to move slowly with her so she wouldn’t accidentally trip over her gown. Fortunately, Raina was so graceful, she made walking in it seem effortless. In fact, her pace matched his own, and he couldn’t help but smile to himself as they got closer to the plaza where the ballroom entrance was. Of course, he knew his smile was because of much more than that. The moon cast a white, effervescent glow over Raina’s skin, making it appear milkier and smoother than usual. She looked so absolutely beautiful because of it, it made it even harder for him not to gaze at her. Still, he knew he had to. Tempting fate was never a good idea. It only led to heartache, at least it had in his experience.

“Casavir?” Raina asked, the pair of them now a few feet away from the palace.

“Yes, my Lady?”

“Are you cross with me?” she asked, her sweet voice dripping with concern and sadness. The sound of it penetrated Casavir’s soul, stabbing it like a sharp dagger.

“Of course not!” he replied, darting his eyes quickly to her. “Why in Sovengarde would you think such a dreadful thing?”

“Well,” she began, her cheeks tinging pink with embarrassment. “You haven’t uttered a single word to me or looked at me since we left the shop. You didn’t even speak to me when we were at the Skeever getting ready. I thought I had done something to anger you.”

Feeling his heart stiffen with pain, Casavir’s brows bowed inwards. Well played, Cas, he thought, irritated. He’d never meant to upset her. He’d refrained from having as many interactions with her as possible in order to prevent himself from being tempted by her. Unfortunately, it seemed to have the side effect of hurting her feelings. I’m going to have to change my tactics, he thought. He couldn’t very well continue letting her believe he was shunning her. That was wrong and not his intention. “My apologies, Raina,” he said. “Please trust me when I say we are absolutely fine. I could never harbor any ill will towards you,” he assured her, imbuing his eyes with the utmost sincerity.

At that, she smiled and let out a heavy breath. “Thank the Gods! I would never want you to be mad at me,” she said, looking ahead again at the palace. “Especially tonight. I am certainly going to need you.”

“Why is that?” he asked, rubbing his hand over her gloved one as they proceeded up the hill.

“I can’t dance,” she said, chuckling nervously under her breath. “I have two left feet and my balance can be atrocious in heels. You’re going to have to help me.”

Laughing a little, Casavir’s lips widened. “Oh,” he replied. Hearing such news surprised him. She seemed to be so graceful as she walked, he couldn’t imagine she was a poor dancer. Regardless, he was happy to be there for her. “Fret not, my Lady. The art of dancing was instilled in me as part of my Paladin training. I am sure I will be able to assist you.”

“That’s good,” she said. “Dancing was part of my training too, only not as a Paladin. When I was younger, I was bred for something else entirely.”

Intrigued, he looked at her. “What might that be, if I may ask?”

Moving her eyes back to him, they burned with foul disdain. “A nobleman’s wife.”

Instantly, as if her words were a bevy of arrows flying a million miles an hour, his chest felt punctured by each and every one of them. Suddenly, his mind went black and he froze in place, feeling a rush of fear and pain course through his being. I could never love you, Casavir, the memories of a woman with wavy, blonde hair and brown eyes cried. He still remembered her as if it had happened yesterday, even though it had been several years ago now. She had her head in her hands as she shook in front of him, totally unhinged and consumed with grief. I will never forgive you and I will never be your wife, do you hear me? Never! As he recalled the memory, his body broke out into a cold sweat and his heart began to race uncontrollably. “I am so sorry,” he mumbled, staring out into space. All he could see was darkness. “Please, forgive me!”

“Casavir, what’s wrong?” a feminine voice asked. It sounded hollow and miles away. He could barely hear her, but he could detect her concern and desperation to get his attention. He then began to feel something pressing into his arm, dragging him back into the present. “Casavir!” the woman repeated. “Speak to me. Whatever is the matter? Forgive you for what?”

Giving his head a firm shake, he began to recognize the woman’s voice. It was Raina’s, and she sounded worried to pieces. Breathing quickly, he looked to his side and saw her standing there, gripping his forearm and staring at him with anxious, panic-stricken eyes. Her dark blue irises pulsated as she watched him, frantic for him to say something. “I am so sorry, my Lady,” he said, grabbing her lightly by the shoulders. “I do not know what came over me. Please, excuse my outburst.”

“It’s quite all right,” she said, her voice slowly becoming more relaxed as she caressed him. Her tender, rhythmic strokes put him at ease immediately. He felt his nerves calm and his veins thaw from the cold chill the memory thrust onto them, making him feel more like himself. “Are you okay now?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, nodding. “I am fine. I assure you. I apologize for alarming you.”

“No need to apologize. I’m just glad you’re fine now,” she replied. Drawing a deep breath, she then ceased her caresses and broke away from him. She still seemed concerned, but her facial muscles weren’t nearly as tense as before. Watching her walk away, Casavir felt terrible for worrying her so, but he was also struck with anxiety about where she was going. Looking around, a quick scan of their surroundings revealed to him they had arrived at the plaza outside the ballroom. By the Gods, he thought, unnerved by how utterly unaware he had been of their location. I cannot permit that to happen again. He couldn’t afford to be distracted and lose his sense of reality as he just did. He was in the presence of Raina now and if anything should try to harm her at the ball tonight, he knew he had to be ready to defend her. Then again, he understood that she was perfectly able to care for herself should any calamity befall her, but he didn’t want her having to perform such a deed alone. He wanted to prove that he was capable and that he could be relied on should she need him. In addition, it was his duty as a Paladin to defend those who were good and honorable. Raina certainly fit that description – along with many other ones.

“Casavir, come here please. I want to introduce you to someone,” Raina called out to him from across the way. Standing beside her was a medium built man with bulging muscles protruding from a russet tunic lined with a fur collar. His gray hair was pulled back in braids that Casavir surmised he did himself. They appeared far from professionally done, for they had several strands hanging out of the ribbon that was meant to keep them in place and he had frizz on the top of his head. Nevertheless, he appeared stately and regal enough to get away with his less than immaculate appearance. He must be a nobleman, Casavir guessed. Picking up his feet, he walked towards them and extended his hand out. The man extended his own back, giving him a nice, strong shake. As he did, Casavir stared into his jet-black eyes. They were seasoned, experienced, and there were deep bags under them with small scars that littered his face. This man has seen battle, Casavir ascertained as he released his hand, satisfied with their greeting.

“This is the esteemed Thane of Eastmarch, Brynolf Vandermeer,” Raina said. “Sir Vandermeer, this is Casavir. He’s a Paladin with the Order.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Casavir said, bowing his head in respect.

“Oh, there’s no need for that, boy,” Brynolf replied, waving him off. His voice was husky and raspy, and he began coughing as soon as he spoke. For a moment, Casavir considered offering him his handkerchief, but he did not want to be rude. Clearing his throat, Brynolf eventually came to and looked back at him. “The joys of gettin’ older,” he said, shaking his head. “I swear, the Gods are no more merciful to an old man than those blasted dragons that are attackin’ our villages.”

“Your villages?” Casavir asked.

“Yes,” Raina intervened. “Sir Vandermeer and the rest of Eastmarch have had terrible problems with dragons and the like of late. Half of their towns have been decimated and the ones that have been spared are suffering from citizens fleeing further to the south in hopes of keeping themselves and their children safe. If you ask me, I think it is horribly tragic. They are literally being uprooted from their homes for fear of losing their lives.”

“Yes,” Casavir nodded. “I must concur. That is horrible.”

“Of that, we’re all agreed,” Brynolf said, scratching under his thick, burly mustache. “And I swear, those blasted Stormcloaks make it all ten times worse! They’ve set up camp in some of the abandoned villages. They’ve been forcin’ the remainin’ shopkeepers and the tavern owners to basically hand over their stocks, free of charge, in order to supply their little rebellion. It makes me sick!”

“I can appreciate why,” Casavir said. “There is no excuse for what they are doing, be it in your territories or any other.”

“You got that right, son!” Brynolf said. “That’s why me and my men are gonna do somethin’ about it ‘for they can do anymore damage by gettin’ to Windhelm!”

Raising a brow, Casavir shifted in place. “You’re going to strike at them?” he asked.

“Indeed we are!” he said, thumping his chest with his fist. “We’ve had enough. It’s time somethin’ be done about it once and for all. If the Legion and the Empire won’t send anymore men to help us, then it’s about time we take it on ourselves to get the job done. No more lollygaggin’, I say!”

“You do have a point. You cannot continue to stand idly by while your lands are being ravaged,” Raina replied as she looped her arm back around Casavir’s. “Would you like some extra swords and shields by your side when you strike, by the way? I myself would love to help and I know Casavir here would as well. He’s my companion.”

What? Stunned, Casavir couldn’t believe what he just heard. Throwing his head to the side, he stared down at her. She wants me to travel with her, he thought, his eyes nearly boggling out of their sockets. The notion of it was certainly pleasurable to him. It definitely beat traveling alone, but he was absolutely shocked that she wanted to do such a thing.

“He happens to have connections with the Legion,” she confidently continued. “They are allies of his Order and I’m certain he could obtain some intelligence that would prove useful to you.” She then gave his arm a squeeze and turned to look up at him, smiling with a slight twinkle in her eyes that was both mischievous and charming. “And if he doesn’t mind me saying so, he also has wonderful technique with a blade.”

Blushing, Casavir felt his cheeks burn with the heat of a thousand suns. It pleased him greatly that she thought he was skilled in combat, but her statement to Sir Vandermeer was still dishonest. She’d never actually seen him in battle before, but given the look in her eyes, he supposed that wasn’t the point. She was attempting to be shrewd in dealing with the gentleman so that he would allow him to help. Although Casavir disliked the approach, he could sense that the gentleman had an unfavorable view of the Legion due to their lack of commitment to securing his lands. Raina probably detected that as well and wanted to give Brynolf extra incentive to permit him in his company. Before he could give it any further thought, however, Brynolf tossed his hand squarely onto his shoulder and tightened his fingers around his steel pauldrons.

“Well Ms. Rockchester, if you’re vouchin’ for this man, who am I to say no? Course you two can join us. I’ll have my courier send you instructions in the comin’ days.” He then took his hand off and turned around, facing the door to the ballroom. Reaching up, he clutched his furry collar and beamed proudly. “We’ll make those dag nab blowhards hurt so bad, their ancestors will feel it in their graves!” The sound of his boisterous laugh thundered through the plaza, making some of the passing ball attendees glace at him. He didn’t seem to notice though. He appeared too caught up in the grandeur of his battle fantasies to give it much concern.

“Excellent, Sir Vandermeer,” Raina said. “We will await news from you with fervent anticipation. In the meantime, might I suggest you go inside and spend some time with your wife? I hear she enjoys dancing and she wouldn’t want to miss the bards’ songs tonight. I’m told they’re some of her favorites from the college.”

At that, Brynolf faced her and nodded. “Aye. That be true, my Lady. She’ll peck my eyes out if I be late to that. She does love to dance so, and Oblivion will have to freeze over before I let some other man hold her in his arms.”

“You best get in there quickly, then,” Raina said, smiling kindly at him.

“Yes indeed,” he replied. Bending down, he grabbed her hand gently and planted a kiss on her knuckles. There was nothing the least bit romantic about it, but it still made Casavir cringe inside. How he hated any man touching her, in even the slightest degree! Nevertheless, he knew he had to maintain his composure. She had gone out on a limb for him and he did not want to fail her by appearing uncouth, especially in front of the nobles of whom he needed to make a good impression. Skyrim’s future was at stake and he did not want to jeopardize his ability to help those in need of his services. He and Sir Vandermeer then exchanged brief nods of farewell before Brynolf made his way towards the doors and disappeared amongst the small group of other well-dressed patrons entering the ballroom.

“I apologize if that was forward or inappropriate of me,” Raina said, moving in front of him so he could see her. “But all of that really was the best way. I know I’ve never actually seen you in battle before, but Brynolf has had issues with the Legion since a squad of his was killed because they refused to send reinforcements. He blames the Legion for their deaths. I didn’t want him taking it out on you by refusing your aid. I know how important it is for you to further your aims here and I didn’t want him putting a stop to that.”

Staring down at her, he considered her for a moment. He appreciated her commitment to assisting him. More than that, though, he couldn’t help but understand her methods. He didn’t approve of them but given his own background, he knew that dealing with the nobility sometimes required a deft, if sometimes dishonest, touch. It wasn’t ideal, but it was for the greater good and he truly had no malicious intent. He honestly did want to help any way he could. “You have my thanks for that,” he said. Sighing, he then looked away from her and crossed his arms. He didn’t like the distasteful way she had gotten Brynolf to allow him to help, but he was too experienced with the nobility to be this bothered by the demands of interacting with them. No, it had to be something else, and he had a hunch he knew what it was. “My Lady?” he asked, turning back around to face her.

“Yes?” she asked, smoothing out the front of her gown.

“Were you sincere when you told him I was your companion?” The words tasted sour as they left his lips, but they had to be asked. Her telling Sir Vandermeer that could’ve been merely another part of her ruse to help strengthen her case for letting him be apart of their strike on the Stormcloaks. He had to be sure, and it surprised him how much every fiber of his being yearned to hear her say that she had indeed told the truth. As he waited on baited breath for her response, she reached up and cupped his upper arm, smiling at him politely and yet with the same anticipation that imbued his own spirit in this very moment.

“I certainly was,” she said. “I would love nothing more than for you to travel with me full-time after tonight. I would consider it a privilege, actually. That is up to you, however.”

As if his lungs had been renewed, he felt the air return to them and his heart thud with excitement. Dear Gods, he thought, feeling himself bubble over inside. She truly did mean it. Stepping away from her, he swallowed hard, feeling a lump develop in his throat. She’ll be with me at all hours, he thought. That beautiful frame, those thick, pouty lips, and above all, that brilliant, cunning mind, would be his to behold every day and every night from here on. The very concept of it nearly brought him to his knees, and he suddenly found himself lacking the confidence that he could manage being in her presence that frequently. But then, he remembered the discomfort he felt when Brynolf kissed her hand mere moments ago and when Bishop was pawing at her like the abominable beast he was. No, he thought to himself, feeling a knot tighten deep down in his gut. He couldn’t let that happen. Raina had to be under his care and his alone. I will control myself, he thought. I can and I must. With a deeply drawn breath, he looked back at her and smiled. Not enough to appear overly excited, but enough to let her know he was enthused. “Of course, my Lady,” he said. “It would be my pleasure.”

As soon as he accepted her invitation, her lips spread apart into a dazzling array of blinding white teeth. From how excited she seemed, Casavir was convinced that she might leap into his arms, but she quickly drew back, sensing how inappropriate she was being. “I’m very pleased to hear that,” she said, clearly tempering her voice. Her efforts at cordiality and control made Casavir chuckle under his breath. He felt the same elation, however, and he wondered if perhaps his laugh was because of his own excitement rather than hers. Nonetheless, he was careful not to let it show too much.

“Well, now that we have that settled, I do believe we have a dance to attend,” she said, offering her hand out to him. Her glove adorned fingers wiggled as she waited for him to grab them. She seemed so sweet, so happy, and Casavir instinctively felt his arm lift and his fingers curl around hers. Once they were safely nestled in his hand, she led them towards the ballroom door. He wasn’t sure what to expect when they arrived inside, but one thing he was absolutely certain of: it wouldn’t be the last night he’d spend with the fair Lady Raina. There would be many, many more, and he would have to be prepared for each and every one of them.

~Chapter 5~

With his fingers gripping the door handle, Casavir steadied himself. He knew once he opened it, he would be in a cell specifically built for him where he would be tortured relentlessly by the presence of Raina’s warm flesh in his hands, breathing in her sweet womanly scent as he danced with her. The thought of it brought heat to his cheeks and roused a desperate yearning in his being, but he knew he would have to subdue those desires. His vows demanded it and he’d never betray them, no matter how beautiful Raina was. Drawing in a single more soothing breath, he opened the door and let her in first, making sure she was safely inside before following her. Even from behind she looked remarkable with her flowing chocolate hair and her crimson dress that hugged her in just the right places. Dear Gods, aid me in my hour of need, he prayed, following her haplessly inside as he let the door close behind them. It would take all the willpower he could muster to resist her and concentrate on his goal of convincing the rest of the nobles to ally themselves with his Order. He was determined to succeed though, for any other outcome was too much to bear.

“Wow. They’ve certainly spared no expense,” Raina said, gesturing around her. Wishing to see what she was referring to, Casavir surveyed the space himself. It didn’t take him long to realize what she meant. In the short foyer where they found themselves, buffet tables were set out with every variety of fine wine, mead, and ale that Tamriel had to offer. There were also platters aplenty of neatly cut cheese, crackers, and shrimp for the guests to nibble on while they chatted about whatever was on the menu for the daily gossip. At least, that was what Casavir expected they’d discuss. It was always that way with nobles. They generally had little time for anything of real importance. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but be impressed by the decorations on the walls. Hanging on nearly every surface he could find were glimmering tapestries that almost seemed transparent. They looked like sheets of crystal emblazoned by the bright yellow candlelight filling the space. In the middle of the tapestries, he could make out an insignia of the Solitude. In the corner of the room, he also noticed a band of bards playing a lilt-like tune with a lute that had shades of Imperialistic melody intertwined with the rough drum beats of Nordic influence. “Solitude does know how to make a statement,” he replied, pulling off to the side with Raina so the other guests could come in. One woman in particular stuck him in the nose with a long, dark blue feather that poked out of the high net backing thrusting out from the neck of her dress. By the Gods, he thought, scrunching his nose to keep from sneezing after being tickled by it. She looked utterly ridiculous! He couldn’t fathom why anyone would wish to own such nonsense, much less wear it out publicly. That was the whim of nobles, though – a whim he knew all too well, and the woman certainly wasn’t alone in her fashion sense. From what he could see, everyone had varying tastes. Some were as ostentatious as hers with outfits equally as displeasing to the eye while others had a more practical sensibility with garments that seemed much more appropriate. In other words, it was a classic ball complete with all the trimmings.

“Indeed, it does,” Raina said. “Do you want anything to drink? We should get something now before heading out to the floor. Once we do, I suspect it will be difficult for us to return here. This place is filling up rather quickly.”

“True, my Lady,” Casavir said. “But do not fret. I shall not wish to indulge in any of the offerings they have tonight. My vows forbid me to drink anything that could alter my mind or my judgement negatively.” Truth be told, it was more than merely his vows that precluded such an activity. He had never preferred to consume alcohol, for he believed that it was imprudent and he wished to maintain a level head in all situations. To be caught in the chocking grasp of inebriation appalled him and he was content never to let an ounce of alcohol touch his lips for the remainder of his life.

“Ah, well that’s fine,” Raina replied, smiling up at him reassuringly. “I don’t drink either. It’s not because of a vow to an Order or anything like you, though. It’s more of a personal vow, I suppose. I’ve never been a fan of losing myself to vices that could control me. Maybe that makes me silly. I’m not sure.”

Amazed, Casavir quirked his brow up at her. Did she truly just say that? It was as if she was speaking the thoughts in his mind, the feelings in his heart. He couldn’t believe she felt how he did on the matter. It made him think that perhaps he should tell her the real reason why he didn’t drink. It would set her mind at ease. However, Raina was a confident young woman. She needed no such validation of her feelings or her choices. Still, he longed to share that piece of himself with her, if only to feel connected with her in some brief way. “No, my Lady,” he responded, his voice a whisper as he gazed into her crisp blue eyes. “I do not believe you are silly for thinking such. I believe you to be quite brave and strong for making that choice, actually.”

Giving him a light smile, she nodded shyly. “Thank you,” she quietly answered. The hint of fragility in her expression melted Casavir’s heart even more, touching him to his core. She was confident and yet tender at the same time. It was a rare combination he didn’t expect, made rarer when combined with the grace she also possessed. He couldn’t believe he was in the presence of such a fascinating woman. Before he could say more to her, she’d grabbed his hand again and was leading him out onto the ballroom floor. He didn’t mind, though. He’d follow her to Oblivion itself if that was what was required. Then again, for him, the ballroom floor might as well have been such a place, for it would torture him just the same – or perhaps worse.

“It’s so gorgeous in here,” Raina exclaimed, her eyes bedazzled by the glittering lights coming from the ceiling. Unbeknownst to her, however, Casavir was oblivious to their source or their presence. The only light to him in that moment was her. She dazzled him so much, he was entranced by her, but he knew he had to cease this absurd behavior. It would only serve to heighten his lustful thoughts, and that was dangerous for him, to say the least. “Yes my Lady, I agree,” he said, snapping his eyes away from her. Gorgeous indeed, he thought, rubbing the back of his neck in frustration with his free hand.

“I believe I see Queen Elisif,” Raina said, pointing up to the dais on the far side of the room. Tracing her finger again, Casavir saw her sitting in a high mahogany chair with satin purple cushions that glittered along with everything else in the room. She had a welcoming expression with her fair brown eyes, smiling politely at the few who had made their way to greet her. He was pleased to see such a kind queen and he had heard many positive stories of her disposition from those in his Order who’d had dealings with her. She was apparently a bright woman who’d learned much from her husband who had passed away and caused her to become the reigning monarch there. Her intellectual brightness was only matched by the brightness in the room, and his curiosity was finally piqued sufficiently to entice him to search for its source. Moving his eyes about the room, he knew the candelabras made of goat horns and the candles on the end tables could not possibly produce the type of angelic, almost supernatural light penetrating the space. He then looked up, more determined than before to find the source of it. The second he did, his search was over, and a whole new fascination occupied him in its place. Hanging on a strong set of gold chains was a large glass orb a few feet above him. As if radiating from within its core, rays of white lights cast diamond shaped silhouettes all across the dome from where it hung. The cluster of them looked like an array of stars against a night sky, and Casavir’s jaw dropped as he took them all in. We certainly don’t have anything like this where I come from, he thought. It was a tragedy, too. He could only imagine how his fellow countrymen would react upon seeing such a wander.

“It’s said to be a gift the Jarl gave the first king of Solitude when he married his daughter,” Raina said, her voice sounding miles away.

Looking down at her, his brow bowed in intrigue. “I beg your pardon?”

“The crystal,” she said, pointing up at it. “The legends say it was a gift. The Crystal Ball was first organized to celebrate the Jarl’s wedding with the king’s daughter, and the ball was named after the crystal you see.”

“Oh,” he replied, smiling sheepishly at his lack of awareness. “How very appropriate. However did the Jarl obtain such a marvel?”

At that, Raina tilted her head as she wrapped her hands around his upper arm and joined him as he returned his eyes to the crystal. “The legends aren’t as clear about that, unfortunately, but they all seem to agree that he discovered it upon fighting a warlock in a cave in the far mountains of the Reach. The warlock was using it for some bid to defeat the Bretons who had settled in High Rock. Being partly of Breton blood himself, the Jarl set out to slay the warlock, and once he was vanquished by him and his soldiers, he took the crystal to ensure that it could never be used for evil purposes again. When the Jarl took ownership of it, the crystal reacted, apparently sensing the good intentions he had for it. Instead of burning with dark energy, it became what you see now, and it has glowed ever since.”

“Hmm, I see,” Casavir replied, imprinting the crystal in his mind.

“Indeed,” Raina said. “Nowadays, parents in Skyrim tell the story to their children to remind them to behave and that things can seem ugly or bad on the surface, but in reality, they can be beautiful and good in the hands of the right person.”

Chuckling a bit under his breath, Casavir was charmed by the interpretation. He could certainly understand what the parents meant and he agreed, but it was still unexpected. It forced him to look upon it with a renewed spirit. He too knew what it was like when people assumed the worst, despite how wrong and inaccurate those assumptions were. Like the crystal, he had been manipulated and forced to be something other than what he was. Along with his disciplined Paladin training, the consequences from the event had caused him to have a prickliness that had proven off-putting to some who’d approached him. “I suppose it’s akin to not judging a book by its cover then,” he said.

“Yes. Something like that,” Raina replied, seemingly pleased that he understood its meaning. The sparkle reigniting in her eyes made the crystal pale in comparison, and Casavir instantly returned his attentions to her, glad to have such an intellectual woman who appreciated true culture by his side. Not only that, she also seemed to be a gentle woman who was fair and understanding. Of course, that could’ve been jumping the bow a bit. She had merely reported on how the crystal was perceived by the public at large. She’d made no mention of her personal feelings on the matter, but he hoped that his instincts about her were correct. It would be a welcome change to feel comfortable enough to share the secrets of his past that he’d kept locked away for so long with someone. He wanted her to be that someone, but that, however, was for another day, and now that they were traveling together permanently, he knew he’d have much time to do precisely that should he ever decide to.

“Fantastic,” Raina said. “The Queen’s getting up. I think she’s about to speak,” she continued, squeezing his arm in anticipation. His muscles tensed with pleasure, and the corners of his lips formed deep dimples as he smiled down at her. He was so enraptured by her, he barely noticed the nobles flocking around them in order to pay heed to the Queen’s words.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Elisif began, standing on the edge of the dais as she kept her chin level with it. “Allow me to welcome you to another Grand Crystal Ball. I am delighted to have you all here with us yet again. It doesn’t seem like a year has gone by since our last gathering, but alas, time does fly by on the backs of ravens’ wings these days, doesn’t it?”

The nobles clapped in unison, laughing cordially in agreement.

“Nevertheless, it has brought us swiftly back together, and for that, we must all be grateful, especially with the trying times that are darkening our spirits. It makes events such as these even more special and important. Our unity has rarely ever been so brutally challenged, and we must stand firmly together to meet the dividing forces that threaten us.”

Dividing forces that threaten us, Casavir thought, clapping along with the other guests. Oh how he did appreciate her political correctness! It was quite obvious of whom she was referring, and yet she made no specific mention of the Stormcloaks. The politician in her was on full display, and from the eruption of applause coming from the nobles, he felt he was in good company. Most of them seemed to be pro-Legion and thus, pro-Empire. Perhaps my Order’s assistance in their lands will be more warmly received than we expected.

“But my honored and esteemed guests, tonight, we leave our troubles at the door. Tonight, we recognize our unity, our purpose, and most crucially, our survival. We are a nation at war on many fronts, but we must never forget that we are also a nation of mirth and rich history that much not only be defended, but celebrated. On that note, I invite you to partake in all the merriment you can stand. Drink heartily, eat robustly, and most of all, dance passionately. Let the festivities commence!”

At that, everyone clapped again, this time following it up by turning to their partners and grabbing them around the shoulders. Upon seeing them, a lump bubbled up within Casavir’s throat and a knot tightened in the pit of his stomach. As if on cue, he felt Raina’s soft hands glide over him. One stopped atop his shoulder, the other gripped his waist. My Gods, he thought, gulping hard. It was time. He knew the moment he turned his head, he’d be met instantly by the sight of those ravishing eyes, that dress that teased him with the cut that revealed only the outline of the jewels that lie just beneath, and the smile that could make even the staunchest man weak in the knees. But he knew he had to. He knew she would expect him to. And he knew he wanted this woman more than life itself. Steadying himself, he lowered his right hand onto her waist, feeling the curve of her bones nestle between his formidable fingers. He then lifted his left hand onto her shoulder, pressing into her collarbone ever so slightly with his thumb. The feel of her bare skin sent shockwaves through his body, and before he knew it, he was gazing into her face again. Entranced by her magnificence and those eyes that were sapphire-tinted windows into her soul, his instincts took over immediately. He placed one foot out, followed by the next, until the pair of them found themselves twirling about the dance floor like a couple who had been dancing together their entire lives. He nearly forgot about her admission that she was a poor dancer with how wonderfully she moved. Her technique was as masterful as any expert’s, and his breaths quickened as their pace increased along with the speed of the music.

“Wow, I’m doing better than I thought I would,” Raina said, smiling so joyfully, it was as if the gates to Sovngarde had opened before him. He had never known such pure joy than he felt in this moment. “It must be your influence,” she persisted, giggling in a tone that made his heart flutter.

“Nay, my Lady. I must protest. It is your natural talent shining through that is to be credited,” he replied, managing to summon his voice in his throat, albeit only just.

“You’re too kind, Casavir,” she replied. “I’m lucky you’re with me. I would be bumbling all over this floor if not for you.”

Blushing, he shook his head. “I sincerely doubt that, Raina.”

“Raina?” she asked, raising a brow happily. “Wow. You called me by my name. You’ve only ever done that once.”

“True,” he said, smiling to himself. He was enjoying being with her so much, he’d forgotten all about his normal protocol. It simply didn’t seem to matter. Dancing with her and having her in his arms was like second nature to him. It felt right, and as the music increasingly joined with their steps, it caused them to have an even more perfect union of movement with each other. At each octave in the song, he extended his arm, holding her out for a brief second before heaving her gently back into his chest. It felt so harmonious and rhythmic, and when the song reached its apex, she slid her hand up his side, stopping mercilessly at his stomach. Despite wearing his plate armor, every fiber of his imagination sprang to life as he fantasized about how her touch would feel on that erogenous part of his body. His heart thudded like the drums the bards were beating and a bead of perspiration bubbled up just above his brow. She could so easily be yours, he thought to himself, gazing into her blessed eyes. Instantly, his mouth salivated and his groin tightened, and on the final note of the song, he dipped her, holding the small of her back with one hand and cradling the back of her head with the other. He then tilted his nose, bringing it an inch away from her neck, and his nostrils instinctively breathed in her intoxicating scent. She smelled of gardenias and honey – a combination that left him reeling inside. She looked up at him with mesmerizing eyes, as if she knew what he was thinking. Still, she made no move to resist or escape him. She seemed to want him as much as he wanted her, and that stirred the yearning for her inside of him that much more. Take her, he thought. Tearing his eyes away from hers, he stared at her lips. Oh how lovely they looked, how luscious, how totally and utterly inviting. He could stand her temptations no longer. Holding her steadily against him, he lowered his mouth to descend on hers, feeling her warm breath slip from between her lips and graze his jaw. She’s yours, he thought frantically. All yours. Claim her now. Just as his lips reached within a fingernail-width away from hers, though, something tugged at him inside. Stop this, Casavir, it screamed at him. Remember your vows. Its penetrating pleas were almost deafening, thundering through him more than the bards’ music ever could. Suddenly, the gripping fog that had ensnared his mind began to lift and his body felt like ice. My Gods, he thought, panting in disgust. It was all he could do to remember to hold onto Raina and bring her back to her feet. I cannot believe what I almost did, he thought, holding his forehead. He wanted to curse himself for nearly losing control. It was quite unbecoming of a Paladin, and he wanted to flog himself right then and there for it.

“Casavir, are you okay?” Raina’s tender voice asked him as she laid her hand on his shoulder.

Swallowing hard, he exhaled in exhaustion. “I’m fine, my Lady,” he said, keeping his eyes away from her. He could only imagine the look on her face in this moment, and he didn’t want to concern her any more than he already had. He was quite certain his own appearance was too ghastly for words.

“You don’t seem like it,” she said. “Please, talk to me. It’s all right.”

No it’s not, he thought to himself. None of this was acceptable. He could never allow this to happen again. Turning away from her, he inhaled deeply and looked ahead at the door to the courtyard. It seemed to beckon at him, and now more than ever, he needed some time to himself. “My Lady,” he mumbled. “I need to leave. I will rejoin you later.” He then picked up his feet and pressed towards the door. He despised himself for leaving her in this way, but he prayed she would understand. There was no way he could stay, no way he could remain in her presence, at least for the time being. When he was nearly at the door, his hand reached out to grip the handle, and as his fingers curled around its golden surface, a tinge of guilt crept up within him. Pausing, he stopped and slowly looked back at Raina over his shoulder. She stood there in the middle of the ballroom floor, watching him with such sadness and worry, it made his heart freeze. I am so sorry, my Lady, he thought ruefully. Please forgive me.