“I’m going in to Whiterun pretty soon,” Katja told Wyll. “Do you want to get some breakfast and come with me?”
“I don’t need to eat right now,” he replied, “if you want to leave right away…”
She gave him a conspiratorial grin, saying “Okay! Let’s get Lydia’s dress and a couple of other things and go up there.” They returned inside the Suite. The dress had come upstairs with them the night before to hang on a peg in the bedroom. Before leaving, Katja took a few minutes with pen and parchment at the table. Then, her pack loaded and a good dagger at her side, she was ready to leave. “Could you bring along some kind of weapon too, Wyll?” she asked as they got to the ground floor. “Sure, just a minute,” he replied.
Wyll nipped down to the basement and returned in moments wearing a handsome leather breastplate, the Ripper sword he favored for close-in combat hanging at his belt. Any attacker suicidal enough to take on the combination of Wyll and this deadly, ugly-looking blade generally did not live to regret it. Katja stood there admiring him as he bounded back into the room. His combination of golden good looks, sunny disposition and utter lethality in battle was just so appealing to her.
They set off down the road to Whiterun, the dress in its protective cover draped over Katja’s left arm. “Are we expecting armed attack?” Wyll asked casually, wondering why his beloved thought a weapon was necessary on this short local jaunt. One did occasionally encounter skeevers or more dangerous wildlife between the Suite and town, but it hardly seemed likely they would need the kind of armament he was packing.
“I’m just being over-vigilant,” Katja admitted with a wry grin. “This dress cost about the same as a skilled worker’s wage for half a year, and getting it made took a lot of time and effort. In case some stray bandits are thinking we look like rich pickings, I’d like to discourage them before they attack.” Wyll nodded. Bandits were everywhere, at least two groups of them lurking within a 10-minute walk of the city gates.
The day was sunny and sparkling, remarkably beautiful weather for this early in the year, and the walk was enjoyable. They spotted Argis on the construction site and waved to him as they walked by – Katja making some effort to conceal what she was carrying. If Lydia wanted the dress to be a surprise for him, as it was Katja’s surprise for Lydia, she wanted to facilitate that. Wyll, meanwhile, was silently thanking the Divines that they had come up with such a plausible, near-truthful explanation for the work and Argis’ role in it.
“That place is growing like wildfire,” Katja remarked as they continued up the road. “We ought to see about hiring the builder, whoever that is, when we find our land and are ready to build our new house.”
Wyll nodded. “Yeah, he really seems to know how to get things done.” They continued walking in silence for a while, just enjoying the morning air. Blue butterflies fluttered here and there, gathering nectar from early-blooming mountain flowers.
Katja’s mind, as usual when she was simply enjoying a walk without fear of attack, was wandering. Sometimes it would go hither and yon like those butterflies, and with as little effect; but its instincts usually made it more like the dartwing dragonflies found near water throughout the province. These little but fearsome aerial predators flew with purpose, ready to seize any target of opportunity and demolish it. Likewise, her mind would seem to cruise aimlessly until it found a thought to pounce on. Then it would pursue it until it gave up its import to her relentless probing. Though there were many people who loved her, this trait was unsettling to some.
“Wyll,” Katja remarked casually, “have you noticed that the Suite’s business seems to be bursting at the seams, lately?”
“Hence our crowded bed,” he replied with a smile.
“True,” she mused. “I think there are a number of factors contributing to it, including my current fame. But I also get the sense that the whole Whiterun area is going through a sort of boom. I think that builder, whoever he is, may soon find himself busier than hell.”
Wyll considered, as they continued walking. The discussion didn’t have long to reach its conclusion, as they had just passed the stables and were moving up past the outer ramparts toward the main gate. “There does seem to be a lot of activity around town,” Wyll admitted. “And there’s almost no place for newcomers to the city to live. That was one of the problems we had when we were trying to find a house for us. No vacant properties.”
This train of thought was sparking more ideas in Katja’s mind, but she tabled it for the time being as they were welcomed through the gates by two of the faceless City guards (the one on the left, she knew, was named Gunther; she recognized the scar on his chin) and found themselves standing a few paces from Breezehome.
Adrianne Avenicci was working at her forge, and looked up as they came in. “Ho, Katja!” she called. “Did you bring me any armaments today?”
“Sorry,” Katja replied. “I just got back from Solitude. But I’ll probably have a few more pieces for you tomorrow or early next week.” She and Wyll continued down the road a few paces and knocked at the door of Breezehome.
Lydia answered the door. Of late her complexion seemed to be glowing slightly, as if her new life had been very good for her health. Certainly keeping house and enjoying the company of an adorable girl-child was less hazardous than guarding Katja’s back had been, in the early days of their association. But healthy? She greeted them with a warm smile, and Anja was soon hugging Katja around the hips before demanding to be picked up by Uncle Wyll. He held her at arms’ length and proclaimed that she was getting prettier all the time – and would soon be looking her Auntie Kat in the eyes, at the rate she was growing. The little girl brushed off Wyll’s bullshit with a grin of her own, just glad to see them.
Lydia’s eyes had fallen to the mysterious package draped over Katja’s arm. Her eyes went from it to Katja’s face, and seeing the glow of pleasure there, she anticipated that something marvelous was about to unfold. “Lydia,” Katja said somewhat solemnly. “I know that when I asked you to take up a new chapter in your life you were somewhat unprepared. But you have stepped in beautifully, and I think that you deserve something beautiful in return. I had this made for you to wear at your wedding.” She proffered the shrouded dress.
Lydia’s dark eyes were enormous, luminous, and widened in surprise. She’d been thinking a few bows sewn onto the nicest of her small collection of dresses would do. She took it from Katja’s hands but was almost afraid to remove the protective sacking. Katja grinned at her. “Well, go try it on! We need to see if it will need any alteration before next week!”
“Yes! Yes! Try it on, Mama!” Anja squealed, bouncing up and down. The thrill of an exotic surprise appearing on this ordinary morning had made her forget herself.
Anja remembered no other mama, and though she had known Lydia and Argis only a few weeks she had begun to think of them, not as “Aunt Lydia” and “Uncle Argis” but as “Mama” and “Papa.” At some level of her tiny being, she sensed that this was probably a betrayal of the people who had given her birth, who had loved her as a baby. But those people were gone from the world and her memories, and these people were here. They were her parents, and she shrugged off the inner voice that told her they were not.
Certainly, nobody else objected. In fact, Lydia glanced down at her with a look of melting love. This would not be her only child, but Anja was her first. When she herself had been orphaned, many people had been kind to her and she had not grown up without love, or without care; but there had never been a real family for her again. Now, she had her own.
Anja and Lydia bounced up the steps to the cottage’s loft, while Katja and Wyll took seats before the fire, waiting for the presentation. They could hear oohs and aahs coming from the floor above, and Lydia asking Anja to assist her with the dress’s rear fastenings. In a few minutes the two emerged and Lydia picked her way down the steps, holding onto the dress’s full skirts lest she trip, to stand before them.
Oh, it was magnificent! And the fit was perfect. Katja’s eye and her luck as well had stood her in good stead when she’d plucked that young woman from the street in Solitude to serve as Lydia’s body double. At the time, she’d thought the girl might be a little too big around the middle; but it seemed Lydia had filled out some. Not surprising, she supposed, with fewer swordfights and more domestic chores on the housecarl’s agenda.
“Oh, Lydia!” Katja said softly. “If only I had a mirror for you to see yourself! You are a vision!” Lydia’s beautiful dark eyes seemed to be on the verge of tears. What a change from the stern, impassive warrior she had been just a few months ago.
“She’s right, Mama!” Anja assured the woman. “You are a… bision.” Anja wasn’t sure exactly what the word meant, or how to pronounce it, but she’d gotten the context spot on.
Heedless of any possible wrinkling, Lydia embraced Katja. “Thank you! This is magnificent!” Pulling away, she was lost in thought for a moment. “I’d really like for Argis not to know about this until the day of the wedding. Would it be all right if you take it back to the Suite and store it for me? When we come on the 16th to fast-travel to Riften, I can put the dress on then and… maybe come down the stairs from the loft?” Katja grinned, liking the idea.
“I think that’ll be great,” she said. “I just needed to have you try it on to make sure we wouldn’t need any alterations.” She patted her friend’s belly jokingly. “Have you been eating a bit more lately?”
To her surprise, Lydia blushed to her hair roots at this teasing comment. “No offense meant!” Katja hurried to say. Lydia shook her head, then smiling, she stepped close and whispered in Katja’s ear. Now it was Katja’s turn to blush, though with her redhead’s complexion the effect was more spectacular. She threw her arms around Lydia and whispered, “I’m so happy for you! And I won’t tell anyone until you say.”
“Just let me go change!” Lydia said breathlessly, and swept up the stairs calling “Anja, I need your help again.” Anja followed her, and in another couple of minutes the two returned down the stairs with the dress once more in its muslin sack, protected from the elements. Lydia handed it over to Katja and said “Thank you so much. I can’t wait to see Argis’ expression on the 16th!”
“Can I offer you anything?” Lydia asked next, unsure what else might be on their agenda. Katja, at least, didn’t usually come to town for no other reason than a visit. “We’ve already eaten breakfast, of course – Argis leaves for his job so early these mornings! But there’s some fresh bread and apple butter, and I can make a pot of tea.”
Katja said “Tea would be fine,” even as Wyll said “Fresh bread?! Sure!” Clearly, getting him out the door without breakfast in him was a tactical blunder. As the rest of them sipped tea sweetened with honey, Wyll devoured half a dozen bread rolls and a medium-sized ceramic pot of apple butter. At which point he looked around somewhat guiltily to see if there was anything more.
“I think we’d better feed you an early lunch, Wyll,” Katja said wryly. “I apologize for bringing this ravening beast to your door.”
Lydia shrugged, smiling. “This ravening beast is welcome here at any time, I assure you,” she said, patting Wyll’s massive arm. Most times, he came laden with far more food than he ate.
“Well,” Katja said rising. “Anders is off to Fort Dawnguard again for a day or so and Wyll and I have a few more errands to run. We’ll see you soon.” Draping the dress over her arm once again, she and Wyll took their leave.
They took the nearer set of stairs and walked through upper Whiterun to the series of soaring staircases that led to Dragonsreach. As they walked into the palace, Katja spotted some of the ladies she’d schmoozed with on her recent visit, and stopped by briefly to say hello. Such women, living the lives of art objects, didn’t have much in common with her – but she thought it paid to be nice to everyone, or at least everyone she could manage to. Her diplomacy skills were still a work in progress.
Their curiosity was aroused by the package draped over her arm – so of course, she had to show it to them. Wyll stood to one side, amused and long-suffering, as the pampered wives and daughters of Whiterun’s elite waxed ecstatic over the dress. It was, really, magnificent. Katja, trying on her society matron act to see if it was something she could tolerate for longer than a minute at a time, said “Yes, if you are ever in Solitude you must see Taarie at Radiant Raiment. Her work is absolutely divine. Quite expensive, of course, but you know – you have to pay for top quality…”
When the ladies had subsided, Katja slipped the cover back over the dress and she and Wyll continued to the dais for a brief consultation with Jarl Balgruuf. Behind them, the women were all atwitter. “Who was that lady I just saw?” Wyll asked, nudging Katja in the ribs. She winced, then grinned at him.
“I think that might have been Lady Lanya-Jarskarvir, matron of the Bouchard-Lanya-Jarskarvir clan,” she told him jokingly. “Bit of a snob, isn’t she?” He grinned back at her and nodded.
Jarl Balgruuf was pleased to see them. He was coming to regard Katja and her friends as among his more valued citizens. After the usual pleasantries had been exchanged, Katja said respectfully “I have two missives for you, Balgruuf. This one” – she proffered the roll of parchment she’d penned before leaving the Suite this morning – “Is an invitation to my wedding in Solitude on the 10th of next month – and to the party we’re having at the Suite to celebrate the marriage, on the 11th.”
The elder man, his face careworn but eyes bright, accepted the parchment happily. After scanning it he said, “I should be delighted to attend. No doubt my party and I can travel by coach to Solitude, and Elisif can put us up at the Blue Palace. But how will we get back to Whiterun in time for your party?” Katja smiled and passed him a second piece of paper. “Ah, that brings me to my second letter. Elisif plans to fast-travel here after the ceremony using her magic map, and she’s hoping that you will accommodate her and her party here at Dragonsreach. I’m sure she can include you and your party with those she brings along.”
Reading the second note, Balgruuf smiled. “Well, that works out nicely,” he said. “I look forward to seeing you in Solitude on the 10th of next month, and of course in Riften next week. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to run.” Katja gave a slight bow, and she and Wyll took their leave. They popped in briefly to say hi to Farengar, mostly at Wyll’s behest, then exited the palace’s grand front doors and walked down the steps toward the lower part of town.
“That was it!” Katja said with relief. “I do believe there is nothing more I have to get done before it’s time to leave for Riften, and Lydia and Argis’s wedding next week. Well… I do need to tell Lane and Ellis about the musicians that will be coming for the party, and now I think about it we probably ought to consider putting up a big tent to handle more sleeping accommodations, and…” Before long her brain had kicked up another dozen concerns, and they were discussing them most of the way back to the Suite.
As they passed Chillfurrow Farm Wyll glanced at the progress of the construction and saw that more roof beams had been installed. Almost the entire length of the annex now had beams and support columns running across from wall to wall. Next angled rafters would arise from the beams to a central roof tree, supporting wooden sheathing over which slate tiles would be laid. He felt torn, wanting to be there helping and learning; but also wanting to be spending time with Kat. It was not often that the two of them were at loose ends together in the middle of the day, able to do whatever they wanted to. And he had a few ideas.
After they returned to the Suite, Katja carried the dress upstairs and returned it to the peg. It would be safe enough there until Lydia came to claim it again. Now that she thought about it, she felt like getting into more comfortable clothing. She’d gotten increasingly used to going around dressed in skirts since they’d finished their campaign with the Dawnguard; but she really enjoyed wearing trousers for ease of movement. She put on her snug-fitting, stretchy ones with a loose, full-sleeved shirt, gathered around the bodice with a laced corset that displayed her bust to best effect. A pair of nice leather high boots completed the look.
Meanwhile, Wyll was downstairs talking with Lane and Ellis about the inn’s accommodations. He’d be getting his bed back tonight, though he expected that either it or the master bed would go unoccupied since he fully intended to be sleeping with Kat. But the rest of the inn’s beds were full most nights. Katja joined them, and gave the innkeepers the details of the musicians who’d be travelling from the College in Solitude. They would be needing beds, as would some of the party guests. They needed a way to expand the Suite’s capacity, and soon.
Lane volunteered, “I think I know where I can lay hands on a good-sized tent, about 20 by 40 feet. Very elegant, actually. And if we can scare off the triceratops we could pitch it over on that flat stretch north of here. That land actually belongs to the Suite, though it hasn’t been used for anything in centuries.”
“That’d be great,” Katja said. “But what about beds? Wyll, can your carpenter make us some more beds?”
Wyll shook his head. “Arngeld and his sons have their hands full with the order for chairs and tables I put in with them. There’s no way they could make enough bedsteads by next week. And then there’s still the mattresses. Those things take time to sew.” Katja nodded. Besides, how could they know if this upsurge in business was a trend and not just a temporary fluctuation? She didn’t want to pay for another dozen beds and mattresses and then have them sitting there growing mold and bedbugs if the extra trade dried up again. “Can we get some carpets and fur bedrolls?” she asked Lane. He seemed to have his fingers on all sorts of supply sources.
“Around 12 or 15 of them?” he asked. When she nodded he said, “Sure.” We can even fix up the inside of the tent so the accommodations come across as some kind of exotic ‘fun experience.’ Besides, the Suite personnel can all bunk in the tent and that will free up more beds for guests. There are some beds out in the guardhouse, and we can put guests in there, too.”
“That sounds good,” Katja affirmed. “Oh, can we get somebody to scythe the field before the tent is pitched? I think that would help to make the interior more homey.”
Lane nodded. “I’ll get right on it. Ellis, can you take my lunch shift while I run some errands?” Ellis winced. He’d been on last night and again this morning, and wasn’t looking forward to the insane rush that descended on the Suite every day around midday. But with the new girls working the kitchen, he should be able to handle it. “Okay. But don’t be gone too long, eh?” Lane grinned at him. The two had been working together for years.