The Emperor gave them all new names that day.
"Names to endear," he said.
"All the Dragonborn knows of me, are my repeated attempts to capture him. The mistakes of my Generals. I will not win him to the Empire's cause if all he knows is the fist." He walked closer to her and opened his hand. "You are the antidote to that - you ten - are the exact opposite of my father's strategies." He gave a pointed look to one of his men before going on.
"Instead of a sword, you are my catspaw. You are my..." she was stunned as the Emperor leaned down and kissed her forehead, "Kiz."
He moved down the line of bounty-hunters. "Karres," he said, and stroked the Dunmer's greenskinned arm.
"Kurtsey," he bowed to the tall Altmer.
"Hugg." On and on, down the line, embracing and tickling and joking, and when he was done he ascended to his throne and looked down on them all with a smile.
She'd fought a sense of awe as she looked up at him that day, onyx-black fringe hanging in his eyes, a mouth full of straight white teeth and that well-pleased look on his face. Told herself that Kyus was an arrogant princeling of an Emperor, one who had just stolen her name and her past, and with a maiden's view of war and strategy.
As she travelled Tamriel, she became less sure.
Whenever she introduced herself as 'Kiz,' every man - and male mer - would instantly become helpful. She didn't know if it was just the name, the sound-alike of 'kiss' coming from a young Breton woman's mouth, or whether the Imperial mages had put some speech-spell on the her. She endlessly studied the pendant Kyus had bestowed on them all: an imprint of a cat's paw in silver, strung on a black leather thong about her neck. Was it enchanted? Or were her freckles, pert nose and new name enough to win most men over?
All she knew was, she'd found her first Dragonborn clue when she walked into Sarthaal with twenty or so wagonfolk, completely anonymous on the Emperor's mission, with commonfolk around her who treated her as a sister and would probably have died protecting her. So perhaps Kyus had the right of it after all.
"...dragonborn's wife... "
She overheard the snatch of conversation by the campfire that night, tucked into a Winterhold cliff ridge against the swirling snow. Kiz noted the speaker, and manuevered to get him alone.
"A failed archmage," he said with a grin when she asked him his story. He jerked his thumb at the towering peaks of the magic college, on the horizon in the northeast. "Bunch of idiots," he said, "learned idiots, but idiots."
She pretended to laugh gaily.
"I'm Haim," he held out his hand for her to shake.
Kiz told him her name, then watched as he began to wet his lip too many times and rake his fingers through his blonde tangles of hair. He looks like a hungry Forsworn, she thought, as they walked back into camp together.
"Talking to Haim?" another local called out as he spied them returning. "M'lady must fancy a fairytale!"
She made a show of flushing at the 'm'lady,' and then asked the man what he meant. He leaned on his garden fence and poked at Haim's shirt. "Tell her about Mod the Builder!" he laughed at the younger man. When Haim didn't elaborate himself, the elder man went on. "Haim here believes there's an invisible builder called Mod. Had a dream about it, didn't you Haim? He says Mod is forever making new things in Skyrim and no-one notices. Except Haim, he notices. He's a wizard this one, a true wizard, I swear." Sarcasm dripped from his voice, but it was still quite good-natured, and not mean.
The blonde boy scratched his nose and said nothing. Kiz noticed him turning a little red though.
"Oh, and then there's the one about bedding the Dragonborn's wife. Tell 'er that one, Haim!"
And she did get it out of him later, in his tent, both of them under his furs... for warmth, he assured her. "So the Dragonborn's wife, eh?" Kiz teased, elbowing his leg under the wolfpelt.
"In truth, it was... a friend of mine," Haim pinkened. "And she's not his wife."
"Oh, apart from that, though - a true story!"
"She lives in Windhelm," Haim went on, after a grin. He pulled the fur bedding up to his neck. "Pretty girl. He was in love with her, more than her him, if you believe the gossip."
"Anyone could say they were the Dragonborn's lover..." Kiz said.
"She has his dragon pendant, though. The one Emperor Kyus gave him for quelling the dragons. Big sapphire, big as an egg, and shaped like a dragon's head. On a chain of sapphire-studded silver. I doubt a tavern wench could afford something like that."
"You saw it?" Kiz said.
"My friend said he heard a rumor about her, and he decided to bed her himself - partly for the pleasure - she's very pretty - and partly because he wanted to search her room for clues. He found the necklace under her floorboards."
"You saw it, though?" she repeated. "You."
"He smuggled it out and showed me. Aye, I saw it."
It didn't take much more charming on Kiz's part to get his friend's name, and the name of the 'Dragonborn's wife.' Perhaps she hadn't needed to sleep with him, but in truth she had wanted to, more than as a reward to him, or to obscure her interrogations, she had simply wanted to. After he rolled off her and went to sleep, Kiz crept from his tent and found a remote spot to write out her report.
Any other Catspaw investigating Windhelm tavern wench? Rumoured romantically connected to Deekay (possibly just gossip). I am beginning south regardless. Send reply to Windhelm, I will await it at the stables before making any moves. Feels like a good lead for once.
She folded the note into a racer and put it on the ground before her, looking over her shoulder to check she was still alone before giving the incantation and setting it on it's way to Cyrodiil, fast as an arrow. There looked to be no storms in that direction. She brushed the dirt from her knees, and rose. They should have it by morning.
Haim was waiting for her under the furs, snoring lightly, so Kiz crept under them to join him and nestled into his broad back. For a bounty-hunt, this job has it's perks, she smiled.
When she awoke he was gone.
As a hunter, that makes sense, she told herself. His bow and quiver were gone too.
Kiz retied her short red braids so they resembled some kind of hairstyle and massaged the life back into her face. Dawn waited outside, and she squinted and opened the tenflap to join it, finding the Winterhold morning un-characteristically warm, still and beautiful. She could even see as far as the stony grey shores in the north and the slate coloured sea beyond. A clear day for doing deeds, as the northern saying went. Woodchucks tattled at each other in the frosted pines.
Her group would travel today to make the most of the weather, but Kiz wouldn't be going with them. This dragonborn's wife was her best lead in months, and she had all the information Haim had to give, she was sure of it.
A hookfly buzzed around her head and settled on her shoulder, its bulbous stinger pulsing, preparing to stick her. Suddenly it froze, then folded in on itself with a squish.
She didn't like insects.
Kiz went to say her hidden goodbyes; stroking her hand through little Laurtz' silken hair one last time, and secreting a folded note into sweet Rhonalisa's apron-pocket. Out of all of them, Rhonna would take her leaving the hardest; the kid thought of her as a big-sister, and the note might help.
Oh, yes, Kiz chided herself, well done - you have perfected abandonment.
At least the act of slipping away was easy. She hadn't set-up her own tent last night, so there was no protracted packing-up.
It was the mountains that looked hard. All up the coast with the wagontrain, Kiz had seen those mountains looming in the south, and been thankful they didn't have to cross them. Now the choice was cross them, or go around for five-times as long a journey. And alone.
The weather made things easier. Paths were easy to see and free of ice-gilding, where at other times of the year she would have been cutting her way up the glaciers with ropes and claws. As it was she could scramble up the same rock, naked of ice, in minutes. Still, the approach was steep-going, and the sun only made an appearance at the peak of Mount Anthor after midday, after she scaled the Dwermer ruins of Alftland - the quickest, hardest way across into The Pale.
Crawling between two boulders against the freezing wind, she took some water and a handful of food, catching her breath. If she could get on the other side of the ranges by nightfall there would be dry firewood and tree-cover for her camp. That was always -
Her ward was up before she even had time to recognise the sound for what it was. A bowstring loosed... but no arrow impact followed. What on Nirn? she looked around wildly.
Again the blue screen of her ward appeared for a second, by reflex.
Then she saw the figure.
"Nice magic," Haim smiled, and pulled his thick hood away from his face. "Sorry - did I ruin your escape?"
Her smile must have looked as guilty as it felt. "What escape?"
"The one where you don't tell anyone you're leaving." He gestured lazily over the side of the ridge with his longbow and Kiz squinted to see into the distance. Oh, they were leaving now; the wagons. Leagues off, but she could still see them, skirting The Broken Cape and travelling further east. She supposed Rhonna had shared the note with her mother and the others, and they knew not to wait for her.
But of course Haim didn't mean leaving them.
"I have my reasons," she said.
The comment hung there. Even to her own ears, it sounded cold as the wind whipping at them. "It was nice to meet you, though."
Haim laughed at the sky. She liked his laugh. "After that, I get a 'nice to meet you'," he said. His tone implied he was more used to expressing that sentiment to women than hearing it said to him. "Can I come into your castle?" he asked. "There's a frost dragon out here giving me hell."
"Fine," she said, acting more reluctant than she really felt. He bundled into the windbreak with her, his rough layers of hide noisily grazing the sides of the rock.
If she hadn't been wearing the silver catspaw necklace, she would've been nicer. Said a nice goodbye, or maybe not gone at all. Maybe they could have travelled together, or just hunted game by day and repeated last night over-and-over and kept each other warm. But she was Kiz now, not Olaine the Bretony. She couldn't risk slipping up; accidently letting some commoner in on the Emperor's most hidden plans. As they chatted she made it clear that while she regretted leaving unannounced, she was still leaving, and without him, should he have been holding some secret hope.
Haim looked at her with his blue northener's eyes. "Well I was tracking a sabrecat for my dinner before I started tracking you. Maybe I should get back to that." If he was upset, it didn't show. Backing out of the rock shelter, he slung his bow over his back and put his hood up. "It was nice meeting you, though."
She laughed despite herself.
"Just tell me one thing before I go."
"We'll see... what is it?"
"The sabrecat I was hunting... before I started hunting you... which is the more dangerous?"
When she didn't answer except to stare at him, he nodded, then laughed. "I thought so. When I surprised you, that ward was up without you even thinking about it." He raised his eyebrows. "Looked strong."
"Good I've been practicing," she said, too quickly. There was an undeniable charge between them, something warm and sunny. She wanted to ask him how long he planned on being here in Winterhold, upset she hadn't asked him already - but that was the woman in her, not the bounty hunter she needed to be. If anything, she was the Emperor's woman now, and that would be disloyal to him.
"Is Kiz even your real name?" he asked.
"You said one question."
"And you didn't answer it..." he sniffed the air, looking away. "That cat's still nearby." He tugged on the front of his hood like a salute. "Farewell, Magic Girl."
Ten minutes later, she couldn't believe how much of a little girl she'd been acting. She could almost physically feel her attention coming back to her quest with every pump of her legs up the mountain trail to Wayward Pass; the lowest point of the ranges, where the rock had been carved away into a natural valley from eons of coastal wind.
When she reached its over-arching shadow she stopped for another rest, kissing the purple, pitted sculptre of The Traveller some ancient Nord or another had ensconsced at the halfway point, then passing out the other side into another hold of Skyrim - The Pale. Out in the east Whiterun was a smudge in the distance, even to her Breton, drop-of-elfsblood eyes. One popular joke said Breton men were cursed to see their wives age with perfect vision. Surely that went both ways, Kiz always thought.
Below her was the Nightgate Inn, or what was left of it, as it was now a sooty flattened ruin of its former glory. The rumour was Ulfric had finally gotten sick of the 'moral effect' it was having on any Stormcloak garrisons posted nearby, and had had it burnt to the ground.
Where do whores go, Kiz wondered, when you burn their brothel down? Probably to the nearest city to ply their trade to more of Ulfric's troops, where they'd have more competition, and have to lower their price. The Highking was no idiot, no doubt he'd had the same thought. She shook her head as she passed the inn; the split, blackened beams pointing up at the sky like a dragon's ribs. It may not save their souls, Ulfric, but it will save your coinpurse.
She spied Anga's Mill through the pines ahead, and was reassured it was still there, it's windmill blades creaking their circuit around as they had since she'd first seen them as a girl of five - an arrogant little Breton girl, riding on her father's shoulders - too young and naive to know she was actually a penniless, immigrant invader to anyone who saw them pass. The Nords had cured her of that quickly enough, though.
The Mill would put her up. Pretty much anywhere like it would, unless you looked too unsavoury for even a workhardened group of labourers to deal with. Even then, let the septims in your purse rattle as you come in, and Kiz thought they'd let a frost troll warm himself at the hearth.
There was a raucous, drunken roar when she walked in. The millworkers. A gathering of only six men, but they made enough noise for twenty. She noticed a woman of fifty years or so polishing glasses at the bar and made a line for her, greeting the men in passing, so as to not seem stuck-up. They might be useful later.
"Four septims for a bed, five for food as well," she said without looking up from blotting the pint-glass.
She counted them out onto the pinewood bar from her small purse, watching the older woman's face. Maybe she was upset there was a younger woman come to take the men's attention. "I'm Kiz," she introduced herself.
"Got a horse?"
"No. Just me."
"Pity. We got too much flax - he woulda eaten well. You want stew?"
"I'll... yes, I do, thank-you."
The woman made a face as Kiz took her stew to the common table, the men shifting aside for her, delicately balancing their cups like they were beginning a stately allemande with their sweethearts. They seemed trustworthy enough. If any of them meant her harm, they were doing a good impression of flour-dusted, sneezy molnars half in their cups.
Halfway through her bowl of barley-and-lemongrass she asked if any of them knew about the 'Dragonborn's wife,' and the response she got made her heart sink.
They paused and averted their eyes. "You..." the oldest one with the stringy black hair began, then changed tack and started again. "Are you a friend of hers?"
She knew the woman was dead before they even explained any further.
Ulfric, they said. Ulfric had killed her, or rather had her killed.
"Why?" She instantly doubted the story.
"He wanted the Dovahkiin to give him a dragon. A blue dragon, no less. Like a symbol for the Stormcloaks. When Mattheu Morndas refused, he killed the poor girl."
"A fucking mascot is what he wanted," one of the younger lads put in, quite pleased with his own wordplay. "I bet he woulda branded a fucking bears head on it, too, just so you knew for sure it was the Stormcloaks when your village was burning down. Ulfric probably had dreams of riding it to Cyrodiil - gobbling Kyus Mede up in one gulp."
"Makes you wonder what the man's compensating for," said the redhaired one with an arched eyebrow, bringing gales of laughter from the others.
Kiz was less amused, and she needed more information than that. The good thing about hunting a famous man though, was that you could ask as many questions about them as you liked, and you just seemed like another curious gossip-hound.
They had never heard of Haim's friend; the one he had claimed bedded the woman. They knew nothing about the sapphire necklace either, but the tidbit seemed to entertain them. "Where is she buried?" Kiz finally asked the older, stringy-haired man when she got him alone.
His eyes lit up like they hadn't all evening, and she knew it was overstepping the mark. She ought to have cried at the news of her quaries death and said 'yes, yes I'm her niece,' and then wanting to know where she was buried would have naturally seemed a thing to ask. Usually I'm better than this, Kiz thought. I should have asked where she was interred when I reached Wildhelm, and used the niece story there.
Luckily, the man had a very amiable style of suspicion, like a grandfather catching her pantry-climbing to get at the sweetrolls. "You must be the prettiest spy on the Emporer's payroll," he winked. "You should see some of the brutes we get in here, hunting for this or that or the other for Kyus, under Ulfric's nose."
Kiz started to feign ignorance, but he stopped her. "Before you think you're losing your touch, I didn't used to be just a molnar powdering grain for the hungry mouths of Skyrim. I knew what to look for. But that's a story for another time."
The matron with the withering looks called out to him from the backroom, and Kiz finally understood; they were a couple. He answered in some private code of the married, before turning back to Kiz. "The most trouble I'll get into talking to you will be from her, which would be a change from the old days. If you're lucky, you might end up the same way, lass."
Kiz smiled back and held her tongue.
"I'll tell you where the Dovahkiin's sweetheart is buried, though you could probably have guessed. Go on; guess."
"Windhelm Cemetary. No - the new boneyard outside of Windhelm. In the southeast."
"And there you go," he smiled. "You don't need a guide, then? I'm headed that way tomorrow. Oh, I can see that's a 'no'."
"I travel alone," Kiz lied. She needed time to think alone, was more truthful, and she got the feeling she wouldn't get it if the workmaster joined her. The man didn't know how lucky he was though, really. In the time of Kyus' father, loose-ends with tales to tell would have received quite different treatment.
She took some brandy to help her sleep - and help keep the damn Skyrim chill out of her bones - and snatched a few hours rest in the guest quarters. The brandy did it's work. She was out like a light seconds after her head touched the dusty hammock netting.
The old spy was up when she was, brewing nettletea in the morning sunlight slanting through the open shutters. He handed Kiz a cup of the purple, steaming beverage which in Skyrim they called Magika Potion, or Maj, but which to Kiz would always just be 'tea.' They called it nothing else in her homestate of High Rock.
"Can I trust you not to..." she gestured through the steam coming from the earthenware mug.
The old spy nodded.
"Thank-you for everything," Kiz said.
"Oh, I don't help just anyone," the old spy said. "I could tell you were a good person. And I'm sure you'll use whatever information you gather for the good."
For the good? she reflected on the road to Windhelm. We want to find a man who doesn't want to be found, least of all by the Empire. We want to beg him to forgive our prior actions - so many things the Imperials had taken from him because he was a 'rebel' - and now we must beg him to join us. To hear Kyus tell it, the plane of Nirn itself was at stake.
The province of The Pale in daytime was as Kiz remembered it as a child - well-named. All the colours seemed to drain out of the world here; the grey slush of the road, the glimmering white snowdrifts stretching out forever and populated by shaggy grey ghostpine sentinels. Sky blue was the only colour for miles until the orange speck of the Talos Shrine fire fluttered in the east, and grew larger. To her left, the hills fell away and revealed Ulfric's frozen hold in all it's majesty; a full league of stone bridge ending in a forty feet high battlement, and behind it the Palace of the Kings, rearing up into the sky like some bear's head howling at Secunda.
Two Bluecloaks nodded to her as she skirted the gatebridge. Kiz saw in their eyes that they were upset she didn't need to travel into the city proper, giving them no official reason to delay her passing. "Good morn, m'lady," they both offered when she was closest to them.
"May Talos guide you," the taller one added. "I'm sure if he has eyes, he will. From what house do you hail?"
"Who holds Riften these days?" she smiled at him. "I've been gone a year."
"Ha! There's been no overthrow there for quite some time, m'lady. The Unnamed Truce between Ulfric and Kyus still holds - Riften is ours, fully. He even got rid of the rats. Theives Guild's gone. They used some magic lute, I heard."
"He reads The Courier Claim," the short one nodded up at him, as if apologising for his blue brother's fanciful ideas.
"No, that's true! Dammy said," responded the taller one.
She left them to their argument, thankful she hadn't chosen the life of a gateguard, which in her experience seemed to be mostly standing all day in heavy armour while gossiping like a fishwife. Two young boys forked manure out of the stalls as she approached the stables, and stopped to watch her pass. Kiz heard their ribald laughter behind her as she introduced herself to the Stablemaster, a big bear of a Nord. He was close to seven feet tall if he was an inch, with muddy-brown hair so curly it bounced when he walked.
"Gyam," he said, and shook her hand like she were a man - more gently than she would have thought possible with his massive, rough paws of hands.
"Kiz. I've been thinking about how much a horse might cost me here."
"Around the hundred mark, depends on the horse."
She chose a rouncey the same shade as her hair and paid the man a dragonnote. He checked its texture and held it to the light, completely unabashed that she was standing there watching him. "Good enough," Gyam said. "Take care of the red, she's a favorite around here."
"I'll try my best," she said, and enquired after any courier message for a 'Kiz'.
His brow wrinkled. "No, nothing for Kiz."
The one thing Skyrim still allowed from the Capital was courier mail. They now came flanked by redcloak guards, and the hold was full of stories of men having their hands cut off for cheating the system in even the lightest of ways. She believed Gyam, then, when he said she hadn't received anything.
Saluting him, Kiz led the mare off further east, eventually finding the sea again. She had done a wide circle to get here. The wagontrain she'd been journeying with had probably passed this way hours ago.
Her red mare worked at the pelham bit nervously, snorting and foaming and complaining about this new stranger riding on her back. Kiz scratched her between the ears as they walked along and sang a soft song to her, a nonsense of soothing noises; but the mare was having none of it. When she spied a wild apple tree a few feet off the road, she unbridaled the beast so they could both have some of the tart, underipe fruit it bore. The red approved, nodding and making her mane flow in the wind in her excitement over the treat.
"Will you keep my secrets?" Kiz asked the horse.
It looked at her blankly, then the tree, then her. "For apples?" Kiz laughed. She packed as many little green bribes into her saddlebags as she could, and then took to the saddle again. It was another few mintues before the new Windhelm graveyard came into view.
She tied her red to a hedgerow and looked over the graves. A few wealthy families had erected carved stones for their departed, but for every one of those, there were a hundred more with smaller green-stained copper and bronze markers, and simple rock borders outlined on the ground. The Dragonborn's wife was one of those. Maya Brindlehome.
She noticed the flowers immediately. A pitifully, crumpled bunch of things; sitting in the upper centre of the lot. Kneeling slowly, Kiz descended on it like it was the most precious thing in the world, not daring to touch it.
It was wrong. Something about it was just plain wrong. Tearing herself from it, she retreated to the horse and threw clothes and purses out of her bags until she found the tome she was after. It was one of her favorite books since she was a child and fascinated with the natural world; a botanical reference called Leaves of Tamriel, by the mononymous Paolo. Taking it back to the grave, Kiz lifted the dessicated bunch of flowers off the ground and seperated them with her smallest knife to examine them against the tables in 'Leaves.' One was narrow-leafed campion. Only found in Winterhold, and very rare even then. Another one was only found in Winterhold as well. Leaves of Tamriel said it was used by mages as a dampener, and it was also good for toothache.
The other one - that was the wrong one. It looked like grape hyacinth, or bluebell, but it had sepals where it shouldn't. She delicately sliced up its centre and exposed a cross-section that was all wrong for a bluebell as well; filaments inturned, the ova above a seemingly vestigial bulb. It was as if a normal grape hyacinth was adding an extra layer of protection from extremely low temperatures.
"You'd grow in a blizzard, wouldn't you?" Kiz told the flower, her mind racing. "But not anywhere on Tamriel. Paolo didn't even know about y-"
Her red whinnied, and Kiz sprung to her feet to see a male figure standing beside her mare, not even ten feet from her. A hood covered his features, all except for his pink lips and blonde-stubbled jaw. A hand suddenly snaked out at her, fingers outstretched, and wiped away her shimmering blue ward like it was a mere spiderweb. "I think that's enough of that," he said.
The man closed his hand and brought the fist to his face, then opened it again and blew so hard the veins in his neck stood out.
A powdery green plume enveloped her, choking. She went to run out of it and ran straight into his arms. His hand was at her throat, impossibly strong.
"You think Kyus wants to find the Dovakiin? You have no idea how much my master wants to find him." The mist had cleared now and looking up at him, she could see his face.
She tried to speak and couldn't. She was going down fast, into a black nothing, and she barely felt the tug as he pulled the catspaw chain from her neck.
"Another one for my collection. You've actually been helpful, though, unlike the others. Atmora in the north, yes? I had my suspicions already from his wife, Talos-let-her-rest, but now you've confirmed it. He's over the sea and far away, isn't he?"
Kiz tried to yell the words, but only a whisper came out. "Yerr... berr."
"What's that? What are you trying to say?" His face came closer.
"You'll... burn," she spat.