Special thanks to 16DarkMidnight80 for going over this chapter!
Obligatory author's note: I don't own Skyrim or anything pertaining to the Elder Scrolls (including the images used on the cover of this work)—that's Bethesda Softworks, et al. It's their sandbox, and I'm just (happily) playing in it.
A note on Kitty: this story in its present form (after several character revisions and outright redesigns) actually began development around the same time as Leandra's did. Master of Assassins started off on such a dark note that I needed something to keep my spirits up—thus Kitty came into being, and that's why Kitty pops up so frequently in Leandra's story. It's also why this story is planned to be much more lighthearted and less serious in many respects than Dovahkiin and Master of Assassins. We'll see if I can stick to that resolution…
Some people might complain that Skyrim is a frigid chunk of ice full of hairy barbarians who could squeeze my head off my neck like a child playing with popper grass stalks.
Some people might also complain that the Imperial Province is full of bureaucrats who have never worked a day in their life, whose blood is blue from sucking on that silver spoon instead of taking it out of their mouth to continue their meal like a sensible person.
The thing is that perspective matters. As someone who isn't really 'from' anywhere—my earliest memories were of being on the road—I tend to appreciate whatever I can, wherever I happen to be, whenever I happen to be there. So for me, Skyrim was full of very tall, rather shapely people. I don't mind it in the men, but alas: tall, shapely women leave me feeling like a walking plank, being somewhat small, scrappy, and without generous curves of my own. Sigh.
Everyone always wondered how my mother avoided passing her generous figure down to me. 'Kitty's just lucky that way,' she used to say. Well, Mother—Mara rest her soul—knew best, as most mothers do, but I think I'd rather have the problems that come with a figure a little less… svelte. Not that I want to be the twins or anything—they just had to jiggle (one to the right, one to the left) and the guy they did it at was more than happy to go along with anything they had in mind. I don't necessarily want that kind of easy attention… but a more feminine physique would be nice.
Oh, well. At least I'm flexible and good with my hands…
…which could be taken in completely the wrong context if I ever said that out loud. Note to self: don't ever say that out loud. Ever.
On a crisp day in Morning Star, the marketplace of Riften is a bustling, hustling place, full of people… people falling into two distinct categories: those with coin and those without. Alas, and wouldn't you know it? I happen to fall into the latter category: one without. That's just an occupational hazard if you're a wayfarer, wanderer, or vagabond.
Fortunately, it's a fairly easy condition easy to fix, if you're someone like me. Clever hands, like I said.
The hustle and bustle was a good thing, not a bad one: it was easy for a skinny person like myself to move through the crowd, fairly unnoticed, and there are enough fair-haired people that, for once, I don't stand out much because of it. Personally, my eyes kept sliding back over to the Argonian jeweler, whose display case full of shiny things I've looked over three times now.
The thing is, though, moving gems without knowing a local fence is difficult, and I don't know any of the local fences because I hadn't gone looking for any. So 'beh' to that. I'm stuck doing other things—specifically I'm looking for someone with coin, because while jewels can be statements, coins have no name attached.
I have to say though, if I had to be a professional thief, and could take my pick of specializations, I'd like to be a jewel thief. I'd fence the pilfered jewelry and legitimately buy the gaudiest, most outrageous jewelry I could find simply for the sake of owning it.
And I'd protect my jewels properly. No one steals from a thief, not if she's any good.
As far as surveying the marketplace for a mark, though, well that's just survival. I don't always have to resort to pickpocketry, but I can do it in a pinch. Going hungry out of a sense of nobility gets uncomfortable after a while.
By now, I had my mark: a rather brawny fellow, but one who looked a little on the slow side. His attention was all on the marketplace, but I have to say anyone that badly dressed deserves a little lightening of his pockets. If you can afford to look that bad and go out in public… well. There you have it. If you can afford to dress that badly, you can certainly afford to spot a nice girl dinner and a room—without inflicting your company on her as well.
One might wonder where/how I picked up the pickpocket's trade. The answer isn't as heartrending as one might expect: I grew up as part of a traveling circus. You learn things like nimble fingers when in a circus, either as part of an act or as a means of keeping you occupied. It wasn't my primary skill, but sleight of hand is always fun. I wasn't taught to pick pockets, but if you're smart enough to add one and one, it goes on a bun and is delicious.
Surprisingly, Skyrim is the land of sweetrolls. You'd think the cold would freeze the sweetness out of everything but no. Honey and sweetrolls are a big deal here in Riften. Seriously, the city watch would riot without their sweetroll and mead rations.
But if one is what one eats—as I've often heard—I wonder how the guards can be so mightily sour!
On stealthy feet I approached my mark, careful to keep in his blind spot.
With crafty fingers I re-eached…
A big hand with very cold fingers suddenly closed on my bony wrist, dragging me forward until I knocked into the brawny shoulder before me. My poor pathetic excuse for a bosom didn't cushion the impact much, either. Suddenly, my nose and vision were filled with the rich, quilted cloth of his coat. He smelled oddly of flowers and juniper berries.
"It's been awhile since anyone tried to pick my pocket," came the rather amiable remark, accent charming and out of place compared to what I'd become accustomed to hearing in Skyrim. He said it so quietly; he must want to avoid a scene.
Good for me!
"It was my pocket you were aiming for, wasn't it? Or were you interested in something else?" My wrist was maneuvered so my hand slid along his side to rest at his hipbone.
"Eep! Lemme go!" I squeaked softly—alright, I nearly screamed—and tried to pull free. I don't wanna touch that! I'm not that kind of girl!
Attempt unsuccessful. The guy had a pretty good grip on my wrist. It didn't stop me trying though. I made absolutely no progress, even when I braced myself against his back and tried to pull loose. It was like bracing against a rock while one of those awful octuplepusses—those sea-things with all the tentacles—hung onto my wrist.
He laughed. He actually laughed at my pathetic attempts to free myself from his ham-handed stranglehold of my poor, delicate wrist.
…this is turning into a very awkward kind of day…
I was a little reassured when he repositioned my hand securely over his belt buckle. Far less suggestive… not that I think he'd actually make me feel him up. I hope not. I grew up in a circus, but I'm not that kind of girl—so much you hear about performers is exaggerated! Really! The twins were the exception, not the rule!
"Of course it was," I retorted snidely as I recovered myself, trying to ignore how fast my heart was beating. Hummingbirds flap their wings about that fast, I think. "I need my fingers! Do you think I'd risk touching anything that might make me want to cut them off?!"
He chuckled at this, rather to my chagrin, and I scowled at the space between his shoulder blades. But if he hasn't called the guards yet, he's not going to. Well, I'm still in a strong position… I can weasel my way out of this. I'm an excellent weasel when I need to be…
…just not out of this octuplepuss grip on my wrist… wow, that's a talent he's got there! Credit where it's due!
"Temper, temper, lass."
'Temper, temper, lass' my… heheh… ass.
"We should have a talk, you and I. This way." With that, he began discreetly maneuvering to the nearest out-of-sight spot. He did it so deftly that we were halfway there before I managed to interfere with his shuffling. I'm amazed no one's noticed us, so far.
"Oh no! No, no, no! I do not do dark alleys with strange men! No way!" I hissed, digging my knee into the bend of his to try to stop his progress. He simply turned in place, and whipped me about so we stood face-to-face.
"You don't have much of a choice, lass," he noted, forcing me to step back and continue out of the way of the public view.
"You'd better let go of me!" I wonder whether he'd feel it if I punched him. From that moment of being jerked against his back, I found that the padding of his clothing was rather thick. Thick enough to thwart my lackluster punches? Probably. Thick enough to make him look more heavyset than he really is? Absolutely. In fact, now that he was facing me, I could see a little more clearly that much of his bulk was, in fact, resultant of his clothing. By Nord standards, he was actually a little on the svelte side himself.
He's still bigger than I am, though.
"All I have to do is scream," I assured him.
"I've got a pickpocket by the wrist, and you think a scream is going to soften the guards' view on that sort of thing?" he responded, unconcerned. In fact, he seemed almost amused by the audacity.
"Well, it depends on what I scream, doesn't it?" I answered sullenly, still glowering. Damn it all.
He chuckled again, drumming his fingers teasingly on my wrist. I did try to break away when his hold on me involved fewer digits, but still failed spectacularly. I'm not getting loose without a scene.
I ran my tongue along the inside of my upper teeth and prepared to scream.
"I'm very much looking forward to making your acquaintance," my captor announced pleasantly, his tone full of grim humor but devoid of real threat.
The scream got stuck because I can't not answer back. I know the gods gave people two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we shout… but unfortunately, my mouth is too smart for its own good, and I have trouble keeping it shut. "No doubt," I answered grumpily. And he better not mean it like that, that's all I can say! I have two feet! I'll stomp on his foot and sink the other one… places! I've done it before!
He did get me out of the general line of sight, though not in as secluded a place as one might expect. I stepped forward, moving around him as fast as I could, hoping he would let go of me as his arm started to bend the wrong way. Unfortunately, and with an easy motion, rather as if we were dancing, he whipped me back around. This time, he let me go.
Unfortunately for him, a moment's view of his coin purse and a quick bit of footwork resulting in weird dance between us allowed me to lift it without his noticing.
I intentionally staggered, falling flat on my backside, shoulder hitting the side of a building painfully. I dropped the pouch behind me so when he could see both my hands, they were empty. "Ow!" I whined, rubbing my hip exaggeratedly. "That hurt, you big hairy ox!"
I had to admire his audacity, though: before I'd gotten out of arm's reach while we were reeling around, he'd given my hair a sharp tweak. Once I was down, however—and once my head stopped swimming from the spinning and the twirling—he produced my very own dagger, dangling it between two fingers of the hand that hadn't been holding onto me, smiling merrily.
"Lose something?" Then he clicked his tongue chidingly at me and winked with such sauciness that, for a moment, I didn't know what to do with it.
My impulse to stomp and kick faded, replaced by an urge to grin, which I staunchly denied. "I hate you," I announced, crossing my arms as I drew up my knees. "I really, really hate you."
"Nothing I haven't heard before, lass," my former captor noted dryly, his eyes sparkling with amusement. "But I've also been known to change minds. Maybe yours will be one of them, hm?"
I wanted to stick my tongue out at him, but refrained. He had my knife, after all. "Doubtful."
His eyes wandered over me for a moment, cool and assessing. "Not much to you, is there?" he mused, taking a knee, propping his elbow on it and fingering the short beard covering his chin.
"There's enough of me," I answered, shifting forward onto my knees, one hand down for balance, the other discreetly shuffling his coin purse into my sock. It was snug fit—though not a big purse—and I had to work quickly and quietly.
"I happen to be something of a people-person," my unknown opponent declared, his sharply shaped green eyes narrowing speculatively. "I have a proposition for you."
"I don't care!" I barked, jumping to my feet and (causing him to yelp with shock) using his shoulders like one of the vaulting apparatus back at the circus. Once I popped myself over him, I had a clear line of escape. I ran at a sprint and jumped onto the railing that prevented anyone from falling into the canals that the market district rose above. "Ladies and gentlemen! Kindly turn your attentions this way! The amazing Katarina will now astonish you with amazing feats of acrobatic mastery! Regard—" I bent forward, put my hands on the railing, and transferred my weight off my feet.
I glanced to the side as I lowered myself until my chest rested on the rail, digging in uncomfortably as I brought my legs back until the tops of my feet rested against the rail ahead of me. Then, transferring my weight to my arms again, I lifted myself up, put my toes down and unfolded myself to standing.
This was, as always, met with cheers and grimaces. Human backbones were never meant to bend like that, but with enough practice you can do almost anything. I carried on with the acrobatics for about five minutes, speaking in between bouts to keep attention firmly on me.
My unknown assailant watched me from the corner of the building we'd had our altercation behind. When he caught me looking, he gave me a one-sided grin and clapped his hands gently. Even at this distance, I could read his lips: well played.
If I wasn't the center of attention I would have pulled a face and stuck my tongue out at him.
As it was, he could keep the dagger. I wasn't using it anyway.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, for your viewing pleasure, let me direct your attention to the top of the tent! Introducing our own Cassandra and Katarina in an exhibition of dexterity and surety of foot!"
The applause rang in my ears as I rose onto tiptoe, then brought one leg out. Mother stood across from me, mirroring the movements. She looked so steady on the narrow beam suspended from the tent's support beams, as if she was standing, moving, dancing on the ground below.
I turned in a neat pirouette, feeling out the beam, my bare toes finding the edges as I stopped.
The music swelled as we moved, balance and precision—
Screams made me freeze—when you work this high, you freeze first or you fall. I abandoned the routine and turned to see Mother hit the ground. She looked so shocked, her eyes locked on mine.
There was horrific snapping sound as she impacted—
I woke up with a squeak, stifling further sound by clamping my hand over my mouth. Tears stung my eyes and slicked my cheeks as that horrible snapping sound echoed loudly in my ears. I drew my knees up and put my arms on them, breath coming in ragged gasps, clammy sweat making me shiver. Being alone, I gave way to the tears, the grief brought to the forefront of my mind and heart by the nightmare.
This time, the nightmare hadn't been so bad. Usually it ends with me falling, falling, falling forever…
I did yelp when something tapped on the window of the room I'd rented at the Bee and Barb. My mouth fell open. Outside the window—improbably—was my assailant of the afternoon. He'd rapped on the window with the hilt of my dagger and was smirking at me through the glass.
Knock, knock? I couldn't hear the words, but I could read his lips well enough.
I couldn't help it, I laughed. That's… unexpected.
I got up, wiping my cheeks and eyes, then opened the window. It was early enough that no one was really out, but the day would be beginning soon. Thus, he was wearing those horrible gaudy clothes. But the fact that he could get up the exterior of the building in them said he was not a badly-dressed merchant with a bow over his shoulder.
Well, not just a badly-dressed merchant.
"What are you doing?" I hissed, moving so he could come in. It would be so awkward to explain to the city guard…
It occurred to me, a bit late, that I should have said 'get away!' and given him a good push… but I didn't think I could watch someone fall just now. Even if it was only off a second story.
"I'll give it to you, you're good. Here's your butter knife," he sunk it into the windowsill then held out his hand, sternness somewhat belied by a sparkle in his eyes and the way he wiggled his fingers. "Now, cough up."
"I don't have it," I lied innocently. Tips from my impromptu performance had been good but, honestly, all's fair in larceny and war.
"Then you don't mind if I look around?"
"Help yourself," I gestured to the comfortable room.
I peeked out the window to find that he hadn't scaled the side of the building the way I would have done—with handholds and 'sticky-feet' as Shamar the Strong Man called them—but with a rope and arrow. Hence the bow on his shoulder.
"You're not just a badly dressed merchant, are you?" I asked, levering myself to sit on the table by the window, freeing my dagger with serious effort and toying with it idly.
"And you've a fine set of sticky fingers," he responded, continuing to search the room. He did it with a method, with attention that suggested he was either used to hiding things or used to finding things. "How would you like a quick job?"
"I don't do dark alleys or strange men." Double entendre totally intended.
"Good thing it's not that kind of job, then," he continued. His movements were almost catlike as he got down on his knees to feel under my bed—carefully, though, in case there was anything the staff missed when cleaning.
Huh. View's not too bad at this angle. He's got a cute backside, wardrobe choices aside. I could probably bounce a septim off that…
"You climbed in my window at break of dawn. I can afford to hear you out."
"You nicked my purse—damn right you can afford to hear me out," he declared under his breath, more for his own benefit than mine.
"You asked for it!" I protested. "Anyone as badly dressed as you are deserves a good picking of his pockets!"
I was rewarded with a chuckle. "We all do what we must to get by."
"So, what's your business?" I asked, watching as he settled back on his haunches, scowling around the room. His gaze landed on me, surveying me carefully.
"Coin. Coin is most definitely my business." Again, the gaze was that of a professional sizing up a mark. I'm not the paragon of feminine shape but I still felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny.
"Have you ever tried sleeping with a coin purse in your breast-band? It doesn't work, so don't even think about it," I warned, resisting the urge to cross my arms protectively over my pathetic excuse for a chest.
He snorted at this. "Can't say I have, and don't worry—skinny children aren't really my type. As far as business—snake oil, mostly. Though if that gets out I know who to come have a word with." He didn't sound too worried.
"Forewarned is forearmed. You'd never catch up," I answered dryly, wondering why he even bothered to answer the question beyond simply 'coin.'
He laughed this time, a pleasant sound from down deep in his chest. "You're a sassy one, aren't you?"
"It works for me. And when it doesn't, I run like Sheogorath's flaming hounds were after me." It's true. She who lives and runs away, lives to filch another day. That's my motto. Also, 'I can run faster scared than you can angry!' Good words to live by, all around.
"That's a good philosophy to have."
"I can run faster scared than most people can mad," I agreed.
He studied me again. "Tell you what. Lend me those sticky fingers for a wee bit and I'll let you keep the purse."
"You're just mad because you can't find it," I answered smugly, grinning broadly.
He considered, then shrugged, slowly shaking his head. "No. In fact, I suppose don't really need it. On second thought… forget your sticky fingers. You'd probably bungle it anyway."
Ugh! Way to take the fun out of victory. "Aren't you even curious where it is?"
"No. Not in the slightest," he answered, adjusting his disarranged outer robe fussily. "And you haven't added enough gold to make it's hiding place a location of interest." He glanced pointedly at my chest, then looked me in the eye.
He moved to the window and peered down, then tested his rope as if suspecting me of having tampered with it.
"So… what do you need my sticky fingers for?"
"I just told you, I really don't. You'd bungle it. I know the type," he answered aloofly. "Must have been a trick of the light to make me think otherwise."
"But… aw, come on!"
"No, no, you've made it clear you're not interested. You should know half the coin in there is fake, so don't spend it all in one place."
"Arg! Come on, I'm not a foul-up! Really!" I took hold of his arm and looked up at him with my biggest pair of sad, golden kitty-eyes. "You've told me too much already—you might as well tell me the rest."
He made a show of considering me very hard, then grimaced as if he couldn't believe what he was about to do. "It's a grab and plant. If you can pick my pocket, it shouldn't be too hard."
"Okay…" I answered slowly.
"It's simple. I'm going to cause a distraction—"
His clothes are good for that, never mind what he does with his mouth.
…something else I probably shouldn't say out loud…
"—and you're going to steal Madesi's, the Argonian jeweler's, silver ring from a strongbox under his stand." Then, more sternly, with an authoritative finger-point to accent, "That and only that, lass. I saw you casing his stall yesterday."
I pursed my lips, not the least because it was true. He also had the same tone Shamar the Strong-Man used when he knew I was up to mischief and wanted to keep me from getting nipped by it… which was a lot. Mother didn't know what she had when she called me Kitty. "So you know what to look for," I shrugged. "Unless a woman hides your coin purse, of course."
"Claws in." He grinned that charmingly crooked grin of his. He'd grin more if he knew my name, which makes the statement hilarious.
"Meow." I swiped one hand like a cat batting with a paw.
"Once you have it, I want you to place it in Brand-Shei's pocket—he's the only dark elf that should be there—without him noticing. Try to make sure you have the right fellow before you go planting the ring."
"I don't have any picks," I noted.
"Do you want me to hold your hand as well?" he asked, but produced a pair of picks and put them on the table by the window.
"I don't know where yours have been and I don't care to know," I answered, realizing just how badly my statement could be misconstrued.
"Just as well. I'll find you afterwards." With that, he climbed nimbly into the window then dropped out of it to land lightly on the ground.
I reached out, grabbed the arrow and wrenched it loose (which was awkward, the position I had to lean into was somewhat uncomfortable), letting it drop when he looked up to jerk it loose.
It was as I closed the window that I realized… I'd just been played. And it was exactly the way Marco the Escapist used to do it when he minded me.
So much for having matured since striking off on my own…