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Dragon's Light: A Wild Bear Chase - Chapter One

by Aritheanie

I hate surprises. They do nothing except interrupt all civilised things like orderly schedules, meals and sleep, which to seasoned travellers like yours truly, are the gifts of the Divines.

My sister and I had just caught up with the main troupe after settling some untidy business left behind out in Morrowind. The affair was simple, the resolution anything but, the journey back home miserable for various reasons. Naturally, after all that bother, we were looking forward to spending some downtime in the shops and inns of Imperial City.

Getting called in immediately on arrival by our boss Aemilius “Sal” Salconis, of Aemilius’s Exotic Wonders was not welcome, and not likely to be a happy occasion — meetings with our boss usually meant trouble of some sort we’d have to charm, weasel or strongarm into a solution.

A meeting this soon after our return was unprecedented: the troupe surely hadn’t been back here long enough to stir up the sort of trouble that might need us to settle it, unless of course we’d managed to recruit some new and impressively gifted troublemaker. Then again, troublemakers didn’t tend to last long in Sal’s employ. Sal was fairly good to his employees, even if he was somewhat tightfisted about the finances; but he drew the line at noisy, visible trouble. As for our situation — we normally had at least one day off after coming back from a job, our contracts protected that customary break. Sal knew it and approved of the notion, so why was he sending for us now?

I looked at Clesyne, who looked back at me, just as bewildered at this turn of events. Time to see what our lord and master wanted us to tidy up for him now.

I ran through a mental listing of all the food and drinks I remembered consuming in the past day once, twice and again. In the end, I had to conclude to my lasting sorrow, that one, I’d just heard what I did; and two, I was truly neither drunk, drugged or otherwise impaired (despite any assertions that might’ve been made to the contrary) — only bone tired and grouchy.

Well, it had been days on the roads between Vvardenfell and Imperial City, hardly a pleasure trip even in the best conditions. “Bone tired and grouchy” just covered the essential basics of what I was feeling. Right now my deepest wish was a hot meal and a soft bed, and Sal’s continual talking was in my way.

Still, no excuse not to be professional, as Clesyne’s elbow in my ribs rightly reminded me to stop looking like a landed fish. I asked my boss to repeat himself, rubbing my fingers against the Amulet of Julianos within my pocket: Logic shield me from any hallucinations courtesy of Sheogorath!

“Uhm Sal… Did I just listen you wrong and that you want us to get two dancing hares?” Huh. Bugger. That wasn’t quite what I’d wanted to come out of my mouth. I looked over at Clesyne in frustration. Of all the times for my little problem to crop up again…

See, you only asked Sal — oh, politely, to be sure — to repeat himself at your own peril. When the boss said jump, you didn’t ask him how high; you had better have on a Jump spell and be at least 20 feet up before he said anything further. The Imperial, or more precisely, Nibenean, was a sharp dealing, fast talking, smooth operator even for his people. The only time you might catch him off guard would be at the inn tables, an empty wine glass in hand and a pretty barmaid doing her best to fill it up again faster than he could drain it — even then you’d probably be best off counting your fingers after any deal. The one thing Sal absolutely hated, apart from being cheated (or running out of brandy), was having to slow down to let those of us slower on the uptake keep up with him. Man had a short temper too.

This time around he simply looked at me, exasperated, then tolerant; must’ve been a good day despite his current temper, eh. “Bears, Arliene, b-e-a-r-s. You did understand me yes? Come now girl,” I bristled a bit at being called ‘girl’, even as he smirked, knowing that would get my goat. Damn him. “I know perfectly well you can keep up with anyone, no matter if you sound like Kynareth’s own blessed calf every Middas and twice on Sundas! I said, I want you to go pick up a dancing bear I acquired. Two, actually.”

Dancing bear, plural. Bears. Right. Oh Julianos save us. For all his virtues, Sal had an optimistic streak a mile wide that was irrepressible. I put on my best dice-playing face — I wasn’t about to land myself in trouble with Sal if I could help it. Clesyne took over the talking at this point. “Where in Oblivion did you get these — miraculous — dancing bears?”

“I made an agreement with Frothi Iron-Fists out of Winterhold for a pair of actual, trained, dancing snow bears. None of that bullcrap with Command Creature spells and Illusioning rot. See, ‘twas a deal he made me in Chorrol about a year ago now, before we went into High Rock, since he owed me a favour,” he paused for breath here, the spots of colour in his sallow complexion marking his agitation, “and the sneak swore he had a pair of these beauties for sale, he was training them up to dance, and wouldn’t I like ‘em?” Sal’s half-Nord heritage and early life in Skyrim was showing, as it often did when he was in a temper about something.

Clesyne and I looked at each other as Sal continued on his harangue. The idea sounded more than ludicrous, really, but who knows what new things can be done under the sun every day? I tuned back into what Sal was going on about quickly, lest I be caught napping by the boss. “… that Frothi I know is a dab hand with the training and the teaching of wild beasts, and if he says he could train bears to dance, well I might believe he could; so I agreed. Oh yes, says I then, and we struck a deal on the spot, the pair of bears for 4000 silver coins, half up front, and the remaining 2000 bulls on receipt of the beasts, which he was to have sent from Winterhold. Now I’ve waited and been patient, but mayhap it’s been too long and my friend Frothi needs a reminder of what he still owes me. By Zenithar I swear I shan’t be cheated! You find him, and get me those bears.”

“Where do we find Frothi and his bears?” Clesyne asked, straight to the point as usual.

“Are we even sure those bears can, ah, perform?” I immediately realised my question was a stupid one to ask, even as Clesyne shot a quick glare my way. On second thought, my asking about their purported abilities just sounded… wrong.

“To Oblivion with whether or not they can perform; in any case I’ve now got a customer here who wants real Skyrim snow bears, and we’ll by the Nine GET HIM SOME. AM I UNDERSTOOD?” Gods but Sal could bellow when the mood took him.

“Frothi is a Nord, obviously. He’s a tall one, around 6’ 7”. Blue eyes like just about every other Nord out there, and his hair looks like dull greasy ditchwater, smells about as bad too. I’ll be amazed if he’s taken his annual bath before now. Oh, and he’s got an evil looking scar down the right cheek, a really jagged red thing, starting from above his right eye. I remember when he got that — we thought he’d be likely to lose it then, all that blood coming from his face and him screaming like a boar in a bush; and may he yet lose that eye if he’s cheated me!” Sal glared at us both. We hastily made commiserating noises about the kind of misfortunes that ought befall anyone with the guts to try and “cheat me! Aemilius Salconius! How dare he! Cheat me!”

“Now last I heard of him, he was in Bravil, dicing, whoring and drinking like he normally does when he comes into Cyrodiil, that scummy flea-ridden hrafnasueltir, about three weeks back now. So get out there and find him and my bears!

No help for it. Clesyne and I made agreeing noises and got out. Ducking out the tent flaps, she and I looked at each other, any hopes of a nice rest and shopping gone.

“Snow bears, he said?” I asked my sister, still not daring to believe what I’d just heard. “The type that up about 8 feet tall on their hind legs, are notoriously fierce, ttt…territorial and kill with a single paw swipe; those bears?”

Clesyne made an agreeing noise, her brow furrowed over in thought; then went “huuh?” before turning her head to look at me, startled, before chiding me with “Bears don’t reach 8 feet tall, even when standing, silly. Don’t make it sound worse than it really is.”

“Is Sal cck-completely inss-sane?” I couldn’t help but think this job was going be worse trouble than the one time we ran a consignment of limeware across the border…

My sister shrugged. “The boss hath commanded, we peons must needs do. As usual.”

We had a very cold trail to follow and not much information to go on, apart from Sal’s rather colourful description. The only sure things I could see in my — and Clesyne’s — future was a lot of cold hard beds, more horseback riding on backcountry trails, mud, rain, heat and camp food in all its inedible glory. Joy.

Have I mentioned how much I HATE surprises?

We didn’t set off after Frothi immediately, of course. Indeed we would have to, and soon — certainly no later than tomorrow afternoon or the day after that at the outside, or Sal would likely be wroth; but we would have at least one good night’s sleep in a bed before we were back on the road again. We also needed to replenish our supplies and repair our armour and weapons, which had seen a fair bit of use in recent days. All these necessities ensured our steps were turned towards the Market District.

Securing a room in the Merchants’ Inn took no time at all. Velus Hosidius, the publican was glad to see us again, semi-regular customers that we were. He hadn’t the time to linger in small talk however; it was Morndas and nearly evening, when a crowd of the City’s merchants were due in for their dinners: he was justly distracted from potential gossip preparing for the evening crowd. After a short discussion, I left Clesyne tucking into a large bowl of piping hot fish and barley pottage, with fresh wheat bread, sweet wine vinegar in herb dipping oil and a soft cheese to go with it all.

My next destination was to the weaponry store next door. I was halfway to the door, when a muffled exclamation came from behind me, accompanied by the clatter of utensils on tableware. The sound made me grin and shake my head as I turned around to confirm my suspicions.

Sure enough, Clesyne had been bolting her meals, again — and getting her mouth burned, yet again. She should’ve remembered, really — the food here was hot, in more than one sense. Velus’s cook, Zenithar bless her, kept a firm hand on her kitchen and its staff: all meals were to be served fresh and hot. Uncommonly for an Imperial, she employed peppers in many of her dishes with a liberal hand alongside the more common herbs, firmly believing that it aided the digestion and warded off illness. That might be true, and the results surprisingly tasty, particularly for spice-lovers who didn’t mind some heat in their food, or the gastronomically adventurous. For the unprepared, or those who preferred less exciting cuisine however, it must feel very much like sticking one’s tongue into fire after a few swallows, particularly when the dish in question was hot from the pot.

Watching Clesyne flailing and diving, half-blinded by tears for the closest mug of water or phousca, I couldn’t repress the fit of giggles that erupted. Clesyne must’ve heard me somehow, even over the increasing noise in the inn, or perhaps it was sisterly intuition, because the scowl she shot directly at me looked truly devilish, her red face and tearing eyes adding to the impressiveness of the glare.

I quickly darted out the door and decided to stay out a little later than I’d said earlier. My twin could handle the usual bartering and haggling for food items with Velus just fine without me there to get in the way of her charms — assuming her tongue hadn’t gotten burnt enough to make talking a chore by the time she finished dinner.

I simply couldn’t resist one last dig while on my way out however. “Tell Velus to save me a bowl of that, Clesyne! It looks delicious!”

Now normally, between myself and my sister, we could just about manage the majority of basic repairs to our armour and weapons — knocking out dents, polishing and sharpening our swords, replacing leather straps and suchlike, but it’d been a while since our gear had seen proper care by a smith. A Fighting Chance was — and still is reputed one of the best places in the City for acquiring weapons, blades in particular; and its Redguard proprietor, Rohssan, well known for her talents with mending and creating armour. Her wares and services did not come cheap, but one gets what one pays for.

I’ll admit here that my interest wasn’t purely in seeing our gear fixed though. Rohssan was at the top of my list of friends, what few of them I had left here. I’ve been proud to call her friend for the better part of a decade now, and it had been a while since we’d last seen each other.

I entered the shop to find Rohssan behind the long wooden counter that dominated the trading floor, clad in her usual iron cuirass, leather greaves and boots. Rather more precisely, I heard Rohssan was within before I actually opened the door; hammering steel and iron was noisy work easily heard through stout doors, and my friend’s usual gear was hardly suited to silent motion. I’d asked her once why she felt the need to go armed and armoured in her own shop, considering that Cyrodiil’s summers could be ferociously hot. Her response had been a hearty laugh. “Doesn’t every store need advertising to get its name out there? I’m my own best display, see?” Oh indeed, Rohssan cut a fine figure in armour; steel shortsword by her side, striding around the Market District every night browsing the displays, talking with passersby — and not so incidentally showing off the beautiful fit and good quality of her armour and blade.

Given the Market District’s proximity to the Arena and its crowds, one could be sure that there were many interested eyes following her on her rounds, and not all of the focus was on the armour either. My friend might be getting up there in years now, even if her Redguard heritage kept the fine web of lines around eyes and mouth from showing too obviously. Her work however had shaped her body as finely as her hands wrought armour links. Men deep in their cups around the City were known to remark how her silver-grey hair complemented her armour.

“Arliene! Welcome! It’s been nearly a full season since I last saw you, you little rascal. Where’ve you been?” Her dog, who was down on the shop floor, whined and thumped his tail in greeting. I took the dog’s presence to mean that business must’ve been slow this evening — the mutt was a fierce animal who didn’t take kindly to strangers despite his growing age, displayed in his greying tan coat. It’d taken me nearly a year (and several nasty bites) before he’d warmed up to my presence. Rohssan generally kept him confined to the living quarters upstairs and out of mischief, despite many jokes about how she should set her dog on some irritating customer. Clesyne wouldn’t go into Rohssan’s shop for much the same reason: my sister has a fear of dogs, particularly the larger breeds.

Little? I’m not little, dammit! I’m a perfectly re-ress-peckable height for a Breton!” Really, my remote ancestors were highly inconsiderate way back when passing down their bloodlines. Would it have ruined things to at least have passed down more of that merish height, and spared their descendants persistent neck aches forevermore from craning upwards to look at most other humans and mer? “Anyway, to answer your question — here, there, lots of p-places elsewhere. Morrowind is fairly large — more so than Cyrodiil, you know.”

Rohssan snorted. “Oh yes, and full of trouble, as usual. News is Houses Dres and Hlaalu have given up slavery and freed the beastfolk.” I nodded. “Good! Still, I can’t imagine that went over well with the other Great Houses?”

We spent an hour exchanging personal gossip and going over the latest news and rumours out of that troubled province; even after centuries under the influence of the Empire, the vast majority of that province retained its own traditions, laws and culture, paying only lip service to the Imperial rule. A wild and beautiful land in its own way, as harsh and unforgiving as the Dunmer themselves could be. And if I was tired enough that I garbled my words in the telling — well, Rohssan was used to it, and could understand me well enough, belike.

It’s a rare thing that I don’t have to repeat myself for the sake of anyone listening. Rare, precious, warming, to speak and be heard and understood, accepted so easily. A friend like that is hard come by, particularly in the case of a Redguard befriending a Breton. The gods witness that our peoples have never really been very friendly.

My friend clucked at the state of my chainmail cuirass. It was admittedly a sorry sight: a great number of the links were broken, dented or outright missing, the leather unders ripped in places. “Great Leki! What did you do to your armour?”

“Me? Nnn-nothing. Except have a cliff racer or three happen to it while we were on our way home.”

There’d actually been a whole swarm of them descending out of the clear blue sky, right as we were about to come in sight of the Imperial fort in Septim’s Gate Pass; Clesyne and I had been hard pressed to get away from the lot. My twin had not been wearing armour that day; she lost her favourite shirt, and very nearly her life, when her shield spells shattered under repeated dives from the flying hellspawn. I’d had to throw myself atop her, covering the both of us with my shield and tumbling into the midst of a bunch of nearby rocks to ward off a second and third pass from the nasty buggers. Thank Magnus and Kynareth for Restoration spells and potions.

I’d managed to get us closer to the fort, half-carrying poor Clesyne, ducking behind rocks and doing our best to avoid the repeated attacks. By then, seeing as we were almost on top of their outer sentry posts at that point, the Legionnaires finally bestirred themselves to assist in driving off the gigantic winged menaces that were now presumably coming too close for their comfort. The Legionnaires then brought us into the shelter of the fort proper, where the resident priest-healer of Kynareth could see to my sister’s wounds.

It was fortunate the healer, a native of the province, knew well what he was doing, and had long familiarity with the exotic diseases of Morrowind. In the course of his examination he’d found Clesyne had contracted helljoint, presumably a last parting gift from that cliff racer I’d slashed off her. The fort commander graciously allowed us to rest there for a few days, in apology for his men’s “tardiness in rendering assistance to Imperial citizens”. It was just as well he did, because Clesyne started showing signs of the helljoint within hours of the attack despite the healer’s attempt at prevention after the fact, and was completely miserable as a result. Once she was fit to travel, we’d then more or less limped back into Cyrodiil, getting to Cheydinhal in the trading caravan of a mostly unwelcoming Khajiit merchant, and then making our own way home to Imperial City, pride and resources well dented into near non-existence by the local wildlife of Morrowind.

It’d been a long three months, certainly. It might not have been what I’d imagined for my life in the beginning, but I did love my job with Sal. Still, the things he sent us out for sometimes… I had to question whether it was worth it. Especially with this latest madness with bears of all things!

Rohssan let out a low whistle, silver head shaking in disbelief. “Well my friend, you’ve been amazingly lucky, you and your sister. Those beasts are formidable, as you’ve discovered for yourselves.”

“I know. My luck in these things has been in-cre-di-b-ly” I stumbled a bit on the word, which had too damn many consonants, “good, fff-for some reason.” I smiled sourly at her. Lucky to survive the attack mostly unhurt, but not quite so lucky in what came after. The blasted Khajiit caravaneer had demanded extortionate fees for allowing us to join his party, citing our disreputable appearances, the continued need for Clesyne to rest — taking up space in his wagon that could’ve held more goods — and inability to contribute to the business of his caravan. I’d tried to haggle a better price with the ragged-eared swindler, but to little avail; and the final price I reached severely drained our remaining funds, since much of our supplies and possible trading items had been lost in the cliff racer attack.

Divines, I was glad to see the back of that lout when we left the caravan at Cheydinhal. Either Clesyne or I would have to meet Sal later and claim reimbursement from him before we left to chase Frothi, or we’d be leaving a fair few debts behind us tomorrow. And as any experienced adventurer can tell you, leaving debts unsettled behind you anyplace is never a good thing. Just thinking of such a thing made my teeth itch.

Rohssan was still examining my armour — she’d moved on from the cuirass and gauntlets to the greaves and helmet, which were in slightly better condition, but not by much. Mouth pursed, she looked me directly in the eyes. “I can repair these, but it will be expensive, and the strength of the joins and the armour as a whole won’t ever be the same. You know as well as I do that you would be better off getting a new set, really — I do believe I managed to teach you that much.”

I was afraid she’d say that.

“All ww-right, so the cuirass is a lost cause. But can you destroy —” here I stopped, breathed in and out, once, twice, without looking up, ” — can you restore the rest of the armour?” I held my breath. With our ready funds being as low as they were, we’d had to dip into our emergency stash more than once over the last week. I could afford a new leather cuirass, but not a full set of new armour.

Dark eyes sparkled back at me. “Oh I reckon I can. After all, if I say I can’t fix it, it ain’t broke!” I couldn’t help but laugh at the time-worn sales line. My old master was truly one of the kindest persons in my acquaintance.

“When can I pick up my armour?” I asked Rohssan. “Man m-nn-needs finding; owes Sal a hair of bb-bears.”

Bears?” Rohssan’s eyes were wide. “Now that sounds like a story worth hearing.”

“Bears! Yeah, Skyrim snow bears,” I groaned. “Duh-dd-tuh-Two of them. Can you believe it?”

Rohssan merely grinned. “I’ll want to hear the full story when you get back.” The grin morphed into a full belly laugh. “Knowing you, I’m sure it’ll be even more interesting than it is now, by then.” She sobered, though snorts still escaped her at intervals. If I knew her, she was probably picturing me face to face with a bear, trying to ‘make nice’. “Bears. Those sound dangerous, it’s even worse knowing the kinds of people Salconius has you chasing every so often.” She stroked the pieces of cuirass on her worktable. “Now I’d provide you with a cuirass myself, but, well — you know I’ve been focusing on swordsmithing nowadays, and all I have on hand at the moment armour-wise are heavy pieces, which you’re no good with.”

“Can I make an order for a ss-su — set?” It was getting harder to concentrate on speaking without yawning or slurring, for some reason. I must be even more tired than I’d thought.

“You could, but you’re going after this man and his bears soon, yes? I’ve orders down in the books clear through to Frostfall at least. You know, the Emperor’s Birthday celebrations; poncy nobles like new blades to show off at the parties, Leki knows why.”

How could I have forgotten? The Emperor’s Birthday was indeed only a little over two months away: one of the biggest social events of the year, and anybody who was somebody likely to be invited to the Palace festivities would not be caught dead in less than their best, be it silks or ironmongery. The tailors, armourers and weaponsmiths would be busy with orders by now. It seemed I’d have to patronise the store of the two other renowned armoursmiths in the City, since they were more likely to have partially ready pieces to offer.

“Looks like it’s Mmm-Maro for me.” I tried not to sound too put out and failed. The thought of it alone made me grimace; the pair who owned the shop I’d be visiting had an highly — idiosyncratic relationship most people would rather avoid. Rohssan reached over to ruffle my hair, and I batted her hand away.

“Good luck with those two tomorrow; The Mystic Emporium has a discount on healing potions this week, I hear.”

“No funny,” I grumbled.

He has been asking about you, you know. He’s never stopped no matter how many times I put him off.” Rohssan’s words derailed our topic and my thoughts, and I blinked and stared much too long perhaps, before understanding who she was referring to. “How much longer do you intend to keep avoiding him? You’re being unfair to me, asking me to run interference, and most unfair to him.”

“I — I’ll see him. P-puh-prromise.”

Rohssan merely sighed. “You’ve said that, for how many years now?” She came out from behind her worktable and gave me a hug. “Think about it, won’t you? It’s long past time you fixed things between the two of you. You can’t hope to dodge him forever.”

It was now late into the evening, past Rohssan’s usual closing time; I bade her goodnight and farewell, heading back next door for my turn at a hot meal. As expected, Clesyne had managed to charm Velus into giving us good deals on dried foodstuffs as well as herbs, so we were set on that front.

I headed up to my room after dinner, where I bundled up the scraps of the ruined armour, mentally calculating the price that I might be able to get for them on the morrow. We weren’t absolutely hurting for money, as yet; but if there was anything our childhood experiences had taught us, it was the value of coin, and our excursion to Morrowind had dropped the weight of our money pouches to a level I wasn’t comfortable with. I reflected that had we the time, I might just be able to mix up some potions to sell; those were always a quick source of money compared to the cost of producing them. Still, that was something to look into later. For now, all I wanted was my pillow and a thick blanket, which I proceeded to bury myself under after snuffing the candles.

I woke early the next morning, scoffing down a hot roll and buttered egg with small beer before running out the door, armour scraps rolled up and tucked under my arm. Thanks to my early start, I did manage to catch Maro Rufus almost as soon as he opened The Best Defense for business. I needed a new cuirass, and quickly, and I would rather sacrifice more time in a snug bed to beat anyone else in line for the armourer’s services: proper armour fittings, even when working from partially prefabricated pieces took lots of time. The resident smith and master armourer Gin-Wulm was nowhere to be seen as usual when I got there.

I let Maro know my intentions in patronizing his business today, as we haggled over the precise amount the scraps of my old set of armour was worth. The Colovian smith was much pleased by the prospect of incoming gold. The fitting for the front and back pieces of my new cuirass, as well as the leather laces that would hold them together took several hours as expected amidst tedious measurements, notes and discussions of metal rings as opposed to leather laces, lamellar armour as opposed to scale, linen thicknesses, rivets and the quality of the leather, and the processing involved. Our discussions were regularly punctuated with hilariously snide comments from the other side of the shop, and more entertainment in the form of the colours Maro’s face took on with each quip or sting from his business partner. That wasn’t to say that he didn’t give back as good as he got: Varnado’s expressions of disgust were amusing to behold on receipt of a telling shot.

There had been a moment when I’d thought I might have soon cracked a rib though: Maro had yanked on the laces a tad too roughly, reacting to a certain comment that was rather more inflammatory than I’d heard yet. The quilted gambeson I had on did its work, but “too tight to breathe” is a far cry from “well-fitted, if stiff”, and I’d had to signal Maro in a hurry to loosen the straps.

Not for the first time, I wondered just how Varnado had convinced Maro (or had it been the other way around?) to set up business together in the first place, considering how they apparently detested each other’s specialty — and how long it might take before murder occurred. Granted, since they’d both been in business together long before I arrived in Imperial City for the first time and blood had yet to be shed, perhaps the antipathy the two displayed towards each other might not be quite as bad as it seemed? Judging from Gin-Wulm’s long-standing avoidance of the two others who shared the premises however, that assumption was likely unfounded and the antipathy very, very real.

Still, it was a relief when I was done with the fitting, and I could escape the shop with a sore arm (courtesy of Maro’s repeated thumps and admonishments to “stay still!” at my ill-repressed humour), uncracked ribs, and a sack containing the new boiled leather and linen cuirass: not quite as protective as my old chainmail, but it would have to do, considering the limited funds and time I had. At least I did manage to persuade Maro to add a heavy shoulderpiece to the cuirass: it reinforced my neck, back, and front. More importantly, in conjunction with the lead strips cunningly sewn into the front and back seams, the stiffness of the shoulderpiece would weigh my movements down in key places to something approaching what I would achieve with mail; a necessary feature since I didn’t have the time to get re-accustomed to moving properly in leather, which though not light, was still much lighter than my customary chainmail. Dying from a missed stroke on an enemy was not on my list of things to do in any foreseeable future.

Clesyne had gone off to argue with Sal about our funding, which was likely to take a while. The items we were meant to have brought back from Vvardenfell had been partly damaged, thanks to the bloody cliff racers; the question now was how much of our pay Sal was going to dock for that mishap. Knowing that my armour fitting was likely to be long, barring good fortune, we’d planned to return and meet up at the inn again at two hours past noon. I judged that I still had some time to kill before I could go pick up the rest of my armour from Rohssan.

Wandering about the Market District, taking in the various sights and sounds of citizens hurrying along to wherever they were going seemed as good an occupation as any, and I could hope that the fresh air might stave off the slight headache I’d gotten from the smells in The Best Defense. That was part of the reasons why I’d not have made a very good armourer: the smell of curing leather made me ill.

Glancing at a large, colourful poster advertising the latest Arena fights between the Blue Team and Yellow Team, I noted that Agronak gro-Malog was still the reigning Grand Champion. I grinned at the poster, remembering the only time I’d met the man in person, courtesy of the friend of a friend of a friend who worked in the Bloodworks, a few years ago. His manners made a deep impression, his skills, displayed in the Challenge match which won him the title of Grand Champion of the Arena even more so. Agronak had seemed a friendly sort, courteous and kind as a good nobleman should, even if he were only, as word had it, only the bastard son of a nobleman — and the very devil in a fight.

Wandering further I remembered I had some minor items to trade in at Jensine’s. One long and very hard haggling session later, we managed to agree on a price for my things. I congratulated myself on actually managing to get the better of her for once! I still found it hard to believe Jensine was a full Nord; her haggling skills would do any Breton or Khajiit merchant I knew proud. The only other around who drove an even harder bargain would likely be Palonirya, the Altmer clothier.

That done with, and coinpurse a little heavier than when I walked in, I went back to the inn, only to find that Clesyne still hadn’t returned. Oh dear. It seemed Sal might be a lot more intractable than we’d thought. Bit not good. It wasn’t anything I could help with however, since Clesyne had always been the better socialised of the two of us, and consequently dubbed the charming twin — my going over to help reason with Sal would probably backfire. I ate a quick lunch, then went to pick up my repaired armour from Rohssan. I didn’t linger there — she had a truly demanding idiot of a customer to please, from the looks of it; and the lines around my old master’s mouth were tightening with each passing minute the fool went on. I got out before the inevitable explosion of temper occurred.

I drifted along in the noon crowds, thoughtless, moving from the Market’s precincts, to the outskirts of the Arena, and thence to the Arboretum’s vast gardens and marble forae, where politicians met to discuss issues of state and the philosopher-teachers argued Divines-knew-what with their students and each other in the sunshine, and then back again into the Market District. Gradually I realised that my footsteps had taken me to a place I’d frequented oh-so-very often, many years ago, as I paused before the doors of First Edition. Even now the familiar signboard, blazoned with the icon of a book, made my heart leap with longing for the tomes and collected wisdom behind those doors.

I could feel my gut beginning to tighten, as though I were about to go into a fight. I squeezed my eyes shut and blinked them open again, looking at the signboard.

No change. The book icon, so familiar, seemed taunting in the light of the afternoon sun.

Why did I still hope there would be, after so long? And yet… I pushed the doors open, and walked in, my first step into a bookstore after seven long years.