Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 15

 

Part III
Skyrim

 

“Hmmmm… ‘Fixed’ is such a subjective term. I think ‘treated’ is far more appropriate, don’t you? Like one does to a rash, or an arrow in the face.”

15: Distant Horizons

Helgen was kind of boring after having lived in Cyrodiil for so long, with influences from various provinces. Cheydinhal with its Dunmer slant, Bruma with Nordic influences, and Anvil with Redguard. In contrast, Helgen was a definite disappointment in structure and appearance. It was also very small to be a gateway town or city near the pass over the Jerall Mountains. Hell, the Nordic-influenced Bruma was larger and much nicer overall.

“It’s not much,” Renato said disdainfully as they entered Helgen Homestead, the only inn they could see.

The proprietor introduced himself as Vilod and invited them to try his specialty, mead with juniper berries. Sora shrugged and ordered one for a mere five drakes, just to taste it, and was not impressed. The resinous qualities of the “berries” did odd things to the resulting flavor and cut through any sweetness. A dry mead was all very well, but…

“Do you have room for nine people?” he asked, glancing around a bit dubiously.

Vilod grimaced slightly. “There’s four rooms upstairs and none of them are being used right now. I could try to find some bedrolls to…”

“We have some,” he said. “How much per room?”

“It’s ten septims per room. We don’t usually get such large parties coming through here. You a trading group or something? But you want them, they’re yours for the night.”

Sora delved into his coin pouch and made four stacks of ten septims on the counter. “Not exactly. We plan to head to Whiterun next. Are the roads clear?”

Vilod took the coins and nodded. “Well, aside from the usual wolves that might harass you, and possibly the odd bandit or frostbite spider. But you all look well prepared. If you’re headed to Whiterun, I’d say take the north gate and when you hit the intersection you can go either way, but heading left and following the switchback down will take you along the normal road that follows White River to Riverwood. Cross the bridge and just keep following the river past that, and you’ll come down the hill and see Whiterun off to your left. Can’t miss it.”

He smiled, gave the man a nod, then headed for the stairs. The construction of the inn was “quaint”, which was a polite way of saying semi-shoddy considering half the town’s buildings were fashioned from stone and the inn was wood with a thatched roof. He feared for what population of rodents might be sheltering in that thatch, actually.

The rooms were decently enough sized that they could easily fit in two people per room, though Shi, Viper, and Kiri would have to squeeze a bit. On the other hand, they could make a temporarily-physical “bunk” bed over the existing one, so only one of them would have to bed down on the floor. One of them would have to set up the tent temporarily outside town, long enough to make sure their animal companions were all right. Cashew, Leon, and Fantasma were one thing, but Keiman and Oodako would cause a panic, and he didn’t expect many people were used to seeing tame falcons or monkeys.

The food available for purchase for dinner was acceptable but boring, and lacking in anything resembling spice. His family all looked despondent over that, but not surprised. It just meant they would need to find a place to live as quickly as possible, though he doubted they would be so lucky as to be handed a castle again.

The next morning they got a quick meal and headed out, following Vilod’s directions. There were, indeed, wolves along the way. What was interesting was coming across a trio of stones off the road, overlooking the river. They were identical but for the markings, and each had a hole clear through. One carved-in image looked like a stereotypical wizard, one a warrior, and one … a thief?

“I suppose these are the Skyrim equivalent of the Doom or Rune stones?” Lorenzo mused.

Kiri shook his head. “You can test them later if you want, but it might make more sense to chat with the locals about them, see what’s available. It’s not like we need yet more power, anyway.”

“True.”

They kept going and followed the road into the next town, which included an island in the river itself, which sported a lumber mill on it. Chickens clucked importantly as they strutted around and pecked at the ground, but they deftly enough avoided them. Heaven help anyone who accidentally offed a chicken. In many respects animals of that sort were more valuable than gold. They were the gift that kept on giving, like sheep and their wool, and cows and their milk.

The road took them over a bridge that spanned the river and they kept to the road proper rather than getting distracted and taking the dirt path that looked to lead up to the interesting looking ruin atop the craggy hill?—mountain?—that stood out a sullen grey against the white of the snow up there.

“Plenty of time for exploring once we’re settled,” Renato said as Rio stumbled because he kept craning his neck to stare at the ruin.

Lal grabbed Rio’s arm just in case.

“Man,” Rio muttered. “If they’re anything like the ruins in Cyrodiil, you can bet there’s bandits up there, and probably some undead.”

“Probably,” Sora said, “but save it until we’re situated better. Or do you really want our horses to have to dodge arrows?”

The road diverged from the river a bit in one spot, which afforded a somewhat obscured view of their destination ahead and to the left, but it quickly enough swung back toward the water and headed downhill to a four-way intersection.

They turned west and Sora almost immediately became interested in the property just to their left. The sign outside said Honningbrew Meadery. There were two buildings, but given that one of them had only clerestory windows, he assumed it was the right-hand building that housed any associated shop.

“That looks almost too good to be true,” Val muttered as they passed the place.

“You can bet we’ll be back,” Viper said.

Kiri nodded. “Soon as we’re set for the day. Assuming the place is worth it, I have every intention of being very persuasive.”

Sora smiled. “It’s actually interesting that we haven’t seen any Ayleid ruins since we hit this side of the pass. I guess they never came this far north?”

“The Dwemer were up here,” Lorenzo said, “and considering the number of farms around here, I’m thinking we’ll do all right with our own garden and apiary. Toss up the usual protections and we shouldn’t have any unfortunate accidents.”

The road continued on west, but they turned north, and were gratified to find a fairly large flat area roughly across from the stables outside the city. The tent was promptly unpacked and set up and the horses were unhitched from the carts and tied off. They immediately started grazing after giving themselves a happy shake.

“All right. Renato, Lal, and—” He grinned when Val started dancing around. “Val. Let’s go check out Whiterun, see what’s available. Kiri or Viper, one of you please go check out that meadery and make an assessment. We’ll have a meeting once we’re assembled again. And if one of you will set up some kind of cooking area, I’ll make us something decent when I get back.”

“Dear gods, please let it be pasta,” Renato said with heartfelt hope.

“If we can find some decent beef for sale in the city, I could make spaghetti,” he replied, and was nearly dragged off his feet when his lover grabbed his hand and hauled him toward the path.

There were guards stationed outside the gates, but they just nodded as the group pushed through. Whiterun shared some vague similarities with Cheydinhal in terms of architecture, though some of the structures had thatched roofs rather than shingled, but it shared more with Bruma overall—not a surprise as Bruma was heavily influenced by the Nords.

Just inside the gate and to his right was a smithy, Warmaiden’s, with a youngish lady working the forge. What looked to be an inn, the Drunken Huntsman, was ahead and to the left. He could see market stalls straight ahead, so he headed that way.

The little plaza was bustling with activity. The stall to his left had produce on display, one had game, and another appeared to be selling general items, such as simple jewelry. In addition to the stalls were signs for Belethor’s General Goods, Arcadia’s Cauldron, and The Bannered Mare.

He hummed. “I don’t expect we’ll need anything from the shops themselves, but let’s see about tomatoes, at least, and beef.”

Lal diverted sideways to speak with the produce lady as Renato headed for the game merchant. Val eyed the area. “They seem friendly enough and I have to admit, the, um, palace up there is fairly impressive. Not what I’m used to seeing, but…”

“It has a certain charm,” he said. “I decry the lack of windows, though. Barely anything here has windows. I know, they can’t work with glass the way we were used to, but…”

“We could always be weird and have Lorenzo make us some stained glass windows for the front of the new Filigrana,” Val suggested. “It’d be a talking point if nothing else.”

“Talking point?” Lal said, having returned with a net sack of ripe tomatoes, various other vegetables, and even a wheel of cheese.

“Oh, those look nice,” Sora said, eyeing up her purchases. “They won’t be as nice as our own, but they’ll do for now.”

She nodded and looked expectant, so Val said, “Stained glass windows for the front of the new Filigrana. The usual web pattern, perhaps? As it is, Shi is going to have to make all new chairs and stools.”

She shrugged. “They were getting worn again, and we had to leave them behind anyway. And I like that idea. They’d definitely let in a lot of light, even if it would be coloured. Maybe we can sit down and sketch out some ideas. Use Mist-metal for the frames?”

Sora thought that sounded good. A shout caused them to look over to see Renato gesturing. Val dashed over to help in response. “I hope he’s not planning to buy an entire haunch,” he said, “but I guess if he does, I can figure out what to do with it.”

“I certainly hope that doesn’t include hanging any of it in the tent to age,” Lal said uneasily.

“No. But I could make stir fry with parts of it, or steaks. Nothing you’d care for, obviously, but it’d be a shame to waste any of it.”

Renato and Val wandered back over carrying a net sack each. Sora was relieved to see they had not gone overboard and purchased something like an entire side, because what the hell would he do with hundreds of pounds of beef and no place to store or hang it yet?

“You do realize you get to be the one to grind that, right?” he asked his lover.

Renato gave a resigned nod. “And there’s enough for a second meal tomorrow. He said we could purchase eggs and dairy at the Bannered Mare if we needed any, or ask around at any of the farms here.”

“Might as well get started, then,” he said. “We’ll have plenty of time to explore.”

By the time they got back to their campsite Rio and Shi had set up an adequate campfire with a metal tripod over it sporting several hooks. Lal set about getting some water and giving the produce a cleaning before patting everything dry and setting it all aside for the time being.

Sora took some of the tomatoes and started preparing them so he could start on a sauce. Val helpfully hunted down the garlic and salt, and chopped onions for him, while Renato took some of the beef and began to grind it down with tools retrieved from the tent.

Shi had hung pots from each of the hooks and brought out a container of olive oil—getting olive trees to grow in Cyrodiil had been fun, and they were going to have to do it all over again—so he was well set to begin once everything was prepared.

Two pots of sauce were merrily bubbling away when a group of Khajiit rolled up and looked somewhat put out.

“Do you normally camp here?” he asked, getting up and approaching. “Because there’s more than enough room for all of us.”

“You have the sound of someone from Cyrodiil,” one of the males said.

“Yes, just came from there, actually. I’m Sora. We’re looking for a place to relocate to and thought Whiterun sounded nice.”

“Ah, this one’s name is Ri’saad.”

After the introductions were out of the way Ri’saad directed his people to set up their tents, then eyed the food Sora was cooking.

“Probably not sweet enough for you, friend,” Sora said in amusement, then took a seat again so he could start making the pasta. It would have time to dry enough before it was time to boil it. “I was taught a few recipes from your homeland, though. I’ve never tasted them because I don’t think I want to know what moon sugar would do to me, but they were well enough received.”

Ri’saad looked confused, or as confused as a Khajiit could look. It was all about the tilt of his head and the set of his ears and whiskers.

“I ran a bar—a tavern?—near Chorral,” Sora said into the silence. “We had all sorts of customers. You can share our dinner if you’d like. I’ve made more than enough sauce to cover four additional people.”

“This one would be interested to taste.”

Sora smiled.

While the pasta was drying he asked Ri’saad about his travels and was treated to a discourse on the troubles in the Reach and Markarth. “The Forsworn make travel there very exciting,” Ri’saad said at one point.

“That rather confirms our choice not to head that way,” he said, then dumped the pasta into boiling water. “There are so many bandits already on the roads. I can’t imagine having the Forsworn boiling out to join the party. And you said Markarth is built out of Dwemer ruins?”

Ri’saad nodded. “Soulless stone.”

“I’m sure we’ll see some at some point,” he said, giving the pasta a quick stir. “I’m not in any hurry. Though I will say that Ayleid ruins are quite aesthetically pleasing so long as you can ignore the tendency for there to be necromancers, undead, cultists, or bandits lurking in them.”

A faint tug on one of his bonds saw him turning his head in time to see Kiri walking their way. His brother had a smirk on his face that boded well—for them.

“Little brother,” Kiri almost sang once he got close enough. He paused long enough to give Ri’saad a nod of greeting, then sat down. “I think it’ll do wonderfully for our purposes. A few alterations, a bit of construction—there’s a tunnel down in the cellar that leads to a cave system, no doubt filled with rats or something equally unpleasant.”

He shrugged. “That could all be cleared out and some renovations made to make that space usable. By the way, Kiri, this is Ri’saad. He and his group trade along the route from here to Markarth. Ri’saad, this is my brother, Kiri.”

Kiri nodded again, then eyed the pots.

“Just a few more minutes,” he said.

Kiri jumped up and started helping the others to get things ready. A parade of dishes were shortly being filled with pasta and sauce and placed on folding tables along with garlic bread and salad.

Ri’saad and his group were served first, and they seemed to, if not like, at least not hate the spaghetti. The Khajiit politely thanked Sora for the meal and moved away to speak with his people, so Sora cleaned up and retreated inside their tent for a meeting.

“For some odd reason,” Kiri said once they were settled in various spots, “the secondary building is a boilery intended for mead making.”

Sora frowned in confusion. “So the entire structure could be converted to our house.”

Kiri nodded. “The shop is … serviceable as it stands, but some improvements could be made for flow—you’ll understand once you see inside—and part of it converted to a kitchen. There’s plenty of room for storage, though they have their beds up in the loft area.”

“They?”

“The present owner, a Nord by the name of Sabjorn, an Imperial named Mallus, who is more or less enslaved to Sabjorn, and a Nord named Eimar, who mostly keeps the place cleaned and apparently has a burning desire to learn how to make mead.”

“Hang on, enslaved?” Renato said.

“Sabjorn loaned Mallus a sum of coin, knowing the man would find it difficult to pay it back. Mallus is something of an indentured servant because of that, doing the nastiest, dirtiest jobs. Sabjorn seems quite pleased with his … cleverness … at having done this to an Imperial. Basically, we would have to get Sabjorn to forgive the debt before compulsing him to relocate wherever, and giving the other two the boot.”

“Really,” Rio drawled. “Perhaps Markarth would be a good place for him, then.”

“The cellar extends under the shop and storage building, but it could easily be expanded with some careful work. And, as I said, there’s a break in one wall down there leading to some caves. We would either have to seal that up, or—” Kiri glanced at Shi and Lorenzo. “—extend over to the river and figure out how to tap into that for water and/or power.”

Lorenzo whipped out a notebook and started jotting down notes and muttering to himself. The word “purification” might have slipped out.

“Out of curiosity, did you try the mead?” Sora asked.

Kiri shook his head. “He only just recently got the place. He made a vague passing comment about having been helped. We’ll find out more once we go back. I’m sure between myself and Viper that we can expose any interesting secrets.”

“All right. You two are good to go back tonight, poke around. After you’ve rested we can talk more.”

*

Sabjorn,

Within the enclosed crate, you'll find the final payment. As we discussed, Honningbrew Meadery should now begin brewing mead at full production. In regards to your concerns about interference from Maven Black-Briar, I can assure you that I'll do everything in my power to keep her assets and her cronies at bay. This is the beginning of a long and successful future for both of us.

Sora looked up from the note with a grimace. “Great. Well, I’m sure whatever this Maven person throws at us we can handle. I do wonder how long it will take before she gets annoyed at the competition.”

Viper shook his head. “Let’s get this place fixed to our satisfaction, and then we can go out on small missions to scout the other cities.”

He looked around the main room and nodded. “Well that counter has to be moved. The positioning is ridiculous. Why the hell is the opening at the far end, away from the door into the storage area? No, let’s move it to cover that door and have the opening at the back end, so that I can easily go back and forth through the door to whatever kitchen we build back there. We can set up a spot to age meat in the cellar, too.”

Renato held his hand out and Sora looked confused until his lover said, “That can’t be lost. If someone helped that idiot with the express intent to annoy this Maven person, it might come in handy down the road. So let’s tuck it away someplace safe. We also need to be on the lookout for this mysterious benefactor. True, once it becomes known that you make mead they might not bother us, but until that becomes common knowledge…”

He nodded and handed the note over.

*

“So what did you find?” he asked, eyeing how Shi and Lorenzo were a bit on the cobwebby side.

Shi placed a journal on the counter as Lorenzo snorted and said, “A madman.”

His brow went up, then he flipped open the journal to read it.

Ten years of ridicule. Ten years of imprisonment. Ten years of exile.

The children threw rocks and the women spat upon me as the menfolk dragged me into Whiterun’s prison. They branded me a danger to their pitiful existence … used words like “madman” and “insane”. Could a madman escape the prisons undetected? Could a lunatic establish a laboratory right under their noses? Could a psychopath create a mighty army from the common skeever?

My days as an apprentice alchemist in Winterhold were no better. Those egotistical braggarts couldn’t compete with my abilities. Where they fell short, I’d constantly excel. Did they appreciate my genius? Did they relish my contributions? No. My instructors beat me and said I was irresponsible, and the Arch Mage cast me into the streets like a common beggar.

As my enemy grows complacent and weak, as they forget Hamelyn and his utter brilliance, I build my army. I use every bit of knowledge at my disposal to forge their demise. Thanks to Sabjorn’s unwitting assistance, my legion grows stronger every day. The irony that the same ingredients used to make his vile drink could be used to feed my offspring isn’t lost upon me.

Oh, they will pay. Their ignorance of impending annihilation amuses me. I will bury Whiterun and watch Winterhold burn. And when they experience the fury I’ve unleashed upon them, when my progeny are gnawing the flesh from their bones, they will come begging and groveling at my feet. But there will be no mercy, no quarter, and no leniency. And I will laugh and I will dance and I will rejoice over their mangled, broken corpses. The time for recompense has arrived.

Ten years of pain. Ten years of misery. Ten years of death.

“Right,” he said in bemusement, then flipped the journal shut. “I assume he’s dead now.”

Shi nodded. “And all his little pets. We can decide how we want to excavate after I’ve had a chance to do some clean up down there. There’s tons of space.”

“I was thinking we could terrace the land behind the buildings,” Lorenzo said.

“For our garden?” Lal said.

“Yes. The boilery could be converted for the horses, a cow, stuff like that. The windows there are just openings, so there’d be airflow even if the doors were shut. And if Shi cut us a path to the river, we could divert water in to both buildings. The apiaries can have the usual Mist-metal protections to keep outsiders away from them. Maybe some fences around the terraces.”

“It’s going to take a year to get a good set of bees going anyway,” he said, “so it’s just as well we brought so much honey with us. Hopefully the local jarl won’t throw a fit when we start terracing, but that’s fixable even if it happens. I would say … let’s focus on three things first. This tavern area, the kitchen, and the hive placements. It won’t kill us to use sleeping bags for a bit. I can start batches of mead straight away. Once those are done, we can start in on the other projects.”

*

Rio and Lal came in looking somewhat annoyed and flopped into seats. “That was kind of a waste,” Rio said sourly. “But we did run into the expected undead.”

“And spiders and rats—”

“They call them skeevers here,” Lorenzo pointed out.

Lal scowled at him. “And several types of traps. Rio almost set one off.”

“You don’t know that,” Rio protested with a wounded look.

She gave him a look. “Sure. A lever sitting innocently in the middle of the room, a portcullis-style door, and weird carvings, and you weren’t the least bit suspicious?”

“Weird carvings?” he asked.

Lal nodded. “Nords have odd ideas about cleverness. There were three, uh, pillars off to the side. Three sides each, each with a bas-relief of snake, whale, or hawk—some kind of bird of prey, anyway. There were matching carvings in the room up on a walkway, though one of them had fallen. Once we set the pillars to match those it was fine. I suspect if you pulled the lever without the right combination something nasty would happen, because I saw some odd holes.”

“Were the undead like the ones we’re used to?”

Rio shook his head. “No headless zombies here. These were like mummies minus the wrappings, and still wearing armor. Some of them could Shout, which was exciting, but they were no real challenge. In some ways they’re just as stupid as the zombies, because luring them into traps was fairly simple. They had good stuff on them, too, so we can probably fetch some nice coin for it.”

He still did not understand why they looked disappointed, so he asked, “Then why was it a waste?”

“There was a very strange wall in there,” Lal said. “Probably a door, but it was a puzzle. There was a round plate with holes in it, and three stone rings around it with symbols. You could push the rings to rotate them and change the combination, but without whatever key it was impossible to open, and we didn’t feel right about trying to destroy it.”

“Well, we set up a spot in the cellar for heating water and bathing while you were gone.”

Lal brightened. “Then I’m going to go take advantage of it.”

“I’ll scrub your back,” Rio said happily.

*

He was washing mugs when Ri’saad and his crew wandered into the most recent incarnation of Filigrana. He nodded a greeting.

“This one is surprised by the windows,” Ri’saad said as he took a seat at the bar.

“They’re nice, right?”

“Why webs?” Ri’saad asked, only just noticing that the tavern’s motif was webs. As before, all the seat cushions were embroidered by Shi, though the seats themselves were a mismatched lot, and there were roughly triangular panels of Mist-metal like spider webs in places that had glass-cage lanterns suspended from them.

“While I’m not exactly fond of spiders,” he said, “not those massive ones, anyway, I really like how they can make webs, and I like silk. I just think it’s amazing, and they’re really beautiful in the early morning, when there’s still dew on them.”

Ri’saad stared at him blankly, then nodded.

“So what can I get you guys? Sweetest mead we have?”

Ri’saad nodded.

He smiled and stepped back a little so he could see under the bar, then hooked out four bottles to place on the counter. “I baked a cheesecake if you’d like to try it. It might not be as sweet as you’d like, but… I don’t know, you might still enjoy it. I won’t even charge you for samples.”

Ri’saad clawed the cork out of his bottle with a contemplative angling of his ears, then nodded.

Sora grinned and ducked into the kitchen long enough to slice four thin wedges of cheesecake and set them on plates, get forks, and bring them out on a tray to serve. He watched as the leader of the group took a bite and the Khajiit’s eyes shuttered.

“This one … does not dislike this,” Ri’saad finally said. “Though a little moon sugar would not go amiss.”

He chuckled. “How did I know you’d say that? I have no idea what would happen if I baked one with that in it, but maybe if you sprinkled a little on top?” He shrugged.

“Perhaps.” Ri’saad quickly finished the sample and washed it down with mead.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Ri’saad’s group was a regular fixture at Filigrana from that point on and passed on a fair amount of gossip each time they stopped in.

*

It was a sunny afternoon when the door opened and a weary-looking Dunmer entered and took a seat at the bar. “Do you rent rooms?”

“Ah, no. Just food and drink, friend. We have several varieties of mead for sale, as well as some basic wines and ale.”

“Mead varieties?” the man said.

“There’s the regular mead, with nothing special about it, from very sweet all the way down to dry, and three reserve varieties. Gold has actual flakes of gold in it, Pearl will give you some protection against the elements for a short time, and Viper will give you night vision, rather like Shadowbanish Wine. The regular mead is twenty septims, and the reserves are one hundred each.”

The man seemed surprised. “I’d like to try something in the middle.”

“Sure.” Sora stepped back and fetched out a middling mead from under the counter and set it down, then took the stack of coin and dumped it in the cash box. An hour later he was amused to note that the Dunmer man had had a bit more mead than he could apparently handle. What was not so amusing was the steady stream of invective rambling regarding the conditions suffered by Dunmer up in Windhelm—or by any mer, really—and how one of their detractors was the brother of the jarl’s right-hand man.

He signaled to Viper, whose mouth twitched.

The next morning over breakfast his Mist said, “I will have to make a trip for verification purposes, but the conditions in Windhelm have been steadily worsening. The refugees from Morrowind are accused of being a drain on their resources. When they attempt to find proper work, they are reviled for their efforts and accused of being spies for the Imperials. Some have been persistent in their efforts and won a grudging respect, but most are so disheartened that they remain mostly within the Gray Quarter, though even there are Nords who come at night and yell abuse at them.”

Sora frowned. “So, an advertising opportunity.”

Viper nodded. “Two, actually, as he was actually here because of rumors that have filtered north about your mead, Sora.”

“Well he did buy a dozen bottles to take back with him,” he acknowledged.

“As to the potential hit, there are two who are particularly vocal, one being the brother I mentioned. Another is a member of the guard. At that, the Argonian population has it worse. They aren’t even allowed inside the city, and instead live on the docks.”

“How important is this brother person?” Lal asked.

“His brother would in theory miss him and raise a fuss over his death or disappearance,” Viper replied, “but he does not seem to do much of anything aside from drink and hurl abuse.”

“All right. Find out what you can and we’ll make the decision, come up with a plan of action.”

*

Viper’s mouth had that unhappy slant to it when he returned. “That Dunmer works at the New Gnisis Cornerclub in the Gray Quarter. Ambarys employs him to clean, but Malthyr also functions as a pawnbroker. Ulfric Stormcloak took over as jarl in 176, after his father died, and he is much opposed to elves in general, or really, anyone who is not a fellow Nord. He’s not outright dismissive of Imperials, Bretons, or Redguards, but neither is he particularly welcoming.

“In any case, Rolff Stone-Fist indeed likes to bully the Dunmer and roam the Gray Quarter at night to try to drive them away. He has a crony who tags along at times, but Rolff is more of a driving force in this, and Ulfric, and his brother Galmar, do nothing to stop him.”

“I see.” Sora frowned and glanced at his other family members to gauge their reactions.

“Let me get this straight,” Lal said. “Red Mountain blew and destroyed half of Morrowind, and many of them fled across the border here to Skyrim. Ulfric’s father presumably didn’t have a problem with the refugees, but Ulfric is ridiculously racist, and chooses to ignore the issues in his city rather than actually do anything. I could understand if the man was pissed because Dunmer have a long history of enslaving Argonians…”

“I took a look at Ulfric while I was there,” Viper said. “He was a soldier in the Great War, and during that time he was captured by the Thalmor. He was … broken. They made him believe that he gave up information crucial to the fall of the Imperial City when in fact it had already fallen. Later on, not long before his father died, he reclaimed the Reach from the Forsworn, with the understanding that their right to open worship of Talos would be reinstated. Naturally, he was arrested for it and imprisoned, and only let out some time after his father had died, to take up the position of jarl. He would welcome anyone if they swore to fight for him, but he won’t bother to help anyone who hasn’t, unless they’re a Nord.”

“So he has good reason to hate the Thalmor, but not the Dunmer, Argonians, Khajiit—” Lal stopped. “Maybe the Khajiit, if only because they think the Thalmor ended the Void Nights.”

“That and their moon sugar trade,” Lorenzo said, “even though it’s not illegal. And there was that nasty business with the Blackwood Company in Leyawiin involving that Argonian Hist tree, but I don’t know that he’d be aware of the incident.”

“Oh, well, you know,” Rio said with a roll of his eyes, “it’s not like the average Nord isn’t sucking down how much alcohol daily?”

“Let’s get back to Rolff. Do we take him out or not? It’s obvious Ulfric won’t do anything, either to keep his people in line or completely oust non-Nords from his city.”

“If we want to establish our shady reputation here, he’s a good target,” Renato said.

“It sounds to me like Ulfric can’t even govern his own city properly,” Lal said. “And if he’s not prepared to take out a guy who routinely abuses residents, maybe we should. And yes, he sounds like a viable target as a basis for advertising purposes.”

Sora noted that no one seemed ready to object, so he nodded. “Shall I get the usual, or is one of you in particular wanting to do this?”

“Whoever does it should avoid the appearance of magic,” Viper said. “We are talking about Nords here.”

Val furrowed his brow and said, “I think I’d like this one, but…” He eyed Kiri.

“What did you have in mind?” Kiri said.

“If you could arrange for a brawl between two Nords to break out wherever he lurks, and he gets pushed as a result, I could propagate the force.”

“And his brains splatter all over the nearest stone wall?”

Val nodded. “Something like that, yes. Then there’s no reason for anyone to think magic was involved. Well, okay, someone could have used a frenzy-type spell, but…”

Kiri smirked. “I could take direct control of people and make the resulting build-up seem entirely natural, plus ensure a push in the right direction. True, pure illusion could get two men to play off each other and escalate into a real fight, but the odds of getting the push you need…”

“Right. And this way it would look entirely accidental, rather than having one of them controlled into attacking directly.”

Sora nodded. “All right. I’ll let you two take care of it, then. Aside from that, the usual applies.”

*

Shi, Rio, and Lal returned from their trip and dropped into seats at one of the tables. Sora wandered over with bottles of mead and took a seat since there were no customers present. “You look tired,” he said.

Lal shook her head as she uncorked her bottle. “Not so much. We did get what we went for, though, after a side trip.”

“We found a candidate roaming the streets and stopped to talk to him. A handful of coins got him talking,” Shi said. “But he wanted us to retrieve a helmet of his he’d lost. We ended up in some place called Shadowgreen Cavern northwest of Solitude. Pretty enough place, but filled with spriggans and bears.”

“At least the ones up here don’t have that weird laugh,” Rio said before taking a sip of his mead.

“Noster is on board,” Lal said. “He’ll be keeping his ears and eyes open for us, so long as we make regular donations. We set up the usual deal with the carriage driver stationed out of there. He’ll ferry messages whenever he comes this way.”

“Then that’s the last of them,” he said with a nod. “I guess beggars don’t see the point of sticking around the smaller towns when they could find better shelter and more opportunities in the cities.”

“Which is helpful,” Shi said, “as the carriage drivers are only stationed at the big five. We just have to send a delegation once every few weeks or a month to make payments.”

“At least Brenuin is easy,” he said with a shrug. “He can just come here for meals once a day.”

“Speaking of Whiterun,” Lal said.

His brow went up.

“Rio and I have been talking. We’re not exactly prepared to adopt the kid, but do you have a problem with giving Lucia a place to live? She can help out with the animals.”

“Wait, what? You know I haven’t been into Whiterun for a while. Who is Lucia?”

“Ah, an orphan. Her mother was killed recently and her aunt and uncle took over their farm. Lucia claims they threw her out, saying she was useless. Brenuin explained to her the basics of begging. No one has come forward to adopt her, possibly because she’s an Imperial. We figured, she lived on a farm…”

Sora nodded. “All right. Go ahead and make the offer. We’ll have to figure out a bedroom for her, what duties she can do. It’s one thing for an adult to beg—they could always go help out at one of the farms—but a child sleeping on the streets…”

Lal smiled. “Thanks, Sora. We’ll go talk to her.”

*

Sora knew that rumor had probably reached a certain point when a young Breton woman with a nervous air about her entered Filigrana and took a seat. Her eyes darted around and she jumped slightly when Renato went over to see what she’d like.

His lover came to him a short time later and said, “Dry mead and a sampler.”

He nodded and fetched out a bottle of mead to hand to Renato, then disappeared into the back to put together her order. A small ramekin of pasta salad, some bruschetta, and two goat cheese and caramelized onion tarts. Renato took the plate over when he brought it out, then came back to say, “Given her general demeanor, I have to wonder if she’s come based on rumors and not for the exotic food.”

A glance her way showed that while she was delicately sampling the food, she still seemed nervous and jumpy. “Or she’s being hunted. But I see that Kiri has also noticed, so I expect we’ll hear something soon enough.”

His brother strolled over to check on her and took a seat, smiling pleasantly. He was too far away to hear any of the conversation, but the woman relaxed after only a few minutes and smiled back. Kiri started gesturing as he spoke, and pointing at various items on the menu. When she did leave she had completely lost the wariness she came in with.

Kiri sauntered over and smirked. “I think we have one of our other customers, dear brother. I tagged her, of course. She’s off to get a room at the Bannered Mare for the night.”

“Any idea what the problem is?”

“Ah, well… It seems that one of guards in Dragon Bridge is two steps away from becoming a rapist,” Kiri said. “No name yet, but it’s a bit early for that. I wouldn’t doubt she’ll be back.”

Lucia came in the front door and stopped dead when she saw Lal and Rio. After a squeal of happiness she dashed over to greet them, so Sora got up. “Lucia, how about you go harvest us some kiwi and spinach for a salad? I already picked some berries earlier. That’ll give these guys a chance to clean up before lunch.”

She pouted a little and nodded. “Okay. I’ll get real good ones!” She dashed back out.

*

The Breton woman returned the next day and took a seat at the bar, and ordered stromboli—Kiri’s work in action, he supposed—to go with her mead. “That’ll be about twenty minutes,” he told her before disappearing into the kitchen to put it together and shove it into the oven.

When he came back out she began to look nervous again, so he smiled at her and said, “I don’t recall seeing you around Whiterun. Are you visiting someone in the area?”

“Oh, um, not really. I heard some … rumors,” she said softly.

“I see,” he said with a nod. “Word has gotten around about the food and drink here.”

She blinked at him in confusion. “No—I mean, I guess?”

Sora smiled. “If you feel like talking… But let me go check on your order.” He retreated into the kitchen and eyed the stromboli, then grabbed a few tarts and returned to the counter. He bit into a tart and eyed the room.

“Things are kind of tense in Dragon Bridge lately. It seems relaxed here.”

“I’ve never been there. What’s it like normally?”

“Oh, well, it’s not a very big village,” she said, “but we have an inn. I work there, learning the trade. I hope to run my own inn at some point. But the guards there are a bit… They seem to think it’s all right to demand things.”

“I think I would want a holiday from that, too,” he replied. “Of course, if some guard tried demanding things of me, he’d regret it. I don’t think he’d end up in Sovngarde, either, were it a Nord.”

She looked startled for a moment, then nodded. “There is something I’ve been meaning to ask about. There’s this one man in particular who won’t stop, and I heard things, about this place. There’s a beggar in Solitude I talk to sometimes when I go there for supplies we can’t get in Dragon Bridge.”

He nodded. “I know of him. Hold on just a moment while I go get your food, all right?” He ducked back into the kitchen and plated her food, added a bowl of sauce from the supply being kept warm near the fire, and brought it back out. “So who is this fellow who’s been giving you grief?”

“His name is Rogen,” she said, eyeing her stromboli for a moment before taking up knife and fork and slicing into it. She dunked it in the sauce and popped it in her mouth, then blinked.

“Not what you were expecting,” he said, “but good, yes?”

She nodded. Once she could speak again she said, “Very good. I’ve never had anything like it, but the food yesterday was just as new.”

“If you ever get to the point where you have an inn of your own, I might be nice enough to share a single recipe. How bad is this Rogen person? I don’t want to make assumptions, but…”

She looked away for a moment, then delayed further by having another piece of her stromboli.

“Is he the grabby sort? Wants more than you’re willing to give? Insistent and demanding?”

A faint sneer developed on her face before it was wiped away. She nodded and had another bite.

“If you want it taken care of we can do that,” he said. “The question is, what result do you want?”

“Ah…”

“If he’s really upset you, he can meet with an unfortunate accident,” he said bluntly. “If you want something less drastic, we can come up with something that will get him out of your hair.”

“But what—at what cost?” she whispered, looking a bit sick.

“Dragon Bridge has a Penitus Oculatus outpost, right?” When she nodded he said, “Keeping the circumstances in mind… Information, then. If anything peculiar happens in your village, let Noster know when you’re in Solitude. It’ll eventually make its way back here.”

Renato came through the kitchen door and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Tesoro, I was wondering if I could talk you into making some tiramisu.”

He grinned. “I could be persuaded. I’m going to have to make another batch of sauce, so if you help with that…”

Their customer watched in mild bemusement as she ate.

“I will even pick the vegetables myself,” Renato said.

“Then you have a deal,” he said, dropping a kiss of his own on his lover’s cheek. “I’ll make some in the morning, after breakfast.”

Renato reached under the counter for some mead and uncorked a bottle. “You know, you and I should consider taking a holiday.”

“I suppose I could make certain things in advance,” he said slowly. “But a holiday? To where?”

Renato shrugged. “Not Windhelm? Well, actually, not Riften, either, or Markarth. The only other decent sized city is Solitude.”

“It’s quite nice there,” their customer said. “Evette San makes and sells a spiced wine that’s nice. The Bard’s College is there, too.”

Renato shrugged. “We don’t have to be gone more than a few days. Go up, see the sights, come home.”

He hummed thoughtfully. “Let me think about it. Probably yes, though.”

“Okay, tesoro. I’ll go get the stuff you’ll need for the sauce.” Renato gave him another kiss, grabbed a basket, and hastened off.

Their customer finished up her stromboli and nodded. “I’m glad I tried that.”

He moved her dishes to a bin under the counter. “You don’t have to decide now, you know.”

“No, I… I want him gone,” she said, then rubbed her face.

“It’ll be taken care of inside of a week. Don’t stress over it any longer.”

When she got up and turned to leave he nodded at Viper, who rose from his corner position and took a seat at the bar.

“She’s tagged.”

“Renato and I are going to have a short holiday in Solitude, but there’s a target in Dragon Bridge along the way. Feel like coming along?”

Viper frowned at him. “Yes. You know we’d never let you wander off without at least two of us. And while we’re there I can poke around to see if there’s more trouble than just a would-be rapist.”

Two days later they were off. They camped across the river from Dragon Bridge, behind a helpful rock outcropping a little north of the road, and Viper went in to investigate invisibly. When he came back Sora had food ready.

“The guards here are pissed off because of the outpost,” Viper said as he accepted a plate. “They feel simultaneously as if they’re being watched and judged, and ignored. The one she specifically mentioned, Rogen, is becoming more and more convinced that even if he did take what he wanted by force, the Penitus Oculatus wouldn’t bat an eye.”

“Well, how do you feel about adjusting some attitudes?” he asked Viper.

“Sure.”

“As for Rogen…”

“He’s on patrol this evening,” Viper said. “We could lure him across the bridge with an illusion, then further use illusion to make anyone who sees the commotion think that a bear is ripping him to shreds.”

“I could use a variant on my blades,” he said, flexing his hands.

Viper nodded.

“And you can adjust the rest of them while they’re sleeping. All right. We have a plan.”

*

Brenuin rushed into Filigrana with a weird expression and over to the bar. “The high king is dead!”

“What the hell happened?” he asked as Shi, Kiri, and Lal converged on them.

“Word came in that Ulfric Stormcloak went to Solitude and challenged him to a duel. He used a Shout to knock the king down, then ran him through. His wife’s taken over as jarl. There’s talk about her becoming High Queen, but just as much about Ulfric becoming High King. It’s for the moot to decide, they say.”

“Wonderful,” he said dryly. “Any other gossip? If he went to the trouble of calling Torygg out, yet isn’t immediately claiming the throne…”

“I’m hearing a lot of talk about his men, the Stormcloaks, making war on the Empire.”

“Just what we need, another war. All right, thank you for information.” He reached under the counter and produced a bottle of Gold Reserve.

Brenuin beamed and accepted it.

“I have a pot of minestrone on right now. Sound good?”

Brenuin nodded and headed for one of the tables, so Sora ducked into the kitchen long enough to fill a bowl and get some bread and butter, then bring it out. When he got back behind the counter Shi said, “If Lorenzo is to be believed about his interpretation of the ‘Book of the Dragonborn’, we’re going to see some serious action soon.”

“Ulfric will start his civil war, try to conquer all the holds and install sympathetic jarls, and win the vote that way.”

“It would make the most sense,” Shi replied.

*

“Is it just me, or is Val late?” Lorenzo asked at breakfast. “He should have been back by now.”

Val had gone on the usual run to support the local beggars in Stormcloak territory. Sora reached inside himself to trace the bond he had with his Cloud and frowned. “He is nowhere near Riften or Windhelm right now. He’s northwest of us.”

“The only things that way are Labyrinthian, Morthal, and Solitude,” Lorenzo said.

“Maybe he heard something in Riften and went to investigate?” Rio said. “Sounds a bit far-fetched, though.”

“He doesn’t seem to be in any distress,” Sora said. “We’ll give it some more time, I guess? If he’s not back by tomorrow morning, I’m going to track him down.”

“I’ll make sure the tent has what we’d need, then,” Renato said. “This is where I really miss cell phones. I could have sent him a rude text message or called and asked him what the fuck he was doing…”

“I’ll keep an eye on the bond. If he becomes distressed…”

That night he dreamed. Sheogorath was sitting there in his dual-coloured room with the massive tree growing behind the throne, and the bored-looking balding man was standing there staring at nothing in particular. One of these days he would consider asking what the man’s name was.

“Hello, old boy!” Sheogorath said cheerily. “Things are getting really exciting. Well, if you call a bunch of people beating each other to death exciting. And they don’t even have the excuse of being mad!”

“Does this mean the woman we’re supposed to help will be showing up soon?”

“Correct! She has blue hair, by the way, rather like your friend.”

“Oh? I didn’t think that was a thing on this world. Should make it easy to spot her, assuming the eyes didn’t give her away.”

“Just a note of caution, old boy. She won’t have any clue about being a hero when you meet her first, so don’t spoil the surprise.”

He nodded. “Um, do vampires even eat and drink normally, or is it all just blood?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Sheogorath said dismissively. “The vulgar ones might gnaw straight off the still living body to spice the blood they’re after, but this one eats normally, too, if only for the taste. Say, I just had an idea. You could always try making a mead variety with copper in it, to evoke the taste of blood.”

“Um… Maybe? It’s not like I’ve tasted blood recently.”

Sheogorath shook his head sadly. “And I suppose you don’t bathe in the blood of your enemies, either. How terribly provincial. Well! Ta ta!”

He didn’t wake up straight after an audience with … his god? The dream warped into him in a floating chair at the Circus of Cheerful Slaughter, where he was forced to watch a play being enacted. It was very boring. He obviously wasn’t insane enough to appreciate it.

Val rolled in about halfway through breakfast looking more than a little put out, not to mention uneasy.

Sora got a plate ready for him and went back to eating.

“Sorry I’m late,” Val said as he picked up his fork. “I kinda did something you might not be happy about, and then things got weird.”

“I’m going to assume you’re all right,” he replied. “You look fine. Physically, anyway.”

“Yeah… Um, well…”

“Spit it out,” Renato said testily. “It’s not like we’re going to dogpile you.”

“No thank you,” Val said. “If I’m going to be dogpiled, I’d prefer it be all beautiful ladies who don't expect anything more than a no strings attached good time. Okay. I was in Riften distributing coin to Edda and Snilf, when I heard another rant about Grelod over at the orphanage. So I snuck in. Oh my god that woman was a nightmare.”

“Was?” Shi asked.

“Oh, um…” Val laughed nervously. “Yeah. I sorta killed her. Snuck back out. Shopped a little, then headed for Windhelm as my next stop.”

“All right,” he said slowly. “If she truly was that bad, she should never have been in charge of an orphanage. Please tell me there was someone else there to look after any children?”

“Yes. Some chick named Constance. She seemed awfully nice, at least when Grelod wasn’t there to witness it. The kids like her a lot. Grelod was… There was this little room, closet sized, no windows, with manacles on the wall.”

Sora sighed. “All right. But how did it get ‘weird’?”

“I went to bed at Candlehearth and woke up in a shack near Solitude. There were three people in front of me, each on their knees, hands tied behind their backs, and hoods over their heads.”

“Aw, man, you attracted the attention of the Dark Brotherhood?” Renato said.

Val nodded. “Yep. Some chick in black and red was lounging up on the top of a cabinet. Said the only way I was going to get out of there was to kill someone. She said I owed them a kill because I killed the old woman. How they figured that out…”

“Maybe you were the only visitor that day?” Shi said.

Val shrugged. “Anyway, my first thought was to kill her, but I figured I would at least play along at the start. She said one of the three had a contract out on them. The woman was just angry. She has six kids and no husband, apparently. The one guy seemed confused as to why he was there, but as a mercenary, maybe he upset a family member of someone he ended up killing. The last one, though, was a Khajiit fellow. He was an asshole and took great pleasure in threatening me. Sounded like a cocky mafioso from some big family. I admit, I took exception to him saying he’d have his people carve his name in my corpse.”

“I’ll take the Khajiit for two hundred,” Lal said.

Val snorted. “Yeah, I offed him. At that point the red and black chick ‘officially’ invited me to join up with the Dark Brotherhood, gave me the general location of the sanctuary, the password—which is, by the way, ‘Silence, my brother’—and handed me a key so I could unlock the door and leave.”

“Normally I would consider being somewhat upset,” Sora said, “at you randomly killing someone like that, because I know you could have busted out under your own power, but…”

“Having the password is something to hold close in case we need it later,” Kiri said. “We can’t guarantee myself or Viper randomly stumbling over one of them to weasel it free.”

He nodded. “Yes. But…”

Val hung his head for a moment.

“Val, will you head to Solstheim and replenish our supply of pearls?”

Val exhaled in relief. “Sure. I will crack open every pearl oyster there. Hopefully I can collect a good batch. On a side note, things are getting worse. Windhelm is totally geared up and I saw plenty of Stormcloaks out on the roads, not to mention a few instances of scuffles with Legion soldiers. Surprisingly, even though people consider us Bretons, I had more than a few Stormcloaks urge me to join up.”

Sora wrinkled his nose. “Sure, sure, Skyrim is for the Nords, but we’re happy to have you other people as cannon fodder? Well, I should update everyone, actually.”

“You have another dream?” Renato asked. “Because you didn’t wake up like you normally do if so.”

“Yeah. I got to visit the palace at New Sheoth again. Our new friend will be stopping by sometime reasonably soon. And like Lal, she has blue hair. Since she’s a vampire she may wear a hood? He didn’t say. But I’m sure we can figure it out. I have been instructed not to clue her in to her upcoming hero slash pawn status—”

Val snickered.

“—so we’ll just not talk about that until it becomes relevant. However…”

“Right, right,” Rio said. “We make nice, hopefully make a friend—and it would be nice to have another one who isn’t going to leave us due to old age—and make her want to talk to us or whatever when the time comes.”

“And Sheogorath suggested I make up a Copper Reserve with copper in it so it’d presumably remind people of the taste of blood.”

Lorenzo’s brows went up. “Maybe that would work? Copper is toxic in quantity, though, so I’m thinking as interesting as it sounds, it’s a bad idea.”

“Ah. I won’t bother, then. Maybe it also causes insanity? That might explain the suggestion. I suppose it’s possible he’s mildly annoyed that I’ve yet to lose my mind. He keeps sending me to various places in his realm during dreams, but…” He shrugged.

“You’ve weathered plenty of crazy already,” Kiri said, smirking.

*

His intuition warned him of something, nebulous as it might be, and since Filigrana was placid at the moment he went to the door and gazed out at the road. Lorenzo had long since fashioned them a screen door to keep the bugs out, and during the warmer months they generally left the proper set open.

A figure was off in the distance, coming down the road on the far side of the river. That road wound around the mountain and led to places like Ivarstead, Darkwater Crossing, Shor’s Stone, and Riften. When it got close enough he could hear it was a she; she was telling the guards about an altercation up the hill between Legion soldiers and Stormcloaks. Considering how often that had been happening of late, he was unsurprised she ran into one even so close to Whiterun.

In theory, Jarl Balgruuf was neutral, but in practice he would likely side with the Empire if forced into a situation where neutrality was untenable. There were no Legion soldiers regularly patrolling the area, but he had no doubt that the Imperial in charge of the Empire’s efforts in Skyrim—a General Tullius, according to his information network—would be right on Balgruuf’s doorstep the moment he was given a faint nod of approval. The western holds were aligned with the Empire, while the eastern ones were with Ulfric, making it a seemingly even split, with Whiterun smack in the middle, straddling the line.

The woman, who he suspected was their incipient friend and hero of the day, glanced over and saw the sign outside where the old Honningbrew one once hung. She paused for a moment, glanced at him, then continued on toward Whiterun with a tilt of her head. Unfortunately for Sora, she was wearing a hood to go with her mage’s robes, so verifying that it was, in fact, her would have to wait.