Audens Avidius was having a bad day. He cursed loudly as he surveyed the empty market district, then hissed in pain as he raised his hand to his head. Even though it was noon, normally the busiest time of day, there wasn't a single person outside. Today was the first of Rain's Hand but the weather was unseasonably cold, wet, and windy. It felt more like Sun's Dusk, and anybody who could avoid going out today was hiding indoors. But Audens was scheduled to patrol, and he massaged his forehead while he watched the sheets of rain sweep through the deserted streets as he huddled in the alley between Rindir's Staffs and Edgar's Discount Spells.
He wasn't sure what was hurting his head worse - the hangover, or the fact that he owed Lorkmir 750 septims. He'd lost heavily at the arena betting on the yellow team's gladiator, and his pittance of a salary wouldn't come for another month. Audens had already shaken down the merchants for their 'insurance payments' and he didn't want to risk infuriating them. There was a fine line between intimidated and indignant.
His eyes scanned the deserted street as he said a silent prayer to Mara. Perhaps she would have mercy on him and help him out of this situation. "Not likely," he thought to himself, as he let out a snort of derision. "The gods have never helped me out, which is why I help myself." His thoughts wandered back to Lorkmir and the money. Theirs was a thief's bargain, with no trust on either side. Lorkmir controlled the Skooma trade in the Imperial City, and Audens helped ensure that his monopoly was safe in exchange for funds and the occasional little white bottle. He played his part well, arresting any encroaching dealers, and hampering any investigations that might get Lorkmir busted. Evidence was known to vanish and witnesses often found themselves with sudden memory problems. But Lorkmir had been acting jumpier than usual lately, perhaps having indulged in his own wares a bit too much, and his threats to expose Audens if he didn't get his money sounded more than idle.
This train of thought was interrupted as the door to Edgar's store flew open and slammed against the building, caught by a sudden gust of wind. The sound made him jump, and his attention quickly focused on the cause of the noise. A cloaked figure had stepped out of the store and was closing the door, apologizing to Edgar for having let it slip from her hand.
"Strange accent," Audens noted, years of observations coming to mind despite the pounding in his head. There wasn't much else to do other than look and observe when on patrol. He watched as she walked against the wind, cloak wrapped tightly around her and hood pulled down as far as it could go. He caught a glimpse of tan skin. "Talos' tits, another cursed High Elf." He disliked anyone who wasn't an Imperial, but he hated the Altmer the worst. His eyes quickly strayed to Palonirya's shop as thoughts of her flashed through his mind. She'd somehow managed to haggle down his 'insurance' plan and actually expected him to hunt down shoplifters who stole from her store. He often wondered if the money was even worth the hassle of dealing with that bitch.
He went back to observing the figure. The dull brown cloak didn't look like anything special, but he recognized it as having come from Black Marsh. The fabric was specially woven from swamp reeds, rendering the finished cloth waterproof. Since goods from Black Marsh took ages to get to the Imperial City, often falling victim to bandits along the way, a cloak like that would sell for a fair bit. Whoever she was, she was either well traveled or well heeled, and Audens' interest was piqued.
He stepped out of the alley and slowly started following her. Even though she was bent forward against the wind and rain he could tell that she was rather short for an Altmer. His eyes widened briefly as he watched her go into the Office of Imperial Commerce. "Obviously not a local; all of them already know that Vinicia Melissaeia is useless." he mused to himself.
The Office of Imperial Commerce had opened years ago after too many complaints of price fixing, scales that didn't balance, and other shady merchant practices, but due to a lack of funds, manpower, and direction the office quickly turned into a joke. The citizens had grown tired of complaining to Vinicia and seeing no results, so they stopped going. It was well known that there was only one reason to go there - to buy property. Audens' interest was more than just piqued.
He opened the door and slipped inside the office, grateful for a reason to be out of the rain. His gratitude was lessened when the warmth hit him. He knew Vinicia liked to keep it warm, but this was ridiculous. He made his way to the corner of the room by the stairs and assumed his guard pose, honed after countless hours spent standing in front of the district doorways. He saw Vinicia start, turning her head to stare at him. The office brought in no funds, so he hadn't extended his 'insurance' to her, but she knew by reputation that he wasn't one to tangle with. She quickly turned back to her customer and continued their conversation.
"Are you sure you wish to buy it? While I don't have any other houses available right now, there are some nice ones you can lease in the other districts, and there are some very reasonable inns as well…"
"No. Thank you for asking, but I'd like to buy the house." The Altmer gently cut Vinicia off. "The price is 2000 in total, correct?"
"Yes. Well, if you are sure this is what you want..." A silent nod from the figure. "Alright then, I'll just need you to sign a few forms." Vinicia reached into the lectern on the counter and after a few minutes of fumbling had pulled out a small stack of paperwork. The two women were both focused intently on the parchments before them. Vinicia would point here and there, and the stranger would sign.
Watching them with a bored expression on his face Audens could feel the sweat running down his back. Heat and heavy armour never mix, and a mild lurching in his stomach now joined the pain in his head. His face grimaced in annoyance, and with a smirk he noticed Vinicia hurrying the transaction along. She obviously thought she was the cause of the frown, rather than last night's ale.
"That was the last one." She said as she took the stack of parchments off the desk. "How will you be paying? We do accept credit notes from all of the major provincial banks."
"I'll pay in cash, if that's alright with you." Seeing Vinicia nod, the High Elf brought her hands up in front of her and started pulling 100-septim and 50-septim coins from her coin purse.
Audens' heart skipped a beat. "A cash purchase for a house in the Imperial City?" he pondered. In his experience most people who kept large amounts of cash on their person were either very foolish or very naughty. Either way, this was something he could work with. A plan started forming in the back of his mind, as he kept his ears focused on the sweet jingling of coin on coin as she counted out the money. He quietly opened the door and slipped outside into the street. As far as he could tell this rich Altmer hadn't even noticed him come and go. Perhaps this would be easier than he thought.
Knowing the door was hinged on the left side he went over and stood there against the old stone wall. His eyes watched a copy of the Black Horse Courier, streaked with rain but still declaring that the identity of the Gray Fox had been revealed, as it was buffeted back and forth across the square, sticking to pillars and slapping against boxes. His mind, however, was busy spending his new fortune. He wasn't a patient man, but years of patrols had taught him how to wait. Fortunately he didn't have to wait long at all. The door to the Office of Imperial Commerce swung open and the focus of Audens' thoughts stepped out in the street. As she turned to close the door Audens moved quickly, grabbing her extended wrist with his left hand while shutting the door with his right.
The hood lifted up to look at him, and instead of the look of fear or anger that he had expected, he was surprised to see a blank stare instead. From what he could see she was fairly young, though he never could judge the ages of mer. Her skin was more tan than the typical golden Altmer hue. Her face was also wider, not as long and thin as most high elves. He observed these things in the back of his mind, because his focus was on her eyes. The upturned corners weren't as severe as most mer's, but the colour surprised him. They were grey, unheard of for the Altmer. Realizing that she wasn't struggling and was waiting for him to speak, he loosened the firm grip on her wrist and cleared his throat.
"Excuse me Ma'am, but did you just purchase a home in the Imperial City?" He asked in his authoritative voice, the one he favoured when dealing with drunks and superior officers.
Wordlessly she nodded her head, expression unchanged. It wasn't the haughty look that the High Elves were renowned for; rather it seemed almost expectant. So she didn't want to talk to a guard. Maybe she wasn't a fool after all.
"Have you applied for your resident card? It is illegal to own property in the Imperial City without having a certificate of residency." A gentle shake of the head to indicate no.
"Now, I don't want to get you in trouble, even though you have broken the law." Could she tell he was bluffing? "However, since you are obviously new to the city, I'm prepared to be lenient. If you'll come with me I'll make sure you get your documentation in order right away." Keeping the grip on her wrist, he moved slowly towards the cobblestones. "We just need to go to the Legion office and fill out some paperwork. It will only take a couple of minutes." He smiled his most charming smile, the one he found worked well on judges and whores.
A nod of the head was all he received in reply.
Leading her through the rain-slicked street towards the Imperial prison Audens' thoughts drifted to the woman beside him. More specifically, thoughts of her eyes. They hadn't reacted at all to him or the things he told her. She had just kept staring at him, blinking less than any mer or man he'd ever met. He wondered if maybe she was diseased, but quickly put the thought from his head. He had just seen her interacting with Vinicia. Surely a disease wouldn't come on so quickly, not even one of the more exotic ones. He decided not to risk things by trying to make small talk. With the rumble of thunder and wind in his ears it would have been a difficult prospect anyway. Never letting go of her wrist, he smiled slightly to himself when they stepped into the courtyard of the Imperial Prison. The heavy wooden door to the prison lay before them.
He opened the door and brought her into the dark gloom of the prison vestibule. The torches on the wall were the only source of heat and a draft swept in from under the doors. A small trickle of rainwater fell from the trapdoor in the roof into a waiting bucket. The air was dank with the scent of must and dirt. Iounus Calddus was at the desk, dressed in the Imperial Legion jailor uniform with a copy of Selected Works of Crassius Curio sitting on the desktop in front of him.
Audens glanced over at the High Elf. She really was short for such a mer, just a couple of inches shorter than him. Though he was tall for an Imperial, he'd never met an Altmer that hadn't been taller than him. He saw no visible reaction to her new environment. Part of him was getting concerned with her lack of concern, and the other part couldn't believe his good fortune.
"Hello Audens. What do you have there?" Iounus asked, jerking his head to the cloaked figure. His eyes, however, were looking at Audens' free hand, where the thumb was slowly moving up and down. Iounus nodded gently to indicate he understood. Whatever Audens had planned for his new friend, she certainly wasn't to be treated as a common criminal. At least not yet.
"I'm just helping this young lady get her paperwork in order. She's new to the city and looking to buy a house." he told Iounus, while turning and giving a smile to the Altmer. Not that she could see it through her hood. "I'll be taking her down to the office." With that he started towards the barred gate to his right. Iounus couldn't help grinning when he saw the docile woman follow Audens into the cellblock. Getting up to lock the gate behind them, he figured that this was probably going to be the easiest mark Audens had ever had, and Iounus was looking forward to his percentage. All he had to do was keep quiet about whatever he thought he saw or knew, and Audens would pay him a small piece of the action. Not a bad way to make some septims.
Audens led the way down the sloped and curving hallway. The hall was just wide enough for two people to walk abreast. The torches seemed to be absorbing dark more than giving light, and a foul undercurrent filled the air. He knew that this section of the prison was at the same level as the sewers, but the smell was always an unpleasant surprise. As he walked to the first unoccupied cell he noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning to look he saw Valen Dreth slink into the far corner of his cell, his red eyes glowing with hate. Valen knew by experience to stay far away from Audens, preferably well out of reach.
Audens guided the unresisting Altmer into the cell, turning her to face him. He made sure to place himself between her and the door, though even if she did make a run for it she would never get past the gate.
"Dibella's Balls!" He thought in surprise. Her expression still hadn't changed, her eyes still staring at him from under the folds of her hood. He was a little unnerved by her eerie calm. Most people never made it this far without fighting, crying, or trying to run away.
He leaned in closer to her, keeping his voice low. Even though Valen was locked away in his cell, he still preferred to keep things as quiet as possible. The less people knew, the less it could hurt him.
"I'm sure you've figured out by now that I'm not going to ask you to fill out any paperwork. What I am going to ask from you is your cloak and your coin purse."
He watched her face, sure that he would see something. But nothing changed. She didn't move. She just kept staring at him with those unreadable eyes. Audens' temper started to flare.
"Playing games? Think you can outwit me, since you're a high and mighty Altmer? If you think I won't take what I want, you are a fool." He hissed as his hands went to the clasp at her neck. With a quick jerk he pulled off her hooded cloak, stepping back momentarily in surprise.
She hadn't even flinched. He'd expected a cry, a struggle, some kind of reaction.
With the cloak off he could finally take a good look at her. The first thing he noticed was her hair. It was an intense dark red, almost the colour of fresh blood. He'd seen Bretons and Bosmer with red hair before, but nothing like this. And he'd certainly never seen it on an Altmer. It was piled up in a loose bun on the back of her head. Her dress was simple tan linen, but of excellent manufacture. Her coin purse hung off the leather belt that circled her waist. He could see that it was far from empty. Not removing his eyes from her face, he took out his dagger and cut the purse from her belt. Still no reaction.
With purse and cloak in hand he relaxed a little. He studied her face and noticed that it was not unattractive. He also took note of the soft curves under her dress. Greedy thoughts of a different nature floated into his mind. He stepped in close and put his mouth next to her ear. He brushed her cheek with his hand as he whispered to her.
"You've been a very good girl. A very good girl indeed. If you are interested in earning back some of your coin…"
Sharp, sudden laughter burst into his ear, causing his pounding headache to turn into a stabbing one. She still hadn't moved from her spot, but she was laughing. Staring right at him, and laughing in his face.
Fury swept him. He was being mocked by a stuck up Altmer bitch. Oh, how he hated the Altmer. She had wounded his vanity, and now he would wound hers. Throwing the prizes in his arms to the ground, he grabbed her by her bun.
"Think that's funny? Let's see you laugh about this." With a sudden swipe of his dagger her hair had been separated from her head. Short ragged strands now fell free around her face. The blank stare was back, and this enraged him even more.
"Say something, damn it! Talk, or I'll make you talk." He bellowed. He backhanded her in the face with his steel encased hand. Now there was a visible red mark where she had been struck, blood starting to gather where the metal had cut flesh. And still, her expression didn't change. Blind anger swept over him as he brought his hand up again.
Audens came to when he felt hands on his arm, pulling him back. Iounus was there, yelling something at him, but the sound of blood pounding in his ears made it hard to hear.
"You're going to kill her! Stop!" The words suddenly came into focus. Audens shook himself loose and looked in the direction that Iounus was pointing.
The Altmer was curled up in a ball in a corner of the cell. There was blood and dirt all over her. The side of her face that he could see was puffy and discoloured. Both eyes had swollen up to an alarming degree. Her right arm lay at an awkward angle. But she was still breathing.
"What the hell happened here?" Iounus demanded. Audens caught the frightened look in his eyes. Stealing and beatings were one thing to turn a blind eye to, but murder was a different story. "I heard you yelling, and then I didn't hear anything at all. You know I normally don't get involved, but I thought something had happened to you…" he trailed off. Iounus' face was pale. He couldn't take his eyes from the figure on the floor. "Is she still alive?"
Audens watched her chest rise and fall. She was definitely alive. He felt strange – he'd never lost control like that before. But he remembered her laughter, and felt a swell of righteous fury. She'd definitely deserved it. He turned to Iounus.
"She tried to escape. It was a bit of a struggle, but I'm okay." Iounus threw him a sharp look. "Look, she's still breathing. She's alive. As long as they're still alive, the healers can heal anything, right?" Audens flashed his charming smile. Taking Iounus' arm, he guided him towards the exit, stopping to grab the coin purse and cloak from the floor. Leading him through the cell door, he made sure to lock it. Though the prisoner was hardly in any condition to escape.
Guiding Iounos back up to the vestibule, Audens continued to soothe him. "She'll be just fine. Probably won't remember anything anyway. Tomorrow is Sundas, and the healer from the temple always comes in, doesn't he? We'll leave her where she is, and if anyone asks we can say she had been attacked by bandits and we'd taken her into protective custody." At that Iounus gave a snort of laughter. Stopping to stand in front of the desk, Audens released Iounus. He held up the heavy coin purse in front of the Imperial jailor's eyes, and was relieved to see that familiar calculating look.
"Since I caused you a bit of a scare, I'm going to up your percentage to four instead of three. We'll count it out together." Audens moved aside the book on the desk and gingerly spread the contents of the coin purse on top. Iounus' frown turned into a huge smile as he saw the small fortune spread out before him.
Audens Avidius was having a good day. A very good day indeed.