It was humiliating. A bunch of pots and pans tied to a string stretched across the threshold - the oldest booby trap in the book! And she had walked right into it! She should have stuck to clearing out open-air stalls in the marketplace, but no, she had to get all grown-up and try to take on a real store!
Umtaz bit hard into her upper lip with her baby fangs to fight back burning tears of shame and indignation and took yet another elaborate turn round the street corner. Neither the shopkeeper nor the guards had caught sight of her - but she knew they were somewhere out there, searching, sniffing her out in the maze of dark lanes like ever so many bloodhounds. She had been running from their heavy footsteps for the past half an hour, and, what with the sharp pain in her left side and the taste of blood in her mouth, it did not look like she would be running much longer. She needed a place where she could lie low and wait until the guards got tired of chasing emptiness and stopped lurking so persistently round the orphanage, not letting her slip inside, dive into her bed and pretend she had never left it. And she eventually found it - a tall stone building, looming, shadow-like, in the pale light of the twin moons, its door abandoned, unguarded, begging to be opened and then shut by a small green-skinned thief seeking shelter. The temple of Mara.
The murk inside was deep, soft and warm, quite unlike the hollow, cold darkness of the orphanage that would taint Umtaz's dreams on those rare nights when she stayed indoors; it smelled of old parchment, and incense, and burning candles - a comforting, drowsy smell that made her slow down, and take a deep breath, and forget about her aching legs and weary, wheezing lungs. She perched herself apprehensively on the very edge of one of the back pews and glanced around in mild interest; she had only been here once before, and that was to grab a bunch of pamphlets for kindling, but now she had much, much more time at her disposal.
Soon enough, however, she began to shift uneasily in her seat, a stifling hot wave rushing from her collar bones to the tips of her ears, completely unsettled by the steady, melancholy gaze of the goddess' statue in the far end of the hall. It was all nonsense, of course, and Umtaz mentally scolded herself with quite a number of words she had picked up in the streets, of which 'milk drinker' was the mildest, but she just couldn't help imagining that Mara knew what she had been up to lately, and was not at all pleased. It was as if she was about to come to life and say, moving her gilded finger from side to side in a reproachful gesture, 'You have been a bad girl, Umtaz. What do you have to say for yourself?'
'Quit staring at me,' Umtaz whispered fiercely, getting up and forcing herself to tiptoe closer to the statue. 'I know you're one of the Divines and all that, but my business is my business, okay?'
The goddess ignored her and went on staring, not a muscle moving on her tearful mask of a face. Umtaz crept closer, determined to throw her loot sack - which this time she had failed to fill - over the statue's head... It was then that she realized that, apart from her and the infuriatingly motionless goddess, there was someone else in the temple.
In fact, if she had made one more step forward, she would surely have tripped over him. Or probably her; Umtaz was not too sure. All that she could discern was a dimly outlined figure of a robed grown-up, kneeling so low that his (or her) head touched the floor, arms stretched out towards the statue's feet. Umtaz hovered on one spot for a few seconds, pondering intensely whether the grown-up was dead and if letting out the scream that had been stirred within her by her discovery and was thrashing against her teeth, like a captured beast thrashes against the bars of its cage, would be too milk-drinkerish. But just as she was taking the long preparatory breath, on the verge of releasing her mouth's wild prisoner, she stopped mid-way, allowing the scream to dissolve into a faint gasp, struck by yet another revelation - or rather, several revelations. The grown-up was a he, and he was definitely alive - and he was praying. Though, come to think of it, his hoarse, feverish whisper sounded nothing like the few prayers Umtaz had heard in her life. He was talking more to himself than to the goddess, his voice slow and strained, pausing after every few words to take a few deep, shaky breaths, as if in great pain.
'For years, I have been running from wildfire. A raging blaze of crimson, each tongue of flame swirling and twisting, shaping itself into a face. So many faces. The people I hurt. The people I killed. The people I betrayed. All melting together in one fiery haze. And it seems that the fire has finally caught up with me. I am charred on the inside. Empty. Completely, utterly empty. My soul is nothing more than a handful of ashes. It is agonizing, living like this. If only I could fill that hollow space. If only something, anything could spring to life from those ashes. If only... But I think I know what I must do to feel whole once more. I must turn back. Face my past. Right my wrongs. And I can't do that. I am too afraid. I am a coward. Always have been. Always will be. I do not deserve to be priest. I do not deserve to be a Dunmer. I do not deserve to live. Worthless. Worthless! Worthless!'
That last word, which the grown-up repeated over and over, came out of his mouth like a dagger comes out of a wound, half a groan, half a sob - and before she knew it, Umtaz found herself sobbing too, quietly, piteously, her eyes burning and half-blinded, her lower lip trembling. She did not understand half of what the grown-up had said, but that didn't stop her from abandoning all her fear of milk-drinkerizing herself and giving way to an overwhelming outburst of emotion. Though she did rush out of the temple before her sniffing got too loud.
As she crept cautiously back to the orphanage, her path finally appearing to be guard-free, Umtaz made up her mind to somehow compensate for the pamphlets she'd stolen and the harsh way she'd talked about Mara and her priests. That grown-up had called himself a priest, and she was certain that he was both hurt, and lonely, and miserable - and all things considered, she wouldn't put crying himself to sleep past him either.