A dull establishment, the Drunken Huntsman. Sparse and dark and cloyed with the scent of blood—not the sort that would stir a vampire's fancy, either, but decades of dried-up old carcasses.
Still, it's quiet.
(or: 200 years post-True Gold, Tatianus Caridenius loafs about Whiterun.)
posting it now for anyone who wants to have a read! putting it under the cut too in case you don’t want to read it on a.3:
A dull establishment, the Drunken Huntsman. Sparse and dark and cloyed with the scent of blood—not the sort that would stir a vampire's fancy, either, but decades of dried-up old carcasses. Still, it's quiet. And the two proprietors are a pair of Bosmer brothers, which is fortuitous.
One of them had caught the red glare of Tatianus' eyes by candlelight, dropped the tankard he'd been polishing, and stoked the hearth until those vampire's eyes—Bonsamu eyes, these two should know—were out of sight. They're in very little danger from him, and every night Tatianus feels tempted to tell them so. But their fear makes them complacent. If they were not afraid, they might bring in a gaggle of Skyrim guards with their rough iron helmets, and that's always a small disaster.
Night after night, then, Tatianus has sat here in this same spot, nursing a mug of horrible mead he won't ever touch, well into the morning. And night after night, a nobleman will come in, sequester himself in a different corner, and take four hours about a Stros M'Kai rum—although anyone who could afford a Stros M'Kai rum every night ought to be drinking somewhere better than the Drunken Huntsman.
He'd had no intention of bothering that nobleman, except that the man had breezed past his table once and left a flowery scent that reminded Tatianus very sharply of home.
Tonight, for that reason alone, he rises, leaves his awful mead behind, and takes a seat opposite the nobleman.
"I have a wife," says the man, without looking up.
"Congratulations," replies Tatianus. He flags down one of the brothers and asks for a rum.
The nobleman sighs deeply. "With whom do I have the pleasure?"
"Ah. Tatianus Marcianus Caridenius of Gold Leaf Moor."
"I—I suppose I am at that." Although he vastly preferred being a plain Cyrodiil. 'Imperial' now, pomp and circumstance for a crumbling Empire.
The younger brother—Aro—Ano something—sets down a glass so quickly that it spatters the table, and turns away. Tatianus catches his hand and empties twenty pieces into it.
"Yourself, sir?" he asks, turning back to the nobleman.
"Nazeem of Whiterun, if it pleases you, Tatianus Marcianus Caridenius of Gold Leaf Moor."
"Yes," mutters Tatianus, blushing furiously to hear his rambling name, a relic of the Third Era, returned to him. "Pardon me."
"You Imperials have a habit of naming a place as if I should be familiar."
"Naming? Oh. No. Gold Leaf is quite erased. I use the name out of. . .well, out of habit."
"I see," says Nazeem. He seems to have relaxed under the assumption that he's dealing not with a mad newcomer, but with a homesick noble in search of worthy company. "What brings you to Whiterun?"
"Passing through," says Tatianus. "I'm here so long as my coin will last me—I've been so starved for good conversation."
"You won't find it here," says Nazeem mournfully, and peers into his glass. Then, changing his mind: "What do you want from me? A discourse about Whiterun politics?"
"No. Let Arkay forbid it, sir."
"I couldn't say. Er—what brings you to Whiterun, for that matter? Because, while your Nordic is perfectly lovely. . ."
"Ask me something different," says Nazeem curtly, although his eyes are bright.
"All right. How do you come by your fortune?"
Nazeem sets his empty glass aside and stands up. "You are a very strange man, Tatianus Marcianus."
"I. . .am really quite normal," protests Tatianus, limply, trying not to bristle about 'Marcianus'. "I'm just in the wrong place."
Wrong place or not, mutters Nazeem and pushes past him out of the tavern.
Those two Bosmer brothers are staring at him—probably gaping like a pair of river salmon. Tatianus sits back, astonished with himself. To ask after a nobleman's finances was uncivil in the Third Era; it's no less crude now. And why, why should it offend him to be called, familiarly, by his father's name? No one is left on Tamriel to care about the intricate naming games of the Nibenay valley.
"Friend of yours, that Nazeem?" he asks, glancing over his shoulder at the brothers.
They glare at one another, wordlessly bickering about who will open his mouth and risk drawing the ire of their monstrous tenant.
"He's a regular here," the younger brother pipes up at last. "He—he's really not so bad. . .just sets him off when you bring up coin."
"I'll bear it in mind," says Tatianus. Outside the sun is rising, which, although not fatal, tends to make things unpleasant for him. So he bids the brothers goodnight and climbs the stairs up to his room.
It's three days before Nazeem graces the Drunken Huntsman again. He takes the same faraway corner; orders the same rum; drinks it in the same meandering fashion.
"I feel obliged to point out," begins Tatianus, approaching cautiously, "that there are cheaper ways to drown your sorrows."
"Ah," says Nazeem, and gestures to the unoccupied chair. "Tatianus Marcianus Caridenius of Gold Leaf Moor."
"Just. . .just 'Tatianus', please."
Nazeem almost smiles. "Good." He catches the eye of the younger brother—Anoriath—and nods at his own glass. Anoriath darts behind the counter to procure another.
Tatianus folds his hands on the tabletop and thumbs at his ring. His wedding band, an antique by now. Nazeem follows his gaze—but before either of them can speak, Anoriath draws up to the table, slams down the glass and makes himself scarce.
"They just can't seem to get used to me," says Tatianus quite loudly. "Tell me—as a nobleman of discerning taste. Do I really cut such a strange figure, here in the north?"
"No. They like strangers well enough," replies Nazeem. "They fear you because you are as dead as the tundra."
"What a thing to say." Tatianus winds a strand of hair about his fingers. Deny, deny, deny, especially with these aristocratic sorts. They blush and back down, almost without fail.
Of course, Nazeem is different.
"My wife allowed the sickness to take hold of her once, for a brief time," he says quietly. "She described terrible nightmares."
"Nightmares. Indeed," stammers Tatianus, and casts a fevered glance about the room. No one is here save those two brothers and this man who must be on the point of drawing a blade. There it is, then, after so much trouble and so many pains—gutted in a dingy Skyrim tavern, smothered with dirt and left to decompose, thousands of miles from the Corbolo and the Reed.
Nazeem takes a long drink. "Why," he asks, "have you spent such a long time in Whiterun?"
"Too long. . ." Tatianus folds his arms and breathes deeply. "It's been too long since I was around people. Skyrim wasn't exactly my first choice, but there are swaths of unsettled land between the holds."
"What's that matter?" calls Anoriath—he covers his mouth straight away and goes very pale.
Tatianus laughs in spite of himself. "It matters because, if I'm found out, I can run for a while and disappear. In Cyrodiil, there might be settlements all through the county that have my description."
"Legion work fast," mutters Elrindir, the elder brother, buffing his countertop with a rag.
"So they do," agrees Tatianus, quietly pleased to have finally engaged his fearful patrons a little. "Better stories in Cyrodiil, though. I suppose, as a people, we do have a bit of a dramatic streak."
Nazeem clears his throat. "I have met several men of your standing, Tatianus, who like to trap insects in resin or with frost charms. Studies filled with pinned butterflies and stuffed birds. I find it. . .unpleasant."
That sounds like a beautiful insult. Tatianus takes a moment to try and unravel it. To paint him as a taxidermist—flitting about, snatching away stories without a care for the people he meets? Frozen facsimiles of real life? Is that the objection?
"I didn't trouble you because I wanted a story," he replies. "My great-grandfather was born in Hammerfell. He came over to Cheydinhal very young—had all the ways of a Nibenese, you understand, but he wore. . .wore small red Yokudan blossoms on his collar until the day he died. I thought I smelled them the other night."
Nazeem rises slowly. He draws a small red Yokudan blossom from the sleeve of his shirt, lays it on the table, and leaves the inn.
"Is it possible," begins Nazeem, on an obscenely busy evening in Sun's Dawn, "that your great-grandfather was Lonhe Let?" He slides one of the glasses across the table.
"Certainly possible," says Tatianus, wracking his brain. "But I couldn't tell you."
"I ask, because I have only known those red blossoms to grow in that territory. A little island chain in the Eltheric."
"Is that home?"
"Was," mumbles Nazeem and drains his glass.
"Why is it so bloody packed tonight, anyway?" Tatianus glances irritably about the interior of the Drunken Huntsman. The building is swollen with carousers; he and Nazeem are penned in by an impenetrable wall of backs. "Is it Heart's Day? Do they sing Polydor and Eloisa up here?"
Nazeem covers his mouth, a moment too late to hide his smile. "Feast of the Dead."
"Feast of the fucking dead. Well. Cheers, then."
"To the dead," says Nazeem.
"Tell me something about the Lonhe Let?" Tatianus sits back in his chair. "I've met no end of No Shiri and Do-Sanloa, but never. . .well, apart from my great-grandfather. Possibly."
"Not surprising." Nazeem refills their glasses. He has had the stunning foresight to ask for the entire bottle of rum—so that neither of them has to traverse the crowd for the rest of the night. "Very few of them ever leave the island."
"And why is that?"
"Because it carries on without you. The space that was yours closes like a scar and then your home is overgrown. Perhaps that means something to you, Tatianus Marcianus of Gold Leaf Moor."
"I think so." More than likely another village has sprung up in place of Gold Leaf. The area is exceptionally fertile; the arms of the river are kind. The new settlement may even be called Gold Leaf Moor—although that would be a lie. "You must have had an excellent reason for leaving, in that case."
"Did you?" But Nazeem carries on without pressing for an answer. "Three islands make up the Lonhe Let territory. I was born on the middle, and I was quite happy. It was for the sake of my wife that I left."
"She's Lonhe Let as well, then?"
Nazeem laughs, a full, true, pleasant laugh, as if Tatianus had told a tremendous joke. "Quite the opposite. She's Tukta-ma'bri."
"Ah," says Tatianus quickly, hoping to repair his pride a little. "Travelling loremasters. I've met enough of those."
"They do tend to like vam—" Nazeem glances about them, touches his earlobe and reconsiders. "—your sort. Unconventional insights, so they say."
"She was passing through your island?"
"Not precisely," mumbles Nazeem, fixing his sleeve—maybe fixing the red blossoms inside. "Lonhe Yoku is considered archaic by the standards of the mainland. I could not make myself understood in Sentinel. So the Tukta-ma'bri station their people on our islands, both to learn from us and to act as guides in case we want to travel to the mainland."
Tatianus grins. "I used to interpret for my mamulla Rora when she wanted to go into Cheydinhal. She only spoke Old Cyrodilic, and she was a stubborn old battleaxe to boot—she might make seven sworn enemies in an afternoon's outing."
"So you understand the importance of a translator."
"And a diplomat," says Tatianus lightly. "Sorry. Your wife?"
"Ahlam. 'Dreams'." Nazeem sighs. "A Lonhe name, actually. On the mainland, the word is 'halmat'." He unstoppers the bottle of rum and briskly tops up both their glasses. "She had come to the island with her mother; she was just too young to begin her own travels. Ahlam would follow me around with her notebook in hand—she and the island shared a mutual antipathy, she fell over every root, she trampled a snake's egg and then had to fight off the mother. But she was fearless. Tireless. She would have suffered a thousand snakebites if she thought there was something to be discovered from them."
"You didn't—find it tedious, having an outsider knocking about? I imagine. . .I think I must have been a bit of a chore when my wife brought me with her to Falinesti. Opening my hands on brambles and losing my way in their winding bloody treehouses. . ." Tatianus rubs the old white scar on his palm. Thinking it was the bite of an unknown animal, he'd screamed until Nadi's entire family came running. Her father had squeezed his shoulder and, gently, pointed out the bush with its long serrated thorns.
"Ahlam was no chore. I didn't like most of the Tukta-ma'bri I had met at that time—I thought they were very proud and awfully delicate—but I was fond of her. She was sensible, and she kept her eyes open instead of asking inane questions."
"So she swept you away to join her on her travels."
For all that Nazeem looks like a noble, he seems to enjoy Tatianus' nerve. The corner of his mouth twitches and he makes a gesture of 'yes and no'. "Her mother passed. Their custom is to cremate the body and then bring the ashes along on their travels, leaving them at places of interest. She asked me to come with her, and I agreed, expecting to be gone for a month or a year. I was eighteen."
"Eighteen! I'd have let her go at eighteen. I was thirty before I ever had a backbone."
"Does it help, the—?" Nazeem taps his lip to indicate a vampire.
"Not even a little. Turn a shy, awkward young man, and you'll have a shy, awkward vampire, and that's positively miserable." Tatianus clears his throat. "But I understand you haven't been back to the island since."
"We left the last of the ashes in Jehanna. . .beneath the floorboards of a wonderful library. More than a year had passed. Ahlam offered to take me home, but. . ." He stares down his drink as if it could finish his thought for him. "She's made an explorer of me, and that can never be cured. Even then, there was no hope for me. I thought that carving out a new home in a new place would be easier than going back. I was wrong, but I went about it very busily, being twenty and full of arrogance."
"What brought you all the way up here? Was it the balmy weather, or the charm of the locals?"
Nazeem looks up, catches Tatianus' wry smile and touches his earlobe again—a prim, almost a bashful motion. "Ahlam's choice. Supposedly the history and the culture here are rich and easily exhumed. Actually, this province makes me profoundly uneasy. Skyrim is to my old home as you are to a living person, excuse me. I miss the pulse of the world." He folds his arms. "You asked how I come by my fortune? We bought a farm. Chillfurrow."
"But if the earth is as lifeless as you say—"
"The plants respond," Nazeem cuts in. "Think of them as. . .as neglected children, if you like. When you find the right thing, a thoughtful gift, a kind word, they burst into bloom, and everyone wonders how it happened. It was quite simple," he adds. "The competition has no idea what a crop is capable of."
Tatianus feels a brief, faraway pang of envy. What it must be like to leave everything behind, travel thousands of miles and then establish a sprawling, roaring farm on foreign soil. "You must have been terribly happy to be settled."
"'Happy'." Nazeem scoffs. "I have an income. We have a house. Everything I set out for."
"All right, all right. Silly me, thinking of happiness."
Nazeem glares, although his glare is unfocused, and he rests his head on his hand. Of course, Stros M'Kai rum is lethally potent—Tatianus himself is beginning to feel oppressed by it. They sit in silence for a while and listen to the commotion.
"I've had enough of this place," says Nazeem eventually. "Congested little sty. I'm going to check on my greenhouse."
Tatianus stares. "That granite beast outside the city? That's yours?"
"I have to admit, I've been curious about that thing since I came to Whiterun. I thought they might be new barracks for the city watch."
Nazeem shakes his head. "If the guard did any real guarding, they might deserve them."
"Lonhe plants," guesses Tatianus.
"And they grow nowhere else on Tamriel. I could have made a fortune—a second fortune—selling reagents."
"And. . .would you mind it very much if I stole a glance?"
Of course there are enough good reasons why he should mind it. Inviting in a stranger and a vampire. And a Cyrodiil, no less.
"No," says Nazeem after a long moment. "You may join me."
"May follow you at a tactful distance, I suppose you mean." Skyrim guards are, incredibly, even nosier than Cheydinhal Watchmen. They would certainly gossip if they saw a nobleman and an eccentric foreigner taking a nighttime stroll.
"Yes." Nazeem stands and braces himself to muscle past the small army of dancers. "At your discretion."
Tatianus waits half an hour, unwisely finishing off the rum in the meantime. More unwisely, he takes advantage of an old Illusion spell to part the crowd, creating an eerie vacuum of sound and movement on his way to the door.
He walks the Plains District in blessed silence, letting the icy wind lift his cloak. The gate-guards are no trouble.
And the Whiterun plains. . .practical reasons aside, stories aside, the furious cold beauty of a Skyrim night is unparalleled anywhere in Tamriel. The grass is drenched with white moonlight.
Tatianus descends to the massive greenhouse and the adjoining farm—the building lords over the plains, emitting a faint warmth as he approaches. He reaches for the clasp on his cloak.
But what assails him when he opens the door is not the heat. Not chiefly, anyway. It's the smell of samu root—wounded samu root, that must be oozing with blood-red sap.
"Have you got—" his heart drops, it must be samu, nothing else could dry out his mouth like this and make him sick with hunger, "—you haven't got any Valenwood plants in here?"
Nazeem is kneeling between the furrows, watering an immensely fat, fleshy plant with a pipette. "No," he says.
"My mistake." Tatianus forces a deep breath. This was always easier when there was someone to count for him, but he manages all right. He joins Nazeem at the foot of the bulbous plant. "Doesn't strike me as a picky eater, this one."
"The Lonhe name is 'the one who is satisfied'." Nazeem measures out one more drop and frowns. "Or perhaps 'the subsister'. This is its allowance for the year."
"Everything you see here," says Nazeem, making a sweeping gesture, "came from cuttings we took twenty years ago. When the first plants began to flower, and I walked inside. . .if I have a home left," he concludes, "it is here." And he wrinkles his nose to have made such a sugary declaration.
"Impressive." Tatianus thinks of himself sifting through Nadinandriah's store of plants. Sowing Sentinel grain instead of Betony amaranth, because the seeds all looked the bloody same.
Nazeem stands up and swats some dirt from the end of his sleeve. "Would you like to see the source of the red blossoms?"
"Er," says Tatianus, following Nazeem's gaze—that scent of samu again, that makes his tongue limp in his mouth, and his teeth ache. "I, er—"
"Come." Nazeem, taking his stammering for an agreement, walks him to the far corner of the greenhouse, where—in its own ample plot—is a curious plant.
The familiar red blossoms are gathered on top, thousands of them, a bouquet. Beneath, a network of thick, dry roots, stumbling over one another here and knotting together there.
It looks nothing like samu, but there's a nick in one of the roots that bleeds the same red sap. And the smell, that heady, spicy, unmistakeable smell—the first drop on his tongue promising to overwhelm all his senses, like a beggar presented with a roasted pheasant; a lonely wretch with a beautiful woman; a Moth Priest with a view of the sunset.
"You'll pardon me," says Tatianus faintly, taking a few painful steps backward. "I'm reminded very strongly of—of—a particular samu pl—er—Valenwood, a particular—"
"Samu?" Nazeem places himself protectively between Tatianus and the plant. "From Bonsamu?"
Damn it. "Yes. Pardon me." And he makes for the greenhouse doors, taking deep breaths of the cool night air. Fighting the desire to steal into this greenhouse another night and bleed dry that strange plant.
Nazeem comes out a few moments later. "It is possible that another traveler once brought a cutting with him to Valenwood. Perhaps that was the ancestor of your samu plant."
"Yes," says Tatianus. The danger gone, a sort of nauseous shame begins to swallow him. Those tiny, delicate blossoms, so prized by his great-grandfather, how could he dream of ripping their roots apart?
For all he knows, this is some twisted sign from Arkay. That all this vampire business has gone far enough. And to come home.
"Ahlam likes to say that the gods have an excellent sense of humor," offers Nazeem. And, after a long silence: "I have thought of it as cruel."
The Drunken Huntsman is beginning to lose its lustre. Tatianus has taken to long, winding nighttime walks about the city, using the odd Illusive flourish to ward off guards and busybodies.
Tonight he sits beneath the Gildergreen, strangely comforted by its presence. Slender branches interrupting the lanternlight.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" comes a woman's voice—not in Nordic, but flawless Heartland Cyrodilic! "A child of the ancient Eldergleam."
"Hmm," says Tatianus, as if the 'ancient Eldergleam' meant anything whatsoever to him. "The centerpiece of the city, I daresay."
"I think so," says the woman. "I'm only here to check on her," she adds—and he catches sight of the rusted watering can in her hand. "It's been a dry year."
"Drier than normal?"
The woman makes a thoughtful sound. "As Skyrim goes, Whiterun's not dry. No cyclones like in the north, but long, cold summer showers. . .it's nothing next to a Nibenese monsoon, of course."
Divines, she's sharp. Or tremendously lucky.
"Now I must be speaking to a kinswoman," he says grandly.
"You're not, but I'm flattered," answers the woman, stepping into the full glow of the lantern. For such a scholar, she's dressed austerely in a faded linen frock—many times hemmed and patched. Her hair is braided and swept out of the way. But the pendant around her neck is exceptionally fine, sparkling corundum, a tiny tablet. Which might make her Tukta-ma'bri. Which, in turn—
"Ahlam is my name," she says, trying to swallow her knowing smile. "Daughter of Marwa, daughter of Hania—well, I could go on."
"It's my pleasure," says Tatianus, and flushes. Now, naturally, he's got to trot out his own little arsenal of names. "Tatianus. . .Marcianus Caridenius of Gold Leaf Moor. At your service," he adds, for some reason, maybe to perfect the impression of a silly, obsolete Cyrod.
"Is that right?" Ahlam worries one of her braids with a fingertip, considering, and then holds out the watering can to him. "Would you give me a hand, in that case?"
"I—certainly," he stammers, taking the thing and rising from the bench. "I warn you that I'm not renowned for my green thumb."
"The Gildergreen has had worse," she assures him. "She's very dear to the worshipers of Kynareth. . .and she was felled by lightning a few months before the outbreak of the civil war. Just before the dragon attacks. Danica took it as a sign of the end."
"The end of Whiterun?" asks Tatianus, kneeling at the foot of the great tree—gingerly tipping the watering can.
"Absolutely. The end of Skyrim, even. There was a time when I'd convinced myself I might actually document the end of a kalpa, but no one would benefit from the knowledge. Not me, and not anyone in the world to come."
"Luckily it didn't come to that." A little self-conscious, Tatianus empties the water onto the soil and rises again. If he's managed to water a tree to death, Arkay can just collect him tonight.
"The nature of nature is renewal," says Ahlam, in a tone suggesting scripture, "and all things must die before they can be renewed. This Gildergreen came from a sapling." She grins at him and passes her hand over her eyes. "I'm not a good worshiper of Kynareth: I want to preserve things. And I miss the old tree."
"There was no saving it?"
"What we did was. . ." She clicks her tongue. "We could have healed the Gildergreen as it was. Nazeem was against it. 'It's only a tree'—of course, that wasn't what he meant, and of course he knows a tree better than anyone, but. . ."
Tatianus takes a seat on the bench again. "I'd like very much to hear this story from the beginning."
"Yes," she says, and sits down, too. "The beginning—well, the old tree was struck. . .Danica asked me to travel to the Eldergleam and take the mother's sap to heal the daughter. I declined at first; I'm not a student of Kyne so much as a student of Whiterun. But I was fond of the old tree.
"Nazeem grumbled and groused and said that, in the end, he'd better come with me. I was. . .happily surprised. We'd been distant."
"Ah," says Tatianus, and his hand goes blindly to his faded wedding ring.
Ahlam shoots him a commiserating look and carries on: "This was around. . .well. Evening Star 201. Months after the tree was struck, but of course we're all busy people." She toys with the strap of her satchel. "We hired on a Companion—you're familiar with the Companions?"
"I visited Jorrvaskr the first time I came here. But that was in, er, the last Era."
"Whiterun under the Witch-Queen?" asks Ahlam. Her eyes light up with interest.
Tatianus clears his throat. "Perhaps we'll come back to that later."
"Right," she agrees, a little reluctantly. "The Companions sent their newest recruit with us, a No Shiri woman who introduced herself as Saraqael."
"You don't mean—"
"The Dragonborn, yes, although that all came later. The Companions' smith was having a bit of a time sizing her armor, so she wore the robes she'd arrived in. Beautiful robes, No Shiri. These intricate weaving patterns, red and gold, and the most robust fortification charms I've seen to date."
"And she came with you to see about the tree," says Tatianus gently.
"Ah. Yes. Well, we get along, Sara and me, but Nazeem was less charmed. She didn't speak any Nordic then, and Nazeem doesn't speak much Cyrodilic, and Lonhe Yoku and No Shiri Yoku are very, very—" Ahlam trails off and looks Tatianus in the eye, smiling vaguely. "You get the picture."
"I think so."
"Not that it was a real issue in the end. She took point for most of the journey, so my husband and I could bicker, or else walk in stony silence. When we came to the tree—the Elder—the source, you understand? Kyne didn't want the Eldergleam hurt, even superficially, even to save the daughter tree. But she would let us take a sapling without a fight."
"So you had to uproot the old Gildergreen."
Ahlam gives him a sharp look and touches her tablet pendant as if it could prove her point. "I thought Kyne was baiting me. I was ready to lay out a few ornery spriggans and take the sap by force, Tatianus, if I'm honest. Why shouldn't the mother sacrifice a little for the daughter? Is sacrifice not as well a part of nature as death?"
"I'm not a great friend to the Divines," says Tatianus. "But if it were Arkay's trial, the lesson might be that all things have a natural lifespan. That it was the tree's time to die."
"And Dagon might have destroyed the tree so it would never bear another weak child," Ahlam replies. "The Aurbis is a great debate, and I happened to disagree with Kyne that day."
"But you took the sapling, in the end."
"Yes," she says crisply. "The Dragonborn, funnily enough, isn't much for theology—but Nazeem felt very strongly that the wishes of Kyne should be respected. I think he was just horrified at the idea of taking up arms against nature and her guardians. Lonhe Let through and through.
"You know," adds Ahlam, with a new gleam in her eye, "among the Lonhe Let, eternal life is a point of collective terror. Going on past the world's use for you, past the lives of your friends, past—past your own determined time to die, if you like, as a man of Arkay," she smiles at him.
"I'm not a man of Arkay." But he is. Against his will, irrevocably. He's been swearing on Arkay since he could speak. Gemile's old amulet lives in the inside pocket of his vest. In his earliest, most muddled memories, Arkay speaks with Papa's voice and the other way around. Come home, my boy. Stop this nonsense and come home, would you please? Have you thought of cutting your hair, Tatianus Marcianus?
Ahlam touches his arm, bringing him out of his thoughts. "Are you a very old vampire?"
"Two hundred and seventy-five this year," says Tatianus, and shrugs. "About the middle of the scale, I expect."
"Two hundred and seventy-five," she repeats.
"You know, I don't think you quite finished your story."
"Oh, the return journey. I'm glad you brought it up." She beams at him. "I was sour about it, but I did what Kyne wanted, Nazeem took up the sapling and we plodded back across the plains. I could have cried. I was going to have to let the Gildergreen die, and what's worse, I'd fought with Nazeem about it, when we were already." Ahlam gestures briskly. "You know. But I kept sneaking sideways glances at him and I decided he looked kind of dear with the sapling bundled up in his arms, little leaves bouncing in the wind.
"I finally told him about a Khajiiti ballad I'd heard in the night market a few days earlier. I said it was a catch, so I couldn't do it justice on my own, but would he like to hear it anyway."
Ahlam folds her arms. "He was quiet for so long, I thought he must not have heard me over the wind. But after a while, he turned to me and said, 'you know how I love your voice'." She pauses. "I miss the old Gildergreen, but I can't regret the whole adventure."
"No," says Tatianus.
"But the sun is rising," she points out. A bright, narrow stroke of blue is breaking on the horizon. "Is that a problem? I haven't found any sources on the Bonsamu so far to tell me—"
"It isn't pleasant, as a rule," he interrupts her. In fact, the light of day doesn't affect him any more than it would a mortal man. He has his own reasons for avoiding it. "I think I should be off, Ahlam. Thank you for your company."
They exchange pleasantries: Ahlam insists, with the rusted watering can swinging from her elbow, that he should join them for dinner some night. Tatianus makes a noncommittal reply and drags his feet back to the Huntsman.
He glances over his shoulder at the new Gildergreen, its leaves a rich pink in the thin morning light. It strikes him momentarily as the most breathtaking tree he's ever seen.
"Well," concludes Elrindir of the Drunken Huntsman, wringing out a checkered rag, "you paid well, sir, and you didn't frighten off our other guests. So."
His brother elbows him sharply. "It's not like that," insists Anoriath. "It's. . .the Bonsamu are. . ." He glances helplessly at Elrindir, who only chuckles, you made your damn bed. "Don't keep Pact. Can't. But—"
"I know," Tatianus cuts in. "My wife was Bosmeri; she didn't like it either. Thank you both for your hospitality." Even though they take him for a walking insult to Y'ffre.
"You're a decent fellow—um—Caridenius," says Anoriath, determined to dredge up a few worthwhile parting words. "For an Imperial and a. . ."
"Luus-loredhel?" suggests Tatianus. 'Night-mouth', in Bosmeris. One of the more colourful terms for a vampire.
Anoriath goes beet-red with anger. "Safe travels, Cyrodiil," he manages, very softly.
Outside waits a perfectly gorgeous spring evening, as they all have been. Balmy and fragrant, crests of mountain flowers blooming weeks early. Kynareth must be pleased. Tatianus turns his back to the city gates just to look once more at the Gildergreen, pink and splendid, stirring faintly in the breeze.
As he draws up to the gates, already charting his route down to the southern border, Ahlam and Nazeem cross his mind—but he can't bring himself to feel guilty about leaving. He'd have been a dull dinner guest anyway, always was, since the days when Papa would drag him along to meet some noble acquaintance or other.
Strange that those memories should come back to him now, of discreetly smudging jam on the Tragillius' best tablecloth. A little disquieting, even: maybe nothing is forgotten after all, three centuries' worth of gaffes and heartbreaks ready to bury him at any moment. Yes, it's past time he came home.
"Heading out?" asks the gate-guard, radiating disdain even behind her helmet.
"I am," says Tatianus.
"Not to join that mess outside, I hope."
"'Night market'. Riff-raff we won't let into the city."
"I've never heard of any night market."
"Good," grunts the guard, and opens the gate.
There are no traces of a market as Tatianus steps outside—only a distant clamouring of voices, and the faint yellow light of clustered torches. He follows the wall for a while, circling Whiterun until he comes to the source.
Nestled against the rocky eastern face of the city wall are dozens of people, building fires or toting shimmering magelights. Many have laid out carpets and even pitched slapdash marquées. Most of the marketgoers are, sure enough, a Skyrim guard's idea of 'riff-raff': giants, stronghold orcs, Khajiiti caravaneers, Reachmen, and every other outcast, it seems, in the whole hold. A lone frost troll is approaching from the plains, with a group of goblins following after him like ducklings.
A little Breton girl stands at the edge of the crowd, looking terribly out of place. Tatianus takes a step in her direction—but the eyes she lifts to him are the same ruby red as his, and the smile she offers him is that of an old sage. And he gathers, uneasily, that she's exactly where she had ought to be.
He spots Nazeem, interestingly enough, at the centre of a group of giants. But before he can go and find out what wisdom they could possibly be exchanging, someone takes his arm.
"I didn't think I'd see you here," says Ahlam. She's pinned up her hair for the occasion, and painted her lips a deep blue. "I should have invited you. You'll enjoy not sticking out for a little while."
Her smile, warm as it is, strikes a very sore, badly frayed little nerve in him—he's bursting to tell her exactly how unremarkable he really is. Somehow it's vitally important that she understand. Tatianus was easily the dullest of the Caridenii and stuck out no more than a coffee table. Or a brightly colored snail.
"I was just on my way to the stables," he says icily—and he regrets it straight away when her smile disappears, and she lets his arm go.
"Stay for a little while," Ahlam tells him, unfailingly gentle, and leads him by his hand back to her gathering: a handful of Reachfolk in vivid warpaint. "We were discussing," she says, in Nordic, "the use of animal remains in communing with Hircine. I've been lucky enough to speak with a Hagraven who insisted that the offering of bones and meat is what draws the great Hunter, but—"
"I don't think that's true," says one of the Reachfolk, a pale, brawny woman with battle-scarred limbs. A briar heart pulses faintly in the centre of her chest. She raps on her heart with her knuckles, a thick, rustling sound. "He comes if the warrior is worth his time."
"But he'll leave you to the Hunting Grounds if you don't show respect," puts in a middle-aged man—not a Briarheart himself, but just as weathered as the woman. "That's what the offering is for. For respect."
While Ahlam is making a very delicate point about the involuntary resurrection of Briarhearts for use as weapons, Tatianus' attention goes to the largest gathering—a seated circle of orcs, caravaneers, Nords from outside the city with heavily tattooed faces and arms, and a few Companions, discussing smithing techniques and picking at an enormous circular tray of food.
"Looking for something?" asks one of the caravaneers, a Pahmar-raht in tattered mage robes. She indicates the tray with a sweep of her arm. "Sit with us. Eat."
"I can't," he mumbles in tentative Ta'agra, although he sits down beside her. "Va. . .er, kethikuziit?" Horrible word, 'one who uses bloodied fangs', and not exactly relevant to his situation, but the woman nods and pats his shoulder. "I like the smell of Elsweyri sweets, though. My—tot roliter, I think—no, it’s roliter tot, isn’t it? He was Khajiiti."
The Pahmar-raht woman whistles. "Suppose that was more common in your time?"
Tatianus laughs. "No. Not exactly."
Across the massive tray, two Companions are whispering back and forth: one, a barrel-chested Nord with shaggy black hair; the other, a striking Redguard woman, very tall and willowy. There's a faded streak of warpaint on her chin. Saffron-yellow.
One of the tattooed Nords poses a loud question—his Nordic is very strangely affected and Tatianus doesn't catch much—and she decides to answer it, the Companion.
Her voice is startling for two reasons: first, it is ragged, and chronically ragged, suggesting a smoking habit or an injured throat. Second, although she speaks softly, her voice resonates like it was charmed, charging the air—he has the impression that he could walk ten miles across the plains and still hear her clearly.
"Thú thurfa vidh hel-g'ye, therefore 'tis," she says, in a mix of Nordic, Yoku, and the Cyrodilic of Second-Era plays. "Shija an. . .an zivshi, all damnably frangible."
"Sara could do it for a price, the scabbard and the heft," says the other Companion in Nordic, leaning forward, brushing aside the black hair as it falls into his face. "No steadier hand in all the hold. And no better eye for colors."
"Tukta 'price'," argues the woman with the ruined voice—Sara—not Saraqael, he thinks with a start, not the Dragonborn? "'k thurfa vidh vætr. And I'll make no oaths on't, but—ek netu dua lak, if he list."
"Be much obliged," says the tattooed Nord who asked the question. "Bring the blade with me next market."
"Aye," says Sara, folding her hands. "Na musha."
Tatianus sits for a while, listening to the bustle and forlornly inhaling the scent of Elsweyri food, as the evening wears on and the marketgoers begin to leave. Sara and her Companion friend remain; and Tatianus, after taking a moment to gather his nerve, approaches them.
"Beg pardon," he says, cautiously.
She looks him over and smiles a little—a calculating smile, but not without its warmth. "I prithee." And at this distance her strange voice seems to crackle with something deeper than magicka.
Under her scrutiny his question begins to seem unimaginably stupid. Is she the Dragonborn. When her name is the same, she has—as the tales go—the towering spindly build of an Altmer, her voice thrums with Thu'um, she wears No Shiri gold, and the saffron-yellow warpaint is drying on her lower lip.
"Beg pardon," he repeats. "Tatianus Marcianus Caridenius of Gold Leaf Moor. At your service," he adds, deliberately, and Sara smiles behind her hand.
"Saraqael bint Leila at-Divad no Shira," she replies, the outer corners of her eyes crinkling with delight. "At yours." She looks over at her Companion friend, deciding whether to introduce him—he seems soundly unwilling to be introduced, so she adds in an undertone, "that's Vilkas."
"Charmed," says Tatianus. "Well. I couldn't help but wonder, madam, where you come by your Cyrodilic. It's terribly. . ."
"Superannuated?" she answers for him, thank the Divines. "As a child, I'd naught in the way of Cyrodilic literature but for antiquated treatises, compass'd in the trading days of yore. My compatriots have assayed bravely to convey me into the Fourth Era, all to. . .limited éclat."
Her friend—Vilkas, apparently—puts his arm around her waist and says something in that composite language they seem to share.
"Aye," agrees Sara. "Sooth." And, turning to Tatianus: "'Twas. . .it was my pleasure, sirrah."
"Pleasure's all mine," manages Tatianus, but the two of them are already making for the city gates.
"So I see you met Sara," says Ahlam, touching his shoulder as she comes near. Nazeem is at her side. "You should go, Tatianus. If you want to make your carriage. Is it a long ride?"
"Down to Falkreath," he replies, shaking off the last of his wonder. "Then, hopefully, I'll be able to cross the border by legitimate means, but if not. . ." Tatianus sighs heavily. Cyrodiil is a disaster, and Tiber Septim is rolling in his grave. "I'll make my way."
Ahlam takes out her corundum necklace and thumbs at it. "It sounds like there are better places to vacation."
"I won’t be vacationing."
"Are you going to die?" she asks plainly, and lets the necklace fall. "You might try searching for a cure first."
"I do know the cure," says Tatianus, trying to pay her back her gentleness, "and I intend to use it."
"But it'll kill you?"
"Not the ritual itself; just borrowed time being repossessed. Arkay will want back the hours I owe him."
"All right," she says, shares a look with Nazeem and bursts out: "I know a fellow in Falkreath. You'll talk to him? He's Bosmeri, he'll know if there's any—"
"But if there were—"
"You'll talk to him," Ahlam cuts in, firmly. "Just to see what your options are."
He looks her in the eye: she's as calm as ever, not a hair out of order, nowhere a trace of hesitation. I'm tired, he wants to tell her, hopelessly, I don't want to see any more Daedra heart, blood-salt-slinging quacks, I won't toy with souls, I won't kill, I'm not kethikuziit, not really. I want to rest. And he thinks abruptly of that little child-vampire with her round cheeks reddened by the cold, someone else's blood briefly circulating, flushing her dead face.
"Just talk to him," says Ahlam again, her tone suddenly sharp as though she'd read his thoughts. "Take a half hour and talk to him over a cup of tea. If you can manage it, I think you'll like being mortal. Grey hair will look good on you."
"It suited my father," mumbles Tatianus—and something untwists itself in him, briefly, and he finds he really can bear the idea of talking to Ahlam's contact. Even if the man is powerless to help him. "Did he help you when you infected yourself with the disease?"
"Oh." Ahlam smooths the front of her dress. "You told him that, batek?"
"I told him you would go to any length for knowledge," says Nazeem, clasping his hands behind his back. "That story illustrates my point."
"Well, yes, it was him," she says with a brisk, genuine laugh, "for whatever that matters. Do you need anything? Carriage fare?"
"A cutting of your samu root," suggests Nazeem, and looks away.
"I think I have what I—" Tatianus pauses. "Would you take a knife to one of your plants, Nazeem?"
"It will survive the loss of just one root," Nazeem says, slowly, as if trying to convince himself. "A modest cutting."
The remarkable thing—perhaps the menacing thing about the Bonsamu is exactly how little they need in order to survive. Tatianus himself has been living for centuries on one root, originally fist-sized, from Nadinandriah's garden. Still, he finds himself touched by the gesture.
"I don't need the root," he says. Then, unable to help himself: "I'd like one of the flowers."
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