The Redguard had exchanged his grip on Shizzal’s wrist for a steel cuff, and walked up the docks with a quick, certain stride. Shizzal followed after him sullenly, not heeding the occasional jerk on the chain, even if failing to keep up dragged him a few feet. He was trying hard not to think about the prison waiting for him, with the result he was thinking only about the prison waiting for him. The cuff in comparison was an irritant he barely noticed.
Shizzal had pictured the port authority to be a stern, frowning man even bigger than the sailor, but it turned out to be a little harassed-looking Breton sitting behind a desk. Shizzal would have felt sorry for her, except she got a pinched expression on her face whenever her eyes landed on him, as if she was smelling spoiled milk.
“Caught this raggamuffin poking around places he shouldn’t have,” growled the sailor, thumping his end of the chain down on the desk.
“Hm,” said the clerk, eyeing the chain like it was a frog she’d like to dissect. But there was something about that look that was nervous, too, and Shizzal felt unease creep into his stomach.
The sailor frowned. “Keep him off our docks. Security is your business, not ours. There’s been too many snipes poking around our wares, and that’s a fact.”
“Hm,” repeated the clerk.
The sailor continued huffing and blustering for a few minutes more, but it was clear this wasn’t a fight he was going to win. He swept out of the office, muttering angrily.
The clerk looked at Shizzal again, and this time her eyes were tired.
“Don’t I get a hearing or something?” Shizzal asked. He tried to sound indignant and demanding, but his changing voice chose that time to crack, and instead he just sounded frightened.
“You’re already spoken for,” said the clerk in a monotone. She gestured vaguely to a bench wrapping around the hall beyond her office. “Wait out there for me, please.”
An older Shizzal would have wondered why she didn’t bother with more security. The younger Shizzal meekly did what he was told, chain rustling noisily behind him. The heavy cuff was beginning to hurt, and he sat on the bench, kicking the rungs and holding the cuff apart from his wrist with his fingers.
What felt like hours later, the clerk checked in on him, frowning when she saw him. Refusing to touch him or his chain, she waved Shizzal back into the office. A Redguard in gold-trimmed turban and airy tunic was waiting for them. Shizzal gawked at the multiple rings on his fingers, one of which flashed with a red gemstone. Even the man’s scent was rich, a combination of flowers and musk and other things Shizzal couldn’t identify. He wrinkled his nose.
The Redguard was speaking to the clerk. “I’ve had my attendant make out all the paperwork. It should all be in order, stamped and signed.”
“I will have them reviewed. Approving will take up to a week,” answered the clerk in the same monotone as before. She refused to look the Redguard in the eye. Wondering what was so awful, Shizzal peered up into the aristocrat’s face, expecting to see warts or plague sores. Instead, the Redguard’s face was handsome and a dark rosy tan. He noticed Shizzal’s gaze and beamed down at him. Yellow and gold teeth flashed.
Shizzal froze, stunned. It was the same vagabond from the streets, much cleaned up and charming as you please.
“Oh, you know as well as I do they’re acceptable,” said the Redguard with a purring drawl. “I’ll just take the boy with me now.”
“You will not until I get a chance to look at the paperwork, Hasami!” The clerk returned, her voice taking on a strained edge.
“No, I think I’ll take the boy now,” replied Hasami, still in the same comfortable purr. “Much more convenient that way.”
As if on cue, a big fellow stepped out from behind Hasami. This was more like Shizzal expected a port authority to be. The dark man’s head was bald and his chest was bare; a harness with various blades attached was strapped to his shoulders. His calloused hands closed on Shizzal’s wrists, and the young Dunmer couldn’t help a shiver.
Hasami was bringing his razzle-dazzle to a close. “I’ll have the payment dropped off at the regular place, lass. You’ll find a little bonus in it, I think.”
“If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do,” the clerk interrupted as coldly as she dared. “You have what you paid for. Now please leave.”
“That I do!” said Hasami brightly, and he beamed down at Shizzal, but Shizzal thought the smile was anything but pleasant. The big Redguard pulled him in close to his bare chest, and he stank of sweat. Shizzal pulled one hand from the man’s grasp to cover his nose.
The clerk was still refusing to look at Shizzal. Her voice had begun to shake. “I’m not doing this for you again, Hasami. The headman is going to start wondering why all the children are disappearing from the streets eventually. I can’t have my office inspected.”
Hasami bent over the clerk, golden teeth still gleaming, and she shuddered. “Then you must take care they don’t,” he told her coyly. It was as if a cloud had passed over the room, and the poor little clerk shivered as if caught in a gale. But then Hasami straightened, and all was sunny again.
“Thanks for the help, lass,” he said jauntily, and with a cluck to Shizzal’s keeper, he strode from the office. The big Redguard followed, pushing Shizzal along before him.
“Where are you taking me?” The familiar hustle and bustle of the market enfolded him as the trio walked outside, and Shizzal’s courage returned. “I’m not going to the slammer, am I?”
“Oh, no,” said Hasami lightly. “Dreadful place, that, and no place for a child. You’re coming me, little one. We have work to do, you and I.”
“You said,” Shizzal’s voice was daring and obligingly did not crack this time as he rose it, “You said to meet you by the plaza. That you would pay me after I did the job.”
“Did I?” said Hasami innocently, and he made a motion to the Redguard holding Shizzal. The man’s hand slipped under Shizzal’s arm, finding a tender spot and pinching hard. Shizzal yelped. Hasami leaned close to his face, still smiling with those flashing gold and yellow teeth.
“I’d be very careful who you tell stories to,” he said kindly, in a way that somehow managed to not be kind at all, “Someone might decide you’re lying, and cut out your tongue.”
Shizzal’s throat closed off, anxiety making a knot in his stomach, and he let himself be pushed along again. Hasami returned to the lead, heading for the rich district, where white-washed walls and golden spires rose above the squallor of the marketplace.
“We’ll see about that,” Shizzal promised in a low growl. “We’ll just see.” His keeper rumbled warningly, and Shizzal tucked his chin, feigning a stumble to cover his words.