The compound was eerily quiet when Shizzal returned that evening. He had to double take at the white sandstone walls surrounding the manor, as the setting sun had colored them as red as blood.
He climbed up the sweeping front stairs, hand heavy on the gold-capped railing. As usual, Shizzal called out a greeting to the wall sentry as he entered the courtyard. He was about to walk past the great stone arch leading deeper in, when the guards on either side crossed their pikes, frowning at him from behind veiled helmets.
Shizzal stared at them. “Uh, mates, I live here. Remember?”
Another Redguard walked up to the guards, putting his hands on the spear hafts and pulling them apart just enough to see. Shizzal recognized Jeor, the captain of Hasami’s guard. He was a serious man Shizzal had never gotten along with, but this time the Redguard was frowning at him in concern, not dislike.
“Find a tavern for the night, Asurani,” said the captain.
“Jeor, what’s going on?”
Jeor only eyed him and let the spear hafts slide closed into a cross again.
Shizzal didn’t find a tavern. The increased security put a shadow of doubt in his mind, and instead he sat inclined back against the sheer wall, waiting for something to change. The guards didn’t speak to him, but Shizzal hadn’t expected them to.
The wall stayed pleasantly warm as the sun dipped below the western hills. Stars gleamed like silver dust a Divine had scattered across the sky. The Tower and the Warrior were bright tonight, and the Serpent had almost completed its circuit around the champing Steed. As the hours passed and the first moons began to rise, Shizzal’s eyes slipped shut.
“My son,” called a soft voice from the gateway. Shizzal was on his feet instantly, not knowing how long he had slept, if he had slept at all. Hasami was there, smiling softly at him, though as usual, the expression put a sourness in Shizzal’s gut he couldn’t explain.
The guards saluted Hasami and stood back a respectful distance. Hasami reached out a hand for Shizzal. The Dunmer kissed the ring on it, then reached up to kiss both of Hasami’s cheeks as the merchant lord liked. The left cheek tasted like brine, and was still faintly stained green.
“Hello, father. Are you alright?”
“A glancing blow only.” Hasami put an arm about Shizzal’s shoulders, gold-decked fingers resting companionably on his shoulder as he led the Dunmer into the compound. Shizzal thought he saw Jeor leaning against one of the walls. The Redguard was glowering at him dourly, but then, Jeor always glowered, and Shizzal put it from his mind.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t catch the Argonian.” The lie slipped easy from his tongue.
He thought he saw a look of anger pass Hasami’s face as he mentioned Keeps-Low. Shizzal tensed, but Hasami merely turned a look of concern on the young Dunmer. “He did not hurt you, did he?”
“No,” Shizzal was about to reply, but he stopped. Hasami stopped too; they had reached one of the inner gardens. This one was a small one that Hasami didn’t often come to. Too cramped, he complained, too out of the way, and nothing grew here but ornamental grasses and some exotic fire ferns. For the same reasons , Shizzal liked it.
“I can see that he has,” said Hasami quietly. He touched Shizzal’s cheek sympathetically, and, used to the gesture, Shizzal didn’t pull away.
But neither did he answer. Normally he would have accepted the comfort and offered some of his own, but the sourness in his stomach beat insistently. Abruptly, Shizzal stepped away, turning to Hasami. “Father, I want to know something.”
Hasami was quiet, the evening’s dark before the moon hiding his expression. Only his black eyes glittered from under his turban.
Anxiety like a constricting snake curled around Shizzal’s insides. He had never dared question Hasami, not after the many lessons received as a child. Everything was screaming at him not to question now, but the memory of the gasping Argonian drove him forward.
“What happened to my birth parents? Really happened?”
Still Hasami remained quiet, but his hand on Shizzal’s shoulder became uncomfortably tight. With a sigh, the merchant lord turned and picked one of the fire fern flowers. He crushed it on the rim of its pot, where the wind tickled the fragments away.
“Your father was a wicked man that I rescued you from as a child,” said Hasami at length. “He bought and sold people for profit, and I don’t believe he would have looked askance at selling his own son when the drakes called to him. I intervened.”
“I lived on the streets before you took me in.” Shizzal closed his eyes tight, surprising himself when he felt wetness on his lashes. Many nights he had struggled to recall an image of his parents, but all he could remember was the spicy smell of perfume and a lock of curly dark red hair in his hands. He had only ever seen a couple of Dunmer walking the streets of Stros M’Kai, and one dancing girl from a dockside tavern always came to mind when he tried to picture his mother.
But the dancing girl had black hair, not red…
“Your whore mother had left you in the care of her brothel when you were born. I came looking for you when I heard your father was seeking you for his slave ships. Luckily, I found you first.”
The account sounded wrong. Shizzal frowned. “I don’t remember any brothel…”
“I assure you, there was one. Sometimes the mind blocks unpleasant memories, my dear son.”
Shizzal was imagining the dancing lady, only with red hair, and he tried to place her in the middle of a bar scene with laughing drunkards and pawing hands. But the image slipped away, and he saw another woman, with similar curling auburns locks and a slim figure, twirling away on the planks of a ship at sail. A grinning man with yellow and gold teeth was keeping the time on a pair of drums. She swept up to the man, smiling coyly, but then swept away, into the arms of a tall figure by the mast. The moons were in the sky, and the mast cast them in shadow. The couple kissed. Shizzal felt at peace, watching them.
“My mother never danced for anyone,” Shizzal murmured. “Except him.” he looked at Hasami, blinking.
And Hasami seemed to change under Shizzal’s gaze. The Redguard shrank back, hands clenching, the tendons standing through his aged skin. “I am sorry the Argonian has hurt you so,” he murmured softly.
“He didn’t hurt me, and he could have.” Shizzal felt sick. His head hurt. The gold and yellow teeth of the drummer leered at him. “He hurt you. Why would he do that? You were offering him his freedom.”
“Some do not know what they do when distressed…” Hasami moved closer to him, reaching out a boney hand to stroke Shizzal’s cheek.
“I don’t understand.”
Hasami’s hand moved lower, fingernails scratching Shizzal’s neck. Shizzal drew a long breath through his nose.
“I am sorry, my son,” whispered Hasami.
The hand tightened. Shizzal suddenly couldn’t breathe. He brought his hands up to Hasami’s wrists as Hasami brought both sets of fingers tight about his throat. The Redguard was bigger, his fingers were stronger. Shizzal’s eyes popped open and he struggled. Stars unnamed clustered about the Steed and the Serpent intertwining in the sky above.
In desperation, Shizzal reached down to his belt of pouches, hands closing on the flash pellets inside one of them. He struggled to get a handful out and shoved the delicate balls into Hasami’s face. The clay crushed on the Redguard’s high cheekbones, popping once in warning.
Painful brightness and acrid smoke filled the garden, blotting out Shizzal’s vision. He could breathe again suddenly, but the chemicals of flash-pellets burned his throat. Hasami stumbled away from him.
Alarms rang out around the compound. Shizzal’s mind whirled. Surely they did not know about their fight so quickly? Hasami was groping at him again, and Shizzal knew he had to end it quickly. Had to get out of here. Had to be free.
His blade whipped out, cutting through Hasami’s tunic as easily as it cut through the air. It continued to drive forward as if by its own will, piercing the stringy body, its tip popping out on the other side. Shizzal released the hilt and stepped back, shaking like a leaf, blood hot on his hands.
Hasami grasped the sword in one hand and reached for Shizzal with his other, his face a death mask of hatred.
Shizzal couldn’t move. The merchant lord pulled the sword out, but didn’t have the strength to lift it. It landed with a clang on the floor, bouncing from tip to hilt, spotting the polished white tiles with dark blood.
Shizzal couldn’t meet the merchant lord’s eyes. Staring at the sword, he backed out into the hallway, then turned and ran.