The guards were on high alert. Hasami’s compound was built defensively, a large sandstone wall studded with gold-capped towers ringing the manor and inner gardens. Each tower contained a huge drum to signal the others in case of attack or other emergencies. All eight of them were pounding now.
Guards in uniform rushed along the corridors en route to their posts, calling out to each other in sharp, anxious barks. Shizzal hid behind tapestries to avoid them, heart thumping double-time with the drums.
How had they known of the murder so fast? And why had so many of them turned out? Not that it mattered. The guards would want him dead if they could catch him.
Shizzal ducked behind an intricately carved trunk as a long column of Alik’r warriors marched by. Despite the danger, all he could think about was how he had beat out a dance step on one of those tower drums when he was younger. Jeor had repeated each strike on Shizzal’s hide as a punishment, though the sharp-faced Redguard had been laughing as he had done it.
He wouldn’t be laughing now. And neither was Shizzal. The image of Hasami’s wide-eyed look of surprise when Shizzal’s sword punctured his lung wouldn’t leave, like a picture painted on the inside of his eyelids.
Finally the long line of guards had passed by and Shizzal breathed more easily. The adrenaline faded and he could think more clearly, though his bloodied hands still shook. He knew the routes and posts of the guardsmen, and he frowned when he realized their movements were towards the outer walls, as if expecting an attack from the outside, not running to quell an uprising from the inside.
Did they not know Hasami was dead, then? Unless…
Shizzal crept behind another tapestry, wiping the blood off on its back and re-tucking his loose shirt so that the blood splatters wouldn’t show. He moved mechanically, telling himself it was only wine. He shuddered when the cooling stains pressed against his skin.
Then he was walking the halls, glancing around corners before he turned them, making his way to the outer wall. The guards ignored him, besides shoving him aside when he got in their way.
Shizzal poked his head over the curving battlements. The sea down in the harbor was deceptively calm, black shapes like crows cutting through its waters. Fires glimmered on those black shapes, answered moments later by similar fires blooming in the town below him. Deep guttural reports echoed along the compound’s walls. Shizzal was suddenly rocked to his knees when one of the fire-blasts hit the compound itself, making a crater and marring the smooth whiteness of the walls that Hasami had so prided.
Shizzal sank back down behind the battlements. Pirates? Raiders from the other Alliances? He knew the war with the Ebonheart Pact was bad. His thoughts fluttered around inside his mind like caged birds, making a lot of noise but no sense.
The guards were calling to each other from the towers, but there was little movement between them. Nothing could be done about the rain of fire, and it would take some time for any raiders on foot to reach them. They had time, either to build up their courage or let it leak away.
Shizzal had time, too. The small garden would not be looked into for hours, perhaps days if the siege on Stros M’kai lasted. Jeor would wonder why he received no orders for the defense of the compound, but Jeor knew Hasami was a coward at heart, and he probably preferred the lack of overhead anyway. After the dust cleared, it would be Jeor who usurped Hasami’s mantle of power, Shizzal was sure, and he would have other things to worry about then.
Shizzal could stay, he realized. He could go back to the garden and arrange the body to make it look like shrapnel had killed the merchant lord. He could even dump the body over the wall and let them think a raider had gotten him. No one would ever have to know…
The wall shuddered as another blast hit them. But he would know. He would always remember the look of hatred as Hasami’s fingers had closed on his throat. The blood on the tiles… Shizzal pressed his back to the wall and sank down. What would he do now?
“Salt-born and sea-bred is what you are…return to your kin across the White-Gold roads…”
Doubtless Hasami had been lying about his parents or at least twisting the truth, but what then? Where they out there still, looking for him? Were they as evil as Hasami had claimed? Hasami, who had tried to kill the one he claimed as his own son…
Shizzal shivered the thought away, giving himself a determined shake. He peered over the wall one last time, watching as the black crow-shapes of the ships closed on the shore, disgorging raiders onto the docks and beaches. After the first wave, no one would be keeping watch on those ships. The raiders’ eyes would be turned inland, towards the fighting and the looting. No one would think to look for a small Dunmer curled up inside one of the salt barrels–not until they offloaded at their next port, if he were lucky.
Shizzal swallowed. He had no supplies and would at least need a weapon to defend himself. He thought of his discarded sword in the garden–no. Another.
The armory would be empty, all available armaments having been passed out among the soldiers. Kitchen knives, then? Shizzal grimaced, but something was better than nothing. He got up.
The image came to him unbidden as he passed Hasami’s quarters. A pair of crossed swords had hung over Hasami’s bed for as long as Shizzal could remember, and the image was so swift he wondered if he had seen them out of the corner of his eye.
Shizzal looked in. There they were still, a pair of shortened Redguard cutlasses. Their grips were peeling and the blades were spotted with rust; even if Hasami hadn’t forbade them, the cleaning staff believed them haunted by the spirits of the slain and refused to touch them.
Shizzal ducked into the room, keeping the door ajar. He didn’t believe in the silly superstitions of the natives, but looking up at the swords now made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He dawdled, circumventing the room and pocketing other objects that might have their use during his travels.
When he looked up again, the bed was next to him and the swords were overhead again, almost as if they had followed him the whole way. Shizzal hesitated. He needed weapons, and these were much better than kitchen knives, rusty or not…
Again the whole compound rocked under another blast that sent Shizzal to the floor. This decided him, and the wall-hanging came down with a bang when Shizzal touched it. He wrenched the swords loose and, without a scabbard, tucked them under one arm.
The blades felt cold, a shock through his airy tunic. In the coming years, no matter how close he held them to his body, no matter how long he left them in the sun or near the campfire, he could never get them to warm up.