"Spare a coin, Cap'n Jee! For a cup of wine, to fend the chill from my bones?"
D'jeme stared through the darkness at the small, crumpled figure pressed against the tavern's wall, seeking the eave's protection against the downpour. He remembered this one. This one was for real. An old rogue who had made it, improbably, through a bout of some lethal disease - Thrassian Plague or the Flu, D'jeme knew not which - but left most of his brawn and wits behind him in the bargain.
"Sure. Why not?" The coin sailed forth, twirling, like a silver moth when it caught the light. "Now, how about trading places with me?"
The beggar grinned with wretched teeth as he concealed the coin somewhere in his mess of rags. But D'jeme was not joking.
You had to hand it to the Thieves' Guild. They had a deft touch. Elegant, even. Each man was like a lock. No need to force him loudly and riskily; with the right tumblers depressed, a gentle twist would make him yield. Guard Captain D'jeme Shokola, who would have made his swords dance at the threat of violence, yielded easily to the threat of disgrace. A few quiet words in that tavern had just charted the course of his future as far as it could be foreseen.
He approached his mare, a beautiful animal that looked as if she had been cast in bronze, fit for a much finer knight than he. He untethered her from the post, touched her muzzle with the back of his fingers, and heard her quiet snort.
"Tava'ir," he spoke her name. She started forward as soon as he leapt into the saddle.
Half an hour later, when the stableboy's tentative hand reached up to seize her reins, D'jeme realised that he had no memory of the ride. He had been lost in turbulent thoughts, instinctively urging the mare to greater speed as if to keep pace with his racing mind. Thrice he resolved to make known everything he'd done, tear up his reputation with his own hands, and drag the Thieves away with him to Oblivion. Thrice, he drew back from his resolve, unwilling to contemplate the sting of shame. There came and went bloody fantasies of dispatching those who knew, one by one, but he could not be sure to get them all, and he would not be fast enough.
The stableboy hunched his shoulders as D'jeme slid off Tava'ir, flashing the whites of his eyes, afraid. D'jeme did not remember why. Had he whipped the lad with the flat of a sword in a drunken rage? Perhaps. Let it be another drop in the well.
Raindrops drummed against D'jeme's hood, and marked the courtyard of his father's house with countless tiny, muddy splashes. The land looked as miserable as it ever did, a swath of hardscrabble plain, its crops stunted and stillborn. A few dozen scrawny cattle huddled in a broad enclosure.
Ah, but the residence itself was in fine shape, was it not? His eyes moved over the veranda, the extensions, the neat stable. Here was a dockside patrol ordered to stand down as a smuggler's ship approached in the mist. There, the gurgles and moans of a man, professionally beaten, while D'jeme's back was turned. Over a little further, an innocent merchant held in the dungeon for a month while his business was squeezed out by a competitor thick with the Guild. It would kill his father to know that his peaceful old age was built on injustice and misery.
"D'jeme? Is that you?" his father called from his upstairs bedroom, as soon as D'jeme crossed the doorway. He shrugged off his rain-soaked cape and made his way up with a few long bounds.
"My son!" The old knight was sitting up in his bed when D'jeme entered. For a brief moment, his father's unbridled joy at his arrival lifted the troubled officer out of his despair. He would have to take care not to show it, in any case; the old man was good at reading him.
"I was writing my history," his father indicated a pushed-out chair and a desk full of papers in the corner of the room, "but the rain soothed me like an infant, and I had to sleep."
"So," D'jeme said playfully, "you were sleeping... upstairs... and I woke you walking in the front door? The years took nothing from you, Old Shokola."
The old man wagged an index finger, and his eyes twinkled roguishly. "No, no. I sensed someone was there, but heard nothing. That is how I knew it was you. No one moves like you, D'jeme. No one."
Aware that it was their last encounter for a long time, D'jeme appraised his father, sought to remember him. The elder Shokola had indeed aged well. His skull and jaw were densely covered with woolly white hair, where D'jeme's was straighter, like his late mother's, and his forehead was already taller. Unlike either of his parents, D'jeme had dark blue eyes, uncommon among the Redguard. This may have raised a question or two back in the day, if not for the fact that D'jeme and Old Shokola were so utterly alike in every other way. The same dark shade of complexion, the same broad nose, the same big lower lip, the same flat cheekbones. The same fine muscles on a lithe frame.
The younger Redguard rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand and plunged ahead with his lies. "I have sad news, father. You may not see me for a while. I have been asked to go to Sentinel City."
"It will be very busy there, with the alliance upon us. They need... good people."
"The city." Old Shokola flared his nostrils, and D'jeme knew what was coming. "That was our city once. Now the robed dummies under Fahara'jad took that, too."
"Well, do what you want. I'm not a fool, D'jeme. I was a good warrior, but a piss-poor farmer. If not for you, I could not have held on to this land."
The land. D'jeme was weary of hearing about the land. Throughout his life, Old Shokola felt that being master of one's own patch of Hammerfell land was the necessary condition of a proper Forebear. He had always taught D'jeme what his own father taught him, that the Ra Gada needed no kings and nobles. In the Republic, one's home was one's kingdom, and a blade and unsullied honour were all you needed to speak to anyone like an equal. But the Forebear Republic was no more.
"Father, in enforcing justice, I made many enemies. When I am gone, you may hear people talk about me. Do not believe everything you hear." Only the worst of it, he added silently.
Old Shokola made a curt, derisive wave of the hand - as if he could believe any poisonous tale about his son, the knight, the captain of the town guard! He leaned back onto his pillows, lowering his eyelids. D'jeme's heart ached.
"Take that dwemer sphere with you. It's on my desk, with my writing."
The dwemer sphere. A memento of his early potential as a young, aspiring squire. When D'jeme was eighteen, he had run off to Stros M'kai for a few months, seduced by tales of the local ruins and other sights. Upon having learned that knightly orders loyal to the island's Crown nobility used the remaining machine guardians as a test of skill for their initiates, he sought out and engaged a still-functional Dwemer centurion. Successful in the encounter, he found the sphere inside the broken husk and brought it back home. It was covered with odd runes, and remained forever warm.
D'jeme would build on his father's early teachings to earn his spurs as a knight in the local chapter of the Order of the Moon. He would win the lovely and valuable Tava'ir in a tournament of martial prowess. In his mid-twenties, he would be made officer of the town guard, and in another few years, he would assume its captaincy.
But his father's land kept taking, and taking, and giving nothing back. Its meagre yield was not enough to pay even the workers who gathered the harvest and, in time, D'jeme's pay could no longer fill the gap. That was when the business with the Thieves' Guild started. He had been in their pocket for two years. Until they told him, in the last hour, that they found an even less scrupulous and more pliant man to replace him. That he is to resign his commission and leave town, or evidence of his collusion with the underworld will be revealed publically.
"No, you keep it. To remind you of me."
"Then take my Book of Circles. So you can make a proper home for yourself."
"Take it. I know it by heart, anyway."
D'jeme stepped over to withdraw the small, worn tome from its designated alcove above the fireplace. He stared at it for a moment and swallowed hard, before dropping the arm to his side.
"Swear to me that you will come back here before I am dead, and take over the land."
"I swear it," said the corrupt guard captain flatly. What is one more oath to break?
"Always mind your honour. Remember to look at the stars, often. And don't bow and scrape too much to the Crowns."
D'jeme bent over his father's bed and squeezed his hand tightly. "Goodbye, Old Shokola."
"Goodbye, D'jeme. Snuff out the candles on your way."
D'jeme made a move toward the desk, intent on blowing out the little flames.
"Properly, you idiot."
One of D'jeme's curved swords whistled softly through the air, and the wicks of two candles fell to the floor, still lit. He stamped them out with his boot, and trotted down the stairs, his left hand clutching his father's copy of Frandar Hunding's revered book.
Outside, the rain poured in earnest now, coming down in angry sheets driven by the wind. D'jeme picked up his cape, wrapped it around the tome, and tucked it under arm. With a grimace, he slipped back out into the darkness.