A pale young woman with long ebon curls, and a male with muddy green scales and chocolate spines, crouched on the high rafters of a rotting villa in Lilmoth, known by some as the Festering Jewel of Black Marsh.
“You’re finally going to kill me,” the reptile told the woman. His tone was thoughtful, his saurian features composed in the faint light bleeding down through the cracked slate roof.
“Not so much kill you as get you killed,” she answered, pushing the tight rings of her hair off her face and pressing her slightly aquiline nose and gray-green gaze toward the vast open space beneath them.
“It works out the same,” the other hissed.
“Come on, Glim,” Annaïg said, tossing herself into her father’s huge leather chair and clasping her hands behind her neck. “We can’t pass this up.”
“Oh, I think it can be safely said that we can,” Mere-Glim replied. He lounged on a low weavecane couch, one arm draped so as to suspend over a cypress end table whose surface was supported by the figure of a crouching Khajiit warrior. The Argonian was all silhouette, because behind him the white curtains that draped the massive bay windows of the study were soaked in sunlight.
“Here are some things we could do instead.” He ticked one glossy black claw on the table.
“Stay here in your father’s villa and drink his wine.” A second claw came down. “Take some of your father’s wine down to the docks and drink it there.” The third. “Drink some here and some down at the docks . . .”
“Glim, how long has it been since we had an adventure?”
His lazy lizard gaze traveled over her face.
“If by adventure you mean some tiring or dangerous exercise, not that long. Not long enough anyway.” He wiggled the fingers of both hands as if trying to shake something sticky off them, a peculiarly Lilmothian expression of agitation. The membranes between his digits shone translucent green. “Have you been reading again?”
He made it sound like an accusation, as if “reading” was another way of referring to, say, infanticide.
“A bit,” she admitted. “What else am I to do? It’s so boring here. Nothing ever happens.”
“Not for lack of your trying,” Mere-Glim replied. “We very nearly got arrested during your last little adventure.”
“Yes, and didn’t you feel alive?” she said.
“I don’t need to ‘feel’ alive,” the Argonian replied. “I am alive. Which state I would prefer to retain.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Hff. That’s a bold assertion,” he sniffed.
“I’m a bold girl.” She sat forward. “Come on, Glim. He’s a were- crocodile. I’m certain of it. And we can get the proof.”
“First of all,” Mere-Glim said, “there’s no such thing as a were- crocodile. Second, if there were, why on earth would we care to prove it?”
“Because . . . well, because people would want to know. We’d be famous. And he’s dangerous. People around there are always disappearing.”
“In Pusbottom? Of course they are. It’s one of the dodgiest parts of town.”
“Look,” she said. “They’ve found people bitten in half. What else could do that?”
“A regular crocodile. Lots of things, really. With some effort, I might be able to do it, too.” He fidgeted again. “Look, if you’re so sure about this, get your father to talk Underwarden Ethten into sending some guards down there.”
“Well, what if I’m wrong? Father would look stupid. That’s what I’m saying, Glim. I need to know for sure. I must find some sort of proof. I’ve been following him—”
“You’ve what?” He gaped his mouth in incredulity.
“He looks human, Glim, but he comes and goes out of the canal like an Argonian. That’s how I noticed him. And when I looked where he came out —I’m sure the first few steps were made by a crocodile, and after that by a man.”
Glim closed his mouth and shook his head.
“Or a man stepped in some crocodile tracks,” he said. “There are potions and amulets that let even you gaspers breathe underwater.”
“But he does it all the time. Why would he do that? Help me be sure, Glim.”
Her friend sibilated a long hiss. “Then can we drink your father’s wine?”
“If he hasn’t drunk it all.”
She clapped her hands in delight. “Excellent! I know his routine. He won’t be back in his lair until nightfall, so we should go now.”
“Sure. That’s what it would be, wouldn’t it? A lair.”
“Fine, a lair. Lead on.”
And now here we are, Annaïg thought.
They had made their way from the hills of the old Imperial quarter into the ancient, gangrenous heart of Lilmoth—Pusbottom. Imperials had dwelt here, too, in the early days when the Empire had first imposed its will and architecture on the lizard people of Black Marsh. Now only the desperate and sinister dwelt here, where patrols rarely came: the poorest of the poor, political enemies of the Argonian An-Xileel party that now dominated the city, criminals and monsters.
They found the lair easily enough, which turned out to be a livable corner of a manse so ancient the first floor was entirely silted up. What remained was vastly cavernous and rickety and not that unusual in this part of town. What was odd was that it wasn’t full of squatters— there was just the one. He had furnished the place with mostly junk, but there were a few nice chairs and a decent bed.
That’s about all they got to see before they heard the voices, coming in the same way they had—which was to say the only way. Annaïg and Glim were backed up in the corner, and here the walls were stone. The only way to go was up an old staircase and then even farther, using the ancient frame of the house as a ladder. Annaïg wondered what sort of wood—if wood it was—could resist decomposition for so long. The wall- and floorboards here had been made of something else, and were almost like paper.
So they had to take care to stay on the beams.
Glim hushed himself; the figures in the group below were gazing up—not at them, but in their vague direction.
Annaïg took a small vial from the left pocket of her double-breasted jacket and drank its contents. It tasted a bit like melon, but very bitter.
She felt her lungs fill and empty, the elastic pull of her body around her bones. Her heart seemed to be vibrating instead of beating, and the oddest thing was, she couldn’t tell if this was fear.
The faint noises below suddenly became much louder, as if she was standing among them.
“Where is he?” one of the figures asked. They were hard to make out in the dim light, but this one looked darker than the rest, possibly a Dunmer.
“He’ll be here,” another said. He—or maybe she—was obviously a Khajiit— everything about the way he moved was feline.
“He will,” a third voice said. Annaïg watched as the man she had been following for the last few days approached the others. Like them, he was too far away to see, but she knew him by the hump of his back, and her memory...