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Garyn emerges from the Census and Excise office bewildered but fully awake, though the atmosphere isn't doing him any favors. The summer air still carries that thick smell of seawater and rotting moss. He practically has to swim through it. Choking would be the best word to describe it - the kind of tangible miasma that hangs over a man's shoulders and squeezes the life out of him.

Garyn squints into the afternoon sun. Seyda Neen looks as dead as it smells - a glorified swamp clearing still mired in last night's storm. In the distance a guard paces from one side of a bridge to another as a fisherman drags his cart across it. Apart from this, nothing.

A shrill voice cuts through the greasy silence. "Ho there and welcome, Dunmer!"

Garyn blinks and looks downward. The voice belongs to a bronze-faced young Bosmer, as short, slight, and wispy as they all are. He's nearly clinging to Garyn's shirt. Garyn isn't sure how to respond. Just as well, since the Bosmer keeps talking.

"Welcome to Seyda Neen! Are you the one the boat dropped off? Never mind, forget I asked, of course you are - anyway, hope the Imperials treated you okay. Bullies and tyrants, the lot of them! I swear they took my ring! Of course, when I ask them about it they claim to have no idea what I'm talking about, but -"

Garyn interrupts him. "Your ring?"

"I swear one of the Guards has it. I had it last week before their weekly 'Let's shake down Fargoth' ritual," says the Wood Elf whose name is apparently Fargoth. "An engraved healing ring, family heirloom of mine. You haven't seen it, have you?"

"Erm, no...sorry, I'm afraid not. I'm only just off the boat."

Fargoth's face falls. "Oh. Of course. How...silly of me. How would you have even known to look for it? Still, will you let me know if you find it?"

He looks up at Garyn, his expression nervous and pleading.

"I'll keep my eyes open," Garyn says. It's a lie - there is obviously nothing he can do to help this mer. If the guards have his ring, the only way to get it back is to steal it from them, and Garyn isn't keen on going back to prison, especially not for this stranger. Fargoth knows this, too, if he's at all smart.

"Oh, thank you!" he says. "It's really all I ask - I can't tell you how much it would mean to me."

Apparently not. Garyn clears his throat. "Anyway, I don't suppose there's anywhere in this town I could get a fresh set of clothes and a bath?"

"Oh, yes, you'll want the tradehouse," Fargoth says, pointing to a stone Imperial building across the mudded clearing that passes for a road. "Arrille runs it. He sells general goods, and there's an inn upstairs. You know, he's a good friend of mine - if you find my ring, I can see that he makes it worth your while."

"I'll keep that in mind," Garyn says. "Thank you."

It's not until he's halfway across the road that the small handful of townsfolk (Fargoth's chirpy "Nice to meet you!" aside) begin to pay him any mind. Most of them give him nothing more than a brief glance, long enough for their mild contempt to register. The fisherman towing his catch turns the other way and spits. The fisherman seems to be the only other Dunmer about. Garyn had expected to see more. Still, it is an Imperial port town, for all the lack of activity.

Garyn stomps the mud from his feet and enters the inn.

The proprietor, a High Elf, looks down on him from his seat at the counter with a thin smile. "Good day to you, Dunmer," he says. "Welcome to my tradehouse. I am Arrille, publican and proprietor. You must be the new arrival."

"Word travels fast," Garyn says. "Especially on a slow day. The villagers must all be out fishing."

"Not at this hour," Arrille says. "Most of them have already retired for the day. The quarantine hasn't been good for business."

Garyn raises an eyebrow. "Quarantine?"

The Altmer chuckles gently. "You really are an outlander, aren't you? I get few enough of you these days that I forget not everyone is familiar with local politics."

Arrille clears his throat. "Ever since the Blight started to get worse, the Empire put the whole of Vvardenfell under a soft quarantine. Only ships with official Imperial clearance can get in or out of the district. Did a number on trade, especially here. The fish off Firemoth Reef always sold well in Omayni, and Pelagiad just isn't as good of a market, even with the inflated prices. Of course, there's no shortage of smugglers and blockade runners on the Bitter Coast for those willing to pay."

It's an obvious solicitation from Arrille - smugglers are always the greatest beneficiaries to a blockade. Garyn ignores it. He has no interest in risky criminal enterprises after the eighteen months of hell he just went through.

"What sort of plague is this Blight?"

"As bad a plague as there's ever been," Arrille says. "Some kinds of it can't even be cured. It comes from out of the ash storms from the Mountain - some even say it comes from the Devil that lives in it. I don't know about that, but it's bad news all the same. I've seen all manner of men, mer, and beast come down with it."

His expression darkens. "These are rough times, Dunmer. If you're planning on leaving town, I would suggest you leave armed. There are blighted creatures about."

"I was already planning on it," Garyn says. "But thank you. You mentioned the Bitter Coast?"

"It's where we are right now," the Altmer says. "The southwest coast of Vvardenfell. It's full of swamps, caves, and bandits - too dangerous to go unarmed. Might I recommend my selection of armor and armaments? Or perhaps some spells and potions? You won't find a finer selection from here to Balmora."

"Right now, I would like a room, a bath, and some fresh clothes," Garyn says, cutting through his merchant-speak. "We'll see what kind of sword I can buy after that."

"Of course, sera," Arrille says. "Fortunately, there's a room available upstairs. That will run you fifteen drakes a night. The bathhouse is round the back - that's five drakes. As for the rest, well...let's see what we have."

It's only after fifteen minutes of haggling that he is able to get what he needs: two sets of clean clothes, a steel dagger, and an iron broadsword. He even gets Arrille to throw in a map of Vvardenfell. He'd made himself a fair bargain. He leans back in the bath and shaves his ragged face as well as his dagger allows.

Garyn gets dressed, holsters his sword, and heads upstairs to the bar. He won't be leaving town tonight. He haw already traveled thousands of miles, and emerged from the darkness of months of captivity. Just getting to this strange land has been a trial, and arriving here has been a shock greater than he could have imagined. Real food, real drink, a real bed - these are things he had never thought he would see again. He is not about to compound that shock by adding to his experience things he has never even seen before. After eighteen months of never leaving his prison cell, with barely any light to illuminate it, he's not about to throw himself into some harsh foreign swamp.

Quietly, he slides into a bar stool and orders the cheapest jug of mazte they have. For the next hour, he is mostly silent, letting his unanswerable questions occupy him: Why him? Why now? Why here? He scarcely speaks to the bartender save to order more booze.

His silence is interrupted by an off-duty Legionnaire sliding into the seat next to him. He's a large, bearded Nord with braided flaxen hair, still fully dressed in his uniform.

"Ho there, outlander!" he says. "You look like you could use a little money. More than that, you look like you could use a friend. Perhaps I could be your friend...if you help me recover some gold."

Garyn sets his mazte down. He's not so wrapped up in his own thoughts that the prospect of a job doesn't interest him. "I'm listening."

"You see, I've had a run of bad luck," he says. "Lost a bit of money playing Nine-holes. Normally I'd be fine, what with the money the locals pay us for...protection, but -"

"Oh, is that what you call it?"

"But I know some of them are holding out on me," the Nord continues, ignoring his interruption. "That little fetcher Fargoth, for example. He's come up light the last few times I've shaken him down. And I've been through his whole house, so I know it's not there."

Garyn slams down the rest of his matze. "Whatever you want, I'm not interested."

He's been down this road before. He knows where it leads. It led him right to where he's sitting. Next time he would not be so fortunate. He gets up to leave his seat. The Nord grabs him by the wrist.

"But I haven't told you the best part."

The bartender - a slender, athletic Redguard woman - grabs the Nord's shoulder. Her skirt has subtly shifted to leave a shortsword clearly visible. "Leave him be, Hrisskar. Don't make me throw you out of here again."

The Legionnaire frowns. "Fine. It's his loss, anyway."

He gets up and stomps away from the table.

The bartender shakes her head. "Sorry you had to go through that. You'll be leaving for Balmora tomorrow?"

"Don't think I've said anything about Balmora," Garyn says. "But I was planning on going there. Why do you ask?"

"Just curious," she says. "It's good for a bartender to know the local comings and goings."

She leans in and her voice lowers. "When you get there, tell him Elone sends her regards."

Garyn nods and mutters a few words in thanks.

It's not until he's nearly back in his room that he realizes what this woman just said. She had been talking about Caius Cosades. The Empire was watching Garyn more closely than he thought.

It is with that uneasy thought swirling around his mind that sleep finally finds him.

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Garyn Balvadares

January 2017

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