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Balmora isn't a city known for its architectural variance. Two stories of adobe here, two stories of adobe there, all the same color without paint or adornment. But no one would mistake Labor Town for the Commercial District. The air is damper here, heavier. Guarskins and peasants' laundry hang from the upper floors, blotting out even the moonlight from the narrow alleys. The walls are round and soft, blown smooth by centuries of wind and sand. The edges of the shadows are softer. The water between the cracks in the pavement sit as though it has been there before, and shall return again with the next rain. This is the oldest and truest part of the city, where the porters and dockworkers live.

Near the south end, the wear and the weariness gives way to filth and flies. A battered wooden sign hangs over the epicenter of the filth - the South Wall Cornerclub. Garyn minds his pockets.

The interior doesn't offer any surprises. A place like the South Wall is always busiest when its city is asleep, and right now Balmora slumbers very deeply indeed. The patrons drink quickly and discuss ongoing business. These are their work hours. But for now, they pause, and plan their next job. It reminds him of the Five Claws in Leyawiin.

A set of claws tap Garyn on the shoulder.

"What?"

The Khajiit smiles. "Habasi has not seen this one here before. Is the little toad looking for a lily pad?"

Garyn frowns. He knows enough Guild cant to know what she's asking. He even knows well enough to be friendly in refusal. "Hmmm, tempting. Some other time, perhaps. I'm looking for someone."

"Many someones in Balmora. Habasi cannot think it should be so hard to find one. Perhaps the friendly stranger should consider a mirror."

"Funny. I'm looking for an Imperial named Caius Cosades."

The catwoman shrugs. "Maybe Habasi has seen him, maybe she has not. They are hard to tell apart, these Cyrodiils. Talk to Bacola Closcius upstairs. He owns the place. He knows who goes in and who goes out."

"And he'll just tell any stranger who asks, will he?"

"Talk is free, little toad."

"I certainly hope so."

------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Honor and honesty among thieves aren't exactly common. But ask in the right way and you'll find it more often than you'd think. The publican doesn't hesitate to tell Garyn what he knows.

"That old sugartooth? Yes, I know where he lives - he's an old friend of mine. Rents a little bed-and-basket in the northeast corner of town. Go out the front door, up the stairs, and take a left on Labor Street. His is the rightmost house of the row at the end of the street."

Garyn nods. "Much appreciated."

Bacola shoots him a meaningful look. "Indeed. I hope your...transaction goes well."

Quickly he makes his way to Cosades's home, though it's hard to keep himself from wondering at this encounter. It rather reminds him of the roofless home he had made for himself in the years after his expulsion from the orphanage. What does the Empire mean by sending him here? And since when do contacts of the Empire live among the lower classes?

The journey isn't long enough to make him any wiser. He exhales as he approaches his doorstep. Whatever future the Empire has planned for Garyn Balvadares, it waits for him here. He knocks cautiously but firmly.

The door creaks open and an old man stands before him. He looks to be in his fifties, or perhaps his early sixties - mostly bald with a ridge of gray hair. His body isn't in bad shape for a man of his age. Apart from that, he looks like hell. His eyes are bloodshot, and he is wearing nothing but a grubby and slightly torn pair of trousers.

"...Caius Cosades?"

The man frowns slightly. "That's me. What do you want?"

"I was told to deliver this package to you."

"I see." He takes the package out of Garyn's hand and examines Sellus Gravius's letter. "You'd better come inside."

Garyn follows Cosades into the one-room hovel. The interior is a mess - strewn with dirty bottles, dirty clothes, and overturned chairs. Most of all it reeks of skooma - there are empty vials of it everywhere, and a still smoldering pipe under the man's bed. Is this some kind of joke?

If Cosades notices Garyn's expression of dumbstruck horror, he doesn't make any sign of it.

"Why don't you sit down?" he says, gesturing toward a bench in the corner of his room. "Wait here while I decode this package - it's encrypted."

Garyn nods and slumps into the bench, as Cosades begins to read.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------


The furrows and wrinkles on Caius's brow, already quite pronounced, deepen with every sentence of the Emperor's message he decodes. Once he's finished, he reads through it a second time. Then a third. Then he looks at Balvadares, the Dunmer in mismatched leather and chitin, shifting in his seat like a nervous cat on Hircine's shoulder. Is this some kind of joke?

He sets down the papers and sighs deeply. Then a smile crosses his face. He knows the mer is going to love this.

"Yes, very interesting," he says. "It says here the Emperor wants me to induct you into the Blades."

Balvadares's jaw drops. "What!?" he says. "The Blades?"

"Yes," he says. "The Emperor's spy service. His eyes and ears in the provinces."

"I know who they are," the Dunmer says. "But...that must mean...no, you can't be..."

Caius chuckles. "The spymaster of Vvardenfell? No one would suspect it, would they?"

The hapless convict continues to sputter, shaking his head. "I...I think there's been a mistake. You...I've come to the wrong house."

"Oh, there's been no mistake. Assuming you are Garyn Balvadares, born on the 29th of -"

"I am," Balvadares says. "But you -"

"If you are him," Caius continues, "you're to be made a novice in the Blades."

He raises his hand, already anticipating the convict's protestations. "You will accept this duty, Balvadares, because the Emperor commands it. It isn't wise or healthy to contradict the Emperor. Not for me, and especially not for you. Do you understand, Novice Balvadares?"

Balvadares nods, scowling. "Wasn't going to refuse it," he mutters.

"Very wise of you," Caius says. "Now, since I am your spymaster, you're to report to me and follow my orders without question or protest, regardless of what you might think of me. Are you prepared to follow my orders, Novice?"

"Yes, but - why me? Why have I been -"

"I'm sorry, I must have been mumbling. Are you prepared to follow my orders without question or protest, Novice Balvadares?"

The Dunmer sighs and nods again, cowed. "Yes, sir."

"Excellent. Here is your first assignment." Caius pauses, giving the Dunmer a more thorough look over. He's lean and wiry, though he's in more or less passable shape. The folds of his skin suggest that his frame once held a thicker and more muscular body. His clothes would do no one any favors. Caius frowns.

"Now, first thing, pilgrim -" he rummages in a chest beside his bedpost and pulls out a sack of coins. "You're new, and you look it. Here's 200 drakes. Get yourself some decent armor, or a spell. Feed yourself, you've been living on prison gruel."

Naturally, Balvadares doesn't protest the money he gives him. Typical.

"Second, and more importantly, you'll need a cover identity. This isn't Cyrodiil - when a Dunmer finds out that an outsider has come to their country, their first instinct is to wonder why. And the best way to answer that question is to find a job or join a faction. What were you before you were arrested?"

"A mercenary."

"The Fighters' Guildhall is across the river. You could also join House Hlaalu, or Redoran, if you prefer to walk a very long way. Whichever you choose, take it quickly. Go out, ask around."

"Yes, sir."

"Now go," Caius says. "Or don't. You can use my bed if you like, but I have a feeling that arrangement doesn't suit you."

"It doesn't," says Balvadares. "Are there any lodgings in this city that don't cater to thieves and murderers?"

"You'll want the Eight Plates. It's on the other side of the river near the North Wall."

The door is already open when Caius begins saying these words. It slams the instant he's finished.

Caius slumps back into bed and sighs.

"The things I do for the Empire," he mutters.

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Garyn Balvadares

January 2017

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