29th of Last Seed, 4E14.
He had been on his way to pray when the youth had accosted him.
It had become Velyn's habit to pray every evening at the makeshift temple that some of his people had erected on the edge of the refugee camps at Cheydinhal. The shrine was at the top of the sloping road that left the eastern gate and led to the ruins of Fort Farragut, before then winding its way onwards through the Velothi Mountains, to the star wounded East, to Morrowind, to home.
To reach the shrine from the city proper you had to walk through the entirety of the camp, something the good law abiding imperial folk who lived inside of the walls were increasingly fearful to do. When the Dunmer had first arrived to squat outside their city, many thought it would not be for long, the ashes of the Red Year would pass and the camps would empty when stability returned to their own lands. They had not counted on the war, of course, no one had. As the years dragged on more and more had arrived, and those that stayed built more permanent shelters, until a great slum sprawled east of the city, like some kind of cancerous tumour, clinging to its host.That's how they see us now. Parasites. Tumours. Filth. When once we walked in the company of Gods.
But even Velyn realised that was a long time ago now.
He was not dressed in his armour. He had the coin still for a room in the city, one with a stout door and lock, so Velyn had left the majority of his equipment there. Only the curved short sword, his Wakizashi, did he wear in the colourful waist sash that held his robes in place against the breeze. That same breeze played through his dark hair, spiky and uneven, so recently shorn. The evening sun caught one side of his fine featured face, warming the dun coloured skin, light glinting off of the golden studs and rings pierced in his pointed ears. The other side of his face however, was cast in deep shadow, obscured in darkness. That must of be why he called to Velyn, he had not seen the Armiger Tattoos.
"Muthsera! Do you need company for tonight? The nights grow colder, and I could keep you warm. A septim for just a touch, five if you want my mouth or below. You have a place in the camp? There's a clean bedroll in my tent if not, we can go there if you have the coin."
He was a vulgar thing, younger than Velyn himself. Shirtless and half starved, with mess of rust coloured hair pushed over to one side. A gauzy piece of cheap fabric was wrapped around him, as if to make him more enticing. There were bruises on his face, and a cut to the lip. The orphans of the camps looked to earn money in many ways, prostitution often chief amongst them.
He was vulgar and young, and dirty, but in that moment he looked at Velyn like he wanted him. And Velyn wanted to be wanted. He knew that it was just another lie, but Velyn was more than used to those by now. Strange, how he had adored and delighted in them once. Lies to him had once been entangled with Love, but now they only seemed to herald pain and betrayal.
"I... I thank you, but I think not." Velyn turned his head to the speak to the boy, the red sunset spilling over both sides of his face as he did so, illuminating the markings that he wore. "May your Ancestors guide you, sera." Besides, how could he compare? How could anyone ever compare? There will never be another, I will never bathe in that Love again.
He turned to continue his journey to the top of the hill, and the business that awaited him there, thinking that was the last of it. But the boy was not finished. He called out again, this time his tone was less inviting.
"I know you, your face. I know those... you were an Armiger. One of Vivec's."
Velyn stopped in his tracks. Few had commented on the marks he bore since he had left Morrowind, the Imperials knew nothing of them, and most of the Dunmer here the camps... they what things to leave unsaid. An servant of the temple in exile from Morrowind, hair shorn, striped of their regalia, could only mean one thing: disgrace. He swallowed, and answered:
"I... I still am."
At first the youth said nothing. Since Velyn had walked further up the hill their places were reversed now, Velyn squinted into the sun, and the boy was silhouetted in the shadows it cast. He could read nothing from that silent that black oval.
"I came from the Canton of St. Olms, my mother was there when the Ministry fell. I hate the Tribunal, I hate that bastard, Vivec, and I hate you too."
The boy spat at the ground, phlegm congealing into the dust beside his bare blacked feet. They stared at each other for a moment. But Velyn realised he had nothing to say in return, nothing that would help either of them. So he said nothing, and turned away again, to walk up to the top of the hill.
The shrine was as simple as could be. An open clearing of flat hard packed dirt that was swept clean by those who still held faith. There was a rainwater trough to wash in, a sunken pit for the burning of the dead and three wooden posts, rough carvings of the Holy Tribunal on each side.
Velyn washed his hands and feet with the cold water in the trough first, towelling them off with a rag thoughtfully left under an upturned bucket. Then he wet his forehead and went to the ash pit, dipping one finger tip in the remains of the Holy Ancestors it contained. He made the triangle signs of the ALMSIVI, touching himself lightly on each shoulder before anointing himself with blessed ash, smearing a line of it down between his brows. He was ready.
He unfurled the woven prayer mat he had slung over one shoulder and set it before the altar of his Lord, who's sphere is Mastery and who rules the Middle Airs, Vekh and Vekh, the Warrior-Poet. Vivec. Knelt upon the floor, face pressed into ground, he began to pray, quietly chanting the words of the Seven Graces. "Thank you for your valour, Lord Vivec. I shall not quail, nor turn away, but face my enemies and my fear."
Thank you for your daring, Lord Vivec. I shall not shun risk, nor hide behind the mask of cautious counsel, for fortune favours the bold."
"Thank you for your justice, Lord Vivec. I shall be neither cruel nor arbitrary, for fair dealing earns the love, trust, and respect of our people."
Thank you for your courtesy, Lord Vivec. I shall speak neither hurtful nor harsh word, but shall speak respectfully, even of my enemies, for temperate words may turn aside anger."
"Thank you for your pride, Lord Vivec. I shall not doubt myself, or my people, or my gods, and shall insist upon them, and my ancient rights.
"Thank you for your generosity, Lord Vivec. I shall neither hoard nor steal, nor encumber myself with profitless treasures, but shall share freely among house and hearth."
"Thank you for your humility, Lord Vivec. I shall neither strut nor preen in vanity, but shall know and give thanks for my place in the greater world."
When the prayer had finished Velyn sat there, waiting. Waiting to feel it, something, anything.Nothing.
He turned his face upwards to the altar and saw what had been done to it. The simple carving of the face of his Lord had been cut out, someone had taken a hatchet to the wood and left it a splintered mess. The doubled sigil of Vekh was crossed out, a new name had been carved below it in its stead. Mephala, the Webspinner, the Reclamation.
Silently, tears began to fall from his eyes.
It was dark by the time Velyn made his way back down the hill. The camp was quiet in the night, there were few lights on, and only the faintest sounds of murmured conversation coming from the shelters and tents. But as he reached the same spot as before, a figured called out to him in the darkness. His hand went to blade at his side, before the heard the words and realised who it was.
"Muthsera! Do you need company for tonight?"
It was him again, the same young catamite from before, still out plying is trade on the pitch black hillside path, still looking for someone to share the night with. Just as Velyn was still looking for... well, something. They were both lost orphans now, desperately in need, of comfort, or sustenance. Velyn hated that thought. He cut him off before he could finish the rehearsed speech of how much it would cost to fuck him any which way.
"You don't want me. I'm the one from before, the Armiger. You hate me, remember?" The words were unkind, bitter.
The was a pause, before boy burst out into laughter in response. It was a high pitched giggle, slightly unhinged and delirious.
"Did I say that, sera? I do not hate you, not anymore, I have forgotten it all. Come, spend the night with me, a septim to touch, five if you want to do more."
Velyn was dumbstruck. There was no venom in that voice anymore. The hatred was gone. The bitter pain he had heard there when this orphan had laid the tragedy of his life at the feet of Vivec was gone. How could that be? How could he just forget? Because Velyn couldn't forget, as much as he wanted to. He wanted to forget the ache he felt in his soul, the gaping hole in felt in his chest. He didn't want to feel it anymore, the betrayal, the abandonment, the loss. He would trade it all, even the memory of Love, if he didn't have to feel that way anymore.
"How? How can you forget? How do you forget it? Please..." His voice shook as he spoke, he could feel the tears welling his eyes again.
"You want to forget? I can show you sera, come with me and I'll show you... as long as you have the coin?" Velyn nodded in response, and the boy held out in hand to him, gingerly he took it. It felt warm.
He led him through the maze of the slums that butted up against the city walls, leaping over makeshift gutters and squeezing between lean-tos and shanties, practically skipping as they went. Twisting and turning, ever deeper and deeper, where no self-respecting Imperial would go, where no guards ever dared to venture. And then suddenly they were out of the maze and standing in front of an tent, larger than its neighbours, from which inside of which a dim light emitted. There was also a smell... strangely sweet.
"We are here, sera." The boy said, letting go of his hand. "Bring out you coin, you have to pay the sugar-cat." He reached over to the tent flap and held it open for him, inviting him into the dim space beyond. Velyn stepped inside.
Inside, the tent was divided up into smaller alcoves by hanging blankets. There were more blankets and old pillows strewn across the floor. The light came from a few paltry lanterns, the smell from the clouds of smoke that seemed to emerge from alcoves that were occupied. Next to the entranced there was a hulking figure sat on a stool. They looked up as Velyn and the boy entered. It was a Khajiit, their eyes glowed unnaturally in the half darkness as they caught the light of the lanterns. One of their ears had been torn off, and they wore a spiked cudgel at his side.
"Back so soon young Salas? And who is this one you have brought with you?" The large muscled Khajiit purred at them, revealing a smile of sharp yellowed teeth.
"He wants to forget, and he has coin enough for two." The smile on the Khajiit's face grew wider, they named a price, and Velyn handed the Septims over. He had come too far now to turn back.
The cat led them into the back of the tent, past alcoves full of men and women, some in groups, most alone. A few of them were laughing like Salas had earlier. Some of them looked like they were sleeping. One of them was weeping uncontrollably. In each of the alcoves there was one constant, a small contraption, like two bottles with a candle suspended between them, connected by a series of pipes and tubes. These were water-pipes, used for smoking.
This was a Skooma den.
The Khajiit sat them down in an empty alcove upon some dirty floor cushions. There was a unlit pipe on the floor between him and Salas. The Khajiit got to work, deftly kindled a candle and slotted it into the pipe, explaining as they did so.
"It heats the sweet sugar syrup in the upper chamber, this one pulls the fumes down into the water bowl, to cool them, and then the breathe the smoke through this pipe. This one understand yes?" He shook his head mutely. "Young Salas can show you how it is done."
Finally they pulled a vial out from a pocket of his waist coat and measured out several drops of thick viscous liquid into the smaller upper chamber. The cat smiled one last time, and pulled away, closing the curtain behind them. They were all alone now. Sitting in darkness but for the light of candle that heated the Skooma pipe. Velyn waited for Salas to make a move, but the boy just gestured to the pipe, a hazy smile on his face.
"You first, sera. It's your coin."
"I don't know... How... how do I?" He laughed at that.
"Let me show you."
He reached out and took the long mouthpiece of the pipe and sucked on it, making the water in the lower half bubble away, drawing the fumes through the water and into his mouth. All the time his eyes, half glazed half sultry, never left Velyn. Did he want him? Did he want only this? Did it matter? The prostitute leaned over, so that their faces were close, almost touching.
"Open wide." He whispered.
His lips planted against Velyn's, and he breathed the smoke into his mouth.
As he took it down into his lungs, the bitterness began to fade away, replaced by something... sweet.
And began to forget.