Bridges over Troubled Waters
Hank and Dervs ScribblingsSunset, 14th of Sun’s Height, 4E208
Southern Druadach Mountains, West of Falkreath Hold
And there was a sight that one didn’t quite get used to.
Perched over an abundance of game that most hunters would have been boastful of harvesting in a week, the hulking half-naked Orsimer woman with striking body tattoos that contrasted her veridian complexion like the remnant of snow on pine needles was busy effortlessly pulling the skin off of a hare in a singular motion, leaving the musculature and actually edible bits exposed to be cooked by the fire she was kneeling in front of. Beside her, a pair of deer were about to suffer the same fate as the rodent, and perhaps most unsettlingly, a fox. Zaveed looked at the bushy tail and reflexively checked his own to see it was still there.Best proceed with caution. My fur is much too handsome to be ripped off with such flourish. I bet I taste like shit.
he thought with a disgruntled frown. Still, Mazrah was one of the few people Zaveed had yet to speak with, and given the stares she sometimes offered him were as pointed and twice as dangerous as that spear she carried proudly, he figured it was high time to bury the axe.
The metaphor made him suddenly very conscious of the axes at his hip. Rolling his eyes, he walked by a tree stump and drove them into the dead wood. Maybe it would both announce his presence and lack of hostile intent. One could hope.
He approached, regarding the game’s gradual dissection into something more recognizable as food. “You know, I’ve done that to plenty of fish, but it’s taking some getting used to when half the things you eat on the road are also covered in a coat of fur.” He said, crouching beside Mazrah. “You’ve been most successful at keeping everyone fed, I figured I should probably personally thank you for it because I sure as shit cannot hunt on land and eating twigs and leaves doesn’t seem to favour my digestion.”
Mazrah looked up when she heard the axes hit the wood. Her eyes followed him as he talked and sat down next to her and her face was inscrutable until he was finished, and then some. Eventually a small smile played around her tusks and she shrugged. "Bah, don't mention it. It's my pleasure. You folks would be useless otherwise." Mazrah impaled the rabbit on spit she was preparing, which already featured one of its brothers or sisters, and hung it over the flames. She nodded at the collection of earrings on Zaveed's ears. "Nice, that. You've seen a lot of the world then?"
He tilted his head so the firelight could catch the metals so Mazrah could see them more clearly. He tapped each in sequence. “The Alik’r Desert. Gilane. Wayrest. The Gold Coast. Simmerine.” he named off each, the metals and engravings different between each. “It’s a sort of history I carry with me. On the other side goes from Senchal, my first, across Valenwood, Alinor, and one where I’d found myself in Lilmoth of all bloody places.” he smiled towards the flame.
“I don’t recommend that particular spot. Argonia has an unhealthy assortment of insects that could even carry the likes of you away or carve away at my ears. So I’ve seen much of the world, but there’s still much of it I haven’t seen.” he gestured to the valley below. “I suppose I’m due for another earring. I suspect I’ll have a few more before my journey is through.”
Zaveed's description of Argonia made Mazrah wince and chuckle at the same time. "I like that," she said and nodded. "It's good to remember where you came from and where you've been. You've seen much more than I have. I heard people say that you were a pirate. Is that true?" she asked, and her voice did not betray whether she judged him for that or not.
The Khajiit’s face scrunched in mock indignition. “Privateer
, I’ll have you know. I was official, even had a fancy letter of marque saying I was allowed to be a professional scourge.” he stared at Mazrah for a few seconds before his expression burst into a laugh. “But I suppose pirate is close enough. The main difference is I served the Dominion’s interests rather than personal interests… at least on paper.” Zaveed said with a wink.
“You don’t strike me as the sort to be particularly offended by that sort of thing. I am what I am, I make no apologies for it. Much like you are a scantily clad demi-god of an Orsimer who could probably crush a breastplate with your hands… or thighs.” he grinned. “So, is Mazrah just a huntress, or is there more to that tale?”
Always susceptible to a good bout of flattery, Mazrah relaxed and laughed her loud, unapologetic laugh at Zaveed's compliments. "I'm not really offended by that, no," she said. "I just hope you weren't kicking down the smallfolk while you were a privateer,
excuse me. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's injustice. And arrogant men. And especially not the combination of the two." She tucked a rebellious braid back behind her ear and set about the task of skinning another rabbit.
"Mazrah the huntress, that's me, but not just
a huntress. I'm the
huntress," she said and looked up briefly to aim her dagger at Zaveed in mock accusation. "The Envy of Hircine himself, young man. My mother bore these tattoos and her mother before her and so on until before there were cat-people. See these lines on my flank? That's the sabercat I killed when I was seventeen summers old. And this… what is this, a diamond shape, I guess? This is the Herron's Lance, a move I've used to kill three Dwemer. Everything my mother taught me is on my skin and none are my equal," Mazrah explained with unmistakable pride in her voice and her eyes. "Best hunters in Orsinium. All the world, too."
There was a number of things Zaveed had done on the seas that could definitely be described as injustice, but despite preying on merchant vessels, he’d never killed anyone who was defeated or unarmed. A reputation as a butcher wasn’t a great one to have, and recognizing your flag as one that would mean mercy instead of certain death meant that crewmen of other ships often surrendered to fate and simply made due without their cargo.
He decided not to mention the particulars; Mazrah didn’t seem the sort to appreciate high-seas crime as having various levels of conduct one adhered to.
His gaze followed her finger, the lattice of tattoos impressive and as storied as his earrings. “Remarkable, truly.” Zaveed replied sincerely. “Might I inquire as to what lured you away from Orsinium? From the sounds of things, if I might be so bold as to guess, you didn’t wish to be taken as some chief’s hunt-wife. Your interest in the fairer sex hasn’t escaped my notice; I imagine Orsinium isn’t as accepting of the lifestyle you choose to live as you’d like.”
"You're right to think so. Women going after women doesn't sit well with their idea of having a bunch of wives for themselves," Mazrah replied with a wry smile and perceptible bitterness. "I love my people but they have some dumb fucking traditions. After my brother got himself kicked out for trying to start a war between us and everybody else, I took my chance and followed him. Just out of the city, mind you. Haven't seen the shithead in years. Spent some time in High Rock but those Bretons have a fat stick up their arse, lemme tell you, so I went to Hammerfell. Ended up in Gilane after the Dwemer came and you know the rest."
She eyed Zaveed and thought back to what Sirine had said; that it wasn't his fault he'd joined the Dwemer, that he hadn't had a choice. "What happened to you? Start from the beginning."
“You sound like someone who would have prospered in Khajiiti society; there’s no word for rules in Ta’agra. We call those thjizzrini
, foolish concepts. Sure, there’s the usual laws of the lands, you can’t escape that under the Empire and then the Thalmor… men and mer simply can’t let a man live a life on his own terms. But we Khajiit have been in Tamriel since before Topal the Pilot ‘found’ our home; I suspect we will be around long afterwards, too.” Zaveed replied with a smile before letting out a sigh.
“That is such a simple question with no quick and simple explanation. From your tone, I am going to assume you mean how I ended up as a knife for governor Rourken.” He looked down, tapping his knees in contemplation for several moments before deciding to slump down into a seating position, his arms locked around his raised knees.
“Sevari hired my crew for a job, saying he needed the best captain and a load of discretion. It was the first time we’d seen each other since we were cubs, he claimed he didn’t know I was Captain Greywake, commander of the Merrunz Wrath.
But I think, perhaps, a part of him suspected. Perhaps a description of me, perhaps a chance gaze. Perhaps a foolish hope his brother was still alive. Regardless, he convinced me to take his job with a load of gold and things didn’t warm between us; too much time had passed without answers.” the Khajiit sighed, glancing to Mazrah before turning back to the flames.
“We didn’t know the Dwemer invasion was happening; we were heading North for some clandestine assignment of his he refused to give me the particulars of and none of that bloody well mattered in the end because a storm unlike the likes I’ve ever seen before hit the Wrath
and I damn near well broke my arms trying to keep the ship from capsizing. We struck a hidden reef and started taking on water, and it was enough for the storm to take us.
“Pieces of my ship were torn from their moorings, my crew pulled from the deck like some damned water spirit demanded payment for their transgressions. It wasn’t long after that I couldn’t hang on any longer and found myself in the water, and by morning, I was washed up on Gilane’s beaches with a Dwemeri rifleman shoving a gun in my face.
“I was brought before the head of their secret police; he was a clever man, that Kerztar. He knew a capable man when he saw one, and my brother and I were offered a simple choice; serve them as their foreigners who knew the cultures and people of Tamriel and force the Dwemeri rule, or go die in a fighting pit.” Zaveed grunted, a scowl across his face. “I chose the one that could at least give me the hope of returning to my life, or at the very least one I could call my own. I don’t do well in cages, nor do I fancy dying.”
He shook his head, looking over to Mazrah. “So, after discovering that the terrorists who attacked a convoy of prisoners, broke more out of a Redguard-run prison, and murdered an administrator had been dropped off by Roux Dupris, Sevari and I were tasked with hunting down your cell and bringing the governor’s justice down upon them. It was a job I admit I took enjoyment in; I was active again and doing what I do best. You might be one of the greatest huntresses in the world, but I am a legendary hunter and killer of men. I just knew that Gilane had a form of peace under the Dwemer, and suddenly I was told to go find the people who set a bunch of murderers, rapists, and arsonists back into the streets? I felt like a fucking folk hero, and the people cheered me for it.” Zaveed said, his tone a bit tense. He didn’t apologize for what he was, but he didn’t much care for what his words were going to drag out of Mazrah, kicking and screaming into the light.
“But in the end, Gregor bested me in a duel when I found him, I nearly died, Raelynn saved my life and told me I needed to earn my second chance. I met Sirine literally the morning after and decided helping her find her brother was a good start; I was in a position where I could find out if he was a prisoner. My Aldmeri marine sister and the Dominion envoy were attacked by more insurgents in the streets, and I found them… and they knew Sevari as a criminal. They slapped chains on my brother and were intending to bring him back to Alinor for trial and presumably execution.” Zaveed sighed, his head bowing. “I wasn’t about to lose my brother again. Sevari escaped, and we headed out of the city while my Dwemeri credentials still meant something. We ran into you lot hours later and you know the rest.”
It was a lot to digest. Mazrah had listened to the Khajiit’s story in a silence that lingered long after he had finished speaking. She looked around the camp slowly while her mind turned, occasionally glancing back at the spitroasted rabbits to make sure they weren’t being overcooked.
“Well, at least you’re honest,” she said and looked at Zaveed with a look of resignation. “If it were me, I would have fought in the pits and died, if that was to be my fate, with my dignity intact. I’m not a kneeler. But it’s true that you lived to see another day and if that means that you can fight the Dwemer now…” Mazrah trailed off and rubbed her chin in thought. “You can regain your honor. Or gain it, if you never had any in the first place.”
“A man’s only worth his word.” Zaveed repeated a mantra he spoke of so often. “I’ve never tried to hide who or what I am, what I’ve done, none of it. You’ve seen full well what happened with Gregor and to a lesser extent Jaraleet, but I feel the worst has passed for me. You all have had time to adjust to my being here, and I don’t think that anyone’s particularly worried about my intent at this juncture. Is that fair to say?” he asked.
“I’ve always had honour, but it’s such a funny, fickle thing. Honour to your culture is quite different than that of a Khajiit, or a Nord, or an Altmer. We all have different codes of conduct, yes? For a Khajiit, we think it’s hilarious and stupid for someone to stand and fight against impossible odds when you can simply retreat and strike again when the moment suits you.” the Khajiit said, with a smile.
“A bit of folk wisdom from my people is that most, if asked who would win in a fight, between a massive, powerful Senche-raht and a tiny Alfiq. Most would say the Senche-raht. How could it lose? It’s massive, fast, powerful. Some are as tall as two Altmer.” Zaveed said enthusiastically, raising his hand as high as it would go before pointing a finger at the ground. “But ask a Khajiit, and they will say the Alfiq.
“The Senche will be unable to eat, unable to sleep, without the tiny Alfiq biting him and disappearing into the dark before he can turn to face his tiny annoyance. Eventually, he will have no choice but to leave. All great empires eventually do. Who do you think we are, the Senche-raht or the Alfiq? The Dwemer think themselves mighty and the rest of us as puny, stupid mud slingers, but here we are, wearing them down one little bite at a time.” Zaveed said with a shrug, reaching his hands out to warm them by the flames. The smell of cooking meat was rather appetizing at this point.
That made Mazrah laugh. “It is said that when the current Orsinium was first settled in the early days of the Fourth Era that the valley suffered from a mosquito problem in the summer. It got so bad that the Ornim were afraid to speak because the little bastards would crawl into their mouths if they did, so thick was the air with them,” she said and lifted the spitroast from the fire. The rabbits were done. She put one of the rabbits on its own stick and handed it to Zaveed with a smile.
“The mosquitoes were breeding in the lake below the city. The king had the Ornim bring snow and ice from the mountaintops and melt it in large rock bowls in the sun, so that the people still had water to drink, and then he poisoned the lake until all the mosquitoes were dead and their little insect lineages ended.” Her eyes sparkled with amusement and she wagged her finger at the Khajiit. “An enemy that never kneels and knows no limits is not to be trifled with. You might have started a slave revolution in the fighting pits. Who knows? Now you are only alive because of Raelynn, and because of Sora. You needed a lot of luck to get here. Luck runs out.”
She bit into her own rabbit and her eyes rolled back while she moaned in exaggerated appreciation of the taste. Nothing tasted as good as game you’d bagged yourself, after all. “How did Gregor beat you, anyway?” she asked and raised an eyebrow.
Zaveed bit into his own rabbit gratefully and chewed thoughtfully, buying time while he pondered an answer. Although he assumed most of the group figured it out already, Zaveed didn't want to become a gossip and bring more discord among the already strained group. After he swallowed, he said, "Nothing in my dossier on Gregor suggested he was a mage. His attire and choice of weapons, as well as witness reports, didn't give me a clear picture of what I was going into.
"I encountered him by chance instead of having time to plan the encounter, and so it came down to my skill with a blade. I wasn't counting on him being a conjurer, so fighting a two-sided skirmish caught me off guard, I was disarmed and then run through when he had his opening." Zaveed shrugged non-committally.
"I make my own luck, I plan ahead, and I stack things in my favour. Forgive me for saying so, but I have far more choices outside of a cell rather than inside of one. I cannot imagine I'd have had much fortune convincing desperate men that listening to me would earn them freedom as opposed to killing me. I've seen what desperate men do when they're given a simplistic resolution; they pursue it with an entrhalled devotion rather than a sense of reason." He bit into the rabbit again.
“I suppose not,” Mazrah admitted wryly. “But that is only because men are weak. With a handful of Orsimer huntresses you could topple any tyrant.”
"Oh, is that an offer? Because I must say I am mighty tempted." Zaveed responded with a grin. "You're not wrong about men; most are prideful and stupid, which is a volatile mix. Most of the captains and crew members I had the most esteem for were women. Planners and logistically minded, more prone to cooperate than swing their dicks around… in a manner of speaking. I felt women were more likely to be trustworthy and stick to alliances, as well."
She raised her eyebrows. "Well well," Mazrah said, clearly impressed. "I didn't expect you to be so… I don't know, forward-thinking? We really need a word for 'supportive of women'
." She grinned and clapped Zaveed on the shoulder. "I'm starting to see why Sirine likes you."
"I thought it was my roguish good looks and impeccable sense of style." Zaveed smiled. "Part of why my heart's always been out to sea; I've no patience or love for feudal systems with lords and counts and presumably inbred rulers. Out there a man… or woman," he winked at Maz, catching himself. "Can live by their own rules, no silly traditions or stuffy obligations to uphold. My second in command was a woman, actually. A pyromancer who really loved just taking what she wanted. Neither of us were meant for polite society."
“I don’t know what a pyromancer is but she sounds like a character,” Mazrah said. She looked around herself and tutted, disappointed by the absence of whatever it was that she was searching for. “One moment.”
The Orsimer got up and disappeared into the camp, only to return less than a minute later with two bottles of ale. She gave one to Zaveed and sat down again. “Now tell me how a cat like you ended up on a ship in the first place,” she commanded with a smile.
Zaveed took the bottle with a pair of fingers, frowning as he pulled the cork with a claw. Mazrah didn't realize how heavy of a question that was; he would spare her the heavy answer. "I grew up in Senchal with Sevari and my sister Marassa. I ended up losing them to people in power and I had nowhere else to go, so I decided to get away from the city that took everything from me."
The Khajiit took a drink of the ale, not particularly bothered by its warmth. He twirled the bottle around in his fingers as he contemplated it all. "I joined the first crew that took me, I was… 12, 13 at the time? Eventually the ship became mine after a very long road. It's now currently resting beneath the waves close to Gilane."
“What of your parents?”
“What parents?” Zaveed smiled tersely.
Mazrah scoffed, frustrated. “You did not spring from the earth, Zaveed.”
“As close to it as one could come, I suppose.” Zaveed replied with a sigh. He looked to his Orsimer companion with a resigned gaze. “My mother was a brothel whore, and who knows who the fuck my father was. My sister and I were abandoned as soon as we could more or less walk and talk for ourselves in the streets because I suppose my mother found us a liability for her business, or her owner decided that children aren’t a worthy investment. I suppose I should be grateful; neither of us grew old enough to be pressed into that particular line of work. Satisfied?” he asked.
She was silent for a bit after that. Orsimer society would never have allowed something like that to happen. Of course prostitution happened in Orsinium, it happened everywhere, but it wasn’t an institution like she had learned it was in many other societies. Children didn’t fall through the cracks like that in the Stone City. “I’m sorry,” she said eventually. “I can’t imagine something like that. It doesn’t happen where I’m from. It takes a village to raise a child, after all.” The Orsimer frowned and sighed. Is that why Zaveed had turned out the way he did, only focused on survival and taking what he wanted? It made sense that he didn’t respect honor if nobody raised him to tell him that. “Now I have a better idea of why you are the way that you are, at least.”
The Cathay smiled with a half-hearted shrug, but his eyes remained heavy. "Disappointing, I know, and an even poorer excuse. Thing is, you walk a certain path long enough and if it ever occurs to you to look back where you've come, it's hard to think that there were other ways. Other options." He said, taking a drink from his ale. "I don't apologize for what I am, but I swear on all I am that I will walk another path. I will find a better way."
“I’ll drink to that,” Mazrah said and emphasized the statement with a swig of her own ale. “That’s good enough for me. It’s not like you have much of a choice now. You can’t undo the past.” She stared into the flames and fell silent, for once unsure of what else to say.
Zaveed held his bottle up in cheers, standing up with ease of movement that seemed at odds with the weight of the conversation that had come to pass. "Well, Mazrah, my dear, I'm thankful we finally crossed this threshold and gotten to know one another. I appreciate the drink, and the fruits of your macabre dinner party." He said with a wink, patting her gently on the shoulder. "Until next time, and if ever you need a hand with anything, don't hesitate."
With that Zaveed stepped away from the warmth of the flames, his mind filled with a rather sizable bit to mull over. He wasn't sure if he crossed the bridge with Mazrah, but at least it was being built.