Nocturnal XVIII

Clark and Minx returned to the Waterfront.

"There's still that Redguard woman asking around for the Gray Fox." Minx told him. "The one in the foreign city guard uniform. You're probably the only one that can deal with her."

Clark had to agree. You couldn't expect any of the Guild to deal with a city guard, even one from another province.

He found her eating dinner in the Bloated Float. She appeared to be around thirty-five years old, not that he was an expert judge of Reguards. There were enough customers filling the place that it wasn't unreasonable for Ormil to seat him at her table, and Clark was able to start a conversation.

Her name was Haballa, and Clark knew the insignia on her tabard was that of Sentinel, in Hammerfell. She confirmed that she'd been sent by King Lhotun on her current mission.

"Which is?" he inquired.

"I'm looking for a stolen painting. It went missing from the cellars of the Sentinel Palace some time ago. It didn't look like anything special, which is why it wasn't on display, but the King believes it was enchanted. He'd like it back so he can find out."

"Why do you believe it might be in Cyrodiil?"

"We heard about another painting that went missing from Chorrol Castle, and wondered if the same art thieves were involved. That's why I was trying to contact the Gray Fox. If the Thieves Guild here are anything like the one in Hammerfell, they don't appreciate anyone else operating in their territory. I thought I might get some co-operation in tracking them down."

"And you came in uniform?"

"It, and a spare, are all I brought with me. I suppose I could buy something else, but I don't know how long this investigation is going to last, and I need to use the coin I have carefully."

"So you didn't bring a reward for the painting's return, I take it?"

"No, I'm either to take it back without one, or else just open the negotiations, depending on how things work out, and who has it. Stolen art often ends up being sold to unsuspecting nobility. If it has already found a buyer, I notify them that it's stolen, and put them in touch with King Lhotun's treasury. If the thieves still have it, then there's no haggling, just punishment."

"None of the Guild will deal with you in uniform," Clark told her. "I could either act as an intermediary, or lend you a change of outfit. Either way, it might be better if we continue this conversation in a less public place. Why don't you come back to Imbel Manor with me for dessert and a brandy? I found a large selection of women's clothing in storage there when I bought the place, and something's likely to fit you."

Haballa considered for a few moments. "All right, lead on."

It didn't take long to walk through the tunnel to the Temple District and then into Talos Plaza. Soon they were entering the big front door of Imbel Manor, and heading for the stairs to the upper floor. Clark pointed to the doors of two adjacent rooms. "There are closets in those two rooms where you might find something to fit you. Take a look while I pour us each some brandy and slice the fruit."

The rooms belonged to Angeline and Diablita, of course. The wardrobes were stuffed with garments they'd found on their adventures, and he'd never got round to selling for them. Without enchantments, clothes just didn't fetch the same prices that armor and weapons did, so it was hardly worth the effort of taking them across town. There were probably a few pieces of their own, but Diablita wore very little except chains, and Angeline's outfits weren't likely to appeal to someone who wore a uniform all the time.

"Is this what you had in mind?" she asked him, holding up a thin dress that was little more than a veil.

"Perhaps not for negotiating with the Thieves Guild, but it would look good on you."

"Well, if that's what you brought me here for..." Haballa said, putting her arms round Clark's neck and kissing him.

Clark noticed a glow of green and purple, and Haballa went completely stiff. It only took him a second or two to work out that she'd just tried to paralyze him with her Lover's Kiss, but it had backfired because of the enchantments on his outfit.

He ducked out of her frozen embrace, and unfastened her cuirass, lifting it over her head. Her raised arms made it easy, even though she was stuck in the one position. He lifted her out of her boots, thinking to himself as he did so that if he'd been a little shorter, she wouldn't have lifted her heels. A couple of small daggers fell out of the boots.

Her greaves concealed another dagger, and a small, but heavy, cosh. Clark slid them to the floor, lifted her out, and then pulled the undershirt up over her head. Another dagger dropped out of her hair as he did so.

Haballa had another small knife tucked into her underwear, which was as utilitarian as the rest of her uniform. She clearly didn't use sex as a weapon, although she was well-armed in that respect. That all joined the growing pile, which he kicked out of reach into a corner.

Then he ducked back into the same position he'd started in. Except that, without her underwear, he assumed she'd appreciate a bit of support.

"I do hope she has a sense of humor," he thought as he felt the stiffness leave her muscles, and returned the kiss she'd started. If her Plan A hadn't worked, he wondered what she'd do next.

Haballa had been completely conscious all through Clark undressing her. Her initial panic when the spell failed soon gave way to other concerns, but she soon realised he meant her no harm. If anything he was being too gentle.

Clark, too, had noticed something about her arsenal of concealed weaponry. It was all a little less than lethal. Sure, you could cut an artery with one of those knives, and let the victim bleed to death. But if you had the skill to do that, you'd also have the skill not to. He'd want to ask her about that, later. Right now, he had a different concern.

"Is she checking I'm unarmored before using her knee, or has she selected Plan F?" he wondered.


Once they had got to know each other better, Haballa felt she ought to explain. "When I saw all the paintings you have here, I thought you might have been the one who had it stolen. I planned to tie you up, and give this place a thorough search."

"Have you ever tried to tie up someone who's paralyzed? You can't move their limbs any more than they can."

"No, you wait until it wears off, and then tap them on the back of the head with a blackjack. That's when the ropes go on."

"I'm glad I stopped you at the first step. It doesn't sound like a lot of fun."

"It could be worse. There are more permanent alternatives. I just don't use those. My job for King Lhotun is to make sure people learn to obey the law. Dead people don't learn. People in some degree of discomfort do, as long as the pain doesn't become the only thing they're aware of. I've learned just how much stimulation is enough to get the results I need."

Clark had noticed that. That was a skill they shared, even if they had acquired it with different goals in mind. And she'd just made it clear that she understood all its possibilities.

"Can you tell me more about the painting, and when it was stolen?" he asked her.

"We're not sure when it was taken. King Lhotun only called for it when the Emperor was assassinated, and that's we found it was gone. The painting was supposed to be enchanted to show important events, and nothing was more important than the death of an Emperor."

"When the painting was put into storage, by the late Queen Akorithi, it depicted the chaos of the Warp in the West. It was hard for anyone to understand what they saw, and they all thought the enchantment had failed. King Lhotun thought they might have been wrong, and he requested it be brought back out, and the divining spell re-cast."

"Wait a minute," Clark interrupted. "I think I've heard of this before. Wasn't it stolen from Wayrest in the first place?"

"Obtained from Wayrest. It was before I was born, and I have no idea how Queen Akorithi got it. For all I know it was purchased, not stolen. I've also heard it said that it didn't originate in Wayrest, even though that place is most associated with it."

"Why did Akorithi want it?"

"She used it to determine the truth about the death of King Lysandus of Daggerfall. That had been blamed on just about everybody from every little kingdom in the Illiac Bay. Some said the Orcs did it, others that it had been the King's own son. It was even rumored that the King was still alive, and a double had died in his place."

Clark reflected on what Medora had told him. She'd been among the suspects, too. She hadn't been able to tell him much about the events after Lysandus died, as she'd been confined to Direnni Tower.

Haballa was too young to have any first-hand information, either. She'd been a small child when it all happened.

She'd entered Lhotun's service after the plague killed his mother, and elder brother Greklith. She'd been trained to track down and eliminate the people who'd abducted his other brother. It seemed to be an obsession of Lhotun's, and he couldn't concentrate on ruling Sentinel until she brought him closure by tracking down Jomic, the last of the abductors. She'd never seen the painting; it was already locked away in the palace basements by the time she joined the service.

"Didn't he think of consulting the painting about Arthago's death?" Clark inquired.

"That was too far in the past. The painting shows the most recent event of sufficient significance. You don't get to choose what that is. So it would still have shown the Miracle of Peace, Warp in the West, Numidium Incident, whatever you want to call it. It wasn't until Uriel Septim died that Lhotun believed the image would have changed."