Evaan walked across the bridge leading to Vivec's Temple Canton, checking his plan once more in his head as he did so. Ahead of him the structure rose out of the water, the sandstone walls seeming to glow gold in the summer sun. Complimenting this was the rich red Temple banners wafting gently in the breeze, the symbol of Almsivi emblazoned boldly on every sheet. In front of the three spires of the temple proper stood the larger-than-life statues of the god-king Vivec, his legendary feats on display for the entire city. All around echoed the roar of the outlets from the canalworks, pouring the sewage of the building out in surprisingly beautiful waterfalls.
Evaan allowed himself a small smile. Out of every corner of Tamriel he had visited, Vvardenfel was still his favourite. Here he felt at home. Here his blue skin marked him as a brother, not an outsider. He may not have been universally welcomed into every house, but at least he was not subject to the same automatic mistrust that he received in the rest of the continent.
And when people trusted you, it was far easier to rob them.
He glanced down at his robes. The tailor had done a good job reproducing the smocks of one of the Temple's servants - not that it was hard to reproduce the drab brown uniform with a few letters emblazoned along the hem. The disguise was not perfect, but he hoped it would be enough. He knew he would find out soon enough as he turned right, away from the large steps leading to the main entrance, and headed down one of the side walkways.
Just before he rounded the corner of the building he broke into a half-run, trying to emulate the exhausted gait of someone not used to long bursts of activity. He staggered towards two ordinators that stood either side of a small entranceway. They turned towards him, hands moving to rest on the swords in their scabbards. The pair regarded him with those expressionless facemasks, their real eyes peering out from behind the armoured faces. Evaan suppressed a shiver, the ordinators had terrified him since childhood. Something about those masks, so finely detailed - yet unmoving - just seemed so unnatural. To him they were like living statues, far more insidious than any dwemer construct or Telvani atronach.
"Help," he gasped, mimicking breathlessness. "Please help. Two mages. Fighting in the St. Delyn Plaza. Two ordinators are hurt."
He thrust out a hand as he gasped for breath that he didn't need, pointing to one of the cantons that sat in front of the one he was on. Instead of moving, the two guards just regarded him for several agonising seconds, then slowly turned their heads to share a look. Behind their masks he could see the disbelieving expressions of their eyes. He heard the creak of leather against leather as one of them tightened his grip on his hilt, ready to draw the blade at a moment's notice.
Then the explosion shook the air.
The sound was louder that Evaan had expected. He turned to look up, in the direction his hand was pointing, up at the top of the St Delyn Canton he saw the last tongues of flame from an impressively large fireball licking the walls of the building. The enchanter's work had been even better than promised, of course it had cost enough. The explosion was actually far less deadly than it looked, the delayed enchantment had been fashioned to look and sound impressive, but do very little damage. By the time the next rains came the dusting of soot would be washed away and the canton would look good as new. The ordinators, of course, did not know this, and both took off at a sprint towards the apparent magical battle.
Evaan did not wait for them to reconsider. He ducked through the open doorway and into the hallway beyond. Once inside, he snatched up a stack of papers lying on top of a nearby cabinet and took off down the corridor. He kept his pace brisk without running, his eyes scanning back and forth across the pages in his hands as if reading them and allowed a frown to crease his forehead. Long ago he had learned that the best way not to be questioned was to look like you very busy. A worried servant hurrying with papers was most likely on an errand from an important supervisor and was best avoided - less that supervisor's wrath come down on you.
And so he passed easily through the winding corridors. He knew the layout of this place. In his youth, like many Dunmer, he had spent a time with the Tribunal. He had walked the Pilgrimage of the Seven Graces, made offerings to the shrines, meditated on the holy texts. The temple had changed very little from those days - when a religion is headed by immortal living gods, change tended to be so gradual as to be unnoticeable.
He ducked through a door into the curator's office without challenge. It was empty, as expected. The curator was in a meeting with the archcannon, as he was every Tirdas at noon. Despite the clutter, it was not hard to spot the prize that had drawn Evaan to this place. There on the desk sat the largest soul gem Evaan had ever seen, glowing from within, lit by the soul trapped inside. The rumours were true; the ordinator patrol into the Ashlands had managed to trap the soul of a golden saint. In the hands of a skilled mage the gem could make an artefact of legendary power - a shield that could shrug off the blow of a minotaur's hammer, a ring to heal wounds even as they were received, a sword that would incinerate foes with one cut. In Evaan's more mundane hands, however, it would be turned into a very large bag of coins.
He threw his papers down on the desk and, from his pocket, pulled a simple brown cloth, the kind used by most people to carry their lunch to work with. He snatched up the gem and wrapped it in the cloth, tying off the top. The gem was too large to fit into his pocket without looking suspicious, but at this time of day anyone who saw him would assume he was simply going to eat his lunch. It was a fine day, on the way in he had seen several servants and even a few priests eating in the sun, overlooking the sea, so it would not look odd him walking outside with the bag.
He strolled out of the office and retraced his steps, putting a contented smile on his face. He was a man on his way to take a well-earned lunch break, not a thief carrying a small fortune out from under the noses of the Tribunal itself. Nobody challenged him, few even acknowledged him save for a few polite nods which he pleasantly returned. It was not hard to fake being in a good mood, with each corridor he felt a weight lifting from his shoulders. Before long he turned the final corner leading to the doorway he had used to get in.
His heart stopped.
Two ordinators stood either side of the open doorway. Before they could see him he ducked into an empty side-room. His thoughts raced, the doorway should be unguarded, there was no way the two ordinators had made it all the way to the top of the neighbouring canton and back this quickly. Perhaps they were another two, sent cover the door while the others looked for him. If that was the case he should just be able to leave, the guards would stop someone they did not recognise entering the building, but not leaving it. However, if they were the same pair he had tricked into deserting their posts they would recognise him. If they were back so soon they may know the explosion was a ruse, and would certainly be on the lookout.
His eyes darted around the room as he thought. He could try one of the other exits, but if the guards were back they may have alerted their comrades to be on the lookout for someone matching his description. He thought about staying put until a shift-change, but dismissed the idea. The curator would be back from his meeting before long and even a man as senile as he would not miss the fact there was a priceless jewel missing from his office. Evaan's heart was pounding in his chest. Perhaps he should simply throw away the gem and try to get out. Even a suspicious guard would not find anything incriminating on him if he was not carrying the gem. He moved to discard the sack in his hand when the thought hit him.
Throw it away.
A smile crossed his face, one he did not have to force, and he moved over to a low bucket sitting in one corner of the office. Inside was refuse, mostly crumpled sheets of paper with a few half eaten loaves of bread. He dropped the cloth sack, and the gem inside, on top of this and picked up the bin.
He darted outside, searching the corridor. He saw what he needed, a large urn, about half his height. As he neared it the smell grew worse, but he forced his face to remain expressionless. He pulled the lid off the urn and emptied his bin, gem and all, into the large rubbish container.
"Hey!" called out a voice from behind. Evaan turned to find a servant striding up to him, an angry expression on his face. "Hey, that one's mine. Don't think you can load it up and expect me to carry it down for you."
Evaan twisted his face into innocent surprise. "Yours? But I was just told to empty this one myself."
The other man regarded him wearily. "Another mix-up?"
"Looks like it." Evaan gave his best disarming smile. "Here, take this container back to the scribe room just down the corridor, and go get yourself an early lunch. I'll take this one down myself, no use you being put out because a priest gave me wrong instructions."
The man's expression turned puzzled, then a smile slowly broke out on his lips. "Really? Thank you, friend. You sure you don't need help? That one is nearly full."
"No, I've got this. No sense both of us having to go down to the sewers."
The servant grinned. "I owe you one."
He took the now-empty bin from Evaan and set off down the corridor. Evaan's smile faded as he regarded the garbage-urn. With a grunt he managed to lift it, though he could barely walk with it. He was not weak by any measure, but certainly was not among the strongest in Tamriel. Still, the thought of the reward kept him going, putting one foot after the other as he made his way through the corridors and down the steps leading to the canalworks below. He received even less attention than before, people seemed to actively avoid him while he carried an urn full of waste. He stored that information for later use as he set the urn down beside a trapdoor.
He pulled open the trapdoor, revealing the water of the canalworks drifting lazily below. It was an impressive sewer system, constantly flowing and pouring out into the sea outside, but was a sewer system nonetheless. Evaan suppressed a sigh, despite the smell, this was a good way out. The currents would carry him out the side of the canton and to freedom.
He turned to the urn to retrieve the gem when he heard shouting from the hallway above. Moving as fast as he could he threw off the lid and groped around inside, taking a few seconds to find the cloth sack between the mouldy bread and mazte-soaked paper. Footsteps thudded, and the shouting spread, they must have found that the gem was missing. By the sounds echoing down the stairwell it seemed the whole canton was looking for him.
He was not going to give them a chance to find him. He jumped through the trapdoor, falling a good twenty feet into the water. It was cold, and it stank. He had picked a place near to one of the outlets in order to give him a quick escape, however this also meant that the water he was in had already passed under every rubbish shoot and latrine in the canton. He pushed the thought of what he was floating in to one side, gripped the sack in his hands and let the currents guide him.
He picked up speed as he was pulled into a narrow tunnel. For a time there was nothing but darkness and he had trouble keeping his head above the rushing water. He snatched breaths here and there as the rapid currents pulled him ever onwards. Light suddenly bloomed ahead, shining through the frothing water with the beautiful glow of impending freedom.
His eyes widened as something moved into his vision just outside the tunnel's opening. A heartbeat later he splayed his arms and legs outwards, against the walls of the water outlet, bringing him to a sudden stop a few feet from the exit where the water poured out into the sea. His hands blazed with pain as they scraped against the walls, but he forced himself to hold still despite the discomfort. Down there he had seen them just in time, a rowboat filled with ordinators, peering into the water around them. They were searching for him already, though evidently could not see him in the darkness of his tunnel, or perhaps simply did not think to look up. If he allowed himself to fall they would find him in no time, the clear day and still water would make him easy to pick out. Yet there was no way to go back, he could barely keep himself still against the constant push of water let alone make any progress against them. There was nothing to do but wait.
He shifted slightly, turning to brace himself with his back against one side of the tunnel and his legs against the other. He looked at hands, the palm of one was cut open from the force of stopping himself. The knuckles on the other hand were worse, he had used the back of the hand that carried the gem to stop himself, preferring to lose skin than damage the precious gem.
And so he waited. He sat for hours, braced against the two walls, head barely above the water, cloth sack firmly gripped in his hands. After the first hour he stopped noticing the smell. By the second the constant cold had turned into a distant numbness. By the time the sun had set he had stopped noticing how tired his legs were from holding him against the torrent. He gave prayers to Azura and Mephala, he would have prayed to the Tribunal as well but thought that they were unlikely to help him, given that he was stealing from their priests. After that he went over the plan in his head, trying to work out what had gone wrong, what he could have done differently. What was required so that next time he did not end up stuck in a sewer.
He waited another hour after the sun had fully gone down, or what he thought was an hour - it was hard to tell the passage of time when the only thing to measure it by was the constant rush of water and refuse that battered him. He let himself fall, sliding the last few feet and being carried into the churning sea below the outlet. He swam slowly towards shore. He told himself his sedate pace was to make less noise, but in truth he knew it was mostly because he was too exhausted to move any faster. He came up against the sandy shore a short distance away and simply lay for a long time. It took an enormous burst of effort not to simply go to sleep. He doubted sleeping within sight of the temple, carrying a gem he had stolen hours before, would be greeted well by the ordinators.
He forced himself onto his knees, then onto his feet. There was no use heading for the silt strider, they would no doubt be watching for him there. Allowing himself a sigh, he set off, staggering out into the darkness. It was going to be a very long walk to Balmora.