The Price of Iron
Part I

Chorrol, Colovia. 19th of Frostfall, 2E 580.

Una pushed through the doorway of the Lather and Song, letting the comfortable smells of roasted meats, ale, and depravity wash over her. A bard, the same one who had been performing the past several evenings, played a flute softly in one corner. A few other patrons milled about, but she knew the place would begin to fill up rapidly over the next couple of hours. Una made her way to her favorite table, near enough to the large hearth to be warm, but not so close that the sounds of the crackling fire drowned out the music. Meen-Na, the young Argonian serving girl, slowed on her way past just long enough to ask, “Are you eating tonight, Una, or just drinking?”

“I’ll eat,” Una replied as the girl swept by. She could go home, where Florentius would no doubt pour her a bowl of whatever stew he had made today, possibly even with fresh bread to soak up the broth. But tonight she desired strong drink, and more importantly, company. Something was troubling her, and she needed to take her mind off it.

Meen-Na soon returned with what would likely be the first drink of several for the evening. A handsome, dark-haired young man sitting alone near the bard caught her eye as she surveyed the evening’s early arrivals. He was pleasing to look at, but the open book in front of him was a bad sign. The smart ones were fun, just often more trouble than they were worth. Give it some time, Una. More will come. Resigned, Una settled deeper into her chair and considered the events of the last two days.

Someone had been asking around about her. Ennbjolf mentioned it to her yesterday when she happened by his shop. She didn’t think anything of it at the time, but this morning Buramog said the same thing. A man calling himself Ris, dressed in dark clothing and leathers, and armed. He wanted urgently to know where to find Una. Ennbjolf said the man’s shadowy nature put him on edge right from the start, and the fact that this “Ris” refused to say what he wanted only made him seem more suspicious. What he could possibly want from Una she had no idea, but his persistence troubled her.

Ennbjolf had also mentioned that his last delivery was a little light. “I wouldn’t mention it,” he said, “except that it happened once before a few weeks back.” Una promised she would look into it, and assured the smith it would not happen again.

And then Larrius and Fallaise Oranius had brought up the same problem when she stopped to see them not two hours ago. “We were only about ten pounds short on the iron, but the corundum ore your men delivered was only half what we’re supposed to get,” Fallaise told her. “We might not have enough to fill our orders now.” Una was determined to set that right, but where was she going to get the extra ore from? And more importantly, what happened to the rest of the Oranius’s order? How did that much corundum just disappear?

And what did any of it have to do with the mysterious stranger who was looking for her?

Una worked her way through her first ale thinking these things over. Meen-Na brought Una’s supper with a second pint, but otherwise Una was left alone with her thoughts on this evening. As she worked on her meal of pot roast, potatoes, and vegetables she gave the tavern another look around. It was beginning to fill up now, with both strangers and the usual crowd of regulars. Some merchants she knew had already begun a singing contest in one part of the tavern’s large common room, and convinced the bard to provide accompaniment to their bawdry, off-key crooning.

A particularly large Nord had come in with two companions. An ugly scar ran down the length of his neck, but the man’s huge, bare arms were enticing; like a blacksmith’s, only less filthy. He looked to be near to Una’s own age, which was disappointing, but not a deal-breaker. Una had found, as she grew older, that she generally preferred the energetic company of younger men. It was true that with age came experience, but sometimes she just wanted eagerness and endurance over prowess. Besides, the younger ones were usually more complaisant. Now forty-one years old, she might not be able to play this game much longer, but she still had both the looks and the figure to get what she wanted. Friends always pushed her to find a man and settle down, start a family, but Una found the very idea repulsive. She couldn’t stand small children, and she saw what happened to the lives - and bodies - of women who had them. That life was not for her. Besides, her business kept her more than busy enough. A husband would only complicate things, let alone children.

Una watched the big Nord until he looked over at her. The man smiled, a little sheepishly at first, but raised his stein to her before turning back to the conversation at his own table. Perhaps she would come back to him later. She could definitely do worse.

The mood in the Lather and Song was as jovial as ever. A popular watering hole and eatery for the local mercantile class, Una was acquainted with most of the regulars. She knew them well enough to know she should never do business with them, but it was hard to imagine ever finding a better group of people to play Ringing the Bull or Puzzle Jug with. These were her kind of people, who knew how to unwind and have a good time.

The tavern continued to get more crowded as the evening wore on. Una switched to whiskey when she finished her meal and joined in some of the revelry. She made sure to brush up against the big Nord’s arm by mistake at one point, but he barely seemed to notice. She nearly fell over herself “apologizing” and flashing her empty ring finger at him, behaving like an idiot, but he was either too dense or too married to notice. After that she never even looked his direction again.

When the crowd in the tavern began to thin out for the evening, Una found herself sitting at a table with one of the regulars, idly chatting. Meen-Na stopped by the table and dropped off another pint of ale with a chaser. “From the gentleman in the corner,” Meen-Na said, a knowing smile playing on her reptilian lips.

Una looked, and there sat that same dark-haired young Imperial she had noticed hours earlier, reading his book. He glanced up to see Una looking at him and smiled. This one, she decided, had confidence, and since the Nord had ignored her – in fact, she realized now, he seemed to have left – she might as well see where it led.

Downing the whiskey, Una took up the ale and walked over to the young stranger’s table. He looked to be about fifteen years her junior, which was just about right. Short, black hair framed an olive-colored face with spectacular green eyes. He had angular features and high cheekbones, with a sharp jawline that was cleanly shaven. The way he sat poised with his shoulders back and his head high, the man oozed not just confidence, but a certain amount of nonchalant aplomb. He was sharply dressed in dark, fitted clothing that highlighted his lithe, wiry physique.

"Thank you for the drink,” Una offered, sitting down in the empty chair opposite him.

“You’re welcome,” he said, smiling a little more warmly. His eyes positively danced in the firelight. “You looked to be having a good time before, and it seemed a shame to see it come to an end prematurely.”

Una cocked an eyebrow at that. “Oh? Have you been watching me?”

“I must admit, I have,” the stranger said without missing a beat. His voice was smoky and even, but surprisingly deep. Each word carefully considered. Not at all what Una expected from someone so young. “You’re the most beautiful woman in here tonight. You have an air about you, a… poise… that other women lack. It was an enjoyable distraction from this frightfully boring book I’ve been reading.”

Taken aback, Una couldn’t stop herself from grinning at the unexpected compliment. Using a moment to compose herself, she brushed her hair back over one ear and leaned a little closer to the stranger. “Is this how you always pick up women?”

Now it was the stranger’s turn to smile self-consciously. “No. This is… a first.”

“I don’t believe you.”

The man shrugged his shoulders, but looked Una directly in the eye. “I can’t help that, I suppose, but I’ve no reason to lie to you.”

Una pulled her chair closer to the table, took another sip of her ale, and returned the look. “All right, then. Do you have a name?”

The young man carefully closed his book and set it down on the table in front of him, before leaning back in his seat. The dark tunic he was wearing, Una saw, was actually covered by a leather jerkin, and she could just make out, over his left breast, the device of the Colovian Estates. “My name is Ris,” he said.

Una felt her heart jump into her throat at the name, a panic rising inside her. She looked away quickly, at the table, at the pint of ale in her hand, at the bard in the corner, at anything else. She had to hide the dread she knew must be showing on her face, in her eyes. She felt so foolish all of a sudden. How could she have been so stupid as to come here? Practically everyone who knew her knew that she liked to go to the Lather and Song in the evenings. Of course he was going to come here looking for her! Resigned to face whatever might be coming, Una sat, shoulders slumped, and waited for the inevitable.

Ris took a sip of the ale in front of him and asked, “What about you? What’s your name?”

He doesn’t know who I am! The startling thought raced into her mind unbidden, but Una latched onto it. She exhaled slowly to calm her nerves, and a chance plan formed in her mind. It could work. It had to work. She returned her gaze to Ris and looked directly into his beautiful green eyes, and smiled. “My name is Livia.”

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Skingrad, Colovia. Eight days earlier.

It hadn’t taken much convincing to get this far. A couple of hints about recent skooma deals rumored to have taken place in Hackdirt, and the feeble-minded old Dunmer had let Ris right in, even shown him to the drawing room. When this was over, maybe Ris would give the porter a few coins for his trouble.

The room was unusually dark for a drawing room, but, Ris reflected, the owner likely hadn’t been expecting company. A fire burned at one end, in what seemed a vain attempt to ward off the cool, damp air. Candelabras along the walls provided dim yellow light, highlighting the ornate tapestries that decorated sections of the walls, as well as certain of the more interesting artifacts on the room’s many shelves.

“Ris Civello,” came a sandpapery voice from behind him. “I had heard you were in town. What can I do for you?”

Ris turned his attention from the strange, orange-bronze Dwemer artifact he had been admiring and appraised the older man. Gaulterius Nirol looked rumpled, from head to toe, dressed in a faded green tunic adorned with yellow trim, plain trousers, and shoes that had seen better days. Hardly the picture of wealth and adventure Ris had first met three years ago. As the sole inheritor of his family’s large mine, Gaulterius had been running the business for nearly forty years, using most of the money to fund sportive expeditions across Tamriel in search of ancient treasures, trophies, and whatever else sparked his interest that year. Now, though, Gaulterius just looked like a withdrawn old man, shorn of his former élan vital. “Hello, Gaulterius,” said Ris. “I’m here because I need some information.”

Gaulterius grunted. “I have plenty of that, but like as not it won’t do you much good.” The older man uncorked a brown glass bottle from the small bar and poured himself a drink. “Should I pour you one? It’s brandy.” Ris nodded and took the offered cup from Gaulterius’s weathered hand. “Sit,” Gaulterius insisted, gesturing to a chair.

Ris did as he was told, taking a sturdy, but elaborately carved chair near the fireplace. He waited for Gaulterius to take his own seat before picking up where he had left off. “Who are you selling to these days?”

“That’s none of your damned business,” Gaulterius answered, smiling.

“I’m making it my business,” said Ris, levelling his gaze on the older man, making it clear that this was not a social call.

Gaulterius eyed the young Imperial carefully, considering his options. It didn’t take him long to settle on straightforward honesty. “I started selling exclusively to Colovian smiths last year.”

“Be more specific,” said Ris.

Gaulterius rubbed a hand across his gray beard. “Well, let’s see. There’s the garrisons at Rayles and Sancre Tor, of course. Old Clevellus down in Hackdirt always buys a little. I sell to Pustula Acilius at Carmala and to Millona Logellus at Ontus…”

“Anyone in Chorrol?” Ris interrupted.

“Of course.”

“Who?”

Gaulterius shifted uncomfortably. “I only sell through Una Maro in Chorrol. What she does with it all, I couldn’t really say. She resells ore within the city on behalf of any number of miners.”

Ris took a sip of the brandy and pondered this for a moment. “How about Imperial City?”

“I haven’t done business with anyone there for years,” said Gaulterius, giving a shrug.

“I see. What about necromancers? Daedra worshippers?” Ris asked.

Gaulterius recoiled reflexively. His voice grew softer and hoarse when he answered. “Divines, no. Are you insane, boy? Do you have any idea what those people are doing?” Seeing that Ris had no answer to that, he continued, “I’ve heard they’re sacrificing people to Molag Bal. By the dozens! Every day, people disappear from the roads, from their own houses even, and they’re never seen again. I would have to be out of my mind to help them.”

Skeptical of this answer, Ris replied simply: “I have no idea what the followers of Molag Bal are up to. What I do know is that crates of iron ore and corundum bearing the seal of your mining concern have ended up in their hands.”

“Stendarr, have mercy! You can’t be serious,” was all Gaulterius could say. Ris eyed the old man over the rim of his cup, but said nothing. After a few seconds, Gaulterius drained his own cup and set it down loudly on a small table by his chair. “Tell you what, let’s have a look at my books. We’re very careful to detail exactly what we take out of the mine, and every sale is carefully recorded. You can see it for yourself.”

“And how do I know your records are accurate? That you haven’t altered them?” asked Ris.

Being accused of selling iron to Daedra worshippers was one thing, but the insinuation that he was a sloppy businessman was too much for Gaulterius. He sat up straight in his chair and looked Ris directly in the eye. “Don’t be a fool. You don’t get rich off an iron mine by being careless, young man. Attention to detail is every bit as important for me as it is for the smiths who work my ore.”

The younger Imperial inclined his head. “My apologies. Let’s have a look at your books.”

The old miner’s claim turned out to be no idle banter. Gaulterius showed Ris how the ore was weighed, measured, and packed. Records for the past two years of daily hauls and sales were taken down and carefully reviewed, line by line. After six hours of careful study, half a bottle of brandy, and a hasty meal brought to them by the Dunmer servant, Ris closed the last logbook and rubbed his eyes. “Tell me about Una Maro,” he said.

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Part II

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