It all came down to the uniform. They'd drilled that fact into Maiko's head since he'd been a raw recruit: anything you did for the legion had to be in legion colors.
Of course, there'd been some guys who did stupid things in legion colors. Most of them smartened up after the first flogging. As for Maiko, keeping his nose clean just came natural. Dad always said it was usually easier to follow the rules. Maiko hadn't always seen eye to eye with his dad, but the old man had been right about that.
Maiko was polishing the metal of his cuirass when Larrius Varo marched up to him that morning, the dawn just a bright sliver above the jagged eastern ridges.
"Agent Maiko," Varro said by way of greeting.
"Yes, sir!" Maiko stood and saluted.
"Go to Balmora today. You'll be paying your contacts a surprise visit."
"Understood, sir. Is there anything going on?"
Varro gave an arch smile. "That's what we're trying to find out! Speak to your liaisons in the Hlaalu constabulary but also get in touch with some of your... unofficial sources. Write a full report on the state of the city and have it on my desk by sun-up tomorrow. Should be pretty routine."
Maiko saluted again. He always liked heading off to Balmora. Gave him a chance to get a feel for the city he protected, see who was who and what was what. Not to mention some extra time with Jolda.
And that meant his uniform had to be spotless.
It was a bit ridiculous, he thought as he marched out from Moonmoth Legion Fort in full array. Half the time the uniform made him feel more like an advertisement than a soldier. But maybe that was a good thing. Maybe as long as the ads worked he and his buddies wouldn't have to go into battle.
He'd seen battle once. Once was enough.
Maiko's meeting with Captain Hleren Llarlo that day went exactly like all the others. They exchanged formalities, Hleren flattered him for a minute or so, and then reported that everything was fine.
Which was what Varro expected Hleren to report. The guy was part of Great House Hlaalu so he'd say anything to make Great House Hlaalu look good. Same as any other great house, or the legion itself for that matter. Boosting your boss was always part of the job. So Maiko nodded, said he was happy to hear that, and walked out of the guard precinct in search of more honest answers.
And he could sort of get those from Kavon.
He found Kavon in his usual post atop one of the blocky towers that ringed High Town. The Dunmer guard slumped in a chair, dozing in the shade of a canvas tarp. He didn't hear Maiko open the trap door and clamber up from the ladder.
Maiko looked out onto the humming city before him. From up there Balmora was as neat and tidy as a paper map, the streets straight and the houses clustered into squares. The Hlaalu had their problems but they sure made their cities simple to navigate. Things only got complicated up close. But up on the tower, with a cool autumn breeze chasing away the volcanic smog, it looked safe and understandable, a problem easy to solve.
"Oh, hey Maiko!"
He turned around to see Kavon waking up from his nap. Talking with the guy got annoying, but Maiko knew how to handle him.
"Hi, Kavon. Thought I'd check on you since I was in town."
Kavon yawned. "Cool. Hey, you guys hiring up in the legion?"
"Moonmoth's already got a full garrison. Someone told me that Fort Darius up in Gnisis is accepting recruits. Why, you planning on signing up?"
Might do Kavon some good, Maiko thought. Legion discipline worked wonders. On the other hand, it'd be easy for a guy like him to get in over his head. And crooked officers loved dumb rookies.
"I need more money, bro!" Kavon sighed. "I tried this thing with the Fighters Guild a month ago, but it didn't really work out. And I gotta get something nice for my girl."
“Legion’s not your best bet if you just want more money. Commission’s eight years, minimum.”
"What kinds of things does she like?" Maiko asked.
Maiko had actually gotten a little packet of Hammerfell spices for Jolda. She missed Hammerfell, and the smile she'd have on her face when he handed her a little piece of her homeland would make it all worthwhile.
"I dunno. Girl stuff."
Kavon scratched his head. "Uh, like, dresses?"
"Any particular color?"
"I don't know that kind of thing, man!"
"You'd better start learning. But if you want something cheap, maybe some flowers? Saw a lot of stonepetals blooming on the way here."
"Huh, yeah that'll work until I can get something nicer. Like, uh..." he trailed off, lost in thought. "You think Briltasi would like a helmet?"
Maiko shrugged. "Only one way to find out. So what kind of work did you try to do with the guild?"
"They wanted me to kill a rat out in Labor Town. But then some other guys tried to kill it and I kinda get confused on what happened after that."
Labor Town still had a rat problem.
"You guys don't go down to Labor Town much," Maiko said.
"Nah. No need."
"But how do you know there's no need unless you go yourself?"
Kavon pulled back. "Hey, that's what my boss says! We just take care of the important stuff."
"Don't you live in Labor Town?"
"Yeah, but I spend most of my time up here. Or with my babe, you know." Kavon chuckled. “Labor Town sucks, so why would I want to be there?”
Varro worried that the lack of investment in Labor Town might lead to bigger problems down the line, and Maiko could see where he was coming from. This demanded a closer look.
But first, he wanted to pay Jolda a visit.
Not even the most outlandish outlanders attracted much attention in the Lucky Lockup. It was one place in Balmora that visitors could call their own. Not that a stake in it meant much; most patrons drifted through like seeds on the wind, coming in and out on boat, on strider, and on foot.
Jolda reached out across the table and grasped Maiko's steel-clad left hand, her fingers running along the grooves in the metal.
"You know, I don't think you need to worry about the uniform here, Maiko," she said, a mischievous smile on her lips as she looked right into his eyes.
Maiko's mouth went dry. He still didn't know how he'd managed to get a girl as drop-dead gorgeous as Jolda. "Guess you're right," he said.
He glanced around one more time just to be safe. Nobody here except bored traders and a few curiosity seekers. Low chance of danger. He unbuckled one gauntlet and then another, tension growing between his shoulder blades as he did.
"Wearing your uniform is part of the job!" echoed the voice of his old drill sergeant.
Putting the gauntlets on the side of the table, he took Jolda's hands into his own and lost himself in the sensation of skin on skin.
"Just how much of the uniform you want me to take off?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.
Jolda giggled, then smirked. "I think the gloves are good for now. As for the rest? We'll see what the future brings."
The future. Just how much did they have, anyway? Maybe it was best to leave well enough alone for the time being.
"Have you told your dad about us?" he went ahead and asked, half-regretting it as soon as he opened his mouth but wanting an answer all the same.
Her hands stiffened. "Uh, I'm working on that."
"So no, in other words."
She shook her head, eyes downcast.
"No, Maiko. It's not fair for you to feel like you have to hide this." She paused, as if concentrating. "I'm not worried that he'll say no. He likes you."
"Then what's the problem?"
She sighed. "It's hard to explain. I really like you, Maiko. But you're legion. I have no idea how long you'll be in the area. And if my dad finds out I'm dating a soldier, he'll probably want us to marry."
"Okay, so we tie the knot and you can go with me. Who knows where I'll be posted next? Could be the glitz and glamor of the Imperial City." He chuckled. "Or maybe some fort in the middle of Black Marsh."
"I want to go back to Hammerfell. I miss seeing other Redguards. And everything I'm learning here I can use back home."
"Yeah. Back home." Home for her, anyway. Maiko was Redguard by ethnicity but he'd been born and raised just outside the Imperial City. Never set foot in Hammerfell. He wouldn't mind going there. He'd also be okay with not going there. The legion was home for him, more or less.
They were quiet for a moment, listening to the buzz of conversation around them. Maiko took it all in out of habit: EEC caravanners here to pick up Caldera's ore and ship it elsewhere; saltrice and comberry merchants bringing in the goods from the Ascadian Isles; sharp-eyed traders in exotic wares fresh from Seyda Neen.
Business as usual in Balmora. Something else he could add to his report.
He'd drifted. "Sorry, Jolda. Uh, okay. You know, if I get to an officer rank I can petition to be sent to Hammerfell."
"Will they honor that?"
"Maybe. It won't be up to me. But there'd be a chance."
Jolda sighed. "It's important to me. I never wanted to go to Morrowind. My dad's always talking about how I have to be a perfect citizen of the Empire here, both to impress the Imperials and to set a good example for the Dunmer—not that most Dunmer even care. In Hammerfell I could just be me."
Maiko nodded. "I just have to be a good soldier. Doesn't matter where in Tamriel I am. Guess that makes things simpler." Maiko wasn't so sure that was true, actually, but he didn't press the issue.
"How long do you think it'll take until you become an officer?" Jolda asked.
She gave him a searching look. "How long is a while?"
"Couple years at least. I'm about as high-up as I can be, but it doesn’t matter how good you are: you don't get an officer's commission at my age."
"I know." She took her hands out from his, and then grabbed them, her fingers pressing into his flesh. "I guess we just have to see how it goes."
"Should be good for a few more years," he said. "Varro and Radd both like having me around."
Truth was though, if the Legion wanted him elsewhere, they'd give him a few days' notice at most.
The problem with the uniform was that nobody acted their honest selves when they knew a soldier was around. Maybe they'd get on their knees and praise him for being part of the thin line that defended Tamrielic civilization from chaos and barbarism. Maybe they'd clam up because they feared saying the wrong thing might bring the wrath of the legion down on the heads of them and their families.
But Maiko was just Maiko: a promising soldier, but not one with any real authority. He wouldn't be the one to decide where the legion held the line or where it pulled back. Not unless he made it to general, and that didn't look too likely. Generals didn't have to be of noble birth—but it sure helped.
The uniform spoke louder than him. This meant he had to earn people's trust to get any real info. Trick was to figure out some common ground. He usually found something.
Maiko walked through the afternoon bustle of Labor Town, on the edge of the Dyer's Square and its fumes. A rainbow of colors stained the flagstone as workers dipped cloths into big clay pots brimming with pungent dyes. The crowds gave way for him—really, for his uniform.
Labor Town was rough by Balmora standards, but not too bad. It sure beat the slums of Dragonstar East back in the Reach, with its reeking mud streets and crumbling stone houses all cowering in the shadow of the jarl's castle. He'd learned a lot when his unit had been called to town during the riot. Some of it he didn't care to remember. But for the most part it proved useful.
He found his contact in an aimless little alley a block north, sitting cross legged on a filthy guar hide laden with charms of wood and bone. Dark eyes peered out from a face as round and pale as the moon, her shaggy black hair blending into her shapeless black robes.
"Droagach," he said, using the Reachman greeting.
Andra snorted. "Your accent still sucks. The way you say it makes it sound like you're coughing up your guts. After me: dro-a-gach."
He tried. The mixed d and t in the first phoneme always eluded him. Andra snickered.
"Sorry, but that's probably the best I can do. I'm Redguard, but my tongue's Imperial," Maiko said.
"Nah. You don't lie enough for that."
He laughed. "How's business?"
"It's okay. Temple priests haven't hassled me much lately."
Andra broke no law, but the Tribunal Temple didn't look fondly on good luck charms sold by outlanders.
"Good," Maiko said. "What about life in general?"
"It sucks. Things are breaking down here and no one's fixing it."
"Sounds familiar. I hear there's a rat problem?"
Andra nodded. "Yeah, a big one. Guards won't do anything and the Fighters Guild's too expensive for most of us. Though sometimes I can turn a problem into an asset." She pointed at a polished rat skull on her rug. "I decided it'd be a fertility charm, what with how rats breed."
"Good thinking. Are the rats attacking people?"
"Oh yeah. Pretty sure they killed Old Maba a week ago. Something ripped her throat out, anyway."
Worse than he'd expected. "I'll let my boss know. Anything else?"
"Been seeing rich Dunmer strut around at night. They talk to some of the young Dunmer toughs here. Might be Camonna Tong outsourcing their dirty work again, but I can't be sure."
"Okay." Maiko reached into his coin purse and took out a fistful of coins, which he handed to her.
"You want my rat skull?" Andra asked, her eyes suddenly big and wistful.
Maiko grinned. "Don't think I need a fertility charm. Not yet, anyway."
"Oh come on, this is all junk. Only rubes think I sell real charms. I'd just feel better if I were selling something for the money. Professional pride, you understand."
They made the exchange, Maiko putting the rat skull in one of his pouches. Thanking Andra, he set off on the long walk home.
Corruption, rat infestations, and organized crime: all pretty normal for Balmora. He'd put it down in his report and make his recommendation.
He just hoped someone would let him do something about it.