I jerked awake at the sound of the calm voice and looked around in the near darkness of my room. Indeed, the voice had not been part of my dream, but evidently belonged to the figure standing placidly beside my bed. I had no idea how the man had got past the locked door without waking me, for contrary to his observation I am normally a fairly light sleeper.
I slipped out of my bed and glanced at the stranger, who stood serenely in the centre of the small room, hands loosely at his side with the palms turned slightly outward to show he was unarmed. He very conspicuously made no move to threaten me. Obviously he had not come to kill me, for he could easily have done that without waking me.
The man was of average height and looked slim, but well trained. He wore a plain black robe with the hood hiding most of his face. He was human, probably Breton or Imperial, although his accent when he had spoken indicated the latter. From what I could see of his face, he appeared to be of middle age and quite handsome. There was, however, a cold glint, a certain hardness to his eyes which did not elude me even in the poor light and the shadow of his hood.
He was clearly expecting me to say something, so I remained silent. In my experience, it is often much easier to get people to talk with a well-placed silence than with questions. Silence is something few can stand, so people tend to fill it with chatter. Folding my arms in front of my chest, I waited for the stranger to speak.
The man in the dark robe nodded appreciatively. "You keep a clear head in the face of the unexpected", he observed. "I like that. It confirms that my decision to seek you out was the right one." He paused for a moment, giving me the opportunity to reply. When I did not, he smiled thinly. "You prefer silence, then? As do I, my dear child. As do I. For is silence not the symphony of death, the orchestration of Sithis himself? Ironic, then, that I come to you now as Speaker for the Dark Brotherhood. My name is Lucien Lachance, and my voice is the will of the Night Mother."
That was a surprise. Of course I had heard of the assassins - after all, who had not? That they were in the habit of stopping by in the middle of the night for a little chat was news to me, however. Yet despite his rather flowery manner of speech I did not mistake the stranger for a harmless fool. This man was dangerous, that much was evident.
"I see that I have got your attention." A note of irony had crept into the cultivated, well modulated voice. "I have come here bearing an offer. You have, of course, heard of the Dark Brotherhood. As a Speaker, I am a member of the Black Hand, our organisation's ruling body. One of my duties involves watching out for new... talents. Such as you."
Ah. Now things were starting to get clearer. So this feeling I had been having the last few days, the feeling that someone was watching me, had not been mere paranoia. Doubtlessly Lachance had also witnessed my activities earlier this night. His next words confirmed my thoughts.
"I have watched you for several days now", he continued. "You work alone, relying on nobody but yourself. You plan your moves carefully. And you have a quick and efficient way to deal with... contingencies." He smiled slightly. "These are qualities we value in our associates. The Night Mother, too, has been watching, and she is most pleased. So this is why I am here tonight: to offer you a chance to enter a rather unique community - or family, as we like to call it."
I raised an eyebrow questioningly and decided that it was time to speak. "What exactly do you want?"
"Ah, so you do have a voice after all", he remarked. "What we ask of you is really a simple matter. Your decision to join or not to join the Brotherhood need not be immediate. Take some time to think about it. Should you decide to accept our offer, there is a small task we require of you, just a formality." He reached into the sleeve of his robe and slowly withdrew a dagger. With a careful, deliberate movement, he set it down on the table next to him.
"This is a virgin blade", he explained. "It has never tasted blood, and your task is to bloody it. Are you by any chance familiar with a place called 'The Inn of Ill Omen'?"
I nodded. "I know where it is."
"Excellent. Now, that inn is the temporary home of one Rufio. He has sought refuge there and is hiding in his room, sleeping his days away. Rufio has been marked for death, and you shall execute him. He is an old man, and drunk most of the time, so it should be no problem for you to simply kill him in his sleep - if you so choose. In what manner you dispose of him is irrelevant to us. Once you have completed the task, I will know of it, and I will contact you again."
I looked at him thoughtfully. "Why should I wish to join your... family?"
He regarded me benignly. "As I said, we are family. We offer you a home, shelter, acceptance... and of course a chance to hone your talents and to employ them gainfully. Should wealth interest you, we can provide that in exchange for your services. Should your tastes run in another direction, I am sure we can accommodate them as well. The Brotherhood is, above all, a community of like-minded individuals, and I am quite confident you would fit in very well with Sithis' children."
I frowned. This was the second time he had mentioned the name. "Sithis?"
Lachance's voice took on a reverential tone. "Sithis is our Dread Father, and the Night Mother is his bride. We, the Dark Brotherhood, are their children. Sithis has many names. Chaos. Doom. Discord. Sithis is... the Void. Those who anger him suffer a dark fate, but his children he loves and protects."
This sounded a little dubious to me. I had never been very religious, and could not even remember the last time I had attended a service in Chapel. Normally I would have found Lachance's words pompous, but somehow, perhaps because of the complete sincerity with which he spoke them, they struck a chord within me. Slowly, I nodded. "I will think about it."
Lachance smiled. "That is all I ask for now, dear lady. Then I will take my leave, and let you return to your well-deserved sleep." He bowed slightly. "Until we meet again." Before my eyes, he shimmered slightly and vanished. A moment later, my front door opened, then closed again noiselessly.
It seemed rather pointless, but out of habit I relocked the door before striking a light and turning to study the gift my strange visitor had left behind.
The dagger gleamed dully in the flickering light of my candle. It was a valuable blade, that much was obvious. It had been crafted from the black metal known as ebony, and inlaid with gold wire in an intricate pattern. Ebony weapons were expensive, and I had never touched, much less owned one in my life. Gingerly I reached out and picked it up. It was surprisingly heavy, but perfectly balanced, the blade honed to razor sharpness. It would cut through flesh like paper, probably even through bone.
I put the dagger down and extinguished the candle again before lying down on my bed. I folded my hands behind my head and replayed the entire incident in my mind. I did not have the slightest doubt that Lachance really was who he had said he was - the manner of his entrance was enough to convince me. It was also obvious that he really had been watching me. My business tonight had taken me not far from my humble abode in the Imperial City's Waterfront district. A new ship had arrived at the docks earlier today, and the crates the porters had carried from her hull into one of the warehouses had looked very interesting. I had decided that they were interesting enough to merit a closer look, and shortly after midnight had quietly let myself into the warehouse to investigate their contents. Unfortunately I had not counted on the watchman sleeping in the warehouse, and much less on his being sober for once. I had been forced to silence him with my blade, that probably being the "contingency" Lachance had referred to. I could not but wonder just how close the assassin had been all the while - and I had not noticed a thing except for a slightly tight feeling between my shoulder blades.
I did not see myself as a professional killer; in fact, tonight had been the first time I had ever murdered someone in cold blood, and I had been surprised at how easy it had been. My sleep, until the unexpected interruption, had been fairly untroubled. I found myself seriously considering Lachance's offer. The Dark Brotherhood had a reputation for cruelty, true, but they were also known to be efficient and loyal to each other. Much as I hated to admit it, Lachance's offer of a home rather appealed to me. The hovel I called home right now was definitely not the kind of place I wanted to spend my remaining days in. I had well noticed the pitiful and slightly condescending expression on Lachance's face as he had looked around. And he had all but promised that, if I agreed to work for the Brotherhood, I would soon be able to afford something better, like, for example, a house with a proper floor and sound walls. That alone was worth giving the matter serious thought.
With a sigh, I closed my eyes again and tried to go back to sleep. Lachance had said that I need not hurry my decision, so I would sleep over the whole matter. Tomorrow or the day after would be soon enough to decide whether or not to visit the Inn of Ill Omen.
Quite predictably, the next evening found me on the road to Bravil. The Inn of Ill Omen was situated about halfway between the Imperial City and Bravil in the forest. I had never slept at the place, instead preferring the nearby Faregyl Inn on the few occasions when I had travelled this way and been forced to spend the night somewhere. The Faregyl was a fairly nice, clean place, and somehow the thought of sleeping in a house named Ill Omen had not exactly appealed to me. I had, however, stopped there for a drink a couple of months ago and so knew the rough layout of the rooms.
It was well after dark when I arrived at the inn. It was a rather shabby two storey building next to the Green Road, built from rough planks and with narrow slits for windows. The shutters were closed, but a warm, golden light filtered through the cracks in the ground floor shutters. The upper floor, where I assumed the guests' rooms were, lay in darkness.
No horses were tethered outside, but of course some travellers might have arrived on foot. I tried to peek through a crack in one of the shutters, but it was too narrow to discern anything. I pressed my ear against it and strained to listen, but could hear nothing. Good, there appeared to be no patrons present. That would make everything a lot easier.
I slowly circled the building, hoping to find a window at the back through which I might enter unobtrusively. The back of the house, however, looked no different from the front, and I reluctantly concluded that the front door was the only entrance. My course of action, therefore, was clear: I had to wait until the innkeeper went to sleep, then let myself in and search for Rufio. Unless the man was a very quiet sort, he was not present in the common room, and from what Lachance had told me about him, I guessed him to be in his room, probably asleep.
I waited patiently until just before midnight, when the lights in the common room finally dimmed. I could hear the innkeeper lock the door and decided to wait another half hour before entering to be sure he really was asleep. At last, after listening again at the window to make sure everything was quiet, I took out my lockpicks and silently opened the front door.
The lock was quite easy to pick, evidently the innkeeper could not afford a really good one. I opened the door slowly to prevent it from creaking, and slipped inside.
The dying fire in the fireplace provided little light, but by now my eyes were well accustomed to the near darkness, and I looked around. The inn's ground floor consisted mainly of one large room with a bar, a fireplace and several rough wooden tables with rickety chairs. It was obvious at a glance that the inn was not well enough frequented that its owner could afford more than the necessary repairs. The floor was strewn with rushes badly in need of changing, and the smell of stale ale hung heavily in the air, mingling with the smoke from the fireplace. On the left side of the room beside the bar, a wooden stair ascended to the first floor. The only other exit from the room was a trapdoor right next to the entrance which presumably lead to the storage rooms.
I took a long look at the stairs before gingerly setting my foot on it. The construction looked like it might squeak if I so much as gazed at it, and ascending noiselessly would prove a challenge. I kept close to the wall and slowly lowered my full weight onto the first step. Everything remained silent. Steadying myself against the wall I cautiously tried the next step before trusting it. The wood emitted a soft groan, and I froze instantly, but no one seemed to have heard anything. Carefully, pausing on every step, I crept upstairs to the first floor.
The stairs led to a short corridor with two doors. Both were locked, but since the locks were of even lower quality than the one on the front door, I had them picked in the blink of an eye. When I opened the doors, however, I was disappointed: behind them lay two identical rooms, little more than closets, whose only furnishing consisted of a bed and a chest each. The beds looked none too clean and were empty; indeed, from the layer of dust on the floor it was evident that both rooms had not been used in a long while. Wherever Rufio was, it was a fair bet that he had never set foot in the guests' rooms. Silently, I closed the doors and made my way back downstairs.
Now there remained only the basement to be investigated. Since the innkeeper had not been upstairs and was nowhere to be seen in the common room either, there had to be some kind of living quarters in the cellar. If I was really unlucky, he shared a room with Rufio, which would make my task considerably harder. With a little sigh, I tried the trapdoor, found it to be unlocked, and descended.
The inn's basement consisted of a corridor lined with rough-hewn rocks. Two doors led from it, and two small lamps on the wall cast a flickering light. The floor was quite dusty, and the corners were full of cobwebs. The lit lamps, however, indicated that the cellar was no mere storeroom. I stepped up to the nearest door and opened it. It creaked slightly, and I froze. Nothing moved behind it, however, and ever so slowly I opened it wide enough for me to slip through.
I waited a moment for my eyes to adjust to the near darkness in the room behind. I was immediately aware that I was not alone, for the sound of regular, heavy breathing came from somewhere to my left. Slowly I could make out shapes in the darkness, a table, a chair, a chest and a bed, in which a figure was lying. The odour of stale ale and mead permeated the air and mingled with the distinct musty smell of an unaired basement and the more acrid one of unwashed clothes and bodies. The latter smell intensified as I stepped closer to the bed.
An elderly man was lying between the sheets which, like himself, did not appear to have been recently washed. He was fast asleep and, from the smell of him, quite drunk. I wrinkled my nose and slid the ebony blade from my belt.
I started to draw a deep breath, but stopped quickly as a new wave of the stench assaulted my nostrils. Breathing more shallowly, I steadied myself. There was still time to put the dagger back into my belt and walk away, but the thought did not register as a real option in my mind. From the moment I had stepped through the door of my cottage earlier this evening, I had known that I would kill again tonight.
Another step brought me closer to the bed. The old man, presumably Rufio, snorted briefly, but did not move. He was lying on his side, one arm dangling from the bed. I bent over him, took a careful aim and with a fluid motion slid the ebony dagger between his ribs. As I had supposed, skin and flesh offered little resistance to the razor sharp edge. The blade found his heart, Rufio jerked once, then grew still. A red stain slowly spread beneath him on the mattress, but to my surprise there was much less blood than I had expected.
I reached across and lightly laid a finger on Rufio's neck. There was no pulse. Carefully, I wiped the ebony blade on the sheet, then resheathed it. Without another look at the fresh corpse, I turned and walked from the room. Within minutes, I was back on the road to the Imperial City.
Dawn was already lighting the sky in the east, imbuing the fog over Lake Rumare with a soft rosy glow by the time I finally closed the door of my cottage behind me. I was tired and looking forward to my bed. Strangely enough, what I had done tonight did not bother me at all. In fact, I felt nothing whatsoever - no revulsion, no remorse, no elation. I had been told that some murderers experienced a sensation of power after the kill, a strange kind of exhilaration. Others were afterwards moved by doubts, perhaps even by pity for the victim and loathing for themselves. I felt nothing like that. I had been given a job to do, I had accomplished it, presumably to the satisfaction of my employers, and that was that. I carefully placed the ebony dagger on the table, in the exact spot where Lachance had put it the night before, then went to sleep.
I felt like I had barely fallen asleep when I sensed a presence nearby and woke up. With some effort I opened my eyes and found Lachance standing in the middle of the room, the ebony dagger in his hands. He was looking at the blade and nodding appreciatively.
"So, the deed is done", he said. "How do I know this? You will find that the Dark Brotherhood knows a great many things. For you are now part of the family."
I slipped from my bed and stood before him. He handed me the weapon, hilt first. "Keep it, it is now yours. You have earned it, and several other things."
I accepted the blade silently. Lachance chuckled quietly. "Still not very talkative, hmm? No matter. Now heed these words. The slaying of Rufio was the signing of a covenant. The manner of execution, your signature. Rufio's blood, the ink." As before, I noticed his marked tendency for flowery speech - despite his earlier proclamation that he, too, preferred silence. However, he gave the impression of being completely sincere, and somehow his choice of words seemed appropriate for the situation.
"You must now go to the city of Cheydinhal, to the abandoned house near the eastern wall. Enter the basement, and attempt to open the black door. You will be asked a question. Answer thusly: 'Sanguine, my brother.' You will be admitted to the sanctuary, where you will report to Ocheeva. She is in command there and will tell you everything you need to know.
"We must now take our leave of each other, you and I, for there is much work to be done. I'll be following... your progress. Welcome to the family."
With that, he shimmered and vanished just like before. The door opened and closed, and I was alone again. I stared at the door for a moment before dropping back into my bed. It was a long way to Cheydinhal, and I wanted to be rested when I began the journey to my new life.