Chapter 3: A Watery Grave
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"Warmest greetings to you", the vampire said. "I trust you've already spoken with Ocheeva? I am Vicente Valtieri."

I tried to regain my composure. Valtieri noticed my surprise and smiled wearily. "Please, do not let my appearance... unnerve you. The needs and Tenets of the Dark Brotherhood come before my own needs as a vampire."

I bowed my head slightly. "My apologies. It is true, I was surprised, but no offence was intended."

"None taken", he assured me, sounding slightly more cheerful. "Now, if you're ready to get to work, I can provide you with your first contract. If, however, you have questions to ask first, I will be happy to answer them."

He gestured invitingly towards an ornately carved armchair, and I sank into it. He sat down opposite me, and for the first time I had the opportunity to study him more closely.

Now that he was facing me, I noticed an intricately etched gold amulet he wore on a fine chain around his neck. I did not know whether it was magical, but it certainly was beautiful. However, my eyes were quickly drawn away from it and to his face.

It was hard to tell for certain, but he appeared to have been of middle age when he had been infected, and ruggedly handsome. Now, however, his cheeks were sunken and his skin stretched tautly over his bones, giving his face a somewhat skull-like appearance. When he spoke, I could catch a glimpse of his fangs, which appeared to be needle-sharp. His eyes, too, were slightly disturbing, the irises an indescribable hue somewhere between yellow, orange and red. His demeanour, however, was friendly, and I found myself relaxing somewhat.

I realized I was staring at him and blushed slightly. "I apologise again", I said contritely. "I am forgetting my manners, but I have only arrived half an hour ago and everything here is quite new for me."

He gave me a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, you'll settle in quickly. I hope Lucien Lachance has already given you a rough overview of our customs? And, above all, the Five Tenets?"

I shook my head. "He has not. But then", I added with a somewhat rueful smile, "I did not ask."

"Ah, yes", he mused. "Lucien described you as a quiet one. While the ability to remain silent is a commendable trait in an assassin, there are times when words will serve you better. The right words, of course." He bent forward to look me earnestly in the eyes. "Not all contracts depend solely on stealth", he said. "Sometimes, you will have to be at least as skilled an actress as you are a killer. You will need to talk to people, to gain their trust in order to get close enough to strike - or to gain information. Sometimes you will have to find your prey first, and asking the right people the right questions may be vital."

I followed his words attentively. While I still found his appearance somewhat unsettling, his voice was warm and gentle, and I actually enjoyed listening to him.

"I will have to learn, then", I concluded.

He nodded approvingly. "I can teach you a few tricks, but most of your skill will come from practice. Try talking to people, get them to like you enough that they tell you things. Little, unimportant things at first, like directions to a shop. Later, when you're feeling more secure, try for more private information. You will notice that most people will be glad to have someone to talk to, it's just a question of what strings to pull, so to speak."

I did not hold "most people" in particularly high esteem and said so. Valtieri chuckled softly. "How could one? But still, they provide us with contracts... and nourishment, in my case. But you, as I said, need not fear for your safety." He looked at me thoughtfully. "I should tell you about the Five Tenets, then you'll understand that you're perfectly safe. Usually Lachance gives the new family members at least some basic information, but since you so impressed him with your silence, it seems that this time the task falls to me."

He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "The Tenets", he began, "are the laws that guide and protect us, the rules we live by. Every Dark Brother and Dark Sister must abide by these rules, or risk consequences. Usually of a permanent nature.

"The Five Tenets are as follows: First: Never dishonour the Night Mother. To do so is to invoke the Wrath of Sithis. Second: Never betray the Dark Brotherhood or its secrets. To do so is to invoke the Wrath of Sithis. Third: Never disobey or refuse to carry out an order from a Dark Brotherhood superior. To do so is to invoke the Wrath of Sithis. Fourth: Never steal the possessions of a Dark Brother or Dark Sister. To do so is to invoke the Wrath of Sithis. Fifth: Never kill a Dark Brother or Dark Sister. To do so is to invoke the Wrath of Sithis."

His voice had taken on an almost hypnotic quality, like he was reciting a sacred text. When he had finished, he smiled at me. "So you see", he concluded, "our rules protect us even from each other."

"I am not afraid of you", I said softly, and realized at the same time that it was true.

For some reason, he seemed slightly taken aback, but the moment quickly passed. "Splendid", he said. "Then I'm sure we'll work well together." He looked at me quizzically. "I shall tell you a bit about how contracts work, and then we can discuss your first assignment, if you're ready." I nodded in agreement, and he continued: "A contract is a secret pact one enters into with the Dark Brotherhood. They provide us with gold, and we remove someone from existence. A contract is fulfilled by a skilled assassin such as yourself, who keeps the Dark Brotherhood's end of the bargain. While carrying out a contract, you may have the opportunity to earn a bonus if certain parameters are met."

I decided to risk a question. "Which parameters would that be?"

"Some contracts are straightforward", he explained. "Find the target, eliminate them, then return to the Sanctuary. No time limits or complications. However, many of our clients request that their contracts be carried out in a specific manner. A certain place, a certain method of elimination. We try to honor these requests whenever possible. After all, the Dark Brotherhood's reputation has been built on providing... good service. Any Brother or Sister who can complete a contract while following a specific request will receive a valuable bonus, oftentimes a powerful magic item."

That made sense to me. My mind returned to a question I had intended to ask earlier. "How does one contact the Brotherhood? There are dozens of rumours about... while some claim that an elaborate ritual is necessary, others maintain that leaving a message in the right spot is enough."

He shook his head. "It is not. To employ the services of the Dark Brotherhood, one must perform a ritual to the Night Mother. Only then will she heed their prayers for murder. It is an ancient rite, this Black Sacrament. All across the Empire, every day, people beseech the Night Mother to take the lives of others. After a person performs the ritual, they are contacted by a Speaker. Gold is exchanged, and the details are worked out. So it has always been."

I nodded slowly. "I am still struggling to understand it all", I confessed. "Lachance and Teinaava both tried to explain Sithis to me, yet I cannot say that I know more about him than I did before. And the Night Mother... there are many who believe she is just a myth."

Vicente snorted. "She most assuredly is not, even though she chooses not to interact with most people. The Night Mother speaks to only one member of the Dark Brotherhood - the Listener of the Black Hand. And when Our Lady speaks, death follows." He paused for a moment. "As for Sithis... Sithis is the darkness of time immemorial. He is no Daedra, and dwells not in the realm of Oblivion. No, Sithis is something altogether... different." He looked at his hands thoughtfully, then smiled reassuringly at me. "Don't trouble yourself trying to understand everything at once. It will come to you in time. For now, the important thing is that you are here, with your family. Accept a contract or two, learn how things work, and I'm sure you'll feel at home in no time at all."

I drew a deep breath. "You probably are right. Then I guess I am ready."

He seemed genuinely pleased. "Excellent. Now, I'm not sure how you feel about pirates, but you've got to kill one. A captain, in fact. On his ship. Surrounded by his crew. Interested?"

I inclined my head silently and waited for him to continue.

"Very well", he said with a smile. "Here is what you must do. Go to the Waterfront District of the Imperial City. There you will find a ship named the Marie Elena. Board the ship and find its captain, Gaston Tussaud. He'll probably be in his cabin, for he lets his first mate conduct all the business and only ventures outside if it can't be avoided. Eliminate Tussaud in any manner you see fit. As a pirate, Gaston Tussaud has certainly spilled his share of blood. Someone wants revenge, and they've hired us to extract it."

I listened and nodded, my mind already working on the problem. "I will have to find a way to board the ship undetected. I certainly cannot fight my way in against a horde of pirates."

"I should think not", he agreed. "The pirates have been moving a lot of cargo on board lately. You may be able to smuggle yourself on board in one of the packing crates. Or perhaps there is another way in. I would advise having a very careful look at the ship before moving, and it can't hurt to ask your Brothers and Sisters here for their opinion - they are experienced, after all."

"I will do that. Is there a deadline?" I grinned weakly at the unintended pun.

"Sort of. The Marie Elena will probably be in port for at least another week. That should be time enough for you to get there and find out what you need to know before striking."

I rose slowly, suddenly noticing how tired I was. "Then I will get some sleep, and set off in the morning."

"Do that, dear Sister. And please report to me when you get back."

"Of course."

He rose as well and turned back to whatever he had been doing at the desk. I left and closed the door behind me, this time handling it more carefully.

As I approached the stairs, I heard voices from above. A man and a woman seemed to be discussing something, and I slowed involuntarily.

"But why, Sister? What's the point? Why should anyone bother with all that sneaking and skulking?" A male voice, deep and rumbling. A woman answered him, sounding slightly weary as if they had had this same discussion countless times before.

"My dear Gogron, you are a life-taker for the Dark Brotherhood. Our very existence relies on shadow and deception. Do you not value our secrets?"

Gogron sighed. "Yes, yes, of course I value our secrets, and I have never betrayed them! But using stealth to kill... It's just so... weak."

"But Brother, what of the contracts that require subtlety! You must at least strive to earn the bonuses that are offered?" The woman, I thought, sounded a little like someone trying to educate a particularly stubborn child who simply refused to see the wisdom of his elders.

"Bonuses?" A laugh came from above, sounding like distant thunder. "Useless, I say! Gold and magical trinkets are no substitute for the freedom to slaughter anyone I please, at any time!"

The woman laughed, a light, silvery peal. "Oh Gogron", she said affectionately. "Your methods may be crude, but your heart is always in the right place."

During this strange exchange I had slowly mounted the stairs and now rounded the corner. The male voice, as I had already suspected, belonged to an Orc. His companion was a Bosmer woman, tall for one of her kind but of the slightly stocky build common with wood elves. She had honey-blonde hair and was dressed in an unbleached linen skirt, a white blouse and a quilted brown bodice. Over her shoulder she carried a bow and quiver.

The Orc towered over her (and me). His arms were about as thick as my thighs, and the heavy armour he wore enhanced the impression of a powerful fighter. It sported jagged edges everywhere and crooked, sharpened spikes along the shoulders, and looked almost to heavy for me to lift, much less wear. The metal gave off a dull, deep red glow. A large axe of the same material was strapped to his back. Gogron seemed not even to notice its weight. I had heard of such strange glowing armour - it was said to be of Daedric origin and even more expensive than ebony equipment. What Gogron was wearing was probably worth more gold than I had ever possessed in my life.

As I approached, the pair became aware of me and turned to face me. The Orc's broad face split into an even broader grin. "Now look who we have here", he boomed. "Welcome! Welcome to the family! I'd hug you, but Ocheeva told me not to." I felt intensely grateful to Ocheeva for her foresight. Gogron's hands looked like they could easily snap me in half, and a hug from him, however friendly his intentions, would probably have cracked my ribs. He noticed my slightly apprehensive look and his grin became even wider. "I know what you're thinking! Gogron, he's too big to be sneaky! Well you're right! Me, I like to just go in and hack my targets to pieces. Ha!"

His companion was not very successfully trying to hide her amusement. "We all have our little quirks, don't we", she remarked drily. "But let me welcome you, too. We have all been looking forward to your arrival. I'm Telaendril, and our big friend here is Gogron gro-Bolmog."

"I am..." I began. "Gwenvarys, yes", the Orc cut me off and beamed at me. "And you've already been to Vicente for your first contract?"

I nodded. "I will be off early tomorrow morning. My target is currently staying in the Imperial City."

"Who are you after?" Telaendril inquired curiously. I explained what Vicente had told me. "Pirates, eh?" she said. "They tend to be quick, and good with a blade, but don't favour armour. They're not fond of bows or spells, either."

I looked at her doubtfully. "I do not imagine there will be room enough to use a bow on the ship."

"Pah, bows", Gogron snorted. "Get up close and strike, that's what I say. And the great thing about killing a target up close and personal is you can talk to them before you do it! You know, say something scary!" Telaendril rolled her eyes as if she knew what came next and had had to listen to it a few times too often. Gogron pointedly took no notice, but continued enthusiastically. "For example, this one time, I had a contract to kill a little Nord girl at her birthday party. She asked me if I was the jester!" He roared with laughter. "So I said to her, 'No, I am a messenger of death.' You should have seen the look on her face!" He laughed again, obviously pleased with his wit.

I raised an eyebrow. "We get hired to kill children?"

Telaendril shrugged. "Occasionally. Do you have a problem with that?"

I shook my head. "No. I just cannot see the reason."

"Revenge, mostly", she explained. "In the case Gogron was just referring to, for about the fiftieth time", she cast a sidelong glance at him which he again ignored, "the girl was the only child of a rich Nord merchant who had just driven one of his competitors to ruin, and by rather... unsavoury methods, too. The man scraped together what remained of his wealth and used it to hire us. He explicitly did not want the father harmed - he wanted us to target the child while the parents were watching. Gogron, I hear, performed admirably, although he killed a few guards on the way out." Gogron ostentatiously cleaned his fingernails and did not look at her. "The child's mother committed suicide a few months later, leaving her husband broken and unable to deal with his affairs. Needless to say, his business rapidly went downhill. I suppose our client was pleased with the outcome."

"I should think he was", I said politely. "I hope my first contract will run as smoothly."

Gogron raised a hand as if to pat me reassuringly on the shoulder, but caught himself in time when he saw me flinch in anticipation. "You'll do fine, I'm sure", he said. "Be sure to stop by and tell me all about it when you come back."

"Yes, do", Telaendril added. "I have to be off now. Best of luck to you, Sister, and may Sithis guide your hand." She stood on her toes and kissed the Orc on the cheek, then turned and walked towards the well, propelled along by Gogron's affectionate pat on her behind.

When she was safely out of earshot, Gogron grinned again at me. "Don't look so surprised. Telaendril and me... well, you know." He winked suggestively.

I carefully kept a neutral face as my mind resolutely refused to follow the hint. This was something I did not even want to begin to picture. Besides, I firmly told myself, it was really none of my business. Fortunately.

I barely stifled a yawn. "Excuse me, Brother, but I should get some rest now. We will talk more when I return."

He nodded amiably. "Then sleep well, Sister, and happy hunting."

I retreated somewhat hastily before he forgot his restraint and did hug me after all. The living quarters were empty when I returned. Gratefully, I slumped onto my bed and almost at once fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

I awoke feeling slightly disoriented, my sense of time completely gone in the underground room. It took me a few moments to remember where I was and what I had to do. I stretched, rubbed my eyes and slowly got up. In the kitchen area I found some bread, cheese and fruit and sat down for a hearty breakfast.

"Good morning", a sleepy voice murmured behind me. I turned and saw Antoinetta sitting up in her bed and yawning hugely.

"I am sorry, did I wake you?" I asked.

She shook her head. "Not really. Mind if I join you for breakfast?" I gestured invitingly towards the table and she came and sat down opposite me. "So, where are you off to today?"

I explained about my contract, and she shuddered. "A ship... I've travelled by prison ship once. It was cramped and dark. There wasn't much room to move, but plenty of shadows to hide in." She toyed absently with a piece of bread. "You're right, though - the tricky part will be getting aboard undetected." She grimaced. "There are some in this Sanctuary who would recommend just storming the ship and killing everyone in the way..."

"I have met Gogron", I interrupted, grinning. "His methods have a certain rustic charm, but I am afraid they are not for me."

She giggled and took a bite from her bread. "I should think not", she said with her mouth full. "Anyway, his bad manners notwithstanding, it could be useful to see M'raaj-Dar before you leave. He might have a potion or a spell to help you reach the captain without being seen."

I finished my meal and stood. "Then I will do so now, and be on my way."

"Good luck, Sister", she said with a warm smile. "I hope you don't get killed." She blushed. "I mean... well, you know."

I grinned at her and went to look for the elusive and reputedly ill-mannered M'raaj-Dar.

I found him in the training area, casting frost balls at a wooden target. When I approached, he stopped and turned towards me, his feline face twisting in a sneer. "Well, look who's here. If it isn't the newest member of the family." I had always found Khajjit faces as hard to read as Argonian ones, but M'raaj-Dar was taking great care to ensure I could not mistake his expression for anything but disgust. "Let's get one thing straight", he went on before I had the chance to say anything. "The Tenets prevent me from killing you, but I don't have to like you. I'll provide you with spells and supplies, but only because Ocheeva is making me, and only in exchange for gold. This family doesn't need any outsiders." He spat out the last word like a deadly insult.

I regarded him impassively. "Then let us conduct our business quickly, and I will be on my way."

If my lack of emotion disappointed him, he did not show it. I surveyed what he had to offer, finally selecting two flasks containing an invisibility potion. I was well aware that the effect would dissipate the moment I tried to pick something up or open a door, let alone attack somebody, but I could not afford anything better and I hoped the potions would at least get me near my mark undetected. I carefully placed the bottles in my pack and left the unfriendly Khajjit to his exercise. He muttered something like "foul-smelling ape" under his breath, deliberately, I was certain, loudly enough for me to catch his words. I did not waste my breath on an answer. After all, I had a job to do.

 

Mid-afternoon found me again near the docks in the Imperial City. I had taken the opportunity to visit my hut and deposit everything I would not immediately need. Now I was sauntering along the piers in order to get a good look at my target.

The harbour was fairly quiet, with only two ships moored. One of them did not really count - the Bloated Float had been seagoing once, but she had long since been converted into an inn. I had heard that it was frequented mostly by treasure hunters who had been lured there by rumours of a massive golden statuette which was supposed to be hidden somewhere on board. Privately, I believed the rumour had been spread by the proprietor to improve his business. I walked past the ship-turned-inn without a glance.

The second ship was the Marie Elena, a stately galleon. I was surprised that she had been able to navigate Lake Rumare, which I knew to be treacherous and in many places too shallow for a ship of her draught. Not to mention the way up Niben Bay, which was equally difficult. Whoever sailed her obviously knew their craft.

Vicente had been right, there was a lot of activity going on around the ship. Large wooden crates were stacked on the pier and moved to and from one of the warehouses by sweating porters. The Marie Elena obviously posed as a respectable merchantman, and her crew were bold enough to conduct their business in plain daylight right under the noses of the Imperial Guard. I had to admire their audacity. Even if the Guard had, as I suspected, been handsomely bribed, it seemed to me quite risky.

The pirates themselves were indiscernible from more respectable sailors, at least to my eye. They were a very mixed bunch. I saw a Khajjit talking to three humans, one of which was probably a Redguard. The other two were so sunburned they might have been anything. Overseeing everything was a Dunmer woman, and a surprisingly young one. She could not have been much older than I, and carried herself with a proud arrogance. She was dressed plainly, like the men, and like them she wore a rapier at her side. Her hair was a shimmering, lustrous black, contrasting sharply with her grayish skin.

"Hey, Malvulis, have a look at this", a hoarse male voice cried from the ship's foredeck. The woman left her place and strode swiftly up the gangway. I walked slowly past the ship, careful not to get in the way of the bustling porters. My mind was already racing.

I had quickly discarded Vicente's suggestion of smuggling myself aboard in one of the large crates. They were big enough to hold me easily, but it was much too dangerous. I had noticed that some, though not all, of the crates were nailed shut before being carried aboard. Should I happen to be in one of them, I would starve or suffocate before getting a chance to strike. If, on the other hand, I managed to hide in an open crate, I might easily be detected, and in the confines of a wooden box I would be unable to fight. No, Vicente's idea looked quite elegant at first glance, but rather impractical at second. I would have to find another way in.

The solution to my problem presented itself when I passed the ship and turned to look back. Running along the stern was a narrow balcony with an elaborately carved wooden railing. Behind it I saw six surprisingly large windows and a door which led into the ship's interior. I instantly concluded that the captain's quarters had to be behind that door. With windows like these there had to be a living area beyond, and who but the captain himself would be entitled to such luxury? In a moment, my plan became clear.

I would wait until the small hours, when I could be reasonably sure that everybody aboard was asleep. There would be guards on deck, of course, but I could get past them with the aid of my invisibility potions. Once on the quarterdeck, I could easily climb down to the balcony and make my way inside. With any luck, I could kill Tussaud in his sleep and be long gone before anyone noticed he was dead. I grinned inwardly as I imagined Gogron's indignation at such a stealthy approach. Satisfied now that I had a course of action before me, I returned to my hut to eat and rest until it was time.

 

The wind had freshened, driving ragged strips of cloud before it. The air smelled slightly of rain, but no drops were falling yet. I was grateful, for the clouds hid the moons which were both in their second quarter and giving off enough light to see by.

It was shortly before three o'clock in the morning when I left my hut. I had again dressed in my new black leathers, taking great care to completely hide my silvery hair under the hood, and found that I could virtually blend into the shadows. Normally, leather creaks at every move, but this material was completely silent. I felt reassured as I slipped past a watchman, avoiding the circle of light spilling from a lamp above, without him casting as much as a glance in my direction.

Moments later, I crouched behind a stack of crates and surveyed the ship. A single sailor was lounging boredly near the main mast, yawning every now and then. Nobody else was in sight. I checked my gear for the last time, then pulled out one of the flasks. Grimacing slightly at the taste, I swallowed the potion.

I got to my feet and quickly sprinted towards the gangway. The potion's effect would last less than a minute, but unless I had miscalculated, that would be ample time to get safely to the quarterdeck. Once there, I could rely on the shadows to hide me even without magical help.

I slowed when I reached the gangway and stepped very carefully onto it, aware that the planks might squeak and give me away. Many people tend to forget that an invisibility spell does just that - it makes you invisible, but by no means inaudible. An alert guard still has a good chance to catch a careless intruder despite it. Fortunately, the sailor near the mast was neither alert, nor was I careless, and I reached the wooden stairs to the quarterdeck without incident. I quickly ascended and was already hiding in the shadows when the potion's effects ran out.

So far, so good - now to get down to the balcony. I briefly considered using the second potion, but then decided to keep it in case an emergency arose. The guard did not even look up in my direction, his attention, such as it was, being directed solely towards the dock. Satisfied, I took the length of silk rope I had been carrying over my shoulder and uncoiled it.

I slid the rope around the base of the steering wheel and threw it over the railing. It was long enough to reach down to the balcony, so I decided against tying it and rather took the double strands firmly in my hands. After a last look at the guard to make sure he had not noticed me, I swung my legs over the railing and slid quickly downwards. I landed on the balcony without a sound and drew the rope in, carefully coiling it again and replacing it over my shoulder.

I tried to get a look through the windows, but the cabin behind lay in total darkness and the glass was uneven and full of bubbles, so I could not make out anything. I turned my attention to the door instead. It was locked, of course, and the lock seemed to be of quite high quality. I sighed inwardly and reached for my picks. This would take some time, but I was in no hurry - it was more than an hour until first light, and I was safely hidden from view behind the balcony's handrail. Selecting a pick, I went to work.

 

It took me almost a quarter of an hour, but finally I was rewarded with a satisfying "click". I put the lockpicks away and cautiously opened the door.

As soon as I looked into the cabin, it was clear that I had found my target. The furniture was so obviously expensive that this had to be the captain's quarters. As I stepped inside, my feet sunk into a thick, elaborately ornamented rug that covered most of the floor in the upper area. A heavy table with four matching chairs stood on it. The plates and cutlery on the table were, of course, fine silver. A goblet held a few drops of red wine. I paused to study the label on the bottle next to it: Tamika Vineyard, vintage 399. Gaston Tussaud, it appeared, was a man for whom the best was just good enough.

Beyond the table, four steps led down to the sleeping area. The sound of deep, regular breathing was coming from there. I moved soundlessly around the table and peered down. Somewhere out of my sight, a candle was burning, casting a dim, flickering light on everything.

Tussaud did not seem to be a particularly tidy man. The lower area of his cabin was as expensively furnished as the dining area, with valuable tapestries adorning the wall and another thick rug on the floor between the dark oak desk and the bed. Scattered around on the carpet, however, lay a number of small items: a book, two old copies of the Black Horse Courier, a clay goblet. At the foot of the bed I could make out a dresser, on which stood a heavy, iron bound chest.

I drew my dagger and slowly descended the steps. Tussaud was lying with his back to me, obviously fast asleep. He had partly struggled from under the emerald green silk coverlet, presenting a very nice target. One carefully aimed blow beneath his left shoulder blade should be enough to finish him. I raised my dagger, stepped closer - and tripped over another book on the floor. It slid across the carpet and connected noisily with the discarded goblet, which in turn hit the desk with an audible thump.

I cursed silently as Tussaud came awake in an instant. Lunging desperately, I tried to stab him before he could get to his feet, but I did not have enough time to aim carefully, and my blow glanced off his ribs. Flailing blindly, he managed to push me back and leap from his bed, instinctively reaching for his sabre.

I knew my only chance lay in getting close enough to him that he could not use his long blade. And I had to be quick, for the noise of the fight was sure to alert his crew. I ducked under his swing and jumped forward, hoping to knock him back and finish him quickly.

To my surprise, it worked. I smashed into him and he staggered, his leg catching on the frame of his bed. He fell backwards, and I was on top of him instantly, bringing my dagger down with all the force I could muster. I felt something give way beneath its tip. Tussaud twitched violently beneath me, then his eyes became glassy and he lay still.

Breathing heavily, I rose and cleaned my blade. Instinct told me to leave immediately, but then my eyes fell on a small key which lay gleaming on the nightstand. I grabbed it and tried it on the chest - it fit. As I opened the lid, I could hear heavy steps from below.

My eyes lit up as I saw the contents of the chest. Glittering in the semidarkness was the captain's share of the booty: gold coins, precious gems, jewelry.

The front door vibrated under a loud knock."Captain? Captain Tussaud?" A man's voice came from outside, sounding worried. "Are you all right, sir? We heard a clamour... Captain? We're coming in!"

I did not bother with the gold, but quickly grabbed a handful of gems and a particularly lovely ring. I stuffed everything in my pocket, then ran up the steps to the back door. I was out on the balcony just as the cabin's front door crashed open and someone stormed in. As shouts of dismay rose behind me, I did not hesitate to leap over the railing and into the cold water below. Staying beneath the surface, I swam through the inky water, leaving the Marie Elena safely behind me.

 

The return trip to Cheydinhal proved much more rapid than my journey last night. After drying and changing in my hut, I had taken some of my newly acquired wealth and gone at first light to buy a horse. Consequently, I was back home by mid-morning.

I entered the Sanctuary, passing M'raaj-Dar who shot me a hostile look and did not bother to reply to my civil nod. I encountered no one else as I made my way downstairs to Vicente's quarters.

The vampire had already been expecting me. His skull-like face lit up in a warm smile as I entered his room. "Good to see you", he greeted me. "Did everything go well?"

"Mostly", I replied, seating myself in the armchair he indicated. "I did not manage to be quite as inconspicuous as I would have liked, but Tussaud is dead, and nobody saw me."

"Excellent", he said, filling a goblet with wine and handing it to me. "Nobody will mourn his passing, and Sithis has been appeased." He took something from a small box in his desk before sitting down opposite me.

I sipped the wine and slowly relaxed. I had not even noticed how tense I had been - not from any anxiety on Tussaud's behalf, but rather from anger at myself for almost failing in my task. "So, tell me how you fared", he encouraged me when the silence began to stretch.

In a few words, I recounted last night's events for him. He listened attentively without interrupting me once. When I had finished, he nodded, visibly pleased. "You did well for your first assignment", he reassured me. "Don't be too hard on yourself for waking him up. With a little training, something like that won't happen again. The most important thing is that you didn't panic, but still fulfilled the contract as smoothly as possible."

I shrugged. "That was what you sent me there for", I said.

He smiled. "Exactly. And so you have well earned your payment." He put the object he had taken from his desk on the table and slid it towards me. It was an ebony ring, quite heavy and set with a large, clear stone which may or may not have been a diamond. "This is the Black Band", he explained. "It has magical properties quite useful for someone who values discretion - as you do."

I thanked him and picked up the ring, turning it slowly to examine it. Its shimmering black surface had been etched with a fine, intricate design. Not being a trained mage, I could not say whether it meant anything or whether it was purely ornamental. Aesthetically, the ring was a bit too broad for my taste, but of course I did appreciate its practical value. I tried it on and found that it fit my finger very nicely.

Vicente watched me, nodding appreciatively. "So, what are you planning to do next?"

I shrugged. "Train, I think. While it may be forgivable to make a mistake once, repeating it is not."

"See Telaendril", he suggested, "or Antoinetta. She likes to chatter, true, but if she can keep her mouth shut, she's really good at moving quietly. I'm sure both of our Sisters would be happy to show you a trick or two."

"I shall do that." I thoughtfully gazed into my goblet for a few moments. Then, feeling that everything had been said that needed to be said for now, I drained the last of my wine and stood. As I walked towards the door, I had the impression Vicente was about to say something more, then checked himself. But then, I had never been particularly good at reading people, so perhaps I was just imagining things.

I closed the door softly behind me and went to find Antoinetta. As I ascended the steps to the main hall, I felt something I had not felt in a very long time: the sensation of having truly come home.

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