I was bored. Terribly, unbelievably bored. It happens when you have spent the better part of two weeks in bed, lying flat on your belly and moving as little as possible. The novelty of just being alive had worn off fairly quickly, and now that the pain had subsided to a bearable level, I was itching to be on my feet again.
Telaendril had taken good care of me, and I was immensely grateful to her for that. She assured me that I would regain full use of my arm, which filled me with no small measure of relief. I had been privately fearing that the blade had severed a tendon and my arm would remain stiff. The wound would probably leave a scar, but I could live with that. She and the others had looked after me often, and everyone seemed glad when I showed signs of recovering.
Apart from M'raaj-Dar, who was deeply disappointed when it turned out I would not die from my wound after all, the only one who did not visit me was Vicente. Ocheeva once casually remarked that he was away on an assignment - I had made a point of not asking about him, even when almost a week had passed without him showing up. Despite his apologies, his behaviour still rankled, and that in turn bothered me. I had never cared about such things, and now was not the best of times to start doing so. Unfortunately, I had a lot of time to turn such thoughts around in my mind, and nothing else to do. By my second week in bed, I was getting decidedly restless.
Twelve days after my return from Chorrol, I had finally managed to sufficiently irritate Telaendril with my nagging, and she allowed me to get up for half an hour.
When I tried to heave myself upright, I was shocked to discover how weak I was. Of course, that was to be expected after a massive loss of blood and nearly two weeks' enforced immobility, but to experience this effect first-hand was depressing. I needed to get back in shape as quickly as possible.
Teinaava offered to help me with a bit of light training, and I gladly accepted. It would probably take a week or two to regain my strength, and the sooner I started, the better.
For the moment, though, I had to be content with a short walk to the hallway and back, with the Argonian carefully supporting me. The brief excursion left me pitifully exhausted, and as soon as I had crawled back into my bed, I fell asleep.
I awoke to find Vicente sitting beside my bed. He appeared to have been here for quite a while. When he saw that I was awake, he smiled a bit tentatively. "Good evening", he said. "How are you feeling?"
"Better", I said neutrally, trying to sit up and succeeding after a short struggle. He watched my efforts with an unreadable expression, but did not offer to help me. "Not well enough for another contract yet, though, if that is what you have come about."
"No", he replied, his face betraying no emotion at all. "I came here to see how you are. I've just returned from Anvil."
He paused for a moment. "You will not be receiving any more contracts from me", he added.
I stared at him, a cold feeling spreading in my stomach. Had he actually gone so far as to complain to Ocheeva about me? And had she heeded his complaints?
Seeing my reaction, he sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. The fact is, I have been speaking with Ocheeva. We both agreed that you have accomplished much in the short time you have been with us, and that you are ready for advancement."
I relaxed a bit. "Since with your promotion you are no longer a novice", he continued, "I am no longer responsible for your assignments. From now on, you will receive your tasks directly from Ocheeva." He hesitated briefly, then continued, "Of course, my door is still open for you whenever you need my help or just wish to talk."
"Thank you", I said, since I did not know what else to say. He seemed to have something more on his mind, but I had no idea what it might be.
Just as he was opening his mouth to speak again, I heard the door open. Whatever he had been going to say remained unsaid, for he rose at the sound of someone entering. "I would be glad if you stopped by for a cup of wine when you're feeling better", he said quietly. Then he left, nodding amiably to Teinaava who was just coming in.
I was left in some bewilderment, and Teinaava actually had to address me twice before I finally realised he was speaking to me.
"Still asleep, Sister?", the Argonian chided me good-naturedly. "I was going to walk you through a few light exercises, but if you're too tired..." He winked at me.
I hastily assured him that I did not feel tired at all, and that I was eager to begin with my training. Getting up was much easier this time, which Teinaava noted with approval. We walked over to the training area, where the Argonian showed me a series of moves which looked strangely like a very slow dance, but which he insisted were great training for balance as well as concentration. I followed him as best I could, but after a few minutes, I had to sit down and rest.
"That wasn't too bad for your first time", Teinaava said reassuringly. "Catch your breath for a moment, then we'll try again."
Not for the first time I marvelled at his patience. After all, he need not have bothered with helping me to get back into shape, but he seemed not to mind. Instead, he coaxed me along and appeared even pleased when I made some small progress. I privately resolved to be done with this as quickly as possible, as I was somewhat embarrassed by the whole process.
"Greetings, dear Sister", a familiar voice called out behind me. "So good to see you up and about again."
I smiled. "Welcome home, Antoinetta. You are back early - did everything go well?"
"Perfectly", she assured me. "I do so love working with poison, you know."
"What, did you cook dinner for your mark?" Teinaava laughed and evaded her well-aimed punch to his arm.
"I didn't", she sniffed. "I just added a bit of extra spice to it. He toppled over like a felled tree, though. I must have misjudged the dose; usually I prefer to draw it out a bit. If I have to go through all the trouble, I want at least a good show to watch."
Teinaava sighed. "Sister, you know that I don't begrudge you your amusements, but one of these days you'll run across someone who has an antidote handy. Then what will you do?"
"Use the dagger I always carry for precisely that reason", she said with a sweet smile. "You know me, Brother, I am always prepared for an emergency."
I listened to their banter with a smile. Some people never change.
As if on cue, the door opened again. M'raaj-Dar strode in and made a face when he saw us sitting there together. He mumbled something and left as quickly as he had come, banging the door unnecessarily loudly.
Antoinetta and Teinaava exchanged a knowing glance. I grinned. "It appears that I insulted our Brother deeply by surviving", I said.
Antoinetta giggled. "You probably did, at that. But he'll just have to live with that, won't he?"
"I am afraid so", I said with mock regret, then turned to Teinaava. "Let us continue, Brother, shall we?"
The Argonian nodded, and Antoinetta excused herself. When I went back to my bed half an hour later I was profoundly exhausted, but confident that I would be back in fighting shape soon.
Two days later, I finally decided to go and see Vicente. I had been trying to figure out the deeper meaning of his visit, but had not really reached any conclusion. However, even to me and my limited skills at reading people it had been clear that he had something on his mind. His invitation was clearly an offer to talk, and I was curious to learn what he wanted.
He was at his desk writing something when I entered his quarters. "Good evening", I said softly.
He raised his head and smiled. "Hello. Good to see you're recovering." He looked me over carefully. "You look a lot better, at least."
"I am feeling very much better", I replied, sitting down in my customary armchair at his inviting gesture. He seated himself opposite me and poured me a goblet of wine.
Taking a sip from his own goblet, he looked at me as if trying to decide what to say next. I waited patiently.
After a few moments he said, "It occurred to me that I never gave you your payment and reward for your last contract. Both are well earned, so I want to correct this oversight." He pushed two pouches towards me, one large and one small.
I took the larger one and weighed it in my hands. It was filled with coins. I put it away, opened the small one and let its contents slip onto my palm.
"It is called Cruelty's Heart", Vicente said as I looked at the amulet. "You may find its enchantment helpful for future assignments."
The amulet was at first glance nothing more than an unadorned gold disk on a fine gold chain. Only at a closer look did I notice the slight tarnish on the surface which would never have appeared with mundane gold. I put it on, and immediately felt strength flood through my muscles. I nodded appreciatively. "Very nice", I said. "Thank you."
He settled back in his chair. "As I said, it was well earned." He sighed. "Speaking of your last assignment, there is another matter I would like to talk about." I raised an eyebrow questioningly, but said nothing. He continued, weighing his words carefully. "I am aware that both before you departed for Chorrol and after you returned, I did not react as I should have. I questioned your courage when all you did was raise a perfectly logical objection, and again when all you had done was take the necessary steps to save your life and salvage the contract. I was wrong on both occasions, and I apologise."
It cost him, I could see that. I knew him well enough by now to be aware that an apology, however necessary, did not come to him easily. He was, after all, a vampire, and, advancement or no, he was still of higher rank in the Brotherhood than I. He watched me intently as I tried to decide how best to react. It definitely would not do to damage his pride further by belabouring the point, so I just inclined my head and said, "Accepted."
He actually seemed relieved. "Thank you", he said simply, and that closed the matter. For a while we sat in silence, occasionally sipping from our goblets. I watched him unobtrusively, and the longer I watched, the surer I became that there was something more to come.
"What else is on your mind?" I finally asked quietly.
He shot me a surprised look, then gave a short and humourless laugh. "You have become good at reading people", he said. "Or have I become so transparent? No matter, you are right. There is something else." He drew a deep breath. "Do you remember that, a couple of weeks ago, when we were sitting here, I told you my story?" I nodded. Of course I remembered, but the question had clearly been a rhetorical one. "I told you then that I view my... condition as a gift. A gift I may pass on to someone I deem worthy."
Slowly, it began to dawn on me where this was leading. Did he really mean...?
"I wish to offer you this gift", he said, confirming my thoughts. "But please understand that it is simply that: an offer. I want you to think about it for as long as you need to. It doesn't matter if it takes weeks or even months. This is not a decision to be taken lightly."
I did not doubt for one moment that he was completely serious about the matter. He was offering me, plain and simple, to become a vampire. To infect me with an incurable disease and turn me into a monster. To share with me powers beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Two sides of the same coin, it all depended on how one looked at it.
While I was still trying to get my feelings under control, his voice filtered through my thoughts. "As I said, I do not want to put any pressure on you concerning this. Therefore, I will not speak about this matter again until you are ready to do so. Of course, I will answer any questions you have. You need only ask."
I nodded slowly. "For the moment, I have only one question." I looked into his eyes. "Had you been given this choice three hundred years ago, would you have accepted?"
He was silent for a long moment. My eyes never left his. "Knowing what I knew then..." he finally said, "...no. I would not."
"I thought so", I said softly. Putting down my goblet, I rose. "I will think about this."
"Thank you", he said quietly. "I ask nothing more."
I nodded at him and took my leave. I went to the training room, which fortunately was empty, and again and again repeated the exercises Teinaava had shown me until at last I was exhausted enough to crawl into my bed and at once fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.