"Good afternoon", I said as I entered Ocheeva's quarters. The Argonian looked up at me and smiled.
"Ah, greetings, Sister. I have been expecting you." She waved towards a chair. "Please, sit. We have something to discuss."
I nodded and obediently seated myself. "I am sorry I did not come to see you sooner", I said. "I have not even thanked you for the promotion yet."
"It was well earned", Ocheeva said. "Vicente's reports have been more than satisfactory. I spoke with Lucien, and he agreed that an advancement was in order."
"Vicente told me that I must now come to you for my assignments."
The Argonian nodded. "Are you ready for a contract?"
"I am", I replied. "My wound is healed, and I have been training ever since I could get out of my bed. I am completely recovered."
"Good." As far as I could tell, she looked pleased. "I understand my brother has helped you with your training?"
I inclined my head. "He has been most helpful. And very patient. Perhaps more so than I", I added a bit ruefully.
She chuckled. "So you are eager to get back to work? Good, good. It just happens that I have something for you."
I listened attentively. After more than three weeks in the Sanctuary, I was itching to get out again.
"In the Imperial City there lives a High Elf who must be removed from existence", Ocheeva continued. "Finding this person may prove... challenging. Are you interested?"
I grinned at her. She grinned back. "I knew you wouldn't be able to resist." She became serious again. "Your target is a High Elf named Faelian. He lives somewhere in the Imperial City, and fancies long walks." She sighed. "Unfortunately, that's all we know. We don't know which district he calls home, which establishments he frequents, or anything about his schedule. This will require a bit of detective work. I myself am not very familiar with the Imperial City, but perhaps the others have a bit of advice for you. Speak to them before you go."
She held up her hand as I started to rise, taking her words as my cue to leave. "There is one more thing", she said. I sat down again. "The Imperial City is also home to an Imperial Legion Commander named Adamus Phillida. Do you know who that is?"
"I have heard the name, but that is all."
She nodded grimly. "Phillida has dedicated his life to eradicating the Dark Brotherhood, and he becomes rather irate when our duties take us to the Imperial City. When that happens, he tends to make our lives uncomfortable. Let's not give the good Commander any reason to go poking around in our affairs." She looked at me intently. "If possible, do away with Faelian someplace out of the way. Definitely indoors, with no other people around. A secure location, with no witnesses."
"I understand", I said. "There are a number of places that come to mind... the sewers, for example. But I cannot make any plans until I find him and learn more about him."
"Take your time", Ocheeva advised. "You're in no hurry with this one. A clean operation is more important than a quick one in this case."
"I see", I said, getting to my feet. "I will talk to the others, and leave tomorrow morning."
"Do that, Sister. May you walk in the shadow of Sithis."
Already turning around several options in my mind, I wandered downstairs. "Vicente?" I asked, knocking politely against the doorframe. "Do you have a moment? I would like your advice on a contract."
"Of course", he said and bade me enter. I outlined the problem for him, and he listened thoughtfully. When I had finished, he remained silent for a few moments.
"It looks like asking around is your best option", he finally said. "The Elves of the Imperial City are a fairly close-knit community. One of them will have at least heard of Faelian."
I nodded slowly. "One of the Elven shopkeepers is probably my best bet. They should at least be able to provide me with a starting point."
"Precisely", he said. "And given that you have all the time you need, you should have no problem finding him eventually. You have a house in the city, don't you?"
I grimaced. "A hut, rather. A small shack in the Waterfront District."
"Perfect", he said. "As I recall, the Watch doesn't usually care very much what goes on in that part of the city. So you have the ideal place to stay while you gather the information you need to strike. You may even be able to kill him there, and make the corpse disappear conveniently into Lake Rumare."
"That is definitely an option", I agreed. "Thank you. I will speak to the others, and leave tomorrow morning."
"May the Night Mother go with you", he said, and I took my leave.
Most of my Brothers and Sisters were away on various contracts, but I knew that at least Antoinetta and Teinaava were around somewhere. And M'raaj-Dar, of course, but asking him for advice did not even cross my mind.
As I made my way towards the living quarters, where I hoped to find my Breton Sister, a familiar clanking noise sounded from the direction of the entrance. I smiled.
"Hello, Gogron", I said. Then I noticed the blood on his armour and frowned. "Trouble?"
He grinned broadly. "Yes, lots, but not for me. A bunch of bandits tried to rob me not far from here."
"Oh", I said drily. "I take it they saw the error of their ways and will never waylay anyone again?"
He laughed. "I actually killed only three of them. The other four I let escape. I'll just pop down and tell Vicente where to find them." Seeing the look of incomprehension on my face, he explained: "Our Brother likes his meals fresh, you see. But he has to be very careful when he hunts in the town. The Watch might become suspicious if too many citizens turn up with bite marks on their necks. So we all keep an eye out for people on the road. He really likes bandits - nobody will miss them, and they're usually good for a little fight." He shot a slightly rueful look at his axe. "Though I'm afraid these won't be much fun anymore."
I made no attempt to disguise my surprise. "I did not know that", I confessed.
He grinned good-naturedly. "Well, we're family. We watch out for each other, and if I can do my Brother a favour, I'll cut my own entertainment short every now and then." He hoisted his axe again. "Speaking of which, I should hurry to tell him, before they get away. I'll see you later."
He quickly disappeared downstairs, leaving me to stare after him, still shaking my head. Pulling myself together, I went to the living quarters to look for Antoinetta. As expected, I found her in the kitchen, where she was just finishing her supper. While she nibbled at the last of her bread and cheese, I explained my task to her. She listened interestedly.
"Know what I'd do?" she said as I had finished. "Talk to Faelian, learn who he is, what he likes, what his habits are. Maybe then, when you get to know him, you can lead him to a secluded place. And when you're alone... you know!" She cackled.
"Well and good, but first I have to find him", I pointed out.
She waved her hand dismissively. "No problem there. As you said, talk to the shopkeepers. The male ones, of course. A sweet smile and a few bashful looks should get you all the information you need."
"You mean... I should try and flirt with them?"
She laughed. "Sister, you make it sound like a disease. Of course you should. Charm them! You'll have them eating out of your hand in no time at all."
I shook my head doubtfully. "You know that I am not good at this kind of thing. Perhaps I should see M'raaj-Dar for a potion or a Charm spell before I leave."
She shrugged. "If you must", she said. "I still think you don't need that, but if it makes you feel more secure, go ahead." She pushed back her empty plate and stood up. "In case I don't see you before you go - have fun in the big City. And should you happen across a nice blue silk shirt, I'd be grateful if you could get it for me. I completely ruined my favourite one during one of my last contracts. Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him..."
I promised her to see what I could do, and she left. I remained at the table, thoughtfully nibbling on a piece of bread.
I was still sitting there when Gogron came in half an hour later. He had cleaned the worst of the blood off his armour. Nodding at me with a friendly grin, he sat down beside me, drew his axe and started to polish it with an oiled cloth.
"Well, little Sister?" he said, rubbing at a particularly obstinate speck of blood. "What's new with you?"
For the third time that evening, I explained about my contract. "I have been thinking, and Antoinetta may be right that trying my luck with one of the shopkeepers is my best chance. She thinks I do not need it, but just to be on the safe side, I will get a Charm spell or a potion from M'raaj-Dar."
"Take the spell", he said without thinking. "Not that you're likely to need it, but it's safer..." He broke off suddenly, and his cheeks took on a deeper hue of green, which I took to be the Orcish equivalent of a blush.
"You were saying?" I inquired, not understanding his sudden hesitation.
"Well..." he said slowly, looking around as if to make sure we were alone. We were, so he continued in a low voice: "You should be wary of M'raaj-Dar."
I raised an eyebrow. "I know he does not like me, but..."
"He hates you", the Orc stated flatly. "I don't have the slightest clue why, but he does. He nearly came to blows with Vicente about this matter not long ago."
I stared at him. "Explain."
He did so, although rather reluctantly. "You see, I overheard this by chance, they didn't know I was there. It was some weeks ago, before you were wounded. You were away on a contract, and M'raaj-Dar and Vicente were talking. He has always been getting on with Vicente better than with anyone else here, although I don't know that he's ever despised anyone as much as you. As I said, I have no idea why that is so."
"Get to the point", I told him impatiently, then immediately caught myself. "I am sorry. Please continue."
He did not take offence. "As I said, they were talking, and somehow they got to talking about you. I don't know what led to it, but I clearly heard the cat say that he was considering selling you flasks of water instead of potions the next time you came to him for supplies, and that this would hopefully get you killed on a contract."
"He would not..." I said incredulously.
Gogron nodded grimly. "Believe me, he would. He thought it was a great joke. Vicente didn't laugh, though. Honestly, I thought he would go for the cat's throat." He shuddered. "I've known Vicente for years, but I don't recall ever seeing him so angry. He picked M'raaj-Dar up like a doll, smashed him against the wall and recited the Tenets to him. He takes these things really seriously, and M'raaj-Dar should have known that."
"Should he?" I asked thoughtfully.
"He should. Vicente always enjoys a good laugh, but there are some things he simply doesn't joke about. And nobody who values their health should do so within his earshot. The Tenets are sacred to him, and he will kill anyone who breaks them. I know that, everyone else here knows it, and M'raaj-Dar should have known it, too."
"Selling me shoddy potions is not technically the same as killing me outright", I pointed out. "It might not count as a violation of the Tenets."
Gogron snorted. "That's what the cat said, too. It got him another slam against the wall and a lecture about how one might break the Tenets in spirit while keeping to the letter of them. You do not try to argue with a vampire who has you by the throat and is very, very angry."
"Definitely not", I agreed. "As I understand it, the Tenets are rules, not guidelines, and you stick to them or face the consequences."
"Exactly", Gogron said, critically eying his axe and finally putting it away. "It's little enough to ask, really. I mean, why do I need to slaughter my Brothers or Sisters if I have lots of other people to kill? And the Night Mother sees to it that I even get paid for that. My own mother should have loved me so much."
He rose to his feet and stretched, producing a loud creaking noise. "Well, I'm off to bed. It's been a long day for me. Good luck with your contract, and do return in one piece, you hear?"
I promised him I would and bade him good night. He went to bed, leaving me with my thoughts.
"I need a Charm spell", I said curtly.
"What?" M'raaj-Dar blinked sleepily at me.
"You heard me. I am leaving for an assignment and I need supplies."
"By Sithis, do you have any idea what time it is?" He reluctantly got out of his bed and yawned hugely.
"Yes", I replied, unperturbed by his discomfort. "Now teach me that spell."
He snorted in disgust. "It'll take more than a spell to make you charming, ape." Seeing my cold expression, he raised his hands. "All right, all right, if it will get you to leave me alone..."
He showed me the appropriate gestures, and I watched closely. Fortunately, I have always been a quick learner, so it took me less than half an hour to get the spell down pat. I handed the Khajiit his gold, then let him crawl back into his bed while I stepped out into the cool dawn.
The afternoon sun was turning the surface of Lake Rumare into molten gold as I walked along the muddy alleys of the Imperial City Waterfront District. It had been about six weeks since my contract in the prison had taken me here, and then I had not taken the time to stop at my hut. I shuddered to think how the place would look after two months' absence, but Vicente was right - it was the perfect hiding place.
The shack looked even smaller than I remembered it. The door creaked as I pushed it open. I stepped into the dusty dimness and looked around. The first thing that hit me was the smell - there had been no fire in the fireplace for two months, and this near to the shore of the lake the air was always damp. With disgust I noticed several spots of mildew on my bedclothes. Cobwebs hung in the corners, and everything was coated by a thin layer of dust.
Sighing, I cleaned out the fireplace and with some effort finally got a fire going. I spread my blankets and pillow over a chair in front of it, hoping they would be at least marginally dry by nightfall.
Sitting down on my bed, I took from my pack the bread, ham and fruit I had bought on the way and started an early supper. Leaning back against the wall, I stared thoughtfully at the ceiling as I chewed. Rather absentmindedly, I noticed that water had seeped in through a crack and left a moldy stain high on the wall opposite me.
I tried to focus my mind on the task ahead. It was difficult. For the last few days, I had been thinking about only one thing: Vicente's offer. I still did not know what to make of it. I had no idea what had prompted him to propose such a thing. It was evident that he honestly believed what he had said - namely, that he thought of his condition as a gift, and that he was offering it to me as a favour. The problem was that this went so completely against everything I knew or thought I knew about vampires that I had massive trouble accepting it.
At least he had been true to his word so far: on the few occasions we had met since then, he had behaved just as usual, giving no hint at all that the matter was still on his mind. When I had gone to him last night to ask for his advice, he had kept our conversation to the matter at hand. He really seemed determined to let me think this through in my own time. Unfortunately I had the feeling that I was not getting any closer to a decision. After the initial shock had worn off, I had found myself seriously considering his offer, but the plain and simple truth was that I was afraid of the consequences my choice would entail.
A scratching sound tore me from my thoughts. I set aside my frugal meal and got to my feet, listening intently. The sound came from the far corner of the room, where the light from my fire did not reach. As I stood there, it ceased for a moment, only to begin again shortly afterwards.
I reached for my sword and silently stepped towards the corner. The noise stopped. So did I. I stood perfectly still for a while, then I heard it again. I thought I could see something moving, something small, but the flickering shadows made it difficult to see what it was.
Leaning over, I grabbed a branch from the fireplace. My improvised torch in one hand, my sword in the other, I stepped across the room.
The mud crab stared at me balefully, its eyestalks waving in irritation at the sudden brightness. It was a rather large specimen, its body without the legs easily the size of both my hands, if not more. Disgusted, I impaled the creature on my sword, then went to the door and threw it out.
After I had cleaned my blade, I lit a lamp and inspected the corner where the crab had been lurking. I immediately noticed the hole in the ground - obviously the creature had burrowed under the wall. Probably that had not been particularly difficult. Like most dwellings in this part of the city, my hut had a dirt floor which was quite hard packed in the areas where it was well-trodden, but fairly soft along the walls. I scraped the loose dirt into the hole with my boot, then pushed a chest over it to seal it at least for the moment.
I went back to my bed and resumed my meal, but after a few bites I decided that I did not want to spend the night here. This place, I realised, had ceased to be my home the day I had left for Cheydinhal. Anything remotely of value I had taken with me, and as far as I was concerned, the mud crabs could have the rest. I packed my things together, put out the fire, and stepped outside without looking back. I did not even bother to lock the door again.
"Welcome to The King and Queen Tavern." The Imperial bowed. "We treat all our patrons like royalty! I'm Ley Marillin, your loyal seneschal. We have beds and food available. What's your pleasure?"
"A room, and a meal", I said.
Marillin beamed. "Rooms are at ten gold a night. As for a meal, we have some excellent roast chicken tonight."
I nodded appreciatively. "How about a bath?"
"Of course, madam. If you'll just seat yourself and enjoy your dinner, a hot tub will be waiting for you in your room after you have eaten."
Now that was more like it. I paid in advance for three nights' worth of board and lodging, then seated myself at a table. Shortly afterwards, a plate of roast chicken and vegetables was brought by a middle aged woman, presumably the innkeeper's wife. I fell to, and noticed that Marillin had not exaggerated - it really was excellent. Apart from myself, the taproom was empty, and I enjoyed my meal in comfortable silence before calling Mistress Marillin again and asking her to show me to my room.
I smiled at the sight of the steaming tub that awaited me. I assured my hostess that everything was quite satisfactory and asked her to wake me at dawn. She promised to do so and bade me good night.
No sooner had she closed the door behind her than I bolted it firmly and undressed. With a sigh of pure pleasure I sank into the hot water and managed to think of absolutely nothing for a while.
Despite the relaxing bath and the dry, clean bed, my sleep was troubled. That, however, did not surprise me, as I had not been sleeping particularly well for some days now. Scraps of dreams appeared and disappeared, elusive as wisps of mist, some peaceful, some disturbing. When my hostess finally knocked on my door to wake me, I felt exhausted.
I broke my fast in the common room, then went out into the streets. The sun was just rising, so it was a little early to try charming the merchants. I did not mind, however, for I felt like wandering about a bit after the restless night. I was dressed inconspicuously in a dark shirt and black pants of good quality (I had drawn the line at wearing a skirt) and was quite confident I would blend in with the crowd.
The King and Queen Tavern was situated in the Elven Gardens District, which was one of the better parts of the city. I had briefly considered renting a room at the Tiber Septim Hotel on Talos Plaza, reputedly the best address in the city, but had discarded it as being too high profile. I had not frequented either district much in the few months I had lived in the city; the houses tended to have very good locks, and most doors had a lamp above or beside them to illuminate them. I had usually kept to the Market District - until the day the Watch had surprised me trying to sneak into a warehouse and promptly dragged me off to the prison. After my escape I had mostly stayed at the Waterfront, and fortunately the Watch were too much astir after the Emperor's death to concern themselves with hunting down a petty thief.
Of course, my past history made going back to the Market District a bit of a risk. However, since my activities had by necessity been mostly nocturnal, I hoped that none of the shopkeepers recognised me. I was fairly sure that the guards would not, since I was dressed in respectable clothes and I had no intention of skulking about in a suspicious manner.
I decided to walk around for a while to see if anyone took notice of me, then make my way to the Market District and see what I could accomplish.
"Welcome to The Copious Coinpurse", the Bosmer greeted me pleasantly. "What can Thoronir do for you on this fine morning?"
Remembering Antoinetta's request, I asked to see the clothing he had in stock. I browsed his inventory for a while, but could find nothing in blue silk. "Check back with me every once in a while, madam", he advised. "I have a little treasure trove here; you never know what I might have in stock."
I thanked him and made as if to leave. At the door I stopped, as though something had just occurred to me. "Say, perhaps you could help me with another matter." I turned around and flashed him my most dazzling smile, along with my newly learned Charm spell.
He blinked briefly, then a broad, happy smile spread on his face. "I am at your service, madam."
"That is really very kind of you", I gushed. "I am looking for someone named Faelian - do you perchance know where I could find him?"
"Faelian?" He looked disgusted. "Yes, I know the man. Rather distasteful fellow, really. I believe he's staying at the Tiber Septim Hotel with that girlfriend of his."
Oops. It really had been a wise decision not to take a room there. Sharing a hotel with my victim might have been awkward. But I felt there was more information to be gained, so I feigned incomprehension. "Distasteful? I was told he is a respectable alchemist."
Thoronir snorted. "That one? He's neither one nor the other. Are you sure you're looking for the right person? Altmer, rather gaunt, brown hair, going bald on top?"
To this point I had had no idea what my mark looked like. "I have never met him, but that matches the description I have been given", I said. "Well, it seems someone played a prank on me."
He looked at me sympathetically. "It looks like it, indeed. But, if you're looking for an alchemist, try Claudette Perrick or Ogier Georic. They both have shops here in the district, The Gilded Carafe and The Main Ingredient. Both are quite competent and will probably be able to provide whatever it is you need."
I thanked him profusely for his advice and his sympathy, then quickly fled before it occurred to him to invite me to dinner that evening.
Weighing my options, I slowly made my way towards Talos Plaza. I knew where the Tiber Septim Hotel was, of course, but I had never been inside, so I did not know the layout of the place. Killing Faelian in the hotel was not an option, anyway - particularly not since Thoronir had mentioned a girlfriend. I definitely did not need her to witness the whole thing.
I decided it might nonetheless be a good idea to pay a visit to the hotel and find out a bit more about my target. Thoronir clearly had been less than impressed with the man, but had not told me why that was so. At least I now had a vague idea what he looked like, and perhaps I would see him and get a chance to follow him around for a while, should he leave the hotel.
By the time I had arrived at this conclusion, I had also reached the Talos Plaza District. Looking around me, I reluctantly admitted to myself that perhaps I was a little underdressed for the area. Showing up at the hotel as I was probably was not a good idea. With a sigh I decided to return to the Market District and buy a dress.
As I turned to retrace my steps my eyes fell on a sheaf of paper pinned to one of the doors nearby. Curious, I stepped closer to look at it. It was a public notice, scrawled in a bold, slightly angular handwriting:
"The owner of this house, Claudius Arcadia, has been imprisoned and his property seized by the Imperial City Watch according to the law. Rituals to the Night Mother or any other attempt to contact the Dark Brotherhood will not be tolerated!" The notice was signed, "Adamus Phillida, Imperial Legion Commander".
Interesting. Very interesting. So the good Master Arcadia had tried to summon Our Lady. My curiosity mounting, I made a mental note to return to this house tonight and see whether I could gain entry. For some reason, I just itched to snoop around inside for a bit. The notice appeared to have been in place for a while, for it was slightly faded, but still...
I turned away before I attracted attention and returned to the Market District.
Two hours later I was in possession of a nice skirt of burgundy linen, a matching blouse and a pair of soft leather shoes. I returned to my room to change and afterwards felt like I had just disguised myself. I could not even remember when I had last worn a skirt, and of course it absolutely would not do to carry a weapon while wearing these clothes, so I felt positively naked.
Swallowing my discomfort, I ventured out into the streets again. I pulled myself together, since I knew that showing any uncertainty was a sure way to attract notice, and exhibiting a confidence I did not feel returned to Talos Plaza.
By the time I reached the hotel, I had regained my composure and was actually beginning to enjoy myself somewhat. The clothes I had bought were nothing too fancy, they suggested a moderately well-off middle class citizen. Still, they were a good sight more expensive than anything I could have afforded while I still lived in the city, and I was only now beginning to notice the difference my outfit was making to the way people reacted to me. Sithis help me, one of the guards even greeted me and wished me a good day! I could almost hear Ocheeva lecture me on how she had told me so all along.
Focusing my thoughts again on the task ahead, I entered the hotel and looked around. The foyer was very spacious and tastefully furnished, with thick carpets covering the floor and expensive draperies adorning the wall. Two stone staircases swept upwards to the second floor. Near one of them stood several small tables with matching, comfortable looking chairs. On one of them someone was sitting, but I could not make out any details from where I stood.
Even though daylight filtered in through the windows, candles were burning in two chandeliers to light the room. A sweet smell told me that they were of real beeswax, not the cheap tallow variety.
The room was dominated by a large reception desk made of polished dark wood, which apparently also served as a bar. Behind it a woman was seated - enthroned, rather, for she carried herself like a queen. She was of middle age, probably Imperial, with straight golden hair. She wore a brocade gown that in all likelihood had cost more than I had spent since I had arrived in the city the day before.
When I approached the desk, the woman behind it quickly rose and greeted me with a pleasant smile. "Welcome to The Tiber Septim Hotel", she said. "I am Augusta Calidia, the hostess. What can I do for you?"
"Some food and a cup of wine would be nice", I replied, trying not to wince at the thought of the price for a meal in this establishment. "Do you happen to have a 415 Surilie Brothers?"
"A good vintage", she said agreeably, producing a bottle and a goblet.
While she poured my wine, I glanced over to the tables. From here, I could see that the lone figure sitting there was a young woman - an Altmer noble, by her colouring and her clothes. She held a goblet in her hands without drinking from it, and stared at the wall. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked careworn. A suspicion formed in my mind, one I thought well worth pursuing.
I turned back to the innkeeper. "Excuse me, this is really none of my business, but is the young lady over there all right? She looks a bit... ill."
Mistress Calidia began to frown, but just as she opened her mouth to inform me that she was most certainly not in the habit of gossiping about her patrons, I unobtrusively flicked my fingers at her. Her expression softened a bit, and she looked me over, apparently deciding I was trustworthy. "Well", she said in a low voice, "it's that good-for-nothing lover of hers." She sighed. "I really shouldn't be speaking like that about my patrons, but if I didn't feel sorry for poor Atraena, I'd have kicked both of them out long ago."
Now we were getting somewhere. I looked properly shocked as I whispered, "Is he mistreating her?"
"Well..." She hesitated. "Not exactly. I mean, he doesn't beat her or something." She looked disgusted. "Doesn't have the strength left, I'd imagine, even if he wanted to. Faelian used to have money. Used to be quite a gentleman, too. But that was before he took a fancy to the... you know. The skooma." Augusta sighed deeply. "What that poor girl sees in him I'll never know. Atraena pays for their room, their food, everything. She's quite wealthy, I believe. Faelian's hardly ever here. He's off using skooma, or wandering the city looking for some, I imagine. He comes back every night to be with Atraena, but only for a few hours. I swear, that High Elf is going to wind up dead if he keeps living like this."
I shook my head in feigned sadness. "Tragic", I said. "Say, do you think she would be offended if I joined her for a bit? She does look like she could use some company."
"Ask her", she suggested. "Perhaps it will do her good to have someone to talk to. I will see to your meal in the meantime."
I thanked her, took my wine, and wandered over to the tables. Atraena looked up wearily as I approached. "May I?" I asked politely, indicating the chair next to hers. "I do not mean to intrude, mylady, but perhaps you would care for some company?"
"Why not", she said without enthusiasm, and I sat down. For a while we sat in silence, I occasionally sipping from my goblet, she just holding hers. After a few minutes, she sighed softly.
"Forgive me for being so forward", I said gently, "but you seem to have something on your mind...?"
She sighed again. "Thank you for your concern, but it really..." Suddenly she started sobbing.
I quickly put down my goblet, and, hiding my disgust at this display of emotion, produced a clean handkerchief and handed it to her. "Gods, I am sorry", I said. "Here, have this..." Somewhat helplessly, I patted her shoulder while she dabbed at her eyes with my handkerchief and tried to get a grip on herself.
"Forgive me, madam", she finally sniffed. "I did not mean to get emotional, but it does feel good to meet someone so kind."
"We all need a good cry every once in a while", I assured her, while unsuccessfully trying to remember the last time I had dissolved in tears.
She nodded, sniffing one last time and putting the handkerchief away. "Thank you for being so understanding", she said softly. "Perhaps... perhaps it would really help to talk, even to a stranger." At my encouraging nod, she continued, "It's about Faelian... he's my sweet. My true love. But I just don't know what to do about him." I had no answer to that, but fortunately, further prompting appeared not to be required. "All he thinks about, all he cares about, is skooma! He was a fine young man once. But he's lost everything. His looks, his money... his self-respect." She dabbed at her eyes again. "He wanders the city all day long. I followed him a few times, because at first I suspected... you know. Another woman. Then I found out about the skooma. There's a deserted house in the Elven Gardens District, that's where he went. To escape from life and do his skooma!" She laughed bitterly. "We had everything... what need was there for escape? Now he doesn't even have a house any more. I don't know what we will do... we can't stay here for ever, after all."
I gave her my best sympathetic look. "My dear, I am at a loss for words. This is terrible. Say, is there anything I can do for you?"
Smiling sadly, she shook her head. "It has been most kind of you to listen to my story, but I'm afraid there's nothing you can do to help. I must just hope and pray to Mother Mara that he will be able to clean himself up before that awful stuff kills him."
I patted her hand. "I will add my prayers to yours", I promised, and in a sense, I was not even lying.
Fortunately, our hostess selected that moment to appear with our meals, so I did not have to wreck my brains trying to think of something else to say. I ate with relish, while Atraena picked at her food. I even managed some small talk during the meal, and afterwards took my leave of her. Atraena insisted on paying my tab. I politely (and rather half-heartedly) protested, but she would have none of it. I thanked her profusely and escaped from the hotel with as much good grace as possible.
I made my way back to the King and Queen Tavern. A plan was beginning to form in my mind, but there was not much I could do while the sun was up, so I resolved to try and get some rest. In my room, I discarded my clothes with some relief, then dropped onto my bed. Within minutes, I was asleep.
I awoke late in the afternoon, feeling slightly refreshed. Since I was in no hurry to get anywhere, I stayed in bed for a while longer, staring at the ceiling and laying out my plans for the night. The information I had gathered about Faelian had been most enlightening, and an idea was taking form in my mind. If I played this right, not only would there be no witnesses - nobody would even suspect that Faelian had been murdered. I would make the necessary preparations tonight, and strike tomorrow.
Around sunset I got up, dressed in my black shirt and pants again and went downstairs for supper. Two Argonians were sitting at a table near the entrance, and an expensively dressed Dunmer was having dinner near the bar. I did not know him and had no wish to change that, so I selected one of the free tables and seated myself.
After a light supper, I went out into the streets again. It was not yet fully dark, so I spent some time strolling around the neighbourhood of the tavern, taking note of buildings that appeared to be uninhabited. Interestingly enough, there was one just two doors down from the tavern. It did not look dilapidated, but there were little signs of neglect: the doorstep had not been swept in some time, the windows were dirty and the half drawn curtains behind them seemed to be rather dusty. It was dark inside, so I could not make out any details of the interior, but I made a mental note to ask my hosts about the house. Perhaps I had been nearer to Faelian all the time than I had thought.
As the sky darkened and the streets slowly began to empty, I wandered into the Talos Plaza District yet again. I had a busy night ahead of me and a lot of preparations to make, but first, I just had to satisfy my curiosity.
There were no guards posted in front of Claudius Arcadia's house. I saw a pair of them further down the street, but they were not even looking in my direction. I reached for my picks and set to work, keeping an eye on the guards all the time.
The lock was of fair quality, but eventually it snapped open. I silently thanked Antoinetta for teaching me a few of her tricks as I opened the door a crack and entered, closing it softly behind me.
The house clearly had not been lived in for a while, and it was evident that the resident had left in a hurry. There even were the remnants of a meal on the table, spoiled and dried beyond recognition. A musty smell hung in the room, indicating that it had not been aired for some time.
The second thing I noticed was that the premises had been searched. A desk had been opened and its contents strewn haphazardly about. A large basket had been turned over, spilling assorted odds and ends onto the floor. I pursed my lips in thought, trying to decide where to start looking.
Finally I made for the cellar door. It was unlocked and well oiled, so it opened without a sound. Beyond lay darkness, from which a faint, unpleasant smell wafted towards me. I flicked my fingers, and the darkness dissolved into various shades of blue. Carefully, I descended the stairs.
At first glance, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the basement. The usual assortment of unused furniture, crates and boxes were stacked there, covered in dust. The smell, however, was stronger here. I cautiously stepped around several large crates, and immediately I saw where it came from.
There was an old piece of carpet on the floor, which was soaked in blood. It was long dried, of course, and the tassles which had once decorated the carpet's borders were caked into a solid, hard mass. On the carpet lay a skull, several bones, a dried sprig of Nightshade and a rotten, desiccated lump which presumably was the source of the smell and might or might not have once been a human heart.
I studied the whole tableau, somewhat surprised that the Watch had left it undisturbed as it was. I would have expected Phillida to secure the evidence, but had to assume that he had had his reasons for not doing so. Maybe his men had been to superstitious to touch what were clearly the remnants of a ritual to the Night Mother. I wondered whether Arcadia had met with any success, or whether he had been imprisoned and his property seized for nothing.
There was nothing more to be found here, so I returned upstairs and ascended to the second floor. As I opened the door on top of the staircase, I was aware at once that I was not alone. I do not know what warned me, for when I strained to listen, I could hear nothing. Still, I had learned to trust my instincts, so I quickly became invisible again before I stepped into the room.
This floor had been searched as well. A quick glance showed me that I was unlikely to find anything of interest. There was nobody to be seen, but to the left of the entrance, another door led to a neighbouring room. I quietly opened it and immediately heard someone snoring.
I had found the master bedroom, and lying in the bed was a man who had "Imperial Watch" written all over him, even in his sleep. His uniform and armour were neatly placed on a chair nearby. So Phillida had stationed some poor devil here as a guard.
I watched the man for a few moments to make sure that he really was fast asleep, then quietly looked around in the bedroom. A chest near the bed caught my attention. It was open, and on top lay a small book bound in red leather. A scrap of paper with the number "4" scrawled onto it had been tagged onto the binding. Another piece of evidence which Phillida had found, yet decided to leave on the scene.
I took the book from the chest and opened it, careful not to dislodge the tag. It was a diary. Flipping through it, I found that most of the entries were uninteresting - up to a certain point. I learned that Arcadia had had a daughter, who had been the apple of his eye, and who had been killed some time ago. Leafing through the diary, a name caught my eye, and I almost dropped the book in surprise. The last entries read:
"I've made up my mind. I don't care what it takes, I'll have my revenge! I've heard the stories about the Dark Brotherhood, about how they'll come to you if you perform some kind of ritual to their Night Mother. I don't know who or what the Night Mother is, and I don't give a damn! If I can do it, I will. I'll give the Dark Brotherhood anything they want, so long as they do what I can't..."
A few days later: "I've learned how to perform the ritual and have procured the necessary items. The bones and skull were easy enough to get, but the heart and skin were a bit more difficult. I'll make the preparations in the cellar."
And the last entry: "It worked! Last night I was visited by someone, a representative from the Dark Brotherhood! The Night Mother heard my prayers! The money was exchanged, and the man promised me I would have satisfaction. I don't know where he's hiding, and neither does the Dark Brotherhood, but as soon as he's located, Rufio will die!"
I slowly closed the book and replaced it in its original position. At least one question was answered now: Claudius Arcadia had indeed been successful in his attempt to contact the Dark Brotherhood. And I happened to know that his assumption that Rufio would die as soon as he had been located had been quite accurate. My curiosity finally satisfied, I softly closed the door behind me and returned downstairs. I had work to do.
Midnight found me at the door of The Main Ingredient with my lockpicks ready. The hours I had spent training paid off, for it took me less than a minute to get the door open and quietly slip inside.
The interior of the shop lay in semi-darkness. There was enough light to see by, but not to read the labels on the various jars, pots and boxes that stood around. I resorted to my Night Vision spell and looked around. Within minutes, I had found what I had been looking for: a jar of Nightshade. I took a handful of the dried flowers, then replaced the jar exactly as it had been. I also helped myself to a mortar and pestle and various other apparatus, arranging the remaining pieces so that it was not immediately evident that something was missing. I carefully wrapped everything in rags to prevent it from clinking together, then left as silently as I had come.
On my way to my next stop, my eyes fell on another sign, and I suddenly remembered Antoinetta again. Divine Elegance was the best and most expensive clothing shop in the city, and of course for my Sister the best was just good enough. The shop's proprietor, an Altmer named Palonirya, was notoriously paranoid as well as stingy, and she was known for disdaining everybody who could not or did not want to afford her creations.
Breaking into Divine Elegance would be a challenge, for the entrance was well lit, and every now and then a guard would come by on patrol. Still, I was confident that I could get in and out without anyone the wiser. I hid in a nearby corner for a while, and when the guard had disappeared from sight, I became invisible and went to inspect the lock.
It was, of course, a good lock. I selected a pick and set to work, and it took me more than five minutes to pick it. At last, though, there was a soft "click", and I quickly vanished inside before the guard returned.
Finding what I was looking for did not take long. Brocades, silks and velvets were Palonirya's trademarks. She very rarely worked with linen and would not even touch felt or similarly "inferior" materials. Within minutes, I had located a lovely shirt of deep blue silk, tastefully embroidered with gold thread. I held it up against my chest estimating its size, and, concluding that it would probably fit Antoinetta, carefully packed it away. As I was about to leave, my eyes fell on a beautifully crafted slender ebony bracelet set with dark jade stones. I pocketed it as well, then left, highly satisfied. I had one more purchase to make, and this time, I even intended to pay for it.
"Hello Sam", I said softly, stepping from the shadows.
"Whoa", he exclaimed, reaching for his dagger, then relaxing as he recognised me. "Oh, it's you. By the Nine, where did you come from?"
I did not bother with an answer. Sam had always talked too much in my opinion. I had always wondered how he managed to stay in business. The Thieves' Guild frowns on freelance thieves (which had been no small problem for me not long ago). For some reason, though, he seemed unconcerned about them.
"So, what do you need?" he asked with an oily smile.
"Skooma", I replied curtly, causing him to raise an eyebrow in surprise.
"Well, well", he drawled. "I'd never have pegged you down as a user..."
"Cut it", I told him coolly. "If you cannot sell, say so and I will find someone who can."
He raised his hands. "Okay, okay, no need to get excited. It just happens that I have a flask available." He regarded me with a calculating look. "Just how badly do you need it?"
I sighed and made as if to leave. "Hey, wait", he called after me. I stopped. "I'm sure we can reach an agreement, my pretty." He leered.
That did it. I stepped up close to him and drew my dagger. His eyes bulged. "I pay in gold", I informed him calmly, "or in steel. No other currencies." Sufferthorn's point was about an inch away from his eye.
He swallowed hard. "All right", he whispered, sweat breaking on his brow. "Eighty gold."
I nodded, stepping back and sheathing my blade. I counted out the gold into his shaking hand and received a small, tightly stoppered vial. Without another word I turned on my heel and left. I needed to make one last visit to my hut on the Waterfront.
I was surprised to find that nobody had been in my shack since I had left, even though the door had been unlocked for a full day. Everything appeared to be undisturbed. I made a quick search through the corners to avoid being surprised by more mud crabs or other pests, then spread my loot on the table. Time to get to work.
Two hours later, I carefully pried open the skooma vial and poured out a few drops of its contents. I replaced them with the Nightshade essence I had just prepared and replaced the stopper, sealing it with a drop of wax from my candle. Perfect. I wrapped the flask into a rag and pocketed it, then put the alchemical apparatus along with the remainders of my work and two bricks into a sack. Shortly afterwards, every trace of what I had been doing was resting safely on the bottom of Lake Rumare. Very pleased with myself, I returned to the comforts of my room at the King and Queen Tavern.
I awoke about an hour before noon, feeling groggy. Even though I had been tired, it had already been getting light outside when I had finally fallen asleep. I definitely needed to do something about this. For the moment, however, I had more immediate concerns.
I dressed and went downstairs for a late breakfast or early lunch. While I was eating, I managed to engage my hostess in a conversation about the neighbourhood, and finally got her to talking about the seemingly abandoned house two doors down the street.
"That's Lorkmir's house", she said. "Come to think of it, I haven't seen him in a while. But then, he never socialised much." She prattled on about how some people simply could not be bothered to interact with their neighbours, and that such a lack of etiquette would have been heavily frowned upon in the Good Old Days. I listened with one ear and made the appropriate noises, which seemed to be the correct reaction. Finally I pushed back my empty plate, complimented her on the food, and excused myself.
From what the two women at the Tiber Septim had told me, I guessed Faelian to be wandering about the city by now. Trying to find him would be nearly impossible, so I decided to take up position near the hotel and wait until he came back. I could not be sure whether Lorkmir's house was the place where he went to do his skooma, on the other hand, I knew for a fact that he returned to Atraena every evening.
I arrived at Talos Plaza and stationed myself in a convenient corner. Leaning against a wall, I waited patiently. Fortunately, I was in no hurry with this contract and could afford to spend a day observing my prey, or rather his dwelling.
It was late in the afternoon, the sun was already starting to set, when finally something interesting happened. A lone figure came walking unsteadily around the corner of the hotel. The man fit Thoronir's description well: an Altmer with haggard features, dressed in stained clothes that must once have been expensive. What remained of his brown hair was tied in an untidy ponytail, and the top of his head was already completely bald. He staggered, gesturing at something only he could see and muttering to himself. I was too far away to understand a word of what he was saying, but judging from the state he was in, it was probably gibberish anyway.
I made no move to follow him as he vanished into the hotel. I had no doubt that the sorry figure really was Faelian, and now at least I knew where he was. I would stay put and wait for him to come out again. According to Mistress Calidia, he never stayed long with his sweetheart, so I expected him to come out some time during the small hours of morning. Fortunately I had come prepared for this eventuality. I settled against the wall more comfortably, took some dried fruit from my pocket, and started nibbling on it. I had nothing but time.
In the end, I nearly missed him. Midnight had long passed, and I was getting a bit drowsy. Consequently, I almost failed to notice the hotel door opening. At the last moment, I saw a shadow emerge from the hotel and start lurching down the street. Muttering a curse, I left my hiding place and followed him.
Contrary to popular belief, shadowing someone is actually easier during the day. It helps tremendously if there are other people around. Fortunately, my mark was anything but observant, and he was moving slowly enough that I could keep a healthy distance without having to fear that I might lose him.
As I followed him through the deserted streets, I slowly became convinced that he had no particular destination. Rather, he seemed to wander about aimlessly, sometimes walking in circles, sometimes stopping for a while. Shortly before dawn, he reached the Arboretum, where he spent about half an hour ambling in circles around the statue of Tiber Septim in the centre of the park.
As the sky grew lighter, he finally broke away from the statue and staggered towards the gate to the Arena District. My heart sank - if he decided to go and watch the fights, I might be stuck there all day. Fortunately, it was too early, and after rattling the gate that sealed the Arena's main entrance during the night, he tottered off again, mumbling and cursing.
By mid-morning, my feet hurt and I was beginning to feel seriously tired. Faelian had taken me on a tour through the entire city, finally winding up in the Elven Gardens District. As he slowly drew near Lorkmir's house, my hopes rose. When I saw him take a key from his pocket and actually enter the house, I felt a tremendous relief. Now it was time to end this game.
I cast a quick glance about me, and when I was satisfied that nobody was paying me any notice, I stepped over to the house and tried the door. Faelian had not locked it behind him. Silently, I entered.
The stench that hit me nearly made me gag. I smelled a nauseating mixture of rotten food, dirt and urine. The floor was caked with filth and vomit. Most of the furniture had been broken or at least damaged, shards of smashed crockery were lying around. The only things that still looked usable were a small table littered with empty flasks and some chairs in the far corner of the room.
Faelian was standing beside them and turned as I coughed softly. He blinked at me in obvious confusion. "Hey! Whoa! You shouldn't sneak up on people like that!" His speech was badly slurred, and he seemed to have trouble recalling the appropriate words.
"Hello, Faelian", I said softly.
He frowned, as if trying to remember something. "Faelian? Hey, that's my name! Yeah. I'm Faelian." He cocked his head. "What do you want... friend? Wait... You're not my friend. If you were my friend, you'd give me something. Like, you know... skooma!" He giggled inanely. "Skooma! You want to... want to be my friend? I'll... I'll tell you what. Skooma's the only thing... the only thing I want..."
I refrained from informing him that I had got the message, as it probably would have done no good. Instead, I reached into my pocket and produced the vial I had prepared. "Is this what you want?" I asked.
His eyes lit up, and he greedily snatched the flask from my hand. "You have skooma!" He cackled madly. "Oh... Oh my friend! Yeah... You're my friend now! Thank you... Thank you!" He cradled the vial against his chest like a baby. "You know what?" He beamed at me. "Since you're my friend now, I'll... I'll let you use my special place!" He made a sweeping gesture with his free hand. "Do you like my special place? This is... this is where I come to... to relax." Another mad cackle. "There used to be someone living here, you know, but he... he's not around any longer. Or he is, but he doesn't... doesn't care anymore that I have his key and... and use his house." He giggled gleefully.
I listened to his ramblings with growing disgust and wished he would finally open that vial and be done with it. He capered around with the flask still clutched to his chest, then stopped and squinted at me. "Say, you don't talk a lot, do you? You... You're kind of weird. You know that? But... That's okay. I... I like crazy people. I like crazy people... and skooma!" He raised the vial towards me in a mock salute, then finally pried open the stopper. I watched breathlessly, whispering a silent prayer to Sithis in my mind as he raised the flask to his lips and downed the contents in one gulp.
"Aaah..." he sighed, then frowned. "This... this tastes funny... are you sure... sure it's okay?"
I did not bother with an answer, but watched impassively as his hand shot up to clutch at his throat. His eyes widened in horror, and he fell to the ground with a gurgling sound. His legs kicked at the air, then he lay still.
I almost sighed in relief, but the stench prevented me. I bent over Faelian to make sure that he really was dead. He was. Nodding in satisfaction, I pried the empty vial from his grasp and pocketed it. I had no intention of leaving any traces of the poison around, so I took one of the empty flasks from the table and put it into his hand. Then, as quietly as I had come, I left.
Half an hour later, I was enjoying a well-earned bath in my room at the tavern. Even the short stay in the filth of Faelian's "special place" had made me feel dirty. I soaked in the tub for almost an hour, then went downstairs for an opulent lunch. Afterwards, I returned to my room, fell onto my bed and slept like a log until sunset.
After dinner, I did what little packing I had to do, bid farewell to my hosts and went to collect my horse from the stables. I was feeling more than a little homesick and longing for the quiet of the Sanctuary.
I arrived in Cheydinhal just before sunrise and went immediately to see Ocheeva. The Argonian listened intently as I delivered my report, and as I had expected, she was most pleased with the outcome of the contract.
"Perfect", she congratulated me. "Phillida will never suspect our hand in this one, if he suspects murder at all. Very well done indeed."
"Thank you", I said modestly. "It was hard work, though. You know that talking to people to get information from them does not come easily to me."
She grinned. "Which is exactly why I gave this contract to you", she admitted. "You needed a bit of training, and it seems to have worked quite well." She seemed extraordinarily pleased with herself, and I grimaced. She laughed, then got up and took a large bundle from her wardrobe. Handing it to me along with a purse, she said, "Here is your reward and bonus. I know that Vicente gave you a dagger for one of your contracts, but there are times when it is wiser to strike a target from a distance."
I unwrapped the bundle and held my breath. In my hands I held a beautifully crafted bow. Its surface seemed to swallow the light, even the string was dark.
"It is called Shadowhunt", Ocheeva explained. "It has some rather useful properties."
I thanked her again and carefully rewrapped the bow. Ocheeva yawned, displaying her needle-sharp teeth. "Excuse me", she said, "but I'm feeling a little tired. I imagine you are as well - why don't you go and rest?"
I nodded. "Sleep well", I said.
"You too, Sister. May the Night Mother guard your dreams."
I certainly wished she would.