Selene and Brynjolf arrived at the Sleeping Giant Inn only minutes after Delphine, who was standing at the door, peering down the street and scanning the woods across the river. “I don’t believe either of us was followed,” she told them, waving them inside. She nodded at Orgnar and proceeded through her room and downstairs to her secret chamber. “Any luck with Ulfric Stormcloak?”
“He has a man in Solitude,” Selene replied, “but they don’t actually have anybody at the Embassy. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Emperor by now.”
“I have. Things are rather chaotic in Solitude, but we shouldn’t wait on this. I’ve found a way to get you into the embassy, and soon. The Thalmor ambassador, Elenwen, regularly throws parties where the rich and connected cozy up to the Thalmor. She’s having one in a week, and I can get you an invitation.”
“I probably already have an invitation. I’m a thane of Solitude.”
“You’re a thane?”
Selene looked up at Brynjolf and placed her hands on her hips. “See what I mean about people underestimating me? Aye, Delphine, I’m a thane. They invite me to all of these things, but obviously I never go.”
“Well, you’re going to this one. I’m not trying to tell you what you to do; this is just the best way. Once you’re inside the embassy, you can get away and find Elewen’s secret files.”
Brynjolf grunted. “The Emperor is assassinated, and it’s business as usual for the Thalmor.”
“Fortunately for us.”
“This isn’t going to work,” Selene protested. “There’s a reason I don’t go to parties at the embassy. I was with Ulfric when he sacked the city. I killed General Tullius personally, for Talos’ sake!”
“You killed General Tullius?” Delphine asked incredulously.
Selene didn’t reply, just rolled her eyes.
“Just because you’re known in Solitude doesn’t mean everyone at the party will know you’re Stormblade,” Brynjolf pointed out. “The Thalmor don’t spend much time in Solitude proper, so I doubt they’ll recognize you. The others who do know you likely won’t say anything. I’ve infiltrated parties like this before, and it’s usually just a bunch of rich drunks clamoring for attention. I doubt anyone will even look at you sideways. Besides, who could imagine that Stormblade would actually show up at a Thalmor party?”
“Jarl Elisif and the other thanes will probably be there, not to mention other jarls.”
“All the jarls are Stormcloaks, remember? They won’t even be there. Elisif is a trusted friend; she won’t rat you out. Erikur won’t say anything due his ties with the Guild. And then you have the whole thing with Bryling and Falk Firebeard. This can work, love.”
Selene rubbed her temples, trying to fend off a blossoming headache. Delphine was going to get her killed; she just knew it. “All right, say I manage to infiltrate the embassy. Then what?”
“That’s when the fun starts,” the innkeeper replied. “You’ll have to slip away from the party without raising an alarm; then you’ll need to find Elenwen’s office and search her files.”
“I can probably get a floor plan from Ulfric’s contact, so that will help.”
“Obviously you can’t go in armed to the teeth. I can help with that. Ulfric Stormcloak may not have a contact inside the embassy, but I do. He’s a wood elf named Malborn. I’ll set a meeting with him at two o’clock the day of the party. You won’t be able to take anything in with you, so plan on giving Malborn anything you think you’ll need when you search the embassy. He’ll smuggle them in and help you get away once you’re inside. When you’re done, get back here as soon as you can. Any other questions?”
“Formal dress, I assume?”
“Aye,” Brynjolf answered.
Selene nodded. “All right, then. We’ll be in Solitude within the week.”
* * *
They arrived in Solitude a day early, and sure enough, an invitation was waiting at her house. It was addressed only to “Selene plus one,” and her surname was not mentioned. She imagined the embassy got the list of potential guests from Falk Firebeard, and he was smart enough not to give them that information.
After settling in, Selene went to the Blue Palace to see Thrand, Ulfric’s contact.
“Aye, I can get you a map,” the operative said. “But you’re telling me this glorified innkeeper managed to get a contact inside when we couldn’t?”
“Boggles the mind, no?”
“I’m off duty at seven. Meet me at the Winking Skeever, and I’ll give you a map of the embassy.”
From there, she went to Radiant Raiment and bought an outfit for the occasion. She chose a long, teal dress and a gorgeous purple surcoat with gold trim and buttons. Black would be better if she needed to hide, but one didn’t wear black to a formal occasion unless someone had died. She would have to make do, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t look good while she was at it.
“You look beautiful,” Brynjolf said as she posed before him after trying the dress on.
“A perfect fit,” Endarie, the Altmer who co-owned the shop with her sister, beamed. “Even if it is off the rack.”
“What are you getting?” Selene asked her husband.
Brynjolf shook his head. “I’m not going to the party.”
“What? Of course you are.”
“Can you two argue after you give me the dress to wrap up?” Endarie asked with a long-suffering sigh.
For all that most of the time Endarie was a raging bitch, Selene actually liked her, and she seemed to like Selene. She had shown off one of their outfits to Elisif once, and evidently the jarl had spent hundreds of septims on new clothes as a result. Now, whenever Selene was in the shop, Endarie and her sister insisted on showing her all their new creations, trying them on her as though she were a paper doll.
Selene stepped into the back, slipped out of her dress and back into her armor, then went out front to wait while Endarie wrapped the dress and surcoat. She stopped at a display shelf on her way and picked up a small handbag that matched the dress, then dropped it on the counter.
“You go in the front door,” Brynjolf whispered, “and I’ll get in the easy way.”
“I don’t know if splitting up is such a good idea.”
“We’ll look at the plans and then decide. If I need to, I’ll come back over and pick something up. You won’t mind, will you, Endarie?”
The snooty seamstress, who had just returned to the counter, raised her eyebrows and put on a fake smile as she handed Selene the dress. “No, not at all! I’ll be sure to drop everything and rush to your aid as soon as you return! It’s not as though I have other customers.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Do you need shoes, my thane?”
“I have a pair of boots that will work,” Selene replied.
Endarie rolled her eyes. “Oh, Divines help us.”
“You’re all heart, Endarie. Just the dress and the bag today.”
“Fine. Let’s just hope nobody looks at your feet.”
* * *
Later that night, the couple sat at the table in the loft and looked over the map Thrand had given them. Not only did it show a detailed floor plan of the embassy, adjoining solar, and yard, it also showed guard positions and notes about their habits and patrol schedules. The Stormcloaks may not have a permanent contact inside the embassy, but they had certainly done their homework on the layout.
“It looks like the main offices and dungeons are in this building,” Selene said, pointing at the solar. “That’s where we’ll need to look. I assume the party will be here, in the embassy ballroom. I’ll have to improvise once I get there.”
“There’s probably a bolt hole through the dungeon. I’ll see if I can find it and get in there. Otherwise, I’ll climb the wall here.”
“What about the guard stationed at the front door of the solar?”
“I’ll improvise, too.”
* * *
The day of Elenwen’s party dawned cold and gloomy, with steel-gray skies threatening snow. The vendors in Solitude’s marketplace didn’t let the weather bother them, though. The clang of Beirand’s hammer at the forge and the voices of the food peddlers rang through the air as Selene and Brynjolf walked toward the Winking Skeever to meet Malborn. A brisk wind blew down the street, and Selene shivered.
“I know I’m a Nord, and I know I’ve been here for years now, but on days like this, I really miss Cyrodiil.”
“Oh, no! I’m not keeping you warm enough! Must be losing my touch.” He wrapped an arm around her and kissed her temple.
They stepped into the welcome warmth of the tavern and spotted a Bosmer with brown hair and golden eyes sitting in a corner, looking nervous. They walked up to his table, and Selene sat down. “Are you Malborn?”
“Our mutual friend sent me.”
“Really? You’re who she picked? I hope she knows what she’s doing.”
In the main room, Lisette the bard started singing “The Dragonborn Comes.” Brynjolf chuckled.
“Here’s the deal,” Malborn muttered, casting a wary eye at Brynjolf. “I can smuggle some equipment into the embassy for you. Don’t plan on bringing anything else in. They take security very seriously, and they’re all on high alert since the Emperor was assassinated. They even talked about canceling this event altogether, but the ambassador is entertaining some visiting emissaries and is eager to show off. Give me what you cannot live without, and I’ll make sure to get it to the embassy. Once you’re in, I can help you slip away. The rest is up to you.”
Selene handed Malborn a belt holding a sword and dagger and a knapsack containing a couple of invisibility potions and some lockpicks.
“This isn’t much,” he noted. His hand shook a bit when he took the belt.
“I shouldn’t need much, and I’ll need the empty knapsack to store anything I pick up.”
“I’ve got to get back to the embassy. Find me when you get there; I’ll be tending bar.”
The nervous elf got up and left the Skeever, and Brynjolf sat down across from Selene. “He’s an amateur.”
“We knew that ahead of time, love.”
“Did you see how scared he was? I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a liability.”
After having a drink and making uncomfortable small talk with Gulum-Ei, they went back to Proudspire Manor. Selene dressed for the party, and at six o’clock they took the path out the Solitude gates and down the hill to the stables, where Selene hired a carriage to take her up to the embassy. Before boarding, she kissed Brynjolf and held his face in her hands, her eyes boring into his. “Promise me you won’t do anything foolhardy,” she whispered.
“Me? I’m the very soul of caution.”
“Last time I heard someone say that, she was running to fight a dragon. Be. Careful.”
Brynjolf kissed her forehead. “I will. I love you, wife.”
“I love you, too.”
Selene boarded the carriage, and the driver started out. It began to snow just as they turned off the main road and headed up the path toward the embassy. It was a beautiful drive through the pines, although the wind whipping through the trees gave her a bitter chill. Or perhaps it was just her apprehension. There were too many variables with this mission. Something would go wrong; she just knew it.
When they reached the top of the hill and rode through the embassy gates, Selene tipped the driver and climbed out of the carriage. A Redguard, who already seemed drunk, rushed up and offered his hand to help her disembark. “Ah, a fellow latecomer! That was quite a trip up the hill, wasn’t it? I kept getting lost, or I woulda been here sooner. I usually like to arrive early, preferably the day before, so I don’t miss out on all the drinking.”
Selene chuckled. “A Redguard who speaks like a Nord.”
“Or perhaps the Nords just drink like Redguards. Name’s Razelan. And what’s your name, lovely lady?”
Razelan offered her his elbow. “Will the lady allow me to escort her inside? Well, at least as far as the guard who will frisk us.”
Selene took his elbow, and they approached the Altmer who stood at the gate, his armor polished to a blinding sheen and his cold eyes peering down his nose at them.
“Welcome to the Thalmor embassy. Your invitations, please,” he requested in a haughty, highborn voice. Selene reached into her handbag and produced the invitation. The guard looked it over and nodded. “Now if I could see the contents of your bag, please.”
“Think she’s got a dagger hidden in there?” Razelan quipped.
“I’m just doing my duty, sir.”
Selene gave the guard an apologetic smile and opened the bag to show him some face powder, lip stain, and a few gold pieces.
“Thank you, ma’am. Go right in.”
She left Razelan to argue with the guard and ascended the stairs, taking a deep breath and swallowing a lump in her throat before opening the door and entering the lion’s den.
A tall, blonde Altmer stood in the foyer, the light, floral scent of her perfume permeating the hall. Her golden eyes had gray shadow on them, and the powder on her cheeks was the same color. Selene wondered if anyone had ever told her it made her look like a corpse.
The elf stepped forward. “Welcome! I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Elenwen, the Thalmor ambassador.”
“You’re Elenwen? I’ve heard so much about you.” The statement was true. Ulfric had told her all about the emissary, how she had tortured him for weeks, lied to him, and forced secrets from him. In her mind’s eye, she could still see the scars on his chest and back. If anyone had asked Selene, she would have said the great Ulfric Stormcloak couldn’t be broken. But Elenwen had broken him. And here she stood, smiling at Selene and welcoming her to the party. Blazing heat rose in her cheeks, and she wondered if the ambassador could sense the raw hatred she felt.
“All good, I trust,” said the Altmer. “But I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. I know nothing about you. What brings you to this…to Skyrim?”
“Madam Ambassador,” said a soft voice from around the corner. “I am so sorry to interrupt.”
Elenwen rolled her eyes, backed up and looked at the speaker. “What is it, Malborn?”
“It’s just that we’ve run out of the Alto wine. Do I have your permission to uncork the Arenthia red—?”
“Of course! I’ve told you before not to bother me with such trifles!”
“Yes, Madam Ambassador.”
Elenwen turned back to Selene. “My apologies.”
“I understand. I have the same problem with my staff.”
“Of course. We’ll get better acquainted later. Please, enjoy yourself.”
“Thank you.” Selene stepped past Elenwen into a lavishly decorated ballroom festooned with banners and streamers. Hundreds of candles were set in elaborate chandeliers hanging over the room, their heat ensuring that none of the cold night air would threaten the guests. Food tables piled with delicacies stood in arched nooks at regular intervals, and a handful of servers wandered around handing out drinks and hors d’oeuvres. A bard stood in one corner playing the flute. The room was already crowded, and Selene scanned the crowd to see if she knew anyone. She spotted Elisif, who was talking to Bryling. Erikur was in a corner chatting up a robed Thalmor. She thought she recognized one of the other Thalmor, a handsome, bald Altmer with a snow-white goatee who leaned against a pillar at the edge of the room watching the party disdainfully. Armor-clad guards stood in each of the four corners of the room, one only a couple of feet away from where she stood now.
Selene turned around to see Malborn standing at the bar behind her, and she walked over. “Welcome! What can I get you?”
“I’ll have some brandy.”
“Of course. Here is some of our finest Colovian brandy.” He lowered his voice and said, “You made it in; good. You’ll need to cause a distraction. I’ll open the door behind me, and we can get you on your way. Let’s hope we both live through this night.”
“It’s going to be all right, Malborn. Just stay calm.” She wished she believed it herself. Selene turned away from the bar and wandered around the room with her drink, offering hellos but not stopping to chat until she reached Elisif.
“Well, hello there!” Elisif greeted her. “I admit I’m surprised to see you here.”
“Not nearly as surprised as I am.” She turned to her fellow thane. “Bryling, would you excuse Elisif and me for just a moment?”
“Surely,” Bryling replied amicably before moseying across the room.
“What’s wrong?” Elisif asked her.
“Can I trust you, Elisif? I mean really trust you?”
“Of course. What do you need?”
“I need you to cause a scene. Get everyone’s attention for a few minutes.”
The jarl scowled at her. “What are you up to? Is it Guild business?”
Selene shook her head. “No. This is serious—very serious—and I need you to trust me.”
“Oh, all right. If it’s that important to you, I’ll be glad to help.”
Selene backed away and slowly moved toward the bar. Elisif crossed the room and stood near the bench where Razelan sat. The jarl didn’t make a move or sound for a moment, but then her mouth dropped open. “What! Do you know who I am? I should have you taken up and flogged!”
“What? Of course I know who you are. I didn’t mean to suggest—that is, I don’t remember even saying anything…”
People started to gather around the pair, and even the guards turned their attention to Elisif as she berated the drunken Redguard. “There’s no excuse for your behavior! You act like you’re carousing in a house of ill repute, not the residence of the Thalmor ambassador.”
“My jarl, I am shocked at such a suggestion! Just because they’re unaccustomed to manners, courtesy, and extended vocabulary doesn’t mean they’re unable to appreciate them.”
With that, Elenwen started yelling at Razelan as well. When no one was looking, Selene ducked behind the bar.
“Let’s go before anyone notices us,” Malborn whispered as he opened the door. Elisif and the ambassador were still haranguing the poor Redguard when Selene followed Malborn out of the ballroom and closed the door behind her.