Selene didn’t have much to say as she and Blanche started back across Skyrim. After a while, Blanche broke the silence. “If you’d still like to give me a good backhand, I’ll oblige.”
Selene looked down at her gloved hand and chuckled. “If you’d said that six hours ago, I might have done it. But I find I don’t really want to hit you. Besides, they say if you spank a child, the punishment is over quickly and it doesn’t really sink in. I’d rather just let you know how disappointed I am in you.”
Mild annoyance seeped into her scent. “Not all vampires are like that.”
“Look, I can understand feeding. You do what you have to do to survive. But the things I saw in that castle . . . if you’re not like that, why do you allow it? You’re the lady of the manor, aren’t you?”
“The castle is meant to be a safe haven for our kind. Keeping human cattle makes that much easier . . . and less dangerous. I don’t care for the practice, myself, but I allow it in the best interest of everyone.” She blinked. “And it isn’t as if we take hostages on a regular basis. Some come of their own will. Most are bandits, vagrants, and far from innocent.”
Selene didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but there wasn’t much she could do, so she changed the subject. “We should go back to the college first. Urag will still be doing research if we don’t stop him. Then again, knowing him, he may still research it even if we do stop him.”
“What are you planning to tell him?”
“The same thing I’m going to tell Ulfric: the problem is handled, but it’s not in anyone’s best interest to give details.” She shrugged. “I’m a Nightingale; they’re used to me being cryptic.”
Blanche didn’t speak for a while after that. Her scent was muted, as always, but she seemed to be having feelings of contradiction, as if she was arguing with herself. When she finally did speak, her voice was low. “I never did lie to you when we left Windhelm. I only told you what you asked for.”
“You may not have spoken a lie, but you let me assume you weren’t the culprit, and you even went searching with me,” Selene bit back. “It amounts to the same thing, Blanche. I chose to trust you, something I don’t do easily, and you betrayed that trust. It’ll be a long time before I fully trust you again.” This was met with a callous silence, and Selene slowed down a little. “I know you felt you had no reason to trust me, but for some reason I thought my history with the Companions, my connection to Farkas, and his trust of me would go farther. I’m not going to tell him what you did, but you should. You’re married to the man; he deserves to know everything about you.”
Blanche’s voice turned sour. “I’ve already been betrayed by people I thought were good, and you were a stranger. Put yourself in my boots—if I had come to your doorstep, hoping to root out a problem that would expose your lycanthropy to, oh, I don’t know, the world, would you have wanted to admit anything? Tell me honestly.”
“You’re right — probably not.” After another lengthy, awkward silence, Selene breathed a heavy sigh. “Okay. Just promise me this: next time we go out on a mission together and you have some deep, dark secret that will help us out or possibly get me killed, trust me and let me in on it. I’m not judgmental, I’m open-minded, and I can keep a secret. I’ll do the same for you. I like traveling with you, and I had a great time fighting alongside you. I’d like to do it again, but we have to trust each other.”
Blanche’s lips twitched out a brief smile. “Deal.”
More of the tension faded away, and by the time they stopped for the night, most of the awkwardness was gone. Blanche didn’t bother pretending to eat and simply sat by the fire, keeping Selene company as she ate dried venison, bread, and cheese and drank her last bottle of mead.
“Tell me about your daughter, Rowan,” she prodded. “Farkas has mentioned her once or twice.”
A broad smile crossed Selene’s lips and she took a sip of mead. “Rowan’s kind of . . . kind of a miracle for us. We didn’t even know I was pregnant with her until after I lost the other one. She’s just over a year old now, she’s got fiery red curls, even redder than Brynjolf’s hair, and she’s just gorgeous. She’s already taken her first steps, and she says, ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada.’ And oddly, something that sounds a little bit like ‘Vekel,’ although I guess it could be ‘Vilkas.’ She’s a happy baby, so good natured. I miss her like crazy. And Brynjolf, too. We haven’t been apart this long in forever.”
“Send them our greetings when you go back to Riften.” Blanche smiled, maybe a little wistfully.
“So are Sophie and Lucia going to grow up to be fighters? Are you going to train them to join the Companions?”
“Lucia might. She loves using the daggers I always bring home for the two of them, and she’s more of a tough nut than anything else. But then, she lived in Whiterun; she knew the Companions. You should have seen her face when she found out who I was married to.” She stared into the fire contemplatively.“Sofie has had enough of fighting, I think. Did you know Rolff Stone-Fist would even kick her around on some evenings after he’d had too much mead?” Her lip twitched. “It isn’t just dark elves he bothers. Someday I’ll do more than knock that bastard’s front teeth out.”
Selene’s blood boiled. “I wonder if Galmar and Ulfric know about that,” she muttered darkly. “I may have to pay old Rolff a visit when we get back to Windhelm.”
“Send him my regards if you do.” Blanche reached down to scratch her leg. “What about Rowan? It’s a little early, but considering her lineage, it might not be too big a leap to say she’ll be all but kleptomaniac, no?”
“Ha! No child of mine will be a common klepto, thank you very much,” Selene replied with mock indignation. “She will be trained by the finest thieves and fighters in all of Tamriel.” She chuckled and shook her head. “No, we’ve already decided to give her a choice. We’ll train her, but if she doesn’t want to go into the family business, that’s her prerogative. She can do anything she wants. Uncle Vilkas is already talking about training her as a Companion. He and Lydia were in Riften a few weeks ago and visited for a while. He said Rowan has a strong sword arm. Now, how he can tell that when she’s only a year old is beyond me. Lydia’s pregnant, you know.”
“Oh, is she? I didn’t know.” Blanche’s eyes snapped with animal-like quickness to a rabbit that broke free from the brush and scampered up the trail ahead of them. “They haven’t visited in a while. Oh, and how is Delvin faring? He’s an old friend of mine.”
“Del never changes. He’s still handing out jobs, drinking barrels of mead, and trying desperately to gain Vex’s affections. He goes to Solstheim every few months to visit his brother, but other than that, he rarely leaves the Flagon. You all should come visit. I bet Rowan would love having a couple of little girls to toddle after. And Brynjolf adores Farkas.”
“Delvin has a brother? Huh.” Blanche chuckled. “I may take you up on that offer. I’ve wanted to get them all out of Windhelm for a while. They say Riften is a corrupted city, but I wouldn’t give Windhelm a medal for piety either.”
Selene gave an exaggerated gasp. “Riften, corrupt? Why, I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. Say what you want about Riften and the Thieves Guild, but one thing I can tell you is that there’s less violence there than in all the other hold capitals combined. We do get the occasional vampire, but the bandits and thugs know to stay out of our city. We protect our own—even if they’re paying us to protect them. There’s also no skooma trade in Riften. I made sure of that personally.”
“I’ll give you that.” She briefly squinted up at the sky from beneath her hood. “You and Brynjolf . . . how did you end up together? I know, same profession, but he never seemed the type to stay with one woman for long.” She peered at Selene curiously. “How did you tame him?”
“I think it was love at first sight for us, or at least it was for me.” Selene grinned happily. “He picked my pocket, I picked his, he robbed me blind, I threatened his life, and it just sort of blossomed from there. A fortune teller had once told him a dark woman with blue eyes would kiss his cheek and she’d be the greatest love of his life. I kissed his cheek the day after we met, and I don’t think he ever fought it. Since we got together, we’ve hardly ever been apart. But I don’t think I ever really tamed him,” she admitted. “Rowan has tamed him. He’s downright domestic these days.”
“A fortune teller? It wasn’t Olava the Feeble, was it? She’s never wrong,” Blanche mused. “If she said it, then it is. Not that I couldn’t see it myself.”
“It was Olava,” Selene confirmed. “What do you mean, you could see it yourself?”
“You and Brynjolf are made for each other. Anyone with half a brain would see that.” Blanche smiled lightly. “Only so many men would stay with the slayer of Alduin during the rough patches. And I wouldn’t say he is exactly the self-sacrificing type for anyone else.”
“No, not really.” She sighed sadly. “I just can’t get back to him fast enough.”
“I’m sorry for keeping you from him.”
“It’s all right.” Selene found she meant it.
* * *
Once the tension was relieved, Blanche opened up somewhat. The vampire was quiet as ever, but something about her demeanor changed; before then, she had given off a grave, almost heavy feeling from the way she held her face and body, and there was a weight to every one of her words, as if each had been acutely processed through her head before she said it. Much of this went away after that talk, and Selene felt the change as if a window had been opened in an attic. They also got the opportunity to fight together again when they were attacked by bandits their second night on the road to Winterhold, and after standing back-to-back, firing arrows into their enemies from every side (and even pulling arrows from the quiver on Blanche’s back when Selene ran out), something started to form that could almost, but not quite, be called friendship.
At the college, Selene gave Urag a vague explanation, assuring him that the issue of the sun had been resolved and no further research was necessary. They made it back to Windhelm the next day, just as the afternoon sun was at its peak.
“I need to go to the palace and talk to the High King. Do you want to go with me, or would you rather get back to Hjerim and see Farkas and the girls?”
“I prefer to keep an eye on His Majesty, but I would like to see my family. And don’t you don’t want another bear hug from Farkas? I’m sure Ulfric can wait another half hour.”
Selene grinned. “You know what? He can. Let’s go see your family.”
Blanche returned the smile—brief but genuine—and the two strolled toward Hjerim, passing through the market on the way. It still wasn’t completely inhabited, but Niranye and a few other shopkeepers had returned. They, however, looked at the two women with strange, almost unfriendly stares, and it was not until Hjerim’s porch came into view that Blanche and Selene understood why.
The door hung ajar, and Blanche paused to look at it. “What . . . ?” She pushed it open and stopped dead.
The place was wrecked. Weapon plaques were stripped from the walls, tables were overturned, display cases had been smashed, and all of their contents were gone. Old food and glass from broken bottles littered the floor. Books were shredded, their pages strewn about as if by a madman, and cupboards had been emptied with sweeping arms. Someone had even taken the liberty of slicing all of the standing and wall-mounted candles in half. The house was deathly silent.
Her heart in her throat, Selene sniffed around. Except for the dead dog in the front room, the house was empty. Farkas and the girls were gone. “There’s no one here.”
“But . . . they have to be.” Blanche’s voice was on the verge of shaking, and she visibly struggled to keep it even. “Sofie? Lucia?” She whisked through the main hall and peered into the girls’ room. The beds had been shredded. “Farkas?”
The secret panel in the back of the wardrobe had been kicked apart, and Blanche stared blankly at the enchanting table that had been struck with some heavy object and split down the center. She turned and dashed up the stairs, and Selene followed. In a crack between a mannequin and another wrecked display case, a little glass jingled, and Sofie’s small, white fox emerged weakly, scratched and rumpled.
“Vix,” Blanche breathed, bending to pick the animal up. “I was afraid . . .” She trailed off as the reality set in, and she crumpled to the floor, hunched over as she cradled the fox. Her scent broiled over with terror and guilt, but underneath it all, a sense of sheer rage was slowly coming to life. But her face was straight; the only evidence of it was her quivering hands as she buried her fingers into the fox’s fur.
Selene looked around a bit while she waited for the Redguard to contain herself, looking for any evidence of who had trashed the house and why. There was nothing, just wall-to-wall destruction. Several vaguely familiar scents wafted through the house, mostly human, but none she could pin down. Even so, it was a bit encouraging to note that except for the dog, she could smell no other blood in the house. If they had been hurt or killed, it hadn’t been here. For now, it was enough to allow the hope that wherever they were, Farkas and the girls were all right. She finally went back to Blanche and knelt down.
“We’ll find out what happened here,” she said gently. “I want to go to the palace and see what Ulfric knows. Do you want to go with me or stay here?”
The fox suddenly squeaked and fled Blanche’s arms, and the Redgaurd turned her blazing eyes up to Selene. “Yes,” she replied, her voice dangerously smooth. “Let’s pay His Highness a royal visit.”
Feeling protective of her, Selene led her through town and to the door of the Palace of the Kings, where the guard gave her a steady glare. “Stormblade.”
She stared him in the eye. “Let me in, please.”
He opened the door, and she and Blanche went inside, where they found Ulfric sitting on his throne.
The High King closed his eyes tiredly as they approached the throne. “Welcome back, Selene.”
“No welcome for me, of course,” Blanche spat, looking like she wanted to rip his face off. “Skip the formalities, Your Grace—what have you done with my family?”
“I haven’t ‘done’ anything,” Ulfric scowled at her. “The Dawnguard walked in, telling me about a vampire possibly living in my city.” He stood from his throne and approached them both. “They said it was you. Given the circumsta–”
He was cut off abruptly when Blanche’s fingernails flew down the side of his face with an angry screech. “You bastard!”
Selene grabbed Blanche by the hood and yanked her back as guards started to approach. Ulfric reached for the Redguard, and Selene put hand on his chest to stop him.
“Your Grace, wait. Just wait.” She turned to Blanche and took hold of her arms, her fingers digging into the flesh. It was the first time Selene had actually touched her; her arms were ice cold. “Get control of yourself,” she warned her. “You just assaulted the High King; all you’re doing is making things worse for everybody. Look at me, Blanche.” Blanche’s eyes met hers, and she said, “It’s going to be okay. This is all just a big misunderstanding. But you can’t help Farkas and the girls if you get yourself thrown in jail.”
Blanche blinked at her, almost not comprehending. After a few moments, she nodded and kept her place behind Selene.
Selene turned back to Ulfric, one hand still holding Blanche’s arm. “So, my lord,” she sneered. “Did you investigate or just take the word of a group that kills first and asks questions later?”
Ulfric touched the bleeding scratches on his face and shot Blanche a hateful look. “I was going to say, given the circumstances, I told them to go ahead and find out.”
Blanche peered over Selene’s shoulder. “All due respect, you do realize that that meant ransacking and looting my house, killing my dog, and taking my family to Talos knows where, where ‘finding out’ will involve torture. They will kill even the slightest suspect. Ask the Jarl of Riften—I’m sure she could tell you plenty about that.”
“Ulfric—Your Grace—tell me you didn’t let them take Farkas and the girls,” Selene pleaded.
Ulfric kept his ground, but he wouldn’t meet either of the women’s eyes. “I didn’t expect them to walk out of the city with them,” he muttered, “but I couldn’t very well stop them, even if I’d wanted to.”
Blanche hissed softly.
“Why not?” Selene demanded. “You’re the High King; you can do whatever you want. But you didn’t want to stop them, did you? Why?”
“If a vampire is rooting around in my city,” Ulfric retaliated, “I want it gone, and I don’t think sending the Dawnguard away empty handed would have set well with anyone. How could anyone trust their king if he won’t settle issues right inside his own walls?”
“How could anyone trust their king if he might let their families be hauled away while they’re on—what was it called—court business?” Blanche spat from behind Selene.
“So you just allowed an innocent man and two children to be dragged away because Blanche might be a vampire?” Selene glared at him. “With all due respect, Your Grace, this is the biggest mistake you have ever made. They’ll die; you know that, right? You know Farkas, and you know that even if there was anything to tell, he’d die before he’d crack. And what do you think they’ll do to those little girls?”
“Everybody cracks, Selene.”
The comment pulled Selene up short. Ulfric had to believe that so he could sleep at night, and he didn’t need to hear that she disagreed. Then again, if the Dawnguard was threatening the children, she had no way of knowing how much information Farkas would give up.
“Where did they take them? Fort Dawnguard?”
“I don’t know. Probably.” Ulfric cleared this throat. “. . . Are you a vampire, Blanche?”
Blanche’s eye twitched. “You could have asked me that before Hjerim was ransacked.”
“If all plays out well, you’ll be reimbursed.”
“I don’t want to be reimbursed,” she snapped. “I want my husband and my daughters. I thank you very much for your generosity, my king, but may I please go and get them now before they lose too many body parts?”
He raised a brow at her. “You never answered my question.”
“Let’s put it this way.” Blanche’s hair practically fluffed up of its own accord. “If I return from Fort Dawnguard alive, then I survived like any human would. Fair enough?”
“Just so you know,” Selene mentioned, “we discovered the source of the sun blinking out. It’s been taken care of and won’t happen again. Don’t ask me details because certain elements of the mission need to be . . . protected.”
Ulfric’s eyes snapped straight to Blanche, but she wasn’t looking at him, and Selene stepped back into his line of vision.
“Your Grace, Blanche may not want reimbursement, but I would ask that while we’re gone, somebody go in and clean the place up. And feed her pet fox. If this is all right with Blanche, of course.” She gave Blanche a questioning glance. The Redguard nodded once, and Selene turned away without giving the king time to respond.
She headed toward the door, but she only got a few feet before she stopped and went back. Standing very close to him and gazing earnestly into his eyes, she said, “Ulfric, I know that on some level, you still love me. With that in mind, I have a question for you. What if I told you I was a vampire?”
Ulfric tried not to waver, but he couldn’t quite meet Selene’s hypnotic blue eyes. “I’m not sure,” he admitted, caressing her cheek lightly. “But you aren’t dangerous. I know you, Selene. While I don’t approve of your profession, you only take coin, not lifeblood. Not innocent lifeblood. That Redguard—” His eyes flicked to Blanche very briefly. “—is a stranger. I don’t know where she’s from, what she’s done. I barely know her name. Selene, you must understand.”
“‘That Redguard’ is my friend, and I trust her with my life. And I am dangerous; you know this. I’m simply your ally—well, more than just an ally—and you know I would never hurt you and yours. I do understand, love. You don’t know her, and you have every right not to trust her. But she is a citizen in your city—and a Companion, to boot—and she was out helping me with a mission for you, in case you didn’t know.”
“I had been told, yes.”
“You should have given her the benefit of the doubt or at least protected her family. To let the Dawnguard go in and take Farkas—who you do know—and their two little girls . . . Ulfric, I just can’t believe you did that. You have disappointed me before, but this is so much . . . you aren’t the person I thought you were.”
Ulfric looked away, pain on his face and filtering through his scent. “All this about vampires and suns disappearing had me uneasy, Selene. And Nilsine . . . Nilsine is pregnant and in bad health.” He brought his eyes back to Selene’s. “We found she was carrying just after you left. And I wanted nothing to threaten her.” He glanced back at Blanche again. “Perhaps that made me a bit rash.”
“Bad health?” Selene repeated. “What’s wrong? Do you know?”
Ulfric sighed and shook his head. “She was sickly as it was, but the sun scared her half to death, and the child seems to be taking its toll even this early. I fear for her.”
“Ulfric, help us fix this. Please. How long ago did it happen? When did they take them?”
“They came and went only a couple of days after you left. I do believe they’ve returned to Fort Dawnguard. Be careful, Selene. If they knew Blanche would be as . . . concerned . . . as she is, it may be a trap to lure her in, not just an interrogation. Or it may be both; I can’t say.”
“I need you to get a message to Vilkas as soon as possible. I doubt he will have time to get there before it’s all over, but he needs to know about this. Tell him what happened, and tell him to go to the Ragged Flagon in Riften for further instructions.” She turned to Blanche. “Is there anyone you want him to contact for you?”
Blanche shook her head.
“Very well,” said Ulfric. “I’ll see to it.”
Selene placed a hand on the High King’s cheek, and he closed his eyes and covered it with his own. She pulled it away after a moment and said, “I hope Nilsine gets better. I don’t know if I’ll return to Windhelm with Blanche when this is over, but be sure to keep me informed as to how she’s doing. And if either of you need me, I’ll be here.” With that, she turned to Blanche. “Let’s go.”