Amelia spent the next few weeks alone; she heard Kireina was doing a job that took her all the way to the Alik’r Desert, and she really missed her friend. After all that had happened, she could really have used the company. She did a few jobs and trained, keeping herself busy and glad for any distraction she could find.
One morning when she was out and about, Giblets the dog ran up to her. He was a small mixed breed with brown fur and a constantly wagging tail. He belonged to a man named Roy, whom she had run a few interesting errands for in the past. He was a nice guy, affable and generally unassuming, but Amelia got the idea from the errands he sent her on that he knew a lot more about the inner workings of Daggerfall than he let on.
“Hi, Giblets!” she cooed, scratching the pup behind the ears.
The dog whined and ducked his head, his tail tucked between his legs, very uncharacteristic for the friendly mutt.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
He whined again and turned to slink away, but then turned back and keened at her. He did it a couple of times, and she realized he wanted her to follow.
“All right, I’m coming.”
He led her through town, stopping every now and then to sniff something on the trail, finally coming to the pond next to the mill. He splashed into the water and stopped at a small hillock toward the back, where Amelia found what he wanted her to see. It was Roy, lying dead.
“Oh, no,” she groaned as she knelt to examine the body. He had died of stab wounds, and recently. He didn’t have much on him, just a dagger, a coin purse, and a damp shopping list—and an odd one at that. It called for three blood oranges from the grocer, a crescent-emblem cloak from the tailor, and black roses with thorns from the florist.
But before she could say, “What an odd shopping list,” a man wearing dark leather armor and wielding two daggers leapt out from behind a sickly looking vine in the back corner of the pond and advanced on her.
“What in the void?” she cried, dodging a swipe from one of the daggers and quickly drawing her own swords. She wasn’t fast enough, though, and he slashed her across the chest. It was a shallow cut, but it stung. She rolled out of the way before he could get another shot in, centered herself, and swung with her blade, catching him in the chest as well. Her swords were longer than his daggers, and he was no longer able to dart in and strike at her, but he was still quick and she had a time taking him down. She finally delivered a devastating jab to his side and he collapsed dead in the water.
Amelia looked up to see Giblets cowering in a corner. “Come on, boy,” she said, kneeling before him. “Let’s go find a town guard and tell him what happened.”
She told the first guard she saw about the body in the pond and her assailant, and after asking her a few questions he let her go and went to examine the crime scene. He didn’t seem interested in the shopping list, so Amelia took it to the florist’s kiosk in the marketplace.
The florist, who she thought was named Diane, smiled when she approached. “Good morning,” she said. “Can I interest you in a posy to gain a sweetheart’s favor perhaps?”
“Not today. I was thinking of black roses with thorns.”
Diane’s eyes widened as she looked down and saw the blood and the tear in Amelia’s shirt. “What happened?”
“I found a body in the pond by the mill. You probably know him; he owns Giblets. He was carrying this list.” She handed her the list.
The florist shook her head. “Oh, that’s a pity. Well, now, this is a mess.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve heard whispers of dark magic, the kind of thing Roy would be interested in. Looks like it got him killed.”
“And almost me. I was attacked near his body, I assume by the same guy who killed him.”
“Are you all right?”
Amelia shrugged. “Just a scratch, really. Believe me, I’ve had worse. Thanks for your help.”
“Be careful. I’d hate for Roy’s fate to befall you.”
From the florist, she went to the grocer, who was sorting vegetables at his stand. Amelia knew Christoph Lamont a bit better than the florist because she frequented his establishment. She and Kireina bought most of their fruits, vegetables, and spices from him. “Good morning, Red,” said the blond Breton when she stepped up. “What can I get for you today?”
“How about three blood oranges?”
Christoph looked all around and then leaned in close. He whispered, “Why would you ask about that?”
“I found a list on a dead body.”
“That’s a phrase from the King’s Intelligence Network. It means somebody is going to get killed. Look, you didn’t hear this from me. I don’t want any trouble.”
“I understand, but trouble seems to have found me.”
“I don’t know anything else. Just leave me be. Ask Roy; this sounds like something he’d be interested in.”
“Oh, sweet Mara. Listen, Roy was a friend; I trusted him. But I don’t really know you, and I don’t trust you.”
“Come on, Christoph. I need some help here.”
“I can’t help you, Red. I’m just a simple grocer who sells fruits and vegetables. People talk, and I listen. Then I talk to my friends, like Roy. As for other people? Maybe they should decide what they’re going to do, now that they know so much.”
Amelia sighed. “Thanks, Christoph. I’ll leave you alone now.”
“Hey, Red?” he said, catching her arm as she turned away. “Be careful, you hear?”
“You too. Thanks again. Come on, Giblets.”
But the dog didn’t move. He lay down at Christoph’s feet.
“I’ll take care of him,” the grocer said.
She left the marketplace, deciding to go home and change from her street clothes into her armor, seeing how all these people were cautioning her to be careful. She daubed a healing salve into her chest wound and assessed whether she should stitch it up or not. Figuring it wasn’t deep enough to worry about, she left it alone and donned her armor. The Argonian cuirass left part of her chest and shoulder exposed, including the knife wound. She had never taken a blow to the area while wearing her armor and had no reason to believe she would have done so today if she had been wearing it, so she didn’t give it more than a passing thought. Besides, the cuirass looked good on her. She knew it was shallow, that she should be more interested in protection than appearance, but she was a bit vain—she couldn’t help it.
After she changed, Amelia left her apartment and headed up the hill to the Winvale’s Winsome Loom, which was by the south gate. Kareem Winvale didn’t have a kiosk; he was inside, and his store smelled like fresh cotton. When she walked into the shop, he looked up from his chair behind the counter, where he sat with fabric, needle, and thread. “Did you finally decide to let me make that green silk dress for you, then?”
“Kareem, I told you I don’t wear dresses.”
“More’s the pity. What can I get for you?”
“I was looking for a cloak with a crescent emblem.”
“I’m afraid those aren’t for sale,” he said cautiously.
“Really? Because I found a shopping list on a dead man.”
“Dead man? Rugged fellow? Had a dog?”
Amelia nodded. “His name was Roy.”
With a sigh, he said, “Well, I’m sorry he’s dead, but I’m not surprised. Roy had a way of finding trouble. If you find out what he knew and who killed him, I’m sure you’ll be rewarded. That being said, it’s also a good way to get yourself killed.”
“Tell me about it,” she muttered.
“I liked Roy. He was good to Daggerfall’s merchants. In exchange, we gave him information. He never told me as much, but I’m sure he worked for King Casimir. Have you reported the crime?”
“I talked to a city guard.”
“Go to Captain Aresin. He usually patrols the wall between the Mages Guild and the castle.”
“I’ll do that. Thanks, Kareem.”
“Come back if you change your mind about the dress. And for Divines’ sake, be careful.”
“Yeah, people keep telling me that.”
She had never spoken to Captain Aresin, but she knew who he was. He was a sweet-faced man in his mid-thirties, with a shaven head and warm green eyes. She also knew where to find him, and she made her way to the wall behind the Mages’ Guild. Before she could reach him, however, another assailant leapt out from behind a bush.
Amelia stepped out of the way and brought an elbow to his head when he lunged by, then yanked the dagger out of his hand and threw it. He drew a second dagger, but instead of stabbing at her, he turned it around and hit her with it. She reeled from the blow, and for just a moment she thought she was about to die again. But he didn’t stab her. He just grabbed her by the hair and growled, “Stop meddling in our affairs.” Then he disappeared back into the shadows.
“Whose affairs!” she shouted after him. Shaken, she took a moment to clear her head and then ascended the stairs to find the captain.
He was easy to pick out as he stood on the wall with a handful of guards. His armor was more elaborate than the others’, and well, he was pretty. She walked up and said his name, and when he looked down at her, a small smile crossed his lips. “Welcome to Daggerfall,” he said coolly.
“Actually, I live here, but thanks. I was told to come see you.”
He furrowed a brow and studied her critically. “Are you all right?” he asked with concern.
“I was assaulted at the bottom of the stairs.”
The captain reached out and gingerly touched what would probably turn out to be a nasty bruise on her temple, then he turned to one of his guards. “Healing potion,” he barked, and the guard went to a nearby crate and produced a red vial. He brought it to Amelia, who gulped it down.
“Now,” said Aresin. “What happened?”
“I have information from Roy.”
“Roy? Where is he? Why did he send a stranger in his place?”
“He’s dead.” She handed him the note. “You might want to see this.”
“Mara’s hands!” he muttered as read the note. “How did you come across this?”
“His dog led me to him. Roy was murdered; the killer attacked me too.”
“You were injured in the fight?”
She pointed to the shallow slash across her chest, which was fading thanks to the potion. “This was earlier. I killed that one, although the one down the stairs got away from me. I told one of the town guards about the murderer, but I haven’t had a chance to tell anybody about—” She swallowed a huge lump in her throat. “Sorry. I can handle myself, but it just now happened and my adrenaline is . . . I’m not used to getting attacked in my own city, especially twice in one day.”
“An understatement, I’m sure. Take time to catch your breath.” He waited while Amelia bent over and put her hands on her knees, gasping for air. When she stood to full height again, he said, “Did you know the guard you told about the murder? I’ll have to get ahold of him.”
“I don’t know his name, I’m sorry.”
“What’s your name?”
“Amelia DesJardin. Or you can call me Red. Half of Daggerfall calls me Red.”
He nodded. “Amelia,” he said with a smile. “This says somebody is going to be assassinated. I just don’t know who. I need to find out who’s behind this.”
“The one who hit me told me to stay out of their affairs. Makes me want to learn more too.”
“Talk to Grenna gra-Kush at the Rosy Lion Inn. Tell her what happened and see if she knows anything, then report back to me.”
“I know Grenna.”
“Good. And Amelia, don’t try anything funny. I’m asking for your help because you’re already involved and for some crazy reason I want to trust you, but if I find out you’re in any way responsible, I’ll cut you down.”
“Fair enough. I’ll go see Grenna.”
Amelia and Kireina had spent enough time at the Rosy Lion to know most of its regular patrons, and she wasn’t all that fond of Grenna gra-Kush. She was outspoken, rude, and could be downright hostile when the mood struck her, which was often. Amelia wasn’t in the mood to deal with a temperamental orc today, but she didn’t have a choice so she steeled herself and went to the inn anyway.
As soon as she walked in, Ferou Rouillac stumbled into her. “Red, it’s you!” he slurred. “Come to have a . . . a . . . what do I want?”
“Yeah, that’s it! Come to have a drink with me?”
“You know it’s not even noon yet, right?”
“I think I’ve been here all night.”
“Maybe you should go home and go to bed.”
Ferou chuckled. “That’s a good idea. Sure you won’t have a drink with me?”
“Not today, Ferou. I’ll drink with you some other time.”
“All right, but you don’t know what you’re missin’.”
She left the drunk and headed to a table by the cooking fire, which was Grenna’s regular spot. The orc was there, and Amelia sat down across the table from her.
“I’m busy!” Grenna snarled. “Can’t you see I’m drinking here?”
“Captain Aresin sent me.”
“And? Why are we talking?”
“Roy’s dead. He uncovered an assassination plot and got murdered for it.”
“Mauloch’s toenails, he stepped in a viper’s nest this time. One of the snakes is upstairs, talking about somebody getting killed for meddling, but I thought he was just blustering. I’d confront him, but he knows me. Maybe you can get him to talk. Get up there and talk to Leveque. Rattle his cage, but don’t kill him. We might need him later.”
“And don’t mention me! I’m not an agent of the crown; I’m just an orc having a drink.”
“Understood.” As she ascended the stairs, Amelia had to wonder: did this make her an agent of the crown? Her life had taken all sorts of weird turns since she was dragged from her bedroll and sacrificed to Molag Bal. It was quiet upstairs, too quiet. She drew her swords on the landing where the steps turned toward the second floor.
When she reached the top of the stairs, she came face-to-face with a terrified, yellow-haired Breton. “Oh, no!” he cried. “I’ve been discovered. Don’t let her get me!”
Again, an assassin stepped from the shadows. She was ready for this one, and she met her head-on. She parried the ever-present dagger and pierced the killer’s heart with one thrust. “I’m getting really tired of this!” she grumbled angrily. She glared back up at the man, whom she assumed was Leveque. He squealed and ran up the stairs to the third floor, and Amelia pursued him. There was really nowhere to run on the third floor, and she cornered him easily.
“I’m betting you did. But I’ll let it go if you give me some information.”
He stood up and straightened his tunic. “Agreed. Martine Lerineaux hired me.”
“That was a little too easy.”
He nodded to her swords. “I’m no fighter. I know when to give in.”
“Fine. What did Lerineaux hire you for?”
“I’m a mason, you see. Lerineaux wanted me to make him a map of Daggerfall’s tunnels.”
“The secret ones that lead to the castle. But I don’t know what he’s planning, I swear.”
“Well, what in Oblivion do you think he’s planning, you idiot? Somebody doesn’t ask for a map of secret tunnels just to pass the time of day. You stay here, you understand? Don’t even try to leave the inn, or Grenna will eat you for lunch.” She left Leveque upstairs and went back to Grenna.
“I thought I heard some noise upstairs. Did you let the snake live?”
“The bitch who tried to kill me is dead, but I left Leveque alive. I did tell him you might not be so kind. He said he gave Martine Lerineaux information about secret tunnels leading to the castle.”
“Martine Lerineaux? The bastard! He lives right next door. Go search his house and see if you turn up any evidence. He’s a merchant; he should be at his shop right now.”
“I’m off, then.”
“I’ll stay here and keep an eye on Leveque, so take anything you find to Captain Aresin.”
Amelia went behind Lerineaux’s house, picked the lock on the back door, and slipped inside. The manor was lushly furnished and meticulously clean, but it was cold. Not just the temperature—it was the residence of someone who cared only about how the house looked, not about making it a home. And standing before the fireplace was another man in the same armor as her attackers. He didn’t hear her come in, though, and she was able to sneak up behind him and cut his throat. She wasn’t so lucky with the one at the top of the stairs, whom she had a difficult fight with. Finally sending him dead to the floor, she made her way to a sitting area, where she found Martine Lerineaux himself.
“Kill the intruder!” he cried, lunging for her.
Lerineaux was less experienced than his thugs, and he died without much of a fight. When he fell, Amelia turned quickly, ready for the next assailant, but there was none. With a sigh of relief, she began to look around the house.
In an office upstairs, she found a letter to Lerineaux from someone named Verrik. Apparently, a group called the Bloodthorns, led by someone named Angof, intended to assassinate King Casimir. They were smuggling the killers in on a ship and were set to strike at nightfall. She left Lerineaux’s house and went to Captain Aresin.
“You look a bit worse for wear,” he noted when she met him atop the wall.
“This city is crawling with Bloodthorns, and they’re all trying to kill me.”
“Bloodthorns? Are you sure?” She handed him Verrik’s letter, and he scowled at her. “Most of the royal family is secure, but his lordship is brave and stubborn. He refuses to leave the throne room. All right, keep this quiet or we’ll never get to the assassins in time. Get to the docks and see if you can find them. Do you need backup?”
“Probably better if I don’t have it. A complement of soldiers will alert them.”
“I don’t need to tell you to be careful, Amelia. These Bloodthorns, they’re ruthless and they’re pure evil. And Divines help us if the king is killed; it will destroy the alliance.”
“Maybe that’s what they’re going for.”
“No doubt. I’ll get to the castle. You get to the docks.”
* * *
Amelia found it hard to believe that there could be that many crates in the world, much less on Daggerfall’s docks. There were hundreds, and most were big enough to hold a fully grown adult. But she searched them all, at least until she found the right ones on the Lydia. Two crates held people, one a stowaway who wailed that he had just wanted a ride, and the other a Bloodthorn assassin.
“You’re too late,” the assassin boasted. “Verrik is already on his way to Daggerfall Castle.”
“Then what are you still doing here?”
“Don’t you know? I’m here to kill you.”
“Not going to happen.” She Bloodthorn lunged for her, and she stepped aside and brought her sword up, catching him in the throat and thanking the gods for good combat training. She had no love for the one who had taught her to fight, but at times like this she couldn’t help but be appreciative. She just wondered how many more she was going to have to fight off before she could go home and soak in a hot bath.
Amelia ran as fast as she could through the streets of Daggerfall, but her feet felt as though they were slogging through the mud. Getting to the castle seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, but she finally dashed past the guards, up the stairs, and through the ornate double doors. She entered the throne room in time to hear Captain Aresin, who was standing amid a crowd of castle guards, pleading with the king to leave.
“My lord, you must go now.”
“I will not!” the king replied imperiously. “The dragon does not flee its lair.”
“But they’re coming for you, and you’re no dragon. Wait, what was that?”
Amelia hadn’t even heard the door open behind her, but suddenly a handful of Bloodthorns rushed in, all brandishing daggers.
“Get the king out of here!” Aresin shouted at the guards. “Go!”
Two guards practically carried King Casamir out of the throne room and up the stairs while the remaining three, Aresin, and Amelia all drew their swords. Though she was starting to develop a splitting headache, she fought on, slashing at the nearest assassin furiously, then lunging for another after he was dead. Aresin and the guards fought bravely as well, although one of the guards fell before the rest of them finished off the intruders.
“Amelia!” called Aresin as he fought against the last one. “Upstairs!”
She ran up the stairs off the throne room to the mezzanine above, to find the two guards dead and another Bloodthorn menacing the king. This one was different, wearing heavy armor instead of dark leathers, and he wielded a sword instead of twin daggers. Verrik, it had to be. Amelia struck at him from behind and he whirled on her, sweeping her sword out of the way with his own and coming in for a quick thrust to her midsection. “No one will stand in Angof’s way!” he snarled.
“I’m more worried about you at the moment,” she countered with a grunt as the blow caught her enough to cut a good gash through her leather armor and into her skin. A healing potion wouldn’t close this one; it would need stitches. Still, where he only had one sword, she had two, and she was able to parry the next thrust and get one of her own in before Verrik could reset.
She didn’t count on magic, though, and the assassin spun around and flung a lightning bolt at her. Her right arm sizzled and scorched, and she cried out in pain and dropped her sword. As he followed through on his spin, he left his side vulnerable, and she managed to bury her other blade deep into his flesh. Aresin made it to the mezzanine just in time to see her twist the sword and jerk upward, sending Verrik to the floor with a spray of blood.
“Good riddance,” said the king, walking over and peering down at Verrik’s body. “Captain, this isn’t easy for me to say, but I want to apologize for ignoring your warnings.”
“Not at all. You’re right: I’m no dragon. And I believe I owe a debt of gratitude to our friend here.”
“This is Amelia.”
“Amelia, you have a place in my guard, if you want it.”
“Thank you, my king,” she replied, “but I’m more of a . . . freelancer.”
“In that case, I’ll be sure to call on you when we need someone of your talents.” He nodded to the two of them and headed back downstairs.
The captain smiled at her. “Good work today.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t call me ‘sir,’ Amelia. It doesn’t sound right, coming from you.”
“My name is Aresin.” He nodded at the gash in her side and the burn on her arm. “You’re injured again.”
She nodded. “It’s been a long day.”