Abject terror. That was the first and last thing she remembered. She had been taken out of her bedroll by several masked thugs and rendered unconscious with some kind of spell. When she awoke, she was stripped of her armor and weapons, bound on an altar, and a high elf was standing over her with a blade, chanting. She didn’t even have time to scream before the blade came down and she blacked out.
Amelia Degarmo opened her eyes in her own bed, and if not for the fact that she was wearing someone else’s armor, she might have thought the mage and the altar had just been a terrible dream. Well, the armor and the pain in her chest. Just over her heart was a puncture wound the size of a dagger’s tip, not deep enough to kill her, but significant nonetheless. How in the name of the Divines had she survived that, and how had she gotten back here?
“What a week I’m having,” Amelia muttered to herself.
“Well, well,” said a masculine voice. “Look who’s finally awake.”
She looked up to see a man standing in her bedroom doorway, one she knew well. Jakarn—thief, spy, sometimes lover, and good friend—stood there, flipping a coin in the air and smiling at her. She often favored elves—except for the snarling Altmer who had stuck a dagger in her chest, of course—or more elvish Bretons; but Jakarn was drop-dead gorgeous, with silky dark hair, big blue eyes, and a baby face. And oh, did he know it.
“What are you doing here?” she asked him. “What am I doing here?”
“Kaleen pulled you out of the ocean, and I brought you home and stuck around to make sure you were all right. I was starting to wonder; that was a couple of days ago. And hey, get this: you were glowing.”
“What? What do you mean, I was glowing?”
“You had this pale, yellow aura around you. Somebody or something was looking out for you, probably to keep you from drowning.”
“You know I don’t believe you, right?”
An injured expression crossed his face. “Aw, Red, would I lie to you?”
“Absolutely. You said Kaleen saved me? Are you serious?” Amelia and the captain of the Spearhead had history, and not a pleasant one. She had helped the captain recover a powerful artifact some months back, and Kaleen had wanted to use it for the benefit of the Daggerfall Covenant. But the artifact was dangerous and already responsible for many deaths. It was best if it was destroyed, and Amelia had done so, but her decision hadn’t set well with Kaleen. The captain had unceremoniously kicked Amelia off her ship.
“You may not get along, but that doesn’t mean she wants you dead,” said Jakarn.
“But how did I get in the ocean?”
“No idea. Well, now that you’re okay, I have somewhere I have to be.”
“Just like that?”
“Are you okay?”
That was Jakarn; he never stayed in one place longer than absolutely necessary. Unless he thought he was going to get laid, and he probably figured Amelia wasn’t in the mood, having just awakened from being stabbed in the chest.
She shrugged. “I’m okay, considering. You go, love. I’ll be all right.”
Jakarn walked into the room, sat down on the bed, and placed a kiss on her forehead. “If you need me, you know where to find me.”
“No, I don’t. I never know where to find you; you always just sort of show up.”
With a chuckle, he said, “No way, I’m a changed man! I’m a dedicated crewman on the Spearhead now.”
“Aye, until Kaleen kicks you off the ship. Thanks for watching over me, Jakarn.”
“Are you sure you don’t need me to stay awhile?”
He might of offered, but Amelia could tell by his tone of voice that he was itching to go. He’d sat still for a couple of days, much longer than he liked. “No, I’m fine. Hungry, but fine.”
“Then, I’ll see you soon, my dear.” He kissed her on the mouth this time, just a quick peck, and then he left the apartment.
Amelia got up and went to find some food. She shared the top floor of a tailor’s shop with Kireina Skaarsgard, a soft-spoken Nord and her dearest friend. Kireina wasn’t home; she was probably out on some quest. It was what they did. There were mercenaries and spent a lot of time doing “odd jobs” for the people of High Rock. Sometimes they adventured together, but Amelia had been alone when she was taken.
She ate some bread, cheese, a handful of grapes, and drank a glass of wine, then went back to her bedroom and stood before the mirror. She was short, even for a Breton, with blue eyes and red hair which she kept cut in a bob and usually tucked behind her ears to reveal the earrings which she collected obsessively. Men had told her she was beautiful, but she had always thought her cheeks were too soft. They gave her a pixieish look and made her look younger than she was. Today, she was pale, and her eyes were puffy. She would have thought several days of sleep would have rested her enough to alleviate the puffiness. Someone had placed a couple of rough stitches in the wound on her chest, and though it was sore, it was healing. She picked up a comb and ran it through her hair but groaned. “Oh, screw it,” she said, and plopped down on the bed.
She needed rest, she was sure of it; but as she lay there, Amelia realized she wasn’t the least bit tired. Maybe she should have asked Jakarn to stay for a while, because when she closed her eyes, she could see the Altmer standing over her, dagger in hand, ready to pierce her heart. Gods, no. It was time to get up. She climbed out of bed, dug into her stash of gold, and headed toward the market to replace her weapons and good armor. The armor she was wearing was cute, but it showed a lot of skin. If she kept it—which she might, because it fit nicely—it would need a lot of enchantments to protect her.
Once she was properly armed and armored, she would find work. Anything, just so long as she didn’t have to sit in her room alone and think.
* * *
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 missed her friend. After what had happened, she could have used the company. She did a few jobs and trained a lot, 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 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 jobs 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.
Giblets 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 sloshed into the shallow water and stopped at a small hillock toward the back, where Amelia found what he wanted her to see. It was Roy, lying dead in a pool of blood.
“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. She had never even heard of blood oranges and black roses.
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 stabbed her in the shoulder, in the only spot the Argonian armor left exposed. 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 unable 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 and rubbing his head and back soothingly. “Let’s go find a town guard and tell him what happened.”
She told the first guard she saw about Roy 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, but Amelia was curious, so she 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 noticed the cut on Amelia’s chest. “What happened?”
“I found a body in the pond by the mill. You probably know him; he owns the dog, Giblets. He was carrying this list.” She handed her the list.
The florist sighed. “Oh, that’s a pity. Poor Roy, looks like he finally got himself killed.”
“And almost me. I was attacked near his body, I assume by the same man 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 and Kireina frequented his establishment. “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; 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. People talk, and I listen. Then I talk to my friends, like Roy.”
“And yet you understood a coded message from the King’s Intelligence Network.”
“Look, I’ve told you what I can. What you do with that information is up to you.”
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, stopping on the way to the tailor’s and pressing gently on the wound to assess whether it needed stitches or not. It wasn’t deep enough to worry about it, so she just left it. Damn Argonian armor. The leather jack left part of her chest and shoulder exposed, but before today she had never taken a blow to the area. It was a small spot, more of an embellishment than a chink—so it hadn’t concerned her before today. 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. Maybe she would have to reconsider that.
Amelia 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 always smelled like freshly washed cotton. He was her landlord, and she knew him well. He was a nice guy, and he didn’t harp about the rent being late when both she and Kireina were away on a job. He knew they were good for it. When she walked into the shop, he looked up from his chair behind the counter, where he sat working on an embroidery pattern.
“Did you finally decide to let me make that green silk dress for you?”
“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.”
Amelia nodded. “His name was Roy.”
With a sigh, he said, “I knew him. Well, I’m sorry he’s dead, but I’m not surprised. Roy had a way of finding trouble. 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.”
“Aye, 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, warm green eyes, and adorable, slightly pointed ears. She made her way to the wall behind the Mages’ Guild, but before she could reach him, another assailant darted out from a dark corner. 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 to her temple, and for just a moment she thought she was about to feel another blade piercing her skin.
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 went up 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 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 to her temple, an act that was too personal for a stranger, but Amelia found she didn’t mind. 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. The pain started to ease up right away.
“Now,” said Aresin. “What happened?”
“I have information from Roy.”
“Roy? 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 shopping list. “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 gash in her chest, which was also 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 murder, but I haven’t had a chance to tell anybody about—” She swallowed a huge lump in her throat. “Sorry. It just now happened and my adrenaline is . . . I’m not used to getting attacked in my own city, especially twice in one day. I can handle myself, I swear.”
“I’m sure you can. 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 Degarmo. Or you can call me Red. Half of Daggerfall calls me Red.”
“Amelia,” he said with a smile. “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. The florist told me it meant somebody was going to die. It’s an assassination plot, isn’t it?”
“Indeed. I just don’t know who the target is. Talk to Grenna 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. The orc 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 Orsimer today, but she didn’t have a choice so she steeled herself and went to the inn. She found Grenna in her regular spot, a table by the cooking fire, and 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,” she said quietly, leaning across the table. “He uncovered an assassination plot and got murdered for it.”
“Mauloch’s toenails, he stepped in a viper’s nest this time, didn’t he? One of the snakes is upstairs, talking about somebody getting killed for meddling, but I thought he was just blustering. His name’s Laveque. Maybe you can get him to talk. 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? If so, she wondered if she’d get paid. She was a mercenary after all, but she’d never taken a job for a royal before.
It was quiet upstairs, too quiet. She drew her swords on the landing midway up to 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. Amelia 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 at the man. “Laveque, I assume?”
He squealed like a little girl and ran up the stairs to the third floor, and Amelia pursued him. There was really nowhere to run up there, and she cornered him easily. “Surely you don’t believe I had anything to do with that, do you?” he stammered as he cowered before her.
“Are you joking? You said, ‘Don’t let her get me,’ and I was attacked! But I’ll let you live if you give me some information.”
He stood up and straightened his tunic. “Agreed. Martine Lerineaux hired me.”
“That was a little too easy,” she murmured dubiously.
He nodded at her swords. “I’m no fighter. More like a coward. I know when to give in.”
“Fine. What did Lerineaux hire you for?”
“I’m a mason. Lerineaux wanted me to make him a map of Daggerfall’s tunnels.”
“The secret ones that lead to the castle. Most cities have tunnel systems under them in addition to the sewers. Bolt holes and such.”
“Good to know.”
“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 so he can enjoy the local color. You stay here, you understand? Don’t even try to leave the inn, or I’ll sic the orc on you and she will eat you for lunch.”
She left Leveque and went back to Grenna.
“I thought I heard some noise upstairs. Did you kill him?”
“The bitch who tried to kill me is dead, but I left Leveque alive. I did tell him you might not be so kind if he tried to leave the inn. He said he gave Martine Lerineaux information about secret tunnels leading to the castle.”
“Martine Lerineaux? 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 unused 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 hairy fight with. Finally sending him dead to the floor below, 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, 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 killer 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. Only then did she realize she was covered with blood. She must have terrified the townspeople she had passed.
“This city is crawling with Bloodthorns, and they’re all trying to kill me. None of this blood is mine; I’m afraid I’m building up a pile of dead assassins. Oh, and Martine Larineaux. He was working with them to map out the tunnels under the city.”
“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.”
“I’m not sure you do. I’m talking about dark magic. Very dark.”
“That may be so, but all I’ve seen so far is daggers, and I know how to deal with those.”
“Of that, I have 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. She just hoped she didn’t have to search them all. There just wasn’t time. She would start with the two ships that were docked in port, but if she didn’t find the assassins there, she couldn’t just leave the docks unsearched. She searched the Lydia first. No one was out in the open, but two crates held people, one a Khajiit stowaway who wailed that he had just wanted a ride, and the other a Bloodthorn assassin.
“You’re too late,” the killer 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.” The 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, if for nothing but the training. 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. Having to haul and heat the water would even be worth it.
Amelia ran as fast as she could through the streets of Daggerfall, but her feet felt as though they were slogging through mud. She finally dashed past the guards 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.”
“With all due respect, 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.
Two guards practically carried King Casimir 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 them fell before the rest of them finished off the intruders.
“Amelia!” called Aresin as he scuffled with the last one. “Upstairs!”
She scrambled 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, even after Aresin’s warning, 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 the body. “Captain, this isn’t easy for me to say, but I want to apologize for ignoring your warnings.”
“It was nothing, my king. Forgive my impertinence.”
“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. And you’ll be paid well for your work today.” 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 Dale.” 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.”