Amelia descended a set of stone stairs and entered an office. It was furnished with a desk and some bookshelves, fairly unremarkable. A doorway led from the office to a master bedroom. Another doorway led to more stairs, where a beautiful Nord woman leaned against the wall. She was blonde and blue-eyed, and her hair was pulled back in a braid. She looked over and smiled.
“Amelia!” Astrid cooed, and she came forth with arms out to hug her. “What brings you here, Sister?”
Amelia hugged her back but otherwise didn’t waste any time. “The sanctuary in the Gold Coast was destroyed. My matron sent me out with a portal stone. As far as I know, I was the only one who made it out.”
Astrid’s eyes widened. “Destroyed? Are you serious? This is getting ridiculous. How did it happen? Do you know?”
“I wish I knew. The only thing we could think was that perhaps a newcomer who was on his way to the sanctuary was compromised. They hit us hard. They knew how to get inside and were prepared with some sort of alchemical reagent that even burned the stone walls.”
“When did this happen?”
“Just now. As far as I know, it’s still happening.” Amelia let out a breath. “Vallanil was there. Oh, gods, I shouldn’t have left! I should still be there fighting.”
Astrid placed a gentle hand on her arm. “Why stay there and die when you can leave and tell the tale? Perhaps we can help. You can stay as long as you want, of course. You’re family, after all. Besides, yours isn’t the only sanctuary that was hit. The one in Bravil was taken out as well.”
“Bravil? Isn’t that where the Night Mother was located?”
“It was. Her Keeper is bringing her here.”
“What in Oblivion is going on, Astrid? And is it just the ones in Cyrodiil, or do we have to worry here as well?”
“Like you, I wish I knew. Obviously we’re going to boost the wards on the Black Door, just in case. Come. Say hello to the others.”
Astrid led her down the stairs and into a large common room, where several assassins were joking about recent kills. One of them looked like a child, but she was not what she appeared to be. She was a vampire. Amelia didn’t know how old Babette was, but she figured she was at least a hundred years old, perhaps more. She came to Amelia immediately and gave her a hug.
The Matron stepped into the circle. “Brothers and sisters, I have bad news. The Gold Coast sanctuary was compromised and destroyed.”
Several voices all rose up at once.
“Damned do-gooders. I bet it was Akatosh worshipers.”
Astrid raised her hands for silence. “Amelia?”
“It was Imperial soldiers. We don’t know how they found us, but we suspect a brother who was on his way from Dawnstar might have been captured and interrogated.”
Festus Krex, an older man and master mage, furrowed his brow. “Dawnstar? That place isn’t even in use. If he said he was coming from there, he’s a liar.”
“Damn it,” Amelia whispered. “Then we know even less about it than we thought.”
“Other than you,” the childlike vampire said, “were there any survivors?”
“I don’t know. The matron sent me out in the middle of the battle, but there were many soldiers, so I would assume there will be few if any.”
“That’s convenient,” said a big, white-haired Nord. Amelia and Arnbjorn had never gotten along, although she had tried to make friends. It just seemed he hated everybody but Astrid. These days, she just didn’t put up with his shit.
“What are you implying, Arnbjorn?”
“You were the only survivor. That immediately puts you under suspicion.”
“Are you implying that I betrayed my family? That I betrayed the Brotherood? How dare you!”
“You have to admit his words have merit,” said Astrid. “I hate to say it, but until we know exactly what happened, we have to put you under suspicion.”
“This is just great,” Amelia muttered. “My husband was there, for Sithis’s sake! Why would I . . . well, please tell me you’re at least going to investigate.”
“We’ll find out what happened,” Astrid said gently.
Veezara, a Argonian Shadowscale who had been an assassin practically since he could walk, spoke softly and calmly. “I will take a portal to the Gold Coast and investigate.”
“Thank you, but you should know the battle may still be going on. I left in the middle of it.”
“Then perhaps I can help. I will help fight, and I will find out what happened.” He pulled a portal stone out of his pocket, muttered an incantation, and disappeared.
“What should I do in the meantime?”
“Make yourself at home,” said Astrid.
“Yeah, because you’re not going anywhere,” Arnbjorn barked.
Amelia glared at him. “I’m still not afraid of you, werewolf.”
“And I still see you as food, tidbit.”
Astrid rolled her eyes. “Can you two please not try to kill each other? Too much is going on for me to have to stand between you. I have preparations to make for the arrival of the Night Mother and her Keeper.”
“That’s really a great honor,” said Amelia.
Astrid grunted but didn’t respond. She just patted Amelia on the arm and went back up to her office.
Amelia looked at the others with confusion. “It is a great honor, isn’t it?”
Arnbjorn shrugged. “She doesn’t even talk to us anymore, so why should we care?”
“She doesn’t talk to you? What do you mean?”
“We haven’t had a Listener in years. People are still doing the Black Sacrament, but if she hears, she doesn’t tell us.”
“Then how do you get contracts?”
“If someone is performing the Black Sacrament,” Nazir, a handsome Redguard wearing traditional robes and turban from his homeland, added, “we find out about it.”
“So you’re the Speaker?” she asked him.
“We don’t really use those titles anymore, but I suppose you could call me that. That doesn’t mean I don’t take a contract of my own once in a while.”
“I had no idea you were on your own. You should have asked the other sanctuaries for help.”
“Why?” asked a surly Dunmer named Gabriella. “She abandoned us, so why would we possibly think the other sanctuaries could offer us any aid?”
Babette took her hand. “All this can wait. You look exhausted. Come with me, and I’ll find you a free bed. You can get some rest.”
Amelia let Babette lead her through the sanctuary and to a large dorm room much like the one in the Gold Coast sanctuary. She led her to an empty bed and said, “You can say here. Decorate the area in any way you like. We make our own privacy.”
“It was the same in the Gold Coast sanctuary. Exactly the same. Vallanil and I didn’t live there because as a married couple, we wanted more privacy.”
Babette chuckled. “I can understand that. You’re a daywalker, right? Or do you fear the sun?”
“I’m a daywalker.”
The tiny vampire sighed. “You’re lucky. I haven’t seen the sun in three hundred years. Get some rest, Amelia. I have a feeling you’re going to need it. We’ll talk later.”
The vampire left, and Amelia lay down and closed her eyes. But she didn’t sleep; she worried, playing the battle over and over in her mind and wondering if Vallanil was still alive. She was too far away to connect with him mentally, so there was no way to know. After a few minutes, she turned over, grasped her pillow, and wept.
* * * * * * *
Amelia did manage to sleep for a few hours, but she was plagued by nightmares of Vallanil burning alive. She finally gave in and got up, cleaned up and went to the kitchen. She smelled coffee, and she smiled. With everything going on, a good cup of coffee was a welcome diversion.
Gabriella was in the kitchen, also having a cup of coffee. Amelia went to the cookfire and poured a cup for herself, then sat down across the table from the Dunmer. “Any word yet?”
“Veezara just got back. He’s briefing Astrid now.”
“Oh, good.” Amelia took her cup and practically ran through the sanctuary, up the stairs toward Astrid’s office.
When Veezara saw her, he lowered his head.
“What?” she demanded. “What is it?”
“I’m afraid the sanctuary was completely destroyed.”
“Did you find out what happened?”
“Not really, but I can tell you confidence is high that Vallanil escaped. Your matron was still alive, though barely. She had survived by playing dead, and though the Imperials had placed guards on the door, they were no longer inside the sanctuary.”
“How badly was she hurt?”
“Fatally, I’m afraid. But she stayed alive long enough to tell me that Vallanil and one other had escaped through portals.”
“Gods, poor Adele. Did she say who the other was? Did she say where they had gone?”
Veezara tilted his head, thinking. “Hmm. Yes, his name was Baronus. Unfortunately, she didn’t know where the portals had taken them. She was doing well to speak at all at this point. She died in my arms. She did say that you were innocent.”
“Obviously we can’t go on just that,” said Astrid. “We’ll still have to do some more investigation before we can just let you roam free.”
Amelia sighed heavily. “Yes, I understand. But I’ll need to feed.”
“Babette has many blood potions, so that won’t be a problem.”
“Is there any chance you’re going to our house?” she asked Veezara. “I have a pet senche.”
The Argonian nodded. “Of course. I’ll have to search your house for any incriminating evidence. I’ll do my best not to damage anything, so you can retrieve your belongings if you’re found innocent. And I’ll bring your senche back here. What is his name?”
“Get settled in,” Astrid instructed her, “and we’ll get started.”
Amelia went to her bunk and lay down, hands behind her head and looking up at the ceiling. Vallanil was alive, thank Sithis, Dibella, and any other god who might have had a hand in it. Now, all there was to do was wait.
* * * * * * *
Veezara brought Sumah back the next day, and the big cat refused to leave Amelia’s side. They spent more than a fortnight in the sanctuary, worrying and waiting for word that she could leave. She was restless, wanting to find Vallanil and possibly start taking contracts, and but mostlyto find out what had really happened. Astrid finally came to her. She was in her bunk, communing silently with Sumah, when the Matron approached.
“We could find no evidence that you were involved,” she said. “Veezara searched your house and found nothing, of course; and he infiltrated the nearest redoubt and listened in. Though there was some chatter about the destruction of the sanctuary, nothing pointed to you, or anyone else, for that matter. Obviously we’ll keep an eye on you for a while, but if you would like to start taking some contracts, I’ll agree to that. I’ve never thought you were guilty in the first place, you know. It’s just protocols we have to go through.”
“But where did the evidence point?”
“Unfortunately, Veezara hit a dead end. He has gone back to the Gold Coast to try and pick up the scent again. I’m sorry there isn’t more to tell you.”
Amelia sighed with relief. “No, I understand. Thank you, Astrid. It’s just so hard not knowing what happened. I feel like I should be investigating.”
“Go see Nazir. I think he has some contracts for you. Simple things at first, just so you can get assimilated to how we do things here.”
She went to find Nazir, who stood next to a brazier in the common room and smiled when she and the senche approached. “Good day, sister. Astrid tells me you might be ready for some work.”
“Yes, please. Just sitting here is making me crazy.”
“I’ve already pulled some targets for you.” He picked up a file that was resting on the floor by his feet and pulled out three dossiers.
“Here we go,” he said as he handed them to her.
She looked at the first one, for a woman in Dawnstar named Beitild. She and her husband owned competing mining operations in the hamlet, and word had it that she worked her employees to death to get ahead. She had also apparently cheated on her husband, who was the client.
The second one was in Ivarstead, a man named Narfi, a local beggar, insane or mentally retarded by the looks of it, who had tried to rape the client’s daughter. Authorities felt sorry for Narfi and did nothing to him, so her father had performed the Black Sacrament.
Last was Ennodius Papius, a lumberjack at Anga’s Mill. Apparently he had started beating Anga and accusing her of collusion with “them,” although she had no idea who he meant. Nazir had done some digging and learned that Ennodius had more than one assassination contract out on him. He was also wanted in the Imperial City for murder.
Amelia looked through the files a couple of times and nodded appreciatively. “These are wonderful. Our Speaker always tried to give us as much information as possible, but I’ve heard that other sanctuaries just say ‘Here’s who you have to kill.’”
“We don’t do that here. We’ve been burned a few times by asking no questions, so we do our research before sending someone out on a contract. That way we can still pick and choose as the Night Mother did before she went silent. There’s no rush on the contracts; the targets aren’t going anywhere.” He furrowed her brow as he looked at her critically. “So you have a Speaker in the Gold Coast. Does that mean you have a Listener?”
“Yes, we do. Well, there was one for all of Cyrodiil, so who knows now?”
“But he or she listened to the Night Mother?”
Amelia nodded. “And told the Speaker, who told us.”
His expression gave way to one of confusion. “Why did she abandon us?” he asked helplessly.
“Maybe she didn’t. Maybe after the last Listener died, she just didn’t have anyone worthy to take the job.”
“Don’t let Astrid hear you say that. She has long held that she should be appointed Listener. But because the Night Mother wasn’t talking to us, there was no one to appoint her.”
“Perhaps that’s why the Keeper is bringing her here. Maybe a new Listener has been found.”
“Amelia, how long have you been doing this?”
“Just a few years. Why?”
“Many of us who have been in the Brotherhood a long time become jaded. But you have this bright-eyed innocence, and just hope it doesn’t get you killed.”
“I may not have been doing this very long, but I’m not a fool, and I’m far from innocent. I know better than to just rush into a situation. I’ll get started on these right away. Is there a town nearby where I might get some supplies?”
“Certainly. Falkreath is just up the road to the east.”
“Thank you, Nazir.”
“Do you need any money?”
“No, fortunately I had my coin pouch on me when I ported out of the Gold Coast sanctuary, so I’m okay for money. But I’ll need a bow and arrows, potions, et cetera.”
“Go to Babette for potions. If you need any enchanting done, go to Festus. If you want training, Arnbjorn and I can help you.”
Amelia chuckled. “Arnbjorn training me? That’ll be the day. But thanks. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Take care, Amelia. Be safe.”
“I will.” She turned and left the common room to find Babette.
The childlike vampire was in the dining room, feeding her pet frostbite spider, Lis. She smiled when she looked up and saw Amelia. “I’m sorry if Lis has frightened you,” she said. “I noticed you don’t seem to go near her.”
“Oh, no,” she said, reaching out to stroke one of the spider’s huge legs. “Hello, Lis. I’ve just been preoccupied. I’m not afraid of her. And I think Sumah has already made friends with her.” With a chuckle, she said, “We Dark Brotherhood members love our creepy pets. The mascot of the Gold Coast sanctuary was an assassin beetle. She was just about as big as Lis here. Vallanil has a pet jackal.”
“Sumah is very attached to you.”
“He’s more than just a pet; he’s my familiar. Also, I think he was frightened by the change, but he’s adjusting. He’s very gentle, and extremely intelligent.”
“Two things that Arnbjorn isn’t. Well, I shouldn’t say that. He’s reasonably intelligent. But definitely not gentle.”
“Arnbjorn and I don’t get along, but I think we understand each other.”
“I made some potions for your trip. There are six healing potions, three each of magicka and stamina potions, six invisibility potions, and six blood potions.”
“This is wonderful, but I can’t carry them all. I don’t have a knapsack.”
Babette smiled and reached under the table, presenting a worn but high-quality knapsack for Amelia’s use. “We keep things like this in supply just in case new brothers and sisters appear in our sanctuary with nothing. It happens more than you think.”
“Thank you so much, Babette.” She kissed the other vampire on the forehead and set about loading the potions carefully in the knapsack, although she kept one of the blood potions out and drank it. “I’m on my way out. I’ll see you soon.”
“Take care, sister.”
Amelia hugged Sumah and told him to be good, and with a promise from Babette that she would take care of him, she navigated the narrow hallways and stairs, then left the sanctuary. The sun had just set and there was a chill in the air, although the cold didn’t bother her anymore. She found the road just to the south of the sanctuary and turned left toward Falkreath, hoping the shops hadn’t closed for the evening.
She was in luck; they were still open. She went into Gray Pine Goods and looked around a bit, but she decided to leave when the merchant started threatening her in case she stole something. She decided she would come back after hours in a few weeks and rob him blind.
She found Lod, the blacksmith, farther down the road, and he was much more amicable. He had a lot to say about loyalty, and Amelia liked him immediately. He also had an ebony bow and arrows to sell her, in addition to sharpening her blades. She went away happy.
She looked at her map. All three contracts were far, and she could easily take a portal, but Nazir had said there was no rush, so she decided to start out on foot. She wanted to explore; maybe she could keep her mind off things. Besides, if she got tired of walking, she could always use the portal then. She set off toward the north. She decided to kill Beitild first, and she could look in on the Dawnstar sanctuary while she was at it. She didn’t quite know why, but she sensed more was going on there than the others thought.
Amelia walked through the night and stopped in a sleepy little town called Riverwood the next morning for a rest and some coffee. The innkeeper was gruff but not unfriendly, and she pretended to warm her feet by the fire while she drank her coffee. It wasn’t as good as the Speaker’s coffee, but it wasn’t bad.
“We got rooms if you need one,” he called across the room.
“No, thanks, just the coffee.”
Before long she was back on her way. She bypassed Whiterun and headed north, until she came across something she had never thought she’d see. A jester dancing on the side of the road.
She approached him, and when she got close enough she realized he wasn’t dancing for joy. His cart had a broken wheel, and judging by the size of the crate in it, three wheels wouldn’t be enough. The jester himself was an Imperial, nearly as short as she was, and his motley was ragged and dirty, the cap covering longish red hair. His voice was high pitched and shrill.
“Oh, bother and befuddle,” he moaned.
“Something wrong?” she asked as she reached him.
“Something wrong? Of course something is wrong. Don’t you see? Wagon wheel! It’s broken. And that farmer up there won’t help poor Cicero. Can you help?”
“Well, I’m not a carpenter, but I can go talk to the farmer for you.”
Cicero’s face lit up and he gasped. “You would help poor Cicero? I need to get my mother to her new home! I need that wheel. If you help Cicero, there will be coin in it for you.”
“Just stay here, and I’ll see what I can do.”
She walked up the hill to the farm, where the farmer was working in his field. He came over to the fence and said hello. “Good afternoon. I was calling about the gentleman at the bottom of the hill.”
The farmer chuckled. “Gentleman? He’s a clown! That in itself is suspicious. We haven’t had a merryman in these parts in a hundred years. And did you see the size of that crate? He could have weapons in there. Skooma. No way I’m gonna be part of that.”
“It seems that the sooner you help him, the sooner he’ll go away.”
“Forget it, sister.”
“I’m not your sister. You know, I haven’t been in Skyrim long, but I thought better of the people. A man who wouldn’t help a stranger on the side of the road because he looked too weird? What’s wrong with you?”
“You think talking like that is gonna make me change my mind? Just get out of here.”
Amelia stepped closer to him and met his eyes. She forced her will on him, and his eyes glazed over. “Now, listen. You will go and help Cicero, and you’ll be nice when you do it. He needs help, and you’re not the type of person to abandon a stranger. Do you understand?”
“Uh-huh,” he said numbly. “Help Cicero. I’m not the type of person to abandon a stranger.”
“Good.” She blinked and broke the connection, then said, “I’ll tell him you’re on your way.”
“Of course. I’ll be there in just a few minutes.”
Amelia walked back down the hill to the jester. “He said he would be down to help in a few minutes.”
Cicero started dancing again. “Oh, joy! Oh, rapture! Did you hear that, Mother? We’ll be on our way soon.” He turned to Amelia and grinned. “You’re a good lady. You helped Cicero. And here.” He opened a purse and pulled out a handful of coins, which he held out for her. “This for you. Clinky, shiny coin for helping Cicero!”
“Take care, Cicero, and have a good trip.”
“You too, my lady.”
With that, she headed on toward Dawnstar.
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