Tara watched Codus Varro enter Solitude through its main gate. He did not look up as he made his way into the Winking Skeever, right below her.
Tara sighed and ran her hand through her hair, pushing the loose strands out of her face.
Why did it have to be him? The letter with instructions had told her Varro was the target, but until she saw him walk through the gate, she’d held out hope he wasn’t who she needed to kill.
Tara stepped back from the edge of the balcony and went back inside her home, the Lucky Skeever. How strange to be sitting above the Winking one, knowing he was just below her.
She’d been home a week now and had to admit it felt good. Safe.
The place hadn’t been touched since she’d left so many months ago. What felt like a lifetime ago. Before Rorikstead. And the Penitus Oculatus.
Tara picked up the mead she’d been drinking before she’d gone out to the balcony and drained it.
You need to stop drinking.
Why did it have to be Varro?
The only negative part about being home was this assignment. And the soul gem.
Tara had left the red soul gem here while she served in the Legion, then joined the Penitus Oculatus. That’d seemed the smart thing to do. She’d hidden it under a floorboard in the bedroom. Even if someone had broken into the place, they would’ve had to search for it.
Now, she had it in a drawer in the night table next to the bed. Nearby, in case she needed to grab it and run, but not sitting out in an obvious way.
When in the bedroom, she did her best not to acknowledge its presence, all the chaos it’d caused. Some days, though, it felt like it called to her. Whispered.
That had to be in her head.
Katla had written about going back to her old home, finding the journal, being attacked by someone, and escaping to Mira’s home. She had no idea who had attacked, but who else would’ve sent a fireball at her head except a member of the order?
Had they been watching the old home all this time? Or had they tracked down Katla that quickly, once she’d left High Rock? Were their spies everywhere?
“…most of it is destroyed, unreadable, but there’s information in the journal. I think it will help us. I won’t discuss it any more until we’re together. I miss you so much.”
Even though she’d written in their code, Katla had refused to reveal anything about the journal, in case the letter fell into the wrong hands and was deciphered. Smart. Though, she’d made it plain she was coming to see Tara. A small risk.
Tara wondered how Katla had felt, reading something her parents had written. Had anything they’d said helped her understand why they were in the order? Perhaps given her an indication they weren’t the horrible people being in the order indicated?
By Dibella, Tara wanted nothing more than to hold her. Get lost in her presence.
Based on the letter’s date, Katla would be in Solitude soon. Any day now.
Tara pulled another mead off the shelf and opened it. She sat on the couch by the low fire she had going in the fire pit.
She looked at the mead. She needed to go down to the Winking Skeever. Drink there. Get Varro’s attention. Start the process.
Don’t get drunk, she thought. Keep your wits about you.
Tonight needed to be simple. Get his attention. His trust. She thought about the plan she’d made while she’d waited for him to arrive in Solitude.
She’d scouted the city and had found two places where killing him and dumping his body should be safe enough. Out of sight of any guards. Dispose of his body such that it wouldn’t be found for a while, if ever.
Her instructions were clear. She needed to get information from him first. Learn what he had passed on to the Thalmor. Then, she needed to kill him covertly. Not get caught or reveal to anyone she was an agent of the Penitus Oculatus. They needed deniability. They were considering using his death as something to be blamed on the Thalmor.
Tara looked down at her mead.
Was she really going to kill Varro?
When you fail the one, don’t fail the other.
She was wearing Penitus Oculatus armor in the premonitions now. For Rigmor, yes. Varro had to die.
Tara put down the mead, went upstairs, and changed into an outfit she thought men would find attractive on her.
At the outpost, free time was rare. Tara had welcomed the lack of it. It’d kept her mind off drinking and she didn’t have to engage in much small talk with her fellow trainees.
She couldn’t avoid all social interaction, though, so there’d been plenty of nights in the common room, everyone warming themselves near the fireplace after a frigid day of training.
Varro had mentioned an ex-girlfriend at some point, so Tara knew he preferred women. She’d avoided revealing her attraction to women, or the existence of Katla.
Legate Rikke was right. The Penitus Oculatus was not the Legion. There’d been no probing questions. No flirting, no teasing, no harassment.
If looking good would help him trust her, so be it.
She’d gotten the outfit at Radiant Raiment, the main clothing store in the city. If she’d not grown up with Mira for a sister, Tara might have been offended by the condescending tone of the two sisters running the store. Being High Elves, their tone wasn’t that surprising. One had to wonder if all Altmer elves were born that way. Certainly, too many thought themselves better than non-Altmer.
Endarie had helped Tara pick the outfit. She’d called it a pirate outfit, though that was its style. Tara doubted any real pirate would wear it.
The outfit consisted of a button down shirt, so rare to find, especially for women, a small vest meant to accent the shirt, but not cover it, short pants, intended to be rolled up at the knees, and a wrap skirt. There were matching boots, too. The color was a gray blue blend that set off her hair and eyes. Between that and the softness of the fabric, Tara had been sold.
She checked herself in the mirror. Yes. It would do.
Katla would like this, she thought.
As Tara walked into the Winking Skeever, she was greeted by the bard, Lisette, singing Tale of the Tongues. Since the realization of there actually being The Last Dragonborn of legend around, the song had jumped in popularity. News had spread the Dragonborn had defeated Alduin, the dragon known as the World-Eater, the beast meant to destroy the world so it could be born again.
Tara wasn’t sure if she believed all the world ending bits, but there had been a change to the dragons. Far fewer of them had been spotted. Skyrim felt safer, between the civil war ending and the defeat of Alduin. As to how much credit of the world saving belonged solely to whomever this Dragonborn hero was, history was full of people rising to the call across all eras. Why not someone gifted with a unique power from Akatosh himself?
Tara moved through the crowd and found herself a stool at the bar. Half of Solitude seemed inside the place. She ordered a mead and took her time sipping it while scouting for Varro.
Was he renting a room here? Most likely. The question was how soon he’d be meeting with the Thalmor. That had to be why he was here, to go to their headquarters near Castle Dour. Reports she’d read before leaving the outpost indicated most of the Thalmor were staying at their embassy, somewhere in the mountains outside of Solitude. The headquarters here consisted of a skeleton crew. Tara wondered if the skeleton crew was mostly for spies. Spies could blend into the city, seem like normal citizens, or seem to be in the city on other business. Unlike the isolated embassy up in the mountains.
Varro didn’t appear for over an hour. Tara managed to nurse her mead the entire time. She chatted with the innkeeper, Corpulus Vinius. He’d been excited to meet who was actually living in the Lucky Skeever now, as he’d noticed Katla’s absence. Tara thought he’d noticed Katla and was disappointed to find out she wasn’t available.
Tara turned down two men over the course of the hour. The hardest part was not being rude to them.
Stop being mean, she reminded herself. She was trying to look attractive. Of course a man, or woman, might approach. She’d even let her hair back down.
Lately, she’d taken to pulling back some of her hair into a ponytail, and letting the rest of it hang down. What tended to fall into her face was pulled into the ponytail; the rest could relax. She liked it, but tonight, trying to catch Varro’s eye, well, she knew the effect letting all her hair hang down had on Katla. Varro probably wasn’t too different.
Was she really going to flirt with him?
That felt weird.
Anything to make him trust her, though.
Varro came out from his room and found an empty table by the fireplace. Tara watched him out of the corner of her eye. He looked as he had at the outpost. He was four years older than her, with black hair and a well-trimmed beard and mustache. An Imperial, he was of a medium build. At the outpost, he’d said several generations of his family had served either in the Legion or the Penitus Oculatus. Right now, he was wearing civilian clothes, a simple vest and shirt combination. He did not look like an agent.
How to approach him? Tara was ready to order a second mead. Order one for him, too? Pretend she was surprised to see him. Wait for him to spot her?
He had spotted her.
“Codus!” she called back. She stood and made her way to his table.
“Sit,” he said. “Join me.”
Tara sat and Varro ordered them meads.
“What brings you to Solitude?” he asked her. The meads arrived and Tara took a long pull.
“I guess it’s safe to talk about work,” she lowered her voice, pulling him in. “I’m meeting with General Tullius in a few days. Bringing him some information. Can you believe they assigned me as a messenger?” She laughed, adding a bitter tone, as if offended over the assignment.
Varro drank his mead and studied her. Tara watched his eyes drift up and down, taking her in. At the outpost, they’d always been in uniform, per the rules. This was the first time they were seeing each other in normal clothing.
“Maybe it’s an important message you’re to deliver,” he said. His tone was thoughtful.
“I guess,” Tara said. She leaned forward. “What brings you here?”
Varro smiled. “On assignment, too.” He leaned forward and Tara caught him glimpsing down her shirt. She’d made sure the shirt gave an ample view of her. She wore Freta’s Talos amulet, as she always did. It was on full display in this outfit. Would that help or hurt? The Thalmor had banned Talos worship. She wasn’t supposed to be wearing it. Would Varro like her defiance of rules, or did he agree with the Thalmor?
“They give you your final test yet?” she asked.
Varro met her eyes. “They did. Don’t tell me delivering a message to Tullius is yours.” He leaned back. He continued to look at her like he was studying her, assessing something.
At the outpost, they’d been matched up a lot for combat practice. Varro was excellent with a sword and shield. They’d been a good pairing to push each other. His footwork was impressive and had challenged Tara’s defenses more than anyone she’d met.
Tara chuckled. She hoped it sounded natural. “No. I’m off to Dragon Bridge to meet with Commander Maro for that. Who knows what they’ll throw at me.”
“Interesting,” he said. His eyes stayed on her. Curious. Varro’s eyes were a dark brown. Not the hazel brown warmth of Katla’s.
Tara shifted and took a nervous sip from her mead. “Is it bad he’s giving me my test?”
Varro shrugged. “Don’t know. I assumed we all received our final test from Fairsong.”
“Me, too,” Tara said. She took a sip of mead and decided to stay on this angle, of seeming nervous. “But, he told me to meet Tullius, and then see Maro. I…I’m sure it’s fine.”
Varro smiled. “I’m sure it is.” Varro drained his mead and ordered another. “Bah, let’s forget about our jobs. On to pleasant conversation. Like, what song that bard needs to sing next.”
Tara laughed. “No more Ragnar the Red. That one’s getting old.”
They sat and chatted for a time. Tara ordered a third mead when Varro moved on to his fourth. She nursed it, pretending to take sips.
“This your first time to Solitude?” Varro asked.
Tara shook her head. “I live here.”
“Where about in the city?”
Tara flashed him a wicked smile and dropped her voice into the sultry tone Katla loved. “On top of you.”
She watched Varro’s face flush pink. He coughed.
She pointed up. “House is above the Winking Skeever.”
Varro laughed. “Impressive.” He winked at her. “You’ll have to show it to me sometime.”
Tara winked back. “Maybe I will.” She took an actual sip of her mead. “I love being back in the city. Around civilians. Not having people swing a sword or shield at my face all the time.” She gave him a grin.
He laughed again. “I appreciate not having an axe at my throat.”
They reminisced for a while, recounting their training days, and hanging with Richton and Lentinus. Tara had edged him in combat most of the time. She thought him the best swordsman, besides Fairsong, that had been at the outpost. Richton had been the best archer Tara had ever seen. As good as Katla was, she couldn’t touch him.
Time seemed to fly as they chatted, and Varro grabbed a fifth mead. Tara waved off his offer of a fourth.
“Cutting myself off after this one,” she said. They’d sat long enough for her to pace her drinking, so now she could actually finish her third mead without fear of losing her senses. She watched Varro consume half of his fifth.
He seemed pleasantly buzzed, relaxed, but certainly not drunk. Tara nixed any idea of getting him so drunk as to lead him to the preferred spot she’d picked out. It was across town, along the city walls. Getting him drunk enough would make keeping him steady enough on his feet for that distance too difficult. She had no idea what kind of drunk he was. He could be loud and boisterous. The kind to draw attention to them.
Tara drained the last of her mead and stood. Varro looked surprised, but rose from his seat.
“Time for me to retire for the evening,” she said. “If you’re free tomorrow night, maybe I could give you a tour of the city walls?”
“I’d like that,” Varro said. He gave her a bow.
As soon as she stepped backed into the house, Tara grabbed a fresh mead and drained it. The trembling in her hands stopped. The tears started in its place.
Memories of their training together flashed. So many times picking each other up off the ground, when they’d bested the other. Giving each other pointers. The jokes. Times by the fire, teasing Lentinus about his accent.
Tara drained another mead. The tears stopped, but the hiccups started. She stumbled her way upstairs and took a bath. If she couldn’t numb herself enough, maybe she could wash this feeling off?
When you fail the one, don’t fail the other.
Her loyalty was being tested. She had to do this. She’d accepted this path. Varro or her. One of them had to be dead by the end of this.
She crawled out of the bath, dried herself off, and collapsed into bed.
The nightmare of Rorikstead woke her early the next morning.
She cast healing on herself to reduce the pounding headache and made her way to the bedroom window. The sun wasn’t up yet. Good. Hopefully, Varro wasn’t either.
Tara perched on the city wall an hour later and watched Varro emerge from the Winking Skeever. She watched him look up at her balcony, and was glad her instinct had been to observe him away from the house. She was close to the guard tower near the city gate, barely visible between the parapets that lined the walls. One advantage of being short; she was easy to miss up here.
She spent the day watching him, following along sections of the wall to keep him in sight. She worried he’d head straight for the Thalmor headquarters, but he spent the day at the market and explored a few shops.
Early in the afternoon, he made his way towards Castle Dour. Navigating the walls here to stay out of sight was harder. There were few parapets to hide her and the overall wall was shorter. He rarely looked at the walls, though, and seemed to keep his focus on the people near him.
He finally wandered into the Castle Dour courtyard, then slowly walked over to the Temple of the Divines. The outdoor seating for the temple was adjacent to the practice yard, a stone arch marking the separation.
Varro sat on the bench closest to the yard. He angled himself to both look at the yard, but also to be able to turn towards the temple doors. Tara positioned herself along the wall behind him and crouched.
After a few minutes, he did something that gave her a sense of relief. He pulled out a small journal and started writing.
Taking notes, she thought. For the Thalmor? That must be it. Taking notes to turn into them. She needed to get her hands on the journal. The relief came from realizing she might not need to pry information out of him. If the journal had what she needed, she could skip that. She hadn’t figured out how to question him without alerting him. The training they’d received at the outpost felt inadequate on how to question one of their own.
Varro stayed on the bench for an hour, switching from watching the courtyard and the various Legion soldiers milling about to writing in his journal.
When he finally stood, Tara held her breath. Was he heading to the Thalmor Headquarters?
No. He left the way he’d arrived. He looked to be headed back to the Winking Skeever. Would he leave the journal in his room, or keep it on him?
Tara checked the time. She needed to get back and freshen up. They were due to meet soon.
Back home, she washed her face and restyled her hair. Like last night, she let it all hang down, instead of the ponytail she’d worn today.
She changed into a shirt and pants outfit, the kind Freta might have worn. She left several buttons on the shirt undone, to again allow ample viewing of her chest. The pants fit well and had a hidden pouch just below the waist band in the back. She tucked the ebony dagger in it.
Are you ready for this?
Tara closed her eyes for a moment and pulled in a long breath. She let it out. She hadn’t felt this sober, this…cold…in a long time. As cold as when her temper flared back when she’d first arrived in Cyrodiil and killed those chickens at the Brina Cross Inn. Or, fought with Shum gro-Ulfish in Anvil.
Yes, she was ready.
Varro was already at a table when she arrived. He seemed dressed up, the shirt and vest he wore tonight was new and cut such to leave him looking dashing. He bowed and pulled out a chair for her.
Tara laughed. “How chivalrous of you,” she said. She’d done it a few times for Katla. Funny for the role to be reversed.
They ordered dinner and some ale to drink. Conversation stayed light. When she asked him what he’d done all day, he mentioned visiting the markets and a few shops. He didn’t mention Castle Dour or his time at the temple.
Tara told him she’d spent time at the stables, just outside the city, looking at the available horses. She said she’d been saving for one, throwing in some truth about wanting one since she lived in Cyrodiil.
“Since Solitude is home, now’s the time, I think,” she said as they savored drinks, their server having cleared dinner plates from the table. “When I’m away on assignments, I trust they’d do a good job of taking care of my horse.”
“You see yourself calling Solitude home for the rest of your life?” His eyes were studying her again. This wasn’t just a casual question.
Give him some truth. Earn his trust.
“Not forever, no,” Tara said. “I grew up on a farm. Think I want to settle down on one.” She finished her ale. “I do want to stay in Skyrim. Can’t see myself in Cyrodiil or High Rock again.”
“We’re agents,” Varro said. “We might be sent anywhere in Tamriel. Anywhere in Nirn, if the Emperor wants.”
Tara nodded. “Sure. We go where the assignment takes us. We serve whomever sits on the Ruby Throne.”
“And that’s okay with you?”
Tara held his gaze. They seemed to be searching each other.
“I signed up for this,” she said. She shifted her tone, trying to give it a hint of defeat. “What else is there?”
Varro leaned back. He looked down for a moment, as if deciding something.
He shrugged. “Lots of ways to serve, I think.”
Tara raised an eyebrow at him, as if curious. She looked around the tavern, as if searching for anyone eavesdropping. She then leaned toward him.
“Why don’t we go for that tour of the city walls,” she whispered.
She led them along the section of the wall that oversaw the docks first. She wanted to give him as much time as possible to talk. Conversation returned to idle topics as they walked. They nodded at the guards that passed them. Tara pointed out a few landmarks she’d spotted across the bay, in the marshlands east of the city. A Nordic ruin was just visible in the moon light.
As they made their way along the western wall, the section that eventually led to Castle Dour, the temple, and to the first spot she’d picked out, she paused to point out the Lucky Skeever.
“When are you going to invite me in?” he asked. Varro had grabbed her hand as they walked, as if they were a romantic couple out for a stroll. Stopped at her front door, he pressed himself against her and grinned.
She flashed to Rorikstead. The sound from the room. The weight of him.
“Later,” she managed a whisper. She was back. She put her hand on Varro’s chest, as if asking for patience.
He felt so wrong. Men always had.
She pulled him away from the Lucky Skeever. “Come on. More city to see.”
They strolled in silence, Tara pointing out the great Solitude windmill. It was the largest she’d ever seen. It towered high above the walls, with its turning blades proudly displaying the Solitude emblem, a wolf head on a background of red. It could be seen all the way to Dragon Bridge. In a way, it was more spectacular than the Blue Palace.
As they approached Castle Dour, guards along the wall faded. Tara knew there were few here, as if the Legion soldiers below in the courtyard were enough to forgo regular wall patrols. This side of the city pressed closest to the mountains, too. An attack on the city would never come from this side, so the light patrol made sense.
“What did you mean? About other ways to serve?” she risked the question.
Could she get him to say something? Clear all doubt from her mind?
“As agents,” Varro said, thoughtful. “We can be warriors, assassins, bodyguards, escorts. Even spies.” He’d grabbed her hand again. He gave it a light squeeze. “I wonder about all the ways to serve. For the betterment of all of Tamriel.”
“I hadn’t really thought about that.” Tara kept her tone neutral.
“I have.” His tone was firm. Serious.
They past Castle Dour, and the temple, heading into another residential area of the city. The spot was close.
“You know which you want to be?” Tara asked.
“Yes. Do you know which you are?”
Tara smiled. “Warrior. In my heart, that’s what I always am.”
“It’s good to know what you are.” His tone stayed serious.
Was she going to do this tonight?
She avoided his gaze and pointed further down the wall. “Been to the Bard’s College yet?”
The spot was before the college. She slowed her pace.
“No. Haven’t been to this part of the city.”
Tara pointed to a building cross from the college. A tall gate with a dragon’s head shaped sculpture atop it blocked entry in. She’d read a sign hanging on the gate earlier in the week.
“Some sort of museum’s opening up,” she said. She stopped. She turned back to Varro and flashed him a smile. “I want to show you something.”
He looked into her eyes, assessing.
Did it bother him she hadn’t asked him to explain himself more?
“This will only take a minute, then we can head back,” she said.
He followed her as she left the main wall and walked along a small path between two buildings. She stopped in front of a house, then turned and walked up the short flight of stone steps that led to a small porch on the side of the house. The porch looked over the city wall. Arched openings above the short, stone railing gave one a view out into the Sea of Ghosts.
Crates and barrels littered the porch. Tara breathed an internal sigh of relief. The crates were still stacked in the arrangement she’d laid out a few days ago.
“This house is for sale,” she said, making a sweeping gesture at the empty house. “They call it Proudspire Manor. I hope to buy it one day.”
“Why? You already have a home.” Varro looked confused. As if this was the least interesting sight she’d shown him.
“Look at this view!” she said. “Here. This spot is my favorite. You can see the lighthouse.” She stepped out of his way and pointed him to the left archway. Varro stepped to the spot and peered out.
Tara stepped behind him and pulled out the ebony dagger.
She’d arranged the crates near the archway, shifting one close enough so she could step onto it and gain the height she’d need to do the task.
“The moonlight reflects so beautifully off the water,” she said.
“Yeah. It’s a great view,” Varro replied.
The entire move took no more than a second.
She stepped with her left foot onto the crate closest to Varro. She now nearly matched his height and had the angle she needed.
She pressed herself against his back, her weight pushing him up against the railing, his head now leaning out through the opening.
She reached around him and plunged the blade of the dagger up into his neck, where it met his jaw. The blade easily found the soft gap between the hinges of his jaw and slipped deep into his head.
Tara twisted the knife several times, to insure the damage was complete.
Blood washed over the dagger and her hand. Her grasp slipped with the slickness of the blood, but she held on long enough to pull the dagger out.
His body slumped forward, his head, neck, and shoulders leaning out the archway. Most of the blood now gushing out of him ran down the outside wall, as she’d hoped, with only small pools collecting on the stone of the porch. She stepped back off the crate and watched.
His body twitched as the final sparks of life left. He then went still.
She watched him for several minutes. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to listen for any final breaths, any gasps for air. Nothing.
She dug through his clothes and found it. A small journal tucked into his right front pants pocket. The one she’d seen him write in earlier today.
She pulled the key to his room at the inn out of his left pocket. She’d need to search it for any notes or journals.
Get rid of him.
By Dibella, she was grateful for her strength. It helped he was partly through the opening already. She made quick work of lifting his legs and pushing him until he fell out the opening and onto the rocks below.
She peered out to confirm what she’d hoped would happen.
This section of the city sat near the start of the stone arch the city sat upon. The spot was directly above jutting rocks. Below the rocks, one could see the winding road that led from the docks of Solitude and out towards the wild coastline of northwestern Skyrim.
She hadn’t wanted him to fall onto the road. Landing on one of the jutting rocks had been perfect. The odds of anyone in Solitude looking out from the walls and down and spotting him were slim.
His body could rot in the open, perhaps become a meal for the right scavenger.
As long as no one bought the house and took in this view soon, he’d remain out of sight. If anyone ever spotted him, hopefully he’d be unrecognizable by then.
Tara dug into the barrel where she’d stashed a water skin. She rinsed the worst of the blood off her hands and the dagger, then diluted the pools of blood on the stone floor. She moved a set of crates over the spots.
She stepped back and checked her work. The porch looked the same as before she’d brought Varro here.
She made her way back along the city walls, clinging to shadows. She wasn’t sure if her clothes had any blood on them. Best not to have a lit torch expose her. She wasn’t sure what her face might reveal, either, under a harsh light.
She reached home and unlocked the door.
She flashed to him pressing against her and grinning. “When are you going to invite me in?”
Inside, she got to her favorite chair and collapsed in it.
Tara looked at the remaining blood on her hands. She needed to wash it off. Wash him off her.
The nausea hit hard and she didn’t make it to the kitchen sink before dinner and the ale came back up. Had she ever vomited over a kill before? No.
When you fail the one, don’t fail the other.
She’d passed the final test.
What price would her body exact on her for her loyalty?