Tara set the three contracts she’d pulled off the now dead Dark Brotherhood assassins onto Commander Maro’s desk.
She was in Dragon Bridge, at the Penitus Oculatus outpost. Outside, spring was in full swing, now that the month had turned to Rain’s Hand. Tara’s birthday was in a few days. She couldn’t think of a reason to celebrate turning twenty-three, though.
Katla wasn’t home yet. She’d sent a letter about a smuggler’s tunnel she was using to cross the border. Late winter storms and difficulty finding the tunnel entrance had slowed her down once she got to Bruma. Her letter said she’d figured out where the entrance was and she was headed for it the next day. That’d been three weeks ago.
She should be here by now, Tara thought. Well, maybe. Three weeks wasn’t overdue. Traveling a tunnel system through a mountain range would take time. Then, having to get to Solitude from the Falkreath region. No, three weeks wasn’t overdue. Not yet.
Commander Maro read the contracts she’d sat on his desk, giving a slow nod.
“Any luck learning the password for their Dawnstar sanctuary?” he asked.
“No, sir,” Tara said. She stood at attention, waiting for him to let her relax. “Two of them fought me to the death. The other…” she paused, remembering the woman’s face. An Imperial. Young. Scared. “She didn’t know it, or even where the sanctuary was. One of the few who escaped the slaughter in Cyrodiil.”
“All dead?” Maro asked.
“You like killing assassins, Blaton?”
Maro’s eyes seemed to be searching hers. Tara didn’t know how he’d found out, but he knew assassins had been after Katla, and that she’d killed them.
“I don’t like killing,” Tara said. She held his gaze. “I’m doing my job. Protecting citizens. Saving lives. Serving the Empire.”
Maro gave her a slight smile. “The answer I prefer to hear from my soldiers. Duty is what matters. Good work. We’ll get that password. Maybe catch one of them leaving the sanctuary. Finish wiping them out in Skyrim.”
Tara nodded. Something told her the Dark Brotherhood would outlast any attempt at destruction. Sithis would always be worshiped, with followers wanting to serve that dark lord’s desires. There would always be people wanting to kill others. Or, be convinced that assassination served some higher calling. Then, there were people who wanted to cause chaos. All were the type Tara imagined would be drawn to the Brotherhood. It’d be a never ending dance to try and wipe them out. At least she could help keep their numbers down.
“Do you have another assignment for me?” she asked. She wanted to get back to Solitude. Katla could show up at any time.
You want a drink.
The hardest part about her assignments so far was not having a drink. She was proud of herself for managing the task. While on a job, she needed to focus and avoid drinking. She was under no illusions about the danger of her job. She had to stay sharp.
But, she needed breaks. To relax.
Too many nights were sleepless. The premonition of Rigmor was a comfort. The one of the Great Forest and fire woman, while not comforting, was at least predictable. An old song she knew well. The nightmares were the problem. Waking her up too soon after she’d gone to bed. She could never fall asleep after them. Too scared, angry, confused. Too ashamed.
It wasn’t your fault.
She’d failed her. And herself. She’d made things worse.
He’s dead now. He can’t hurt you anymore.
Every night a fresh nightmare. He was still hurting her.
“Head back to Solitude,” Maro said. He pushed a dossier towards her. “Take this and read through it.”
Tara picked it up. Thicker than most Penitus Oculatus ones she’d read, she flipped through the first few pages. Information on the Thalmor.
“Read it until you’ve memorized it. I’ll have some assignments for you in a couple of weeks.”
Tara raised an eyebrow at him. She didn’t want to ask, but was too curious.
“Did the journals I recovered from Varro help?” She felt her throat catch. His face floated in her nightmares some nights.
Maro nodded. “Yes.” He gave her a long look. “I consider the loyalty test the hardest one we assign to new recruits. Many fail it.”
“You don’t give it to everyone, though.”
“Most recruits are lacking in other skill sets, demanding immediate attention to test. Everyone’s loyalty is tested, though.”
“Why me?” Tara asked. They’d not discussed the loyalty test since she’d killed Varro. Tara had turned in his journals, written a report, been officially made an agent in the Penitus Oculatus, and then promptly been sent to deal with Dark Brotherhood assassins for the past few weeks.
“Two reasons,” Maro said. “You were already more skilled than most recruits, meaning we had little else to test. Plus, your drinking.”
In the short time Tara had spent time with the man, she’d come to appreciate Maro’s directness the most. Sometimes, it stung.
“Ah,” she said.
“Any weakness can be used against an agent.” His eyes dug into her. They weren’t unkind. “Considering how I met you, and what I’d read in your file from Rikke, you needed testing.”
Tara nodded. She couldn’t argue the logic.
“What you did with Varro,” he said. “I know it wasn’t easy. Good job, soldier. Now, head home for rest and study of that dossier. I’ll be in touch. Dismissed.”
She had a horse now, a gentle gray mare she’d fallen for when she first saw her in the Solitude stables. The weather for the ride back to Solitude was ideal. A warm breeze caressed, offering a sense of peace.
Tara tried to enjoy it. She had a couple weeks off, outside of the reading she needed to do.
So, what was wrong?
I miss Katla, she thought. It’d been a year and a half since they’d been together. How much longer?
While on assignment, she’d focused. No distractions. No dwelling on the loneliness.
Now, she had time. To dwell. To remember.
She stabled her gray mare when she arrived back at Solitude. Still need to name her, she thought.
She stopped at the market and purchased fresh venison, rabbit, and carrots. It took her a minute to realize why people were staring at her.
Her Penitus Oculatus armor. She should have changed. Agents made people nervous. She didn’t want to broadcast she was one, either. Though, it kept people at a distance.
Back at home, she started a venison stew. After grabbing a mead.
She changed out of her armor into comfortable pants and a shirt. While the stew cooked, she sat in her favorite chair and read the dossier on the Thalmor.
How much of the information came from Varro’s journals?
Her mind snapped to the moment she cut his throat. The blood shooting out. The guttural sounds as he died. Were his bones picked clean now, lying on those rocks where she’d dumped his body?
She grabbed another mead, checked the stew, and went back to reading.
The information on the Thalmor was thorough. Maro had gathered troop movements, and seemed to know where key members stayed, whether in their stronghold in the mountains or in Solitude. Citizens who were confirmed sympathizers or spies were noted. With the amount of information in the file, she’d need a couple of weeks to memorize it all.
When the stew was ready, she grabbed a third mead. She was going to eat, so she’d be fine. The hiccups kicked in, anyway.
She put away the dossier for the night. What to read while she ate? Something light. For pleasure, not work.
Tara scanned the bookcase. So many books covered the history of Tamriel and Nords. She needed something lighter.
She hiccuped, then laughed when she saw the two riddle books Richton had given her at the end of her training at the outpost. The Yellow Book of Riddles and The Red Book of Riddles. Most of the riddles were easy, or not much more than jokes, but the gift from him had fit, as he’d said she was too smart for his tastes.
Her eyes fell on another book, Cheeses of Skyrim: Riften, Falkreath. She caught her breath.
Varro had given it to her near the end of training. On one of those cold nights around the fire in the common room, after a day of sparring with each other, they’d spoken of favorite foods in Skyrim. Cheese had come up. Tara had developed a fondness for riftwash cheese, created exclusively in Riften. The goat cheese had a dry, crumbly texture, very different from the moist goat cheese she grew up on. She wasn’t sure how he’d managed to get a copy of the book to the outpost to give to her.
She took the book out of the bookcase and sat down. She’d read it already, admiring the techniques used to make the cheeses of each region distinct.
Varro had a fondness for eidar cheese, she remembered.
She flashed to his gaze at her in The Winking Skeever that first night he’d arrived in Solitude. Then, they were walking along the wall, him holding her hand.
“When are you going to invite me in?” Now, he was pressing himself against her in front of the Lucky Skeever. Her home. Just outside. Less than a hundred feet from where she sat now.
Now she was in Rorikstead. In her tent. She could hear the creak of the inn’s sign, swaying in the wind that night. She’d failed the bar maiden.
Tara threw the book into the fire pit and stood up. She swayed on her feet, then steadied herself. She looked at the stew. Her stomach turned.
She grabbed another mead, sat in the chair, and watched flames engulf the book. There was a beauty to fire. The play of flames, alive and constantly shifting. They’d raced across the book cover, turning it black. Pages inside the book fed the flames, charring and curling at their demand. Food for the beast.
Tara held out her left hand and lit flames in it. Magical flames didn’t hurt those that created them. It amazed her she could watch flames dance in her hand, but not stick her hand in the fire pit without suffering serious burns. Sometimes, the world did not make sense.
I killed my friend, she thought.
He was a spy. You did your job.
How many people had she killed since those first ones, the bandits who’d killed Freta? Why did Varro hurt so much?
You did your job, Tara.
He was my friend.
He wasn’t. He was a spy.
Tara watched the flames in her hand dance. As always, there was little magicka drain. She could watch them dance for hours if she wanted, as long as she kept them small. Why fire? Why not any other magic?
The fire finished consuming the book, blending its ashes in with ash from the wood she’d used to start the fire. Gone, as if the book had never been in the house.
She doused the flames in her hand, drained her mead, and stood.
She immediately sat back down again. The room turned, the light faded, and the world turned black.
The sound of scraping metal woke her. Her head pounded and the living room kept tilting.
Her axes. She needed to get to them.
She crawled from her chair to the weapon rack she kept them in, close to the stairs leading up to the top floor. There were weapon racks by the front door, but Tara didn’t like leaving her axes so far from her, so she’d moved one rack to the stairs, always a few steps away. The remaining rack in the entryway held an iron sword that had come with the house. Plus, Katla’s bow.
Whoever was picking the lock, the source of the sound of scraping metal, she hoped they wouldn’t think to grab it.
Tara steadied herself. Standing upright felt off, the floor too hard and unyielding, unforgiving to her current lack of balance. The room wavered, but held position. She shifted her grip on the axes. Ready.
Long, gauzy, white curtains hung between the small entryway and the living room. Whoever came in would not see her clearly at first. They’d need to step through the curtains. That’s why Tara had left them hanging. To give her one more element of surprise.
The lock gave up and turned, the door opened and a tall shadow stepped inside. Pale gray light followed the shadow, telling Tara dawn would arrive soon.
Tara dropped her axes as the shadow stepped forward through the curtains.