Tara hiccupped and looked at the man.
“Wha’d you say?” She blinked. He was out of focus, and attempting to split into two.
“I think you’ve had enough to drink,” he said. The man was an Imperial, medium build, with black hair, longish, and swept back from his forehead to reveal a widow’s peak. He had a thin mustache, and a beard limited to a simple track between his lower lip and chin, with short stubble along the rest of his jawline.
If he were in Cyrodiil or High Rock, he’d look as cosmopolitan as the people. Here in Skyrim, it was the type of beard few men wore. Dressed in simple leathers, it was obvious the man had some muscle. He looked the warrior type.
Tara thought of Mira. The man had her look. Serious. This was a serious man with no sense of humor. Telling her to stop drinking.
Tara hiccupped again and watched him come back into focus.
“Where do you…” words were suddenly hard to form “…get off tellin’ me to stawp?” she finished.
Tara had been sitting and drinking in the Four Shields tavern all night. She’d arrived in Dragon Bridge late in the day, much later than she’d intended. The trip from Granite Hill had not been as smooth as she’d hoped. She’d left late. The hangover had lingered too much in the morning. Then, north of Rorikstead, a thunderstorm had cropped up and she’d had to find shelter under a cliff overhang. She’d still been drenched.
Walking in sopping wet clothes had been uncomfortable. She’d chaffed in a few unmentionable places, souring her mood.
That bridge, though.
Her mood had lifted when she approached the legendary landmark Dragon Bridge was named after. The Karth River ran wide and strong here, with a magnificent waterfall visible from the great stone bridge.
Any bridge crossing the river at this point, near the mouth, and sitting between Markarth and Solitude, two of the largest cities in Skyrim, would be impressive. The need for strength and enough width to handle the commerce between the holds of Haafingar and Hjaalmarch was essential.
Besides its size, the bridge stood out for the two great dragon heads carved into its top, at the pinnacle of the arch across the bridge. The bridge had been built sometime in the Merethic Era, in the time thousands of years ago, when the peoples of Tamriel were still evolving.
History books were divided on whether the dragon skulls were stone sculptures or petrified skulls of ancient dragons. Standing under the arch and looking at them, Tara thought stone. The amount of time it’d taken to carve such works of art, though, was unimaginable.
The town of Dragon Bridge itself was small and quiet. Late afternoon sunlight coated Tara as she’d crossed the bridge, passed a sawmill, and stopped.
There it was.
The banners outside a small building marked it as the Penitus Oculatus outpost. The banners were a background of dark gray, on which sat a diamond outline, filled with a deep red. A peering eye, framed by three teeth that reminded Tara of serpent fangs pierced the eye.
Their armor had the same insignia on it. These were the special agents of the Emperor, or Empress. During the reign of the Septims, The Blades had been the personal guard of the sitting ruler. That had ended with the Oblivion Crisis, though. When Titus Mede I had become Emperor, the Penitus Oculatus had been formed, early in the Fourth Era.
The Blades had been steeped in mystery and history, arising from the Dragonguard, fabled dragon hunters from the previous time of dragons, so long ago.
The Penitus Oculatus had no such history. They were what they presented. A special force founded solely for protecting, and answering to, the ruler of the Empire. Tara knew they were spies, warriors, archers, and mages; whatever was needed to serve the interests of the Empire.
They were not to be trifled with. They were the epitome of serious.
Tara had stood in front of the building, still half-soaked by the rain, intending to walk in, ask for Commander Maro, hand him the letter from Legate Rikke, and join on the spot.
Nerves had hit her, though.
What was in Rikke’s letter? An outstanding recommendation, telling tales of her skills in battle? Or, a sob story begging Maro to take pity on her, a misfit from the Imperial Army, who’d fought with her fellow soldiers, and worse?
Watching the golden sunlight from a dimming afternoon hit the banners, giving that eye a sheen of foreboding, she’d froze. She never froze. All the fights, assassins killed to protect Katla, battles fought during the war. She didn’t freeze. That was instant death.
Standing in front of this building. Standing in front of her next purpose. Frozen. Why?
The day was late. She should wait until morning. That’d be the time to step in, hand the letter over. Yes. Tomorrow morning.
She’d rent a room, enjoy a meal, have a drink or two, and shake off the long day of travel. Be fresh tomorrow morning. Yes.
She’d done just that, immediately renting a room and settling in. She’d finished drying off from the rain. Her mood had soured again. It didn’t sit right she’d frozen like that. She needed to make a good impression tomorrow.
The tavern had been crowded, with patrons coming in for meals and drinks after work. Tara found herself wanting to be alone, away from all the idle chatter. A few men had flirted, irritating her further. She should’ve taken her dinner in her room, but she had wanted a couple of drinks. To relax.
Listening to the Imperial in the leathers tell her she’d had enough made her realize she had no idea how many drinks she’d had. The inn was nearly empty now. Quiet. What time was it?
The man studied her for a moment. Not leering, though.
“I suspect you can take care of yourself,” he nodded at her arms. Tara was still wearing her leather armor, meaning her arms were exposed, her muscles on display. “But I overheard an unsavory conversation outside, between a few men.” He glanced at Faida, the innkeeper, who’d doled out the drinks to Tara. Faida’s face paled.
“Seems they were in here earlier. Took notice of you. I don’t think you should keep drinking. Or, step outside. Hopefully, they won’t come back in.”
“She has a room here,” Faida said. “I’ll get her to it.”
Tara felt her face flush. “I’m not…” she hiccupped “…I’m not fimished.” Her lips were not cooperating.
The man fished some gold coins out of his pocket and tossed them on the bar. Faida scooped them up and pocketed the money, before Tara could count them.
“That enough to get her to her room now?” he asked Faida.
“I’m…” Tara started.
“Yes,” Faida said to the man. “Thank you for looking out for her. And the inn’s reputation.”
The man nodded stiffly. “Take care,” he said to Tara. He turned sharply and left without another word.
“Julienne. Help me,” Faida called out to the young bar maiden that had been serving most of the patrons all night.
Tara found herself standing unsteadily in her room before she could process anything. Her head wanted to spin. So did the room.
“Good night, dear,” she heard Faida say before closing the door.
Sunlight slammed her in the morning, waking her from a deep slumber.
Had she dreamed? No. No premonitions, no dreams.
Tara squinted her eyes against the blasting sunlight streaming through her room’s high window and stumbled out of bed. Her head pounded. The room tried turning on her.
You need to stop drinking.
She dunked her head in the water basin, shocking herself with the cold, blissful water in it.
She spent the next thirty minutes hitting herself with a healing spell, letting her magicka recover, then hitting herself again until she felt steady. The headache receded. Her stomach stayed unsteady. Best to skip a morning meal.
She thought of that morning in Bruma. The hangover from drinking herself into a stupor the day before meeting with the priest about Freta.
What would Freta say to her now? What would Katla, if she saw her like this? Some protector she was turning out to be.
Right. She needed to go to the outpost. Give him the letter. Start her new purpose.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when she stepped outside. The air was crisp, the first real bite of winter hovered nearby. The cold air helped her steady herself.
The walk was short, the Penitus Oculatus outpost less than a hundred meters from the tavern.
Tara stepped up on the wide porch of the building. A blacksmith’s forge and anvil were to the left of the building. She could hear an agent working it. One agent sat outside the door into the building.
He stood as she stepped up.
“State your business.”
Tara found herself straightening up. Wanting to seem taller. More serious.
“I’m here to see Commander Maro. I have a letter to deliver. His eyes only.” Did she just sound like a courier?
The agent studied her for a moment, eyeing the axes on her hip.
“I’m a veteran from the Imperial Legion,” she added.
He didn’t seem impressed. “Go on in. Keep all weapons sheathed.”
The outpost was, in a word, small. Tara stepped inside to a single room. How were agents stationed here?
The place was nothing but business. Nothing but a place for quick orders and dispatching of agents. There were a few beds, arranged in typical barracks style, crowded together for rest, but no privacy. A table with four chairs sat in the center of the room, in front of a large fireplace. Opposite the barracks style beds was a single bed, chest, and desk, as if an area reserved for an officer. Or commander.
Two men were inside the outpost. One was a young agent, sitting at the table. He glanced at her while writing on some parchment.
Tara froze. She managed to keep her jaw from propping open.
The other man, sitting at the desk in the reserved area, was the man from last night. The Imperial in simple leathers.
He stood, revealing the full glory of his Penitus Oculatus armor. A commander’s armor.
Although she was now sober, Tara found her lips did not want to cooperate.
Tara saw his mouth twitch slightly at the sight of her. Was he smirking?
“Commander Maro?” she asked.
“Yes.” His face had resumed that serious look from last night. “What can I do for you?”
“I have a letter from Legate Rikke, second in command of the Imperial Legion here in Skyrim.”
She cleared her throat. “For your eyes only. Regarding me. Sir.”
Tara handed over the letter and watched Commander Maro read it. His face remained still, not betraying his thoughts.
Tara’s own thoughts whirled. He’d seen her drunk off her ass. What had she said last night? Had she done anything more than be stubborn? She didn’t think so, but as in Bruma, the details were fuzzy.
What must he think of her? Would the letter help his opinion? Or amplify it?
Maro folded the letter and stepped over to his desk. He shuffled through stacks of papers, finally pulling out a dossier.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” he said. “Legate Rikke sent this a few weeks ago, before she left for Windhelm, I believe.”
He flipped quickly through the papers inside, as if refreshing his memory.
Tara felt color drain from her face. Were they the reports Rikke had from Rorikstead, the reports from Captain Havilguss, with the addendums from Calidia?
Maro put down the dossier and turned to her. He’d set the letter inside the dossier.
“Rikke and I have known each other a long time. She considered joining us, before choosing the Legion instead.”
In the moment, Tara realized Maro was a lot older than her first impression of him. The lines on his face were subtle, but noticeable once you gave his face a second glance. He was easily old enough to be her father. A young Rikke joining the Imperial Legion would mean they had known each other a decade or two.
“I trust Rikke’s judgement of people,” he said. “She’s never been wrong.”
“Sir?” Tara asked.
“You’re not the first soldier she’s sent to me.”
He gave Tara a long look.
“Am I to assume last night’s…display…comes from…” he tapped the dossier “…Rorikstead?” He voice sounded firm, yet soft.
Tara swallowed. “I went overboard last night. Lost count. That’s all.”
No it’s not.
Maro kept his eyes on her. So serious.
Tara dropped her gaze. “I need to forget sometimes.” It came out a whisper.
“We have an outpost along the border with High Rock, north of Markarth,” Maro said. “Not something most people know.”
Tara thought. North of Markarth would put it in the Druadach Mountains, with Evermore being the closest major High Rock kingdom. Tara had never been; Wayrest being far south of it.
“I’m sending all new agents there to train,” Maro said. “Pack your things. I’ll give you exact directions as soon as you’re ready.”
“Sir?” Tara blinked. That was it? She was in?
“There are trials to become a true agent of the Penitus Oculatus,” Maro said. “A sharp mind, an ability to follow orders, and deadly skills. All are required. You will have to prove yourself.”
Tara straightened up. She saluted Maro. “I’ll prove myself.”
Maro gave her the tiniest of nods. “Whatever haunts you, you’ll need to find a way to deal with it. No alcohol. Understand?”
Tara nodded. “Understood.”
Within the hour, Tara left Dragon Bridge and headed towards Markarth. She admired the great bridge one more time. She’d spent less than a day in the town.
How soon before she’d be back?