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Darkness Rises When Silence Dies

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Sundas 5 Sun's Dawn, 4E 202 4:00 PM

I was walking south along the trade roads towards Whiterun returning from the Throat of the World after defeating Alduin, the World Eater and god of destruction. Every step was pain as I forced myself to place on foot in front of the other like a lone soldier's march. "Left, right, left, right", I muttered to myself. My mare nickered softly behind me being led by her reins. I had ridden her to the point of exhaustion, but had been unwilling to stop moving. The thought of being still was too much like the thought of being dead.

The sky was dark overhead, pregnant with storm clouds. Maybe it would rain. That would be the perfect ending to my journey home. I would arrive in Whiterun soaked to the bone and covered it mud. It would be like the gods pissing on me from heaven. "Go on. Do it. I dare you," I muttered darkly. I even flipped a rude gesture to the skies in the hope someone up there would notice. Especially Tsun.

Sovngarde lingered in my thoughts. The Nordic afterlife had been setting for the battlefield of my final battle with Alduin. I thought of the bright halls, and the brave warriors, and the fine drink and song. And the only thing I could think was of how pointless it all was. You live and you die to only have one long feast forever more.

It all seemed so damned pointless.

It was as if the only point of honor was to celebrate how wonderful you had been. When Tsun, Nordic god of trials versus adversity, had proudly offered for me to return one day as an honored spirit, I had looked him straight in the eye and said, "To the Void with that."

His response and my following ejection from Sovngarde had been less than graceful.

Now I was simply tired both to the bone and spirit. Anxiety settled into my shoulders and stomach making me feel tense and uneasy. I was rushing to Breezehome, my first home in Skyrim, but for what purpose? What does one do after she saves the world?

Suddenly my dragon scale armor felt too heavy. I threw off my helmet and left it lying on the side of the road with all the care of a discarded apple core. Parts of armor quickly followed until I wore only my sweat stained dress. Armor that was worth more than a farmer could make in ten lifetimes and enchanted enough for jarls to give up their kingdoms for, I threw aside. Maybe some other "lucky" soul would find it and put it to good use.

I walked another fifteen minutes before I saw the wagon pulled to the side of the road, a wagon wheel lying several feet away. The wagon was very big; much too big for one man to handle. Its entire bed was taken up with a large crate that was easily fifteen feet long and six feet wide. Several coils of rope firmly strapped the crate into place to prevent it from slipping during travel. I frowned at the sight. Not many people traveled nowadays, not since dragons had returned to Tamriel six months ago. In fact, I had not seen another soul on the road all day. A man, an Imperial like myself, was standing over the wheel kicking the rim.

"Ah, damned wagon wheel!" his voice was shrill with frustration. I couldn't help but note the jester's outfit that he wore. The red and black suit looked well-worn with faded color and various patches. The gloves and boots seemed to have fared a bit better with their black velvet and gold swirl patterns. A belt pouch hung on one side of his belt while an ebony dagger hung on the other. The trademark jester's cap's flap fluttered in the wind as the man bounced up and down.

Skyrim did not have jesters, which I always considered a damn shame. I could never wrap my head around a country that insisted that every court have a wizard and housecarl, but would neglect any good old fashioned humor. I watched as he leapt onto the wheel and jumped up and down on it while screaming, "Bother and befuddle!"

A bark of laughter escaped my lips before I could stop myself. I held my hand over my mouth, but I couldn't stop laughing. The man stopped jumping and looked over his shoulder with an irritable look on his face that quickly melted into one of hope.

"Problem?" I managed to say around my laughter. Since harnessing the thu'um, I had found that speaking had become difficult for me when I felt extreme emotions. Much like the Greybeards, my voice occasionally rumbled even if speaking the language of man and not that of dragon kind. I had always been gregarious, so losing reliable use of my voice had pained me.

"Yes, yes, yes! Cicero is stuck! Stuck! This damnable wheel broke off my wagon," the jester said rapidly. He danced back and forth on his feet nervously. Gloved hands fluttered like birds taking flight as he talked. "Cicero was taking his mother to her new home. Well, not quite. She's dead you see, but her crypt was desecrated in Bravil and Cicero must take her to a new one. We were doing just fine but the wheel broke and Cicero has no tools or knowhow on how to fix the cursed thing." He was speaking so quickly and moving around me in circles like an overexcited lap dog. I was getting dizzy from his motions. "Loreius won't help. Cicero tried but he was turned away by the farmer on his farm. Where else would the farmer be? He certainly isn't here helping Cicero and Mother! What help is he? None!"

"Slow down," I said calmly. Cicero's voice had gone beyond shrill on the last word. "You're going too fast. Start at the beginning."

As Cicero rambled, I couldn't help but notice his shoulder-length red hair. I stifled a wistful sigh as it flounced under his cap. By the Eight, I had always had a weakness for red hair. There was something about that fiery gold color that made me want to run my fingers through it. Twist strands of it between each joint. I found my fingers itching to do so. I restrained myself since he would probably think I was a bit mad. Not that he wasn't a little off himself. Maybe the jester's outfit was a warning rather than a sign of profession.

"You seem like a kindly stranger. The first Cicero has seen. Maybe you could convince Loreius for poor Cicero. There would be shiny, clinky coin for you if you help Cicero," he promised solemnly. His amber eyes were wide with sincerity.

"I'll see what I can do," I murmured. Part of me wanted to continue down the road towards the familiarity and warmth of home, but I couldn't in good conscience leave anyone stranded on the side of the road. It was a surprise something had not attacked him yet with how laden with bandits and wild animals Skyrim seemed to be. Instinctively I glanced to the skies for signs of a dragon in flight and was relieved to see none. I tied my horse to the wagon and began the ascent up the hill to the farm Cicero had pointed out. His shrill laughter of joy followed me as I walked up the hill.

Sundas 5 Sun's Dawn, 4E 202 4:15 PM

"Oh, for the sake of Mara, what now?" a grumpy male voice complained. The farm door swung open to reveal the frowning face of a middle-aged Imperial man. His expression softened when he saw me. "Oh, you're not that man."

"Who is it, Vantus?" a female voice came from inside.

"A woman," Loreius said over his shoulder. He turned back to me, his expression still guarded. "How can I help you?"

"There is a man down by the road that has a broken wagon," I gestured vaguely behind me. "I was hoping you would help him repair it."

"That Cicero fellow?" Loreius frowned. The door edged closed. "I told him five times I wanted nothing to do with him."

"Five times?" I practically screeched. "How could you turn him down so many times?"

"Because there is something wrong about him," Loreius said. "Did you see the way he is dressed or the way he acts? It's better to not get involved with him."

"Look, we're all Imperials," I started.

"And that's why I shouldn't get involved!" Loreius interrupted. "Do you have any idea what the Pale is like with this Stormcloak rebellion going on? Dawnstar is allied with Windhelm and our kind is not exactly treated positively right now." He glanced inside. "My wife is an Altmer and that just makes matters worse. I love her to death, and I fear what the soldiers might get into their heads one day."

The Stormcloak Rebellion had started last year when Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Eastmarch traveled to the capital of Skyrim and killed High King Torygg. Some say it was murder and Ulfric used the thu'um to shout the young king to death. Others, particularly Ulfric, claim it was an honorable duel and the king died under Ulfric's blade. According to old tradition, Ulfric should become the next High King for winning a duel against the previous ruler.

Ulfric had challenged Torygg as a protest against the White-Gold Concordat, a treaty that ended the Great War between the Aldmeri Dominion and the Empire almost twenty-five years ago. Many Nords had raged at the treaty, especially the clause of forbidding the worship of Talos, a god who was once a man who ascended to godhood. Ulfric, a soldier for the Empire at the time, had been particularly vocal on the matter.

The Empire had not taken kindly to Ulfric killing their representative and openly declaring segregation of a free Skyrim. General Tullius had been dispatched to lead the Imperial army and had even managed to capture Ulfric in an ambush, which I had unfairly been caught in as well. Ulfric, his men, and I were all almost beheaded at the executioner's block when Alduin appeared looking to kill me personally. Maybe he wanted to devour my dragon soul or maybe he didn't trust mortals to get the job done, but it allowed me to escape and start my journey as the Dragonborn.

Another huge point of contention was that many Nords felt Skyrim should be only for Nords and that the inclusion of other races, especially any elves, was an affront to their culture. Loreius might have had good reason to be scared for a High Elf wife from the Stormcloaks, but what should he fear from other Imperials?

"Listen," I said. I tried to edge the door open more. "He just needs a little help. I know for a fact you'll be paid."

"It's not about money," Loreius snapped. "I don't trust him. I think he's trafficking in illegals goods, probably weapons for the Imperial forces. I want nothing to do with it. Keep me out of this damn war! If you know what's good for you, you'd find a guard and report that fool!" With that, the farmer slammed the door shut.

I backed away from the farm house. My body was shaking and I found that my hand was on my dagger. It had probably been a good thing Loreius had slammed the door in my face. I carefully pried white knuckled fingers away from the blade. My temper was on edge and I didn't want to imagine what I would have done if he had continued to yell in my face like that.

I stomped back down the hill still furious. My face was as stormy as the clouds above. Oblivious to my mood, Cicero asked anxiously, "Did the kindly stranger convince the farmer to help?"

"To the Void with Loreius!" I snapped. Cicero straightened at my curse. I assumed he was taken aback by my strong language, but there was an intrigued look in his eyes. "I cannot believe he actually refused to help you five times because he was paranoid that you're doing some illegal trafficking."

The nerve of that man infuriated me. Back in Cyrodiil we were taught to treat all men and mer equally and fairly. Living in Skyrim had made Loreius become as petty and paranoid as the xenophobic Nords. It was an all too common attitude of some of these "traditional" Nords that left me little sympathy for them in the civil war Ulfric Stormcloak led. Too damn many of them thought of themselves and their own instead of their community as a whole. Only united as one could we hope to become more than we were alone.

To my surprise, tears sprung in Cicero's eyes. "What will Cicero do now!?" he shrieked. "Oh Mother, poor Cicero has failed you!" He began to box himself on the head as I watched. I threw my hands up in a defensive posture, not sure what to do. I wasn't really good with emotions or comforting people.

"L-look, calm down, okay?" I tried to grab his hands and pin them so he wouldn't hurt himself, but it was difficult. The man was stronger than he looked. I found myself uncomfortably close to him, our faces inches apart. Practically kissing distance. His eyes were those of a mad man, but there was a sincerity of his plight that hurt to see. I leaned closer so I could whisper into his ear. I didn't trust that my voice wouldn't crack if I used it above a whisper. "I'll find a nearby guard and have him help you. I'm surprised one hasn't come across you already if you've been here as long as I suspect. It is their duty to help travelers."

Cicero burst from my grasp to dance a joyful jig. "Oh thank you, kindly stranger!" he crowed. "Humble Cicero won't forget this!" My laughter mingled with his as he capered around me. Although he looked a few years older than myself, his unrestrained joy was more like someone many years younger. Suddenly I felt a lot better about my own situation. This was a man who was a little…a lot strange, but he managed to struggle to take care of his dead mother's remains. And if he could find laughter in that, maybe I could find some happiness of my own.

His gloved hands engulfed mine in a frantic handshake. "What is the kindly stranger's name so Cicero will not forget?"

"Diana," I told him. He dropped to one knee and kissed my hand much like the knights of Breton were said to do once. I blushed, pleased more than I should have been. I have never been what one would call romantic. "If you're ever in Whiterun city, just ask for…" I paused. I had almost said "the Dragonborn", but I didn't want him to remember me that way. I wanted to be remembered as a woman, not the legend at least by someone somewhere. "…ask for Breezehome," I fumbled. "It's my residence and not hard to miss. I'm neighbors with the blacksmith next to the main entrance."

I disengaged my hand from his. A cold breeze whipped loose strands of hair into my face. "The rains will be coming soon. You won't want to be caught outside when they come. The cold can make even the healthiest Nord sick. I'll ride ahead so I can find a guard as soon as possible." As I mounted my mare, I noticed Cicero's gaze towards the Loreius Farm.

"What you said, about Loreius…to the Void," the jester's voice was cautious. There was a stillness there that left me chilled to the bone.

"He'll get his due one day," I said. "People like that always do."

A huge grin broke out on Cicero's face. "Oh yeeees!" he giggled. "Ahem, how long do you think it will be before help arrives for Cicero?"

"I'll try to have the guard come as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, with all the dragon attacks lately, they may be a while," I said apologetically. Even with Alduin dead, there were now dragons in the world, for better or for worse.

"No matter, no matter," Cicero glanced towards the farm again. "Knowing help is coming will keep Cicero happy." He smiled slyly. "I'm sure I'll find something to keep me occupied."

As I turned my mount towards Whiterun, I could have sworn I heard a female voice from behind me whisper, "Thank you, my child."The voice sent a chill through me like autumn leaves on the wind.

"Did you say something?" I asked Cicero. He looked up from adjusting some ropes on the large crate on the wagon.

"No," he answered. "Did you hear something?" His face was strangely hopeful.

"I guess not," I said. "Must have been my imagination." I waved goodbye and set off towards home.

"We will meet again…soon."

Chapter Text

Sundas 5 Sun's Dawn, 4E 202 5:30 PM

Somehow I beat the storm back to Whiterun. A light winter breeze sprang up as I left my horse at the local stables. This meant I was only slightly chilled instead of frozen to the bone, but I was starting to regret leaving my dragon scale armor on the roadside. Although I had been overheated and sweaty in the mail, it had served me well and I had no fear of freezing.

I mentally shrugged as I tossed the stable boy a septim to take care of my mare. Divines knew I had enough material from the dozens of dragons I had slayed in the last six months to make several more complete sets of armor if the mood struck me. Adrianne Avenicci, blacksmith and neighbor, was always generous with her forge and had promised me that I could use it whenever the mood struck.

As I walked up the hill to the gates, I found myself humming. I released my waist length black hair from the multiple braids I kept wrapped around my head. The weight removed felt good and I liked how the breeze pulled the locks back as I walked.

It felt right to be back in Whiterun. I had only been gone for about two weeks after flying off on the red dragon Odahviing to go to Sovngarde and battle Alduin for the souls of the mortals held there. It was strange to realize that only a handful of people knew of my most recent mission. Life had gone on here as it always had, no one wiser knowing that the fate of mortals was being fought.

"Welcome home, Dragonborn," one of the guards hailed me as I neared.

"Thank you," I said hesitating. I never could tell which guard was which behind their face-concealing helms.

"Anything we can do for you, Dragonborn?" the other guard asked. I never lingered at the gates. Normally I was already halfway through before they could give me greeting.

"There's a traveler near the Loreius farm," I said gesturing north, "about an hour from here. His wagon broke and he's stranded. I was hoping we could send a guard to help him."

"I'm sorry, Dragonborn," the first guard said shifting nervously. Many of the residents had seen me use the thu'um around Whiterun and it made them nervous. People were scared that I would turn the Voice against them like Ulfric Stormcloak had done to High King Torygg. It was a common reaction to my power and it constantly aggravated me. "Our men are stretched too thin as it is. We have no one available."

"What if I ordered as thane?" I threatened. I could feel the thu'um building behind my voice as my irritation grew. I would have to be careful or a guard would get blasted off his feet. The instability of the thu'um was something I had struggled to keep hidden as long as possible. If people were afraid thinking I had mastery over it, how would they react when they found out I couldn't control it?

"We would obey, Dragonborn, but we are required to keep two men at the gates at all times. Someone would have to send to Dragonsreach for reinforcements before anything could be done." I could feel my right eye twitching. Was it really necessary to address me as Dragonborn in every sentence? I hated how people only saw the title and not the person. "Besides, that far north is outside our jurisdiction. Why didn't the traveler ask Loreius?"

"He did!" I snapped. I could feel the earth tremble around me as I spoke. The two guards stepped back warily, wondering what had caused the disruption. I drew in a deep breath, calming myself. I stepped through the gate quickly before I said something I would regret. Inadvertently using fus ro dah on a gate guard would not do well for my reputation.

Adrianne Avenicci was working at her forge as I walked by. Her long dirty blonde hair was pulled back into its usual braid and dripping with sweat. All day, every day she worked the forges trying to hone her skill enough to be recognized as a master smith. I wondered if she was still trying to fill the never-ending large shipment of blades for the Battle-Born family, a local family who supported the Empire, for the impending civil war.

"Diana, you look angry," she remarked, wiping her face with a clean cloth. "Another bandit raid giving you trouble?" There had been more than one occasion when I had slinked home licking my wounds from a failed attempt to clear a bandit den.

"No," I managed to murmur. Adrianne and I had had many conversations since I had moved to Whiterun. She was used to my tendency to pitch my voice low if I was upset or irritated, which was more often than I cared for. "Stupid guards can't spend a few hours to help a stranger get his wagon fixed. Wheel fell off so he's stranded near a farm an hour north of here."

The Imperial woman smiled. "Wouldn't it make more sense to ask someone whose work would be more appropriate for fixing things? Maybe a…blacksmith?" She laughed as my jaw dropped open.

"Divines label me as a fool," I muttered as I slapped myself on the forehead. "I didn't even think."

"Don't worry about it," Adrianne wiped her hands on her cloth. "I was just about to take a break. I'll send Ulfberth with a temporary wheel, have them come back here, and work on it personally." Ulfberth was her husband, a huge bear of a man who tended the counter of their business, Warmaiden's.

"Will it be a problem that Cicero is in Pale territory?" I asked. Now that I knew it was in another hold, I didn't want Ulfberth to go all that way for nothing.

"I doubt anyone will complain," Adrianne said. "If he didn't come back to me, he would have to go up to Dawnstar for repairs."

"I don't think Cicero would want that. His wagon was pointed south when I found him," I said. Which was a bit strange if he was coming from Cyrodiil, which was south of Skyrim. Why would Cicero be north traveling south? He probably just got lost. Divines knew I had taken many wrong turns during my travels.

As I glanced to the stormy skies, Adrianne said, "Don't worry about the clouds. It always looks like that during the winter months. Skyrim cannot seem to get enough of rain or snow it seems. It looks more like rain than snow and I doubt it will start before nightfall and probably not even until late into the night. Plenty of time for my husband to be back with your friend."

"Thank you, Adrianne," I smiled. "Feel free to add a generous tip to my tab for your work."

"I wouldn't say 'no' to any of that dragon bone you had squirreled away," she said hopefully. Making even a simple helmet of dragon bone would finally set Adrianne apart from Eorlund Gray-Mane as a master smith. I had seen her enviously watching me as I had worked the forge for my own armor in the past.

"How about you just charge me whatever you charge Cicero?" I countered. Despite my impetuous decision to discard my armor, I felt a personal bond with the bones and scales I had harvested. It didn't feel right to let anyone use them. I started to turn away, but paused, "Oh, by the way, he's a bit…odd."

Adrianne nodded acknowledgement as she disappeared into Warmaiden's.

I followed suit and went next door to Breezehome, my residence in Whiterun. I threw open the door and yelled, "Lydia, I'm home! Where's my supper, woman?"

Lydia and I were polar opposites. She was a tall Nord warrior who preferred to wade into battle with her steel armor and axe while I preferred to stay as far away as possible with my bow. She was quiet and serious while I was loud and carefree. Fighting together, side by side, had turned a mere association into friendship.

Despite her long suffering tone at times, Lydia was probably the only friend I had in all of Skyrim other than Adrianne. I had no illusions that our association started because she was assigned as my personal bodyguard by Jarl Balgruuf the Greater, but over time I had come to depend on her service. She helped make Breezehome into a home and not just a house to place my things when I was traveling.

We had been inseperable.

At least until this last mission. Odahviing had refused to take anyone other than me to fight Alduin and I had been forced to leave Lydia behind. I had missed her terribly, but part of me understood it was better she hadn't come. No mortal was intended to see heaven before their time and I would never have forgiven myself if Alduin had devoured her soul.

"My thane?" Lydia was standing at the top of the stairs, staring at me as if seeing a ghost. Neither of us had expected for me to return alive.

Suddenly, the house thundered as the Nord barreled down the steps. She grabbed me in a bear hug and swung me around, laughing merrily. "My thane! You're back. Oh, by Shor, I can't believe it. Tell me what happened while you were gone."

My laughter mingled with hers as Lydia set me back down. "Not right now, okay? I'm pretty tired and it was pretty hellish."

"Let me go inform Jarl Balgruuf that you've returned at least. He's going to want to see you," Lydia insisted.

"Okay, but make it clear that I won't give an audience until tomorrow," I said sternly. "I'm tired and I want to rest. I'm sure we don't have to remind Balgruuf how unpleasant a cranky Dragonborn is."

"Farengar is going to have a thousand questions," Lydia chuckled. I groaned at the thought. The man was obsessed with dragons.

"Gods, don't let him know. I don't want him harassing me all night. Then get your butt back here and make me dinner," I mock scowled. "I gave you one thing to do while I was gone. Just one thing!"

"As you wish," Lydia smiled. She hugged me again before running out the door. "It's good to have you home."

Sundas 5 Sun's Dawn, 4E 202 9:00 PM

I was lounging in a bed gown on my bed reading The Locked Room enjoying the aftereffects of the hot bath Lydia had graciously drawn for me. My muscles felt relaxed for what seemed like the first time since I had arrived in Skyrim. My damp hair smelt pleasantly like the lavender oil Lydia had used to wash me. Downstairs, I could hear her moving around as she made a late dinner for me. The mouthwatering smells of stew drifted up, distracting me from my book. I could practically taste the fresh, hot bread I would dip into the stew. Most of my meals the last week had been cold, dry tasteless traveling tack.

I was absorbed in Yana's frantic attempt to leave the locked room with the vampire, when the knock on the front door came. I stifled a scream as I jolted into a sitting position. Who would be visiting at this hour? I thought with my heart pounding in my throat.

"I will answer it, my thane," Lydia called. Knocking could be heard from the door again, this time as the opening notes of The Age of Aggression. "Hello, how may I help you?"

"You're not Diana," a shrill man's voice accused, "You're not Diana at all."

A few moments later, Lydia poked her head through the doorway. "My thane, you have a visitor. Should I send him away?"

"No, Lydia," I placed a bookmark in my book. I would have to wait until later to see what Yana's fate would be. "Let me change clothes and I'll be down shortly."

A few minutes later, I descended the stairs wearing a simple blue dress in the local Nordic style. Lydia was warily watching Cicero as he stood over the kettle of stew. He tasted from a ladle while tapping his right foot impatiently.

"He just helped himself," Lydia muttered low enough for only me to hear as I walked past her.

"Ah, there you are!" Cicero said happily as he replaced the soup ladle. "If Cicero had known Diana was hiding, he would have looked harder for her." He laughed loudly. Lydia winced at the sound. Nords are generally a somber lot and only became rowdy during great celebrations or after much drinking. Cicero bounced towards me, dancing in a circle. "Diana told Cicero to visit if he came to Whiterun and look where Cicero is. Helpful smith brought Cicero here and then just as helpful showed Cicero where to go."

"Adrianne is a good person like that," I stammered. His constant movement was making me a bit dizzy again.

Suddenly, Cicero's hands were in mine and he was whirling me around the fire pit. I was his dance partner to a song only he could hear. I stumbled, my feet feeling large and clumsy. I had never learned how to dance and his fast, smooth steps turned me about like a puppet on a string. The tension in his voice and body were gone and replaced with high elation. I supposed that finally getting help had made him giddy. His right hand wrapped around my waist as his left held my right hand high leading me to his silent waltz.

"I know I have been a great bother to you already," he smiled down at me, his voice smooth and even for a change. Divines, he was tall. I had not noticed the first time we met. Hunched over in frustration and probably fear he had appeared closer to my height. Now I could see that he was more than a hand's breadth taller than I. "But Cicero must ask another favor. The blacksmith was unable to work on the wagon as it is dark. Humble Cicero does not want to leave his poor Mother alone, all alone, in a strange city. Mayhap poor Cicero may sleep by your fire so he may be close to his mother?"

I managed to disentangle myself from his grasp. He let me go easily enough, but the merriment in his eyes felt a bit like a cat playing with her prey. As if he was letting me go so he could catch me again later. "Nonsense," I straightened my clothes, turning my face down to hide my blush. "You're more than welcome to stay, but I insist you use my housecarl's bed." I ignored Lydia's indignant gasp. "Lydia can share my bed tonight. It's big enough for the two of us."

"As you wish, my thane. Let me move some of my things, then," Lydia huffed as she stomped up the stairs. "Anything you want, my thane. I am sworn to carry your burdens, my thane." The sarcasm was especially thick on the last word.

"Oooh, is she a special friend?" Cicero twitched his eyebrows suggestively. He held up one hand with his pinky hooked.

"No, no," I laughed trying to imagine Lydia that way and failing. "She's my housecarl. She helps take care of me. Lydia keeps me safe."

"Cicero understands this," the jester nodded wisely crossing his arms. "Yes, yes, keeping is very important."

Morndas 6 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 Midnight

"I don't know why you're grumbling," I said as I slid into the bed with Lydia. "We've slept back to back many a night on the ground. What's wrong with sharing a bed? I should be the one complaining. You snore."

We had stayed up late, Cicero and I sharing stories of Cyrodiil. Although I had met several Imperials since coming to Skyrim, most of them had lived here for quite a while. It was pleasant to talk to another countryman about our home, gossiping about recent events.

"Oh, I don't know, maybe the fact I could be sleeping in my own bed. Shor forbid I would expect such an outlandish idea." I could practically hear her roll her eyes in the dark. "Or the fact you've let a complete stranger stay in our home who is probably completely insane." Lydia rolled over so she was facing me. "May I speak bluntly, my friend?"

"Always." Lydia must have been feeling particularly serious to address me as friend rather than thane.

"You take too many burdens of strangers upon yourself. I have seen you time and time again go out of your way to assist someone you met moments before. You give yourself completely to someone who has no claim on you and it leaves you too spread thin to give yourself to someone who might have a long term claim on your heart and soul.

"Like this Cicero fellow. There are many who would have passed him by, not giving him a glance. Some may have stopped and tried to repair the wagon. Maybe even a few would have alerted Adrianne. But you, you do everything you could to not only assist him, you invite him into your home. The Bannered Mare isn't that far into the Wind district and no one would dare to mess with Warmaiden's." Lydia signed and rolled back over so her back was to me. "At least I can rest knowing he won't try to crawl into your bed to molest you. Not that you would mind since you obviously enjoyed his flirting all night long."

Had he been flirting with me? I had taken his exuberance as simply as part of his personality. I knew I was a good looking woman and had my fair share of lovers over the years. I was no longer a young maid, but a mature woman of thirty-one. I was a fairly good diplomat and could read others well. Surely, I wouldn't have missed the signals. "Divines, when was the last time I bedded someone?" I thought out loud.

"Don't get any ideas," Lydia half-warned, half-teased as she rolled over to fall asleep. "You'll probably regret it."

Morndas 6 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 3:00 AM

I awoke to the sound of the house shuttering. For a moment I was confused. I had been dreaming of dragons, gods, and disapproving ancient Nordic heroes. I had dreamed of Sovngarde a lot lately, but it was always jumbled images. I refused to let the memory linger as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.

Adrianne had been right in the rain holding off. It still had not rained, but the winds were picking up. Rain would be here soon. To my left, Lydia snored lightly. I quietly slid out of the cozy bed, immediately missing the warmth. Bare toes on the wooden floor sent chills up my legs.

I pulled a spare blanket from the dresser and draped it over my shoulders. Silently, I slipped out of the bedroom. Downstairs, the fire had burned low, but enough flame remained to throw shadows on the walls. Cicero's jester profile danced on wall as I descended. He was humming a tune quietly to himself as he prodded the embers.

"You're still up?" I asked sleepily. Why was he still fully dressed?

"Cicero doesn't sleep much," he admitted casually. "Nights are the worst. The silence can be…maddening." His eyes became distant lost in some memory. He shook his head, returning to the present, laughing nervously. "Why are you awake?"

"Thirsty," I answered as I rummaged the cabinet. "I thought I would warm some milk to help me to back to sleep. Would you like some?" He refused, so I prepared a small kettle to place on the fire. I sat next to him on the bench, shivering from the cold. Cicero slid over so he was pleasantly pressed against me.

"Cold?" he asked as he draped his left arm over my shoulders. When I didn't protest, he slid his arm down to encircle my waist pulling me closer. Heat emitted from his body. I wasn't sure if it was from being close to the fire or a natural body heat, but I liked it. His lopsided grin grew wider once again reminding me of a smirking cat.

His right hand gently grasped my chin, nudging my gaze up until I was looking directly into his amber eyes. He kept eye contact as he leaned over and kissed me on the lips. Even then he kept his eyes open. It was strangely fascinating. All my previous experiences had men who looked at some distant point over my shoulder or women who closed their eyes as tightly as possible. Despite my best efforts, I found my own eyes fluttering closed with pleasure as his lips touched mine experimentally. When I opened my eyes again, he was still watching me with his private smile.

"It's been a long time," Cicero confessed. "A very, very looong time." The hunger in his voice made me shiver. I hated when Lydia is right.

I didn't trust my voice, not with my heart thudding so loudly. It had been too long since I was just a woman. All of my interactions lately had been that of a warrior, a thane, or Dragonborn. I pushed the blanket off my shoulders and leaned forward to kiss Cicero again.

He chuckled lowly, pleased at my response. Grasping my waist, he pulled me to him as he pushed the bench away from us. The loud clatter made me wince. I worried that Lydia would waken from the noise and come to investigate. Before I could voice a concern, Cicero pushed me to the floor.

His gloved hands fiddled with my night gown. "Clothes are in the way," he observed lazily. Pulling an ebony dagger from his belt, he smoothly cut a line down my front making my clothes part like butter. Still holding the blade in his right hand, he pulled his glove from his left hand using his teeth. Cicero slid his bare hand between the folds of my ruined gown to caress my skin. Goosebumps sprung all along my skin, whether from his touch or the cold I had no idea.

Confident hands ran over my body, squeezing and massaging with the skill of an expert. His lips crashed against mine again, traveling down my neck. My legs wrapped around his waist, pulling him closer. I could feel that he was reacting just as strongly as I was which made me even more aroused. I managed to undo the bindings on his jerkin to reveal muscles hidden by the jester's outfit. Cicero wasn't as bulky or muscular as most men, but there was a seasoned leanness to his form. His breath was hot on my ear as he nibbled my lobe.

Divines, this was him out of practice?

Suddenly, Cicero's weight was gone and I was left alone on the cold floor. "What was that?" he barked. Thunder rumbled outside and the wall shook from the wind.

"It's just the storm." I sat up, pulling the halves of my gown together with one hand. Lightning lit the dark room as the rain finally began to fall, a heavy torrent.

"Mother!" Cicero ran outside, jerkin still open and one glove on. The door was left open letting a blast of cold air into the house.

Grabbing my blanket and drawing it back around me, I ran after him. "What the hell…?" I muttered as I watched the red haired man run towards Warmaiden's. Despite the heavy rain, I could make out the silhouette of his wagon in front of the smithy. He darted back and forth frantically securing the waterproof tarp he had left over the crate that contained his mother's coffin. Even so, corners of the tarp fluttered in the wind.

Sprinting back, Cicero retied his jerkin and pushed past me back into Breezehome. He retrieved his discarded glove and dagger. He danced about like an overexcited puppy, all grace gone. "Cicero must go. Cicero must take care of Mother."

"It's just a body," I said softly. "Your mother is gone to the Divines."

The look he gave me was murderous. The dagger hovered in his hand for a second too long before sheathing it. "You don't understand," he growled. "No one ever understands. Only loyal Cicero understands." He pushed past me without another word.

I stood wordlessly for a moment trying to catch up with the fact two minutes ago I was on the floor with a half-naked man on top of me and now I was chilled to the bone and sexually frustrated.

"I really hate it when Lydia is right," I grumbled. If that fool wanted to sleep outside in the cold, wet mud that was his decision.

After a quick clean up, I trudged back upstairs. Weary, I climbed into the bed next to Lydia. At least I could rest easy knowing Lydia had slept through the whole ordeal.

"Slut," Lydia said with her dry humorous tone.

"Shut up!" I said, kicking her out of the bed.

Chapter Text

Morndas 6 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 11:00 AM

"But I despise Windhelm," I knew my voice was whiny, but I frankly didn't care. My meeting with Jarl Balgruuf the Greater had started out extremely well. The last time I had seen the man was when I had accepted the dragon Odahviing's assistance to defeat Alduin and he had welcomed me with open arms this morning when I arrived to report my success. It was only with Balgruuf's assistance that I was even able to lure the dragon into a trap capable of capturing him long enough to talk to the creature.

Upon my arrival at Dragonsreach this morning, I had been given an immediately audience with the jarl and his court which consisted of his Dunmer housecarl Irileth, his Nord court wizard Farengar Secret-Fire, and his Imperial steward Proventus Avenicci. I gave a quick recount of my journey to Sovngarde, leaving out my personal feelings about the place, and the final battle against Alduin.

Most of the last couple of hours had involved me answering specific questions, especially from Farengar who was fairly obsessed with dragons. He seemed mostly satisfied when I told him that not all dragons were gone, just Alduin's influence. I supposed he felt it would be a shame to lose the ancient creatures so quickly after their return.

Things were going well until Balgruuf gave me his next command. "I want you to go to Windhelm and deliver a message to Ulfric Stormcloak," he said.

"I don't think he's going to react well to me. Not considering some of my…attributes," I said gesturing to the Imperial armor I had opted to wear today. None of them had commented on my choice of dress, for which I was grateful, although Irileth had raised a questioning eyebrow.

Balgruuf impatiently waved away my protest. "Maybe it would be best if you did wear that. Now that the very thread of existence has been preserved, it is time for us to turn our attention to the Civil War. Winter provided us some breathing room to plan and prepare, but with spring on the horizon Ulfric will surely turning his attention to Whiterun."

"Then send a courier," I suggested. "I don't see where I'm involved with this at all."

"Because you command the thu'um," Farengar offered, "Ulfric will respect you more than a mere courier."

"Aye, as a self-proclaimed true Nord son, he recognizes strength. Much of Ulfric's fearsome reputation has grown from his duel with Torygg," Balgruuf said. "We must show we have a similar strength."

"You assume I stand with you," I said crossly.

"Don't you, Imperial?" Irileth asked. As always, her body language screamed that she was a breath away from pulling her blade and killing anyone who dared to look at Balgruuf cross eyed.

"I was thinking about getting out of the business of war," I said crossing my arms behind my head. "Haven't decided how I wanted to retire yet, but anything that doesn't involve me getting eaten or beheaded has a lot of appeal. Confronting Ulfric about his petulant war seems like a fast path to that second option."

"Ulfric would take no action against you," Balgruuf answered before Irileth could respond to my arrogance. "He will follow the traditions regarding messengers and must give you a response. All you must do is deliver an axe to him. He'll know what it means."

"What is it you wish for, Imperial? Coin? Gems? " Irileth sneered. I don't know how she managed to make Imperial sound like a curse word, but I was a bit envious.

"Pfft, please," I responded. I had more than enough wealth from all of the bounties and dungeon delving I had done in the last several months. I thought for a second. "How about you have the guards lay off harassing me when I wuld through town? It's a harmless shout and it lets me get errands done quickly." I loved using the Whirlwind Sprint Shout to launch myself through the streets of Whiterun. Especially when I was leaving the Cloud district, it was like flying as I hurled myself down the stairs.

Whiterun was divided into three districts, the Plains district, the Wind district, and the Cloud district. In typical Nord fashion, the reason was pretty straightforward. The Plains district, where Breezehome and Warmaiden's were located, was closest to the plains and held the merchants and marketplace. The Wind district was a bit higher and named from the winds produced by the nearby mountains. Most residential homes and Jorrvaskr, the home of the Companions were located there. Finally, there was the Cloud district built at the top of the mountain of Whiterun was built on. Dragonsreach, Balgruuf's palace, dominated this district, but there were a few residents of important personage. I had never been sure why my home was in the merchant district instead of the other two, but it was conveniently located by the front gates so I had never worried about it too much.

"Impossible!" Proventus scoffed. "Do you realize the panic it could cause?"

"Like it does now? Let's just be honest with ourselves, okay? I am doing it anyway, so when the guards run up to me and tell me to lay off they just end up looking weak when I tell them it won't happen again and continue about my business. They're all too scared of me to actually do anything about it since it's not illegal," I snorted.

"Done", Balgruuf said before Proventus or Irileth could protest further. I mentally groaned, he had responded way too fast for my comfort. Either he had already considered that would be what I would ask or he was desperate enough for any demand. "As long as you only practice nonviolent dragon shouts outside of any attacks on Whiterun."

I nodded in agreement. The condition was fair. I didn't particularly want to go, but I had been taught to never offer a deal you wouldn't honor if accepted. Proventus reverently handed to me the war axe I was to give to Ulfric Stormcloak. I noted the insignia of Whiterun, the horse's head, prominently stamped on the head of the blade. "This is the jarl's personal axe," the balding steward noted, "please take good care of it."

Morndas 6 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 Noon

"Lydia, where's my brown dress with that embroidery along the hem?" I called.

"In the chest next to your bed where you throw everything," the dark haired woman responded from her room.

"Oh, okay," I paused. "Where's my dagger with that exhausting enchantment? It might come in handy if someone tries to ambush us."

"Cabinet next to the door when you come into the house," Lydia replied.

"Where's my book Biography of the Wolf Queen? I might finish The Locked Room and want a backup book to read as we travel."

Lydia poked her head into my room where I was kneeling by the chest rummaging through it for the dress I had requested. "My thane, maybe it would be easier if I were to pack for you." Although her tone was annoyed, her expression was one of concern. "Is there something bothering you? You don't normally fuss this much when packing for a mission."

I sat back on my heels, sighing heavily. "Normally I'm sent to eliminate a bandit camp or find a lost trinket. Dealing with Ulfric makes me nervous. I'm more comfortable haggling with merchants over prices and not negotiating war terms."

"You did fine a month ago when you convinced Shatter-Shield to pay the Argonians fair wages for their work in the docks," Lydia said as she came over and pushed me aside so she could organize the chest. With the ease of someone with intimate familiarity, she pulled out the dress I had requested.

"That's on the same level as haggling with merchants," I scoffed. "And another reason I hate Windhelm. It's dirty place with an aura of despair. Too many of the residents are either racist Nords or downtrodden people like the Argonians or Dunmer. It's just disgusting. The existence of the Gray Quarter is all the proof I need that Ulfric's rule is wrong." The poorest ghetto of Windhelm was reserved for dark elf residence and was strictly enforced. The lizard folk weren't even allowed that privilege and forced to live by the docks while the Khajiit were kept to the merchant roads with their caravans. "We're all children of the Empire and should all be treated humanely."

There was another reason I didn't want to go to Windhelm, but I was too ashamed to tell Lydia. I thought back to the last time I had been there and met a very special young boy.

Middas 7 Evening Star 4E 201 9:15 PM

I had travelled to Windhelm to see Ulfric for myself. I had briefly met him at our interrupted execution, but given that he had been gagged at the time and Alduin's attack there had not been time for niceties. I wanted to hear personally why Ulfric had started his rebellion and killed High King Torygg, who by all accounts I had heard was a good man and just ruler.

Using my reputation as Dragonborn had easily granted me a personal audience with the jarl of the Eastmarch. Ulfric had been eager to meet someone else who could use the thu'um. No doubt he had seen me as a possible asset for his war. Although I respected his dedication to his cause and understood why his men were so devotedly loyal, I did not agree with Ulfric's arguments for his rebellion. How can one justify a duel as fair when using a power such as the Voice when you know your opponent did not possess a similar power? It felt like bringing magic to a fist fight. Ending the fight with a sword to the chest did not rectify starting it with a Shout.

I had wandered the streets of Windhelm trying to find something good about it. Whiterun had Jorrvaskr and Dragonsreach. Solitude perched on her lonely Oceanside cliffs held the bardic college and the palace of the High King. What cultural significance did Windhelm provide for Skyrim?

As I walked the streets, I found nothing but despair. People treated as lesser citizens while the local drunk lorded his supposed superiority over them by hurling curses at them every opportunity. Merchants proclaiming that they shouldn't have to pay the same amount to outsiders when they could give that good coin to true Nords instead. If they really felt that way, why not hire those "true" Nords to begin with?

Passing the residential section, I paused when I heard the high voice of a young boy from inside one of the houses. "Sweet mother, Sweet mother, send your child unto me. For the sins of the unworthy must be baptized in blood and fear." A sob. "Why isn't it working?"

I glanced at the house I had been passing. It looked rundown and abandoned. Was a child playing inside? I walked around front and found the door unlocked. I cautiously stepped inside noting the lack of maintenance. All the furniture was covered with protective cloth and a thin layer of dust coated everything.

"Sweet mother, sweet mother," the boy intoned again, a frantic tone building in his voice, "send your child unto me."

"What's going on in here?" I asked as I stepped into the room. I gasped in horror at the scene before me. A young boy about the age of nine was kneeling on the ground. His face was covered with dirt and gaunt with hunger while his ragged clothes hung loosely on his too thin frame. Even more horrific were the artifacts around him. A skeleton was carefully arranged on the ground with a human heart and a pound of flesh placed next to it. A nightshade and lit candles created an enclosing circle around the macabre scene.

"Oh, you came!" he exclaimed with relief. "I knew if I did it enough you would come." The iron dagger he held in his hand fell to the ground as he stumbled to his feet. I quickly walked towards him ready to catch the boy if he fell. He looked weak.

"Why don't you tell me what's going on?" I asked. I guided him to the kitchen table and handed him some hard bread from my travel pack. The boy guilelessly accepted the bread and hungrily bit into it.

"My mother died," the boy Aventus Aretino said. A single tear slid down his face leaving a clean streak on his cheek. "I don't know what happened to my pa. He went to the war and didn't come back. They sent me to the orphanage in Riften. The other kids were nice, but Grelod the Kind," He looked at me with his large brown eyes, "Grelod isn't kind. She beats us and tells us no one loves us and we'll always be alone. So I ran away and came home. I found a book that told of how to do the Black Sacrament, how to call the Dark Brotherhood."

I handed him a wedge of cheese which he gladly accepted. A chill ran down my spine thinking about the Dark Brotherhood. Unlike so many other unfamiliar things I had encountered in Skyrim, the Brotherhood was something we shared back in Cyrodiil. About a decade ago a crusade to destroy the crypt of the entity the Brotherhood worshipped, a corpse of a Dunmer known as the Night Mother, had taken place in Bravil. The raid had destroyed the Brotherhood's power base. Some said they had been completely routed while others whispered they had merely scattered until a time for vengeance. Regardless, a mighty cult that had once been the shadowy executioners of political troublemakers had been reduced to little more than a tale to scare children with at night.

"Please, you must kill Grelod the Kind," Aventus begged. "She's a terrible person. She's a monster."

"Sweety, I'm not an assassin," I told him as gently as possible.

"But you came! You came as I did the sacrament," Aventus protested. "I can pay you. I have a reward. I wouldn't expect you to do it for free."

"I'll see what I can do," I promised, mentally deciding to placate the child. I would go to Riften and let the people in charge of the orphanage know where their charge had fled to. They could send people to come and convince him to come back. "But in return, I want you to take better care of yourself. Get more to eat."

"I don't have much coin," the boy looked away in shame.

"Why don't we look around the house and see what we can find?" I suggested. As Aventus checked his room, I slipped a coin pouch into a drawer in the front room. It held about a hundred septims, more than enough for a young boy to survive on for a couple of months and more than enough time for someone to come for him.

I moved to pretend to look through the kitchen cabinets when he came back. "Why don't you check the front room?" I suggested casually as I shuffled a couple of pans back and forth. His squeal of joy alerted me to when he found the coin pouch. I cautioned Aventus to only carry a few coins on him when he left the house and to never tell anyone how much he had. My stomach rolled over at the thought some destitute might kill the boy for his money. I promised to check on him the next time I was back.

Turdas 12 Morning Star 4E 202 8:25 am

"Scouts-Many-Marshes, I've managed to secure a trade agreement with Torbjorn Shatter-Shield. He promised to give you equivalent wages as the Nords, so if he tries to do anything less be sure to present this." I handed over the sealed scroll with all the legal technicalities for the new pay rates. It had been about month since I had last been in Windhelm and I decided that it was time to do something about the Argonian wage issue I had heard about.

"Thank you, landstrider," Scouts-Many-Marshes said accepting the scroll. "How did you manage to convince Shatter-Shield?"

"I'm very persuasive," I said, rubbing the palm of my right against my tired eyes. They felt swollen from lack of sleep. I had had to stay up all night restraining from screaming at Shatter-Shield while liberally plying him with tankard after tankard of mead.

As natives Nord of Windhelm, the Shatter-Shield family was completely dedicated to Ulfric Stormcloak. On some twisted level, Shatter-Shield felt that he was doing the lizard folk a favor by allowing them work at all even if it was a tenth of the normal wages of untrained Nords. To complicate matters, the Shatter-Shields had recently lost their family wax axe causing a great loss of honor. Convincing Torbjorn that increasing the Argonians' salaries was not an act of weakness had been an added difficulty for the negotiations.

But I've always loved a challenge.

I stifled a yawn as Scouts-Many-Marshes launched into a detailed plan of how he was going to improve living conditions for his people with the new flow of income. His startled glanced made me chuckle. "Excuse me," I said.

"No, pardon me," he said. "You were obviously very busy dealing with my problem. I should get back to work anyway. Don't want to risk giving that man any reason to complain."

I waved goodbye and quickly left the docks. My bed in the room I had rented at the Candlehearth Hall was calling to me. And I couldn't wait to get away from the smell of fish curing in the morning sun. As soon as I had rested, I would be setting off for a dragon wall I had heard rumors of.

As I opened the door to Candlehearth, I almost bumped into a small figure. He was a bit cleaner and a little better fed, but I had no problems recognizing Aventus Aretino. I was happy to see he had a loaf of fresh bread and wheel of cheese in hand. Looking up to apologize, Aventus squealed joyfully.

"You came back! I knew you would," he said with the exuberance of the young. I pulled him outside and closed the entrance door before he could continue. It had been no small secret about Aventus' attempts to contact the Brotherhood. Even if the rumors were dying down now, I didn't want the Dragonborn connected to them. "Oh, don't worry, I won't tell anyone. Please, come to my house, I have your payment."

I followed him because it would be simpler than trying to quiet him on the steps of the inn. He lived close by; odds were we would be done in ten minutes. Then blissed sleep.

"Here, take this," Aventus pushed a silver plate into my hands. "It belonged in my family for a long time. You could probably get a lot for it." I appraised the plate and decided it might fetch twenty septims.

"I'll keep it to remember you by," I promised, dropping to my knees to give the boy a one handed hug, "but you have to promise that you'll return to Honorhall." A look of terror crossed Aventus' face. "Don't worry, Grelod is gone. Constance is a lovely woman. She'll take care of you and your friends and find you a new family."

"I'll... think about it," was all Aventus would say.

Morndas 6 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 1:23 PM

I was pulled out of my memories as I placed the Aretino family plate back in its place of honor on the dining room cabinet. Its silver surface gleamed from being polished.

Returning to Windhelm meant checking in on Aventus. Would he be okay? Still living alone in that abandoned house, considered cursed by his neighbors? Would he have returned to the orphanage Honorhall to find love and a new family? Or, divines forbid, would I find a small skeleton curled up in the cold embrace of the larger female skeleton that had been used for the Black Sacrament?

Chapter Text

Fredas 10 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 6:00 PM

"Would you care for more wine, Diana?" Ulfric proffered a bottle of Imperial wine. Although Lydia and I had arrived in the cesspool that was Windhelm two days previously, we had been left to cool our heels at Candlehearth Hall, the local inn. Ulfric's steward Jorleif had claimed that Ulfric was busy with his duties as jarl and warlord, but I suspected that he had wanted to establish a position of control.

A guard had finally arrived at the inn to inform us that we were to be the guests of the jarl tonight for dinner. With less than an hour to prepare, we scrambled to dress appropriately. Or at least I had. Lydia, always Nordic pragmatic, had been wearing her armor since we left Whiterun. I had been in a casual dress and needed to decide if I was going to wear armor or formal clothes.

I had finally opted for a dress that had a lower neckline than what was strictly appropriate, but it was the nicest dress I had with me and I was determined to play the role of diplomat tonight. Lydia styled my hair into a long braid that trailed down to the back of my neck and adorned it with a simple silver and jade circlet.

Once we were invited into the Palace of Kings, Ulfric was a consummate host. The long table that dominated his court had been laden with hot, filling food and strong mead. It had all been of Nordic origin, but none of his guests were complaining. My housecarl and I had not been the only ones invited to this feast. I could make out important citizens of Windhelm and other allies of the Stormcloak rebellion. The jarls of Riften and Dawnstar especially stood out to my attention. Lydia and I had been seated at the far end from Ulfric, making casual conversation with the man impossible. I wasn't completely sure if the position was complimentary or insulting. On one hand being seated at the foot of the table gave me equal footing with Ulfric. On the other, I was as far away from him as possible.

I had avoided the mead all meal. Although I had done so on occasion, I found the stuff foul to drink. Mead had a thick consistency similar to medicine, making me gag. Alcohol should be made of grapes, not honey as far as I was concerned.

As the meal drew to an end, Ulfric had stood and addressed the hall as a whole. "The city of Windhelm welcomes the Dragonborn to our fair city this night." Until Ulfric lifted a mug in my direction, the guests had looked confused. They had not recognized me outside of my dragon scale armor, something I had always worn before as a symbol of recognition. A cheer rippled through the crowd, greeting me. "I hope she has found welcome here despite any ongoing hostilities in our homeland at this time. Rumor has it that you slew the dragon Alduin in Sovngarde with the aid of ancient heroes. Perhaps you could personally relate the tale?"

"I am no bard, Jarl Ulfric," I declined, part of me wondering how he had known. I would need to make sure to let Balgruuf know that Ulfric's social network was spread far if he had access to that information. "Maybe some other time." The crowd laughed good-naturedly at my refusal.

Now that dinner was over, people started to break into little groups or mingle to talk and gossip. Ulfric turned his attention to his right hand man, Galmar Stone-Fist, another small slight instead of approaching me directly. I decided that I had enough of allowing Ulfric to set the pace of this political dance.

I made my way to the man, ignoring anyone who tried to catch my attention. I had every intention of giving Balgruuf's message tonight and start heading home. There were matters waiting for me at home I wanted to turn my attention to. Like what had happened at Loreius' farm.

"Lord Ulfric, there is something I need to discuss with you," I said rudely interrupting Galmar. The large housecarl glared at me with unmistaken hostility. No doubt he didn't trust me because I was an Imperial, because I was the Dragonborn, or because he feared that I could replace him as the second-in-command. Or all three reasons. I didn't care for him either; he had none of Ulfric's charisma or influence and smelled too much like the bear hide he wore.

"I suspected as much," he nodded to Galmar who withdrew. "But before you do, I would like to talk to you privately," Ulfric took my arm and guided me to his war room. A table with a map of Skyrim dominated the room with blue and red colored flag noting claimed territory.

"How was your journey?" he asked casually as he poured a glass of wine for me.

"Mostly uneventful," I answered taking the glass. "There was a small matter regarding a farmer in the Pale before we left the Whiterun proper."

"Do tell," Ulfric said.

"I really would rather not," I answered thinking back to four days ago.

Morndas 6 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 1:00 PM

"Out of curiosity, were you ever going to tell me about this?" Lydia held up the ruined remains of my night gown. I blushed recalling the events of the night before.


"Did he try to rape you?" Lydia asked; her face grim.

"Oh, gods, no!" I grabbed the ruined cloth from her hand and stuffed it into my chest to deal with later. "Cicero was just a bit, um, exuberant."

"It would explain why he was gone without a word this morning when I got up to prepare breakfast." Lydia's face was still dark. "You should have told me, my thane."

"We were fooling around, something you figured out on your own," I reminded her. "The storm came and he left to look after his mother's body." I shrugged. "Nothing more."

"Nothing more," Lydia repeated, slapping her forehead. "Can't you see that man is insane?"

"I see him more as eccentric." I stood up, indicating the conversation was over. "Regardless, he's gone and we'll probably never see him again."

We exited Breezehome a few minutes later. I stopped at Warmaiden's as Lydia continued down to the stables to see if our horses were ready to leave. I wanted to settle any tabs we had with Adrianne before we headed out. I was a little disappointed to see that Cicero's wagon was already gone and he hadn't taken the time to say goodbye.

"Diana, I'm glad you stopped by." Adrianne was kneeling by her tanning rack. "I've had the strangest morning."

"What happened?"

"Well, when I came dawn to work on the wagon wheel, I found that Cicero fellow curled up under the wagon," the smith explained. "The jester was completely covered in mud from lying in the stuff all night. He just popped up from under it like a lord's hound dog who had been locked out for the night. He capered about me as I looked at the axle, chirping about how grateful he was. As I had repaired the damage, Cicero had climbed down to the river that flowed past Warmaiden's to bathe." Adrianne paused, clearly trying to not laugh. "Completely naked."

"Oh god," I gasped, covering my mouth.

"The guards were less than pleased," she finished chuckling nervously. "Especially since he was singing rather loudly the strangest songs. Weird things like finding a bird and breaking its neck. Don't take this wrong, but I'm glad he's gone."

"I'm so very, very sorry," I shook my head in shame. "Please let me match whatever you charged him for your inconvenience."

Adrianne laughed, "Well you see there's a bit of a discrepancy there. What I charged him and what he paid me were two completely different things."

"Oh divines, please don't tell me that he skipped out on his bill!"

"No, no!" Adrianne pulled out a coin pouch. "Rather the opposite. I had asked for fifty septims and he gave me this instead." Inside, I could see easily ten times the amount the smith had requested. I whistled. Shiny, clinky coin indeed.

Before I could wrap my head around the generous amount of money Cicero had given Adrianne, I overheard two guards talking behind me. "Damn shame what happened up at the Loreius farm."

I turned around slowly to face the guards. "What happened?" I asked.

"Man and his wife were found murdered. Dawnstar's housecarl has already been summoned to investigate the matter," the guard said hesitantly, unsure if I had the jurisdiction to know.

"The Loreius farm?" Adrianne whispered. "Isn't that near where your friend was stranded?"

"I have to go," I muttered. Not waiting for a reply, I started running towards the stables. I hurled myself down the path, glad it was all downhill because I was breathless by the time I found Lydia.

"Did you hear?" I gasped.

"Yes," she said simply tossing my horse's reins to me. I swiftly mounted and we rode north to the farm.

Morndas 6 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 2:30 PM

I managed to stumble back out the front door of the farmer's house and lean over the front porch railing before throwing up. I had seen some horrific things since coming to Skyrim, but this had been the worst by far. Who could do such a thing to two people?

"I suppose I should be grateful that I had finished looking over the murder scene before you arrived," Jod said following me at a slower, calmer pace. "I tried to warn you that it was unpleasant."

"A horse farting near your face is unpleasant," I said when I was sure I wouldn't heave again. "That was downright horrific."

Lydia was standing a few feet away, holding our horses' reins. Concern lined her face. "How did they die?" she asked.

"As far as I can tell, badly," Jod looked back towards the blood splattered room. "By the smoothness of the cut, I would say whoever did this used an ebony weapon. The stabbing looked close and personal, so I would hazard to say a dagger instead of a sword. Nothing seems to be taken, so I doubt it was bandits. This was no random killing. Someone had a grudge."

An ebony dagger? I immediately thought of the blade Cicero had used to slice my night gown open the night before. How the ebony blade had whispered against my skin without cutting as he slit my dress open to have better access to my body. Had I almost slept with a murderer?

Lydia came forward and gently grabbed my arm. "We should let you continue your investigation."

"Much appreciated, Dragonborn," Jod said with a bow.

As we rode away, I promised myself that I would return to find out more. I had to know if it was Cicero or coincidence that Loreius and his wife had died when and how they did. Had the farmer's fears of prejudice been well founded or had they caused his death?

Fredas 10 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 6:30 PM

"Very well, I'll get straight to the point," Ulfric set the bottle of wine on the table. "As you recall, the last time we met, there were some hard feelings. You were rather upset, overly so in my opinion, but I wanted to give you time to cool down so we could speak rationally. There is something of great importance that I wanted to ask you."

I swallowed hard. I had dreaded Ulfric's vague promise of an important question when I returned. I had thought the two of us had seen each other as equals given our backgrounds studying with the Greybeards, but instead Ulfric had simply been trying to seduce me for his own gain for the civil war that was brewing.

"Dovahkiin, I want you to join my army."

I stared at him in shock. "Excuse me?"

"You represent a great power to the people of Skyrim. A power that few possess. Other than the Greybeards and myself, I cannot think of anyone else who has mastered the Voice." Ulfric clinched his right hand. "By joining me, you would unite that power for the Nords to rally. I fight this war because I must. The sooner we find victory, the sooner the children of Skyrim can begin healing."

"I'm an Imperial! Doesn't that conflict with your 'true Nord' mentality?" I rebutted. It was a question I frequently brought up to Ulfric, but he had always countered it with "You're a true Nord at heart."

"We don't want any outsider influence from the nonhuman races. One day I hope to see the Khajiit, Argonians, and especially the elves gone from Skyrim. But you are human and can relate to the Nords," Ulfric said. "More importantly, people remember how Talos was a Dragonborn also. It is our worship of him that I fight most for."

"I want nothing to do with your little rebellion. And I especially want nothing to do with you personally," I snapped. So much for me being a true Nord then.

"Disappointing," Ulfric said simply as he began to walk back to the main hall. I followed after him, my anger growing. How dare he even suggest that I would join his side? Especially after he had treated me. "But not entirely unexpected. At least you cannot say I didn't try."

Lydia had Balgruuf's war axe out and presented in both her hands. It was laid flat making it an obvious offering to the jarl. Ulfric barely glanced at the weapon before he swept past and announced to his guests. "Balgruuf has made his choice about this war. He would rather side with Imperials than join us, the true, loyal children of Skyrim. He even would use this Imperial woman to send his message than send an actual member of his court. That is how deep in the Empire's pockets Balgruuf is."

"You…pompous…bastard!" My anger at Ulfric's proposal and declaration against Balgruuf caused my thu'um to flair. On the last word, a burst of energy flew across the room. Servants who were too close to Ulfric were sent flying off their feet. Ulfric was completely unaffected by my inadvertent shout.

Too late I realized Ulfric's trick. Those who were trained in the thu'um could withstand the full use of the Voice. The Greybeards had demonstrated that effect when they had welcomed me officially to High Hrothgar and had me demonstrate my thu'um on them. Ulfric had shown his sycophants that he would face even the Dragonborn and that her power did not matter in the slightest.

I stood there aghast that I had revealed my weakness, that I had no control over the Voice. I covered my mouth with my hands, trying to think of what to do next.

Before I could decide,guards grabbed my arms and started to haul me towards the gates. Ulfric followed smiling smugly. As we neared the doors which had been opened by servants, Ulfric commanded, "Release the Dragonborn." I was still recovering from the burst of the thu'um as the guards moved away. "My turn, Dragonborn," Ulfric said.

My eyes widened in shock. He wouldn't dare.

"FUS RO DAH!" The fully powered Shout of Unrelenting Force threw me off my feet and hurled me through the doors of the Palace of the King like a ragdoll. I slammed into the cold, hard stones of the outside court regretting not wearing armor that could have absorbed the impact. I managed to cover my head, but that left my arm taking most of the impact. Lydia landed next to me. She had avoided the Shout; Ulfric had carefully only targeted me with the Voice, but that did not stop guards from hurling her onto the stones as well.

Galmar stood in the doorway. "You may spend the night in Windhelm, woman," he sneered. "But be gone by tomorrow, for you are no longer welcome in the capital of the true High King." He gestured and the huge wooden doors were slammed shut giving him the last word.

Chapter Text

Fredas 10 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 11:30 PM

"Another drink, my lady?" the barmaid smiled. She had a voice that was low and sultry, the kind you could fall in love with after a few words. Her blonde hair was braided on both sides, pulling it back, but left loose in the back so it fell onto her shoulders in waves. The low cut of her dress left little to the imagination, especially when she bent forward to pick up the empty cups and bottles from the side table next to me. I think she had blue eyes, but it was hard to get my drunken haze that far to be sure.

"No," Lydia snapped before I could respond. "My thane, you've had enough I believe." We were in the upper loft of Candlehearth Hall. Only a few other patrons were still up. The local drunk Rolff had stumbled off to harass the Dark Elves of the Gray Quarter. Both my pride and backside were still hurting from my dramatic expulsion from the Palace of Kings.

I was sprawled across an armchair with my legs draped off one side. My dress had hiked immodestly up, but I didn't care in the slightest what anyone saw. My circlet had fallen onto the floor hours ago. I clumsily pushed it back and forth like a child's hoop with my hand.

"This silent treatment is getting tiresome," Lydia said with her forehead in hand. I hadn't talked since leaving the palace. I knew I was sulking, but I also was afraid of my Voice. "It's late, why don't we retire and get a good night's sleep?"

I looked up at her with half-lidded eyes. I held up the hand not fiddling with my circlet with one finger extended. Lydia sighed, "One last drink?" I nodded before looking away again.

The inn's bard strummed her lute before singing Age of Oppression, a war song supporting the Stormcloak rebellion. "All hail to Ulfric! You are the High King! In your great honor we drink and we sing." She squawked in surprise when my mug crashed into the wall behind her head, shattering.

"The guard will know of this," she threatened as she ran down the stairs to alert the innkeeper of my actions. I flipped a rude gesture to her retreating back.

"I suppose I got back just in time," the maid said, raising one eyebrow. "It looks like you're out of drink." She handed a drink to me and offered one to Lydia who accepted. Nords rarely refused alcohol and one drink before retiring for bed would not interfere with her duty.

I raised the mug in mock salute and downed the contents in one gulp. That was the last thing I remembered before blacking out.

Loredas 11 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 2:00 PM

I awoke in a poorly lit room that was much too big to be the inn room I had rented. "Oh good, the pounding in my head is only like Eorlund at the Skyforge and not a dragon ravaging a village," I groaned. I sat up slowly noting that I was still wearing my dress from the night before. "Where am I?"

"Does it matter? You're warm, dry, and still alive," a slightly muffled female voice came from on top of a cupboard. I blinked a couple of times. That voice seemed familiar, but I couldn't place it. She tossed a vial to me. I ignored it and dully watched it land on the mattress. "Drink that, it should take some of the hair of the dog off. I want you clear minded for my proposal."

I drank the potion and could immediately feel the effect as my senses cleared. "Not afraid that I'll poison you?" the woman asked. I could see now that she wore a face concealing masked cowl and red and black leather armor.

"Hardly," I scoffed. "You wouldn't have bothered to kidnap me and wait for me to awaken if you were just going to kill me. It's sloppy, which you don't strike me as at all." I rolled my neck, cracking joints. "What's all this about?"

"My name is Astrid and I represent the Dark Brotherhood," the woman said. "You killed someone, someone who belonged to us."

"How can you know about that?" I whispered, horrified. My mind immediately remembered to the end of last year when I had gone to Riften to talk to an orphanage matron about a missing little boy.

Middas 14 Evening Star 4E 201 4:00 PM

Riften, gods how I hated Riften. It was known for its mead and thieves, which I found personally useless individually much less lumped together. I was in the area to investigate a bandit den and felt it would be an opportune time to talk to the orphanage about Aventus Aretino. Surely someone would be sent out immediately to bring the young boy home.

I had left Lydia in Whiterun. She had not been happy to not be by my side, but she couldn't move quietly in her heavy armor and alerted bandit guards too much. It had been easier to do the jarl the favor of killing the bandit leader on my own.

I knocked on the door of the orphanage. After no one answered, I let myself in. Maybe they were getting ready for dinner. As I entered, I could hear an older woman screaming. "I want the whole basement cleaned out before dinner. If you maggots cannot handle that, then don't expect to eat."

"But Grelod, there's skeevers down there," a girl protested.

"I don't care, you work or you go hungry. Don't forget, no one loves you or wants you. No one will ever adopt you. I'm the only one who is willing to put up with your sniveling, whining, and crying. You should thank me." Her tone trilled on the final two words.

"Thank you, Grelod," the children said in unison. Grelod made a gesture and the children scurried to do their chores. The woman snorted and went into an office. I followed quickly behind.

"I don't you think you're being a bit rough with those kids?" I asked as Grelod sat behind a desk and picked up a copy of The Pig Children.

"Who are you? Who let you in here?" Grelod snapped. "Don't think you're going to walk in here and adopt anyone, there are no children available. Now get out before I call for the guard and have you thrown in jail."

I saw red. I cannot stand for someone to disrespect me; it's a berserk button for me. I drew in a deep breath, "There are plenty of children and they need love and respect, not your tirades."

Grelod stood up and stalked over to me. "I don't know who you are, missy. I don't care either. I am a personal friend of Jarl Laila Law-Giver, so unless you want to spend the rest of your miserable little life in a cell, you better leave now." She was jabbing my chest with a long bony finger emphasizing each sentence.

Suddenly my glass dagger was in hand and I found myself sinking the blade into her bony chest. A look of genuine surprise flashed across Grelod's face before her body collapsed. I gasped, shocked by what I had done. The dagger had become lodged in Grelod's ribcage and I almost lost it as the body slid away. I managed to pull the blade with a loud sickening wrench.

Hot blood poured over my hand. I thought that I should feel sick, but I only felt pleased. My heart thudded loudly in my chest as if to make up for Grelod's stopping.

The door to the office swung open. "Your tea, Grelod," a young voice piped. A platter holding a small tea pot and glass fell to the floor, the cup shattering. "Grelod's dead," the girl whispered. Then she smiled like most children would on their birthday. "Grelod's dead," she repeated louder for the other children. "Aventus did it!"

A loud cheer went up among the children. I fled out a back door before anyone could talk to me.

Loredas 11 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 2:15 PM

"Don't get me wrong, it was a good kill," Astrid assured me. "But now you owe us a life. Look behind you." I turned and saw three bound figures with dark cloth hoods blindfolding them. "One of them has a contract on them. Figure out who and kill them."

She tossed an iron dagger to me. "I'm more of a bow person," I said trying to sound casual as I hefted the blade in my hand.

"Bows have their use, but a dagger is more personal. Besides, I like to discourage people from considering using their weapons on me," Astrid replied. "Make your choice. Make your kill. I just want to observe… and admire."

I walked over to the three figures with no intention of killing any of them, but I needed time to organize my thoughts and figure what to do next. My head was clear, but the rest of me felt weak. I had no idea where I was, if Astrid had backup or where any of my gear was.

I knelt by the first potential, a male Nord. Despite his obvious superior size, the man whimpered when he felt my hand on his shoulder. "Please, please don't kill me," he begged. "I'm sorry for whatever I might have done."

"What's your name?"

"I'm known as Fultheim the Fearless," he stumbled. It took everything in me to not snicker at his proclamation.

"Do you know why someone would want you dead?"

"I'm a sell-sword. I've killed a lot of people," he admitted hesitantly. I could hear him sniffled and crying behind the mask. "I suppose someone would want revenge. But I never hurt anyone just for the sake of it! I did it because I was told. You understand, right?"

I turned to the next potential target whose form was obviously that of a woman's. "Who are you?"

"I'm Alea Quintus," she snapped. "You have some nerve kidnapping me! I demand that you immediately release me." I was impressed by her fire. She was kidnapped, bound, and blindfolded in a strange place and there was no fear in her tone. I thought she would have spit in my face if she had been allowed.

"Worthless, no-good, cowardly, the whole lot of you!" she continued. My smile fell of my face. Suddenly, I was sharply reminded of Grelod with her barbed tongue. I could feel my hand tightening on the dagger, tempted to put it to use it on her and still that sharp mouth. "Do you know how much work it takes to raise six children? If I don't get back soon, those little brats will have torn the place up beyond repair."

I stepped away, shaken by the realization that she was a goodwife, as much of a stretch that may be. Despite how crass she was, this was someone's mother. I couldn't kill her.

The final potential target was a Khajiit male wearing fine quality clothes. "What's your name and what is your crime?" I whispered, wondering if there was any rhyme or reason to these victims. So far they seemed unlikable, but relatively harmless.

"I am Vasha," he calmly replied. "I suppose there's little I haven't done. I have raped, murdered, stolen. A day barely goes by where someone doesn't try to kill me." His long tail lashed lazily behind him. "Why don't you let me go and I won't send my associates to kill you, hmm?" he purred.

I quietly stepped behind the cat-man and grasped his chin and pulled up with my right hand. I was sickened by his smug tone. "Why don't you go to hell?" I whispered as I slit his throat. Hot, sticky blood flowed over my hand.

A high pitched scream came from my right. I turned to see Fultheim shrieking before falling backwards in a dead faint. Alea didn't even bother to look in his direction. "If you're quite done, may I go home now? Those brats aren't going to feed themselves."

Astrid gracefully leapt down from the cupboard. She approached me, pulling her hood off to reveal the face of the barmaid from last night. "The conniving Khajiit. Cat like that was sure to have enemies. It's no wonder you chose him." When I didn't reply, she smiled, "Aren't you going to ask me who the contract was?"

I wiped the blood of the blade using Vasha's shirt and offered it back to her hilt first. "No, I figure all of these people are dead. Too much trouble to drag them here and allow them to possibly identify you later."

"You already think like an assassin," Astrid nodded in approval. "I see I choose well. You're free to go, but you should consider joining my little family. The Dark Brotherhood is looking to recruit." She tossed me a small key.

I looked at the corpse of the Khajiit. Except for Grelod, he was the only person I had killed in cold blood and who had been defenseless. I felt empty, hollow. Always before I had killed bandits or people were actively attacking me. People whose death made society a better place. How was this essentially any different than collecting bounties on the lives of thieves and giants? How different was it than what the exalted Companions did?

More importantly, what else was there for me now? I had fulfilled my duty as the Dragonborn, I had carried Balgruuf's message and I had no interest in the civil war. I had no family or friends to go back to.

"I'll be waiting for you outside," I answered. As I turned to go, I could hear Fultheim coming awake. Shame, it would have been easier for him if he had remained unconscious.

Sundas 12 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 7:00 PM

Over the last day, Astrid told me a bit about the Brotherhood. How they were hired to kill people by responding to people performing a taboo ritual called the Black Sacrament, the ritual Aretino had been performing when I discovered him. In the past an entity known as the Night Mother would hear the Black Sacrament and report to her Listener, the only person in the world who could hear her spiritual voice.

The war in the Empire had led to the Night Mother's crypt in Bravil being raided and desecrated. I had grown up in Bravil and had been a girl the age of seventeen when it happened. I recalled secondhand accounts of the fighting and how blood had ran in the streets.

There used to be Five Tenets the Brotherhood adhered to, but Astrid assured me they were long discarded. "Just fulfill your contract professionally and obey my command," she said, "and everything else will be fine."

When we arrived to the entrance of the Sanctuary, the dark skull covered door boomed, "What is the music of life?"

"Silence," Astrid answered.

"Welcome home, my sister," the door responded swinging open. After entering, it silently swung closed.

Astrid presented to me a set of armor similar to her own. "Find a bed and chest that no one is using and claim it as your own. Afterwards either get to know the rest of our family or if you're feeling aggressive you can ask Nazir for a contract."

Our family. I liked that.

I walked further into the sanctuary and found a group of people standing around laughing. "Tell the story again, Babette," an Argonian encouraged. "The one from your last kill."

"Okay, okay," a ten-year- old Breton girl laughed. "So this man comes up to me and says 'oh little girl, would you like some candy?'"

I listened to her tale of how she had led a pervert into a shadowy alley before tearing his throat out with her fangs. "Your teeth, your teeth," Babette imitated a death rattle. The others laughed and I joined them. It was morbid, dark, and wrong, but felt right.

Maybe I really was home.

Sundas 12 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 10:00 PM

There was light snoring off to my left. The cranky Imperial elder wizard, Festus Krex, insisted that all lights in the sleeping area had to be out by the time he went to bed or there would be hell to pay for the offender. Little did I know he meant he would go to sleep around nine-ish.

I had spent the last several hours getting to know my new family, including the cranky uncle as Festus put it.

Arnbjorn was a werewolf, easily recognized by his lack of footwear. He was the least friendly of the group, although I wondered if he and Festus had a standing contest for crankiness. Told me upfront that he wasn't interested in getting to know me and that Astrid was his wife. I wondered if he had problems with competition in the past.

The Argonian was named Veezara and he told me that he was originally from the Black Marsh. He had lived his whole life as an assassin since he had been born under a specific astrological sign and it was the Argonians' way to dedicate what he called Shadowscales to the call of Sithis. He also told me that he was the last of his kind.

Gabriella was a Dunmer spellcaster who gave me an interesting story about stabbing unicorns with knitting needles. I still wasn't sure if she was making it up to tease me or tell the truth to scare me.

Babette was a three-hundred-year –old vampire in a ten-year-old's body. She seemed to love playing the victim and even did her innocent girl routine for me. Not sure how to respond, I clapped politely which seemed to please her.

Nazir was a Redguard who apparently was the local cook and job person. He kept track of what assignments had been confirmed and handed them out to anyone interested for work. He also had a wickedly sharp tongue, a common trait around here, and seemed to love puns.

Including Astrid, that motley crew was all that remained of the deadly assassins' guild that once dominated Tamriel with fear and superstition. Part of me wondered what I had gotten myself into, but I had always sided with the underdog.

I missed Lydia terribly already, but I knew she couldn't have come with me. It was better to let her go and find a new life that didn't include me. Part of me felt I should have died in Sovngarde, that somehow avoiding it had left me driftless again. I didn't want to be the Dragonborn any more, the woman feared for her voice and dragged into a war she wanted nothing to do with.

As I lied on my bed with my arms crossed behind my back, I thought of my first night in Whiterun. I had been given a job by Adrianne and that included a bed and meals. I had felt so lucky then. Now I felt a similar sort of luck. A chance to change my fortune again, to create a new life like I had done in the past.

I wouldn't be Diana any more. I figured Astrid knew my real name and probably who I used to be. It wasn't common knowledge who the Dragonborn was, especially without my unique armor, but Astrid seemed thorough in her control of this group and would have wanted to know everything about me before bringing me on board.

I had introduced myself as Hecate and no one had questioned me on it. Either they didn't know my old name or didn't care. Either was fine with me.

I didn't know how well I would adapt to an assassin's life. How different would it be to kill for money instead of a bounty? To kill at an assassin's command instead of a jarl's? I guess I would find out when I received an assignment. That worry could wait until tomorrow. I closed my eyes and prepared for sleep.

Tomorrow would take care of itself.

And if I decided that I didn't like it, I would just leave. It's not like I had anything important to hold me here anyway.

Chapter Text

Morndas 13 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 3:00 PM

"You've got to be kidding me," I muttered in shock. Standing in the chapel area of the sanctuary was a familiar jester and his familiar crate.

Astrid had called all of us together to greet the Keeper and the Night Mother. She had told me previously that we were expecting them and how she had received letters detailing his arrival. The Keeper had been delayed for months for reasons unknown to Astrid. She had also never mentioned the Keeper's name leading me to create an image of some mysterious, shadowy figure. I never once connected my jester and his dear mother would be our expected guests.

I was glad that I had taken to wearing the masked cowl and armor Astrid had given me. I could feel a blush spread across my face. How would Cicero react when he saw me? I wasn't even certain if he would recognize me.

Joining the Dark Brotherhood was supposed to be my chance to wipe the slate clean. Start a new life, create a new identity. Cicero being here was an unfortunate tie to my old life.

I had missed the beginning of the conversation. Arnbjorn, Astrid's werewolf husband, was shooting dirty looks at Cicero. That wasn't really very unusual, Arnbjorn scowled at everyone except Astrid.

"Just keep in mind that I'm in charge here," Astrid said.

"Oh, yes, yes, of course, Mistress," Cicero said with affected sincerity. "You're the boss."

The others broke up to go back to their previous activities. I had expected a little bit more of a welcome for what was supposed to be one of the most important positions within the Brotherhood and their matron. I had read a few of Babette's books regarding the myth of the Black Hand and the importance of the Unholy Mother. I had to keep in mind that this group had divorced from the standard practices, possibly the main reason it still existed when all the others had died.

Soon Cicero was left alone in the chapel. Appearing unaffected by the abandonment of the others, he turned to start prying loose the crate that held the coffin. I hesitantly walked to him. "Do you need any help?"

The jester turned towards me, his expression curious. "I can manage."

"I don't mind," I said running a hand over the sturdy wood. "I can get some tools from Arnbjorn's things."

"Your voice seems familiar," Cicero gently grasped my chin and turned my face until he could look directly into my eyes. "Ah! Cicero never forgets a face! It's the lovely Diana!" He laughed at my startled reaction. "You have unforgettable eyes," he explained. "Kind, very kind. Cicero never would have guessed you to be one of his sisters."

"I wasn't," I stammered. I removed the cowl and mask, no sense wearing them now. "I mean at the time. And I don't go by that name any more. I use Hecate now."

Cicero tucked one gloved hand under his chin, nodding understanding. "Maid, mother, crone. Most fitting for a child of our Lady."

I sprinted downstairs to Arnbjorn's workbench and grabbed a hammer and crowbar. I reminded myself to be sure to put them back exactly where I found them or he would bite my head off later. My heart pounded in my chest. I felt awkward and stupid. Cicero's compliment had left me flustered. Normally I was immune to flattery and compliments. What was it about the jester that affected me so much?

At least I wouldn't have to worry about the thu'um activating. The power of the Voice was at its base simply the speech of the dragons. To master the Voice you had to be able to control your emotions. Shouts usually drew power from more aggressive emotions such as confidence and anger. You bent the world to your will. Passive emotions like fear and sadness drained tended to drain away combative shouts, but could be focused for the utility shouts.

Arngeir, my Greybeard mentor, always said that the best Shouts were those done with complete serenity. "It is all about breath," he told me. "Take in a deep breath, pull it down, and fill your very self. Find a moment of calm before unleashing your thu'um disrupting the world with your Voice."

I breathed deep, trying to find that calm Arngeir always displayed with such ease.

"Hecate?" Cicero asked, standing at the stop of the stairs. His fists were planted on his hips and one foot tapping impatiently. "Mother is waiting."

With the tools, removing the wooden crate was easy. I marveled at the ten foot tall iron casket. It seemed to absorb the firelight leaving it shrouded in shadow. "She must have been a beast to get up the stairs. Who helped you? Arnbjorn?" It would explain why the wolf was in such a snappish mood.

"Mother is not a beast," Cicero sniffed. "Cicero brought Mother all by himself. Astrid did not provide any kind of assistance."

"How in the world did you ever transport this here by yourself?"

"Can Hecate keep a secret?" Cicero smiled playfully. I nodded and he leaned forward, placing his mouth against my ear. "So can Cicero."

I laughed, pushing him away. "Fool," I said. He preened at the name.

"Oh yes, yes! Cicero is a fool. The Fool of Hearts to be exact. Laughter Incarnate," he danced about me, twirling gracefully. "Humble, sweet Cicero! Brother! Jester! Keeper! So many names! It's enough to turn a man upside-down." He flipped into a handstand. Cicero walked on his hands in a circle before he slowly lowered himself, moving his feet as if walking on air. Once Cicero's feet were planted back on the ground, he popped into a standing position like a jack-in-the-box.

Cicero turned to the coffin, tsking softly. "Cicero must clean Mother soon. Cicero has been unable to oil our Lady properly on our long journey."

I picked up the hammer and crowbar. "I'll put these away and then grab some cleaning cloth. The exterior looks dusty." I extended a hand towards the coffin to touch the side.

Fast as lightning, Cicero grabbed my wrist before I could touch the coffin. "No!" he screamed; his face red. "Only the Keeper may touch the Lady's coffin!" His viselike grip tightened painfully.

"You're hurting me," I whimpered trying to pull away. Despite how much I wiggled, he didn't move an inch.

"I suppose the Listener could touch the coffin," Cicero mused, his voice calm again. His gaze was on the coffin, his eyes with a faraway look. "Mother would speak to him; caress his mind with her words. I hear it is…intimate." His demeanor may have been wistful, but his grip didn't slack in the slightest.

If I hit him with the crowbar, how much trouble would I be in? I could feel the bone grinding. Cicero didn't even seem to realize what he was doing he was so lost in thought.

"Cicero!" I said.

"I must find the Listener," he continued talking to himself oblivious to my existence. "What is the purpose of the Keeper if there is no Listener? How can the Brotherhood even exist if we don't have sweet Mother's words to guide us, lead us? Protect us? The Keeper must keep, but how can Cicero keep Mother properly if there is no Listener?"

"Keeper, let me go!" I yelled. Cicero looked at me and then my wrist. He jerked in surprise.

"Is Hecate okay?" He released my arm and placed his hand behind his head. "Cicero did not mean to hurt you. Loyal Cicero just gets, heh, protective of his mother. The First Tenet, you understand." He laughed sheepishly.

I pulled my aching arm to my chest, cradling it. It was already swollen. "I'll leave you to your duties then," I said backing away. Gods, he scared me. Cicero was obviously utterly mad.

Morndas 13 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 4:30 PM

"However did you manage to sprain your wrist like this?" Babette asked as she finished wrapping my wrist. The vampire child neatly replaced her supplies.

I tentatively flexed it and winced at the pain. Pulling a bow was going to be hell. Astrid was not going to be happy. She was giving me an adjustment period before she arranged a contract for me, but what if I wasn't fully healed before then?

"Ah, there you are," Astrid's smooth voice came from behind me. I casually folded my arm to hide the bandaging and turned to her. "I have a contract ready for you. Go speak to a woman named Muiri in Markarth. Since it's your first contract, I'll let you keep the entire fee." Her smile was that of a mother indulging a child with a treat.

I forced a smile that felt too big and fake. Gods, her timing couldn't have been more inconvenient. "Thanks, I'll head out as soon as possible."

"Take your time," Astrid waved the matter aside casually. "We're not just assassins, so feel free to have some fun while you're out. Just be sure to represent us well."

Morndas 13 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 6:30 PM

"Oh, Nazir, it smells so good!" I was practically drooling over the meal the Redguard had made for us. Nordic food tended to be filling and nutritious, but lacked in flavor. Meat and potatoes were the foundation of their menu. The people of Hammerfell used a method of cooking strange and unknown to the Nords. They called it spice.

I made my way to the long table where the Family gathered to eat. There were many more seats than members of our family, one of the many silent reminders of how much things had changed for the worse over the years. Astrid and Arnbjorn had opted to eat at a small side table for two. They were engaged in a quiet, animated conversation.

I started to take my place when Cicero slid into the seat next to mine. "Ah, Di-, Hecate, it has been such a busy, busy day for Cicero and Mother," he chirped as nothing had happened.

My right eye started to tic. The jester was not going to apologize for hurting my wrist. He had given no indication that he even recalled abruptly leaving me in the middle of the night in Breezehome. Stifling a growl, I picked up my bowl and stomped over to a corner seat next to Gabriella. Gabriella had been seated across from Babette until I nudged the dark elf over so I could sit with only one neighbor on each side.

I glanced over at Cicero and instantly felt guilty for moving. His expression was so forlorn; I could swear that even his cap was drooping sadly. Then he slid until he was sitting next to Festus Krex, the older Imperial mage who was the cranky uncle of the group. "Oh ho ho ho ho," he said slinging a friendly arm over the wizard's shoulder. "Has Cicero told you of the three Nords who jumped off the Cliff of Faith?"

"No," Festus sighed, "but I'm sure you're going to."

"Three Nords die and find themselves on a cliff. Tsun appears and tells them that in order to enter Sovngarde, they must run to the edge of the cliff, jump off, and whatever they yell out, they will become," Cicero said, his voice a bit too loud.

"Are we having a lover's quarrel?" Gabriella asked dryly. "Everyone noticed you helping the clown earlier."

"The first Nord runs, leaps, and yells 'eagle' becoming a majestic golden eagle that flies to Sovngarde," Cicero continued.

"Hm, that would explain someone's reluctance to talk about her injuries," Babette smirked, her chin resting in both her palms. The vampire didn't eat with the rest of us, but she liked to join in the companionship. Sometimes when she was in a particular mood, she would put out an empty plate and glass to help simulate partaking of a meal.

"She moves fast, doesn't she?" Gabriella took a dainty bite. "I must say, sister, you could do better."

I slammed my head on the table and groaned. Veezara plopped down next to Babette. "Looks like we've left the old man to defend for himself," the Argonian commented.

Nazir pulled a chair to the head of the table, turning it so it was backwards and he could straddle it. The Redguard tended to eat before mealtime. He took great pride in his cooking and wanted to ensure it met his high standards. As with Babette, he still joined the rest of us for the company and to bask in the compliments. "It's his own fault for standing up for that strange fellow earlier."

"Ass kissing is more like it if you ask me," Veezara said scooping up some food with bread. "Festus is a traditionalist at heart. He likes the old ways, finds it comforting."

"Then the third Nord runs, trips, and as he falls he screams 'Shit!' Ha ha ha ha ha," Cicero slapped Festus heartily on the back.

"If that had been anyone else, Festus would be threatening to set them on fire by now," Nazir commented, stealing some of my bread.

"Little man, if you don't quiet down…," Arnbjorn threatened. "You're hurting my ears."

"Cicero apologizes," the jester leapt onto his chair. He kicked his mostly full bowl up into the air and deftly caught it with one hand. "Cicero is still adjusting to have family again." He did a backflip off the chair and gave a deep bow. "With so much unpacking and cleaning, Cicero will take his meal privately. I must finish attending to the Lady."

"I still cannot believe he got his own room," Gabriella commented as Cicero left.

"It's so big," Babette added. "I can barely turn around in my room without touching both sides." As the oldest member of the family, Babette had her own room. Astrid and Arnbjorn shared a room. The rest of us had to make due with a communal room. The private room Cicero had been given due to his position as Keeper was almost as big as the communal room but unfinished. The walls were damaged from disuse and crumbled.

"Thanks for nothing, traitors," Festus hissed once he was sure Cicero was out of earshot. "Throw me to the wolves, why don't you?"

Arnbjorn mock howled causing everyone to laugh.

Such a difference from two days ago. When I arrived everyone was laughing and sharing stories of their kills. I had been welcomed as one of the family, a prodigal sister returned home. Cicero was more like the annoying cousin that you had to put up with for a few months until he went back home.

But there was no going back home for him. He was here to stay.

I wanted to welcome him like I had been welcomed. Why did he have to make it so damn hard?

Morndas 13 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 11:30 PM

I yawned, cracking my jaw. I had spent the last several hours discussing my contract with my siblings and trying to find out more about the tenets from Festus and Babette, the only two who seemed to know anything about them.

"Why don't you ask the Keeper about them?" Festus had grumped. "He's the only one who has been following them all these years."

"Because I would like for them to be coherent answers," I said prodding the old man.

"Don't disrespect the Night Mother. Don't betray the Brotherhood. Never disobey a superior. Never steal from a brother or sister. Never kill a brother or sister," Festus ticked off each point on a finger. He held up his hand fingers extended wide. "Five rules, five children, five fingers." He closed his hand and opened it again. "The Black Hand. Symbols, love them, live them."

"Doesn't seem all that different from what we do now," I commented. "Listen to Astrid and respect the family."

"I suppose it's about who you're willing to give your heart to," Babette said. "Two hundred years ago I would have done anything for the Night Mother, but now I follow Astrid."

"What we have become is a paid organization to kill people making us little more than hired thugs. Might as well be the Thieves' Guild," Festus said. "Traditionally the Brotherhood is a religious cult that happens to combine the pragmatism of making money."

"But the histories say that we were originally part of the Thieves' Guild," I protested. "That the Night Mother's philosophy included murder as well as larceny."

"The histories are confused and mostly intentionally so. For every example you can point to in one book, I can find a conflicting one in another. For every book written by a well-intentioned good doer, there is at least one written by our own. Fog and mirrors, girl," Festus stood, popping his back. "Enough philosophy for me. These old bones need their rest."

"I should turn in too," I said standing. "It's easier to crawl into the bed with some light to see by." Festus had made it very clear that if he was already asleep then absolutely no light was allowed as he was sensitive and it would waken him.

On my bed was a bouquet of fresh red mountain flowers. The stems were held together by a faded red ribbon. Despite my best efforts, a smile crept on my face. I picked up the bouquet and went to find something I could place them in.


Chapter Text

Morndas 20 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 6:30 PM

"Ow, ow, ow," I muttered. The Black Door to the Sanctuary was within sight. I never would have imagined that an ebony door dominated with a skull and bloody hand would be a welcome sight. I sighed in relief. Despite potions for the pain, my wrist hurt. I had also acquired a bruised tailbone, arrow wound on my left shoulder, scrapes on both shins, and a bruise on my right cheek.

My journey to Markarth had been uneventful. Muiri had requested for me to kill a bandit leader named Alain Dufont who was an ex-lover. Dufont was also a con man who had used Muiri to get closer to the Shatter-Shields after their daughter Friga had been murdered by a serial killer. He had wished to exploit them and steal their fortune that they had amassed from their shipping company.

Muiri had offered a bonus for killing the remaining daughter, Nilsine, but I had opted to refuse that contract. I felt Muiri's anger at the Shatter-Shields for rejecting her after being an unknowing pawn in Dufont's plan was an overreaction.

Destroying a bandit den was something I could feel good about. People who preyed on the weak deserved to get what they gave. Bandits, Forsworn, and vampires were always targets one could feel good about killing. They may have had the bodies of men, but they were monsters. Well, most vampires, I had to amend thinking of Babette.

Things had been going well enough initially. I had located Alain's base at Raldbthar, an old dwarf ruin west of Windhelm. I had snuck into the ruins carefully sniping lone bandits. My wrist had twinged but I hadn't felt any significant strain so I had continued onward.

I had found an upper balcony that overlooked where Dufont was meeting with his second-in-command and lieutenant. I knelt by an old dwarven ballista. I narrowed my vision until all I could see was my target. I drew in a deep breath, searching for the Void.

When I first trained in archery in Cyrodiil, my master had taught me that the best archers were able to use a technique called Find the Void. When finding your target you had to push out all the distractions of the world. The noise, the people, your hunger, that itch behind your knee. Anything except your target had to fade away into nothingness.

Alain was in my sights. I knew it would be a perfect shot. I pulled the string back to my ear and was about to release both my arrow and breath when my wrist suddenly exploded in pain. The arrow went wild, skidding on the ground by Alain's feet.

"Gods dammit," I yelled as two bandits ran up the stairs towards me. I couldn't shoot my bow again and with the stairs occupied it was likely that Dufont would get away. I glanced around searching for something that would help me. The ballista I was crouching by was loaded. Would it still work?

I grabbed the ballista and sent a prayer to Kynareth, goddess of air. To my surprise, the javelin sprung loose and fell through the air. It hit Alain directly in the chest sending him hurtling backwards. "Whoo hoo!"I screamed jumping in the air.

"You're dead!" the male bandit screamed as he charged me. I managed to fumble my dagger out of its sheath before he closed into melee. I brought up my blade in time to deflect his, but I was too off balance to stop him from punching me in the face.

I reeled back in pain. Stars filled my vision. I drew a deep breath and shouted, "FUS RO DAH!" throwing the man off his feet and off the balcony. A sickening crunch could be heard when he landed below.

An arrow sprouted in my left shoulder. I screamed in pain. The force of the arrow caused me to spin around and slip on the edge of the balcony. As I fell, I managed to grab the edge, slamming my legs against the side.

The female bandit stood above me pulling her sword. She laughed cruelly, "I suppose I should thank you for the promotion, girl." As she swung down, I let go falling more than thirty feet to the ground. I luckily managed to land mostly on the male bandit's corpse which absorbed most of the impact. Unfortunately, I also landed directly on my tailbone sending a wave of pain up my back.

I despise when an easy kill suddenly becomes me scrambling for my life. "I really miss Lydia right now," I said to myself thinking of all the times my housecarl had been there to watch my back. I reached up and grabbed the arrow stuck in my chest. It had lodged in the shoulder bone. I snapped it off and threw it away.

Stumbling to my feet, I wobbled to the nearby table. A war axe gleaming with enchantment lay on the table. I grabbed it with both hands and blindly swung as the female bandit charged me. The axe hit her in the neck biting deeply. A spray of blood flew as her body collapsed.

Now I was home. I would take a long hot bath first. No, wait. I would see if Nazir had anything on the fire. No, I would sleep for sixteen hours.

"What is the music of life?" the Black Door inquired.

"Silence," I duly answered.

"Welcome home, sister."

Astrid was waiting for me at her planning table. "Oh good, you're back. Your kill was successful?" I nodded wearily. "Good, I have something else I need you to do."

I sighed, "Astrid, I just got back. Cannot I at least get some sleep?"

"I'm afraid not," Astrid pulled me closer. "It's Cicero. His behavior has become erratic since you left. I think he's planning to turn the others against me. He's been locking himself in the inner chapel. I can hear him talking to someone, but I don't know who."

I bit my lip not knowing how to answer. "Any one of us could enter that room unnoticed. I need you to hide in there and eavesdrop on the fool and his accomplice." Astrid's eyes darted back and forth suspiciously. "Hiding in the shadows wouldn't be good enough. You'll have to hide in the Night Mother's coffin."

My jaw dropped. "You're shocked, I know. But it's the only place Cicero won't check." She pushed me towards the chapel. "Go, I'll distract Cicero to give you a few moments."

"Talos on a dragon," I muttered as I trudged upstairs to the chapel. What had been going on while I was gone?

I stood before the large iron coffin of the Night Mother. I recalled how Cicero had almost snapped my wrist the last time I had been in here and had planned to merely touch the coffin out of curiosity. I poked the front of it out of spite. If you're going to sin, might as well make it worth it.

The lock was childishly simple. The coffin swung open to reveal a long desiccated female corpse. Tatters of a dress clung to her mummified body while rope secured her in an upright position. The smell of cinnamon was strong.

I had explored many barrows for word walls to further teach me the language of the dragons. I had passed several Draugr interred in their ancient coffins and crypts. I was long used to the bodies of the dead, many of them moving and ready to kill me for disturbing their long peace. So why did I feel like maggots were crawling on my skin?

"Um, Night Mother, please do not find offense at what I'm about to do," I cleared my throat. My mouth was suddenly dry. I stepped into the coffin, pulling the doors shut. As it clicked into place, I had the terrible thought of, "How am I going to get out?" I wanted to turn so my back was to the Night Mother, but there wasn't quite enough room to maneuver.

The interior of the coffin was completely black. Thank the gods I'm not claustrophobic. Or afraid of the dark. What is the word for being afraid of the dark? I'll have to ask Festus, he would probably know. It was going to bug me to not know.

I didn't have enough room to put my hands at my sides, so I rested them on the Night Mother's shoulders. I was so tired I leaned against her to take some of the weight off my feet. I expected for her skin to crackle and flake, but it felt like well cured leather. This close I could make out other pleasant smells like rose and jasmine.

I could hear Cicero humming. It was a bit muffled but understandable. At least the coffin wasn't sound proof. "Ah, alone at last," laughter. "Solitude, sweet solitude. Have you talked to anyone? Of course not, I do the sneaking and the saying. I think some of the others are coming around. The wizard Festus Krex, the Argonian, the unchild."

I mentally ticked off each person as Cicero named them. Astrid had sent me here; Arnbjorn would sooner castrate himself than betray his wife. With Festus, Veezara, and Babette named that left only Gabriella or Nazir. My heart sunk. The Dunmer had expressed respect for the Night Mother, but I never would have thought her capable of betraying Astrid. And I doubted it was Nazir since he had stated that he couldn't stand clowns.

"You'll talk when you're ready, won't you? Sweet Night Mother," Cicero crooned.

I sighed in relief. The mad man was only talking to his charge. Of course none of the others would betray Astrid.

Suddenly, I could feel arms snaking around me. The Night Mother's corpse began to softly glow with an unearthly light. The confines of the coffin fell away and I was floating in the openness of the Void. She held me closer, a mother's embrace. I could make out the details of her withered face. I should have felt fear, horror, or disgust and was prepared for it. Instead I felt something completely different and new.

This was what it was like to be in love. Pure unconditional love.

"Poor Cicero, sweet Cicero," her velvet voice filled my very being. If Astrid had a voice you could fall in love with after a few words then the Night Mother had a voice you would kill for. Her words were low and slow like someone who has not used her voice for a long time. "He'll never hear my voice for he is not the Listener. There is only one who may hear my voice. You are the one. You who share my coffin and warm my old bones are the Listener. Tell him the words he has longed to hear all these years. 'Darkness rises when silence dies.' Go to Volunruud and meet with Amaund Motierre. He has performed my Black Sacrament."

She released her grasp and I felt myself falling back into Nothingness.

I returned to reality with the coffin popping open. I reeled backwards into Cicero's arms. His expression was shock that is quickly replaced by rage. "Defiler, blasphemer! You dare to defile the Night Mother's coffin," he shook me like a ragdoll. His fist slammed into my shoulder hitting the arrow wound directly. The pain caused my whole arm to numb. I stumbled back a few steps.

"Wait, the Night Mother said for me to tell you that I'm the one," I held up my good hand in surrender.

Cicero's weight was on me and I fell to the ground. His gloved hands wrapped around my throat. "Lies," his voice scaled higher with each word. "The Night Mother will only speak to the Listener and there IS NO LISTENER!

"Do you think I am a fool? Do you think others haven't tried to falsely claim to be the Listener so as to manipulate loyal Cicero?" I can't breathe. I can't speak. One arm is useless and I can't get any purchase with the other. Cicero is too strong. I could think of only one option left to me. I'll apologize to him later. My knee rammed up as hard as I could manage into the place all men dread. The jester grunted in pain, his grip immediately released. I pushed him away and crawled trying to make some distance between us.

Cicero recovered much too quickly, shaking off the blow and raising to his feet. His hand was already on his dagger. "You'll learn the price for disrespecting the Night Mother," his voice deep and dark. No jokes now. "Just like Loreius did." His booted foot kicked me in the midsection hard enough to flip me onto my back. Cicero straddled me and lowered himself to pin me. The knife is raised high above his head ready to come down.

"Darkness rises when silence dies," I managed to say.

The knife fell to the ground, clattering loudly. "The words," Cicero said in wonder, "The Binding Words. The ones in the Keeping Tomes. The only way Mother had to communicate with poor Cicero." He leapt to his feet, dancing. He laughed madly as he cavorted around the room, doing somersaults and cartwheels. "She's back, our Lady is back!"

I opted to lie there quietly, drawing in deep, rattling breaths. One of the doors to the chamber burst open. Astrid strode in, ready to catch Cicero and his accomplice. "This ends now!" she yelled. "Who's the traitor?"

"I found the Listener, I found the Listener!" Cicero skipped around Astrid, his voice singsong.

"It was the Night Mother, he was only talking to the Night Mother," I coughed. I managed to roll over to my hands and knees, but didn't trust I had the strength to stand. Astrid walked over and gave me a hand up.

"And the Night Mother spoke to her!" Cicero bound back to Astrid leaning against her. "She's the Listener!" Astrid sneered at the jester before pushing him away.

"Volunruud. Meet with Amaund Motierre," I whispered. My eyes fluttered. So tired. Before losing consciousness, I said, "Contract from the Night Mother."

Tirdas 21 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 2:00 PM

I awoke in my bed. Someone had changed me out of my armor and dressed me in a nightgown. Fresh bandages, expertly wrapped, were on my wrist and shoulder. A damp cloth graced my head. I looked to my right and saw Cicero's smiling face inches from mine. The jester was crouched next to my bed, his gloved hands grasping the edge.

"Oh, you're awake, you're awake," he sang. Cicero turned and yelled, "Babette, unchild, the Listener has awoken. Cicero is telling you just as you asked." He turned his attention back to me. I winced at the noise.

Gabriella walked into the room. "Welcome back to the living, sister," she said. "How do you feel?"

"Hungry," I pushed myself into a sitting position. "Need to pee."

"I'm not surprised. You've been asleep for twenty hours," Gabriella nudged Cicero aside and helped me out of the bed.

"Cicero will get the Listener some food." Cicero dashed out of the room to match action to words.

"He was by your side the whole time," Gabriella remarked. She slung my arm around her shoulders so I could lean my weight against her. "I haven't decided if it was endearing or creepy. It would be more flattering if he hadn't spent the whole night trying to talk to you. He kept asking for you to be okay and muttering about how he may be punished by Sithis if you weren't."

As Gabriella assisted me to the privy, she filled me in what had happened after I had passed out. Festus, Gabriella, and Babette had been put in charge of making sure I was going to be okay. Arnbjorn and Veezara had been given the task of going to Volunruud to confirm what I had said was true or not. Astrid had tried to banish Cicero to his room, but he had ignored her to stay by my bed. His animated chatter all night long had driven Festus to attempt to sleep in the alchemy room.

"I guess I'm not surprised," I said. "Cicero is an insomniac."

"And how would you know this, sister?" Gabriella asked, raising an eyebrow. "It's not like you've been in the Sanctuary to know."

"It's an awkward and embarrassing story," I said.

"Then you must be sure to tell me sometime," Gabriella smiled wickedly.

When we returned, Babette was arranging various philters and elixirs on the end table. Cicero stood in the doorway, nervously fiddling with a bowl of stew. Festus barred the jester further entry into the sleeping chamber.

"I'm going to need to change her bandages," Babette giving Festus a pointed look. She tilted her head slightly to indicate Cicero.

"Come on, son," Festus gently pushed Cicero back towards the kitchen. "Let's give the women some privacy." Cicero glanced anxiously towards me, but amazingly left without a word.

"Remove your gown please," Babette measured out the amount of cloth she wanted to use. With Gabriella's help, I managed to pull it off. "Looks like you had quite the adventure." As Babette cleaned my wounds and replaced the bandages, I told her and Gabriella what had happened in the Night Mother's chamber.

"The Lady has chosen to speak after so many years of silence," the dark elf marveled. "Oh, new times are ahead."

"I've seen enough to know there is nothing new under the sun," Babette said. She handed me a glass. "Drink."

I gulped the mixture down. "This stuff is foul," I grimaced. "Why am I still so tired?"

"Your body was already strained by the time you arrived to the sanctuary," Babette explained. She primly tucked her skirt under her feet as she sat on my bed. "The shoulder wound was infected. I suspect the bandit had poisoned the arrow tip. The beating Cicero gave you further agitated the wound. You need to heal and the best way for that is to do what your body is telling you. Rest."

My eyes were already drooping. Babette's voice was very far away. My head hit the cool pillows and dreamless sleep followed.

Tirdas 21 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 8:00 PM

This time when I awoke I still felt weak, but felt much more human. It didn't feel like the entire world was bearing down on me. Once again I looked to my right and saw Cicero. This time his arms were folded on the bed with his head resting on them. He didn't look very comfortable that way, but he was asleep.

"Don't hate Cicero," he whimpered. "Mother, please." By the Eight, he talked even in his sleep.

I gently ran my hand over his fine red hair. I noticed the sewn patches in his cap and outfit. The outfit had been carefully tended to, but it was faded from years of use. The Night Mother had mentioned that he had waited years to hear the Binding Words. It had been little more than a day and I already craved the Night Mother's voice again. What must have it felt to wait years without even the blessing of having heard her?

"The Night Mother doesn't hate you," I told the sleeping man. "She called you her sweet Cicero." He must have heard me because the jester sighed and settled into a more peaceful rest.

Chapter Text

Middas 22 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 7:00 AM

"More please," I pushed my empty bowl towards Cicero. I wiped my chin with the back of my hand before cramming a loaf of bread into my mouth.

"That is the Listener's third bowl," Cicero teased.

"More, Keeper," I gestured with my right hand.

After sleeping for about a day and a half, I had emerged from my room with a fierce hunger. My stomach had growled like a wild sabre cat. I had plopped myself into a chair. Cicero, my new shadow, had served me.

When Cicero returned with my refilled bowl, I thrust my empty cup at him. "More," I said grinning impishly. He took the cup and lowered his head in a reverent bow before leaving to refill my cup.

Gabriella came from the alchemy room. "Some of us believe in this little convention called getting dressed before joining a meal," she commented dryly.

I stuck my tongue out at her. "Someone is feeling better," the dark elf sat next to me. "Even if you do look half-dark elf." She pulled a small hand mirror out from her robes and handed to me. The bruise I had obtained during my raid on Dufont had blossomed out until it covered half my face.

"Stupid bandit," I grumbled. "He hit me like I was a man."

"This is why I recommend magic, dear," Gabriella gestured. "Nothing but a dremora for me." I handed Gabriella back her mirror as Cicero returned with a full cup.

"Thank you," I said. Cicero turned back to the kettle to get a bowl for himself. I noted that he did not offer Gabriella anything.

"So, you hear voices in your head now?" the dark elf asked.

"The rest of us should be so lucky," Cicero sighed.

"Where does that put the rest of us plebeians?" Gabriella continued. "Do you become some sort of royalty since there's only one Listener in the whole of Tamriel?"

Cicero startled, dropping his own bowl of food. The wooden bowl clattered on the floor. His jaw was slack and his eyes wide as he suddenly realized something.

"What' wrong?" I asked.

"Cicero – I -," the jester's eyes darted back and forth. "I must attend to Mother. If the Listener will pardon Cicero?" He made a half bow and left.

"Was he actually at a loss for words?" Gabriella marveled, her face resting in her palms watching Cicero leave. She turned to me. "How can you act so friendly with that mad man? After he almost beat you to death?"

I touched my throat. When I was looking in Gabriella's mirror, I had seen the beginning of a bruise there shaped like Cicero's hands. Now that my hunger was sated, my aches were making themselves known. My throat ached. "He was only following the Tenets. He thought I had disrespected the Night Mother."

"That is exactly why Astrid abandoned the Tenets," Gabriella sniffed. "Honestly, attacking a sibling because of some old, musty corpse? Ridiculous."

Middas 22 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 8:30 AM

I had bathed and changed clothes. Babette checked my bandages and give me more potions to drink. I hate the taste of the stuff, but knew the small Breton wouldn't let me refuse. I still made sure to gag to let Babette know my displeasure for good measure.

"Did you know that last night was the first night Cicero has slept since he came here?" Babette asked. "He usually talks to me all night long. He's quite amusing. I have very much enjoyed the company." Babette yawned. "Good day, dear sister, I must rest now."

Babette opened her arms for an embrace so I hugged her. "Is it always this mad?" I asked.

"No, you've come during a time of great change," Babette giggled. "I cannot wait to see how it all turns out. "

It was time to talk to Astrid about this Listener business. I decided to take the shorter route by cutting through the Night Mother's chamber. I should have known that the jester would be in there. Cracking the door open, I saw Cicero sitting on the ground with his knees pulled up to his chin. The Night Mother's coffin was open.

"I found the Listener, I did, I did," he murmured as he rocked back and forth. "Cicero tried soooo hard," his voice raised into a pained howl. "Cicero listened and listened but he could not hear his lady's voice." A pause. "And now he never will."

Oh gods, he had wanted to be the Listener? As well as be the Keeper? Wasn't that a bit selfish?

I backed out of the room. It would be easier to take the longer route.

Middas 22 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 8:45 AM

"Arnbjorn and Veezara should be back in two days, three most," Astrid said. The two of us were sitting in the sitting room next to her bed chamber. "They will confirm if what you said about the Night Mother was true."

"It is true," I said.

"I'm not saying you're lying," Astrid assured me. "I just prefer to have my facts straight. You have to admit the timing is amazing. You arrive mere days before the Keeper and the Night Mother? Then you are chosen as the Listener?"

"You were the one who approached me," I reminded her. "If you hadn't kidnapped me, I would probably be in the middle of the damn Civil War right now." I had no idea if Astrid knew I was the Dragonborn, but she must have realized I had been a courier for Balgruuf before she kidnapped me.

"What side would you have joined?" Astrid asked.

"I'm a Whiterun loyalist," I shrugged. "I don't approve of Ulfric's policies, but I didn't leave Cyrodiil because I was happy there. Whichever side Balgruuf placed his axe would have been where I would have given my bow."

"The war is good for us in many ways," Astrid said looking at her map that dominated her table. Knifes were planted point down in locations that meant nothing to me. "Leaves guards spread thin and too busy to plan proper security. Common folk are unable to find steady work and are more susceptible to bribery. The unrest allows us to walk in the shadows easily. It doesn't matter though, the Black Sacrament will be performed and we'll kill people for pay."

"So, nothing is going to change?" I asked.

"Nothing is going to change," Astrid confirmed.

Middas 22 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 12:00 PM

"Cicero thinks it is time for change," the Fool of Hearts declared as he sat at the dining table. Astrid and I had been talking until the jester slid between the two of us. Cicero gave no indication that he saw Astrid's glare of death. "The Listener should have her own room."

"And where pray tell would we acquire this room?" Astrid asked.

"There are plenty of empty beds in the common area," Cicero said as he stole my spoon to eat from my plate. "Mistress Astrid and the wolf could give their room to the Listener."


"Then the unchild's room," Cicero suggested. He twirled the spoon on his fingers.

"No!" I said. "I cannot take Babette's room. She's had that room longer than any of us have been alive."

"The Listener is the highest rank in the Brotherhood," Cicero scowled. "Cicero was told as Keeper he was given the privilege of a private room. Keeper is a sacred duty, but not nearly as important as Listener."

"I suppose we'll just have to give her your room then," Astrid said sweetly.

"NO!" Nazir, Gabriella, and Festus Krex said in unison.

"I'll tolerate his rambling for one night," Festus said, "but for the rest of my life? I think not!"

"Cicero insists that either the Listener have her own room or Cicero must share with his brothers and sisters. It is only fair. Cicero could not possibly position himself higher than the all mighty and powerful Listener."

A cacophony of voice erupted as everyone started shouting. I looked back and forth amongst my family as the madness spread. Finally, I stood up and slammed the table. "What about what I want?"

The silence was deafening as everyone turned to look at me. "I don't mind sharing," I said.

"It's not appropriate, Listener," Cicero scowled. "We must maintain the ranks."

"What if we had Hecate move into your room and share?" Astrid suggested. "There really isn't anywhere else in the Sanctuary."

Cicero covered his mouth with his hand, his expression thoughtful as he turned to face Astrid. "Yes, yes, that would be acceptable. Humble Cicero would not be above his station. Loyal Cicero could attend to the Night Mother and the Listener. Ah, Astrid, so clever. No wonder you're the leader."

Since the jester had been facing me, no one else saw his secret smile before facing Astrid. He had planned the whole damn thing.

Middas 22 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 3:15 PM

"Why?" I asked.

Nazir had disassembled my bed and moved it into a corner of Cicero's room. My room now, I suppose. I looked around the dismal room. The walls were rough and unfinished. It looked like there used to be more area leading further underground, but at some point a cave-in had occurred. Was that blood on the wall? Far away from the warmth of the kitchens and Arnbjorn's small forge, the room was bitterly cold.

"Listener?" Cicero asked. He had been moving his meager possession aside on a shelf to give me some space. Not that I had any personal items. I had not attempted to return to Breezehome or any of the other residences I had been gifted to pick up any material possessions. Other than my bow, dagger, and a few changes of clothes, I didn't really own anything as an assassin.

"Why did you arrange for this?" I gestured around the room.

"No, no, no," Cicero tsked, "it was the leader Astrid who decided that the Listener and humble Cicero must share a room." Would I ever get a straight answer from him?

"Oh dear, I seemed to have missed a bit of excitement," Babette said from the doorway. "One of the disadvantages of being a vampire I suppose. You're asleep when everyone else is awake."

"I definitely should have used that as my argument," I sighed. I quickly filled the littlest assassin in on what had happened while she slumbered. Babette had climbed onto my bed with me and curled up in my lap. We watched Cicero flit back and forth moving things around while muttering to himself. I spoke lowly so only Babette would hear me. "I just don't understand why he went through all that to get me in here. I tried asking, but Cicero just gave me the run around."

"I think he's lonely," Babette said quietly. "While you were gone on contract, Cicero tried talking to everyone about the Night Mother and how important she is, but I think no one really gave him much mind. We are the last Sanctuary in all of Tamriel and it is because of Astrid. She led us when everything was falling apart. Every one of us owes her in one way or another. It is hard to put aside that loyalty for a corpse."

"Then why invite him here?" I asked.

"Astrid has a soft spot for outcasts. Because you may have noticed that even if you ignore our tendency for killing, none of us are what one may consider normal. And regardless of anything else, Cicero is part of our family," Babette sighed. "It doesn't hurt that it is still a sign of prestige to host the Night Mother's body. Even if you don't personally believe in her power, others do. Sometimes the perception of others is more important than the actual importance.

"Astrid can use that power to help rebuild our reputation. 'Look,' she says, 'we still survive. No matter how hard you try, you will never destroy the Black Hand. You can violate our most sacred cells and we'll return.' It's a powerful message.

"Ah, but look at me prattling on. I don't know what it is, but it just seems easier to talk when you're around," Babette smiled up at me, "Listener."

Turdas 23 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 2:00 AM

I wrapped the blanket tighter but it didn't do any good. The room wasn't too bad during the day, but at night when I was trying to sleep the cold just seeped into my bones. I had even dressed in my thickest clothes and it didn't seem to help at all. I couldn't stop shivering.

I was on the edge of falling asleep. If only if I could get just a little warmer, I could fall asleep and escape this cold.

Suddenly there was an extra weight of blanket settling on me. The bed creaked as another body pressed against my back. Warmth embraced me as a gloved hand wrapped around my waist. Soft humming caressed my ear. In my sleep addled state this all made sense and I quickly fall sleep.

Turdas 23 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 10:00 AM

"What the hell?" I mumbled when I awoke. Cicero was in the bed with me. He was still completely clothed in his jester's clothes and humming tunelessly. His arms were tucked behind his head as he stared intently at the ceiling. I vaguely remembered him climbing into bed with me, but it felt more like a dream.

"Listener was shivering so sadly and her teeth were chattering so loudly, humble Cicero sacrificed his own bed to help her," Cicero turned and smiled at me. "Good thing too. Clever Cicero found where the draft was coming from." He pointed to the ceiling where a hole was letting in cold air from outside. I could see the morning daylight stream down. It had been easy to miss the night before.

I sighed. Of course my bed would have been position directly in the coldest part of the entire Sanctuary.

Cicero stood up on the bed and lifted himself up into the hole. I was surprised that he was able to wiggle into the gap. I could hear scraping and rocks falling as the jester disappeared. Dust fell down into my bed to my disgust. A few seconds later, Cicero popped his head out of the hole, hanging upside down.

"Cicero managed to block most of the draft. Room should get warmer soon." The few moments in the crack had left Cicero covered in dirt and dust.

"How are you doing that?" I asked eying his jester cap still firmly planted on his head despite the fact Cicero was completely upside down.

"Doing what?" Cicero asked; his eyes big and innocent, still hanging from the ceiling.

"Never mind," I sighed. "Get down from there. You're pulling down more dirt." After the jester slithered out of the ceiling, I pulled my sheet off and shook as much of the soil as possible off. The linens still looked gritty. "Come on, you're filthy now."

We walked down to the open area with Arnbjorn's forge. I managed to find a large bathing tub and filled it using the fresh water from the indoor waterfall. Cicero danced about and sang to himself, apparently oblivious to how dirty he was.

"Strip," I said once the tub was full of hot water. "I'll wash your clothes while you bathe."

"As you wish, Listener," Cicero said as he dropped his pants. He didn't take off his hat, gloves, or shoes first. No, he decided to remove his pants first.

"What is wrong with you?" I cried as I averted my gaze. Cicero's only response was playful laughter. Piece by piece, his clothes were tossed at my feet. I didn't look up again until I could hear him splashing in the water.

I picked up the jester's outfit and plopped it into a smaller tub I was using to clean my sheets. As I cleaned, Cicero entertained himself by submerging to his nose and blowing air bubbles on the surface of the water.

When I hung his clothes up to dry, I walked over to add hot water to Cicero's bath. The redhead looked up at me as I unceremoniously dumped the water over his head. His squawk of protest made me giggle.

"Why does Hecate treat Cicero like a child?" he complained. I crouched and rested my arm on the lip of the tub.

"I do not," I said as I trailed a hand over the surface of the water enjoying the feel of the water between my fingers.

"You do, you do!" His tone was serious, but when I looked at him, Cicero's eyes were mischievous. "But Cicero can prove he is a man!" Following words with action, Cicero suddenly stood up giving me a face full of his "proof". "Ha, ha, ha, ha."

Adventurers are by nature twitchy people. We tend to go places where we are not wanted so we have to be ready to react at a moment's notice. One of the reasons I prefer archery over melee is I tend to be easily startled. And I panic. For example if a Draugr pops out from a hidden cache and attacks me, I have exactly two reactions. I scream in surprise and I throw my hands out defensively to push them back enough to give me time to pull a weapon.

Which is exactly what I did in this instance.

My hands slammed against the bathtub pushing it backwards. The momentum caused the tub to rock violently. Cicero lost his balance and fell forward. The tub tipped over dumping its contents onto me.

"Ugh, I'm soaking wet," I cried. I fell backward with Cicero landing on top of me.

"That's not the tone a man hopes to hear when a woman says that," Cicero laughed. He was propped on his hands, his face inches from mine. Cicero swooped forward and started kissing me. His eyes were open with that hungry expression again drinking in my reaction to his advances. One hand scooped under me, pulling me closer to him. I could feel his growing excitement.

"Stop, stop," I said when I managed to come up for air.

"This is going a little different than how I remembered last time," Cicero said, his brow furrowed in confusion. Then he grinned wickedly with realization, "Are you afraid someone will see us? I assure you that fear of discovery adds to the experience, but if you prefer we do have a room."

"It's not that," I said sitting up. Although now that Cicero had pointed it out, I glanced around to see if anyone was up and around. As far as I could tell Babette was sleeping and Festus and Gabriella were out, but Astrid was in the upper entrance room. I didn't want to imagine if she walked in on this scene.

"Then?" Cicero's hand lightly trailed down my neck. My bruises from his attempt to strangle me to death were deep purple and yellowing. A shiver ran down my back recalling that moment. Most of it was the horror of having almost died, but a small, twisted part of me…. I quickly squashed that train of thought. It was too weird and forced me to think of my last conversation with Paarthurnax.

"No," I stammered. "I can't. I mean, I know you now." Gods, did I sound as stupid as I thought I did? "Before you were just a stranger passing through, but now you're like my brother and if we were to do anything, it might be awkward afterward."

Cicero raised an eyebrow as he sat back. "Let Cicero get this straight." He ticked off each point on a finger. "Cicero likes Hecate. Hecate likes Cicero. Hecate would have slept with Cicero when she first met him, but now Hecate won't?" I nodded sheepishly. Cicero rolled his eyes in disbelief. "And they say Cicero is crazy."

I admit that hurt.

Cicero stood up and walked over to the fire. He grabbed one of the towels and dried his feet before pulling his boots on. Cicero grabbed a second towel and tousled his shoulder length hair dry. He didn't seem mad at least.

With the towel draped across his shoulder, Cicero stood up and walked past me towards where the bedrooms were. "Cicero will take his leave. Unless Hecate changes her mind and wish to join Cicero, I suggest you don't disturb me for a while." He left with as much dignity a man wearing only a towel and boots could muster.

Turdas 23 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 6:00 PM

As far as I could tell, Cicero had not left our room all day. I had occasionally ventured to the door, but placing my ear on the door had resulted in me hearing giggling or grunting. How long or often could one man possibly pleasure himself?

I was fed up. That madman had insisted on me rooming with him and then made it so I couldn't even use it. I banged on the door and threw it open before Cicero could respond. "I don't know what you're doing, but it can stop now," I said.

"Oh, hello, hello," Cicero said cheerfully. He was standing on my bed with a paintbrush and palette in hand. I was shocked to see him in normal clothes. Extremely baggy, but normal compared to his typical jester clothes. By the size of the cut, the clothes must belong to Arnbjorn. The sleeves and pants legs were rolled up. His hair was pulled back with a leather strip into a ponytail. A few wisps had come loose and hung wildly about Cicero's face. Smudges of paint decorated his chin and forehead. "Come in, come in."

All the furniture had been moved away from the walls and covered with protective cloth. I gasped in wonder taking in the sight of various chains of flowers hanging decoratively from the ceiling. The hole in the ceiling had been properly plastered over and Cicero was painting a mural of the Skryim mountains and sky. The room was much warmer now even if not as warm as the rest of the Sanctuary.

"I thought you were in here…." I made a gesture to indicate my thought.

"Masturbating? Oh, Cicero did that hours ago," Cicero laughed as I blushed.

"You should have told me, I would have helped," I reprimanded as I admired the flowers.

"Cicero tried, but you turned him down," Cicero pouted.

"Painting, fool!" I climbed up on the bed with Cicero. I mentally flinched at all the specks of blue paint on Arnbjorn's shirt. The werewolf had always claimed that the color blue gave him headaches. He was going to be pissed off. I examined the detail of the mural. "This is so amazing."

"Cicero remembered Diana telling him how she hated how dreary Skyrim could be. That she loved the blue skies and tall mountains," Cicero said referring to the conversation we had back in Breezehome.

I looked over to Cicero and was startled to see he was almost eye level with me. I distinctly remembered him towering over me in Breezehome. "When did you shrink?" I accused.

"Hm?" Cicero nibbled on the end of his paintbrush as he contemplated his painting.

"You were taller before," I said.

"It definitely would not be because Cicero put platforms in his boots because stupid Nords are so stupidly tall," Cicero mock scowled. "That would be foolish." Cicero smiled when I laughed. "Grab a brush, Hecate can add whatever she wants."

"I have no concept of art," I admitted. "I always wanted to and even tried for a few years, but I have no talent for it."

"Suggestions then?"

"The ocean. I love the ocean," I said dreamily. "Maybe Solitude if you've ever seen it. I love how she looks on her lonely cliffside perch."

"Hmph, Solitude. Lonely Cicero could tell you a thing or two about solitude," Cicero frowned, but he moved to sketch an ocean view to an unused part of the wall. "Cicero has never been, but if Hecate gives enough details or can find a sketch something can be added."

I kneeled by Cicero to watch him paint. He leaned over and gave me a butterfly kiss fluttered barely over my lips. "Is this okay?"

I touched my lips, smiling. "Yes, but don't expect anything else."

Cicero smiled slyly before returning to his work. "Don't worry, Cicero is patient. Very patient."

Chapter Text

25 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 1:30 PM

"I'll be damned, but that man was there just as you said he would," Arnbjorn tossed a sealed envelope and golden amulet onto Astrid's planning table. The werewolf and Argonian had just arrived back to the Sanctuary after their trip to Volunruud to meet Amaund Motierre for the contract the Night Mother had issued.

All the members of the family had gathered together when we heard the Black Door grant entrance to our brothers. Veezara lounged against the wall affecting disinterest in the whole matter while Arnbjorn leaned on the wooden table. Astrid stood in her usual position at center of the table. I was crushed between Festus Krex and Gabriella while Babette had climbed onto a stone chair to gain enough height to see over the taller folk. Cicero lingered in the stairwell away from the rest of us crammed around the table to marvel at the obviously expensive pendant.

"What was he like?" Astrid asked. "Tell me about this Motierre."

"Pompous little prick," Arnbjorn snorted. "You could smell the pretentiousness rolling off him. I thought about ripping his bodyguard's arm off just to make a point, but decided to play nice."

"My thanks, husband," Astrid said sarcastically. "Who's the target?"

"You're going to love it, my dear," Arnbjorn smiled wolfishly. "Read the note. Motierre told me the primary target, but left the details for your eyes only. The amulet is for expenses."

Astrid picked up the sealed letter and broke the seal with her knife. Her eyes widened as they flit back and forth over the agreement Motierre had entered with the Black Hand. "By the gods, he wants us to kill the Emperor!" She laughed gleefully, her voice like a young girl's. "This is what the Brotherhood has needed to be recognized as a power once again. Nothing like this has been attempted since Uriel Septim and that was two hundred years ago."

Gabriella and Babette where hugging. Festus was beaming. Astrid kissed Arnbjorn deeply while he swung her in a circle. Nazir clapped Veezara on the back who smiled broadly, his sharp lizard teeth prominent. I wondered if I was the only one who was felt uncertainty about this contract. I glanced at Cicero. He was an Imperial too; surely he would feel the same way.

The Keeper was smiling broadly. "Ah, Mother, you have chosen well. They will not forget this contract that you have so graciously bestowed upon us." He danced merrily by himself. "Surely any doubt of the Lady's power has been banished by this gift!"

"We'll need to have the amulet appraised," Astrid said as she disentangled from Arnbjorn. The blonde picked up the necklace, her expression greedy as the gold reflected in the candlelight. She tossed it to me. "Hecate, you should be the one to have it appraised. Go down to Riften and meet my contact in the Thieves' Guild. His name is Delvin Mallory and he's an old friend."

"We're accepting the contract?" I stammered. The amulet felt heavy in my hand.

"You're damn right we'll accept it. If we pull this off, the Dark Brotherhood will know a fear and respect we haven't seen in centuries." Astrid said. The group cheered. "All of you are dismissed. I need time to go over this letter and make plans for our targets."

"Astrid, if I may," Gabriella spoke up. "I would like to accompany our sister on her trip. If that amulet is worth nearly as much as it should be for the life of an Emperor, it would be best to have extra protection."

"Good thinking, sister," Astrid nodded. Gabriella smiled at me and gave me a small thumbs-up. What was the dark elf planning?

25 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 3:00 PM

"I wish I could go with you," Babette said from the shadows of the entrance of the Sanctuary. Gabriella and I were finalizing preparing our mounts for our trip to Riften. The winter sun fell weakly on Gabriella and me, but it would cause Babette to cause to burst into flames within seconds.

"Next kill, sister," I promised.

"Kill well and often," Babette cheered up and gave the Brotherhood's standard farewell.

"No killing this trip," I laughed. "We are just going to pick up a letter of credit after crawling in some stinking sewers." I had been filled in that the Thieves' Guild was located deep in the sewers of Riften in a section named the Ratway. Over the years, they had fallen just as far as the Brotherhood in prestige. More in my opinion since they lived in the sewers, for Mara's sake. "I don't know how much this Delvin fellow can offer if those are the best accommodations he can afford. We'll probably mostly find out who our employer is for future leverage."

"Oh, sister, you're so naïve," Gabriella smiled. "There's always killing to be found." Babette waved and retreated back into the safety of the bowels of the Sanctuary.

"Riften, Cicero likes Riften!" The jester burst from the entrance of the Sanctuary with a heavily laden backpack strapped on. "Thieves, ruffians, and cutthroats abound. Finally some fun." He reeled from the weight of the backpack as he skidded to stop by my horse. I dreaded to even consider what the Keeper had deemed necessary for a trip such as this.

"What do you think you're doing?" Gabriella asked, her voice cold.

"Going with the Listener to Riften," Cicero said matter of fact.

"I don't think so," Gabriella said as she climbed onto her mount. "Astrid only gave clearance for Hecate and me."

"No, no, no, no," Cicero's voice scaled up into a high pitched scream as he stomped his foot childishly. The Keeper balled his hands into fists. "Cicero must go to protect the Listener. There are bandits out there. BANDITS!"

My horse neighed nervously at Cicero's sudden movements. I grabbed the reins and moved her away from the Jester's flailing form. Cicero was working himself into a fine fit.

The Keeper didn't spend every waking moment near me, although I admit there were days when it felt like he did. Many days Cicero spent hours tending to the Night Mother's shrine. He would go over every inch of her coffin, the area around it, or the entire chamber to insure it fit the criteria detailed in his Keeping Tomes. New candles had to replaced old ones that had burned too low, new flowers had to replace withered ones. Fallen petals would be carefully picked up and discarded correctly. Incense had to be burned with the right prayers.

Then there was the weekly oiling of the Night Mother that absolutely no one else was allowed to attend. Cicero would lock the doors of the Night Mother's chambers, but not before yelling dire consequences would fall on anyone who dared to interrupt him. "Cicero will gut anyone who disturbs him!"

If no one entered the Night Mother's chambers, which was common, then Cicero would decide it was not vital for him to do any keeping that day. The oiling of the Night Mother had to be attended to every week, exactly on time, without fail.

"Cicero, you can't come," I gently reminded him. "You have to oil the Night Mother in two days. We can't possibly be back in time."

"Bandits can kill," Cicero's eyes were wide with panic. "Pontius died because of a bandit. Such a funny joke, don't you see? An assassin dying at the hands of a common bandit." His laughter was too manic. He tried to grab the reins of my horse from me. "It's just money. Stupid, stupid money. We don't need it. We only need the Night Mother's words and guidance. And if we can't have that if we don't have a Listener. Stay here, Listener, stay here and Listen to Mother."

I managed to keep the reins away from Cicero. If he got a hold of them, I would never be able to leave. I had suddenly developed a strong desire to get out of here as fast as possible. I managed to mount up and wheeled my horse away from the mad Keeper. "Attend to your duties, Keeper," I called as a parting shot.

"Don't you dare go and die on me," Cicero screamed behind me. "Don't you dare! Cicero waited thirteen years for Mother to choose you, and he can't wait another thirteen. If you let bandits or corsairs or…or small children kill you, I'll find you. I'll find you and stab you!" A fist sized rock flew past my head and smashed against a tree.

25 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 8:00 PM

"Is Cicero in love with you?" Gabriella asked. We had stopped for the night and had made a small camp off the road.

"Oh gods, no," I said stroking the fire. "As far as I can tell, he has correlated me with the Night Mother. Cicero mentioned something about having sworn an oath to keep the Night Mother's body sanctified so she can create a spiritual conduit to speak with the Listener. Keeping the Listener safe to be able to serve the Night Mother has fallen into the same duties as Keeping the Night Mother. At least in his head."

Although it drove me to distraction at times, I missed Cicero's constant stream of chatter. It felt too quiet without his songs and jokes. He loved physical contact too as if touching me validated my existence. Nothing obtuse, just little touches like his hand brushing mine as he passed or his knee touching mine when we sat to eat.

I had been afraid he would moon after me or try to convince me to change my mind like so many young, hormonal males have done throughout history. Or pout and sulk after my refusal of his advances. But he hadn't which impressed me far more than anything else he could have done. I hate when men beg.

"He has said to me 'If there is no Listener, then there is no Keeper. If there is no Keeper, there is no Night Mother. If there is no Night Mother, there is no Listener. It's pointless.' At that point, Cicero gets extremely agitated and I have to either calm him down or leave until he has worked it out of his system."

For all of his little endearments, Cicero never exhibited them whenever we were near the Night Mother. His focus was completely on her. If he did need to talk to me, it was always respectfully and from a distance. No jokes or teasing, only reverence before his dear, sweet Mother.

"No, Cicero loves the position of the Listener. His fierce dedication would have been given to anyone who had been bestowed the honor," I continued, "and maybe he loves Hecate but only as a brother for his sister."

"Tell me about how you knew he was an insomniac," Gabriella said smiling devilishly. I had wondered why she had offered to accompany me on this trip. "You mentioned it was long and embarrassing. I've been dying to find out why."

I groaned. I should have known Gabriella wouldn't let that little comment slide. "Gab, please, I would really rather not talk about it."

"Oh, why not? I made sure we had plenty of privacy. You don't have to worry about anyone else knowing." Gabriella poked me playfully. "You've gone around and asked all of us about ourselves, but you have never talked about yourself. We don't know anything about you before your life with us."

"Which is exactly the way I want it," I said.

"Believe me, sister, your privacy is respected. But Cicero is one of us, Sithis help us, and it makes it part of your current life." Damn, Gabriella could be persuasive.

"Okay, okay, but you cannot tell anyone else," I said. Gabriella solemnly crossed her heart, her red eyes twinkling with curiosity.

I told Gabriella about how I met Cicero on the road and how I helped with his wagon wheel. I didn't mention why I had been on the road that day or my title as thane of the Pale. I didn't mention my housecarl Lydia. Those details could lead her back to my old life. I recalled how Cicero had stopped by my house and asked to spend the night. How I had woken and where it had lead from there.

"And then he ran out into the cold rain to huddle under the wagon the rest of the night to protect the Night Mother," I finished. I looked at Gabriella not sure how she would respond to my story.

I was not prepared for the dry humor, quietly sarcastic dark elf to start laughing so hard she had to hold her sides. "Ha, ha, ha. I'm going to laugh myself sick," she choked. "The two of you were going to…and then he…ha, ha. 'Must oil Mother,'" Gabriella tried to mimic Cicero's voice but she fell into gales of laughter.

"It's not funny!" I tried to scowl, but the dark elf's laughter was contagious. Soon the two of us were laughing like morons. I found myself wondering if Cicero would enjoy someone finally laughing at one of his jokes. Intentional or otherwise. Any time Gabriella would wind down, she would snicker and start laughing again which would only make me laugh harder.

"I don't think I've laughed that hard in a long time," Gabriella finally managed to say as she wiped tears from her eyes. "Oh my, that was a good one. Listen to me," she chuckled at the word. "Don't take this Listener position too seriously. It is wonderful to be able to have immediate access to the Black Sacraments instead of needing to scour the streets and back alleys for the calls of the vengeful and desperate. But ultimately, we don't need the Night Mother.

"Cicero is much too exuberant for my tastes. His overenthusiasm will one day get him killed. Maybe Astrid will send him on an assignment and he won't come home." Gabriella lied back on her sleep roll.

My chest tightened at the thought of something happening to Cicero. I felt a strange need to protect the odd little man. "He can be so sweet and tender at times," I said immediately regretting saying the words out loud.

"Oh ho, maybe I asked the wrong question," Gabriella propped herself on one elbow to look at me. "Maybe I should have asked if you were in love with Cicero."

28 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 11:00 PM

Gods, what was I thinking? I rattled the handcuffs attached to my wrists that held me to the bed. There was a little give, but not much.

"Shush," my lover placed one delicate finger over my lips, "don't worry. Just relax and let me take care of everything. The room is soundproof so feel free to scream as much as you want."

Expert lips ran down my neck, kissing and licking. Fine light hair fell into my face gently tickling me. Soft hands caressed my small breasts. I groaned as my nipples grew hard and my lover's thumbs ran over them.

My legs were pushed apart and the kisses traveled farther down. Past my shoulders, pausing at my breasts to give proper attention, and then trailing down the soft curve of my stomach. Soft hands massaged and turned my legs until I was positioned to give easy access. A tongue flits playfully over my clitoris.

"I love how you taste," the kneeling figure murmured. Fingers pushed my lips further apart so the hungry, greedy tongue can delve deeper.

I was breathing heavily. It had been too long since I had taken a lover. It felt so good. I could feel the pleasure building up through my body, coursing through every part of me. I kept searching for the release of Oblivion, but I fell short. My mind was racing about on stupid thoughts.

I wonder if I left my book on the bed or shelf at home. Maybe tomorrow we could get fresh fish from the fishery. Would the clear weather hold for the trip back?

I clenched my eyes closed. Focus! I hated how my thoughts ran wild during sex. I pulled against the handcuffs, trying to use the restraint to pull me back to now. I gasped as thin fingers enter into me, pulling back and forth. This was what I wanted! This is what I needed!

The trees were already blooming. Was it early for that? I never did ask Festus about what the word for fear of the dark was. I would need to remember when I got back.


So close, I was so close. The pressure was building, my breathing short. If only if I could focus, I could grab it and be blissfully lost.

Suddenly I thought of Cicero. His gloved hand tilting my chin up slightly so he can lean forward to flutter a butterfly kiss against my lips. His amber eyes open so he can watch me as he kisses me. A simple and innocent memory, but enough to push me over into orgasm.

My legs clenched around my lover's head hard enough I worried that I may hurt her. But she continued her attentions, pushing me into more throes. Orgasm after orgasm ran through me. I released my breath screaming with my whole self. I'm so caught up in my passion I don't remember to hold back any of the thu'um. Draconic force expels from me shaking the room. I collapsed boneless.

Haelga crawled up the bed and quickly released my hands from the handcuffs. I stretch lazily enjoying the freedom. She curled into my shoulder, one hand resting on my chest. My heart was thudding away like a panicked horse. "Wow, I haven't seen a reaction like that in some time."

"You said you worshipped Dibella? I should go to church more often." I asked sleepily. "Do you need me to…?"

"No," Haelga smiled. "The giving of beauty is enough for me." She smoothed my disarrayed hair. "Sleep."

26 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 8:00 AM

"Well, someone looks like she is in a good mood," Gabriella said dryly as I approached her in the market. I was so used to the dunmer wearing her Dark Brotherhood robes; it was strange to see her in plain black novice mage robes. I was wearing leather armor. "Have fun last night?"

"Yes," I smiled. I had met Haelga last time I was in Riften. She was the owner of Haelga's Bunkhouse, an inn that catered only to local merchants and low class workers. I had mistaken it for a normal inn and tried to rent a room.

"Are you here for business or pleasure?" Haelga had asked.

"Business," I had answered simply thinking of my visit to the orphanage the next day.

"A shame," Haelga smiled suggestively. "Next time if you're here for pleasure be sure to visit." Haelga was a secret devotee to Dibella goddess of beauty. She honored her matron by having sex with several men every week. I had made sure to leave a generous "donation" by her statue of Dibella when I left this morning. Anything to help her keep up the good works.

I could see the Honorhall Orphanage from the marketplace. Would Aretino be there? Was he happy and with the other children now free from Grelod's tyranny? I shook my head. No, that was my old life. Leave the past in the past.

"A gift," Gabriella said as she dropped a necklace into my hands. I looked at the golden amulet with the light blue gem in the center. "You can only purchase them here in Riften."

As I put the necklace on, Gabriella guided me to a stall where a handsome Nord was pushing some sort of miracle elixir. A crowd gathered to listen to his sale pitch. "Shouldn't we be heading on?" I asked.

"Just wait," Gabriella whispered. "I have made arrangements."

Suddenly a pair of Riften guards arrived and walked to one of the vendors. "Brand Shei, you are under arrest for theft!" one of them said. A dunmer merchant uttered a cry of surprise. The guards checked his pockets and produced a silver ring. An Argonian in the crowd yelled, "That's mine!" The Argonian left with the guards as they escorted the dunmer away. The crowd quickly broke up after the excitement ended.

"Gabriella, what were you up to before I got here?" I asked suspiciously.

"Making our lives a little simpler, dear," the dark elf smiled. "Brynjolf," she indicated the Nord who had been making the sales pitch, "is a member's of the Thieves' Guild. He promised to show us a backdoor to the Ratway if I helped him out with a little problem of theirs. Saves us the effort of trying to transverse smelly sewer ways."

"Good job, lass," Brynjolf said. "It's good to know that our two guilds can keep friendly relations."

"I wasn't going to get to kill anyone," Gabriella shrugged.

"We find that murder is bad for business," Brynjolf frowned.

"Maybe for you." Gabriella and I grinned evilly.

26 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 9:00 AM

The Ratway was a dismal as I could have imagined. It was dark and dank with rodents scurrying around in the shadows. I shared a glance with Gabriella and grimaced. How could people choose to live down here? It wasn't like these people were beggars with nowhere else to go. They were thieves; surely they could have stolen enough to live better.

Brynjolf had led us to the back entrance located in a false crypt in the cemetery. He had not showed us the secret switch that activated the door, but I'm sure if given enough time and motivation I could find it. We had left our horses stationed outside so we could leave immediately after our business was concluded.

I was wearing my masked cowl. I wasn't worried about being identified, not this far from Whiterun or Windhelm. I just couldn't stand the smell and hoped the mask would provide some filter. Gabriella also held a cloth over her own mouth and nose.

I saw a faded sign for "The Ragged Flagon" as we entered. A mousy mustached man was tending to a bar. Brynjolf indicated an older man sitting by himself at one of the worn wooden tables. "That's Delvin. I know I don't need to remind you, but don't cause any trouble."

"Delvin Mallory?" I asked as we approached. Delvin looked up and nodded. "We were sent by Astrid."

The man's face lit up at the mention of our leader's name. "Astrid! How's she doing nowadays?"

"We're not here for pleasantries," Gabriella said as she tossed the amulet to Delvin. "What can you give us for this?"

Delvin whistled, "This here is an Elder's Council amulet. I'd hate to think who you had to kill to gain this little pretty."

"Can you sell it?" I asked.

"I can at that," Delvin pulled out a piece of parchment, quickly wrote a figure down, stamped it with his personal signet. "As per our usual agreement, only Astrid can use this letter of credit, but if she needs anything I can get it for her. I do mean anything." Was Delvin an ex-lover? Or maybe a current one?

I looked at the writ and gasped. There had to be one too many zeros in the figure. "Fifteen thousand septims?"

"If you think that amount isn't fair…" Delvin frowned.

"No, thank you," I tucked the letter of credit away. We bid Delvin farewell, eager to leave the Ratway.

"If Astrid was happy with our assignment before," Gabriella amused, "she'll probably explode from sheer joy now."

29 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 10:00 PM

Gabriella and I had taken our time returning to the Sanctuary. The weather was pleasant and we were in no hurry to return. Astrid's planning for the Emperor's assassination would take time. Few contracts would be taken or considered as we prepared for the murder of the Era. Meanwhile old favors and debts had to be called in.

We were excited to give the news of the value of the amulet and the implications of its station, but it was better to take our time to avoid bandits. Cicero's advice may have been poorly given, but it was still good advice. Two women traveling alone was a tempting target and we had the equivalent of enough money to fund an entire Hold for a year. It didn't matter that the credit was completely worthless to anyone else.

Gabriella was disappointed that she wouldn't have a chance to use her magic to kill on this trip. I rubbed the scar on my shoulder all too aware of how it only took one lucky stroke to end a life.

As the sun had fallen, we decided to push the rest of the way home. It would be good to be able to sleep in our own beds again.

Upon entering the Sanctuary, Gabriella and I immediately reported to Astrid. Our leader's screams of glee filled the Sanctuary as she grabbed our hands and danced in a circle with us. I laughed at her enthusiasm.

I had come to a conclusion during my trip with Gabriella. The Emperor would die. If given the opportunity, I would bear the blade myself. The Night Mother had declared it and I would obey. My trip to Riften and seeing the orphanage had helped me to remember I had left all of my old life behind and that included my oaths to the Empire.

After Astrid had dismissed us, Gabriella and I walked down the stairs to the open area. Lying on his side in front of the fire playing with his dagger was Cicero. He sang, "They all deserve to die, whether a knife in the gut or an arrow in the eye."

"Looks like your boyfriend is waiting for you," Gabriella teased. I gave her a glare of death. Gabriella pulled the amulet she gave me in Riften out from where I had tucked it in my armor. The dark elf laughed as she continued on to her bed. "Sleep well, sister."

I walked over to Cicero who had rolled over onto his back. He held his ebony dagger above him, watching how the fire played over the blade. "Oh, shiny, gleamy and so sharp for easy stabbing."

"Um, I'm home, brother," I said standing awkwardly above him.

"The great and powerful Listener has returned home," Cicero said with half-lidded eyes as he sat up. I wished I could tell if he was being sincere or sarcastic. He turned his back to me. Okay, sarcastic then. "All hail the Listener."

I sat down so I could press my back against his. "Why are you so angry? You have done all these awkward, terrible, embarrassing things to me time and time again and I forgive you because you're my brother. But the one time Astrid tells me to do something, you pitch a fit. I had to go."

"The Pretender should hold no sway over you," Cicero turned to face me. "Only the Night Mother's command matters."

"I have followed the Night Mother," I said.

"No, Hecate repeats the Unholy Matron's will, but bends to the Harlot's. You let Astrid steal your glory," Cicero growled. "You follow her like a pet dog and become someone else she can steal prestige from."

"You have no right to criticize someone for following orders, Keeper," I said his title with venom.

Cicero jumped to his feet. "What's that supposed to mean, Listener?"

I stood getting in his face. "It means you've just accused the Listener of being a lap dog. Does that make the lowly Keeper a mere worm?"

"Watch your tongue, girl," Cicero's face reminded me of how he looked when I fell out of the Night Mother's coffin. A small rational part of me warned I should stop now, but my dragon side was raging and in control. I was in the moment and not backing down. I was tired of being so damn compliant all the time.

"Or what?" I threw my arms open to Cicero, laughing mockingly. "Is loyal Cicero going to gut the Listener? Finish the job of strangling her? You cannot touch me unless you wish to forsake your precious tenets." My cruel side was unleashed and I tried to cut and hurt with every word.

Cicero dropped his head so his hair fell forward and I couldn't see his face. Every inch of his body was barely controlled rage. He held up one balled fist. "They're your tenets too, Listener. The Tenets are for all of the Brotherhood, not just those who wish to follow them. That is why Astrid is a Pretender. She thinks she is so clever to forget the old ways, but Sithis will judge her as the Dread Father judges all of us."

I opened to retort when I noticed the thu'um was building. Dammit, I had been so relaxed from my trip to Riften and now my anger and spite had brought out the thu'um. "I'm done talking to you," I managed to growl. I said the one thing I thought that would hurt Cicero the most. "In fact, I never want to speak to you ever again."

Cicero's face snapped up and I couldn't read the expression it flickered so fast – angry, fear, annoyance. Suddenly, the man's face went flat. He paused and took a deep breath. Then the jester was back and Cicero was laughing. "Cicero will tolerate much in respect for the Listener's position, but there is a limit. The Listener must learn that she is not immune from discipline." Fast as lightning he grabbed me around the waist and picked me up like I was a naughty pup. One gloved hand clamped over my mouth to keep me from screaming for help.

Cicero quickly ran to our room while I tried to struggle against his iron grip. I knew I couldn't get loose, but maybe I could free my mouth to call for help. Or use the thu'um if I had to. I didn't want to. I didn't want to reveal I was the Dragonborn. But I would if I had to.

I was tossed unceremoniously onto my bed. Cicero slammed the bedroom door closed and produced a key. He made sure I saw him lock the door and then sleight of hand the key away. I had no idea where he spirited the key to.

"Ah, solitude, sweet solitude," Cicero laughed. He pulled off his gloves and threw them carelessly onto his end table. The Keeper advanced towards me, stalking like a predator. "Far enough away from the others. Feel free to scream as much as you want."

Chapter Text

29 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 10:15 PM

"Ah, solitude, sweet solitude," Cicero laughed. He pulled off his gloves and threw them carelessly onto his end table. The Keeper advanced towards me, stalking like a predator. "Far enough away from the others. Feel free to scream as much as you want."

I scrambled so my back was pressed against the wall and my feet were firmly under me. If that maniac came after me I would kick his teeth out, by the Eight.

Cicero paused and unbuckled his belt. He removed the belt pouch and ebony dagger and placed them on the table that cluttered the middle of the room. "Let's establish some rules, my dear Listener." The jester flicked the belt like whip so it cracked near my face. I flinched at the sound. "If the Listener is going to act like a child, then the Keeper will treat her like a child." He held up one finger, winking. "But if the Listener says the word, just one word, the Keeper will stop."

I mentally vowed that I would not speak a word. If I could help it I wouldn't even scream.

"Let the lesson begin." He began to laugh.

I waited until Cicero leaned forward to grab me before lashing my booted foot out at him. He had anticipated my attack and easily sidestepped it. He grabbed my foot and jerked, pulling me off balance. Quick fingers unlaced my boot and yanked it off. The boot was tossed aside casually.

I rolled on my hip and tried to kick the side of Cicero's head. He casually blocked with his arm and stole that shoe as well. He had a hold of both my ankles and jerked them high above his head. I grunted as I was practically upside down. Lithe fingers undid my pants and they were discarded as well.

I tried to flip back onto my stomach so I could have some sort of purchase to scramble away. Cicero slid so he was sitting on the edge of the bed. My momentum caused me to land across his lap. Nimble fingers rapidly unbuckled my armor top. It was tossed next to my pants.

Once I was wearing nothing but my underthings, Cicero looped his belt and used it to bind my hands together at the wrist. Then he secured it on the headboard. The Keeper settled himself on my hips so no matter how much I tried I couldn't buck him off.

Oh gods, what was he going to do to me?

"Now, my dear, dear Listener," Cicero crooned as he ran his hands down my sides. I started to draw in my breath to force him off me. I hoped he would fly like a ragdoll once I point blank hit him with my thu'um. "You will now understand why they call me…LAUGHTER INCARNATE!"

Fingers flew over my skin tickling me. I lost my breath as I screamed and laughed. No matter how much I thrashed and kicked, Cicero continued to tickle me. His high shrilled laughter mingled with mine.

"I can't breathe, I can't…breathe. Stop, ha, ha ha, please, please, ha," I gasped around gales of laughter. "I give up."

"That will teach you to cross me," Cicero lightly bonked me on the head as he immediately ceased just as he promised. His smile was very smug. I noticed that his twinkling amber eyes were dark with shadows.

"Did you really have to strip me naked?" I asked.

"Has Hecate ever tried to tickle someone through leather?" Cicero waggled his finger at me. "Besides, all the interesting parts are still covered."

"Behave, Keeper," I warned.

"Humble Cicero lives to serve," he gave a mock half-bow while still straddling my hips. "Anything else? I'm always eager."

I rattled the belt restraining me. "Being untied would be nice."

Cicero released me. I sat up and rubbed my wrists. "You scared me," I scowled as I dragged one of my sleeping furs to cover my body.

"The best jokes have unexpected punch lines," Cicero shrugged unapologetic as always. The jester has never once apologized to anyone for his actions. The closest was when he left the bouquet of mountain flowers on my bed and in retrospect I have no idea if it was intended as an apology.

"You're still sitting on me," I pointed out.

"I am," he agreed without moving.

"Move!" I pushed Cicero on the chest. He rolled backwards until he was resting on his head and his feet were pointing up in the air. I stood up with the furs still wrapped around me. "Close your eyes so I can put on sleeping clothes."

"But why? Cicero has already seen everything," Cicero whined. He rolled forward until he was sitting cross legged. The jester cap was still firmly stuck on his head. How did he do that?

"Eyes closed!" I gestured by covering my face with my hands.

Cicero copied my action and flopped on his side with his back to me. "Happy?"

"Thank you," I said. I turned my back to him just in case he tried to peek to tease me as I rummaged through my clothes. Gabriella had lent me a few of her old clothes so I had a few things to pick from now. I pulled out a gown and dragged if over my head. "I did want to let you know it was a quiet trip. I was very careful while we traveled. So, I hope that makes you happy. And I missed you a lot while I was gone. I've gotten kinda used to you and your jokes. It felt too quiet at times traveling with Gabriella. She's pretty introspective. I think she likes to talk less about herself than I do about me.

"Okay, you can look now," I said turning around. Cicero was still on his side not facing me. "Hello?" I climbed onto the bed and pulled his hand away. The jester was fast asleep, his breath slow and even. I sat back on my heels, growling softly. Of course he would pass out on my bed which was only fifteen feet away from his own. I thought back and realized if the last time he slept was when I was hurt then that was nine days ago. Could anyone actually stay awake that long?

I shook Cicero's shoulder gently. "Hey, wake up." No response. I sighed. Now what? I could sleep in Cicero's bed, but there's something about sleeping in your own bed that's so much more restful. I pulled Cicero's boots off and crawled into the bed with him. It's not like we hadn't shared a bed before and he was pleasantly warm.

I curled up against the Keeper's back and twined his red hair with my fingers. I have a strange fascination with hair. I love to run my fingers through other people's hair and would do so repeatedly if given the opportunity. Unfortunately, I rarely have a chance to indulge. Cicero's hair was so fine and soft if a bit greasy. He was going to have to bathe more often if he was going to sleep beside me.

I wondered how different things would have been if I had met Cicero for the first time in the Sanctuary instead of on the road north of Whiterun. In the past I had been forced to deal with bandits attacking me and my philosophy was to kill before being killed. Would I have killed him when he attacked me for having "violated" the Night Mother's coffin? Could I have been so forgiving?

Instead I met him when he was scared, alone, and frustrated. I thought of Cicero as in need. Even at his worst, he was lashing out because he needed more and didn't know how to ask. I thought of Lydia's words to me that night almost a month ago.

"You take too many burdens of strangers upon yourself. I have seen you time and time again go out of your way to assist someone you met moments before. You give yourself completely to someone who has no claim on you and it leaves you too spread thin to give yourself to someone who might have a long term claim on your heart and soul," my friend had said. Then she had said, "Like that Cicero fellow," meaning the first part, but as time passed I wondered if he could become the second – someone with a long term claim.

My chest clenched thinking of Lydia. It had been almost two weeks since I had last seen her. I missed her so much, my loyal companion always watching my back. "Where you lead, I follow," she used to say. I was even starting to miss her sarcastic, "I'm sworn to carry your burdens."

I had asked Astrid about Lydia's fate. Had Astrid killed Lydia the night she had kidnapped me? I had dreaded the answer for if Astrid had said yes, I wasn't sure I would stay in control long enough to not slit the throat of everyone in the Sanctuary. Thankfully, the blonde woman had assured me that she had merely knocked out Lydia with the same potion she had used on me. Lydia had been left passed out in her room in Windhelm. It wasn't the best solution, but much better than on the side of the road or dead.

30 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 12:00 PM

"Since the Family is gathered together in one place, I want to announce our plans for the assassination of the Emperor," Astrid said during lunch. The family was seated around the long dining table with Astrid standing at the head and Arnbjorn at her side. I glanced around and noted that Cicero was still passed out. I suppose as far as Astrid was concerned Cicero was not part of the family. I wasn't entirely comfortable with that thought. "Our first target is Vittoria Vici who is the cousin of the Emperor. Her wedding is in about three and a half months during the fifteenth of Mid Year. She is supposed to marry Asgeir Snow-Shod a prominent business partner of the Black-Briar meadery. Such a union would be a huge step towards a peaceful solution to the Civil War, something we want to prevent.

"We are going to kill Vittoria during her wedding. Since this contract is directly from the Night Mother, I am giving the assignment to Hecate." The group applauded in congratulations. Astrid was the only member of the Brotherhood who never addressed me as Listener. I wasn't sure how I felt about that either. "There will be a ton of security, so I am going to assign Veezara as backup in case something goes wrong."

Veezara looked over at me and winked. His sharp grin seemed a bit too wide and his eyes lingered on the blue stoned amulet I wore.

"I would like to travel to Solitude beforehand to scout the layout of the wedding," I said.

Astrid nodded. "Good idea."

"I also want clearance to make changes as I see fit," I continued. Astrid frowned, but still nodded.

"Oh, a bride for the Bride, how poetic," Cicero's warm breath was in my ear. I stifled a scream as I turned to look at the jester. How did he manage to get behind me without me noticing? "There will be singing and dancing and murder. The Listener will have so much fun!"

"I don't sing or dance," I said.

"Oh, no, no, no! Hecate must dance to give the bride a proper send off," Cicero scowled.

"It's not that I won't dance, it's that I don't know how," I said. "Besides, I don't know if Nords even dance at weddings or not."

"If they don't then we are doing Vici an even greater favor by sending her to the Void," Cicero smiled. "Three months is more than enough time to learn how to dance. Cicero will teach Hecate and she will beguile some poor man into loving her for her grace and beauty."

"It's not going to happen," I said firmly.

30 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 2:00 PM

"This is so stupid," I muttered. Cicero and I were in our room. The dining table had been pushed aside to clear as much of the floor as possible. Cicero held my right hand while his other arm was wrapped around my waist. "How am I supposed to dance if there's no music?"

"Cicero has already told the Listener," he scowled, "the rhythm is not in the music but in the dancer. Just follow my lead." Cicero took a few steps and I stumbled clumsily behind. "Augh! No, no, no! You have to let go. Release your concern of what others are thinking, release doubt, release everything except your partner."

Why did that sound so familiar?

We tried again and I managed to shuffle along a little better. At least I can only assume it was a little better since Cicero didn't scream in disgust as much. "How can you possibly be so graceful with the bow and stealthy, but you cannot manage a simple waltz? Hecate might as well be a lumbering, awkward Nord."

"I didn't even want to do this!" I reminded him. "You're the one who insisted." We glared at each other. Cicero stepped back with his hands held up peacefully.

"We'll try a different approach," he said. Cicero bunched his hands into fists and threw a punch at me. I managed to dodge, but only barely. It wasn't even a full strength attack. I knew Cicero could move much faster. "Combat is just another form of dance. You have a partner you must anticipate the moves of. You move in coordination or you die." Another flurry of blows forced me to dodge and weave.

"Footwork is also essential," Cicero's boots flew out forcing me to dance backwards. "If you don't know where your feet are at all times, you might trip." A boot caught mine and pulled it out from under me. As I fell, Cicero caught me around the waist and spun me around. He smiled, "And if you do, you're dead."

We tried to dance again, in the traditional method, and I carefully watched my feet. "No, no, no," Cicero tilted my head up. "Hecate must watch Cicero, not his feet."

"How can I watch my footwork if I'm looking elsewhere?" I complained.

"The same way Hecate knows when she uses her bow where her feet are," Cicero said. He finished a few more steps. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"I didn't dance. I just followed your lead," I said disappointed.

"That is what dancing is," Cicero said. "You have to follow your partner and know your partner's body."

"Are you being perverted again?" I stepped back and asked skeptically. Cicero smiled slyly and shook his head.

Cicero took my hands again, "Does Hecate trust Cicero?" I looked into his smiling amber eyes. Normally I like my men to be taller. After months of having Nords tower over me, it was nice to have someone else at eye level. I shrugged. "Hm, it's a starting point."

30 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 5:00 PM

I was exhausted after hours of trying to learn how to dance with Cicero. When that man focused on something, he put his whole self into it. I still marveled at how he could whirl around and still talk without losing his breath. I just wanted to sit down and not think. The Keeper had gone bounding off to attend to the Night Mother. I guess sleeping for about fourteen hours will do that for a person.

Veezara was sitting on his bed as I passed by. "Hecate, are you busy?" the Argonian asked.

"What's up?" I asked as I flopped next to the Shadowscale. Veezara slid over closer so we were lying side by side almost touching.

Veezara hooked his claw under my amulet and lifted it slightly so the candlelight reflected off it. "I've noticed that you're wearing an Amulet of Mara," he said looking at me expectantly. He raised an eye ridge at my blank look. "You do realize what this signifies, right?"

"No," I said doubtfully.

"Damn," Veezara sighed, clearly disappointed. He scooted away. "I should have known. Even if you had, no doubt you would have already talked to the clown about it."

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"Nords have very short courting periods. It pretty much boils down to 'I like you, you like me? If yes, let's get married.' They indicate marriage potential by wearing one of those amulets."

"Gabriella!" I grabbed the amulet, my face flushing in anger.

The dark elf poked her head into the sleeping area. "Yes?"

"You bitch!" I screamed as I jumped off Veezara's bed. I started chasing the dark elf who was laughing heartily. "You set me up!"

"I never would have guessed Veezara," Gabriella said as she ran. "I just wanted to see how the clown was going to react."

"For your information," I yelled as I tried to grab her cowl, "he never even noticed. He's an Imperial, so he probably has no idea of this barbaric culture's barbaric rituals." We ran through the alchemy room where Festus and Babette were.

"Keep that noise down, you damn kids," Festus protested. Babette looked up from playing with her pet giant spider, Lis.

I chased Gabriella all the way into the reporting room. I would have caught her, but Arnbjorn grabbed me up in his embrace. "Astrid wants to talk to you, ham hock."

"Just let me give Gabriella the pounding she deserves!" I struggled against the werewolf's grasp. My feet were hanging a good six inches off the ground. "I could dunk her in the waterfall pool a couple of times."

"Now, rabbit!" Arnbjorn growled. Gabriella had escaped outside so I surrendered. Arnbjorn escorted me to Astrid who was waiting in her sitting room.

"Ah, there you are," Astrid looked up from her map. "I need to know what information you have about Whiterun and what you know about Ulfric and Tullius' armies."


"Because rumor on the wind is that Ulfric is consolidating his forces. By summer, his army will be on the battlefield to take Whiterun. I want to know as much as possible in case it interferes with our own plans." Astrid tapped her map. "Your information may be a little old by that point, but it's intimate and sometimes that's better than fresh."

I walked over to the table and gave Astrid what information I could remember. I wasn't very military-minded, but seeing the red and blue markers week after week some of it stood out.

"Cicero is still talking to the others," Astrid said suddenly. I wondered if this had been her true objective all along. "Trying to convince them that the Night Mother is the only recourse and that you're the true leader of the Brotherhood. That only the Listener has any true authority."

"Astrid, do you know who I was before I came here?"

"The Dragonborn." It was finally out then. Arnbjorn hovered close behind me.

"That's right," I stood and looked the blonde in the eye. "Chosen of destiny, protecter of Tamriel, devourer of souls and so forth. If I was really worried about being in control, I wouldn't have come here. I was already named thane in several provinces and possessed more septims than this organization has possessed since Uriel Septim. I could have easily have bought my way into becoming jarl. Or joined Ulfric as his right hand. So, believe me, when I say I have no interest in being in charge. This is my retirement into anonymity and doing what I do well. Killing."

"Well put," Astrid nodded respectfully. "I still want you to do something about Cicero. Try to control him."

"Trying to control Cicero is like trying to control a hailstorm," I said. "If you have a problem with him, you do something."

"He ignores me," Astrid admitted. Astrid was used to recruiting desperate outcasts who in return swore their loyalty to her. How strange it must have been for her to suddenly have someone who didn't have that blinding loyalty in her midst. "Has the Night Mother spoken to you again?"

I stifled a sigh. Cicero had repeatedly asked me that question, his light eyes always hopeful. "No, but not for lack of trying. I've attempted to commune with the Night Mother and she remains silent. I figure she's waiting to see how well we fulfill her orders."

Astrid tapped her lips as she thought. "Very well then. Dismissed." I gave a sarcastic salute and left.

30 Sun's Dawn 4E 202 8:00 PM

"Festus, may I ask you a question?" The old man was in the alchemy room working on some concoction or other. He tended to spend most of his time here pouring over old books or grinding alchemy agents when he was in Sanctuary.

"You mean other than the one you just asked?" Festus responded.

"Har, har, har," I said. "Keep that up and I'll tell Cicero you're trying to steal his lines."

"Just giving you a hard time, girl. We do that around here. I would be surprised if you haven't noticed pretty much everyone in this little family of ours has a sharp tongue."

"Oh, I've noticed." Pretty much the only one who had been consistently nice to me was Veezara. I felt awkward from the Amulet of Mara incident, but apparently Nordic custom is to be indifferent if rejected. If one didn't have time for romance, then one definitely didn't have time to be devastated when rejected. "I am confused about something. What is the difference between the Black Hand and the Dark Brotherhood?"

"It's squares and rectangles," Festus answered. "The Dark Brotherhood is the organization as a whole. The Black Hand specifically refers to the ruling body which consists of four Speakers and a Listener. Four fingers and a thumb if you will. The Speakers employ Silencers, personal assistants who carry out their will. So like fingernails."

"I should have a Silencer?"

"No, only the Speakers had Silencers."

"Would the Keeper be the equivalent of a Silencer for me?" Gods knew that Cicero was like a nail in my side at times.

"Not really. The Keeper isn't supposed to work his blade once he has been appointed."

"And if he does?" I thought about Loreius. I found I thought about Loreius a lot when it came to Cicero killing. Loreius and his wife's murder had been personal, painful, and long. I couldn't reconcile the killer of the silently screaming corpses tied to chairs with my laughing, dancing, smiling Fool of Hearts. Despite Cicero's dark nature flickering to the surface occasionally, it just didn't seem real.

Festus shrugged, "If it's not one of the Tenets, rules can be bent and even broken given the right circumstances. If the Lady is displeased, she will relate what to do through her Listener. The Listener and Keeper not taking contracts is probably simply a rule of practicality. You don't want to risk your two most valuable assets getting killed, and if they are away how can they meet the Night Mother's needs?"

Which lead to me wonder if Astrid was giving me assignments as a show of respect or was she trying to keep me away from the Night Mother?

"Any other questions?" Festus asked.

I looked down at my hand and grimaced. "Am I really a thumb?"

Chapter Text

1 First Seed through 14 Second Seed 202 4E

The next two months passed in a blur. Days were filled with me training with Nazir and Veezara to improve in my use of armor and swordplay. Evenings were studying with Festus and Babette on the histories of the Brotherhood and alchemy. And the nights when he was not performing his duties as Keeper were in Cicero's arms learning how to dance.

I tripped and shuffled and was even dragged across our improvised dance floor. One occasion I lay face down on the ground refusing to move. Cicero would yell and prod and stomp his feet, but he never gave up. The madman had the patience and tenacity to rival the gods.

Cicero tried every type of dance. He guided me through a slow waltz. He taught me the ritualized steps of courtly dance. We stomped through the tribal rituals of the Khajiit. I was whirled though the folk dances of the Nords. We practiced the body grinding sensual dance of the Bretons which caused me to need to excuse myself for a prolonged break. I almost died of laughter when Cicero demonstrated the belly dance of the Redguards by shaking his hips and pouting his lips. When he had me try, I felt like I was promising something with my body I was unwilling to fulfill. Where Cicero had made the moves look sexual, I felt like I was trying to shake sand out of my clothes.

"It would be so much easier if I had something to work with," I complained.

"Cicero told you that the music isn't important!"

"You sing all the time and you never sing when you're teaching me how to dance."

"Cicero cannot sing while instructing," he scowled. "Hecate must relax. Just let go. Fall into the Void."

"I can't let go!" I snapped. The dragon half was sleeping, but it could waken at any moment. Even now it stirred in its slumber. Dragons thrived on destruction and chaos and we were planning the destruction of an Emperor.

"Does Hecate trust Cicero?" Cicero would tilt my face so I would look him in the eye every time he asked. I would hesitate and Cicero would end the lesson for the day.

Often he would switch to the combat method he had showed me. I learned how to dodge, duck and weave. I admit there was a grace to it, but it wasn't the same thing. The jester showed me how to tumble and how to be more flexible.

Periodically I would take small contracts that had come in. I needed to get out of the Sanctuary and be under the blue sky and see the trees and plants waking from their winter slumber. It was common for at least one person to be out on some errand. The only one to never leave the Sanctuary was Cicero. He scoured the area nearby for flowers and other ornaments for the Night Mother's shrine, but he never took a contract or went on leave to Falkreath for a mug of mead.

I encouraged Cicero to go with Veezara and Nazir when the two males had planned a trip to the Shrine to Dibella in Markarth. "It's a good opportunity to get to know the others and to release some tension."

"Cicero never has and never will pay for companionship," he sniffed disdainfully.

One day I was reading a book and commented, "We should go up to Falkreath some time. Indulge in rumormongering or some other crass thing."

"How does the Listener know that Cicero won't rape her and leave her corpse in the woods?" Cicero responded.

"Because I trust you," I answered a little confused by his morbid response. Then too late I realized what he had done. "Oh, dammit."

"Finally!" Cicero laughed. He grabbed my hand and dragged me to my feet. The Keeper turned so my back was pressed firmly against him. He held each wrist in one hand. "Cicero is going to show Hecate a new technique, but it requires trust. Cicero is going to Steal the Shadow and Hecate will Become the Puppet." I could hear the capitalization.

"Hecate must relax," Cicero extended my left hand and let go. I left my hand in the position he released it in. Cicero gently slapped my hand so I dropped it. "Better." When he picked my hand up and released it again, I immediately let it drop to my side.

Cicero danced with me, but this time his motions nudged me into action. Needing to only use his body, Cicero burst into song finally giving me the beat I had needed. Molded together we moved as one. I could see where months of practice were finally paying off as we stepped in sync. Cicero finished by whirling me around so I was facing him in his embrace. "Much better, yes?" he grinned wickedly.

"Yes," I admitted.

"Good, then you're ready for an audience."

15 Second Seed 202 4E 8:00 AM

"Get up," I pulled the blankets off Cicero as I climbed out of bed. I don't know why he continued to crawl into my bed. I had told him repeatedly to sleep in his own, but had been unwilling to make it a command he had to follow. At least Cicero was wearing underclothes this time.

Cicero had spent last night oiling the Night Mother. As always the ritual lasted from sunset to midnight. I had opted to not attend since I wanted to go over my luggage one last time. Being able to observe the sacred ritual had brought me closer to Cicero, but it was a privilege I didn't wish to test.

The red head groaned and rolled over while pulling a thin sheet over his head. "If you don't get up," I threatened, "I'll leave without you."

"Where is the Listener going?" Cicero mumbled from under a pillow. Because he only slept on average once a week, Cicero tended to pass out for twelve to sixteen hours when he did rest. I wondered if I should have used Cicero's old wagon instead of the two mounts for our trip. I could have left him curled up asleep as we traveled, but what if the wagon broke down again? No, the wagon was slow and bulky. I preferred speed since we were on a time limit.

"We're going to Solitude, fool," I swatted his bottom. Cicero squawked in protest. "I told you. We need to scout out the courtyard where Vici's wedding is being held."

"Cicero has Keeping to do." He blindly felt on the floor where the sleeping furs had fallen until he found them. Cicero wrapped the furs around him until he became a furry cocoon.

"What? No, remember we agreed that we would close up the Night Mother's chamber and be back within a week. I talked to the Night Mother. She didn't protest."

"No, Mother didn't talk to Hecate…again. Very different than agreeing." Cicero was not budging from under his refuge.

"I need you to go," I begged.


"Because I want you to finish my mural," I gestured at the blank space on the wall where Solitude was supposed to perch.


"Grrr," I climbed onto the bed and jumped up and down in a circle around the jester. "Get up, get up, get up." I laughed as I bounced around Cicero's bundled form. I grabbed the furs and jerked them up so they billowed out. I slipped under them as they fell. "What's wrong? Aren't you excited about going out?"

Cicero was curled into a fetal position. His eyes were wide and distant. "No."

I put my arm around him. "Why not? You wanted to go to Riften."

"Riften is different. Riften is dangerous. Solitude isn't dangerous. It's just… lonely." Was he still talking about the city?

"There's a bard's college there," I said. "We could visit."

Cicero perked up at this. "And if there is singing and dancing? Will Hecate dance with humble Cicero?"

"We've danced together already."

"No, no, no, that's not the same thing at all. Cicero and Hecate practiced. Hecate must show others how well she can twirl and spin."

"Fine, but only if there's something going on already. I'm not going to have you spin me around in the streets randomly."

16 Second Seed 202 4E 4:00 PM

We were making good time and were already north of Rorikstead. If the fair weather held and there was no trouble on the roads, we would easily be in Solitude some time tomorrow.

"Hecate should name her horse," Cicero said. He sat easily enough on his gelding pinto who he had declared was named Chuckles. The flaps of his jester's cap fluttered in the spring wind.

"No, absolutely not," I said. "I stopped naming my horses after they kept dying on me. The first one I bought died within an hour of purchasing it."

"What happened?"

"'A giant decided he wanted to club my mare over a hill."

"So what do you call this one?"

"Number six," I patted my brown mare's neck. I had bought her in Ivarstead after departing the Throat of the World after killing Alduin. "Four months and counting. She's lasted longer than several of my old horses put together."

"Isn't that a sort of name?" Cicero raised an eyebrow.

"Shut up! Don't jinx this for me," I scowled.

Cicero began growling. His attention was focused on the road ahead of us. At the top of the hill was a squad of four Stormcloak soldiers, three men and a woman, marching towards us. Cicero's expression was stormy. His hand gripped his dagger ready to pull it at a moment's notice.

"Cicero hates Stormcloaks. Cicero encountered some near Dawnstar. They insisted that Cicero must be transporting hiding something in his crate. They made me," the Keeper shuddered in horror, "open Mother's coffin. Their dirty, unworthy eyes lingering on my dear, sweet Mother. Cicero wanted to kill them, but he couldn't."

What were you doing near Dawnstar? I wondered. Cyrodiil was south of Skyrim and Falkreath Sanctuary was located on the southern border near Hammerfell. There was the Jerall Mountain range, but there was the Pale Pass that led into Heglen. In fact that was the route I was taking when I stumbled into the ambush for Ulfric and his men.

"They're innocent," I said.

Cicero snorted, "Innocence is an illusion, my dear, sweet Listener." We stopped talking as the Stormcloaks passed us.

"Oh, look at the milkdrinkers," one taunted. Another said, "Did someone steal your sweetroll?" Their mocking laughter set my teeth on edge. I had managed to forget how much I hated Stormcloaks.

"Look at the funny little man," the woman said pointing at Cicero's outfit. "He's like a tiny toy."

They might have lived if one of them hadn't decided to be clever and hit me with a thrown dirt clod. "Hey, Imperials, go back home!"

"Cicero, my dear Keeper," I said. Cicero perked up at my use of his title, "My gift. From me to you." I gestured to the retreating soldiers. It was unnecessary, but I added, "Leave no witnesses."

Cicero laughed joyfully as he wheeled his horse around. He rode full speed into the Stormcloaks bowling two of them over. "Die!" he screamed as he leapt from his horse. The jester landed on one of the still standing soldiers and slammed his knife into the man's chest. A spray of blood flew as the man crumpled.

Before the corpse hit the ground, Cicero was already springing to the next Stormcloak. The man had managed to pull his sword but it did him no good. Cicero slit the man's throat with one fluid motion. As the dying man released his sword, Cicero grabbed it and twirled the blade in his hand. Continuing his spin, the jester threw his dagger. It blossomed in the female Stormcloak's chest. The woman died with a look of utter surprise.

The final man decided retreat was the better part of valor. As the Stormcloak ran, Cicero cackled, "Cicero likes it when they run." Cicero chased the man and sliced the soldier's tendon. As the Stormcloak stumbled to the ground, the Fool of Hearts decapitated him. It took only moments for four people to die.

It was like watching an artist create a masterpiece.

Cicero dropped the iron sword on the road. He walked over to his ebony dagger and pulled it with a sickening squelch from the woman's corpse. Cicero cleaned the blade on the woman's tabard before sheathing it.

How much I had changed in the last couple of months. To go from trying so hard to avoid killing to freely allowing my madman to kill rude passersby.

I walked my horse over to Cicero. His eyes were twinkling merrily. The spray of blood had left a trail of blood across his face. "That'll teach them to cross me!"

17 Second Seed 202 4E 11:00 AM

I took a deep breath pulling in the smell of the salty ocean air. It was always the first thing I did when I came to Solitude. The warm late spring air blew through my hair lifting it from my sweaty neck. I could hear the cries of seagulls flying near the docks. I glanced at the Blue Palace waiting on her lonely cliff over the sea. Truly Solitude was the most beautiful city in all of Skyrim. Even if it was too far north for my preferences.

We had left our horses at the stable and were walking up the hill to the city gates. The blue sea sparkled in the sun to our right.

"The first thing we'll do is rent a room at the Winking Skeever. Then we're going to the Radiant Raiment. The clerks there are obnoxious, but don't let them get to you. I like this city and don't want a bounty here."

"What is a Radiant Raiment?" Cicero asked. He looked bored.

"It's a clothier," I answered.

"If Hecate wishes to shop for clothes, Cicero can always find other…entertainments."

"First off, while we're here I need you to call me Diana again," I said. "Second, I'm not shopping for just me. I'm getting clothes for you too."


"Cicero, for Zenithar's sake, you own only the one set of clothes. If you like, I'll even order a new set of jester's attire for you." It was the main reason I had scheduled for us to stay in Solitude a few days. We could easily scout the courtyard in a few hours, but waiting for the tailors would take time. There might be some clothes in Cicero's size available, but the special order would take time.

"No!" Cicero hugged himself. "These are special. They belonged to the Jester."

"Who is the Jester?" I asked carefully. The last thing I wanted was for Cicero to freak out in the middle of Solitude.

Cicero glanced around to make sure no one was within hearing distance. He leaned close and whispered in my ear, "My last contract. He laughed and laughed…until he didn't. I took the clothes as a trophy." It wasn't uncommon for us to take something from our targets. I had my own collection of journals, jewelry, and other small mementoes. The value of the item wasn't important as much as taking some last memory. Normally trophies are small. To take something as bulky as an entire outfit was extreme.

"I understand, but these are getting old." I ran my fingers over one of the many patches that adorned the outfit. Cicero had developed a fine stitch over the years and the work was well done and with loving care. The faded red cloth felt thin. How much longer could the outfit last before tearing in a way that couldn't be repaired? "Eventually, you're going to have to say goodbye."

"Cicero isn't good with goodbyes. Everyone leaves Cicero and Mother."

"I promise I won't leave." I took Cicero's hands into mine and leaned forward kissing him gently on the lips. I felt as surprised as he did. Cicero commonly stole butterfly kisses from me, but this was the first time I had initiated any affection in return. I stepped back and cleared my throat so my heart would stop thumping in it. "Ahem, after all you're my brother."

"Of course," Cicero touched his lips with one hand. The other he left entwined with mine as we finished our walk up the hill to Solitude.

17 Second Seed 202 4E 1:00 PM

"What did you expect to find down there? My juggling balls?" Cicero laughed at Endarie, the high elf clerk, who was uncomfortably taking Cicero's measurements.

Cicero was wearing only his underclothes, but I had decided to plant myself between him and the exit. I wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't make a break for it. The thought of the redhead running through town naked seemed too likely a possibility.

"Sir, please stop adjusting your underclothes. I can see everything," Endarie frowned as she turned away. The high elf didn't like her customers most days. I could only imagine how much she was seething now.

"But the clerk said she needed all of Cicero's measurements," the jester complained playfully. "Cicero only wishes to be properly represented in his stature."

"Behave or she is likely to stick you with needles," I warned. Moments later Endarie was done and Cicero was sent to change into a set of clothes they had in stock.

"Cicero doesn't understand why he has to change in the back. Cicero was naked out here," he grumbled as he left.

Endarie made a long, put out sigh as she stepped behind the counter and jotted down Cicero's measurements. "We should have most of your requests in stock. However, we make everything to accommodate Nord stature so I'll need some time to hem. The special order will take the most time." I had given Endarie the list I had made of clothes for Cicero. It included various casual outfits as a few formal ones in case we found ourselves needing to crash some event. I had left the jester's outfit on figuring it wouldn't hurt to have as a backup.

"It's quite interesting that the two of you have similar measurements." I had given patronage to the Radiant before and even modeled some clothes for the jarl, Lady Elisif the Fair. Taarie, Endarie's sister and owner of the Raiment, had saved my measurements for future purchases.

"It's because Diana has small breasts," Cicero declared as he came back out dressed. He did look fine in the green coat and pants Endarie had given him. Cicero placed himself behind me. He grabbed my hips and shook them. "Also, Diana has bigger hips. For all that baby making," Cicero leered suggestively.

"How does it fit?" I asked as I restrained from slapping Cicero upside his head for the comment.

Cicero did a handless somersault and a backflip. He checked the clothes and found no tears. "It'll do," he shrugged.

I pulled out a coin pouch and placed it on the counter. I could hear the bell over the front door ring as a new customer entered. "Here's my deposit. If you can get everything on the list in three days' time, I'll double your estimate." Endarie, suddenly a lot more cheerful, grinned broadly at the offer.

"By the divines, is that you, Diana?" I turned around to see the new customer was the last person I had wanted to see here. It was Elisif. The widow smiled broadly and gave me a hug which I returned.

I adored Elisif. Out of all the jarls, other than Balgruuf, she was the one I felt the most allegiance toward. Her husband had been High King Torygg, who had been murdered by Ulfric. She had inherited her husband's position as jarl and would be named High Queen once all the jarls could gather and vote. But that would never happen as long at the Stormcloak Rebellion lasted. By ancient Nord tradition, Ulfric had a claim to the throne as well for defeating Torygg in a duel. The legitimacy of the duel depended on who you asked.

There was some concern that Elisif was too young and inexperienced for her position. She depended heavily on her steward, Falk Firebeard, and on General Tullius, the man who led the Imperial army in Skyrim. She seemed too fragile as she sat primly on her dead husband's throne, but I saw a hidden strength in her. This woman would not surrender until her husband's murder was avenged and she would grow into a leader that would honor Torygg's memory.

"What are you doing in Solitude? You were going to visit me at the Blue Palace, I hope! And who is this?" Elisif nodded to Cicero who was hovering next to me.

Before I could answer, Cicero knelt on one knee and kissed Elisif's hand. "My name is Cicero and I am Diana's husband. It is such an honor to finally meet you. She's told me so much about you."

"You got married?" Elisif smiled happily. "I had no idea. You should have told me. I would have come to your wedding."

"Oh, you know how it is." My fake laugh sounded hollow. I was going to kill Cicero. "These things just sort of happen. What brings you to the Raiment?"

"I'm having a gathering tonight. I needed to pick up my garment. Ever since you showed me that lovely dress, I buy all my clothes here."

"Will there be dancing?" Cicero asked.

"Oh yes," Elisif said. "You two should come. Be my guests."

"I would love that," I said through ground teeth.

17 Second Seed 202 4E 7:00 PM

"You do not make a cover identity like that without consulting with me first," I growled. Cicero and I were walking to the Blue Palace for Elisif's party. The Palace was already lit with many candles and torches causing it to practically glow in the sunset. Strains of music could already be heard and I could smell succulent foods in the air.

"Diana didn't give Cicero an identity so Cicero improvised. Cicero and Diana would never have passed as blood siblings. Besides, it's not like I lied." Cicero looked me dead in the eye, his expression serious.

My jaw dropped. By the divines, was the relationship of Keeper and Listener closer than I had realized? If I was the thumb, was Cicero the nail? THUMB AND NAIL?!

Suddenly Cicero burst into laughter. "Oh, the expression on your face was priceless. Cicero couldn't keep a straight face any longer."

I punched Cicero in the shoulder. "I hate you! Someday you're going to go too far and I'm going to stab you."

"Promises, promises," Cicero smirked. He looped his arm through mine. We were at the Blue Palace.

As we stepped into the main hall, a guard said, "Announcing the Dragonborn and her husband." I had confessed to Cicero earlier that I was the Dragonborn to avoid him reacting strangely in front of others. I flinched at the attention that grabbed as several delegates turned toward me. Elisif had an impressive guest list. General Tullius and his second-in-command Legate Rikke were here. I also recognized Brunwulf Free-Winter, Maven Black-Briar, and Idgrod Ravencrone amongst the guests. All Imperial supporters.

"Dear gods, they're gathering to plan for war," I muttered. Was Balgruuf here?

"Pff, that can be for later," Cicero declared. He guided me to the empty dance floor. The gathering was still early and the guests were mingling on the side lines.

"Cicero, I'm supposed to present myself to Elisif first!" I protested.

"Once Diana starts boring war talk, she will be doing it all night long," Cicero countered. "Cicero was promised a dance and he means to see it."

I had thought I would feel self-conscious with all the eyes of the court on us. The music started and everything fell away except my partner. Cicero guided my steps and I followed. Even when he added little embellishments, I moved as one with him. It was like when I was getting ready to shoot my bow. A deep breath and everything floated away on the Void until there was only me, my target and that sweet moment of letting go.

When the song ended, I was brought abruptly back to reality as the crowded applauded. Cicero basked in the attention. I quickly walked over to Elisif, anything to not stand there and feel like a display. "My lady, forgive me for indulging my…husband." I choked on the word.

"It's no problem at all," Elisif smiled sadly. She must have been thinking of Torygg. "I had wondered why no one had heard tale of you these last months. I had feared you had died. Now I see you were occupied in other fashions."

"It's true," Cicero wrapped his arms around me from behind. "She can't get enough of me. We're like rabbits." Elisif blushed prettily.

"Cicero, I need to speak to Lady Elisif privately. I'm sure you can find ways to entertain yourself." Cicero bowed a farewell. The last I saw of him was talking to a wood elf who looked too poorly dressed to be at such a high ranking gathering.

I escorted Elisif to a quiet corner. "I traveled to Sovngarde to battle Alduin. While I was there, I saw Torygg. He wanted me to tell you that he loved you and that he was proud of you. He would watch over you always." Tears sprung into Elisif's eyes. I felt uncomfortable to be the bearer of such intimate news, but felt joy at Elisif's reaction. I had feared I would botch the message and had dreaded delivering it.

"Thank you," she managed to whisper. She clasped my hands with hers.

The rest of the gathering passed in a blur. I met and talked with many of the delegates of the different holds. They wanted to know my opinion of the upcoming battle for Whiterun. Ulfric's forces were already accumulating on the fields below Dragonsreach, forcing Balgruuf to stay in his hold. I was grateful that my old jarl wasn't here tonight although I was worried about the battle.

General Tullius had sworn his forces behind Balgruuf which would give Whiterun an advantage in numbers. "Join us," he asked simply. "Right now we might have bigger numbers, but they know the land better. The fight is going to drag out and a lot of men and women are going to get hurt and die. If you throw your support in with us, we can rally the men. Turn a small victory into a major one."

"I can't," I said. "I've retired." The disappointment of the jarls was plain on their faces.

The hours passed and slowly groups excused themselves for the night. There was still no sign of Cicero. Gods, what had that man gotten into?

"Excuse me," I tapped a maid on the shoulder. "Have you seen my… husband? He's an Imperial. Red hair, talks a lot, probably made inappropriate jokes."

"I do remember seeing him, ma'am," the maid said. She gestured to a door. "He was standing near the Pelagius Wing talking to a wood elf. That was hours ago, I'm afraid."

"Could he have gone in there?" I did not want to have to search an entire wing. I was tired and fairly drunk from all the wine I had been offered. It was not easy to come across proper Imperial wine in Skyrim and I had decided to indulge.

"Oh, no," the maid produced a long, brass key. "The wing is considered cursed and is locked up tight. I'm the only one with a key." At that moment, Cicero came out from the wing. He was humming a new tune. His new clothes were covered in dust and grime. I ignored the shocked maid and went over to Cicero.

"Where have you been?" I asked as I grabbed his hand.

"Oh, Cicero had the most wonderful time! The wood elf Dervenin took Cicero to his master. The blind man was having a picnic. He said he and Cicero were old friends and he was happy to see Cicero again. We ate cheese and built a fort out of the wheels. Cheese wheels, not other types of wheels. Cicero wants clothes like him! Red on one side and purple on the other."

"Absolutely not," I said. "That sounds ridiculous."

"Then Cicero danced for the blind man and his friend Pelly. We laughed and laughed and laughed."

"Did this blind man have a name?" I asked.

"He said Cicero could call him Ann Marie, but only if Cicero wanted to be flayed alive and have him play jump rope with Cicero's entrails. It sounded interesting, but Cicero was much too busy to accept right now."

Before Cicero could continue, Elisif approached us. "Thank you for coming tonight," she said as she hugged me. "Please visit us again soon. Next month the Emperor's cousin is getting married. I'm sure she would love for you to attend. There is also going to be an effigy burning of King Olaf," Elisif grimaced. "Such a barbaric ritual, but the people seem to love it. And they need to feel a connection to the past very much right now."

"I'll see what I can do," I said as a plan formed. The burning of King Olaf? Maybe I could use that.

As we exited the Blue Palace, I leaned against Cicero's shoulder. "You," I drawled drunkenly, "made it so I couldn't lose myself in the throes of some young thing tonight."

"There is always Cicero," the Keeper said quietly.

I paused and looked at him, really looked at him. Yes, there always was Cicero. He was always there. So loyal and patient and obedient. Anything to please the Night Mother and by extension anything to please the Listener.

I stepped away from him. The two of us were predators sizing each other up. "If you can catch me before I reach the inn, I'll let you have me," I taunted. I turned and ran down the hill. My hair flew behind me like a dark banner. Cicero followed. Not because he wanted the prize, but because of the challenge. And when one runs, the other can't help but follow. It is the nature of the beast.

He was faster than me and would surely catch me. But only if I played fair. "WULD!" I Shouted the Whirlwind Sprint and shot forward out of Cicero's grasp. The Keeper might catch me one day, but not tonight.

Chapter Text

15 Mid Year 202 4E 9:00 PM

It was time.

The sky was a dark purple bruise as the sun sunk into the sea. I was perched on top of the walkway of Castle Dour. Below the wedding guests milled around like ants. My loose hair blew in the sea breeze. I pulled on my cowl and mask. I hated the confinement, but once the murder happened I would not have time to conceal my features. My red and black leather armor creaked as I settled into position. Veezara crouched next to me. The Argonian was on alert watching for guards and waiting for Gabriella's signal.

The screaming and explosions were the only signal I needed. A crowd of panicked partiers flooded out from the Bard's College courtyard. Gabriella flashed the signal to Veezara. "The others are in position," he said in his raspy voice.

"I know," I managed to say. Already I was falling into the Void. Below me two guards escorted Elisif away from the wedding reception while others ran to investigate the ruckus at the Bard's College. Good, I didn't want Elisif to have to see this. The confused wedding guests below faded from my sight.

Breathe in.

I was pleased to see that Vittoria had refused to allow a little disruption during the Burning of King Olaf to ruin her wedding. The bride and groom walked up to the small balcony that overlooked the reception courtyard to give another one of her little speeches. The bride's reputation for arrogance was working in the Brotherhood's favor.

The feel of the cooling stone beneath me faded away. All I saw was the balcony where Asgeir and Vittoria stood. Then it was only Vittoria. She looked lovely in her wedding gown and flower crown. Her face was radiant as a bride's should be. She would never be more beautiful.

Maybe it was a mercy to kill her before time and regret could steal that perfect beauty of a bride on her wedding day.

Breathe out.


The arrow flew as true as I knew it would. Vittoria was struck in the heart and fell. Her smile still lingered. She never knew Death had come for her.

Below the guests burst into an outrage at the murder of their hostess. I could hear Asgeir's screams of denial as he held his dead wife. I thought about killing him as a reprieve, but decided retreat was higher on my priorities than mercy. The guards were too far away dealing with the madness the second team had created to form a proper perimeter, allowing Veezara and me to flee. We were no more than shadows on the walls as we ran.

16 Mid Year 202 4E 1:30 AM

"Cheers!" I yelled. We all raised our mugs and smashed them together in a toast. Mead spilled over the side from our enthusiasm. I tossed back my mug and down the whole thing in a few gulps. I was already on my third mug and the foul taste was barely noticeable.

We had rendezvoused at a prearranged campsite that Nazir had been left to guard a couple of hours south of Solitude. Shortly afterwards Gabriella and Festus Krex had joined us. Festus had looked grumpy and a little singed, but not really different than normal. Less than half an hour later Cicero and Babette joined us. Cicero's clothes and hair were still damp from his escape.

All of us except Cicero gathered around the fire. The Keeper sat to the side in a fresh change of clothes, one of the outfits we had bought a month before, and a towel around his shoulders. Why did he always keep himself apart from the rest of us? I started to get up to bring Cicero closer, but Veezara put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close in a one-armed hug.

"Tell me again," I demanded as Babette refilled my mug. I felt flushed from the excitement of success, the heat of the fire and the warmth of mead in my belly. The cold mug felt good in my hands. "Tell me about this year's Burning of King Olaf."

Festus looked askance at Cicero who merely waved permission. Each time Festus had given Cicero the chance to regale the tale, but each time the jester deferred to the old man. It was extremely odd for the normally rambunctious Keeper to quietly give up a chance to talk.

"Gabriella and I were in position posing as attendees," Festus began. "The bards had gathered and were making long winded speeches about the importance of the festival. Blah, blah, blah. I was practically falling asleep….

15 Mid Year 202 4E 9:00 PM

Viarmo, the leader of the bards, had just set the effigy of Olaf on fire when Cicero strode as bold as brass into the gathered crowd. People moved aside and whispered in surprise. Solitude had the largest population of Imperials in all of Skyrim and jesters were not unknown to them. None of them had seen a merryman since arriving in Skyrim.

The jester tumbled and capered to the applause of the crowd. Suddenly, he raised both his hands above his head. The crowded hushed as they watched in anticipation of the clown's next act.

"Ho, ho, ho, hee, hee, hee," Cicero laughed as he grabbed a lute from an older female bard's hands. "Break that lute across my knee!" He suited action to words. The bards screamed in protest. Cicero casually tossed the broken halves of the lute into the flames of the effigy. "And if the bard should choose to fight, why then I'll set his clothes alight!"

Cicero then pulled the twin fireball staves off his back. He twirled them a couple of times before setting them in position. Guards had been called in from the street to deal with the madman. "You want a burning man festival? I'll give you a burning man festival!" As fast as lightning, Cicero began to shoot ball after ball of fire into the crowd. I had given careful instruction to not kill anyone. Chaos and confusion was fine, deaths were not. Festival goers scattered as fire flickered over everything.

As the wave of attendees ran out onto the streets of Solitude to escape the madman, Gabriella ran with them. She would run to give the 'go ahead' signal for Veezara that the distraction was in motion and it was time to kill Vittoria.

"Don't run! Don't run! Come back here! Ha, ha, ha, ha!" Cicero laughed madly as people scrambled for their lives. Guards ran in to overwhelm the jester. Cicero flipped the staves downward and used the curved dragon heads to trip guards who got too close. Guards skidded painfully across the stone floor.

Cicero whirled and tumbled around the flailing guards. He hit them upside the head with a staff before firing a blast, knocking more of them off their feet. More guards were called in and Cicero just danced merrily among them.

"Burn! Burn! All of you burn! Fakes, you're all fakes!" Cicero screamed and laughed as he dodged and weaved over the incoming fighters and fallen bodies. Festus gave the signal it was time to go and withdrew himself.

Cicero threw down the expended fireball staves. He hopped up on the wall facing the ocean. With an exaggerated bow, "Cicero bids you farewell." Then he turned and did an elaborate dive into the ocean. Far below Babette waited with a row boat to take the Keeper ashore.

16 Mid Year 202 4E 1:45 PM

"I didn't understand half of what he was screaming and a few of those damned fireballs got too close for my taste, but I have to admit that it was one of the most spectacular things I have had the privilege of witnessing," Festus concluded. We all cheered and raised our mugs again. Even little Babette had a mug although I could not tell if it held mead or blood.

"Tell your side, Hecate," Nazir said. Everyone turned to me expectantly. Veezara had told the first version of Vittoria's death.

"I gave our Bride a bride," I said simply. We cheered again and another round of mead was downed. I looked up and saw Cicero walk alone into the forest. Where was he going?

"Looks like the clown went off," Gabriella commented.

"Good riddance," Festus snorted.

"He's not that bad," I said surprised by the hostility the others had for Cicero. I knew they didn't get along with him, but this was much more personal than I had expected. I had hoped after his performance in today's distraction they would look more kindly to him.

"The other day when I was cooking, the fool actually came in and started adding random vegetables!" Nazir complained. Nazir hated anyone interfering with his cooking.

"Astrid says that the Old Ways are dead, but all Cicero ever wants to talk about is how glorious they are," Veezara added.

"The way he sings and dances all the time is creepy," Festus said.

"I can't stand how he talks about 'tending to Mother' and 'oiling the hard to reach spots,'" Gabriella grimaced.

As the others added more complaints about Cicero, I looked over to Babette. She shrugged. Other than me, the Breton was the only one who spent any amount of time with Cicero. The vampire wouldn't add to the stream of offenses, but she wouldn't defend the Keeper either. I noticed all of them were careful to only speak against Cicero and not the Night Mother directly. They may not follow the Old Ways, but they were still careful to no offend Sithis.

About half an hour had passed since Cicero had wandered into the woods, I was getting worried. Gabriella and Nazir were having a very friendly private conversation that involved hands more than words. Festus was dozing with a mug in one lax hand. Babette had left to hunt. I stood up when Veezara grabbed my hand.

"Stay," he smiled. "Or maybe we could go off together." His leatherlike finger ran over my hand. His talon made a dimple against my skin. I shivered pleasantly from his unspoken suggestion. What would it be like to sleep with an Argonian? Some of his skin was rough ridges, but from the few times he had touched me with his hand, his scales felt like a snake's skin – smooth and pleasant.

"I can't," I gently pulled my hand away. I wasn't sure which request I was answering. "I'll be right back."

A cry of protest came from the crowd as I left. There had been no similar response when Cicero had left.

The light of the campfire was barely a speck behind me when I found the Keeper. Cicero was sitting on a rock ledge watching the two moons. With his profile in the moonlight, he looked so sad and lonely that my heart hurt. I had never seen him so quiet and still while awake.

The shadows played tricks with his face. One second he looked so young, much younger than his apparent years. The next he looked old like a man who had born burdens greater than any could possibly shoulder.

"There you are!" I said, my voice cracking. I ran over and threw my arms around him. As always, his body's warmth chased away the night chill.

"Hecate?" Cicero asked confused. He gently ran his hand over my hair as I buried my face in the curve of his shoulder.

"Where did you go? Why did you? You should be back at camp with the rest of us," I mumbled.

"The others don't want me there. They don't like me. They think I don't hear their mockery and taunts. It doesn't matter, what else is a fool good for?" Cicero shrugged.

"It matters because you're the Keeper! Because you're family," I said looking at him.

"This isn't my family. I remember my family sometimes. They were warm and welcoming and made me feel like I had come home," Cicero sighed. "I thought this could be home and family again, but Astrid has done her work well."

"You just got off on the wrong foot," I said defending our leader. "We're family."

"So kind, always so kind," Cicero ran his finger down my face wiping away tears I hadn't known were there. "Some days I worry I'll look into your dark blue eyes and that kindness will be gone."

Cicero hopped down from the ledge. "I shouldn't have left Mother again so soon. She needs me. I feel her needing me. Mother always needs me. Mother may not talk to me, but she needs me at least. Cicero's clothes should be dry by now. I'll ride on ahead and get back that much sooner."

"Wait," I said realization dawning. I crawled to the edge of the rock outcrop and looked down. "Cicero isn't your real name is it? It was the Jester's wasn't it?"

"Is Hecate yours?" was his only answer before he ran back towards camp.

By the time I made it back, I found a trail of discarded clothes and one of the horses was gone.

16 Mid Year 202 4E 1:00 PM

We had broken camp late and broken our fast with lunch. No one was moving quickly this day with our heads pounding from all the mead the night before. Babette was curled up in a small coffin in the back of the wagon we had brought along to include her in the mission. Nazir drove the wagon while Festus slumped on the bench next to the Redguard. Veezara had ridden ahead to scout.

Only Nazir had asked about Cicero. And that was only because he thought the jester had wandered off and was holding up departure. When I told him that the Keeper had gone on ahead, the Redguard had simply shrugged and climbed into the driver's seat of the wagon.

"You had an interesting night," I said to Gabriella. We were sitting in the rear of the wagon. Number six's reins were attached to the wagon and she walked slowly behind us. "I came back to the camp and found that you, Nazir, and Veezara had decided to all share a tent." I could hear heavy breathing and moans.

"If you're trying to tease me, don't waste your time, dear sister," the dark elf had her hood pulled so far forward to block out the mind numbingly painful rays of the sun I could barely make out her features. Her head lolled against the backboard. "I've slept with both Nazir and Veezara in the past."

"At the same time?" I was fascinated.

"No, that was new," Gabriella said smugly, "but we had a lot to celebrate. And you wouldn't give poor Veezara a chance."

"I don't believe in bedding companions," I said. "You don't think it's a bit…incestuous to bed your brothers?"

"It's just a term of affection, sister," Gabriella said "You shouldn't take it so literally. Besides, haven't you been bedding Cicero?"

"No!" I said too loudly. Festus glared over his shoulder at me with one blood-shot eye. "No," I repeated.

"You're way too uptight, dear. We're all mature adults here and none of us are interested in long term relationships. Well, other than Astrid and Arnbjorn. So if we feel like physical entertainment, why not with someone else who knows what you are? Someone you can trust." Gabriella sighed, "Besides, I feel my death will be soon. I might as well live my life as fully as possible before going before Lord Sithis."

"You would probably be doing the little man a favor," Nazir chimed in. "He has all that wound up tension. Getting laid might actually calm him down."

"This is not a conversation I feel comfortable having!" I could feel my face flushing.

"I don't care what you kids talk about as long as screeching isn't involved," Festus complained. "It's bad enough Nazir hits every bump in the road, I don't need young women screaming."

"It's not like we don't notice the two of you constantly giggling, hugging, and kissing," Gabriella said ignoring my outburst.

"Don't forget the dancing," Nazir said.

"That too," Gabriella nodded. "Neither one of you has any sense of discretion."

"It's brotherly!"

"Only because you won't say yes and Cicero won't push you," Gabriella said. "Every time you walk into a room, he devours you with his eyes."

"IT'S NOT LIKE THAT!" I yelled. The thu'um erupted and the wagon shook with the force. Number Six neighed nervously as she reared up in surprise.

"By Sithis, what was that?" Babette asked, her voice muffled by the coffin. Although she slept by day, the vampire was still able to act if sleepily. Nazir pulled the wagon to a stop as the wagon's horses were close to stampeding.

"I need to be alone for a while," I muttered as I jumped over the side of the wagon. I unhooked Number Six and mounted her. Six had traveled with me on my contracts and was familiar with my thu'um even if it still scared her. I urged my mount into a run and took off ahead.

Within minutes the wagon was far behind me. The wind in my face was blinding, but I didn't slow down. My hair blowing in the wind made me want to run even faster because it reminded me of when I let Cicero chase me in Solitude. Was that really a month ago?

Gods damn Cicero. He made my heart beat so hard I thought it would burst one minute and clench so hard I thought it would never beat again the next. Cicero should have been there with us. They wouldn't have teased me if he had been nearby. Instead he had to run back to the Night Mother to always be by her side. How could Gabriella think he wanted me when the only thing he thought about was the Night Mother?

"Has Mother spoken? Did the Lady talk to you again? Tell Cicero what Mother said when she spoke to you. No, no, not the Binding Words, the other parts. I know those! Tell Cicero the rest. Did Mother speak to you? Has she spoken? What about now?" That growing look of disappointment every time I had to say no was enough to tempt me to lie. I had sworn to always be truthful about the Night Mother with him and I took my vows seriously.

Soon I saw Veezara ahead of me coming back towards the wagon to report. He was shocked to see me riding with tears in my eyes. "Sister, what is wrong?"

I rode right past him. Thankfully the road was wide enough I didn't force Veezara off the road. The Shadowscale wheeled his horse around and followed me. "Sister, talk to me!"

I was tempted. I could stop and talk to Veezara and he wouldn't tease me like Nazir or Gabriella would. I was afraid I wouldn't talk though. I knew it was too likely that if I were to stop then I would drag Veezara off into the woods and find out how it felt to have that scaly skin pressed against mine.

Instead I rode until I left the confused Argonian behind.

Chapter Text

20 Mid Year 202 4E 2:15 PM

"Your next mission is to kill Gaius Maro," Astrid said. "He is the son of Commander Maro. I want him killed in one of the major cities and have an incriminating letter indicating him involved in a plot against the Emperor."

"Why me?" I asked. "This kind of kill doesn't work to my strengths at all. To plant the letter, I'm going to have to get close, very close. Gabriella is more practiced with seduction, so you should use her instead."

"You're going because I said so," Astrid frowned. "Are you refusing a superior's orders?" She loved quoting the tenets when it was convenient for her. I'm sure she thought she was being clever, but I felt it made her look like a cunt.

Astrid challenged me to defy her. She would love for me to refuse with Cicero watching. Astrid had asked to meet me in the inner sanctum, unusual since I usually had to go to her planning room. I glanced over at the Keeper. He had spent more time than usual in the Night Mother's sanctum as self-imposed penance for leaving her side recently. I had received no sign of displeasure from the Matron, but she still had not deemed to speak to me again. I had to admit that it was maddening.

Regardless of the Night Mother's continued silence, Cicero was happy to be dedicating himself completely to his duties again. He scrubbed and waxed the shrine until it shone. An interesting feat considering Cicero kept the shrine in shadows. Dozens of fresh bouquets of every flower imaginable decorated the shrine. The whole bouquet was replaced the second a petal started to wither. One day Cicero had rendered fresh candles and oils for the Night Mother. The smell had driven everyone but Babette from the Sanctuary. As an alchemist Babette was used to foul odors while concocting. Not needing to breathe was a bonus.

"Of course not," I said with a fake smile, "I'm just giving my opinion on how I think we can best achieve this kill."

"Well, I don't need to remind you that I'm the leader and what all that entails. And since you're the one who found this contract, I felt it's best to keep you as involved as possible," Astrid grinned showing too many teeth. "Besides, Gabriella is busy with something else right now."

My danger sense was humming. This operation was too big for Astrid to depend so heavily on a newcomer, especially one who, whether I had intended to or not, challenged her rule. For her to constantly put me in the forefront gave me glory for succeeding, but also put me at the most risk. Maybe all these side contracts to the Emperor were to give me a chance to fail and look like a fool.

I don't like being made into a fool.

"Where can I find this Gaius Maro?" I asked.

"I've acquired his traveling schedule," Astrid answered, pleased I was going to be cooperative. She handed a folded note to me. "Remember we need him killed in a city so he can be found as soon as possible."

"I'll leave out as soon as I can," I promised. Astrid nodded and left, her quick steps belying her eagerness to leave. I don't think I had seen her in here since I was declared Listener.

I plopped myself down on one of the pews facing the Night Mother's coffin. Cicero looked over at me from his cleaning, but jerked away when I noticed. We hadn't talked since my return to the Sanctuary.

17 Mid Year 202 4E 3:30 PM

Number Six was exhausted when I put her into her stall. I had pushed her hard with few rest stops. All of the Brotherhood's horses were corralled in a hidden stable located a little away from the Sanctuary proper. The stable was hidden in a natural alcove with brush to keep it from the sight of any random passersby. It was a little inconvenient, but no one wanted the smells of horses and their byproducts too near or inside the Sanctuary.

I checked on Cicero's horse, Chuckles, and found him stabled, clean and with feed. The horse looked a bit worn, but cared for. Although Cicero would neglect his own hygiene at times, the Keeper was always immaculate with his charges whether it was the Night Mother or a horse. I petted the horse on the muzzle and threw him a carrot before entering the Sanctuary.

I went immediately to my room. I thought I would get a few hours of sleep since I had ridden most of the night trying to run from Gabriella's words. The others should arrive by evening or the next day and I wanted to be rested so I could attempt to apologize properly for my strange behavior. I had no idea how I would explain the thu'um and hoped no one would bring it up.

When I entered the room Cicero and I shared, I looked around. As usual, Cicero's side was cluttered but neat. A boat he had been carving was waiting on the table next to a guitar he had been tuning. Various sheets of music were piled on his end table next to his paints. A bare sketch of Solitude had been filled in on the mural that adorned my wall, still unpainted.

My side, on the other hand, had several dresses and pants strewn over the floor. One boot sat straight up while its twin was buried under my bed. My bow was properly put away, but quivers of various arrows were scattered below it. Breast bands were thrown haphazardly over the footboard of my bed while several books I had been planning on reading were stacked crookedly on my end table.

I paused, my mind fuzzy, and stared at the pile of clothes neatly folded and stacked on my unmade bed. Cicero's bed was as usual neatly made, but that was a little unfair since he tended to crawl in the bed with me and sleep side by side like brother and sister. On top of the pile was the new jester's attire I had commissioned for Cicero. I flipped through the rest of the clothes and realized they were the new clothes we had bought from the Radiant Raiment a month ago.

I picked up the clothes and went to the one place I knew I could always find the Keeper, the Night Mother's shrine. Sure enough he was there inspecting every square inch as always. "What's this?" I demanded. I was tired and my mood foul without Cicero playing games.

Cicero looked at me with guileless eyes. "Clothes," he answered simply. I tried to see what Gabriella had claimed that Cicero looked at me as something other than as sister or Listener. I had seen it when we first met during that night by the fire place when he would have tasted me completely if not for that ill-timed storm. I didn't see it now. The dark elf was either full of shit or trying to confuse me. Either was possible with her.

"I know they're clothes. They're your clothes. Why are they on my bed?" Cicero never left clothes lying out. He always put them primly away in their drawers. There was no reason for those clothes to be on my bed.

"They are not Cicero's," the jester answered stiffly. He turned away from me to give attention to the Night Mother's coffin.

"They are yours! I bought them for you!" I was yelling and hating myself for losing control. No thu'um, I was too tired.

"Cicero doesn't want them! Especially the fake jester's clothes. Fake, fake, fake, just like the rest of this place!"

"Why not? There's nothing wrong with them!" I could feel tears of anger building behind my eyes. I hated crying, it was another sign of losing control. Others saw it as weakness or gods forbid an attempt of emotional manipulation.

"Hecate wants Cicero to be something other than the Fool of Hearts. Hecate wants Cicero to not be Laughter Incarnate!" Cicero slapped the pile and knocked the new jester's clothes to the ground. He grabbed the top shirt, the green one that I thought brought out the color of his auburn hair so well, and pulled on it until it ripped. "Fake! False! Cicero hates it!"

I screamed in rage and threw the armful of clothes into Cicero's chest. My hand snaked out and slapped Cicero across the face. I was shocked at my action, a little scared at how Cicero was going to react, but mostly I was pleased. Part of me, the dragon part, roared in pleasure.

The two of us stared at each other, both breathing loudly from our outbursts. My hand had left an angry red mark on the jester's face. "You get the one," Cicero said, suddenly calm as he touched his face. "I owe you that much. I suggest you don't try that again."

I grabbed up the jester's clothes but left the rest before leaving. We hadn't spoken to each other since. Cicero hadn't even slept in our room. I could only assume he's been curling up on the floor in front of the Night Mother's coffin. Part of me wished that I cared.

20 Mid Year 202 4E 2:30 PM

Cicero glared at me as I looked over Gaius Maro's schedule. I ignored him, focusing on the locations. The weekend was completely random, so that was out. Morndas was to be spent in Solitude. I didn't want to risk going into Solitude again so soon, especially since I had belatedly realized that some people may have recognized Cicero from his jester's outfit from our first visit. Sloppy, just sloppy.

Tirdas was in Windhelm. Although I didn't care about risking a bounty there, I had no interest in giving Ulfric any leverage against Balgruuf if I were to be caught. I had to assume with this assignment there was a high likelihood of me being arrested. I needed a city where they didn't know me.

Middas was in Riften. No.

Turdas was in Whiterun. Hell no.

Fredas was Markarth. I breathed a sigh of relief. I could work with that.

22 Mid Year 202 4E 9:00 PM

"Hello there, soldier," I said in what I hoped was a seductive, husky voice and not like I had a cold. By Dibella, Gabriella was so much better at this sort of thing. The dark elf had given me some tips on seduction, but words can only go so far. Just because I know how to do something doesn't mean I can do it.

I leaned forward to give Gaius as much of a view of my cleavage as possible. The Amulet of Dibella swung between my breasts, its purple jewel glittering in the torchlight. The red dress I wore had a neckline that plunged all the way to my belly button. The cloth was tightly wrapped about me trying to give as much lift as possible to my breasts. I had always been told more than a handful was a waste, but unfortunately my hands were small.

A wide golden belt graced my hips trying to draw as much attention to them as possible. I knew some men were more drawn to a woman's back side than her front. I had not been able to do enough research on Gaius to know, but I had to accent what I had. My legs were spread so they were revealed as much as possible through the slits on both sides of the dress. The boots I wore laced all the way up to my knees. I still wasn't sure how I wiggled into them.

My long black hair had been curled and left loose to flow over my shoulders and down my back. Makeup had been heavily applied to my eyes and lips to make them look large and pouty. Gems were placed in my hair and a coronet graced my brow.

I had briefly wondered how Cicero would have reacted if he saw me dressed like this before squishing that thought like an unwanted bug. I bitterly thought that he probably would have gone running to the Night Mother screaming about how he needed to oil her desperately.

Gaius was a young man, especially for a soldier on such an important assignment. He looked about ten years younger than I. I had received intelligence that he was married, but had not worried that it would affect my plan to pose as a "sacred priestess" of Dibella. All Imperials must serve a term as a soldier and I knew from personal experience that all soldiers needed physical diversions no matter how loyal they may be to their spouse otherwise. The common attitude was that any indiscretions committed on the field didn't count.

"Are you here on business or pleasure?" I asked intentionally mimicking Haelga's words to me.

"Business," Gaius blushed and averted his eyes.

"A shame," I purred as I put my hand on his chest. I leaned close and rubbed my hips against his suggestively. "If you have time for pleasure later, I'm at the Silver-Blood Inn. Feel free to stop by any time tonight. We could practice worshipping Dibella."

"I thought you priestesses practiced your faith in your temple," the young man stammered.

"Oh, normally, we do," I said. Shit, I should have considered that. "But I'm a pilgrim from away. I don't have a place at the Temple." I leaned over and whispered my room number in Gaius' ear. "Please visit me tonight."

22 Mid Year 202 4E 11:45 PM

I was lying on my back on the bed with my arms crossed behind my head while I had one leg crossed over the other and jittered it nervously in the air. Waiting is the worst part of an assassination. If you're lucky or even experienced enough, you can cut down the wait time by quite a bit. But you always have to be in position before your target.

I had promised myself if Gaius had not shown up by midnight I would go look for him. I hated that option because he could be anywhere. He would most likely be in the barracks, a terrible location with all the other soldiers bunking there. Soldiers are even lighter sleepers than adventures and the slightest noise would have all of them breathing down my neck ready to separate it from my body. If he wasn't in the barracks, I would have to systematically search Markarth.

With its multilayer design, I tended to get lost in the mountainside city. I could spend hours accidentally retracing my steps to go from one district to the other. Part of me wanted to play the slow game. If Gaius didn't visit tonight, just wait until he came to Markarth again. Or try to convince him to stay the weekend since those days weren't specifically assigned. But I couldn't lose a lot of time with the Emperor on his way to Skyrim. Gaius had to die as soon as possible to throw his father into despair. The longer the Commander grieved, the more time we had to put kinks in his security.

Just as I was on the verge of giving up and changing into my Dark Brotherhood armor, a hesitant knock came at the door. I scrambled off the stone bed and straightened my dress and hair. What kind of twisted culture has stone beds?

I opened the door slowly. There was Gaius, as nervous as a virgin, standing in my doorway. Thank Dibella!

"You came," I looked him up and down, "or at least you will soon." He blushed at my innuendo. "Please come in."

Gaius leaned forward and kissed me on the mouth. I was not expecting it and stood there stupidly for a few seconds before responding. I couldn't help rolling my eyes at his sloppy mouth and too eager tongue. I thought of Cicero and how his amber eyes always felt like they were staring into the very depths of my soul. Damn that jester!

"Slow down," I said pushing Gaius to arm's length. "Everything in good time. Please, enter and let me make you comfortable. You look tense." I guided the soldier to the bed and had him sit down. I knelt by his feet and pulled his boots off.

"Do I pay you now or later?" Gaius was smiling foolishly. "I've never done anything like this before."

"Shush," I pushed a finger against his lips. "Don't worry about a thing. We'll talk later." I pushed him gently onto the bed and removed his armor. The man was already as stiff as a rod. Sigh, the young are always so eager.

"Close your eyes," I commanded. I slid my hands down Gaius' chest as he obeyed. I reached up and grabbed the dagger I had placed there earlier. I placed one hand over Gaius' mouth and used the other to plunge the dagger in his chest before he could react. The young man's eyes flew open and stared at me in horror. He tried to scream before he died, but my hand muffled him. Then he relaxed and joined the rest of my victims in the Void.

As a rule, I don't like playing with my targets. I want to kill quietly and cleanly, for my target to be alive one second and in the Void in the next. I needed to be sure Gaius' armor wouldn't deflect my blow. The longer it took to find him, the more time it gave me to get away from here. I find torture crass and unnecessary if you don't need information. Even then, persuasion is better than intimidation.

I reached down to Gaius' clothes to plant the incriminating letter. As I picked up his breastplate, a piece of paper fell out. Curious, I picked it up and read it. Immediately I regretted it. It was a letter from Gaius's father detailing why he had chosen Gaius for this assignment and how proud he was of him. And how he loved him.

I folded the letter and placed it in my pouch. It would be my trophy from this contract. I threw a sleeping fur over Gaius. He would be shamed terribly for the setup, but at the very least they wouldn't find him completely naked. I wiped the tears from my face and left.

25 Mid Year 202 4E 1:00 PM

I knelt by the dresser with my basket of freshly cleaned clothes. I pulled open the drawer and paused to look at the jester's outfit I had stuffed in there after my argument with Cicero. It was an exact duplicate down to the golden buckles on the boots. So what if it wasn't as "good" as his old, worn down clothes?

I heard a scrape behind me and whirled around to see that Cicero had come into the room as well. He glared as me silently but stayed on his side. Gods, he would be quiet when he wasn't babbling away. I turned back to my dresser and started stuffing my clothes in, not bothering to fold them. We still hadn't spoken to each other.

I kept expecting for Cicero to pull a joke or prank to make everything right again. He was the self-proclaimed Laughter Incarnate after all. I had barely heard him laugh and even then it had a sharp edge to it. His interactions with me were nonexistent and minimal with the others. I was worried, but figured he would do something whenever he was done being petulant.

I got up to leave about the same time Cicero had finished whatever he had come into the room to do. We paused at the doorway eying each other. Cicero sardonically raised an eyebrow and gestured for me to go first. I gave him the barest of nods before proceeding. Once we were in the hallway, Cicero lengthened his step so he was side by side with me.

I wasn't sure if he happened to be going the same route as me or if he was intentionally matching my step to make me uncomfortable. I had walked through the sleeping area, down into the kitchen, and was exiting the alchemy room when I heard Astrid's voice drifting from the practice area.

"I'm so sick of Cicero ranting about that dried out corpse."

I gasped and turned to the Keeper. He had paled and his eyes were wide in shock. Cicero screamed in rage and darted forward. I tried to grab him to stop him, but he was too fast. I ran after him and saw him leap off the ledge facing the practice area with his dagger drawn.

"Die, Pretender! Fake! Harlot! Die, die, die!" Cicero screamed.

"Astrid, watch out!" Veezara screamed. Cicero was fast, but for a moment the Shadowscale was faster. He pushed Astrid aside, sending her tumbling onto the ground, and stepped into Cicero's path. Cicero's dagger plunged into Veezara's side.

The Argonian screamed in pain and fell, his legs unable to support him. Veezara held onto Cicero's arm so the Keeper couldn't withdraw his dagger and continue his attack. I leapt off the ledge to land near Astrid. I grabbed her arm and tried to pull her up, but she was too dazed to move quickly.

"Let go, lizard, let go so Cicero can kill the Pretender. No one disrespects the Night Mother! No one!" Cicero kicked Veezara in the face, stunning the Argonian enough to retrieve his blade. He turned to Astrid who was on her feet, but still not moving nearly fast enough. I did the only thing I could think to do.

I stole Astrid's shadow.

Astrid was taller than me by several inches, so I had to look around her shoulder. But I grabbed her arms and planted my legs by hers. After months of Cicero doing it to me to practice dancing, it felt natural enough. "Astrid, trust me!"

I pushed her head down as Cicero swung to slit her throat. Bits of blonde hair drifted from where he sliced them off. The blade flickered the barest of inches away from my nose. I pulled Astrid up and dodged and weaved with her as Cicero advanced slicing and stabbing.

"Kill you, I'm going to kill you. Stab and stab and stab!" I felt like I was dragging Astrid through water. The Nord wasn't moving with me making my job harder. I was used to Cicero's movements and was able to anticipate his attacks by the moment, the only thing keeping Astrid alive.

Nazir had run into the practice area and dropped onto his knees by Veezara. The Argonian looked pale and a large pool of blood had already spread beneath him. The Redguard pressed his hands down on the wound to try to stop the bleeding, "BABETTE, I NEED YOU NOW! VEEZARA IS BLEEDING TO DEATH!" he bellowed in his deep voice.

This wasn't working. I just could not keep up this rate with Astrid's slow movements. We couldn't turn to run, Cicero would get us for certain. I spun Astrid around and switched places with her so I was now in the front. I hoped that Cicero would hesitate to stab me to get to his hated rival.

Babette came running out, her arms full of bandages and potions. "Why are they fighting?" her high voice sounding like a real child's for the first time in a long time. She knelt by Veezara to staunch the wound.

"Cicero should have known Hecate would side with the Pretender," Cicero hissed. He was showing no signs of being out of breath despite all the screaming. "Of course, Hecate is a fake too. Cicero found his Keeping Tomes under Hecate's bed. I know you read them!" He thrust forward and I barely moved out of the way. The edge of his dagger sliced along my cheek cutting it.

"By the Eight, what are you talking about?" I asked.

"Cicero's book," each word another attack, "I found it when I came back from Solitude. Barely visible, but clever Cicero found it nonetheless. The Keeping Tomes which tell how to care for the Night Mother and how to identify a true Listener from the fakes." I stepped and dodged and blocked each attack. Astrid had enough sense to try to move with me now, but we didn't know each other well enough for it to be entirely effective. I was taking small cuts and slices all over. "Hecate read the book and fooled poor, gullible Cicero. I guess the jokes on me!" His laugh was bitter.

Bolts of fire and ice landed amongst us. I looked up and saw Festus and Gabriella had joined the scene and had decided to rain down destruction magic to try to take out Cicero. Cicero flipped away in time to avoid a green beam of paralytic magic from Festus. Gabriella followed up with a freezing wall of ice to give Astrid and me a barrier.

"I'M GOING TO KILL YOU, LITTLE MAN!" Arnbjorn came running down the stairs. He paused halfway into the room. He howled in rage and pain as the Nord grew even taller. Bones cracked and skin tore as the werewolf transformation began. It was a horrible sight and one I had not seen before. Fang and claw burst from Arnbjorn causing tooth and nail to go flying.

Cicero looked around and saw he was vastly outnumbered. He may have been insane, but he would tell when he was outmatched. The Keeper's only chance had been to take Astrid by surprise and he had lost it thanks to Veezara.

Cicero withdrew and flew up the stairs. Arnbjorn was still in the middle of transforming or he would have clawed Cicero in half. I let go of Astrid and followed. Behind me I could hear the others follow suit.

When I exited the Black Door, I didn't see Cicero. The screaming of the horses was clue enough and I ran to the alcove where they were stabled. The Keeper rode out of the stables on his pinto gelding. My own brown mare ran behind on leading reins. Cicero's eyes met mine as he rode past.

I ran into the stables. I could borrow someone else's horse and follow Cicero. I would calm him down. I could make this work out somehow. I heard Gabriella's cry of pain right behind me when we entered the corral. All the horses' throats had been slit. Cicero had been thorough to insure no one could easily follow him. With the extra mount, he would ride longer and harder than any of us anyway.

I heard a howl of a wolf going to hunt. Arnbjorn had finished transforming and was quickly following Cicero's trial. I ran back outside to Astrid who was staring at her husband's form.

"Do you have any idea where Cicero would go?"

"I…yes!" Cicero ran into some Stormcloaks near Dawnstar. "I'll run to Falkreath and get another horse there," I said. "I'll try to catch up with them."

"No, it's too slow," Astrid grabbed my arm and pulled me back towards a pool of dark, murky water. "Take my steed. Shadowmere, I summon you!"

The water writhed and boiled. Darkness blacker than night erupted from its contents. A mare, her hide black as ebony and her eyes red like rubies, emerged. Her tail flickered angrily and she stared at me in defiance.

"Shadowmere, take Hecate and find my husband," Astrid commanded. She looked at me, her blue eyes shimmering with tears. "Please find my husband. Make sure he's okay." I had never seen her so vulnerable.

As I mounted onto Shadowmere, Nazir handed me my bow and a quiver full of arrows. His arms were covered in Veezara's blood up to his elbows. "Good hunting, sister. Don't underestimate Cicero."

"Kill that clown!" Festus yelled.

"No, I can calm him down," I said. "We can work this out somehow."

"No!" Astrid stepped up to me. "This has gone far enough. He tried to kill me, the leader of this Sanctuary."

You insulted the Night Mother, you dumb bitch, I thought.

"I order you to kill Cicero," Astrid said. My stomach dropped. It had finally come to this. She was forcing me to choose. Cicero and the Night Mother or the rest of the Brotherhood. Cicero or Astrid.

"When I am finished, Cicero will no longer be an issue," I swore. I pulled away from Astrid's grasp, wheeled Shadowmere around, and ran north to Dawnstar.

26 Mid Year 202 4E 10:00 PM

I was exhausted. I had ridden all night trying to catch Cicero and Arnbjorn, but they stayed ahead of me. I kept expecting for Shadowmere to tire, but her endurance was limitless. She looked as fresh as when we started our journey.

The small town of Dawnstar twinkled with candlelight below. Where could Cicero have possibly gone? Had he managed to elude Arnbjorn? I heard the howl of a wolf nearby. Apparently not.

I rode across town to the source of the howl. It sounded pained and weakened. To my left the ocean rolled in and for the first time in my life I ignored the sea.

I found Number Six first. She was eviscerated and her corpse lying in a pool of blood. Claw and bite marks covered her body. About fifty feet away, I found Chuckles, his body in a similar state. The trail of huge bloody wolf prints in the snow was easy to follow after that.

I rounded a corner and saw a familiar Black Door. Arnbjorn was sprawled under it. He was in human form and was bleeding badly from a wound in his side. "Hey, roast beef, I should have known Astrid would send you."

"You're hurt." I dismounted from Shadowmere.

"Tell me something I don't know," Arnbjorn laughed, grimacing from the pain. I checked the wound. It was bad, but not nearly as bad as Veezara's. Cicero had missed any major organs this time. "Little clown stabbed me good with his butterknife. But I gave as good as I got. Bit him. I think I hit an artery."

"Oh my gods, did you infect Cicero with lycanthropy?" The thought of a jester cap wearing werewolf was both horrifying and hilarious.

"That's not how it works," Arnbjorn shook his head. "You impress me enough and I might tell you how someday. Hell, I might even let you participate, tidbit."

"No, thank you," I knelt and put Arnbjorn's arm around my shoulder.

"What are you doing?" the Nord asked.

"You're badly wounded. I can slow the flow a bit, but I don't have enough training or supplies to properly treat you. I'm taking you back to Dawnstar to get you taken care of."

"Might as well," Arnbjorn sighed with disappointment. "I don't know the password. We can't follow anyway."

"What's the question?"

"What is life's greatest illusion?"

"Innocence is an illusion, my dear, sweet Listener."

"I think I know the passphrase," I huffed. Gods, Arnbjorn was heavy.

"Good, let's go and finish the clown!"

"No, I'm taking you to Dawnstar and I'm going to finish this myself. Astrid ordered me."

Arnbjorn looked at me with respect. "Maybe there's hope for you yet, lambshank."

27 Mid Year 202 4E 12:00 PM

I pressed my hand against the cold Black Door. I could hear the throbbing of a heartbeat emit from it. A splatter of blood, Cicero's blood, splayed across its surface. I drew in a breath and tried to calm my thudding heart. If this didn't work, I would have to go home and none of us would sleep for fear of the jester coming calling in the night.

"What is life's greatest illusion?" the Black Door whispered.

"Innocence, my brother," I said. I had never felt that statement to be truer.

"Welcome…home," the door swung open.

I stepped into the cold, abandoned Sanctuary. This place old, very old. I descended down the stairs into the first room. "Cicero? Where are you?"

"Listener? Is that you? I knew Astrid would send you!" Cicero's voice was echoing too much for me to follow. "Send the best to defeat the best."

The stairs continued down into a large public room. A huge glass stain window adorned a large section of wall, its contents shattered long ago. Snow drifted in. It was colder in here than outside. I found a wooden door and tried its handle. It was locked and sounded barred from the other side. "Let me in, Cicero!" His mocking laughter was the only response. I kicked the door in frustration.

I looked around for some tool that could help me get in or another doorway. I noticed the trail of blood led to the window and not the door I was standing in front of. I walked over to the ruined pane and saw that the blood splatters went further in that way.

Cicero's mad laughter bounced around in the air as I stepped into the cold cave beyond the window. He cannot be hurt that bad, not if he's being that loud.

Snow crunched under my feet as I warily walked further in. I could see bones of animals. Something was living in here. "Have you found my roommate?" Cicero called. "He's a bit sloppy, but I've had worse. Isn't that right, Listener?"

I was concentrating on Cicero's voice and trying to not react to his taunts, I almost didn't see the troll in time. The large brown furred beast jumped out of hiding and swiped its claws at me. I jumped away and breathed in. "Burn troll," I released the Firebreath shout, "YOL TOOR SHUL!"

The monster melted under my attack.

"What was that? Shouting? You like to shout, don't you?" Cicero's laugh did sound weaker now, but closer.

I followed the trail of blood through the snow covered cave down into a crypt. It led back up some stairs and back into the Sanctuary proper.

"Our mother, our poor, sweet Mother. No one to defend her except loyal Cicero. The others ignore her or die. Go away and die, die, die." He was ranting now. The trail of blood led to another door. I could hear Cicero's voice directly behind it. So much blood. I pushed the door open and I saw the Keeper curled up on the ground in front of a fire. His right hand was hidden, curled around his wound. "And now we come to the end of our play. The grand finale." The jester smiled bitterly with blood on his lips.

"Yes, we have," I said as I stepped in.

30 Mid Year 202 4E 9:30 AM

"Is he dead? Is Cicero dead?" Astrid asked.

I threw the bloodstained jester's cap onto her table. "What do you think?" I held my good hand against the knife wound in my left shoulder. Cicero had stabbed right in the same spot he had hit last time and it hurt like a bitch. Arnbjorn had bandaged it for me, but it still seeped. My stomach still ached from where he had kicked me. My right eye was almost completely swollen shut.

The trip back was a lot slower. I had collapsed into bed and slept for twelve hours before Arnbjorn and I had dragged our sorry carcasses back to Sanctuary. Arnbjorn was mostly healed thanks to his amazing regenerative powers from being a werewolf, but I wasn't so lucky.

The werewolf was almost fatherly in helping take care of me. His words weren't as gruff and he actually seemed to have a tone of affection when he called me niblet.

"You look horrible," Astrid said. "I had expected you to be in better shape when you returned given how well you held the clown off here."

"That was before I rode for thirty-three hours straight," I growled. "Cicero has…had much better endurance than I for staying up for long periods of time." Although we had traveled at a more reasonable rate coming back, my body still had not recovered from the sleep deprivation of chasing Cicero and Arnbjorn. "If you'll excuse me, I think I'll pass out until next week."

"Of course, sister. Rest as long as you need. I'll get your report from Arnbjorn," Astrid placed her hand on my arm. "And thank you. You saved my life, my husband's life, and this Sanctuary." Astrid patted my back, giving me permission to leave.

I started to drag myself to my room, but when I got to the doorway I just couldn't go through. I couldn't see the gayly colored flowers hanging from the ceiling. I couldn't look at his half-finished carvings. Or his carefully arranged colored pretty, pretty stones. Or the unfinished mural of Solitude always to be incomplete with the waves crashing below. Cicero was everywhere in that room.

I stumbled to talk to the one person who would understand. The only other one who would miss that crazy, loud, obnoxious, sweet, loyal, caring jester. I went to the Night Mother. I slumped against her dark stone coffin. I had been still holding my wound and carelessly dropped my hand on the ground. An ugly streak of blood graced the Night Mother's shrine.

"Gods, Cicero is going to be so mad when he sees that," I said out loud.

Then it came crashing down on me. I would never see him again. He would never scowl at my messiness. I would never see him laugh, dance, or tumble. He wouldn't hold me tight against him as we danced to music only he heard. He wouldn't look deep into my soul with those intense amber eyes. He would never flutter butterfly kisses across my lips, teasing and begging silently for me to respond in kind.

I curled onto my side in front of the Night Mother's coffin and began to cry.

Chapter Text

13 Sun's Height 202 4E 11:30 AM

"She's gotten almost as bad as Cicero was," Astrid complained. I could hear her clearly down in the practice area. "Hecate spends every moment in the Night Mother's shrine."

"Leave the girl be," Festus murmured. "For whatever reason, she's mourning the clown's death. Just be grateful that she did the deed." Who would have thought grumpy old Uncle Festus would speak up for me?

I ran the cloth over the Night Mother's coffin. I had tried my best to keep it clean, but I just didn't have the single minded dedication Cicero had. I swept the shrine, I cleaned the outside of the coffin, I lit the candles, and when I thought about it I left a bouquet of flowers. I didn't oil the Night Mother. It felt wrong for me to presume to take the Keeper's duties completely. Even if I had been willing, I didn't know the right incantations or exact methods. Cicero had the Keeping Tomes on him when he left. "I'm sorry, Mother, you deserve better." I placed my forehead against the cold surface and for a brief moment it felt like a hand brushed my hair back.

I left the chamber, careful to lock the door behind me. I walked down the stairs to the practice area and saw Astrid and Festus Krex. Astrid's eyes flickered to where Cicero's bloodstained cap hung from my belt. I had secured it by tying the two flaps together. I knew it made her uncomfortable, but I didn't care. It was my trophy and I would wear it if I wanted to.

"What's the next step in assassinating the Emperor?" I asked.

"Are you sure you're up to it?" Astrid was all smiles and sympathy to my face. I had no doubt she sincerely appreciated me saving Arnbjorn, but that gratitude only went so far. The sooner everyone forgot about Cicero, the happier Astrid would be.

"I'm as healed as I'm going to be," I said. I flexed my arm for emphasis.

"Very well then," Astrid nodded. "Festus here has just acquired the Writ of Passage for the Gourmet, the Emperor's personal chef. The Gourmet was a very mysterious figure; no one knew his true identity."

"Was, knew?" I looked at Festus, "I assume you got to tryout one of your new spells."

The old man beamed, "I can only assume the screams were steam escaping the orc's body."

"The Emperor will arrive in Castle Dour in four days," Astrid continued, ignoring our interruption. "You are to pose as the Gourmet and slip this poison into his soup." She handed me a dark green vial. "It took every last favor and threat I had to get this. Jarrin Root is the strongest poison in all of Tamriel. One drop is enough to kill so I suggest you be careful. I also secured an escape route for you that goes across the bridge of Castle Dour. Be sure to use it after the murder.

"Do this and the Dark Brotherhood will be a force recognized throughout all of Skyrim, through all of Tamriel!" Astrid glowed proudly.

"Astrid, when are you going to appoint a new Keeper?"

"To what point, dear? We have no instructions. Maybe once Festus finds a new copy of the Keeping Tomes," Astrid gave the wizard a pointed look.

I crossed my arms and snorted. I highly doubted there was a second copy of the book. Festus could look until the next Era and it would be meaningless. I felt like I was always missing something whenever the Keeping Tomes were brought up. I had no idea how it had gotten mixed in with my books. What was I missing?

"I'll head out as soon as possible," I said pocketing the poison.

"Take Shadowmere. She deserves the exercise," Astrid offered.

I nodded my thanks and left to go to the kitchen for food. Nazir was there as usual looking over contracts while the food simmered. The Redguard looked up and acknowledged me, "Listener."

"Without the Keeper," I snapped as I grabbed some bread and cheese, "there is no Listener." I stomped off to my room to pack.

17 Sun's Height 202 4E 5:00 PM

I felt a little foolish in the white chef's clothes I had donned after gaining entrance to Castle Dour. With my hair tucked up carefully under the chef's cap and my face liberally decorated with purple war paint, I doubted even Elisif would recognize me.

"Can I help you?" A woman was already at the fire stirring a large pot. "I told them already we didn't need any more supplies."

"Um, I'm the Gourmet and stuff," I muttered feeling very uncomfortable here. The most I had ever tried to cook was boiled water. It didn't turn out well.

"Oh, hello! It's a huge honor to work with you," the woman paused, "You're an Imperial? I suppose that makes sense because you're the Emperor's chef, but I had expected something more exotic."

I shrugged nonchalantly. "No matter," the woman continued. "My name is Gianna. I took the liberty to prepare the stock for your signature Potage le Magnifique. We just need to add a few final ingredients." The woman leaned forward to keep stirring the stock and I suddenly could not concentrate.

I knew the chef's clothes were low cut, but by Dibella when Gianna leaned forward, I would see everything! The curve of her breasts, full and glistening from sweat from the heat of the fire. The valley between fading into shadow. Oh gods, were those the outlines of her nipples?

"Does that sound good?" I had no idea what ingredient she had suggested so I dumbly nodded. Gianna beamed and bounced a bit happily. I had to put a hand over my mouth to keep from drooling. She asked me a few more suggestions and I just nodded while my eyes were riveted on the bobbing of her chest. I won't lie. I'm shallow.

"I think that's it," Gianna announced. "Anything else will just overpower the flavor."

"Oh, I have a secret ingredient," I said pulling out the Jarrin Root.

"Are you sure?" Gianna looked worried.

"Trust me, honey," I said with a wink as I poured in the poison, "it's to die for." Cicero had been such a terrible influence. I suppressed a wince thinking of the jester laughing merrily at my pun.

"Oh, sounds wonderful," Gianna picked up the ladle to taste the soup. It was a common practice with cooks to sample the food before serving. I grabbed her hand stopping her from tasting the poison. Gianna looked at me surprised.

"I'm sorry, but the first taste must go to the Emperor," I said. "No offense."

"None taken. I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking," Gianna smiled sweetly. "Here, I'll carry the food in so you can bask in the glory of your masterpiece." The chef efficiently ladled a generous amount of soup into a carrying bowl.

Gianna chattered amiably as we ascended the stairs to the dining room. I didn't pay her much mind, my attention was already preparing for the meal. If for some reason the Emperor didn't eat the first bite, I needed to be ready to have a fall back plan. I fingered the dagger strapped to my side.

We were greeted by the guards and allowed into the dining room. The Emperor was talking to his guests, "Please don't fret too much over Vittoria's death. It's really no big deal. We must all make do." His laugh was a little too loud.

I walked over to the door I was supposed to use for my exit. Something was wrong. The Emperor's laugh…it was like mine when I was doing a role poorly. As the Emperor took his first, deadly bite, I grabbed Gianna's hand and ran out of the dining room. The Emperor's strangled cry followed by the thump of a body was all the confirmation I needed for his death.

"What are you doing?" Gianna asked as she tried to keep her chef's hat from falling off.

"Gianna, you just participated in a man's death. It was supposed to be the Emperor's, but I don't know who he was," I said.

"Oh my goodness! Maybe I can explain I had nothing to do with it," Gianna said.

"You served him the soup. They'll kill you before you could open your mouth," I yelled.

I could hear clapping from above. At the end of the bridge on an outlook point, out walked Commander Maro. I had never met the man, but he looked too much like Gaius to be anyone else. "That man was the most insufferable impersonator of the Emperor I had the displeasure of having worked with. I'm glad he's dead and I'm glad you're the one who did it. You would have succeeded in killing the Emperor if one of the members of your little family hadn't made a deal with me. An exchange. I get you and the Brotherhood gets to keep its existence. "

Betrayed? No, I refused to believe that.

"The thing is, I changed my mind. I'm going to kill you and have every last one of your little friends butchered. There's a squadron of soldiers on their way right now."

Three soldiers emerged from the exit I had been running towards. I skidded to a stop, not sure how I was going to proceed. One of the men notched a bow and shot Gianna. The chef fell with a death gurgle.

"You bastard! She was innocent!" I screamed.

"Loose ends. I'm sure you understand, assassin," Maro glowered down at me. "After all you killed my son. MY ONLY SON! Kill her and make there's nothing left to bury." The commander left while his three soldiers advanced towards me pulling their swords.

Three trained soldiers who were probably friends of Gaius' and who were well armored and armed. I was in a flimsy chef's outfit and sported a dagger. Bad odds, very bad odds.

I crouched into a runner's position. I drew in a deep breath and shouted, "Holy shit, is that a dragon?!" I pointed over the soldier's shoulders. All three of them turned to face the ancient enemy of Skyrim…to see nothing but clear night sky. I threw my hat off as they gaped in surprise. I ran to the ledge of the bridge and turned to face them. I flipped a rude gesture as I jumped off, "So long, milkdrinkers!"

I was plummeting and the ocean was far below. I could hear the howl of the wind in my ears. The water was too far away. I could hear myself laughing madly. No normal person could survive this fall, but I'm not a normal person. "FEIM ZII GRON!" My Shout ripped into the Void and pulled some back, encasing me in its embrace. My body became ethereal. When I landed into the sea, the water barely rippled from the impact.

When I came back up to the surface, I was solid again and soaking wet. Shadowmere was waiting patiently for me on the shore. I had originally planned to take the stairs down, but this was faster at least. The demon mare snorted distastefully as I mounted her.

"Sorry, girl, but we're in a hurry," I wheeled her around towards the road. "The Sanctuary is being attacked." Shadowmere reared back on her hind legs and screamed in anger. She ran with no further urging at the speed of darkness which is so much faster than the speed of light. Would it be fast enough?

18 Sun's Height 202 4E 10:00 PM

The world blurred around me as Shadowmere tore across Skyrim to get to the Sanctuary. I had stopped only long enough to change into my armor and grab a few restless hours of sleep. I couldn't relax enough to sleep properly, but I couldn't risk falling off Shadowmere from exhaustion. I dreamed, but the only thing I remembered was Cicero's amber eyes and him whispering, "Listener…"

I woke with a start, groggy and regretting trying to rest. As I mounted Shadowmere, I said, "Gods, Shadowmere, if they die it will be my fault."

As we neared the Sanctuary, I could see gout after gout of fireballs. Festus Krex's figure was backlit by roaring flames as he held off a dozen Penitus Oculatus agents. The old man was holding his own! "I always said weapons were overrated," he screamed with pleasure. I was still too far away to help or yell to let Festus know I was there when the soldiers lined up and drew their bows. They fired into Festus over and over, pinning his corpse to a tree like some macabre poster.

The soldiers drew their swords and ran into the Sanctuary leaving their handiwork behind. I screamed in horror. I dismounted Shadowmere and ran to Festus. I knew it was too late, but I couldn't accept it until I touched his robes. "Oh, old man," I pressed my head against his leg. Festus had been a cranky bastard, but he was the uncle of the group.

Too late I saw the shadow bob over my shoulder. I turned to see a Penitus Oculatus agent ready to bear his sword down on me. I screamed and threw my hand up in defense, but I knew the sword would just slice through the bone and into my chest.

A black gloved hand grabbed the soldier's face and pulled back presenting the man's neck. An ebony dagger snaked around and slit the man's throat. The spray of blood coated me as the man fell. Above me stood a hatless Cicero smiling madly.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

27 Mid Year 202 4E 1:00 PM

I pushed the door open and I saw the Keeper curled up on the ground in front of a fire. His right hand was hidden, curled around his wound. "And now we come to the end of our play. The grand finale." The jester smiled bitterly with blood on his lips.

"Yes, we have," I said as I stepped in.

I stayed far away from Cicero. I didn't want him to think I was going to attack him. I walked over to a weapon rack and placed my bow on it. I dropped my quiver of arrows underneath. I pulled my dagger and hung it up as well. Cicero watched me with a bemused expression.

"Cicero, how long have you been in service to the Dark Brotherhood?" I asked as I stepped away from my weapons.

"Cicero isn't sure. A long, long time," his voice was low, weak. His breathing was ragged and sounded like there was blood. "First Burma Sanctuary, then Cheydinhal."

"And as Keeper? You've been Keeper a long time, right?"

"Yes, waiting and waiting and waiting for the Listener," the jester glared at me. "Still waiting for the Listener."

"I am the Listener, Cicero," I said. I was slowly pacing back and forth during our conversation. Inch by painful inch I was getting closer to the prone Keeper. Cicero was a wounded, cornered, and desperate animal at this point. Any wrong move and one of us would be dead.

"Cicero could only know the Listener by the Binding Words," Cicero said, "It was Mother's only way to talk to poor, sweet Cicero. But someone naughty has been reading Cicero's book. Now Cicero can't be sure if the Listener is who she says she is. Oh! Mother would be so displeased if I were to kill the Listener, but surely Mother would be just as displeased if the Listener were to kill the Keeper! That's madness!" He laughed, no humor but the scream of the insane. He trailed off, coughing painfully.

"Cicero has no fight left. Do what you will," he closed his amber eyes. "Sithis will judge us both."

"In all your years as Keeper, serving the Night Mother without fail, unwavering in your faith, did you ever believe someone could tell you the Binding Words and you wouldn't immediately know they were lying? That the words were true, but the person was false?"

I traced my hand along his chin, tilting his face so Cicero was facing me. "Look at me, Keeper. Look at me and Listen." Cicero opened his eyes and stared at me. "When darkness rises, silence dies."

Cicero's eyes widened in shock. "You're the Listener? You are the Listener!" He sat up slowly, dropping the blood soaked dagger he had clutched against his wound, ready to use if I betrayed him. "Oh, Night Mother, forgive foolish Cicero for doubting."

"By Kynareth, Arnbjorn got you good," I gently inspected the wound. "Someone has been manipulating us, Keeper."

"There is only one person," Cicero sneered. "The Pretender."

"I don't know, it would be easy for any of the others to work in some misguided fashion to try to please her," I muttered as I tried to clean the wound with the extra supplies I had bought after Arnbjorn's wounds had been tended in town.

"The base cause is the same." Cicero flinched at my touch. "By Sithis, woman, you have the touch of a troll."

"Do it yourself then, fool!" I snarled hurling the supplies at Cicero. I smiled as he took the bandages and expertly applied them to his side. Gods, he could be frustrating. "Astrid ordered for you to die. The others support her. I don't know why you had to attack her in the Sanctuary."

"She spoke poorly of the Night Mother!" Cicero said, unapologetic as ever.

"You can't go back. You know that right?" Cicero looked at me. "Your life as Keeper is over."

"No, no, noooooo," Cicero tried to jump up, but I pushed him back until he fell on his back and I was on top of him. He was so weak I did this with no effort. Still he flailed under me screaming in denial. I just hugged him until he wore himself out. "No, no, no! Cicero has to take care of Mother. No one else knows how!"

"It didn't even occur to you, did it? Somewhere in that twisted little mind of yours, you thought you could run away until everything calmed down and you could come back as if nothing had happened. Everything forgiven."

"Mother needs Cicero," he said faintly. Cicero's head was resting in my lap. I petted his sweat dampened hair. "We could steal Mother. Go away, Mother, Listener, and Keeper. Start over. Start anew!"

"I can't. I need to finish this contract for the Night Mother. If the Dark Brotherhood fails in this, we'll never be anything more than hired cutthroats. I need you to make a promise to me, Cicero."

"Cicero keeps his promises," the Keeper swore.

"I know," I paused. "I need you to promise me that you will not try to kill Astrid. Promise me you won't come for revenge."

"Do you command me?" Cicero leaned forward slightly. His gaze was challenging.

"Would you obey?" I leaned forward as well refusing to break eye contact.

"Command me," he said, his tone making it a dare, leaning closer still.

"You are not to kill Astrid," I commanded. My face was bare inches from Cicero's. "Do not come back and try to kill any of the Falkreath Brotherhood. Do you understand me, Keeper? If they realize I let you live, they'll kill us both and there will be no one to protect the Night Mother."

Cicero whimpered, but nodded his head, "Cicero promises."

"Go back to Cyrodiil. Start a new life. You…you deserve it." My throat felt tight. I leaned forward to kiss Cicero. I had intended for it to be a sisterly kiss, but instead it was a full blown passionate kiss. My tongue slipped between his lips and flicked across his tongue. I had both my hands on his face holding him close to me as I tasted his mouth. My dragon side roared for more. Cicero moaned against my mouth, pulling me back.

I pushed myself away from him. Both of our faces were flushed. "That was for…luck," I stammered.

"Of course," Cicero smiled as always.

I sighed as I stood. "I'm going to need proof that I killed you. I don't think Astrid would just take my word on it. I'm going to need this." I grabbed Cicero's hat. "I'm going to need you to hurt me. And it has to be convincing."

Cicero hesitated. "That's a command, Keeper," I braced myself, but I still wasn't ready when he punched me in the face. Even weakened, Cicero knew how to follow on his swing. He stabbed my shoulder and then kicked me in the gut. I managed to cough out, "Enough," before Cicero could continue. I pulled out the dagger wincing at the pain. "Any more and she'll be suspicious how I lived." I pressed the jester's cap against the wound.

The Keeper helped me to my feet. I felt woozy, but was able to stand. "Cicero is happy he could see Diana's kind eyes again." Cicero leaned in to kiss me one last time, but I danced away. I wasn't certain I would stop him if it was anything more than a butterfly kiss. Or even that.

I grabbed my weapons as I left. I looked back one last time. Cicero had slumped to his knees with a lost look on his face. "Goodbye," I whispered as I closed the door.

18 Sun's Height 202 4E 10:00 PM

"What are you doing here?" I asked in shock at seeing Cicero again.

"You were a fool to spare me. What did you think I would be grateful? Cicero should be Listener. Not you! Now you die!" The jester held up his dagger.

I screamed in terror. Then I heard Cicero laughing. "Gotcha! Oh, the look on your face. Ha,ha,ha!"

I stood up and hit him in the arm. "You maniac, now is not the time for jokes! What are you doing here? You're supposed to be going to Cyrodiil."

"No, Hecate suggested Cyrodiil. Cicero only agreed to not kill anyone. Well, anyone who claims to be a brother from here." Cicero looked at me slyly. "Besides, did you honestly believe I would leave Mother alone with these barbarians? Once Cicero has Mother, we can leave together. Maybe Hecate will join us?"

"Stay here and protect my exit. I don't know if more Penitus Oculatus are coming and I don't want to be trapped in a burning cave." I started to turn away and saw Cicero follow me. "That's an order!"

"Cicero will be right here. Spiders could eat my face off, faithful…." I didn't catch the rest as I ran into the Sanctuary.

As I ran down the stairs, the first thing I noticed was the heat. The roar of flames filled my ears. I rounded a corner and saw two soldiers had been left to stand guard. I shot my bow twice and they both fell without raising an alarm.

As I ran towards the practice area, I found Veezara's body on the floor at the top of the stairs. I didn't stop; he was obviously dead. I would mourn later. Now was for saving as many lives I could and to take as many too.

I flew down the stairs into the practice area. Oil had been spilled everywhere and lit aflame; the whole room was an inferno. I could barely breathe; the heat stole the air from my lungs. Arnbjorn in werewolf form was fighting half a dozen warriors. I pulled my bow and shoot one in the back; stunning him long enough for Arnbjorn to knock his head off.

I ran, strafing Penitus Oculatus agents easily. They had not expected any resistance from behind. After all they were here on ambush. One was picked up and his back was snapped over the Nord's knee. Arnbjorn was big and strong, but there were too many of them. Even with my help, they still outnumbered the werewolf and they were able to cut him down in short time.

I shot an arrow into one of the many barrels of oil they had dragged down here. It burst and sprayed its contents over two of the soldiers. The oil caught flame and the two were immediately incinerated. Two remained and closed in on me. One attacked me while the other moved to flank. I managed to block with my bow, but it broke under his assault. I tossed the ruined halves away. I tumbled past the one facing me so the two were in front of me again. I drew in a breath and Shouted, "FUS RO DAH!" They flew backwards into the flames; their screams cut short as they died.

Coughing, I fell to my knees. There was so little air here. I would not be able to do that again. I stumbled to one of the dead Penitus Oculatus agents and took his sword. I pulled my cloth mask over my face in an attempt to breathe easier. I walked quickly up the path to the alchemy room. There I found Gabriella dead on the table where we had spent many a night with Babette gossiping while the vampire ground ingredients for potions. I wanted to drop to my knees and hug the dark elf. Despite some of her mean tricks, we had been close.

I looked around for any sign of Babette. I didn't see her, but I did find her giant pet spider curled up in its death throes. The flames were quickly devouring the body. I turned dejectedly into the kitchen, prepared to find more death. To my surprise I saw Nazir fighting a warrior on the stairs leading up to the sleeping area.

I moved to flank with Nazir, but I wasn't sure if I would be able to help the Redguard beyond that. I just could not catch my breath. I shouldn't have used that damn Shout. My lungs burned and my skin felt tight like I had spent too much time in the sun. The Penitus Oculatus saw me and turned to attack me. I managed to block with my blade, but just barely. Nazir saw an opening and sunk his curved blade into the man's back. The man fell, dead.

"Am I glad to see you," Nazir exclaimed. His Ali'kir cloth mask was firmly wrapped around his face.

"We've been betrayed," I said rasping.

"I can tell," Nazir said sarcastically. "Since you saved my life, I can only assume it wasn't you."

"I haven't found Astrid or Babette yet," I said. "Have you seen them?"

Nazir shook his head, "No, but if I know either of them they would have found an exit. We need to get out of here first and then worry about survivors." The Redguard grabbed my hand and we ran through the sleeping area. I couldn't stop myself from scanning for the last two remaining members of our family despite knowing they wouldn't be in this area.

"There's got to be a way out!" Nazir yelled. He must have been able to breathe better with the cloth mask on. I wished I had thought to do that sooner. I felt dizzy. Part of the cave fell in cutting off another exit.

I turned towards the Night Mother's shrine. How was I going to get her out? Cicero had never told me how he moved her all by himself. I slumped before the coffin as Nazir ran by to try the other exit. More rocks fell down cutting him off.

I pressed my head against the coffin. Despite the fire and smoke, the surface was still cool to the touch. "I'm sorry, Mother, I failed you," I said my voice barely a whisper.

Suddenly the coffin swung open and I was kneeling before the Night Mother herself. "You must embrace me, daughter. It is your only chance to survive." I struggled to my feet and threw myself towards the Night Mother. I was falling through the Void, falling forever. Finally, after an eternity, I felt the Night Mother's bony arms wrap around me. She placed on hand behind my head, comforting me with her motherly embrace.


19 Sun's Height 202 4E Midnight

I awoke to rumbling. I thought I was blind it was so dark. Above me I heard grumbling and voices arguing. "Maybe if you would help me, you stupid she-devil," Nazir grunted.

"I'm not exactly built for manual labor," Babette countered.

"You must speak with Astrid. Here in the Sanctuary," Night Mother said. I could feel her presence moving away until I fulfilled her command.

"Oh, let Cicero do it." There was a shudder and the coffin doors opened. I could see the Keeper's face even if it was upside down. I was lying on my side with my arms curled around the Night Mother. "Ooooh, Mother," he said disapprovingly. "Shameful!"

I cautiously climbed out of the coffin after carefully disentangling myself from the Night Mother. The coffin was soaking wet. I turned and saw the beautiful stain glass window overlooking the waterfall as completely shattered. The Night Mother and I must have crashed through it and into the waterfall below.

"Are you okay?" Nazir asked. "You've been through a lot. Maybe you should sit down." Babette threw herself into my side and hugged me tightly. Cicero continued fussing over the Night Mother.

"There's more to be done," I said giving Babette a one-armed hug. "Astrid is here in the Sanctuary. Nazir and Babette come with me. Cicero, attend to the Night Mother." I untied his jester's cap from my belt and tossed it to the Keeper. As Cicero settled it on his head, he looked complete again.

Astrid had to be in her room. After my flight through the Sanctuary, it was the only part of the place I had not been to. I was prepared to finally confront her for leadership of the Brotherhood. I was not ready to walk in and see Astrid's charred body sprawled on the ground. Her flesh was as black and the consistency of charcoal. The fine blonde hair was little more than brittle wisps. Long, delicate fingers burned to stubs.

"Oh gods, Astrid," I knelt by her. Gently, I pulled her into my arms. Astrid hissed in pain.

"You're alive, thank Sithis," her voice was raspy and each word a struggle to say. "I'm sorry, so sorry. Maro promised if I gave you to him he would leave the Brotherhood alone forever. I was a fool. It's all my fault." Astrid coughed up blood.

"I just wanted things to be how they were before. Before Cicero, before the Night Mother. Before you," Astrid said. I took her hand into mine and held it as gently as I could. "You were right. The Night Mother was right. The Old Ways were what guided the Dark Brotherhood for centuries. I was a fool to oppose them.

"Speaking of fools, I'm sorry about Cicero. I knew how you felt about him and I still sent you to end his life." Astrid gasped. I turned and saw that Cicero had entered the burnt out room. Astrid laughed weakly and bitterly. "I should have known you never would have killed that clow-…the Keeper."

"I'm sorry," I said not sure what I was apologizing for.

"I forgive you given the circumstances, I guess," Astrid smiled at my words. "I have one last contract for you. Please, kill me. I'm dying and it hurts." She vaguely gestured to her ebony blade. "Use my Blade of Woe. Send me to the Void. Sithis will judge me as I deserve. If I am lucky, I'll see Arnbjorn again."

"Close your eyes," I whispered. Astrid and I had not always gotten along. Often she had been aloof to me, and she had betrayed me to Maro. For that, I hated her. Yet, she had been the first one I had met of the Brotherhood and I felt indebted to her for inducting me into this dysfunctional family. When the former leader of the Dark Brotherhood followed my command, I picked up her dagger and ended her life quickly with one blow.

Cicero had his arms crossed and was frowning. "The Pretender died too easily. She should have suffered for her treachery."

"Astrid is with the Dread Lord now," I said standing. I sheathed the Blade of Woe. "I think that is punishment enough."

"What a mess," Nazir lamented. "What are we going to do now? The family is destroyed."

"No," I took Nazir's hand and Cicero's. "We're still alive and as long as there is at least one of us and the Night Mother, then the Brotherhood lives on." Cicero smiled down at Babette and took one of her hands. The vampire took Nazir's free hand with hers, making us into a circle. "Pack your bags, gentlemen and lady. We're going to kill an Emperor."

Chapter Text

19 Sun's Height 202 4E 1:00 AM

The remaining members of the Dark Brotherhood were busy gathering what supplies we could from the wreckage the fire had left. Babette was gathering what herbs and potions she could as well alchemy equipment. Nazir was gathering the Penitus Oculatus agents' horses and one of the wagons they had transported the barrels of oil on for our journey. Cicero was constructing a crate to contain and hide the Night Mother's coffin. I was kneeling before my dresser grabbing clothes.

Cicero's and my room had been largely spared of the destruction. There was smoke damage, but the room had been so far removed from the rest of the living quarters the fire had never made it back here. I looked forlornly at my mural Cicero had painted. It was destroyed. Solitude would never be completed; only a black streak would adorn that space.

Not that it really mattered. We were leaving. We couldn't stay here. Even if all of us could ignore the memories of our fallen brothers and sisters, the Empire knew where this place was. It was Sanctuary no more.

We were going to Dawnstar and use the Sanctuary there. I shuddered at the thought of moving even further north and how much colder it would be there all year long. At least here in Falkreath, Skyrim had a whole three days of summer. In Dawnstar, it would always feel like winter. At least we would be by the ocean. I was cheered by the thought of being able to step outside and always hear the waves.

I pulled open the drawer and paused when I saw the jester's motley I had bought for Cicero. I knew now that a large part of our fight had been because the Keeper had been upset with the discovery of his Keeping Tomes with my things, but he had still expressed a great hatred for the motley. Cicero was madly attached to the Jester's clothes he had taken from his last contract. He would never wear these. I should leave them behind. We had a limited amount of space of what we could take.

The Night Mother had to be transported, of course. We would also need to bring a small coffin for Babette for when we were traveling during the day. Include Babette's alchemy supplies and whatever we scavenged from the armory and we were looking at least two wagons already. That didn't include any clothes, food, or personal items deemed essential to bring along. It wouldn't be safe to make several trips, so we had only one chance to do this.

I rubbed the smoke damaged velvet between my fingers. It could be cleaned and be just as good as new. It wouldn't take up that much space, not really. I could even commission a new set that would be even better. Maybe with silk instead of velvet. I wanted this outfit. This was the one I had specially made for Cicero for his first trip into Solitude. The time where we danced before the court of Elisif the Fair and the night Cicero chased me through the streets as I tauntingly promised myself if he could catch me. I sighed and crammed the motley into my backpack. It probably would never be worn and I would throw it away later. When I was ready, but not now.

19 Sun's Height 202 4E 2:00 AM

"We're going to need to find Commander Maro," I said. I was riding with Cicero who was driving the wagon with the Night Mother's coffin. Babette was riding with Nazir who was driving the second wagon with our supplies alongside Cicero's wagon. "As the head of the Emperor's personal bodyguard, he will know the Emperor's true travel agenda."

I felt like we were crawling. Part of me wanted to ride ahead to Solitude and strangle the information from Maro personally. That was how I had worked as adventurer, by running from one clue to the next. Now I had to think like a leader and keep this little lost family together. Our top priority was to secure Sanctuary and make sure the Night Mother was safe. Revenge would have to wait.

You know what they say: revenge is a dish best served cold.

It would hopefully be a day or two before Maro realized that his plan had failed. His agents would be given time to be thorough on destroying the Brotherhood and wagons are notoriously slow. Then they would need travel time to get back to Solitude. Old Lady Luck did seem to be with us on this time since Dawnstar was close to Solitude. Dawnstar was central northern Skyrim while Solitude was northwestern.

"Ah, home, home, Sanctuary is home," Cicero sang happily. "Cicero always did like Dawnstar Sanctuary."

"Don't get too comfortable," I said. "You're coming with us."

"Cicero must take care of Mother!" the Keeper protested. "Mother has been without his care for too long."

"The Night Mother will be fine alone in the Sanctuary. I need you with us. There are too few of us now for the Listener and Keeper to be inactive members."

"Listener means…?" Cicero's normal smile grew wider.

"You must take up your blade again, Keeper," I confirmed.

"But, Mother!"

"Mother will speak to us again when we've complete her task," I assured Cicero. I didn't have the heart to tell him that she had spoken to me during the Purification. I wasn't sure how he would take being told that the Night Mother had spoken to me after weeks of him being gone and no one had done the ritual oiling. It was the most important duty of the Keeper to sanctify the body so the Night Mother could use it as a conduit. How could one react after over a decade of duty and find out that duty was unnecessary? How would one act when he was already mad?

"Festus once told me that in the old days, sometimes rules were bent and even broken as long as they were not one of the Tenets," I continued. "I think we definitely qualify as an emergency situation. It's more important to fulfill the Night Mother's wishes than to tend to her body. Once the Emperor is dead and we've had a chance to recruit, you can dedicate yourself fully to the Lady again."

"I think Hecate is right," Babette said. "I remember during the Oblivion Crisis that we needed to institute a few rules that only lasted until things calmed down again."

"Madness is merry and merriment's might, when the jester comes calling with his knife in the night," Cicero sang.

"Oh gods, can we avoid the singing?" Nazir moaned.

19 Sun's Height 202 4E 7:00 AM

I woke when the wagon stopped. Nazir and I had climbed into the back of the supply wagon to grab some sleep. "Time to get up!" Babette said cheerfully. "Sun is coming up."

I stretched and it felt like all my bones popped. Five hours of sleep after my mad ride across Skyrim and the Purification of the Brotherhood was not nearly enough. Unfortunately, it was important we keep moving to keep ahead of the Penitus Oculatus as much as possible. "Nazir, I want you to drive the Night Mother's wagon. Cicero, are you going to get some rest?"

"Cicero is fine," the jester replied, although it would be a little unfair to call him a jester at the moment. We were all wearing normal clothes. Cicero and Nazir were both wearing the outfits I had bought in Solitude since Nazir had lost all of his personal belongings in the fire. Since the Redguard was several inches taller than Cicero, the clothes looked shrunken on him. "Why is Nazir changing with Cicero?"

"Because I want to talk to you," I patted the bench next to me on the wagon where I had traded with Babette. The vampire gave me a quick kiss on the cheek before climbing into her coffin. "Nazir, go on a head a bit."

After everyone settled down and Nazir rode ahead, I turned to Cicero, "I wanted to talk to you about the last time I saw you." I trailed off not sure how to continue.

"Ooooh, is it about how Hecate kissed Cicero goodbye all full of passion and desire? Now Cicero understands why Hecate wanted Mother away," Cicero asked his grin sly. I could feel my face flushing in embarrassment. Cicero was right, but did he really have to put it so bluntly? "Cicero understands. Hecate thought she would never see Cicero again and thought it was okay to express her feelings for Cicero."

I could die! "How do you know all this?"

"Because I've seen many goodbyes," Cicero said his voice serious now. Amber eyes were looking into the past remembering his Imperial family. "Cicero knows. Even if Hecate promised to never leave Cicero alone. Hecate wanted Cicero to leave Mother all alone with the Pretender and her family. Hecate wanted Cicero to go away and not come with him."

"You must hate me," I said softly.

"No, no, no, Cicero is grateful the Listener spared him," the jester grinned devilishly, "even if Cicero would not have made it easy if she had decided to send him to the Dread Father. We are together now, Listener and Keeper, until one of us dies horribly in service of the Lady. Best friends forever!"

"Please don't start making out," Babette piped up from within her coffin. "I don't think I could stand it."

I started laughing, nervous and jagged. Cicero joined me and a few moments later I could even hear Babette chuckling.

22 Sun's Height 202 4E 11:00 PM

Commander Maro walked the patrol down at the docks of Solitude. He had already completed his shift earlier, but had picked up the night shift as well. Maro had not slept well since Gaius died. No, since Gaius had been murdered. And framed. Framed to be a filthy traitor.

Maro had never once believed the accusation of betrayal when they found the letter on his boy's body. His son, his only son, was too good of a man and soldier to ever consider such a vile act. Maro had mentally prepared himself for being told one day that his son had been killed in battle or in the line of duty. In fact, Maro had had to steady himself for that likelihood every day. When they told how Gaius's body had been found, Maro's soul screamed in denial. To be killed in his bed, probably by a hooker, was not the destiny of an agent of the Penitus Oculatus but that of some commoner.

Then like a punch to the gut, they told him of the letter that was found. The letter of correspondence to kill the Emperor. The shame Maro felt! Whispers and gossip spread like wildfire and soon everyone knew of Maro's shame. The Commander had offered to forfeit his post, but his superior had insisted Maro stay in command. The Emperor was coming to Skyrim because of the murder of his cousin, Vittoria Vici, and they needed the most able men in charge to ensure their king's safety.

When that Astrid woman had made her offer – his son's assassin for her Brotherhood's safety, Maro had fallen on his knees and thanked every god of the Empire. To be able to avenge his son's death and rid the Empire finally of the vermin that was the Dark Brotherhood was a gift. Maybe some good would come from his son's death, especially once his name and honor had been restored. Gaius would be judged appropriately in the afterlife instead of the foul lie those damn assassins had created.

Commander Maro only had to wait for his agents to return from destroying the Brotherhood so he could finalize his report and send it back to the Imperial City. The Emperor was already on his way, but it would not hurt to have it official that his safety was guaranteed. Any day now, Arcturus would report in.

Maro was pulled out of his thoughts when he heard the sound of crying. There at the end of the docks was a small girl sitting with her feet dangling over the edge. She looked like she couldn't be more than ten. Her hands were covering her face and her sobs were muffled. Maro looked around and saw no one else on the docks. It was late and everyone else had gone home for the day hours ago. Where in the hell were the girl's parents?

"Little girl, is everything all right?" Maro walked up to the little girl. Children should be treasured and loved. Gaius had been the jewel of Maro's life outshining even his duty to his Emperor.

"Please, sir, help me. My mother… and father… they…" the girl trailed into sobs, unable to talk through her grief. Maro noted that the girl was a Breton. High Rock was just west of here. Maybe her family was merchants and had been attacked by bandits or even Stormcloaks. It was possible.

"Shush, don't worry. I'm a commander in the army. I'll take you some place safe and we'll find your parents," Maro said gently. He leaned down and picked up the girl. She wrapped her arms around Maro's neck in a tight vice grip. Poor thing must be terrified.

As Maro turned around, he felt a sharp prick in his neck as something needlelike sunk into his neck. Paralytic poison flooded through his blood system and Maro fell forward unable to move. Darkness quickly covered his vision as he passed out.

23 Sun's Height 202 4E 1:00 AM

"Wakey, wakey," I said as I passed the vial of smelling salts under Commander Maro's nose. The Imperial shook his head groggily as he woke. When he saw my face, he flew into a rage.

"You! How in the hell are you still alive?" The muscular man strained against the ropes binding him to the stone chair. Nazir had bound the man and had some beautiful knot work. I would have to remember that for future contracts.

"Morning! Thanks for joining us, Commander," I said smiling. Behind me, Cicero, Nazir, and Babette stood in a small informal semicircle. Cicero chuckled evilly. "You have been very naughty. Your little act of revenge has really screwed up with our work schedule."

"You killed my son, you bitch," Maro screamed. He tried to rock the chair back and forth, but it didn't budge.

"That was purely professional," I said, "but you had to go make things personal. I assure you that your son died happily. Well, at least up until I stabbed him in the heart." I was being cruel, but this man had killed my family. Eye for an eye for an eye. Behind me Cicero burst into loud laughter. "My family died screaming while burned alive. A little overkill, don't you think?"

"You're all monsters and deserve to die," Maro retorted. "Do you really think you'll get away with kidnapping me?"

"Actually, yes, I do," I gestured to the empty stone room we were in. "We're in Proudspire Manor. The walls are thick; no one is going to hear you no matter how hard you try."

"Proudspire? But that belongs to…" Maro paled.

"That's right, Proudspire is the residence of the Dragonborn," I nodded. "The Brotherhood has powerful friends, Commander. I need to know the Emperor's schedule. I know you know, so don't waste anyone's time denying it. If you tell me now, I'll end your life quickly."

"That's not much incentive," Maro spat at me.

"It is compared to the alternative. If you don't give the information to me, then you'll have to give it to one of my friends here." I gestured to my three siblings. "I never thought you would take my offer, but I had to try just to be fair. However, you are welcome to choose who your torturer will be." The similarity of when Astrid had me choose one of three possible contracts was not lost on me.

Maro's eyes flickered over the three dark figures smiling at him. Cicero was looking especially crazy tonight, his smile too full of teeth while the jester longingly fingered his dagger. Nazir looked intimidating with his arms crossed and his long, wicked curved sword strapped to his side. Babette looked very innocent, smiling sweetly with her hands behind her back.

"The girl," Maro said.

"The sweet little Breton girl you tried to help?" I asked. Maro nodded frantically. It was obvious he hoped to convert the child to his side and help him to escape. "Oh, that's a shame. I would have gone with Cicero. He hated Astrid. It probably would have gone quickly once you gave up the information. Babette on the other hand liked Astrid. You're going to suffer, Maro."

I stepped back and Babette stepped forward, her mouth full of fangs now. Maro screamed in terror. I gestured and the rest of us left the room while Babette went to work.

"Listener, what if Maro doesn't give us the information we need?" Nazir asked.

"Then I'll need you to keep looking for Motierre. Since he's on the Elder Council, he'll have access to Titus Mede's schedule. We need to know where he is anyway to be paid when this is over. Regardless, Maro needed to die for his arrogance. We're sending a message that you do not double cross the Brotherhood." I paused while walking up the stairs. "The Emperor has to come now. His cousin murdered in the city that supports his army the most and the presence of his personal guard in Skyrim murdered to a man? He has to prove that he's strong enough to defeat us or he'll lose the support of holds. The balance is too close right now in the Civil War. The Empire needs the superior numbers if they are going to have a chance to win."

26 Sun's Height 202 4E 9:00 PM


I was sitting in the main room of Proudspire reading a book. As usually I had my legs draped over the arm of the chair. I looked up and saw Babette standing in the shadows near the stairwell leading downstairs to the basement. It was the first time I had seen her in three days.

"It's done," Babette said. "Maro broke." The girl shifted and I could see that her chin and the front of her dress were soaked with blood.

"Is the information accurate?" Torture was not only nasty business, but it could be unreliable. Not enough, you'll never get what you want. Too much and they'll tell you what you want to hear.

"Maro tried to lie at first," Babette said, "but I could tell. His last words were true."

I got up and went to the small childlike creature and hugged her. Babette hugged me back and started to cry. "What's wrong, sweety?" I asked.

"I keep thinking about Festus and the rest," Babette sobbed. "I keep thinking about them and I don't think about how much I miss them. I think that I would have died too. If I hadn't gone out that night to gather flowers for my alchemy, I would have been there and I would have died. I've lived three hundred years and I don't want to die. I want to live. I'm glad they died and not me. People were going to die that night and I'm glad it wasn't me. Festus was my friend for forty years and I'm glad he's dead instead of me." Babette's body shook violently against me.

"One choice stood between me and oblivion," Babette continued. "What if I had decided I would rather organize my herbs or play with Lis? I would have died."

I didn't know what to say. So, I sat on the floor and held the vampire in my lap until she had shed her last tear for her lost family.

10 Last Seed 202 4E 11:00 PM

It was time.

The Katariah, the Emperor's personal vessel, was docked in the harbor of Solitude. Unnatural ripples ran across the surface of the water as four figures emerged from below. I gasped, greedily sucking air as I grabbed the chain of the anchor. I was grateful it was still summer as we swam in the northern Skyrim outlet. I couldn't imagine swimming in the waters during the frozen winter.

"Can Hecate please move her big bottom?" Cicero complained below.

I sent a half-hearted kick at his face that he easily dodged before I finished shimmying up into the hold of the ship. My thee companions quickly joined me. Cicero pulled his jester's cap from his belt pouch and placed it on his head before unsheathing his dagger.

"Let's kill someone," the Keeper said gleefully.

We were shadows on the wall as the four of us ghosted through the ship. Every sailor was found and killed. Guards were taken down without raising an alarm. Soul after soul was sent screaming to Sithis. Nazir, Babette, and Cicero raced amongst themselves seeing who could claim the most kills. I followed silently behind them. I would save my blade for the Emperor.

After an eternity, I opened the door to the room of Emperor Titus Mede II. The room was huge, bigger than the first floor of Breezehome. It was adorned with expensive furniture and Imperial banners. Behind a large mahogany desk, sat an older man who was in his sixties. He looked similar to the decoy I had killed. Silver hair, strong nose, determined chin, finely woven clothes. As soon as the Emperor stood and spoke, I could tell the difference. While the decoy was weedy and unlikeable, this man was the ruler of an Empire.

"I told Commander Maro you can't stop the Dark Brotherhood. Never could." The Emperor stood up and walked over to the bay windows looking out over the ocean. There was a dignity in his stance I had never had the privilege of seeing in one of my targets before. "I accept that I must die. And you will be the one to deliver the blow. That is the way it is. My destiny."

I walked toward the Emperor and pulled the Blade of Woe, Astrid's old dagger, from my belt. The sound it made as I drew it was like a sigh of pleasure. "It will be quick," I promised.

"I have a favor, if you're willing to indulge a dying man," the Emperor said. He didn't flinch when I placed my hand on his shoulder. I pushed down gently and the Emperor went to his knees, giving me better access to his throat.

"You may ask."

"Someone ordered this death. I ask that you kill the man who paid to have me killed," Titus asked. I could see his reflection in the window. His eyes were hopeful.

I pulled the Blade of Woe across Emperor Titus Mede's throat without answering. I can't say if Titus had been a good Emperor, but he died well. As the body fell, I whispered, "I'm sorry, but no." Eye for an eye had to end somewhere. Besides, it would be bad for business.

11 Last Seed 202 4E 2:30 PM

Our little family has returned to the Dawnstar Sanctuary. It's cold, dank, and empty. We've done what we can to make the place livable, but without funds it's hard to do much. I could have tried to retrieve one of my caches of septims hidden throughout Skyrim, but my focus had been on finishing our mission for the Night Mother. Tomorrow Nazir will head out to the Bannered Mare to collect our pay from Motierre. Then the Redguard will travel to Riften to talk to our old friend Delvin Mallory about refitting the Sanctuary.

The four of us presented ourselves to the Night Mother. With Cicero's return, her shrine shined within the shadows. The huge iron coffin was black as the void. All of us kneeled in reverence to our matron. "Your will has been done, Mother," I said.

"You have done well, daughter," the Night Mother's sweet voice filled me. It was a rush greater than any skooma addict will ever feel. Her voice was love. "All of you have done well, especially my sweet, loyal Cicero." I felt a pang of jealousy and tried to suppress it. I fear the Night Mother still knew and was pleased. " Treat him well, daughter, he is my chosen."

"Yes, Mother," I said simply. I glanced at the Keeper who is for once quiet and still in the presence of his goddess. "As you will it."

"Rest, gather more children for me, rebuild," the Unholy Matron commanded. "I will call you again when I hear the cries of the vengeful."

I signaled that we are dismissed. Nazir and Babette left to their personal duties. Cicero stepped forward to tend to the Night Mother, but I grabbed his hand. The Keeper looked at me quizzically.

"Mother said to rest," I told him. I blushed as I wrapped my fingers with his. "So we'll rest."

Cicero didn't resist as I lead him to my room. We helped each other undress, never feeling awkward as our movements are one. We climbed into the large bed, still holding hands with fingers entwined. Cicero gave me a butterfly kiss, amber eyes smiling at me before we slept as we always do as brother and sister.

It has been a year since I have come to Skryim. I have killed a dragon god who was intent on destroying reality. I have killed an Emperor bringing havoc and despair to an Empire. I have acquired a family of a vampire, a snarky Redguard, and an insane jester. I have found Sanctuary. I have found home.

I wonder what next year will bring?


End of Season 1

Cicero and Hecate's adventures continue in "For the Future of Skyrim"

Thanks to everyone who read and gave comments. You guys make this a very enjoyable experience.

Special thanks for Jeremy and Rachel, my husband and my best friend, for giving me feedback and encouragement through this whole ordeal. They kept me moving when I thought I was stuck.