It's too damn cold here. It's too damn cold in this entire province. I want to go home, but I can't be caught trying to cross the border again.
The damn Legionnaire is trying to talk to me. I guess I'd better pay attention.
"Once more into the breach, eh Jalrissa?" he says as I creep up to his position behind a large stone. The fort we're supposed to be taking is ahead, up the mountain from us. His name starts with an 'H', I remember that much, but I wasn't paying much attention when I first met him and I've developed nothing but contempt for him since. I vaguely hope he dies so I can stop having to listen to him.
"I suppose so," I say quietly. "The Legate said this one was going to be complicated. What do you have for me?"
He points up the mountain, "Up that way is a grate that we think leads directly into the prisons. If you can get in there, you can take out the Stormcloaks inside and free the prisoners to coincide with our assault."
Stealth. Finally, an Imperial who speaks my language. A ghost of a smile crosses my lips, making the man in front of me laugh lightly.
"Are you ever going to wear your uniform, Jalrissa? All that black makes you look like some kind of assassin."
The ghost of a smile broadens, "All the better to make those Stormcloaks fear me then, eh?"
He gives me a nervous chuckle as I settle against the rock next to him and put on a blanket. He looks at me, puzzled, and says, "What do you think you're doing?"
"Waiting until nightfall. Tell your men not to disturb me or I start cutting out tongues."
Quickly and easily despite the cold, I drift off to sleep.
* * * *
I dream of fire, of the Sanctuary burning, of the screams of my Brotherhood. I can taste smoke and feel the sting of sword wounds and the hard, cold body of the Night Mother pressing against me as I shelter in her coffin like a rat.
I am there, and I am elsewhere, opening the throat of the Oculus agent responsible for harming my brothers and sisters. As I send him into the Void, I feel a sense of cold satisfaction.
I am on board the Emperor's sailing vessel, speaking to a man many would kill for just to get a chance to meet. I am here to kill him, and I am very surprised that he seems intent on letting me. He says that he knows the way of emperors and assassins. He asks me to kill the man who hired me.
I am far away, in a cheap tavern in a strange city. My employer has just given me the payment I was promised, information on a dead drop containing twenty thousand septims. In return, I give him a knife, burying it to the hilt in his skull. The look of incomprehension on his face is curious, and I think about it for awhile.
I am in the new Sanctuary, thinking about the nature of assassins, of law and order and the people whose place it is to oppose us. I hear one of the students complain bitterly about the Empire and I think.
I am all of these places. I am none of them. Perhaps it is fitting that my dreams go dark places, or perhaps they are simply the only place outside of the Sanctuary where I can truly be honest. Perhaps they are a gift from Sithis. There is much I do not care to know.
I am training an apprentice, and I have slapped her for speaking ill of the Empire. She looks at me with that same confused face I saw once before, and I say quietly to her, "Killers for hire do not thrive in states ruled by chaos. The Empire opposes chaos."
Months later, I am in Solitude, the city that I have shamed so many times with my arts of stealth and murder. I am speaking to a man who knows me only as a prisoner lucky enough not to be executed. He is asking for my oath to serve the Emperor with my life. I say to him, "I swear," and incline my head with great solemnity. Perhaps I even mean it.
* * * *
My 'friend' shakes me awake. I restrain the automatic reflex to attack and open one eye to be sure it's him. The stars twinkle at me from the clear sky above. Damn, I'd been hoping for some cloud cover for this.
"Try not to make any noise," he advises me, and I hold a hand up to silence him.
"I trust you to do your job. Trust me to do mine," I say quietly as I get up into a low crouch. I stretch a little, staring at him with a flat expression, "An Imperial's idea of stealth is not blowing the horn before you fire the catapults, so I'm not about to take your advice on it."
He chuckles, "Fair enough. How will we know the battle is joined?"
I smile cruelly, "When they start noticing how many of them are already dead."
* * * *
It isn't much warmer in the prison than it is outside. Don't these damn Nords know how to build anything? I slip out of the grate tunnel and land silently on the stone floor, glad it isn't wood but cursing the fool that didn't include wood. Wood makes noise, helps you detect intruders. Whoever this architect was, I hope Sithis is tormenting him eternally.
I draw my bow and string it quietly, then rest an arrow on the string. Padding quietly, I put my head around the corner and see two Stormcloaks standing at an idle guard on opposite sides of one room. I draw the arrow back smoothly, take aim, and let the string fall off of my fingers; the force of the shot sends the arrow into the soft, unprotected neck-flesh of one of the Stormcloaks, and he falls forward into a loose pile of straw.
"I told you you shouldn't drink so much!" his companion exclaims in exasperation. When he goes over to help, another arrow sends him, too, into the Void. I move in closer, checking the corners of the room with a quick sweep of the eyes, and pluck the key rings from their waists, sliding both into pouches in my belt. Stairs invite me to move upwards, but I check the balconies first and find that my professionalism is rewarded - another Stormcloak is eating dinner at a table.
My arrow pins the apple to the inside of his mouth, half-bitten and bleeding juice. The shot doesn't kill him, but choking out on his own blood and the fruit certainly does.
I creep up the stairs and find a hallway with weapon racks and shelves bolted to the walls. Heading down it takes me to a storage room and a new set of stairs that goes downwards. I move down it patiently, careful to avoid crunching on the light snow that's blown inside onto it, and peer around the corner. A Stormcloak is almost on me, but I have enough time to draw my knife, rise, and drive it into his eye before he can react. I catch him before he falls and lower him gently to the ground before extracting my blade.
I bent the tip. Damn. That's going to take forever to fix.
There are no more guards that I can find, and the cells are just another room away, so I step through and begin unlocking the doors. "Didn't expect to see a Dunmer here," one of them quips, earning him a slap on the shoulder from me. I point to the racked weapons and armor and wait while the prisoners dress.
"We're going to attack the fort from the inside," I explain quietly as they strap on the last of their armor. "You men punch through directly, I'll follow up behind and take out the archers on the walls. Stay quiet if you can. If you can't, at least be very
loud. I can't survive being filled with holes any more than you can."
They nod and we creep to the door of the fort, opening it gently and letting a harsh wind inside the prison. Of course, it's just our luck that one of the Stormcloaks is looking right at us and screams, "Prison break!" before one of my men sends him to the Void.
"Kill them all," I say quietly before turning sharply left to do my job.
* * * *
Assassins cannot thrive in chaos.
I take cover behind a crate and feel a barrage of arrows slam into it, but I can't reply because there are Stormcloaks on this
side of the keep charging at me. I grit my teeth as a dozen blades converge on me, suck in a breath, and summon the power of the Thu'um within my blood. The dragon-tongue sings in my veins with addictive intensity, needing only the Voice to shape it, and I scream out the words of my intention - "Fus ro da!" The Shout picks up the Nords and hurls them off of the battlements, and I smile darkly as I hear bones snapping and the screams of dying men.
I draw back on my bow, rise from cover, and snap a shot off. A helmeted Stormcloak from across the fort is very surprised as the arrow leaps into his eye-slit and ends his life, but I can't savor the kill because everything is moving much, much too fast. The attack on both fronts is filled with blood and gore and screams, and I can't process all of it at once. I sling my bow over my shoulders and draw my knives, feeling the comfort of their hilts in my hands. I roll forward to avoid a trio of arrows and come up behind a Stormcloak archer taking aim at one of my men. A quick push of the shoulder sends him tumbling down to the battle below, where he lands on one of his fellows. Both die instantly.
Assassins do not thrive in chaos, because we require secrecy. Chaos makes secrecy irrelevant, puts all of your enemies out in the open. When 'do as thou wilt' is the only law, we wither and starve, a redundant service in a world where murder is only technically
a crime. There is no secrecy on this battlefield, and it is no place for an assassin.
I take an arrow in the shoulder and the force knocks me back. I go with it, let it spin me to the ground, and tear it out roughly. It hurts and sends bright spots swimming in front of my eyes, but I can't have it stuck in me when I drink my potion. The healing brew is bitter and foul but it works, staunching the flow of my life's blood and filling me with vigor. I crawl a few feet before springing up and sprinting along the wall. The Stormcloak I'm running at thinks I'm charging him and raises his shield to receive me, but I spin around him and sink my knife into the back of his neck, and I feel the Blade of Woe drink his life. I grab him and use his armored body to absorb a few more arrows and grit my teeth in angry rage.
This is not what I am supposed to be doing, and these clumsy oafs may well be the death of me if I continue like this.
"Lucien, kill them," I order harshly, and the ghost forms at my side. I point at the archers on the battlements and he nods once, charging forward in utter silence. I hop off of the battlement onto a stack of crates and from there leap onto the back of a charging Stormcloak. Two knives descend into either side of his neck, and I literally tear his throat out. Blood flies across the snow and is then lost in the crimson already painted all over the ground.
* * * *
I am no stranger to the scent of death but this isn't it. Death is a small, quiet smell - a coppery tang, mixed with the smells of the body's last few convulsions. This is not death. This is slaughter, a charnel house just like the last two forts I helped take. I look at my cheering men, and then look away. Their barbarism disgusts me.
"Victory for the Empire, eh Jalrissa? Jal? Are you alright?"
"I need to report," I reply, not looking at whatever-his-name is. "Hail the Emperor."
As I walk away I hear his confused, "Hail the Emperor." He thinks I am his friend.
I am the Listener. I have many things - a family, a Mother, a Lord, wealth, power, and allies.
But I have no friends. Only allies, and tools. I have not hidden that fact from him, and his repeated attempts to be warm with me only confuse and frustrate me. I briefly consider killing him myself and weigh it against the oath I made to the General.
I sheathe my blade and keep walking away. I need to set a good example, even if no one that matters can see me. Assassins cannot thrive in chaos, and discipline starts at the top.
The night swallows me as I leave my men behind.