Bring two or three of your stealthiest men and come to the Palace of the Kings as soon as possible. I have a job for you.
Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak
Selene Stormblade read the note several times, sure she was dreaming. Although she had told her ex-lover she would be there if he needed her, she hadn’t really thought he would take her up on it. Their lines of work didn’t exactly mesh these days. Then again, perhaps they meshed more than she realized.
She handed the note to Brynjolf, who read and then looked up at her, eyes wide. “You have got to be kidding me!” her husband exclaimed. “What could he possibly want with the Thieves Guild? Except maybe to roast us alive.”
Selene shook her head. “I don’t believe Ulfric would summon me with the express intent of arresting me. He wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Aye, but what about the rest of us?”
“Do you remember once I told you Falk Firebeard wouldn’t turn us in because it’s good to have friends in low places? It’s probably the same with Ulfric. He’s an honorable man, but he’s not that honorable. I mean, I did work for him as a spy. I’m sure he’d rather use us than take us down.”
“Right, then, let’s assume his intentions toward you are honorable. Will you answer the summons?”
“Do you jest? Surely you want to know what all this is about.”
Brynjolf shrugged in response. “Who to take with you, then?” They’d had many long discussions about traveling together after she became Guild Master. Delvin and Vex were very adept at handling the day-to-day workings of the Guild, but in the short term, Selene and Brynjolf decided that at least one of them should be in Riften as much as possible. The arrangement worked out pretty well, but they hadn’t had to test it for more than two or three nights at a time. “I’m going to the palace with you, and don’t try to talk me out of it. Not knowing what you’re in for doesn’t set well with me. Obviously you should take Karliah. She’s by far the stealthiest. Possibly Vex.”
“No can do. Vex and I don’t get along, and I don’t trust her to have my back. I don’t care how good she is at infiltration; I won’t work with her.”
“Love, you’re going to have to start trusting her at some point.”
“I trust her plenty to do her job. I’m just saying I don’t want her defending my back. That’s all. I’m sure she feels the same way. I’ll take Vipir and Rune.”
He scowled as he looked back at the letter. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Are you sure it’s not that you just don’t want me working for Ulfric Stormcloak?”
“I will have you know I don’t have a jealous bone in my body.”
“Of course you don’t,” she humored him, scratching him under the chin.
“Oh, very well. But we leave the three of them outside the city when we go talk the illustrious jarl. I don’t care what happens to me, but I won’t risk sacrificing them.”
“Done. And you behave yourself.”
“My love, you cut me to the quick. I would never show disrespect to a man of such import.”
* * *
The ground was covered with a blanket of pristine snow and new flakes were just beginning to fall as the thieves stopped a mile outside Windhelm. Selene and Brynjolf left Karliah, Rune, and Vipir to set up camp while they made their way to the city, then on to the Palace of the Kings. It was late afternoon, close to dinnertime, and Ulfric wasn’t on the throne. Only Jorleif, his steward, occupied the throne room.
“Well met, Stormblade,” he called with his thick Nordic accent.
“Well met, Jorleif. Is Ulfric here? I’m answering a summons.”
“Of course. I’ll let him know you’ve arrived.” He gave a short bow and strode swiftly from the room.
Selene and Brynjolf stood before the throne, waiting. Selene was a werewolf, and her sense of smell was extraordinarily keen. She could smell fear, anxiety, anger, arousal, and some other emotions; Brynjolf, although he was calm and collected on the outside, was trembling inwardly. He wasn’t afraid of Ulfric, but he didn’t like the vulnerability of standing before the soon-to-be High King of Skyrim without a clue as to what he wanted. Anxiety flared even stronger in his scent when the jarl entered the throne room.
Ulfric was magnificent as usual, wearing an expensive tunic, black leather pants, and black boots; his golden hair hung loosely around his shoulders except for two war braids. He nodded a greeting to Selene and glared at Brynjolf as he sat down on his throne. “Thank you for coming,” he began, “but I believe only two of you may not be enough for the mission.”
“We have more,” Selene assured him. “We just left them behind rather than bring the whole party to the palace.”
“I see.” He turned to Brynjolf. “And yet you did bring one escort.”
“We didn’t think it was prudent to send her alone, either,” her husband interrupted.
Ulfric smirked. “Surely you’re not implying I would do Selene harm.”
“If you’d prefer I say it outright, I’ll be glad to. You know her line of work, and it would be foolish to trust you implicitly. After all, how could we be sure you weren’t summoning her here to arrest her?”
“You dare accuse me in my own palace?” His voice never rose above normal. He wasn’t angry; he was doing nothing more than sparring with Brynjolf. In fact, the smirk was quickly growing into a smile.
“It seems to me that if I’m correct in my assumption, I have nothing to lose anyway.”
“Nothing but your head.”
“You would take a man’s head because he insulted you? Why, it’s a wonder there’s anyone in Skyrim still living.”
“Come now, thief, is that the best you can do? Perhaps living in the shadow of the Dragonborn has dulled your tongue.”
“Ah, but it’s my tongue that’s getting use, no? It must make your blood boil to know she chose the bed of a thief over the throne of a king.”
“Careful. It’s dangerous to use one’s entire vocabulary in a single answer.”
Brynjolf chuckled. “And to think, but for a troll slightly outpacing my father, we could have been brothers.”
With that, Selene figured it was time to step in. “All right, lads, put away your, ahem, swords. You’re both very manly, and I’m suitably impressed. Ulfric, why did you send for me?”
Ulfric glared at Brynjolf for another long moment before turning to Selene. “It seems the Emperor’s cousin is getting married.”
“Aye, Vittoria Vici. We’re invited to the wedding.”
“Are you, now?”
Selene nodded. “Elisif made me Thane of Haafingar.”
“Congratulations. I hadn’t heard. Perhaps you haven’t heard that the Emperor is planning to attend said wedding. The Katariah arrived in Solitude yesterday. I have operatives stationed all over the city, but I’m running short.”
“That’s where I come in.”
Ulfric nodded. “The moot has been scheduled. It will be held in Solitude on the First of Morning Star during the New Life Festival. As far as we have been able to ascertain, the Emperor had made no plans to attend this wedding until after we decided on a date for the moot.”
“You think he’s come to meet with the Thalmor about an assassination?”
“That’s exactly what I think.”
“What makes you think Elisif will even let him into the city?”
“Solitude might belong to the Stormcloaks, but Elisif is still loyal to the Empire.”
“She’s also afraid of you and won’t do anything to get on your bad side. Do you want me to talk to her and find out what’s going on?”
“No, you’re too close to the woman. I have someone else stationed in the Blue Palace. I need you to get aboard the Katariah and look for evidence.”
Brynjolf gave a low whistle. “Infiltrating the Emperor’s ship. Nice.”
“If you think you can handle it,” Ulfric dared him.
“Are you joking? That’s my idea of fun. But we don’t work for free.”
“That is where your thieves come in. The ship will likely be carrying a bounty. Bring me any documentation you find, but feel free to raid the Katariah of any valuables. That being said, you will receive payment from me as well. Five thousand septims if you bring me something I can use.”
“And if we don’t?”
“There will be something, I’m sure. Just bring me what you can.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“We’ll find you something,” Selene assured Ulfric.
“I don’t need to tell you Solitude will be crawling with Thalmor and Penitus Oculatus. Take extreme care not to get caught.”
She smiled up at him. “Ulfric, it’s me you’re talking to.”
“Aye, but I don’t know your crew. I assume they are the best you have, but I haven’t met them. Although I’m sure your husband here can handle himself.”
Brynjolf didn’t respond and didn’t bother to mention that he wouldn’t be going on the mission. He just gave Ulfric a cold smile.
“Don’t worry,” said Selene. “They are the best, and we won’t get caught.”
Ulfric nodded to Jorleif, who stepped forward and handed Selene a piece of rolled parchment. She opened it to see floor plans for the Katariah. “These will come in handy,” she mused.
“You will find a fisherman on the docks named Magnor,” said Jorleif. “Speak to him, tell him your uncle said the slaughterfish are bad this time of year, and he will lend you a boat.”
“Get back to me as soon as possible with whatever you find,” Ulfric instructed her, “but if you come upon anything time sensitive, take it to Thrand. He is a lieutenant in Elisif’s personal guard, but he works for me. He will know what to do.”
Selene nodded. “I know Thrand. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
Selene and Brynjolf said their goodbyes to Ulfric and went to meet Karliah, Rune, and Vipir at the campsite. They went over the ship’s floor plan carefully, discussing which part each of them would play in the heist. Brynjolf left the next morning, and he and Selene held each other for a long time before he turned and headed south.
Karliah rested a comforting hand on Selene’s shoulder as she watched him go. “What do you say we get this over with so you can get back to him quickly?”
“You’re right. Let’s go.”
* * *
The moons were dark on the night of Vittoria Vici’s wedding, and heavy clouds only served to make the gloom worse. It was a bad night for a wedding, but it didn’t put a damper on the revels. Sounds of the raucous party could be heard far below, where a small fishing boat sailed slowly and silently toward the Katariah. It was not a bad night for the four dark figures who huddled in the dinghy. It floated gently up to the ship’s massive anchor and slowed to a stop, and three of the figures began to climb.
“Twenty minutes,” Selene whispered to Vipir, who started rowing away as soon as his comrades were safely inside the ship. She, Karliah, and Rune emerged in a cargo hold, and Rune immediately began looking through crates and chests to see what he could get into. Karliah followed Selene out of the hold and up through the crew’s quarters. They ascended the stairs and separated as the elf started looting. It was Rune and Karliah’s job to liberate the ship of any and all valuables while Selene searched the captain’s and Emperor’s quarters for evidence that might be of use to Ulfric. Karliah would take the upper decks, and Rune would raid the cargo hold and vault. Vipir would be waiting with the boat when they were finished.
On her way to the captain’s quarters, Selene slipped past a few agents of the Penitus Oculatus, the Emperor’s personal guard, who sat around a table playing cards. She picked the lock and ducked inside, hoping the locked door was an indication that the captain was not on the ship. The room was empty, and she sifted through a smile pile of papers on his desk. There were several schedules, including the itinerary of the Katariah itself and the Emperor’s personal calendar. Stealing any paperwork might tip Ulfric’s hand; they had to make this look like a simple heist, so she made notes. It appeared the ship would be in port another fortnight, at which time the Emperor would meet with Elisif, the captain of the city guard, various dignitaries, and Elenwen. The meeting with the Thalmor ambassador was three days hence, so Selene would need to find Thrand before they left town. She finished up and placed her notes into a waterproofed-leather pouch and then looked around the room.
The captain’s room also afforded a locked chest, which Selene broke into. There was some pretty expensive armor inside, but she couldn’t afford to take it if she was to sneak back past the Penitus Oculatus agents. She did take a couple of pieces of jewelry, a hefty sack of gold, and a small crossbow that glowed red with magic. It was warm to the touch just like her own bow; it had a fire enchantment. Crossbows were extremely rare in Skyrim. The weapon alone would bring a nice sum, and the enchantment on it only made it more valuable. She hid the crossbow under her cape as she slinked past the Penitus Oculatus and found her way to the Emperor’s quarters. She ran into Karliah, who was on her way to the exit, and passed off the crossbow.
The Emperor’s suite was at the back of the ship. The lush room was decorated with Imperial banners, and several bookshelves and display cases stood along the walls. Windows lined the curved wall at the back of the room and would normally have provided a stunning view. Tonight, all Selene saw through the windows was fog. A heavy door led out to a balcony that curled around the outside of the ship. The Emperor’s huge desk was in the center of the room, and Selene went right to work. She found copies of the schedules she already had and also dug up two letters. The first was from Elenwen.
I was happy to hear of your trip to Skyrim for your cousin’s wedding. This will be an excellent time to discuss plans to retake the province. We must not allow these subversives to use this victory as a stepping stone to initiate more action against the Empire or the Aldmeri Dominion. We are in a precarious position here. I am sure you understand that the Stormcloaks only allow the Thalmor to stay in Solitude as a way of watching us and policing our actions. The sooner we set down a strategy for retaliation, the better.
I do not believe assassinating Ulfric Stormcloak would be advisable at this time. He can serve the Thalmor better as High King. Our intelligence has indicated that he will sit on the throne at the Palace of the Kings rather than move to Solitude. Thus, Solitude will be the starting point of our campaign, with the replacement of Elisif as Jarl to be our first action. However, due to the terms of our agreement, we cannot set this plan in motion without your counsel.
Please meet with me while you are in Solitude so we can discuss this matter further.
Selene copied the letter and put it in her pouch, then moved on to the second, which was from Elisif.
I was distressed to hear that you have insisted on coming to Solitude for your cousin’s wedding. As I stated before, my personal feelings are not the issue. Skyrim has seceded from the Empire, and Solitude is now a Stormcloak city. While I will not refuse your admittance, and I cannot guarantee your safety while you are within its walls. I implore you to reconsider this trip.
Jarl of Haafingar
Selene made a copy of the letter, stuffed it in her pouch, and looked around some more; but she didn’t find anything else she could use. She would talk to Thrand about the meeting with Elenwen; hopefully they could get eyes and ears into her meeting with the Emperor. Ulfric’s head would spin around when he read the part about best serving the Thalmor as High King. He hated Elenwen with a passion, and with good reason. When he found out she considered him an asset, he would be furious.
There might not have been anything else for Ulfric, but Selene did pick up some valuable loot, including a set of the Emperor’s robes that would make a nice trophy for the Guild’s vault. As she was heading for the door, she heard voices. There was uproar outside, angry voices, and several people heading for the Emperor’s quarters. Selene hastily stepped through the door onto the balcony and peered in the window.
The captain and a couple of other guards were ushering the Emperor into the room, practically pushing him until he was seated at his desk.
“Your Excellency, we should weigh anchor at once.”
“Don’t you think you’re being hasty, Captain Avidius?”
“My Lord, your cousin was just murdered! We can’t be certain that arrow wasn’t meant for you.”
Sweet mother of Nocturnal, Selene thought. Killing Vittoria Vici at her own wedding? That’s cold, even for Ulfric.
“Increase security around the ship, then. I have told you before that I will not run away from adversity. I will see this through.”
This was not good. Oblivion was breaking loose in Solitude, and she and her thieves were right in the middle of it. And why would they murder Vittoria? Had the arrow actually been meant for the Emperor? Or was Elisif perhaps the target? After all, she had a copy of a letter that said the Thalmor intended to “replace” her. The guards would be on high alert and likely checking everybody’s pockets and purses. She had to go back in the city to talk to Thrand, but it might be best if the others camped elsewhere.
Getting in and out of the city wasn’t the most immediate problem, however. Selene was stuck on this balcony and she was well past the twenty-minute time limit they had set. There were only two ways she was going to get off this balcony. One was to open the door and sneak back through the Emperor’s personal chambers and past agitated guards; the other, she could simply jump. She was quite high, but she was sure she had jumped from higher, and there was nothing for it. It was that or be arrested. She might be able to talk her way past Solitude’s guards, but there was no way her status as Thane or Guild Master would work with the Penitus Oculatus.
“Kynareth, Nocturnal,” she whispered. “Whichever one of you sent the fog, thank you. Now, could you please give me a soft landing?” She had brought along a waterbreathing amulet, which she pulled out of a pocket and clasped around her neck. Then, with a quick look inside to make sure no one was peering out the window, she climbed over the rail, took a deep breath, and let go.
She supposed it was a relatively soft landing—no belly flops, no hidden rocks below the surface, no slaughterfish waiting to bite her legs—but it still hurt. The icy water stung her skin, her bones ached from the impact, and her ears felt as if they would burst. But she soon hit her depth and started swimming slowly upward. The sack of gold weighed her down, but with increased effort she managed to make it to the surface. Amulet notwithstanding, she gasped for air when she emerged. The boat creaked not too far away.
“Selene?” Rune whispered. “Is that you?”
She swam toward the sound of his voice, and her companions sighed with relief as she appeared out of the fog.
“What in the Void happened?” Vipir asked as he reached down and helped her into the boat.
“Let’s get as far away from this ship as we can, and then I’ll tell you.”
* * *
Karliah, Rune, and Vipir left Selene with the boat and headed to Morthal, where Selene would meet them after she spoke to Thrand. On her own, and with nothing suspicious on her person, she had no trouble getting back into the city. When Elisif had made Selene Thane, the jarl had insisted that she buy a home in Solitude, and the Dragonborn was now the lucky owner of Proudspire Manor. Figuring she would want to make it into a safe house for Guild members, she managed to talk Elisif out of giving her a housecarl, and the privacy had come in handy. She rested there for a few hours before going to the Blue Palace.
Thrand said that as far as he knew, Ulfric had not called for an assassination. The Emperor and his family had many enemies, so the hit could have been ordered by any number of people. No one had been caught; the assassin had gotten away clean—they had evidently taken a leap even higher than hers, having run along the wall and plummeted to the inlet below. Many said the assassin couldn’t have survived such a jump, but searchers found no body. Thrand assured Selene he would get someone into the meeting between Elenwen and the Emperor and talk to Bolgeir about increasing Elisif’s personal guard.
She met her friends in Morthal the next day, and they headed for home quite a bit wealthier. Rune had managed to crack the master lock to the vault and had hit pay dirt. With the take from the vault and the items Selene and Karliah scavenged above decks, they came away with gold totaling over 5,000 septims, twenty gems, several pieces of enchanted armor and jewelry, and three magical weapons. Selene considered keeping the crossbow. It was beautiful, made of ebony, and had carvings similar to those on her Nightingale bow. She thought she would try it out and see which she liked better.
Selene left the thieves outside Windhelm when she returned to Ulfric. He was sitting on the throne when she entered the Palace of the Kings, and he stood as she approached.
“Where is your husband?” he asked, descending the steps to meet her.
“He took care of things at home while we went on the mission.” She approached and handed him the notes she had taken. “I assume you’ve already heard what happened to Vittoria Vici?”
“Aye,” he replied absently as he read Elenwen’s letter. His face reddened, and he called Elenwen several unflattering names under his breath. “I trust you spoke with Thrand about this?”
Selene nodded. “He said he would handle it.”
“Good.” He nodded to Jorleif, who stepped into the war room, then turned back to Selene. “I thank you for doing this. I hope it didn’t cause any trouble with—”
“None whatsoever. He trusts me, and I trust that if anything happened to me, not even the Emperor himself could escape his wrath.”
Ulfric chuckled. Jorleif returned with a large sack of gold, which he handed to Selene, then stepped back. “How did you do otherwise?” the jarl asked her.
“Not bad,” she replied modestly. “The Emperor carries a lot of stuff with him that he probably shouldn’t.”
“After this, perhaps he’ll think twice before doing so again.”
“Perhaps. Ulfric, I can’t really stay; my friends are waiting outside of town, and we’re going to try to get as far as we can before nightfall.”
“I understand. I hope I can continue to call upon you when I need you.”
He picked up her hand and kissed it. Selene didn’t know what possessed her, but she let him do it. “Talos guide you,” he said softly.
Selene sighed with relief as she left the Palace of the Kings. Yes, Brynjolf could trust her. She would never do anything to hurt him. But she couldn’t ignore the fact that her heart still fluttered when Ulfric kissed her hand. Maybe she should have told him no when he asked if he could call upon her again.
* * *
They pushed hard and made it all the way to Eldergleam Sanctuary before stopping for the night, and they camped inside with the sound of the waterfall echoing through the huge cavern. Vipir took the first watch, and Karliah and Rune snuggled into one bedroll together. Selene lay awake for a while, looking up at the waterfall and the starlit sky above the Eldergleam and thinking about Brynjolf. It had been a fortnight since they had parted south of Windhelm, and in quiet times like this it felt like years. She breathed a heavy sigh, thinking she should have taken the first watch. She wasn’t sleeping anyway. The closer they got to home, the more she missed him. How was she supposed to sleep when all she could think about was getting back to him? She would give most anything to feel his strong arms around her, to taste his lips, to lie with her arms and legs intertwined with his. Just a few more days.
Suddenly she was sitting under the Eldergleam, and Kynareth sat next to her, a butterfly resting contently on her fingertips. Selene looked out over the sanctuary and could actually see herself asleep next to the others.
“My lady, this dream is rather…disconcerting.”
“I could have taken you to my vale, but this was more convenient, no?”
Selene shrugged. “I can’t say. I don’t know how it works. I wouldn’t have minded strawberries, though.”
The goddess placed a hand on her arm and squeezed it affectionately. “Child, you are such a dear. You have done well for yourself and with your guild, but the time has come.”
“The World Eater has been languishing, traveling between this world and others, but now he has resolved to fulfill his mission on Nirn. It is time for you to set aside your other concerns and undertake your responsibilities as Dragonborn.”
“But I’ve been killing dragons. What else can I do?”
“You must go to Delphine.” Selene rolled her eyes, and Kynareth chuckled. “You are so like a petulant child sometimes. We all do things we would rather not do, Selene. You do not have to like it, but it is necessary to work with her. The longer you delay, the stronger the World Eater will become.”
“I understand. Should I leave straightaway, or can I go see my husband first?”
Again, the goddess laughed lovingly. “Go see your husband. A few days will not make that much difference. But then do what you must.”
Selene opened her eyes and sat up in her bedroll. She felt something soft and moist in her hand, and she raised it to find a strawberry curled in her palm.