“You look, different,” said Delphine when Nora met her at the stables.
“I'm too well known,” said Nora, shrugging her shoulders. “If I'm correct about what you want me to do, I thought I should change my appearance” For this night she had taken on the appearance of a women with snow white hair and brown eyes. She ahd also worked on her movements, so she had the gate of a normal untrained Nord, as long as she concentrated on what she was doing.
The party had already killed the mage, Lyanna, at her hideout, and recovered the Alteration page. It hadn't really been much of a fight. The mage had surrounded herself with bandits, not the best security force, and Nora and Elesia had taken them out with the powerful arrows launched by their new bows. The Mage had come alert when bodies started dropping around her, and started to call up a spell. Too late, and a pair of shafts had ended her casting career and her research into the ancient spell. They had gathered up the loot and the Alteration page and teleported back to Solitude. Which brought Nora to this time.
“Then I guess you won't need the potions I brought,” said Delphine, pulling her hand out of the bag at her side.
“You have them?”
“Of course. Did you think it was an idea that originated with you? Changing appearance is useful to many people. Thieves, assassins, spies. But the alchemist you employed seems to have done an exceptionally good job.”
Delphine looked over the Dragonborn for a moment, taking in the new armor. “Okay. I've gotten you an invitation to a reception being thrown at the Thalmor Embassy tonight. Your job will be to find the evidence linking the Thalmor to the return of the Dragons.”
Nora thought the Thalmor had nothing to do with Alduin. But they were the enemy as well, and anything she could find out about them was a plus.
“You can't go in dressed like a warrior, though. I have some party clothes for you.”
“I have my own,” said Nora. She had bought some more fine clothes and shoes from Radiant Raiment, her clothier of choice. She thought they would do simply fine.
“I have a friend, a Bosmer named Malborn, who can get some of your gear into the Embassy.”
“Can he be trusted?” asked Nora, feeling leery at putting her life in the hands of an unknown.
“I trust him with my life. He's not a dangerous character like you, but he's good at his job. The Thalmor killed his family in Valenwood. It's fortunate that the Thalmor don't know who he really is. So get him what you can't live without.”
“I only have what I need on me,” said Nora. She had all of her armor, Dawnbreaker and her knife, and her enchanted jewelry. As well as some lock picks and one waterskin. She had decided to leave her bow behind. If she couldn't handle it with blade and magic, she wasn't sure a bow would really help her.
“Okay. Meet with Malborn at the Winking Skeever. Then meet me back here before five. I will have a carriage to take you to the Embassy. Get going.”
Nora wanted to say something smart, to let Delphine know that she wasn't in charge. But Nora had to admit that the woman knew what she was doing, and she would go along, for now.
Nora took a seat at the table where the wood elf sat. The man looked up in surprise, taking a large gulp from his wine glass.
“Our mutual friend sent me to you so you could smuggle my gear into the Embassy.”
“She sent you? You? I hope she knows what she's doing.”
And what's wrong with me, you little worm? Nora thought, glaring at the Bosmer. “What should I give you?”
“You're supposed to know that. I'm beginning to think this was a very bad idea.”
“Look. I'm a warrior and a mage, not a spy. I'll do my best, but I need your help. So, are you going to help or not?”
The Bosmer sat in silence for a moment, and Nora wondered if what she had said was going to scare him off. “Okay. I'm still in. Give me what you can't do without, what you need to move quietly and kill quickly.”
“I don't intend to kill.”
“Just keep telling yourself that. You will have to kill, and move quickly. So let's go to my room so you can give me what you need inside.”
Nora stripped down to her small clothes, panties and a chest wrap made of fine lace by the Altmer sisters. She then put on her fine clothes and shoes, and stood there, waiting for the appraisal of the Bosmer.
“You'll do,” said Malborn, looking her over.
And what a glowing compliment, thought Nora, laughing inside.
“I'll have your gear in the Embassy, ready for you,” said Malborn, hoisting a small trunk and making to leave. “Don't be late.”
Nora headed back to the stables and arrived there about a half an hour before Delphine. Right on time the Breton arrived, riding in an ornate carriage she must have hired.
“Okay. You look good. Just like a wealthy Nord woman who wants to ingratiate herself with her Altmer masters. Just be careful what you say.”
“This isn't the first time I've had to infiltrate an enemy,” said Nora, glaring at the woman.
“And none of them were Altmer. These bastards could teach me things about paranoia. So be very very careful. Are you ready?”
“I am,” said Nora, trying to settle the butterflies in her stomach. “Let's do this.”
The carriage ride to the Embassy took about forty minutes. Time for Nora to think. Did she really want to risk her life infiltrating a nest of snakes for an unknown reward? Then the carriage stopped, and Nora could hear people speaking in Altmer, realizing it was too late to turn back.
“Another one of the despised arrives,” said one of the Altmer, to the laughter of some others. “What do the worms hope to gain by currying the favor of Elenwen?”
Nora was very happy that she had a good command of their language. Even if she never spoke it here, unlikely at best, she could pick up much information from people who thought humans too stupid to understand their tongue.
“Ah, a lovely lady. And arriving by carriage no less,” said a burly Nord man who was walking up the hill to the Embassy. “I'm Razelan,” said the man, kissing the back of Nora's hand. “I'm late this time. I like to get here early so I can get as much food and drink on Elenwen's coin as possible. First time here?”
“Yes,” said Nora with the authoritative tone of a high-born lady. “Igmar Jerlgunsen. My cousin, Igmund, the Jarl of Markarth, thought it would be a good idea if we established closer relations with the ambassador.”
Her eyes were constantly moving, seeking out all the information she could. She glanced at the compound, noting the spear point fence and the large building behind the Embassy proper. Elenwen's Solarium, the place most likely to contain the information she needed. And separated from the building she was going into by a large courtyard swarming with Thalmor. She still wasn't sure how she was going to cross that barrier.
“Good idea. It always helps to get in good with those in power. It has done my business wonders.”
And you are a traitor to your own people, thought Nora, keeping her expression neutral so as to not give away her thoughts.
“Your invitation, please,” ordered a Thalmor in the robes of a wizard. The man was looking at her curiously, and Nora was glad that she was not wearing any of her enchanted jewelry, which would have marked her as an obviously agent of someone. She could only hope no one scanned her for magicka.
“Here, sirrah,” she said, handing over the small envelope containing the invitation, hoping that it passed scrutiny.
The mage looked it over, paying more attention to the paper than to Nora, then handed it back, making a mark on a list he carried on a flat board. “Welcome to the Embassy, Lady Jerlgunsen. I hope you enjoy your visit.”
The mage then looked at Razelan's invitation, giving it a perfunctory glance before waving the man through. Nora slowed her pace, letting the man pass her on the way to the door. No gentleman, then, but simply a Nord who wanted to take advantage of a feed and a drunk he didn't have to pay for.
“Welcome,” said a haughty looking Altmer woman who had to be the ambassador.
“You must be Elenwen,” said Nora, holding out a hand. “Your beauty is just as described.”
“Why, thank you. But you appear to have me at a disadvantage. You are?”
“Igmar Jerlgunsen,” said Nora, giving the Altmer a gentle handshake. “I...”
“Madame Ambassador,” said Malborn from his position at the bar. “It's just that we've run out of the Alto wine. Do I have your permission to uncork the Arenthia red...”
“Of course. I've told you before not to bother me with such trifles.”
“Yes, Madame Ambassador,” said Malborn.
“We will have to talk later,” said the Ambassador, who turned to talk with one of her soldiers.
“I have word that something is going to happen here tonight,” she told the soldier in Altmer. “Stay alert.”
Uh oh. I have to be really careful here, thought Nora, again thankful that she had learned the Altmer language.
“I would like a drink,” she said, walking over to the bar and looking at Malborn.
“What can I get for you?” asked the Bosmer. “You made it in,” he continued in a whisper. “Good. As soon as you distract the guards, I'll open this door and we can get you on your way. Let's hope we both live through this day.”
“Here you go, ma'am. The finest Colovian brandy. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“I'm going to mingle for a moment. See what I can hear.”
“Don't take too long,” said the anxious Bosmer. “I'm ready to move whenever you are.”
Nora took her brandy and walked into the room. It was a sizable room, though not that large for such a party. There were about thirty Nords and Imperials in it, as well as a dozen Thalmor. Three of the Thalmor mingled with the guests. The rest stood along the walls, watching. One Altmer and two Bosmer women carried trays with finger food and drinks, serving the party. She recognized three of the Jarls in the room. Siddgeir of Falkreath, Idgrod of Hjaalmarch, and she saw with widening eyes, Elisif.
Nora moved about listening and talking to a few of the guests. Vittoria Vici commented on how she really didn't like these parties, but was here for business reasons. Elenwen moved around the room, talking to each guest in turn.
“Surprised to see you here,” said Idgrod as Nora moved by.
“These old eyes see much. Don't you worry, I will not call attention to you. There is much to learn in this room. The Thalmor may seem like our friends, but listen carefully and you will hear their real message.”
“Ah, my new guest,” said Elenwen, stepping in front of Nora. The woman was beautiful, like all Altmer women, but she had an oily feel to her. Someone that Nora would really prefer to avoid. “Enjoying yourself.”
“When the party quiets down some I would like to talk. But enjoy.”
Nora wasn't sure who to trust. The only one she really trusted in this room was Elisif. So she made her way over to where the Jarl was standing by herself, sipping a drink and obviously uncomfortable.
“How are you tonight, Jarl Elisif?” she asked.
Elisif looked at her without recognition, then with widening eyes. “I feel like I should know you. How is that?”
“I'm Nora,” said the Dragonborn in a whisper. “I'll explain later.”
“I'm here in secret, with an altered appearance. And I need your help.”
“What can I do?” asked Elisif in a conspiratorial whisper. “Oh, but this is exciting.”
“I want you to do nothing that puts you at risk. But it would help me greatly if you could create a scene. Then get yourself out of here.”
“Gladly,” said a smiling Elisif. “But only if you promise to come to the palace afterwards and tell me what you're about.”
Elisif headed directly for a seated Razelan, on a bench and working on a drunk. “How dare you,” shouted Elisif. “I am a widow, still grieving my murdered husband, and you dare to proposition me. Pig.”
Nora made her way quickly to Malborn, who was standing by a door leading out of the room.
“I don't feel well, Ambassador,” said Elisif from the room. “I would like my carriage brought to the front so I can go home.”
“Of course Jarl Elisif,” said Elenwen in a calming voice, which turned harsh a moment later. “And I will take care of this, pig. How dare you insult my noble guests.”
Nora felt sorry for the man, and hoped he had nothing more coming than a dressing down and ejection from the Embassy. If there was more she might have to come back here for him.
“So far so good,” said Malborn, opening the door. “Let's hope nobody saw us slip out. We need to pass through the kitchen. Your gear is hidden in the larder. Just stay close and let me do any talking, got it? Follow me.”
They went through a short hall into the kitchen proper, and the attentions of a disapproving Khajiit cook.
“Who comes, Malborn?” asked the Khajiit. “You know I don't like strange smells in my kitchen."
“A guest, feeling ill,” explained Malborn. “Leave the poor wretch be.”
“A guest? In the kitchens? You know this is against the rules...”
“Rules, is it, Tsavani?” asked Malborn. “I didn't realize that eating Moon Sugar was permitted. Perhaps I should ask the Ambassador..."
“Tss!,” hissed the Khajiit cook “Get out of here, I saw nothing.”
“Your gear is in that chest,” said Malborn, leading her into a small room. “I'll lock the door behind you. Don't screw this up. Hurry. I need to lock the door behind you or the patrols might notice something's wrong.”
Nora opened the chest, happy to be reunited with her gear. She removed her party clothes and started putting on her combat gear. The armor and web gear on, she carefully put on her jewelry, earrings, amulet and a half dozen rings.
"Hurry it up,” said an anxious Bosmer. “I've got to get back before I'm missed.”
“Just another minute.”
“Come on. If someone misses me at the party, we're both dead.”
Nora lay her clothing regretfully into the chest. They were fine clothes, made by a master seamstress, and what she was about to do to them was sacrilege. Still, it was necessary if she didn't want the Thalmor to harass the sisters. She sent a blast of white-hot fire into the clothing and shoes, reducing them to slightly smoking ash in an instant. She closed the chest and turned to the Bosmer.
“Good,” said Malborn, unlocking the other door to the room. “You're on your own from here. I've got to get back to the party.”
Nora cringed slightly as the door closed behind her and the lock clicked much too loudly. But the Thalmor guards in the next room continued their loud conversation, obviously heavily into drink despite being on duty. Nora called up Invisibility and cast the spell. She thought it might be best to silence the guards, but that might give her away if someone came to check on them. Shrugging her shoulders, she decided to leave them.
Moving silently, Nora crept into the other room, listening to the soldiers talk about the people they had captured for their mistress.
“That farm family was a delight. The mother and both daughters were very pretty, for humans, so we slaked our lust on them before delivering them to the prison.”
“Will you go there and visit them again.”
“Oh, by Auri-el, I think not. They're surely dead, their souls taken and awaiting use.”
“I can't wait to be assigned to another mission to gather up some more worshipers of that false God.”
“I don't think these really were,” said the first Altmer. “But they were human, so no great loss.”
Nora felt her rage rising. The Thalmor bastards had arrested an innocent farm family, bringing them to a Thalmor prison for execution, and harvesting. Consigning their souls to the misery of the Cairn. That decided her, and she stood up and moved behind the nearest Thalmor soldier. She shoved the sword through his neck, killing him instantly, and becoming visible at the moment of action. The other soldier stared in shock for a moment, then started to move, meeting Dawnbreaker with his bare head, the blade cutting down to his chin.
“What,” hissed another Thalmor, and Nora found herself looking at a wizard coming down the steps from above.
Nora called up cold, and the mage erected a ward. “You don't stand a chance human. I shall enjoy ripping your soul from your body.” His other hand cast Soul Trap on Nora, and she felt the barest of tugging on her spirit.
“No you don't,” hissed Nora, throwing ice spikes at the mage, one after another, a spell each second. The Altmer didn't have time to send an offensive spell into her. The spikes weren't doing much damage, eighty percent of their force taken by the ward. But a dozen of them did just enough harm, and the mage fell to his knees, moaning, his ward dropping.
“Let's see how you like it, you bastard,” hissed Nora, calling up a spell she rarely cast. Soul trap, cast on the wizard, who Nora then cut down, watching in satisfaction as the purple energy was sucked out of his body and into a gem on his belt pouch. Nora searched that pouch, finding only one gem that was warm with a soul. She took it, determined that it would be used to recharge weapons, the best use she could think of for the soul of an evil bastard.
Nora spent fifteen minutes searching the rooms of the wing. There was much loot, and she took a lot of gems, determined that the Thalmor would fund her campaign against them. But there were no files, no dossiers, and she thought she would need to search the Solarium. She cast Invisibility and prepared to move.
The Dragonborn made ready at the door leading into the courtyard. She knew she would be visible as soon as she opened that door. Slowly opening the door, making no noise, Nora was relieved to see that no Thalmor were right outside the door. She quickly cast Invisibility and started on her way, cat footing it. She felt comfortable in her new armor, which moved with her without a sound. Her boots made the merest of sound thanks to their muffle enchantment. She doubted if even the sharp eared elves could hear her in passing. And, of course, many were engaged in conversations, some about how the time was almost at hand to finally take over the human kingdoms. Not on my watch, thought Nora as she worked her way around.
Making her way into the shelter of some shrubs she planned her last approach, then recast Invisibility. From shrub to shrub, using them as well as the spell, she was soon less than ten feet from the door. A Thalmor wizard stood at the door, watching. Nora looked around and saw no more of the Altmer in sight. This was her chance, and since the Altmer wasn't going anywhere she needed to remove him.
Nora ran at the mage, who at the last moment heard the faint footfalls. Too late, and Nora's glass dagger went up through his chin and into the brain. She grabbed the body in strong arms, searching it quickly and finding a key. She breathed a sigh of relief when the key clicked in the lock, and she slowly opened the door. People were talking upstairs, and she saw the back of a Thalmor soldier going down some stairs. To the dungeon?
The Dragonborn quickly hid the body from sight behind a couch, cast Invisibility, then made her way down the stairs. The soldier was checking a locked door, and the first she knew that she wasn't alone was when a strong hand jerked her head back and a sharp blade was drawn across her throat. Nora pulled the body behind the stairs and went back up, determined to finish the two men she had heard talking up there. An invisible Nora pushed her sword through the robed body of one man, then swung her now visible blade through the neck of the other. She then conducted a search of the many rooms, again finding no documents of interest, but many gems and jewelry that went into the fanny pack of her web gear. There were chests that she picked, to find nothing that she wanted. She stopped for a moment to wolf down some food, then headed down to try to door to the lower levels.
The door at the bottom of the steps opened to the key she had found on one of the bodies upstairs, and she entered the darkened rooms of the dungeon. If she didn't find what she was looking for here she was just out of luck. Nora moved like a ghost through the shadows, a transparent figure that stepped with all the noise of a mouse. There was a Thalmor soldier down here as well, and Nora shadowed her until she had the opportunity for a quick kill. She tallied how many she had taken down this night, coming up with eight. Not a bad start, though ten would be better.
The Dragonborn moved into what looked like an interrogation room, torture machines and a bloodstained table with chairs. A Thalmor in robes was sitting in one of the chairs, calling out questions that a faint voice in a cell was responding to. She moved behind the Thalmor and her tally totaled nine. So far so good, and there were no living Thalmor who had seen her armor or weapons, her clothing was destroyed, and she would never use this face again. Perfect, except for finding nothing of interest. She did find an illusion skill book on the floor near the table, something of definite interest that she would take out of here, but not what she was looking for.
Then she saw the chest that opened easily with the key she had found on the interrogator's body. And inside were a number of documents. She looked at the header pages of the four folders and knew she had hit the jackpot. Delphine, Esbern, who seemed to be a surviving blade according to the cover page, Ulfric and Dragons were the four folders she took, leaving the rest. The other folders had names she didn't recognize, and might prove useful in the future, but she didn't want to haul a file cabinet of folders out of here.
“Listen up, spy!” called a Thalmor voice from upstairs. “You're trapped in here, and we have your accomplice. Surrender immediately or you both die.”
“Never mind,” said Malborn “I'm dead already-”
“Silence, traitor! Move. Slowly.”
Nora cast Predator Vision, wanting to see what she was dealing with. There was a red figure in one of the cells, and three moving to the steps. She assumed that was Malborn and two Thalmor. Nothing else alive down here. She moved into the shadows and thought. She could probably sneak past them all, but she wasn't about to leave the Bosmer to his fate. Two Thalmor shouldn't be too much of a problem. She left Dawnbreaker in its sheath, not wanting its light to give her away.
The trio moved down the steps, Malborn, hands tied, sandwiched between them. Nora came out of the shadows, her dagger slicing through the throat of the leading Thalmor. The second backed up, raising his sword to thrust through Malborn. Nora kicked the sword, making it miss, then sent a pair of kicks in the soldier, driving her back. The Thalmor tried to recover, to bring her sword around, but Nora sent a palm strike into the woman's face. As she staggered Nora sliced through the exposed throat and dropped her dead to the ground.
“Now the Thalmor will be hunting me for the rest of my life,” complained Malborn as Nora cut his bindings. “I hope it was worth it.”
“I'm sorry,” said Nora, walking back to the chest after pulling a backpack off one of the dead Thalmor. “I didn't mean for this to happen to you. But since you're here, you might as well carry something out.” Nora stuffed the pack with ten more folders, chosen at random, and handed it over to Malborn.
“I should have known this would end badly,” cried Malborn, taking the pack. “I can't believe I let Delphine talk me into this. And what is this?”
“Some of what I came for. Now, let's get moving.”
“Help me,” cried a voice from the cell. “Don't leave me here.”
Nora opened the cell and looked in, to see a half-naked man hanging from manacles. He had obviously been worked over, with heavy welts and cuts all over his body.
“Who are you?” asked Nora, sending healing magic into the man.
“Etienne Rarnis, from Riften,” said the man as Nora unlocked the manacles. The man fell and Nora caught him, lowering him to the floor and sending more healing into him.
“What were they trying to get out of you?”
“They were asking about an old man called Esbern. In the Ratways. There was nothing I could tell them, but they didn't believe me.”
“Do you know a way out of here?”
“There's a trap door in the alcove across the way. They drop bodies in there, of the people they're finished with. So it has to lead out, right.”
“Here,” she said to Malborn, handing over all the keys she had. “You see if you can get that thing open, and I'll find some clothing for our new friend.”
Nora found another couple of chests, these filled with the discarded clothing of prisoners. She found a warm jacket and some fur boots that fit Etienne and they were ready to go.
“Let me go first,” said Nora, looking into the ice cavern revealed. Etienne had said they dropped bodies down this hole, but none were in evidence, which meant there was something down there that was dragging them off. She could think of several things down there it might be, none of them good. She jumped the ten feet down, then helped to catch her companions as they descended. As she turned to go down an incline the scent hit her. Trolls. And then one came into sight, its hunting cry reverberating through the cavern.
“Let me out of here,” yelled Malborn, taking off, ducking under the swinging arms of the troll. Nora charged after him, Dawnbreaker slicing into the troll, its fire killing the beast. She caught the Bosmer easily, grabbing him by the backpack and spinning him around.
“I'm through,” said the Bosmer. “I need to find someplace I can lay low, and try to avoid the assassins they are going to send after me.” He pulled the backpack off and dropped it to the ground, then turned and ran away.
Nora had killed eleven Thalmor this night. Not really enough, but definitely a good start.
“Any way you can help me get back to Riften?” asked Etienne.
“Here,” said Nora, pulling a diamond out of her pouch and handing it over. “That should do it.”
“Yes, milady,” said the smiling man. “That should indeed.”
“Good,” said Nora, casting a quick spell and disappearing, the last sight of Etienne a shocked look on his face as she teleported away.