Wind opened Colin's eyes, but it was the unfastened window that sped his heart, and the utter lack of sound that sent his fingers to the knife under his mattress. A hand met his there and gripped his wrist, hard. He swung over to kick at the vague shadow, but he was grasped at the ankles as well, and a bag was forced over his head, followed by a return to sleep that would have been gentle if part of him wasn't screaming to the rest that he wouldn't ever wake up.
He did wake again, however. The bag and the cloying scent of somniculous remained, but the drug itself was obviously dissipated. He was lying on a hard but inconstant surface, and he soon recognized by the motion that he was in a boat, on water. His hands and feet were efficiently bound. His captors did not speak, but he could hear their breathing and exertions at the oars. He couldn't make out anything through the sack except light, but he felt the sun on his skin and guessed it was approaching midday.
Not much later, there was a bit of jostling and then the shock of the boat coming on shore. He smelled pine.
They cut the bindings on his feet and made him walk. He kept thinking he ought to say something, but his kidnappers behaved so professionally he knew there wasn't much point. There was no talking them out of whatever they were doing with him. All he could do was wait, and wonder. Would he feel it? Would he know anything had happened?
Colin killed a man once. He died confused, begging, unwilling to admit even as the knife cut into him what was happening.
He wished he could have seen his mother again, and-realizing he was weeping-felt ashamed. He'd wanted to be braver.
The hand on his arm came away. He tried not to shake.
Then one of the men made a peculiar sound, a sigh like a very tired man finally lying down.
"What?" the other asked, before sucking a sharp breath.
Colin heard two distinct thumps-then for a moment, nothing. He wondered if he should run.
"Who do you work for?" a feminine voice asked.
He recognized it, and a deep chill wracked through him. The last time he'd heard that voice had been in a house in the Market District, just before its owner slaughtered at least eight men.
"Come," she said. "Tell me."
"I'm not at liberty to say," he replied.
"Keep still," she said. A moment later the sack came off his head.
And there she was, regarding him, Letine Arese. Her small frame, turned-up nose, and short blond hair made her seem almost like a little girl, but he knew her to be thirty-one years of age, and her blue eyes held a cold intensity that was quite un-childlike.
Those eyes narrowed now.
"You look familiar," she said. "I've seen you. I suppose that makes sense."
He glanced behind her, at the two bodies on the ground. Both were male; one was an Argonian, the other a Bosmer. They both seemed quite dead, although he could not see the cause.
"They brought you out here to kill you," she said.
"I gathered that," he replied. "I'm grateful you stopped them."
"Are you? We'll get back to that in a moment." She folded her hands behind her back. She was dressed in Bosmer woodsman style, with high boots and soft leather vest and breeches. It was an odd look for her, in his experience-he'd only ever seen her in relatively fashionable city attire.
"What would you say if I told you they worked for me?" she asked.
"I would be confused," Colin said carefully.
"Yes, I should hope so," she told him. "They noticed you spying on me and brought it to my attention. So of course, I did a little checking of my own. Colin Vineben, from Anvil. Your father is dead, and your mother does laundry. You were recommended for and received training for the Penitus Oculatus, and recently were named an inspector in that organization. It was you who discovered the massacre of Prince Attrebus's personal guard and the apparent murder of the prince, and you who suggested to the Emperor that the prince wasn't actually dead. Which, as it turns out, you were right about. And now you're spying on me, but without, it seems, any official authority to do so. So I wonder if you're employed by someone else."
"Why did you kill them?" he asked.
"Because otherwise, I would have had to kill you," she snapped. "Now I have to account for them, pretend I sent them on a mission to someplace fatal. Otherwise, the two of them would have wondered why you were still walking, and after a while that wonder would have spread its way up to the minister himself."
"I don't understand," Colin said.
"I'm risking my neck for you, you idiot," Arese snapped suddenly. "Can't you see that?"
"I can see it," he replied. "I just don't get why."
She pulled a knife from her belt and stalked toward him. His chest tightened, but she merely cut the ropes that held his hands behind his back. Then she stepped back a bit and untied her pants, loosening the laces and pulling one side down, exposing her hip.
"You know what that is?" she asked, indicating a small black tattoo of a wolf's head.
He did, of course. It was the Emperor's personal brand, worn only by his innermost circle.
He didn't say anything, but she saw he recognized it, and pulled the breeches back up, tying them again.
"He put me in the minister's office ten years ago," she said. "No one knows but him and me. And now you."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I need help, and I think we may have a common purpose."
"To discover why Minister Hierem wants Prince Attrebus dead."
"I should know," she said. "I made the arrangements for the ambush on his orders."
"Why?" Colin exploded. "If you're loyal to the Emperor-"
She barked a laugh. "You knew," she said. "You were there, weren't you? When I took care of Calvur and his thugs. I knew someone was there!" She closed her eyes for a moment, looking very tired.
"I didn't mean for the prince to come to harm," she said. "If I could have gotten word to the Emperor, I would have. It was impossible at the time, at least without revealing myself to Hierem. In the end, a decision had to be made."
"And you decided you were more important than the prince?"
"Yes. If you knew anything about him, you would probably agree."
"And yet Hierem wants him dead."
"Then why hasn't the Emperor had the minister arrested?"
"When the Emperor first placed me in the ministry, he didn't have any particular worries about Hierem, only the sort of general paranoia a successful monarch must have. For most of the past ten years, the minister has been above suspicion, but a year or so ago he began testing me, first subtly, then overtly. It became clear he wanted his own private intelligence and eliminations organization, one not connected to the Penitus Oculatus or known to the Emperor. The attack on Attrebus was-surprising. I didn't see that coming. It's only because some of the assassins got greedy that the prince survived. The Emperor isn't ready to move against Hierem yet because he doesn't believe we know everything, and because the minister is politically important-very important. The Emperor has survived because he waits until he knows where all the forces are and their strengths before he strikes. Right now, Hierem thinks his actions are invisible. We want to keep it that way a bit longer. That's where you come in, if you're up to it."
"Up to what?"
"Hierem trusts me now, completely I believe. But that limits me. And I can't trust anyone else in the ministry. I can open certain doors, but I need someone who can walk through them. Can you be that man?"
Colin considered for a moment. Arese might be telling the truth and she might be lying; in a way, it didn't matter....