It was the coughing that surprised me.
The Aretino residence was supposed to be vacant. Aventus had promised me he would go back to Honorhall Orphanage when I had returned to tell him that Grelod the Kind had been taken care of. He had promised me. Me, the person he thought had been an assassin from the Dark Brotherhood. Who would lie to an assassin who knew their name and location?
I had arrived at Windhelm the night before, doing a favor for my old friend Delvin Mallory. Well, it was a favor I would make a bit of coin from, but a favor all the same. After completing the job, I had been on my way to Candlehearth Hall to rent a room for the night when I passed by a house I hadn't thought about in years. The house of poor little Aventus Aretino, who had tried to summon an assassin from the Dark Brotherhood and ended up with a thief trying to escape her destiny.
In a moment of nostalgia, I had decided to once again break into the house and see what there was to see. Call me pensive, call me wistful, but I felt a strong pull to the place where everything had gone horribly right.
Now, creeping up the old stairs to the sound of painful coughing, I couldn't help but thinking it was a good thing I had returned.
I looked around, trying to find the source of the noise. It didn't take long. There, on the rickety old bed that was little more than a pile of straw, was the child I had thought long gone from the city. He looked awful, a tiny pile of skin and bones wrapped in dirty cloth, breath as ragged as a beggar's clothes. Another cough wracked his small frame and I watched in horror as tiny flecks of scarlet hit the floor.
"Aventus?" I gasped, rushing over to his side. "I thought you had gone back to Honorhall! Why are you still here?"
The boy's eyes flicked upward, widening only slightly before another cough forced its way out. I pressed my hand against his forehead, feeling the abnormal heat radiating off his skin. As soon as my suspicions were confirmed, I turned and dug through my knapsack, searching for my last cure disease potion. I found the bottle tangled up in my spare clothes and felt my heart drop as I realized it was barely a third full. Hopefully it would be enough.
I helped the boy sit up, pressed the edge of the bottle to his lips, and tilted it up. Aventus drank the potion with an almost worrisome eagerness. Why wasn't he warier about what the potion would do to him? For all he knew, it had been poison. It wasn't, but he knew I was an assassin. Assassins kind of made a living out of killing people.
Once the potion was completely gone, I noticed an instant improvement in his coloring and his breathing. It wasn't perfect, but it was good enough that I wasn't worried about him coughing himself to death anymore. Now my biggest concern was how thin he was.
"Aventus," I said in as calm a voice as I could manage, "when was the last time you ate?"
He gave a small shrug, barely meeting my eyes. A strange resolve started burning in my chest. I stood, promised I would return as soon as possible, and walked calmly for the door. The second I was outside, however, I sprinted down the street as fast as my feet would carry me, heading for my original destination: Candlehearth Hall. It was the only place open in the middle of the night that I could get everything I was after.
Fifteen minutes later, I was back at Aventus's bedside, setting my haul of a loaf of bread, a jug of water, and a flagon of soup (both vessels I had to pay for, which was ridiculous) down and pouring a bit of the water into a cup I'd found upon my return to the house. Over the course of the next hour, I made sure Aventus drank a whole cup of water and half a bowl of soup. The rest, I put up. If I lit the fireplace, I could reheat the rest of the soup for him for later.
After Aventus had eaten, he quickly fell asleep. I smiled softly, running my fingers through his dark mess of hair, gently tugging some of the knots loose. He would need to get it cut soon. I wasn't the best at cutting hair, but I knew someone in the Guild who was a fairly decent hairstylist and who owed me a favor.
Wait, what was I thinking? I wasn't even supposed to be here, let alone considering taking him to the Guild!
And yet, there had been that strange pull toward the house. I had tried to rationalize it away, but maybe it had been the Divines sending me toward someone in need.
I scoffed quietly, taking care not to wake the child. The Divines, wanting me to care for someone? What sort of self-important nonsense was that? If anything, curiosity had sent me here. But the idea stuck with me all through the night. Not the idea of the Divines influencing me, but of taking Aventus with me. He had been ready to cross over into the Void before I had arrived. No one was taking care of him and it was obvious he refused to return to Honorhall. Really, the only choice was for someone to step in and care for him. Why couldn't that someone be me?
The next morning, I awoke just after dawn. In the hours before Aventus woke, I had started a fire - luckily, one of the few spells I knew was how to shoot flames from my palms - warmed up what was left of last night's meal, and had started cleaning the place up a bit. I smiled as cheerfully as I could when I noticed him staring at me. Surprise was written all over his still-groggy features.
"Good morning," I said, keeping my tone light. "How are you feeling?"
"Uh, better," he managed to stammer out. "Thank you?"
My smile felt a little more genuine as I said "You don't have to thank me, but I appreciate it all the same." I set the broom I'd been using down and dished out some of the food before handing a bowl to him. "Careful. Don't want to spill it on yourself, do you?"
I watched as he ate a few small spoonfuls, his eyes hardly ever leaving me. A smirk tugged at my lips, but I managed to keep it off my face. Best not to scare him anymore than he already was.
Once he had eaten as much as he could - I tried not to worry at how little the portion had been - and had taken a few sips of water, Aventus finally asked the question he had been so obviously holding back.
"Why are you here?" he blurted. "Why are you being so nice to me?"
Something inside me hurt at his second question, but I ignored it in favor of answering. "I actually had no plans on coming here at all. I was in Windhelm helping a friend and thought I would drop by and make sure there was no evidence of the Black Sacrament left in the house." A lie, but what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him. "When I saw you, I knew I couldn't just leave."
"But why? I thought assassins killed people, not kept them alive."
I gently covered his hand with my own, looking him dead in the eye. "It doesn't matter if I'm an assassin, a bandit, or even a Forsworn. I would never have left you to die."
There was nothing but silence for the longest of moments as I looked at him. This poor child. I knew I needed to help him. Really, there was only one way I knew I could.
"Aventus, what would you say if I offered to adopt you?
I almost laughed at the look on his face. His eyes were wide, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Finally, he managed to stutter out "Me?"
"Yes, you. Would you like me to adopt you?"
Weak as he still was, there was an astounding strength in the hug he surprised me with. His arms clasped around my neck so tightly I had thought he might strangle me. Words spilled from his lips, barely comprehensible yet overwhelmingly positive.
I couldn't have tampered down my smile even if I had tried.
Two months later, Aventus was back to full health. His illness was completely gone, the life returned to his eyes, cheer in almost every word from his lips. He had been rather entertained by our visit to the Ragged Flagon, though nowhere near as entertained as Delvin had been when he decided to teach the boy a little about sneaking around. I knew that, if being an assassin somehow didn't work out, Aventus would do just fine with the Thieves Guild.
His introduction to the Dark Brotherhood, however, had been the highlight of my entire week.
Aventus had nearly tripped backwards down the stairs when Babette stepped out of the shadows as we walked past her poison garden. He actually tripped over his own feet when we made it to the common room and I introduced him to Nazir. Everyone adored him, which to be honest was a relief. I had been truly worried they would try to make me get rid of him, but after assuring them that, no, Aventus wasn't a vampire, and no, he wasn't going to be given any contracts for a few years, everyone had been perfectly fine with letting him stay with us.
Really, the only thing they worried about was that I had barely stepped outside in weeks. I couldn't help it. I just wanted to make sure Aventus was settling in properly and was regaining his health. I was fine with not taking contracts for a while. I was just adjusting to a large change in my life, that was all.
But then, out of all the people who could have done something about my reluctance to leave, it was our Unholy Matron, the Night Mother, who finally stepped in.
Another child has prayed to their mother, she hissed into my mind one evening as I headed to see if Babette wanted any assistance with her potions. Speak with the forgotten child in Addvar's residence in Solitude. Accept her payment and fulfil the contract.
I was standing in front of the coffin before she had finished talking. "Yes, Mother. I think one of the newer recruits would enjoy the chance to travel." I honestly hadn't been expecting her to say anything back. She never had before, so why would this time be any different?
No, the Night Mother snapped, making me jump. You must be the one to go. The Black Sacrament was performed . . . incorrectly with this one, and only reached me because of the forgotten child's sheer desperation. Go to Solitude and accept the payment.
"But I can't just leave! Aventus hasn't completely settled in yet and I have too many responsibilities around the Sanctuary-"
Are you defying me, Listener? The Night Mother's voice was cold, harsher than normal, and utterly terrifying. You will do as I say, or invoke the wrath of Sithis.
I bowed my head. "Yes, mistress."
Sometimes I really wondered why I had left the Thieves Guild. Nocturnal had never threatened me.
The next evening, only a few minutes after Babette had woken up, I was ready to start my journey. Oh, who was I kidding? I wasn't ready. I was a nervous wreck. I couldn't just leave Aventus! What if I got caught and thrown in jail? It hadn't actually happened before (thank Nocturnal that the Guild had returned to its former power before I had left so bribing guards was an option), but what if it did? I couldn't leave him alone!
Strangely enough, it was Aventus himself that pushed me to go. "I'll be fine," he said as he helped me pack for the trip. "Nazir and Babette both promised they would look after me while you're gone."
"Are you sure? Maybe you should come with me. No, no you can't do that. No contracts until you're at least sixteen."
Aventus, who had brightened considerably at my suggestion, pouted at the reminder of my strictest rule. "But Moooooooom," he whined, slumping his shoulders. "Babette gets to go on contracts all the time!"
"Babette is a centuries-old vampire, not a twelve-year-old boy," I reminded him gently, trying not to grin like a fool at the fact he called me 'Mom.' "Now come on, which set of armor should I wear?"
Aventus grumbled under his breath, something about me not needing three different styles of Dark Brotherhood armor when all anyone ever recognized was the color scheme anyway, but he picked one out all the same. I couldn't help but give him the tightest of hugs before finally tearing myself away to leave.
"Bye!" he said, waving as I walked toward the door. "Bring me back something from Solitude!"
I laughed, returning his gesture. "I will!"
A hug was not what I had been expecting upon my arrival.
Picking the lock on the front door had been child's play, sneaking inside without a sound even more so. Finding the 'forgotten child?' A breeze. There was no door to her room and she could be seen from the entrance. I had crept through the darkened house, gently shook the sleeping child's shoulder, and waited for her to wake and realize just who it was standing in her bedroom.
The second the girl opened her eyes and looked at me, she lunged off the bed and wrapped her tiny arms around my torso. I stumbled back, more from surprise than any actual force, instinctively throwing one of my arms around her narrow shoulders. The girl pulled back after a second, staring up at me with huge blue eyes.
"You're really here!" she said excitedly, though quietly. "I thought it might not work, but you're really here!"
I nudged her backward a bit, encouraging her to sit down. Once she was, I leaned back against the doorframe. "You called?"
She nodded, suddenly more subdued than she had been previously. "I didn't think it would work, since I used a rabbit instead of what the book said I needed. I - I need your help."
I gave her a look, one that had been known to make grown Nords weep in terror. She bit her lip, not meeting my eyes as she said "You help kids, right?"
I didn't like where this was going.
"Depends," I said after a beat of silence. "What do you need help with?"
She sniffled, still not looking at me as she began her tale. "My uncle, he died because he let someone out of the city, someone bad. At first, everyone was kind of sad, but then . . . my mother got real bad. She's in jail now. Papa didn't want to tell me why, but I overheard him saying that she broke into the Hall of the Dead and tried to steal a necklace from Uncle Rogvir's tomb, a Talos amulet. But Talos worship is banned! And now Papa never talks to me or spends time with me. He's always working or sitting upstairs and leaving me all alone."
I knelt down, making myself eye-level with the girl. "So why contact the Dark Brotherhood?" I asked. "Why not tell the city guards?"
Finally, she looked at me. "B-because you help kids, right? I mean, I heard . . ."
Ohhhh. That traitorous little sneak! Delvin and I were going to have words the next time I was in Riften. Now he was spreading rumors that the Dark Brotherhood was less 'murder people from the shadows' and more 'help wayward children find good homes.' Not that I wasn't going to help this girl. I was an assassin, not heartless.
"Okay sweetheart, why don't you tell me who you performed the Sacrament for? Do you want me to take care of your mother? Your father?"
The girl's eyes went wide. "No! No, don't hurt them! Please!"
There was that reluctant, sad look again. "No one. I just - I just thought you could help. The other kids, they said the Dark Brotherhood helps children."
Forget words. I was going to shoot an arrow where the sun didn't shine. Delvin owed me dearly for this.
I took a second to think about what to do next. It would be another huge change, but I could probably talk the others into letting another child stay in the Sanctuary. Babette would probably love having another girl around. Oh, Divines damn it. I knew there was no way I could leave her now that the thought had crossed my mind.
"Tell me something first. What's your name?"
"Okay Svari, here's what we're going to do. I'm going to go upstairs and have a little talk with your father - no, I'm not going to kill him," I added quickly after seeing a look of pure panic cross her face. "I'm just going to talk. Now, if he says it's okay, what would you say to coming along with me and being a part of my family?"
No one could miss the way her eyes lit up at my offer. "Really? You mean it?"
"Really. There's so many of us; you'd never be alone unless you wanted to."
"Would I have brothers and sisters?"
I couldn't stop the laugh that managed to escape. "Yes and yes. Oh my goodness, yes. And so many aunts and uncles too." The Guild counted, right? "So, Svari, what do you say? Do you want to join my family?"
She nodded enthusiastically, a huge smile splitting her face in two. "Yes!"
"Then go ahead and pack up what you want to take while I go have a talk with your father," I said, returning her smile. I stood and started making my way up the stairs, forcing the grin off my face as I prepared to have a talk with Addvar.
The man was sound asleep, a fact which actually irritated me. How had our conversation not woken him up? My hand twitched toward my blade, the urge to slit his throat while he slept on almost too powerful to ignore. But no. I had promised Svari I wouldn't kill him. And I kept my promises. But I did draw my blade, if only to scare him once he was awake.
A sharp tap against his shoulder with the hilt of my knife was enough to startle Addvar from his rest. A predatory grin and a cold blade against his throat was enough to keep him from crying out.
"Well, well, well,' I drew out, dark humor saturating my voice. "Someone's been a very bad parent, haven't they, Addvar? So bad, in fact, that their poor little girl summoned the Dark Brotherhood so she could have a new family! Imagine that; wanting a family of assassins because your father was too busy to pay attention to you."
"Wha - no! Svari wouldn't. She couldn't!"
I pressed the blade harder against his neck, the humor fading from my face, leaving only the dark predator. "Svari is a very resourceful girl. And if you want to keep your head attached to your body and not rolling down the stairs, you will let me take her. Everyone will get what they want. Svari will have a new family that truly cares, you won't have to deal with an unwanted child, and I will fulfill my contract. Do we have a deal?"
"B-but what will I tell people?" Addvar whined. "What will I tell her mother?"
"I don't care, so long as it isn't the truth. And trust me, word spreads faster than you could ever imagine. If you tell anyone, I will find out and I will return. Now, do we have a deal?"
"Yes! Yes, we have a deal!"
That dark smile once against slid onto my features as I said "Good" just before I knocked him back out.
Back downstairs, Svari was waiting by the door, a small bag slung over her shoulder, a smile on her face. I smiled back at her, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder as I led her out the door. As we walked down the darkened street of Solitude, I thought about what I could send to the Void in lieu of her parents. Maybe since she had used a rabbit for the Sacrament, I could send another one to Sithis? The idea of sending a tiny fluffy creature to the Dread Lord was enough to send me into peals of laughter. Rabbit it was.
It wasn't until I walked into the Sanctuary and heard Aventus calling my name that I remembered I hadn't warned anyone I was bringing Svari home with me.
"Aventus? Remember how you asked me to bring you back something from Solitude? Well . . . come meet your new sister."
Svari wasn't too interested in the Dark Brotherhood. Oh, she liked having so many people calling her 'little sister,' and as expected she and Babette adored each other, but the whole 'training to kill' thing just didn't interest her. The Thieves Guild, however, interested her very much. And since I had brought both her and Aventus with me when I went to rake Delvin over the coals (not literally, though it had been a close call), she had gotten a very good look at the Cistern and the people within.
I had very nearly laughed when it became glaringly obvious that Svari was infatuated with Vex. It was kind of adorable, really. Vex seemed indifferent to it, but I could tell she was torn between flattered and annoyed. At the very least, it was something she could hold over Delvin's head.
At first, the relationship between Aventus and Svari had been strained. Aventus hadn't said anything, but I could tell he had been afraid he was being replaced. But after I made it perfectly clear nothing of the sort was happening, he started opening up to Svari. Soon enough, they were racing through the Sanctuary while playing tag, hiding behind the tattered banners while playing hide and seek. Sometimes they even roped the new initiates into their games, and, on one memorable occasion, Nazir.
Everything was perfect. My family felt complete.
And then I visited Rorikstead.
Even if questioned by Akatosh himself, I would protest that what happened at Rorikstead was in no way my fault and that Lemkil got precisely what he deserved.
I had visited the inn to meet with the one giving me my latest contract when I heard a man in the corner grumbling about his 'worthless children' and wishing he could 'just sell them off to the highest bidder, not that anyone would bid for them.' All I could see was red. I had my knife drawn before I even knew what I was doing. The instant I realized what I had been about to do, commit a murder in front of several witnesses, one of which was a town guard, I forced myself to hide the blade. It would do me no good to get sent to jail. No, I had to bide my time.
Later, in the dark of night, I crept into the man's - Lemkil, his name was - home and slit his throat while he slept.
Once the deed was done, I wiped the blood from my blade and started on my way out the door, only to be stopped by the sounds of a child crying in her sleep. In an instant, I was by the child's bedside, making certain to put myself in front of her so she wouldn't be able to see the body of her father. A gentle hand on her arm was enough to rouse her from her slumber, though I didn't miss the way she jerked back as if afraid before she had even opened her eyes. I hadn't made Lemkil's death nearly painful enough, had I?
"Did you have a nightmare?" I asked softly, keeping my voice low so as not to wake the other child.
The girl looked at me, a new kind of fear in her eyes, fear of the unfamiliar rather than fear of pain. After a second or so, she nodded.
She shook her head, her lips pressed tightly together. Maybe a different tactic would work to calm her down. (I wasn't an idiot; I knew that finding a stranger in her home in the middle of the night was probably terrifying for the child, but perhaps I could help her recover from her nightmare.)
"You know, I have nightmares too," I said conversationally. "All the time."
"Really? Dragons have nightmares?"
I blinked. "What."
The girl didn't seem to notice my confusion as she smiled up at me. "You're the dragon! I knew they weren't just dreams!"
Ah. A budding psychic, then. Evette would love to meet her, I was sure. But Evette didn't particularly care for children. I did, though. I cared too much, sometimes.
"Your father-" I didn't miss the way she flinched at my words "- is . . . no longer able to care for you and your sister."
"Am I gonna go to Honorhall?" she asked hesitantly. I didn't blame her. Grelod the Kind had been in charge for years and it hadn't been a secret that she truly hated children. No one really knew if Constance cared more than Grelod had. (Well, I knew, but that was because I made sure Constance was being good to those kids with a few surprise visits every time I was in Riften.)
"You can if you want," I said, tilting my head in consideration. "Or you could join my family."
"Does Britte have to come, too?"
"Do you not want her to?"
Hesitantly, she shook her head. "She's really mean. She beats me up and calls me a liar all the time. But I'm not a liar! You're real, so the other dragons must be, right?"
So instead of rallying together, her sister turned on her? Well, that just wouldn't do.
"Britte will have to go to Honorhall," I decided. "My children don't like bullies, and neither do I."
"You have kids?"
I smiled. "Yes. Two, actually. Three, if you want to join my family."
In response, the girl threw her arms around my neck and hugged me tight. My smile grew as I returned the favor.
Dawn that morning would find Britte dropped off in front of the inn, a note pinned to her dress warning everyone of the bloody mess her home had become, and Sissel and I long gone on our way home.
Taking care of Sissel was . . . different than my other two. Her dreams - visions, I knew but did not tell her - constantly woke her up screaming, even though she insisted that they weren't actually scary. After nearly a week of everyone being woken up by terrified screams that didn't come from the torture chamber, I finally decided to set up a small bed for her in my room. I had the room furthest from everyone else's, so hopefully they wouldn't be woken up any more.
It took her two nights to go from her bed to mine, curling up to my side as she slept. It took two after that to realize her terror filled awakenings stopped so long as there was someone there with her. I had no problem with this revelation. I was willing to do whatever was needed to help my children, in whatever manner they required.
I threw my hood back as I made my way through the black door. The contract had taken so much longer than I had expected it would take to fulfil it. I had been off my game the whole time, constantly worried that something would go horribly wrong at home. I had never left Sissel alone before. How would she fair without someone there while she slept? How would the others fair with another child waiting for me to return?
All of my worries were for naught, I realized as I made my way to my bedroom. There, sound asleep on my bed, were my children. All of them. Aventus, Svari, and Sissel were curled up under the blanket, tucked beside and on top of one another. I smiled softly as I toed off my boots and tossed my gloves onto the table. There was just enough room left for a person of my stature to lay down, right there on the edge of the bed.
I sat down on the edge of the bed as gently as I could, nudging Svari slightly as to give me enough room to lay down. As I slowly drifted off into sleep, I found myself grateful that I had been led back to the house that started it all. That one impulsive decision had given me my family.
Maybe I should introduce them to my sister . . .