Ginna had always envied the Altmer. Beautiful, graceful, powerful… dangerous. As a little girl she used to hide in the shadows of the White Gold Tower watching the Thalmor soldiers march the streets and daydreaming she was one of them. Prestigious, glamorous, rich, she found herself curious about what types of things such people would carry in their pockets, so she started reaching in as they would pass by. She would quietly sneak behind them and draw out their coin and precious personal items and then pull back into the shadows again to inspect them. Some of them she kept, hiding them in the floorboard under her bed so her father, Hakon, wouldn’t find them, others she would drop into the sewer grates for fear of what might happen to her if someone caught her with them in her pockets.
After a time, the thrill of getting caught was half the rush, a part of her coming to depend on the adrenaline surge that made her heart thump in her chest every time she worked herself up to the task.
But she never got caught; at least she thought she hadn’t. She never realized there were others like her, and those who kept to the shadows had been watching her. The Gray Fox, who she later came to know as Severus Ventius, master of the Thieves Guild in Cyrodiil. Hidden among the shades of buildings, eyeing her as she dropped her hands into the pockets of others and lifted out their personal effects with fingers light as feathers, he had followed her around for nearly a month before finally letting her know she’d been caught.
“Throwing away perfectly good gold should be punishable by death.” Severus grabbed her one afternoon in the alley behind her father’s apartment building, heavy fingers curling around her upper arm until she could feel the sensitive skin bruising under his grasp. “But you won’t be doing that again, girl. Come with me.”
She knew who The Gray Fox was. His men had come to rough her father up more than a few times throughout the course of her life. Hakon liked to drink and when he drank, he gambled. He owed everyone in Cyrodiil more coin than he would ever have to pay them all back, and then some. After Severus caught her, he used her father’s debts to his advantage—claiming her as his protégé to settle Hakon’s debts and then running him out of the city. She was all of eight-years-old the day her da left Cyrodiil for good, mumbling good riddance to bad rubbish without even looking back over his shoulder at his own flesh and blood.
Ginna should have cared, but she didn’t. Hakon was her father only because he’d slept with a whore and put a baby in her belly, but he wasn’t her family. She’d been a burden to him, little more than a servant, when he was actually around. She’d spent most of her life fending for herself, but Severus promised her the day he took her in that she would never want for anything again. He would teach her to hone her skills to her advantage and make her richer than she ever dreamed possible.
And he had done just as he’d promised. He’d been the only one in her life who ever had and she had loved him better than she’d loved her own father.
“You can be anything you want, anyone you want, Ginna. A priestess today, a contessa tomorrow.”
“Not an Altmer.”
He laughed at her then, his soft hand coming down to stroke her pudgy cheek. “No, dear child. You can never be an Altmer, but you can make them wish that they were you.”
“By being everything to everyone, while also being nothing to anyone at all. You are a shadow, Ginna, and shadows can always change.”
She’d never fully understood those words, and even now, as she sat watching Ambassador Elenwen float among her guests like a glorious vision of light and beauty, she still didn’t get it. Severus had died when Ginna was six and twenty, his place as Guildmaster passing to Brutus Arenicci and all of his mysteries going with him to the grave. A year had passed since his death, and yet she still found herself pondering his mysteries and wisdom as if he somehow still whispered them into her ear.
Gaze passing across the room, she lifted her brandy to her lips and sipped slowly while peering over the edge of her snifter. She smudged the color from her lips off the edge of the glass and leaned back, the liquor warming through her like fire, calming the nervous tingle in her belly that always gripped her just before a heist job—especially one with a payoff as big as the one she was going to walk away with when she got back to Cyrodiil.
Brutus had contracted her out to Denthor Galleon, one of the richest, and perhaps fattest collectors in Cyrodiil. The man never failed to disgust her, but he was one of their better paying clients, and jobs from him were never to be turned down. Denthor had a penchant for Elven artifacts and boyish young men, and judging from the sketches Markus showed her, the statue he’d sent her to retrieve was oddly enough a perfect combination of both.
She had yet to see the blessed thing anywhere in the Embassy, but Markus promised her before she left that it was small enough to carry out unnoticed and she’d have no problems getting it across the border, which she was more than ready to do. Her father was a Nord, from Windhelm, but even he hadn’t been able to handle the cold. War had driven him south into Cyrodiil, and that was where he’d met her mother. At least that was the story he’d told her.
Skyrim was naught but ice and snow, and she longed for the warmth of the gardens of home. The Imperial City wasn’t as strong as it once was, not after the White Gold Tower fell to the Aldmeri Dominion during the Great War, but it was still a proud city and she had always called it home. Closing her eyes, she could almost smell the cherry blossoms in full bloom, their delicious fragrance wafting on the slow breeze amidst the fresh smell of constantly moving water. She could almost hear the rush of waves lapping at the sides of the canal that ran through the city, gondolas sweeping up and down the wet streets, carrying passengers wherever they needed to go.
“You looked like you could use another drink.” The smooth brogue that interrupted her thoughts came from over her left shoulder. Opening her eyes, she glanced up into the hovering shadow that obscured the flickering lights of the chandelier just overhead.
Holding up her half-full glass, she shook her head. “No thank you. I’ve already got a drink.”
“My mistake.” He drew back to look at her, the light cast across his face then to reveal the most dazzling set of green eyes she’d ever seen. Green, like emeralds. The very first treasure she’d ever pickpocketed and kept in that little box under the floorboards in her father’s home had been a flawless emerald. She’d always had a particular fondness for them after that, the way they captured the light when you held them up to inspect them. They were her one weakness. She still had that very first emerald she’d stolen. She kept it on her person at all times, like a good luck charm.
“What can I do for you, friend?” she asked. “You were obviously looking for an excuse to come and talk to me. Now that you’re here, let’s not waste each other’s time.”
“All these interesting people to watch, conversations to listen in on… and here you sit in the shadows all alone. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you had something to hide, lass.”
She threw back her head and laughed, great undulating waves of sound that quickly dispersed into the conversation of the party. She’d seen him when she came in, lingering in the corner at the side of an elegant, dark-haired, older woman dressed in the finest clothes. Not finer than Ginna’s, but hers were stolen. That woman owned what she was wearing. Really owned it, as if it had been custom tailored to her lithe form. She’d dismissed him easily, thinking him little more than the woman’s toy, but he had been the first person in the room she’d noticed on account of his fiery hair. Much like emeralds, she’d always had a thing for redheads; something about them just seemed to stand out in a crowd and he’d definitely stood out. His clothes were as fine as her own, and though they looked good on him, he didn’t own his outfit either. She could tell.
Severus had taught her long ago how to size up every mark in a room, how to weigh pockets with nothing more than a glance and detect falsehood in the eyes of everyone around her. She didn’t know what this guy’s game was, but he was definitely playing false with her.
When he caught the direction of her gaze, he said, “Maven Black-Briar. She owns the Black-Briar Meadery in Riften, and pins more than half of Skyrim under her thumb. She is quite possibly the most powerful woman in this room and she’s been sizing you up all night.”
“And why’s that?”
“She doesn’t know you,” he explained. “No one here seems to.”
“I’m an open book,” she assured him. “Ask me anything. What would you like to know?”
“Will you dance with me?”
“Dance with you?” She laughed again, tossing the white-gold locks of her hair over her shoulder. He hadn’t come all the way over there to dance with her. He was fishing for information, probably sent by Maven Black-Briar to find out whatever he could, using his most valuable asset: his charm.
“Don’t tell me they don’t dance in Cyrodiil anymore.” He held out a hand to her, expectant, as if he’d known before the words left his lips she wouldn’t be able to turn him down.
“Of course we do.” She lowered her small dainty fingers into his wide palm and he curled his gentle grip around hers, drawing her up from her chair and sweeping her close to his chest with a swift gesture that made her feel as if she were light as air. He was so much taller than she was, she felt like little more than a child nestled against him. “How did you know I was from Cyrodiil?”
Moving in closer, one hand on melded to her hip and the other clasping her own between them as he moved, he breathed her in and whispered, “You smell of cherry blossoms.” Their display had prompted others to join in, the quartet of musicians striking up a slow waltz that brought timid couples together and circled them almost awkwardly across the floor. But there was nothing awkward about the way this stranger moved with her, and for a moment that only served to make her more uncomfortable. “Do you have a name?” he asked.
“I thought you only wanted to dance.” She smirked up at him, the ice of her eyes glinting with mischief.
“I never dance with a girl without at least getting her name.” He lifted an eyebrow, the corner of his mouth tugging into a smug grin that nearly matched her own. He had delicious lips, she thought, formed like a bow and nestled just under the neatly-trimmed red hair of his mustache, and the jagged scar that marred his left cheek only served to make him seem more exciting and dangerous. Yes, he was dangerous. She could feel it emanating from him, burning through her skin and setting off every alarm in her body, but she didn’t stiffen. Stiffening would let him know she was wary, and she didn’t want him to know anything about her.
“Surely you saw my name on the guest list.”
She leaned into the turn as they spun together, flowing outward as he extended his arm and then following in as he drew her back to his chest. She felt the beat of her heart speed up at their closeness. It had been a long time since she’d been with a man; most of them were pigs anyway, and she was sure this one was no different. Breathe, Ginna, she told herself, but that simple, automated response seemed to shut down every time she glanced up into those sharp, green eyes.
“Aye, lass,” he nodded. “But I’ve been staring at you all night, and you just don’t look like a Svetlana, no matter how I squint my eyes or turn my head.”
The guy was good; a little too good.
“Then who do I look like, if not who I say I am?”
“I haven’t quite figured that out yet, but when I do…” His words trailed off as the song ended and the bodies began to move away from the center of the floor. They were still standing there, still holding onto each other, and though it was only for a few seconds it felt like too long.
“Well, thank you for the dance.” She drew back and pulled her fingers out of his. “It was lovely.”
Turning away from him, she started to walk back to her table, weaving through the milling bodies still awkwardly cluttering the edge of the floor. “Don’t you want to at least know my name?” he called after her. She glanced back only for a second, making eye contact and then moving forward again. “It’s Brynjolf,” he said, just a little too loudly for her liking. Everyone at the party was looking at them, and she’d learned long ago to never make a scene in a place she was planning to get away from clean.
Shuffling into the corridor, she leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. Her heart was still racing; she could still feel the warmth of his strong hand resting loosely on her hip, the exhale of his breath fluttering through her hair before passing across her cheek when he’d tugged her closer. It made her skin feel warm just thinking about it, about his strong hands, his solid form against hers in a dark room.
Ugh. It had been a long time since she’d been with a man. Long enough that she felt distracted and she couldn’t afford a distraction. Not then, not before she finished the job. Calming herself with deep, focused breaths, she reached into the inner pocket of her dress to draw out the Embassy layout Brutus had mapped out for her. Her racing heart nearly stopped beating completely. Her pocket was empty, both the layout and her emerald, gone.
She’d spoken to many of the guests throughout the night, but the only person who’d gotten close enough to touch her had been… “Brynjolf,” she scowled into her shoulder, glancing back toward the open door she’d just come through. “That son of a bitch.”
A thief… and a light-fingered pickpocket to boot. She should have known. She remembered a time when the guilds actually communicated with each other to avoid botching a job by sending two thieves to hit the same mark, but things had started going downhill even before Severus died. There was almost no treatise between guilds at all anymore and the lack of organization was rolling them all downhill into the gutters.
But this thief… He had a lot of nerve. No one had ever picked her pocket and lived to tell the tale. His taking the Embassy layout didn’t matter. She’d spent the entire trip memorizing the layout, and she was relatively sure she didn’t really need to look at it one more time. It was the loss of her emerald that made her shudder. She’d had it for almost twenty years, and though she’d never been superstitious, that emerald was her good luck charm.
She leaned around the corner to peer back into the room. She expected to find him standing next to Maven Black-Briar again, whispering whatever he thought he might have learned into her ear, but he wasn’t. He lingered near the food table, picking through the offerings as if they bored him.
Nobody stole from her. She was going to have to kill him, she thought, cynically drawing in another deep breath and then releasing it to calm herself.
Shame too. He had really pretty eyes.