Brutus Arenicci was going to die, though Ginna didn’t know how she was going to pull it off yet. The Black Sacrament could be performed in prison, but killing the guards wouldn’t be easy and getting her hands on the rest of the items she needed damn near impossible. They had dropped her into isolation, and the only person she’d seen for the last week had been the same guard who slid her meals across the floor morning, noon and night. They’d advised her to get cozy in her cell; she was going to be there a long time, but she’d promised herself after they gave her the letter from Brutus that when she got out of prison, and she would get out, she was going to hunt that bastard down and kill him. Slowly.
She felt like such an idiot. She’d always prided herself on her observational skills and yet all the signs had been there. After Brutus became Gray Fox, a title Severus had wished to pass down to her, Brutus’s unconscious efforts to destroy the Guild had become painstakingly obvious. At first she’d just thought he was making foolish mistakes, but the more time she had to dwell on it, the more likely it seemed that he was tearing the Guild apart on purpose. He’d been Severus’s first protégé, but after their mentor brought Ginna to live in House Dareloth, the Gray Fox had taken a special interest in her fostering and Brutus had never forgiven him for it.
They’d grown up together, been trained and raised in the art of thievery as siblings charged with watching each other’s backs, but as with any siblings, rivalry for father’s affection drove a wedge between them and sowed seeds of jealousy into Brutus’s heart that he’d never quite gotten over. Even after Severus’s death, Ginna yielded, wholeheartedly supporting Brutus’s ascension to Guildmaster; she’d never wanted the position. It was too much responsibility and would take her out of the field, but the slight of Severus choosing her instead of him to take his place had made him even bitterer.
Look at Father’s precious girl now. He’d be so ashamed if he could see his perfect little thief there in that cell. At least he’d be happy to know you’ll be well cared for in prison. Three squares a day and thick, impenetrable walls to warm you during the long, endless winter months in Skyrim. I’d love to see you ghost your way out of this one.
Fare thee well, my dear sister. Nocturnal bless and keep you until we meet again.
Your Loving Brother in Crime
With little else to do in her newfound abundance of spare time, she’d read it at least a thousand times, and though she wanted to, she didn’t cry. Betrayed; by her own family. She would have rather he’d sent the Dark Brotherhood after her, but Brutus knew a prison sentence was far worse than death for someone like them. He’d caged her like a bird and clipped her wings until they were little more than nubs that would never carry her to the sky again.
She hated him for it.
She’d never hated him before, not the way he hated her. She’d loved and respected him, even looked up to him despite his many flaws, but as she fumed and stewed there in that cell, she vowed to herself that when she managed to escape Solitude, she’d twist a knife into his belly herself and sit back with a bottle of mead just watching him writhe and plead as he bled out.
Seven days passed; probably the longest week of her life. She raged inside, the fire in her belly burning so hot at times she actually wished she’d just explode. The guards kept their distance, never getting close enough for her to pick their pockets for the key, but on the eighth day her salvation came in a form she’d never expected.
The thick and arrogant sound of Erikur’s voice actually sickened her a little when she heard it echoing through the dark corridors of the dungeon, but as he grew closer with every word, she caught a second voice and though she’d never admit it, even to herself, it was a voice she was actually glad to hear.
“And so you see, the lass was only doing what I asked her to do. You have to understand that. We’re in a bad way, down in Riften, Erikur. A bad, bad way. We need to gain ground in Skyrim again, or we’re going to fall apart.”
Brynjolf? She had thought about killing him too during that very long week, but every time she’d tried to imagine it, she remembered that sad confusion in his eyes when the guard had clapped her in irons, the careful formation of that silent apology. It hadn’t been his fault. He’d only been doing his job, just as she had been doing hers, but maybe if he’d kept his hands out of her pockets, none of it would have ever happened in the first place.
“You picked the wrong guy to gain ground with, Brynjolf.” Erikur growled. “You should have come to me first, and at least let me know I was part of your little plan. I would have been more than happy to play along… for a price. That bitch of yours gave me a headache I haven’t been able to shake off for more than a week, and just letting her walk out of here seems a gods damned shame.”
“We owe you a considerable debt. As you already know, Maven’s sunk a great deal of coin into her release, and the Guild will be at your disposal should you ever require our services.”
Their shadows stretched across the walls, growing closer as their voices grew louder.
“A considerable debt indeed, and one I won’t soon forget.” Erikur assured him. “The only reason I’m doing this is because I have so much respect for Maven, and she has promised me you’d get this girl out of the city before I strangle her with my bare hands.”
“And I will. You have my word.”
Ginna didn’t move from the floor, but sat with her back propped against the wall when they approached. The cell was so dark, the burning torchlight Erikur held in front of the door actually made her eyes ache, so she turned her gaze into her shoulder to avoid it.
“Ah. There’s the miserable little gutter wretch now, all rags and humiliation…” Erikur laughed at his own jest as he lifted his keys to sift through them for the right one. “I meant what I said, Brynjolf. Get her out of Solitude before the sun goes down, or I’ll have both of you thrown back into this cell so fast, not even Maven Black-Briar’s influence will be able to save you.”
“Come on, Ginna. I’m taking you home.”
Home? She no longer had a home to go back to. He held out a hand to her, long fingers stretching in a gesture of trust and friendship, but why? She didn’t reach for it, but leveled her squinting gaze at him to try and understand why he would put his neck on the line to help a stranger. His eyes gleamed like jewels in the torchlight, reminding her for a moment of what he’d taken from her before his little stunt had landed her where she now sat.
She spat at his hand, her temper momentarily outweighing her desire for revenge, and then she looked back down at the floor.
“All right,” Erikur began to back out of the cell. “Let her rot here, for all I care.”
Brynjolf wiped his hand on his pants, tilting his head as he took a deep breath to calm himself. She imagined he had quite a temper. Redheads always did. “I went to a lot of trouble to get you out of here, Ginna. Now let’s move before the good man changes his mind again.”
She regarded him for a moment, watched him hold his hand out to her again, and then she lowered her eyes to the floor once more in shame. She felt so helpless and defeated, the depression of Brutus’s betrayal mingling with her doubt and confusion as she had weighed out every moment of her life during that last week of seclusion.
He didn’t know her, didn’t owe her anything, and yet there he was. People in their line of work rarely lent a hand to a fellow thief unless they were in the same guild family or had history together, and neither of those descriptions fit. Surely he was going to expect something in return; people like them always did, and though she quickly called to mind that hard reminder of his arousal while they’d been skirmishing at the Embassy, he didn’t seem the type to ask for those kinds of favors.
Then again, she knew nothing of him at all; maybe he was exactly that type, and if all it was going to take to repay him was a roll and tumble in the hay, she’d definitely slept with a few less attractive men in her days. Tentatively, she reached for his hand, and he drew her up from the floor with a hard yank.
“Here, put these on.” He handed her a loose-fitting tavern dress and she slipped it on over the rags they’d given her after stripping her of her belongings.
As she glanced down at the threadbare dress, she realized it was almost as humiliating as the rags they’d put her in. It made her look like a child playing too hard at being grown up, and when he noticed her discomfort, she swore he grinned a little—as if he’d humbled her with his choice of clothing.
“Make sure you keep her out of Solitude for a good, long time,” Erikur called as Brynjolf lowered his hand onto her shoulder and led her down the dark, winding corridor to freedom. “Next time I won’t be nearly so forgiving. And keep your hands out of other people’s pockets while you’re in my city. Both of you.”
They didn’t speak, only walked. He hadn’t even given her a pair of shoes to wear, and the hard ground was cold beneath her bare feet, stones nipping at the sensitive skin with every step she treaded forward, but she didn’t complain. Brynjolf hustled her through the busy streets of Solitude quickly, guiding her out the gates before he said anything to her at all. Several times she glanced back over her shoulder at him, but he didn’t even look at her when she did. He seemed focused, his stare straightforward as they passed the stables.
“Where are you taking me?” she finally asked.
“We need to find you a pair of shoes,” he said, pausing near the stables and turning around to finally look down at her. “It’s a good long walk to Riften, and you’ll never make it in your bare feet.”
“Riften?” She stared up at him, crossing her arms over her chest almost defiantly. “What’s in Riften?”
“My guild,” he explained. “I watched you like a hawk at the Embassy, lass. You’ve got skill, and we could use someone like you right now.”
She remembered hearing him tell Erikur that his guild was in a bad way. She’d heard similar rumors that the guild branch in High Rock was failing as well, and even the Khajiit caravans were experiencing troubles. Nocturnal help them. Was all of Tamriel cursed?
“Well, if it’s anything like my guild, I don’t want any part of it. I’m done getting stabbed in the back over coin.”
“From what I’ve gathered, you don’t have much of a choice, lass,” he pointed out. “You can’t go back to Cyrodiil. They’ll be on the lookout for you, but if you’d like me to take you back to Solitude and ask Erikur to lock you up in that cell, I have a feeling he’d be more than glad to do it. And he might actually take what you denied him when you slipped that bit of poison into his drink,” he narrowed his gaze down over her to emphasize his point. “Besides, you owe me a debt now, and I fully plan for you to repay it. I had to do some pretty fast talking to convince Maven to help you out, and she’ll be expecting you to pay her back as well.”
“I owe you a debt?” She’d been expecting it, but she leaned back to look at him incredulously anyway. Did this man’s nerve know no bounds?
“Aye,” he nodded. “If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be sitting in that cell.”
“If it wasn’t for you, I would have never gotten caught in the first place,” she pointed out.
“I’m not the one who set you up to take a fall.” She lowered the hard ice of her glare to the ground at her feet. She hated that he was right. “You were doomed the minute you walked into that job, lass.”
“Maybe,” she sighed. “Setup or not, I would have gotten out clean if you hadn’t dug your grubby little paws into my pocket and taken my good luck charm.”
Fishing into his pants, he drew out the emerald and held it up to her. “You mean this?” She reached out to snatch it back from him, but he palmed it quickly, closing his fingers around it in a tight fist. “This is just a jewel, a pretty one, yes, and it’ll fetch us the coin we need to get to Riften, but in the end we make our own luck, lass, and right now, I’m the luckiest charm you’ve got.”
“You are not selling that emerald,” she balked. “It belongs to me.”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” he started, glancing toward the farm at her back. “Show me what you’re made of. Find a way to get us enough coin to get to Riften, and I’ll give you back your little bauble. But if you can’t, I’m selling it to the first fence we cross paths with.”
She followed his gaze to the quiet farmstead, eying both the house and the stable. “Deal.” She held out her hand to shake on it, and watched the corner of his perfect mouth tug upright into a grin as he reached for it. They shook hands and then she stepped back, scanning Katla’s farm again for obscure entry points.
Everyone who worked the farm was out in the field harvesting crops, even the farmer’s son, and the stablemaster was occupied with re-shoeing the horses. No one even seemed to notice when she ducked in and out of both buildings, her shallow pockets brimming with jewelry and coin and a small sack under her arm, stuffed with apples for the road. She’d slipped into a pair of Katla’s old leather boots before sneaking out of the house, passing by the woman’s husband, Brilling, and deftly wiping everything from his pockets without incident. They’d never even known she was there.
Brynjolf crouched down on a log near the side of the road, waiting with his arms crossed for her to return. “Nice work,” he nodded appreciatively as she held up the loot for him to inspect. “I have a contact in Markarth I can sell to and we can probably scrape enough coin take a carriage from there, but it’s still quite a ways to the Reach. I hope those boots are comfortable.”
She wiggled her toes inside the leather as they both glanced down at her feet, and then she shrugged. “They’ll do.”
“Shall we go then?”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
He brought his hand up, opening his fingers to reveal the emerald clenched in his palm. “Holding onto something like this seems a real shame. You sure you can’t be convinced to sell it?”
“It has sentimental value,” she said, swiping it out of his hand and tucking it into her pocket. “And if I ever catch you trying to take it from me again, I’ll cut your gods damned fingers off.”
“Whoa, lass,” he laughed, leaning back and holding up his hand. “A sentimental thief,” he pondered thoughtfully, pushing himself to stand and dusting off his backside. “That’s an interesting concept. I can bring you ten more just like it. What’s so special about that jewel?”
She hesitated in answering, a part of her recognizing that though she owed him a debt for springing her from prison, that didn’t mean she had to tell him every personal detail of her life. He already knew more about her than most people she’d encountered, including her real name.
Relieved, she stroked it almost covetously inside her pocket, fingers working over every familiar cut in the stone. She had memorized its features over the years, lying in bed at night running her fingertips across its surface, becoming one with it. He could have put a blindfold on her and put ten emeralds just like in her hand, but she would always know which one was hers. It wasn’t enchanted, and she knew it didn’t have any real power to keep her light on her feet and one with the shadows, but it felt that way to her. That was all that mattered.
Her silence finally prompted him to shrug and shake his head. “Everyone’s entitled to their secrets, Ginna.” She was beginning to think he just liked saying her name because she hadn’t given it to him and he’d learned it anyway. “Come on, let’s go.”