Ginna learned relatively quickly that Brynjolf was a talker, maybe even a bit of a braggart, but she wouldn’t lie; she liked the sound of his voice.
A travel companion who actually talked was something she wasn’t particularly used to, having worked so closely with Brutus most of her life, who’d always preferred brooding silence to conversation, and often glared at her when she would talk while they were walking together. Severus had explained that Brutus believed brooding made him seem more mysterious, but Ginna had always found his disposition unnerving. Growing up together, she already knew all there was to know about him, or at least she’d thought she did. There were a lot of things she thought she knew that she was suddenly beginning to question.
Now she was the silent, brooding, mysterious one, and though she did enjoy listening to his voice, most of what Brynjolf said passed over her head while they walked. It wasn’t anything of consequence anyway; nothing personal or revealing, just mindless chatter she could have effectively lived out the rest of her life having not been exposed to had it come from anyone else. But when he started talking about his guild, she actually found herself listening.
“I think you’ll fit in down there,” he said. “They are good people, a real family.”
Ha! Family. She’d had just about enough of family to last her a lifetime.
“Our little Vex will probably take a bit of warming before she comes around. She’s never been good with competition, and I hate to say it, but I think you’ll give her a fair run for her money. Delvin, on the other hand, will probably fall all over himself trying to get your attention.”
“Delvin Mallory?” she turned her head toward him.
“You know old Delvin?”
“Only by name. He wrote a book about the Shadowmarks your guild uses. One of my guild sisters brought it into the house when I was still a girl to compare them to our own marks.”
“You mean you’re not still a girl?” he jested. “You can’t be more than seventeen from the looks of you.”
“You got one of those numbers right, but which one, I’ll never tell,” she winked.
“So you’re fifteen, then?”
Her lips twisted into a smirk, which she freely cast in his direction. She’d always been small for one of Nord blood, her Imperial mother likely having had something to do with her size. Her stature gave her an advantage someone Brynjolf’s size would never have. Often able to squeeze herself into places few others dared try, her guild family had taken to calling her Ghost because sometimes it seemed as if she simply passed through walls no one else could penetrate.
She wondered if any of them even missed her, if they knew what Brutus had done to her. Would they have even cared?
She’d always felt safe with them; a false illusion, as she knew there was no such thing as safety. But they’d been her brothers, her sisters, her family, and that family hadn’t been the same at all since Severus passed. Many of them had moved on from the guild completely, choosing to freelance, rather than pay tribute to a guildmaster they didn’t trust or believe in, but those who’d stayed had done so out of support for Brutus. She wasn’t in a frame of mind or personal position that allowed the luxury of succumbing to melancholy, even though it was all she could feel. The betrayal of her own brother… Nocturnal! Why hadn’t she seen it coming?
“I haven’t been fifteen in a very long time,” she assured him, pulling back from the painful memories before they could overrun her and drive her into the ground.
“Good to know,” he lifted an eyebrow, the corner of his mouth tugging slightly upward. They’d been walking for hours, and she actually felt a little relieved when he finally said, “Looks like a storm’s coming. We should make camp,” and gestured toward a cave just up ahead.
There was a bear in the cave, which he quickly dispatched with an arrow dipped in poison before leading her into its dark depths, striking a torch and asking her to hold it while he made ready a fire. It wasn’t anything like home, but it was somewhat dry, and she soon found herself grateful for that because the sky opened up and poured thunderous volumes of rain down on the road. She lingered close to the fire, warming the damp from her bones and roasting an apple on a stick while he rubbed his hands together briskly to rid himself of chills.
For a time she just watched the light of the fire dance in the long locks of his bright hair, studying him and trying to figure out his story. She’d been right about him being dangerous when she’d danced with him at the Embassy, and yet he’d proven to be somewhat kinder than her own brother in crime. Trusting him was out of the question, and she’d sleep with one eye open as long as they were on the road together.
She’d been plotting and scheming for a way to escape his company since they’d left Solitude. She probably could have easily outrun him if she just took off, but he was right. She really had nowhere else to go at the moment. Brutus knew her better than anyone else; which meant he surely knew that the minute she’d escaped prison she would march back into Cyrodiil and take his head. He’d have taken precautions, setting up guards along the borders to ensure he kept her out as long as possible.
She still didn’t understand why this stranger was helping her though. Brynjolf said she’d impressed him at the Embassy, but she really hadn’t done much worth noticing. She’d talked and danced, gotten herself pickpocketed before she seduced and drugged a drunken thane of Solitude. She’d flashed her blade and sunk her knuckles into his jaw and then he’d overpowered her. Worst of all, she’d gotten caught. How was any of that impressive?
If things in his guild were really as bad as she suspected, he probably would have been smarter to stay away from her. She was starting to think maybe her luck was just about run dry.
“Why did you really spring me?” she asked, finally breaking the silence.
“I already told you. We could use someone with skills like yours down in the Ratway.”
She resisted the urge to point out that he knew nothing of her skills. “The Ratway?” She squinted across the fire at him.
“Aye,” he nodded. “It may not sound like much, but it’s home.”
“Why were you at the Embassy? You have a thing with Maven Black-Briar?”
“Hardly.” He chuckled and shook his head. “Maven is the only friend the guild has right now, and when a contact out of Windhelm commissioned that statue you were after, she personally requested I tend to the matter. We didn’t know your guild was after the same target, if we had, things might have turned out differently.” Keeping up with a game of ask and tell that would more than likely keep them busy all night, he changed the subject back to her. “Is Ginna your real name? Or just another alias?” He didn’t look up at her when he spoke, just watched the flames lap thirstily at the air, leaping up just out of reach of his fingers and brilliantly lighting the edges of his hair. It was beautiful, and for a moment she allowed its brilliance to distract her from the discomfort his question brought.
One of the first lessons she’d learned from Severus had been to trust no one, especially with her name, but what else did she have to lose? She was no one now, truly a ghost left to wander through the world, forsaken and alone. “Ginna was the name my father gave me, but my guild family called me Ghost.”
“You—you’re the Ghost of Cyrodiil?” He lifted his widening gaze across the fire, green eyes shining against the flame. “See! I knew there was something about you the minute I laid eyes on you. I’ve heard stories about you… They say you once stole a ring right off Titus Mede’s finger and sold it to a private dealer in the Summerset Isles for more gold than most thieves will ever see in a hundred lifetimes.”
“And yet here I sit a pauper in a tavern wench’s rags eating wormy apples.”
“Aye,” he nodded agreement. “One day you’re on top of the world, and then next you’re in the gutter. Such is the life of a thief,” he lamented.
Only her life hadn’t been like that since Septimus took her in. She’d lived lavishly in House Dareloth, resting her head on a feathered pillow as she nestled beneath down comforters. She’d worn the finest clothes, drank the most expensive brandy and there had always been plenty of good food to go around. But more importantly, a day had hardly passed that she hadn’t had more coin in her pockets than most honest, hard-working citizens would ever see in a single lifetime.
“I would have thought you’d be older.” Brynjolf said, tugging her back to the harsh reality of her life. “That happened more than twelve years ago.”
“I told you I hadn’t been fifteen for a long time,” she grinned.
“I’m not going to lie to you, lass. That turns me on a little.”
“What? That I’m not fifteen?”
“That too.” He laughed then, a great rumbling sound that rivaled the thunder outside.
Her thoughts drifted back to the Embassy, when he’d had her pinned to the floor, his groin pressed hard against her and she felt her own belly warm and tighten at the memory. It had been more than a year since she’d broken things off with her last beau, singing good riddance to bad rubbish when the guild ran him out of town after he’d ripped them off for the last time. Mallus had taken off with a good chunk of her gold, which he’d been siphoning every chance he got during the three years of their on-again off-again relationship. Last she’d heard he’d run across the border into Skyrim. She didn’t miss him, but damn if that man hadn’t known how to make her cry out his name in the dark.
“Delvin’s going to bust a stone when he hears I’ve brought the Ghost into The Flagon.”
“What’s the Flagon?”
“The Ragged Flagon in the Ratway. It’s where we kick back and unwind with a warm mug of mead after a long day.” He dropped back onto the ground to sit, stretching his long legs out beside the fire and leaning to rest on his elbows. “Gods, I’d cut off my own left hand for a flagon of mead right now.”
“Mm,” she nodded. She hadn’t thought to steal any mead when she’d been rummaging through Katla’s cupboards, but now that he’d mentioned it, she wished she had. It would warm her cold and aching bones a bit, maybe even help her sleep. “What about you? Is Brynjolf your real name? Or is it just one of your aliases?”
“It’s the name my ma and da gave me. Eight Divines watch over their souls.” He was quiet for a time, perhaps thinking about his parents, and then he asked, “Who set you up to take the fall?”
“The Gray Fox,” she sighed. “Though he isn’t much of a Gray Fox. I think that title finally died out when our mentor passed last year.”
“Dare I even ask what in the name of Molag Bal you did to piss him off? And I know it’s a lot to ask, but the truth would be nice. I’m taking you home with me and I’d like to know that I can trust you.”
Was he crazy? Offering trust so freely… no wonder his guild was in a bad way.
“Our guild father loved me best,” she guessed, though her guess was as good as any.
“That’s rough, lass,” he stifled a yawn into his shoulder and then curled up on the ground next to the fire.
“I’ll kill him one day,” she said, though more to herself than him.
“And right you should. You never betray your guild family. That’s just the way things are.”
“I thought so too,” she muttered, laying down on the other side of the fire and curling her legs up into her dress.
She was cold and uncomfortable, tired and hungry and her bones ached from the damp. She’d been in a lot of bad places in her life, but she hadn’t been in such a bad way since she’d lived with her father almost twenty years earlier. The Nord blood in her veins was supposed to make her resistant to the cold, but her father hadn’t been much of a Nord and the Imperial blood of her mother had never done much for her either. The chattering sound of her teeth must have finally gotten to him because Brynjolf sat up and stared across the fire at her.
“You all right, lass?”
“Just cold,” she muttered, hugging her arms tight around herself.
He stood and walked around the fire, crouching down and dropping to sit next to her. Lowering a heavy hand to her shoulder, he said, “Here, share my heat.”
Lifting her head to look at him, she tilted her gaze to study the shadows in his face. “Nice try.”
She was quickly growing fond of his laughter, which echoed through the cave as he scooted down to lie beside her and lowered his arm to draw her closer. “Trust me,” he muttered. “Taking my clothes off is the last thing on my mind right now.”
Was that a flicker of disappointment she felt? Rolling as he moved her, she spooned her back into his chest and was immediately grateful for the radiating heat from his body to hers. “Well… keep your hands out of my pockets,” she said.
He laughed again, the two of them fidgeting and maneuvering until they were both comfortable and then they grew silent. His warmth was like a smelter, and before long she felt almost as cozy as if she were nestled comfortably into her own feathered bed in Cyrodiil, the dripping water at the mouth of their shelter carrying her off to sleep.