They found a shady dealer in Dragon Bridge who bought their stolen goods for about half what they were actually worth, and then he sold them a dozen empty apothecary bottles for twice what they would have paid a legitimate shopkeeper. But there were no legitimate shopkeepers in that little outpost, only Penitus Oculatus agents and a booming lumber mill. So they made do with what they had, walking away with twelve septims between them and a satchel of empty bottles.
Ginna did manage to swipe a few bottles of mead on their way out of Dragon Bridge, which the two of them shared that night when they made camp in a quiet cave nestled in the mountains, that smelled as if it had once been home to trolls, but it had been a long time since whatever once dwelt there had returned. Brynjolf explained that the territory they walked through was treacherous, and would only grow more dangerous the closer they grew to Markarth. The Forsworn, an almost primitive guerilla warfare group made travel through those parts a nightmare, and that nightmare had only grown more violent in the face of Civil War.
“You’d think with all the chaos of war, this land would be ripe for people like us.”
“You would think,” he shook his head. “But it hasn’t been easy these last few years. I’ve watched my guild plummet into the depths of despair, and try as we might to hold it all together, it’s as if there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. ”
“It isn’t just your guild,” she said. “I’ve heard rumors. It’s happening all over Tamriel. High Rock, The Summerset Isles, Hammerfell… The guilds are failing, losing their power and grip.”
“Delvin says it’s a curse, but I’ve never been one to believe in curses. We make our own luck.”
“Do we?” Severus had taught her differently, that Nocturnal decided their luck on a whim, and there was no telling from day to day which way her shadowed winds would blow. Foul or favor, he’d called it for Lady Luck commanded no tribute or alms, and there was rarely rhyme or reason to her gifts and begrudgings. “I think Nocturnal would disagree.”
“I’ve been at this game a long time, lass. Skill dictates luck.”
“Maybe,” she shrugged, reaching across the space between them to swipe the bottle back. After several heavy gulps she returned it to him, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. “Or maybe not. I’ve been at this game for almost twenty years, and I’ve never seen anything like what’s happening now. Guild families turning on each other, coffers drying up, thieves barely able to steal a crust of bread. Maybe Nocturnal’s had enough of us, and she’s punishing us for some reason.”
“Bah,” he waved her off, swigging from the bottle before lowering it, gesturing with it as he spoke. “Cursed or not, I’m turning my luck around. With or without Nocturnal’s help.”
It seemed a bad idea to speak of Nocturnal that way, even if he was right and the Mistress of Shadows could care less about their luck and dealings. “I would rather have her on my side, than against me.”
He lifted the bottle. “I’ll drink to that.” He took another quick drink, liquid sloshing against glass as he tilted it to his lips and then dropping when he brought it down again and handed it over to her. “You’ve really been doing this for twenty years?”
“Yes.” She held the bottle for a long time, thoughtful as she held it midway to her lips. “I was eight years old when the Gray Fox took me in off the streets, but I’d been dipping my hands into other people’s pockets long before we formally met.” It was more than she had wanted to say, but once she’d opened her mouth the words just poured out, almost as if against her will. Maybe it was the mead, dangerously loosening her tongue.
“Both my parents were in the Guild,” he told her. “I was practically raised in the Cistern. My father taught me to fish when I was barely old enough to walk and my ma… it was like she could walk through walls. There wasn’t a lock she couldn’t pick. They disappeared when I was six-years-old. A fisherman dredged their bodies in his nets out on Lake Honrich a few weeks after they went missing.”
Ginna felt chills roll up the length of her arms, and shuddering she hugged herself tighter, hands briskly moving along her skin to make the feeling go away. But it wasn’t a cold that was easily brushed off; it went deeper than the skin, into the soul.
“The Guildmaster, Gallus, took care of me for a time, but it wasn’t long before he went missing too, less than a year. That was bad times.” He reached for an unopened bottle of mead and snapped the cork off with a loud thunk that echoed through their cozy little cavern. “Dark times. The Guild was never the same after that.”
She pressed her back into the stone behind her and stared at the fire. From the corner of her eye, she watched him just hold the bottle without drinking, his own gaze resting on the flames, eyes following them as they danced and leapt. “Did you ever find out what happened to them?”
“Aye… Stabbed in the back by someone in the family.”
It was a pain she found all too familiar now; only she was lucky to still be alive. Was that why he’d helped her? He had come to her knowing she’d obviously been set up, fished around her situation for the reason, felt sorry for her. In their line of work, people got set up all the time, but rarely by a fellow guild member unless they’d done something unforgiveable.
“She slipped into the shadows without a trace after she murdered Gallus in cold blood, but I still remember her face, her soft eyes. She’d always been so kind to me… Would bring me sweeties and sing me songs when I was restless in my bed. She had the gentlest voice you’d ever hear. It never made a damn lick of sense.” He scraped his boot across the gravelly floor, tucking his heels under his knees and leaning forward as he gulped down several soothing swallows of mead. “I would have wound up in Honorhall if it hadn’t been for Mercer Frey.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, not even knowing why she’d said it. She’d always hated the way people fell back on meaningless apology whenever they didn’t know what else to say, but his story really had made her feel sad.
“Orphans,” he shrugged his shoulders up. “The whole bleeding lot of us.”
“Aye,” she nodded.
He held his bottle up to her again, “To orphans.”
Clanking the mouth of her bottle against his, she agreed. “To orphans.”
Finishing the last few swallows, she leaned back into the wall again and drew her arms up around herself. Even despite the mead and fire, she was shivering cold again, her jaw clenching tight against her teeth as they started to chatter. Without a word he crawled across the ground and sat beside her, sliding his arm in behind her and drawing her close to share his heat. She leaned into him, disconcerted by how comfortable it felt cuddling up to him, how good it had felt in the water when he’d been inside her.
Sex had always been little more than a necessary release, two bodies, a few good feelings and then sleeping alone. Mallus had never spent the night, preferring his space, and she’d always been glad when he left, a part of her worried she might actually slit his throat while he slept if he dared make himself vulnerable enough in front of her.
Brynjolf’s arm around her felt heavy and strong and… safe. She nestled perfectly into him, his fingers curved around her arm, sliding up and down her sleeve to warm the chills from her flesh as he muttered, “You’ll get used to it, lass.”
To being vulnerable? To feeling like her entire world, which she’d always kept very carefully in check, was spinning out of control and there was nothing she could do about it?
Her hand slid across his chest as she curled closer, dipping lower to pass along the taut surface of his belly until she found her fingers fondling the buckles that held his pants in place. She wanted to lose herself in the near-violent thrash of his body as they tangled together, to dominate him to her will and then succumb to his every whim. As she worked at the buckles, she lifted her lips to his neck, tongue darting out, tickling and teasing her way up to his ear, which she drew between her teeth and nibbled until he released a soft, groaning sigh.
He turned his head down, mouth seeking out hers in a gentle kiss as his hand rested atop hers, fingers squeezing as he muttered against her lips, “Not tonight, lass.”
But he went on kissing her anyway, slow, sensual tasting, fingers stroking her skin almost affectionately, until despite her confused senses she lowered her head to his chest and just closed her eyes.
They fell asleep that way, backs to the wall, his arm around her, head rested against hers, hand still squeezing her fingers in his lap.