Ginna didn’t want to leave Vlindrel Hall when Brynjolf nudged her awake an hour before dawn. She’d been comfortable and warm and having the most delightful dream, and though he’d been gentle about drawing her away from that comfort—whispering softly as he kissed beside her ear—his gentleness did little to sweeten the sour mood that would more than likely follow her all the way to Riften.
“That house should be mine,” she grumped, as she stepped into his hands so he could hoist her into the back of the carriage after he’d paid the driver forty septims.
“Give it a rest, lass. You sound like a spoiled child,” he noted, climbing up to slump into the bench beside her. “If you’re going to bellyache all the way to Riften, I’d just as soon get out and walk.”
“One day it will be,” she decided, crossing her arms against the chill of the mists rolling in off the river.
“And one day I’ll have a stable full of horses,” he muttered. “And a fleet of ships. A palace and a crown, and all of Tamriel will call me his lordship as they bow to lick my boots and ask me if there’s anything else they can do to make my life less complicated.”
His sarcastic jest was meant to make her laugh, she could tell by the way he nudged his elbow into her arm when he leaned into her, but Ginna was not amused. Ignoring him, she turned her gaze over her shoulder and watched the road beneath the spinning wheels of the carriage for a long time. They passed by the empty place the Khajiit caravan had camped out just the night before, the wagon dipping down the hillside and steadily heading east.
The fact that he had humored her enough to play along with her foolish fantasy while they were in Markarth should have said something about the lengths he was willing to go to make her like him, but she was still having a hard time wrapping her head around why he’d go to so much trouble trying to win the affections of a total stranger. Brynjolf was a con artist; a damn good one too. She’d watched him shift from scoundrel to nobleman in a matter of seconds, by doing little more than changing his attire. How much of his gentle, romantic act with her was con, and how much of it real? Getting her emerald back from Ri’saad had been a nice touch. He obviously wanted something more from her than what he’d already found between her thighs, but what?
The weather in Skyrim was a strange and unpredictable thing; clear skies and warm winds soon yielded to drizzle, which then turned to sleet and back to rain again as they stopped in the small town of Falkreath to change carriages. Eventually, Ginna’s mood shifted, and by day Brynjolf entertained her with stories and songs. By night, they huddled together against the cold as the horse cart rolled on. The only thing less predictable than the weather was the road, busy with caravans and travelers, carriages and Stormcloak soldiers marching north to war. Ginna knew very little about the war, only that some Nord jarl from Windhelm wanted to sever Skyrim from the failing Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion. She’d heard tell of Stormcloak victories that made old Titus Mede tremble on his throne.
“Fools,” Brynjolf muttered into his shoulder. “The whole bloody lot of them.”
“If they keep on fighting, maybe one day you’ll get your wish,” she said. “Your palace and your crown and your stable full of horses, your lordship.”
He started to laugh, rolling into her on the bench, but his laughter soon subsided as the wagon slowed to a stop and he rose to peer out over the edge. They’d only been on the road an hour or two, and they weren’t scheduled to stop again until they reached the Rift.
“Why are we stopping?” Brynjolf called out to the driver.
“Dragon on the road up ahead,” the man hollered over his shoulder.
Ginna had heard rumors of dragons long before she crossed the border; but she’d been in Skyrim almost a month and she’d yet to see one of the fabled beasts herself. She’d actually started to think it was Stormcloak propaganda designed to put a little fear into the Empire, but when she heard the distant roar up ahead, excitement trembled in her belly. Jumping up from her seat, she climbed up to stand on the bench and leaned over the railing in hopes of finally catching a glimpse of legend.
Brynjolf stepped up beside her, the two of them watching the distant battle unfurl. Two warriors, a large, hulk of a man and a woman with hair like fire, clashed with wing and frost, their steel and armor glinting in the cold daylight as they danced around the monster like two tiny flies swarming a trash heap in the sweltering heat of summer. It was more exciting than watching the gladiators fight to the death at the arena in Cyrodiil. When the warrior woman climbed up onto the dragon’s neck to drive her battle axe through its skull, she gasped with wonder as the beast fell and Ginna gripped the sides of the cart to brace herself when the earth trembled under its thunderous weight. Swarming gold and silver spirals of light writhed out to wrap around the woman, circling and dancing as if she was drawing some kind of power from the dragon’s soul.
“Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” Ginna muttered.
“Dragonborn,” Brynjolf said.
“What? You mean like Tiber Septim?”
“Aye… They say she has the blood and soul of a dragon,” he marveled, quickly shifting into boast-mode. “Sweet kid. I met her once. Tried to convince her to run a con with me, but she didn’t have the stomach for it. Too noble, I guess.”
“Heroes…” She dropped back down in her seat as the driver drew on the reins and the horses started to move again. Most people preferred to be heroes it seemed, reveling in the high of social acceptance and the good feelings that came with it. The gold they got for their efforts didn’t hurt either, but Nord blood or not, Ginna had never been cut out for that kind of life. She preferred to find her glory in the shadows and the depths of other people’s pockets.
“It takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round,” Brynjolf said, lowering beside her and leaning into her as the carriage lurched forward.
They watched the roadside as the two dragonslayers ran past, both of them dressed in blood-spattered blue and bronze armor the Stormcloak army favored, shields painted with the Bear. The heavy pad of their boots carried them until they were no more than tiny specks in the distance, but Ginna was far more fascinated by the body of the dead dragon when they passed. It looked like it was only sleeping, that at any moment it might wake up and devour them in their seats.
Nothing topped the excitement of that dragon during the remainder of their journey into The Rift. For a time the ice and snow through the southern mountain pass was almost unbearable, and not even huddling together and sharing Brynjolf’s warmth seemed enough to make her teeth stop chattering. But soon the sun overpowered the clouds, green patches spotted amidst the snow until the roadside grew lush with grass and herbs. It had felt much warmer in Solitude and Markarth, at least her lungs didn’t feel like they were freezing every time she drew a breath. When the temperature shifted, so too did the air, the clean, fresh scent of ice and snow slowly yielding to stagnant water as they grew closer and closer to Riften.
From a distance, the small city built above Lake Honrich actually looked cozy. Fishing boats docked at the pier, the fishermen bustling up and down the stairs that led into the city through the back door. The closer they grew, the more rundown it appeared, the quaint houses and shops within the walls in desperate need of repair, but worst of all, really, was the smell and the constant fog lingering in the air. She could immediately feel it seeping into her clothes, making them feel damp and uncomfortable.
The carriage driver parked just outside the stables, and Brynjolf hopped down first, reaching up to help Ginna to the ground.
“Ah,” he remarked. “It’s good to be home.”
She scanned the high walls of the city before turning her attention to the burly stablemaster leaned against the pillar between the stall while a young Redguard shoveled dung into a bucket. He paused as they approached, turning dark, wary eyes on them before shifting his view to his boss.
“Hofgrir,” Brynjolf nodded as they sauntered toward the gates.
“Brynjolf.” The other man returned the gesture, but his lusty eyes followed Ginna.
One of the guards at the gate stepped up to the meet them, lifting his helmet to make eye contact. “Maven’s paced a hole through the floor at the Bee & Barb, Bryn. I was told to send you over to meet her as soon as you return. You didn’t hear it from me, but word on the street is, she wants your head.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Stepping through the gates, his demeanor shifted. The fun-loving, playful man without a care in the world seemed to dwindle, his brow furrowing, lips pursing tight together, eyes narrowing with focus.
Ginna couldn’t have focused in that moment if she tried. There was too much going on around her. The distant clang and hammer of steel, voices calling out wares from the merchant circle up ahead, guards lingering at every corner, the constant lap and splash of water underneath the streets. She stopped for a moment to take it all in, but Brynjolf kept walking, not even realizing he’d lost her until he started across the bridge.
“Come on, lass. I need to get in there and square things with Maven, and quick. There was a big job going down, and I should have been back a week ago to make sure it got done right. From the sound of things, that job didn’t get done the way she wanted it.”
She followed him across the bridge and through a set of double doors, but not without lifting her eyes to the sign above the tavern. The Bee and Barb, with a black and gold bee perched along the bend of a fishing hook; how quaint.
A stern Argonian stood at the entrance with his arms crossed, wide, golden eyes surveying the two of them with unveiled disgust. “If you’re looking for Maven Black-Briar, she’s upstairs.”
Brynjolf turned over his shoulder to look down at her. “It’d be best if you waited for me down here.” He tried to force a smile, but his lips were still so tight it came out a grimace. “I don’t know how long I’ll be, so best to get comfortable.”
They’d divvied up the remainder of their earnings from Markarth in the carriage, and she had a few loose septims in her pocket, enough to buy herself a drink, anyway. After watching him disappear up the stairs, Ginna drew back and glanced around the tavern. It was early afternoon, but there were still quite a few people seated at the tables picking over a late lunch. The tavern proprietor kept his watchful golden eyes on her when she made her way to the bar and ordered a pint of Black-Briar mead. She carried it to an empty table and sat down, then proceeded to size up everyone in the place.
She’d never seen a more depressing gathering of people in her life. Even the Imperial mercenary near the door was a sad sight to behold, his mage’s robes ragged and tattered, the mug in his grip seemingly molded to his hand as he lifted it to drink. He caught her gaze for a moment and smiled, rising from the bench to walk toward her.
“Why watch your back, when you can pay someone else to watch it for you? For just five hundred septims, all I have to offer can be yours. My skill in battle is unmatched.” He grinned confidently, eyes dropping to the empty chair across from her. “I’ve never seen you around here before. Looking to hire some extra protection? You’ll definitely need it in a city like Riften.”
“Really?” Ginna tipped back her drink and enjoyed several hearty swallows. “And why’s that?”
“You mean you really don’t know?” he marveled, pulling out the chair to sit down without an invitation. He pushed the long ponytail of his tethered hair over his shoulder and leaned in to talk, as if he were about to share some secret with her. It was funny, the way arrogance and confidence made even the most ragged of men seem attractive for a fleeting moment. Or maybe he just reminded her of home. “Riften is home to the Thieves Guild. It may seem quiet now, but when the sun goes down, it’s a dangerous place. A pretty girl like you wouldn’t want to find herself… unprotected.”
“Whatever gave you the idea I couldn’t protect myself?” she smirked
In the rafters above their table, Ginna heard a woman shouting, and she made no bones about anyone else hearing her words. “It would seem you only grow more foolish and reckless with age. What in the Eight Divines am I paying you for? You’re useless to me. I should just turn my back on you and watch you all wallow in your own despair.”
“I’m sorry, Maven,” Brynjolf’s tone was much quieter, like an apologetic son who couldn’t stomach his mother’s disappointment. “I don’t know what happened…”
“No, because you weren’t here. You were in Solitude chasing after some rogue who made your prick swell, when you should have been here taking care of business. I didn’t pay for her release so you would have another toy to play with, Brynjolf. You guaranteed me that she would be an asset to our mutual business.”
“And she will, Maven… I just need…”
“You need to pull that foolish head out of your ass and focus on business. I’ve already spoken to Mercer. I want Aringoth to squirm, and if you can’t make that happen before the week is out, I will pull out and you’ll all be on your own. Am I clear?”
“As a crystal, Maven. I won’t let you down. I promise.”
“I’m sure you’ll find some way to humiliate me. Now, about this little playmate of yours… How is she going to be of use to me?”
The mercenary was still talking, but all Ginna had gotten from him was his name. “…And then I wound up here. A long way from Cyrodiil, I guess, but the Mage’s College in Winterhold is far superior to the College of Whispers, at least in my opinion.”
“Right… Look, Marcurio, was it? I’m not interested in hiring your… services.” And even if she was, she could never afford his prices. Prostitutes in Cyrodiil charged less for a full night of pleasure than he was asking, and she highly doubted she’d get much pleasure from his company. “I protect myself.”
“Oh,” the softness in his face diminished, bright hazel eyes narrowing under her slight. “You think you can protect yourself out there? You won’t last one night in this place, and when you come crawling back to ask for my help… Well, I just might not be here.”
She looked up just in time to see a humbled, scowling Brynjolf coming down the stairs, and rose from her seat. “We’ll just see about that,” she offered him a smug smile as Brynjolf approached. Marcurio lifted his stare along the length of that shadow over his shoulder, and Ginna thought she saw him gulp a little.
“Let’s get going,” Brynjolf said, avoiding her eyes when she looked up at him.
She followed him out of the Bee & Barb and through the winding pier until they reached a temple. He hadn’t said anything to her since they’d left the tavern, walking two steps in front of her until they came upon the cemetery behind the temple. There were shadowmarks carved into the tomb encasing and when he reached over to press a small button in the crypt, Ginna actually took a step back as a secret entryway slid open with a great groaning scrape.
“All right, lass. This is it.” He finally turned around to face her, green eyes softening as he scanned her face.
“I overheard you talking to Maven Black-Briar,” she changed the subject. “She didn’t sound too happy with you.”
It was like he’d put the guard he’d just pulled down back up, the gentleness quickly disappearing from his face. “You don’t need to worry about Maven Black-Briar, yet. You’ll have your moment with her soon enough, but until then I’m going to need you to focus on fitting in around here.”
“Right,” she sighed. She hadn’t even been inside, and she could already tell she wasn’t going to fit in. They were about to crawl under a cemetery to get to the guild headquarters.
“When the time comes, just let me do the talking. Mercer can be a little… rough around the edges, if you know what I mean. Maven told him you were coming, but he’s never exactly been one to take in outsiders without question. He doesn’t get the same sense from folks that I do, and he’s not near as trusting. It might take some time to convince him of your worth.”
“What do you mean, you get a sense from people?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “It’s always been a gift of mine. One look at a person, and I know all I’ll ever need to know about them.” Turning back into the crypt, he added, “It’s why you’re here, lass. I know I can trust you.”
Without another word, he began to descend the stone steps into the belly of Riften and she followed. He tugged the pull-chain that closed the crypt over their heads, and then slipped into the entryway, climbing down a rickety wooden ladder that landed in an open cistern that immediately made her appreciate the aboveground stench of Riften.
Brynjolf turned over his shoulder to grin at her. “Welcome home, lass.”