The Cistern was quiet, well, as quiet as Ginna imagined a place with constant running water could ever be. Every bed was full, save for the one Rune had directed her to during her tour of the place, and neither Brynjolf or Mercer was anywhere to be found. She thought about heading out into the Ragged Flagon to find one of them, but she was tired and her gaze kept returning to that bed. It was an awful bed, and without even laying on it she could tell it reeked of mildew and moldy hay. The blankets covering it were threadbare and moth-eaten, and gods only knew who’d last slept in it.
She was just so tired. She just wanted to fall into a cocoon and sleep until she woke from the bad dream that had become her life. But there was no waking. The drop of water that splashed down on her forehead from above and then dripped down her cheek like a tear had to be some cruel joke from the Daedric Prince of discomfort and suffering. Or maybe Mephala… It truly felt as if some force beyond her control was poking fun at her from another realm.
Turning back toward the ladder, she climbed up into the cemetery again and made her way through the fog that wrapped around Riften like a cloak until she reached the Bee & Barb.
Marcurio was the only one in the place, aside from the saucy Argonian woman behind the counter, who glanced up and said, “If you’re looking for a bed, it’ll be ten septims.”
Reaching into her brimming pockets, Ginna drew out ten gold and plunked it down on the counter. “I’ll take it.”
“Follow me, and I’ll show you to your room.”
“So, you changed your mind about my protection?” the mage asked hopefully, raising his eyebrows as she passed him.
“Go to Oblivion,” she sneered over her shoulder, trudging up the steps until she stood outside the room Keerava assigned to her.
“It’s yours for a day. If you need anything else, just let me know.”
“Thank you,” she closed the door and turned to give the room a once over. It was no House Dareloth, but it was better than the Cistern. Gods, a coffin in the ground would be better than the Cistern, probably drier too, she thought, dropping down onto the bed and peeling out of her still damp armor. She crawled under the warm blankets wearing nothing but her undergarments, and shifted and turned until she was comfortable enough to fall asleep.
She dreamed she was swimming in a vat of warm, golden honey, a cloud of bees buzzing overhead, occasionally swooping down to brush against her cheek, their tiny wings like soft, fluttering lips, buzzes turning into whispers full-bent on rousing her from the comfort of that thick, delicious honey bath.
“Sentimental and pampered… What kind of thief are you?” His thick brogue cut through the dream, and she jerked awake with a start, immediately reaching for the blade she’d placed under her pillow. It wasn’t there, but she quickly caught sight of it glinting in his hand, a smug smile playing at his lips. “Looking for this?”
“Oh.” She dropped back onto the pillow. “It’s just you. For a minute there, I thought not paying Marcurio down there that 500 septims he so desperately needs to watch my ass was a big mistake.”
“I’m sure he’s got more than watching your ass on his mind.” Brynjolf smirked, lowering her blade to the table and drawing back to cross his arms. “And people say I’m a con artist. At least I’m straightforward about the things I want.”
He may have been straightforward enough, but it didn’t make him any less confusing. “What are you doing here?” She stifled a yawn into her arm, wincing a little as she brushed across the makeshift bandage she hadn’t tended to after wrapping it the night before. “I had a long night and I could do with a few more hours sleep. What time is it, anyway?”
“Well after noon,” he lifted his eyebrow. “Word on the streets is that Goldenglow’s been hit. Good job, lass. I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me.”
“You had your doubts,” she half-sat, reaching for her satchel on the floor.
“Of course I had doubts, but not in your abilities. The way things have been going around here…”
“Right, yes, bad luck, Guild’s suffering, all that good stuff…” she cut him off, ignoring the slight drop of his mouth. She rifled through her loot until she came upon the bill of sale she’d retrieved from Aringoth’s safe. “You might want to take a look at this. It was in the safe.”
“Let me see.” He reached out and took it from her, opening it up and squinting a little as he read over it. “Aringoth sold Goldenglow? What’s that idiot thinking?”
“Apparently he’s thinking with his pockets.” She sat up the rest of the way, drawing the blankets up over her lap as she crossed her legs.
“He has no idea the extent of Maven’s fury when she’s been cut out of a deal, but I’m certain he’ll find out soon enough… If only the parchment had the name of the buyer instead of this strange symbol. Any idea what this might be?” He held it back over for her to inspect again, and she studied that bizarre symbol with as much scrutiny as she’d lent it the night before.
“No clue,” she finally shrugged, returning the bill of sale to him. “I thought it looked familiar when I first saw it, but I can’t place it.”
“Blast,” he mumbled, folding it back up and sliding it into his inner pocket. “I’ll check with my sources and speak to Mercer, see what I can uncover.”
“All right then.” She slouched down the wall and cuddled into the blankets again. “You do that.”
He stared down at her, incredulous amusement furrowing his brow. “That’s it? You do one job and you think you’re done?”
“I never said I was done, I’m just tired. Even thieves need to sleep, and besides we work best in the shadows anyway.”
“True, but why are you sleeping here? There’s a bed for you in the Cistern. You don’t need to waste your coin on this place…”
“Yeah, about that…” she nestled her head deeper into the pillow. “I can’t sleep down there. It’s… too loud,” she lied. She had a feeling that telling him his home was too dirty for her to dwell in would only infuriate him, and as hard as she was playing with him then, she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He seemed proud of his Guild, even though it was struggling to hold onto the last threads keeping it from sinking to the bottom of Lake Honrich. “I tried last night, but the water… It just never stops running. I need quiet when I sleep.”
“You really are spoiled,” he shook his head, his gaze falling over her bandaged arm. His demeanor shifted and he knelt down beside bed, grabbing her hand to draw it over for inspection. “You’re hurt?” He started to peel back the makeshift bandage to have a look.
“I’m fine,” she tried to draw out of his grip. “It’s just a scratch.”
“It doesn’t look like a scratch, lass. A cut like that’s bound to get infected if it’s not properly cared for. Come on, I know someone who can get you healed up nice and proper.”
“I healed myself last night.” She managed to wrench out of his grasp. “I’m fine, I told you.”
“Sentimental, spoiled and stubborn,” he pursed his lips together. “If you’re not careful, lass, I’m like to bend you over my knee and give you a good thrashing.”
“You promise?” She lifted her other hand up to brush a fallen lock of hair from his cheek.
She missed him; but how did one miss a person they barely knew well enough to even define the relationship they had? Was he her friend? Her lover? Somehow neither of those terms seemed to fit. Nevertheless, she missed his gentleness, missed waking up in his arms, missed the dominant way he’d roll her over and claim her in the morning.
“You look a little tired yourself,” she noted, scooting over and patting the edge of the bed. “There’s plenty of room in here for both of us if we lay just the right way and I’ve got the room for a few more hours. What do you say? You up for a little rough and tumble? I’ll cuddle with you after.”
He seemed to consider that offer for a moment, green eyes lighting with the promise of mischief and pleasure, but then they darkened again and he lowered his gaze. “Maybe another time, lass. I’ve got important things to do, and so do you. You’re off to speak to Maven today. She’s asked for you by name.”
“Maven?” Was her mysterious benefactor finally going to call in her debt? “I thought I did the job just as she wanted?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. You’ll be calling on her for business.”
“So, she’s calling in the debt I owe her?”
“That’s between you and Maven, and I prefer to keep it that way.” He reached over and twined a gold lock of hair around his finger, curling and looping it as if he was having second thoughts about declining her offer. “Don’t worry that pretty little head of yours about it. Maven’s business dealings usually involve quite a bit of gold for her people, and even though you owe her a debt, if you do right by her, she’ll more than compensate you for a job well done. Maybe even throw a few big jobs your way that’ll have you sitting pretty, as befits one of your… particular tastes.”
“Oh, speaking of compensation…”
He started to laugh. “Right, your pay for the Goldenglow job… You’re smart as a whip, lass. Come by the Flagon and see me after you meet with Maven, and I’ll make sure you get your cut. And from the looks of that satchel you’ve got down there… I’d say you’re off to a pretty good start here in Riften, wouldn’t you?”
It was heavy with coin and trinkets, jewels and baubles. She didn’t know how much Tonilia would actually give her for it, but it was definitely a start. “It’ll be enough to keep me cozy here in the Bee & Barb.”
Rolling his eyes, he pushed back onto his heels. “I don’t think I’ve never met a thief who liked to throw their money around the way you do.”
“Maybe I’ll take you to Cyrodiil someday and introduce you to my snake of a brother,” she smirked, rising from where she’d lain and throwing the blankets to the side. That flash of bare skin had definitely intrigued him, but he was all business as he rose from the floor and headed toward the door.
“I’ll take you up on that offer on one condition,” he reached for the knob. “You let me hold him down while you run a dagger through his heart.”
Ginna grinned. “It’s a deal.”
“Don’t keep Maven waiting too long, lass. She doesn’t like to be ignored.”
So, she was finally going to meet Maven Black-Briar, the woman who’d dropped the coin into Erikur’s pocket that got her out of prison. From what she’d learned so far, Maven was definitely not a woman she wanted against her, so despite her general disposition to make others uncomfortable, Ginna didn’t make the woman wait. She dressed quickly, sighing with disappointment as she realized her guild armor was still damp from her dip in the lake, but she would just have to suck it up. She still had the fine clothes in her bag, but she wanted to look the roguish part when she finally met her benefactor.
Maven was waiting in a small room just down the hall in the Bee & Barb, sitting at the table there and leafing almost disinterestedly through a book spread open on the table. Ginna approached and cleared her throat, but the woman didn’t look up right away, as if she delighted in making her wait.
Finally lifting her gaze, she surveyed Ginna for a moment, cold blue eyes scanning over every inch of her before she spoke. “Hmm… so, you’re the one who’s got Brynjolf all riled up. Yes, I remember you now. You don’t look so impressive,” she sneered.
“How about we skip the evaluation of each other’s person, and get down to business. Brynjolf said you wanted to see me.”
“Well,” she crossed her arms, a flicker of intrigue in her gaze. “You’re a little firebrand, aren’t you? It’s about time Brynjolf sent me someone with business sense. I was beginning to think he was running some sort of beggar’s guild over there.”
And Ginna thought she’d liked Vex… This Maven Black-Briar was her kind of woman. “You have no faith in the Guild?”
“Faith?” she scoffed a little. “I have faith in no one. All I care about is cause and effect. Did the job get done and was it done correctly? There’s no grey area.”
“I agree. And you won’t have that problem with me.”
“Good,” she mused, rising from her chair. “I hope not. I have an important job for you. One that will not only wipe clean the debt you owe me, but put you at the top of the line for other jobs like it if you don’t disappoint me.”
“Where do I begin?”
“I have a competitor in Whiterun called Honningbrew Meadery, and I want to put them out of business.”
“I also want to know how they managed to get the place up and running so quickly.”
“And how would you like me to proceed?”
“Head to the Bannered Mare in Whiterun and meet with my contact there, a man by the name of Mallus Maccius. He’ll fill you in on all the details.”
Ginna was sure if she could have seen a reflection of her own face at that moment, all the color would have drained from it. Mallus? She knew he was in Skyrim, but to come in contact with him so quickly? She hadn’t expected that, and yet she should have. Where there were underhanded dealings and treachery, he wasn’t usually too far to be found. Still, she’d convinced herself quite some time ago that she was finished with him and had resolved with delight that she’d probably never see him again.
“Is there a problem?” Maven nudged her from her contemplation with her sharp tongue.
“No, lady,” she lowered her head in respect. “I will head over to Whiterun straight away. Before I go, who’s running the show over at Honninbrew?”
“Some layabout named Sabjorn. Been a thorn in my side for the last few years now.”
“Sounds like more than a bit of friendly competition.”
“Not a day goes by that I don’t regret letting Sabjorn get as far as he did,” Maven sighed. “In only a few short years, he’s taken that bile he calls mead to market and a chunk of my profits with it! I can’t imagine where he found the gold to take it to market so quickly.”
“So get rid of him and he’s no longer a threat.”
“Exactly. With Sabjorn in prison, his meadery will be forced to close. Then, I swoop in and take over the place. No more competition.”
“I like the way you think,” Ginna told her. “But why strike now?”
“The Goldenglow Estate job has undoubtedly interrupted the supply of honey I need to make my mead. Sabjorn could use this interruption to his advantage and collect a larger share of the market. I can’t have that.”
“No,” Ginna agreed. “I will take care of Sabjorn.”
“Good, but one more time in case I wasn’t clear… You butcher this job and you’ll be sorry.”
“I wouldn’t dream of letting you down. I am in your debt.”
“Yes, you are,” she remembered, “but if you take care of this for me, I may find myself in yours and a Black-Briar always pays her debts.”