Rune was a good travel companion; Brynjolf had been right about that much. He was quiet on the road, but not in a way that made her uncomfortable, and spoke animatedly around the fire whenever they made camp. He told stories about growing up in Solitude, learning to fish from the man he’d called his father almost as long as he could remember.
“But that life just wasn’t for me,” he shrugged, poking a stick he’d been peeling the bark from into the fire’s depths until the flame caught. “I wanted more. Adventure, glory… But finding adventure and glory is an expensive task and my father couldn’t afford to give me the things I sought, so I started taking them.”
“Is he still alive?”
“My father?” his gaze rested on the fire for a long time before he nodded. “I try to get up there to see him once a year, but he wasn’t exactly young when he found me and it’s tough to say how much longer he has in this world. I send him what little money I can, try to make sure he’s taken care of, but he’s a proud man. He doesn’t like that I give up my hard-earned gold taking care of him.”
“Does he know… what you do, I mean?”
“That I’m a thief?” he chuckled. “No, no. He thinks I’m a treasure hunter. Though I guess in some ways that’s not entirely false.”
“So, how did you wind up in Riften?” she asked, sipping from a bottle of Black-Briar mead before offering it to him. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Not at all.” He accepted the offer, tipping it back for a few swallows before returning it. “That’s a funny story, actually… I was making a delivery for my father into Solitude when I spied Brynjolf lingering outside the Winking Skeever. He was dressed in the finest clothes, had a few shiny rings on his fingers and the most beautiful ebony dagger hanging from his belt. I was only about seventeen at the time, had been dabbling in the art now and again, but in no way was I an experienced pickpocket. All that wealth though… he just reeked of it, and I wanted a taste, so I decided to check out his pockets. That was where he caught me.”
“He caught you trying to pickpocket him?”
“He did,” he laughed a little, a sheepish grin drawing at the corners of his mouth. “He turned around and said he didn’t swing that way, as plain as if he knew me and then he told me if I wanted to learn how to pick a pocket right and proper, I should come with him. I was terrified, to tell the truth. I’d never gotten caught before, and I thought he was going to take me into an alley and split my belly open, but instead he sat me down in the Winking Skeever, bought us both a pint of ale and pointed out the easiest, most profitable mark in the room. He said if I could come back to him with what was in that man’s pockets, he’d split it with me fair and square. So I watched and I waited, and when the opportunity was ripe, I hit the target. Guy was carrying more gold than I’d ever seen all in one place, and when I brought it back to Brynjolf, he told me I did well as he split it down the middle and gave me my share. Then he asked if I was serious about becoming a thief and… well… the rest is history.”
“That’s quite a story.” She leaned back and lifted her face to the sky. The stars were so clear in Skyrim, something she rarely saw in Cyrodiil, even though she spent the majority of her time prowling the dark streets.
“How did you meet Bryn?”
Still staring up at the stars, she thought back to that night and it felt like it had been so long ago. The way his body had felt against hers as they drifted and swayed across the marbled Embassy floors. His whisper as he leaned in and said she smelled of cherry blossoms. “He came up to me at a party and asked me if I wanted to dance.”
She was quiet so long after that, Rune just shifted and said, “Oh,” as if her admission were somewhat anticlimactic.
“Turns out we were on the same job.” She finally lowered her head and sat up straight again. “Only I’d been set up. Someone wanted me to take the fall. He didn’t know. He was just as confused as I was when we both went for the prize. There we were rolling around on the floor with our blades drawn when the Embassy guards busted in to arrest me.”
“He and Maven convinced one of the Thanes in Solitude to let me go, and I now owe them, so… here I am.”
Rune didn’t say anything at first, just shook his head and folded his hands together between his crossed legs. “Why would someone do that to you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She’d already said too much, something she’d been doing a lot of since she met Brynjolf. Rune was a sweet kid; she could sense that and it wasn’t that she didn’t want to trust him, but these people… They were tugging on strings she hadn’t even known she had. It brought the emotions she’d been trying so hard to fight back to the surface again, and until she could actually do something about it, it seemed better to just push them back down and let them fester inside her.
“Oh, hey, that’s okay,” he nodded. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“You weren’t prying.” She lifted a soft smile in his direction to let him know she wasn’t offended. “Just making conversation. Maybe someday I’ll tell you the rest of the story. Just not tonight.”
“All right,” he agreed. “If you want to catch some sleep, I’ll take first watch.”
The journey to Whiterun took four days, bringing them to the gates just around noon. The Stormcloak guard outside eyed them suspiciously and warned them not to cause trouble in his city before allowing them passage. Whiterun was a quaint, almost old-world establishment with a lot more charm than Riften. Though the houses were modest against the backdrop of the great longhouse and palace at the top of the hill, they felt cozy enough and she was glad she’d have the opportunity to get a look at the inside of one of them when she planted Vex’s stolen jewel.
But first, she had to find Mallus and get Maven’s ball rolling in the right direction. Maven said he would be waiting for her at the Bannered Mare, which Rune pointed out as they walked up the hillside into the small circle of merchants selling wares.
“I have to meet my client,” she explained, stopping near the corner post. “Can you wait for me?”
“Sure, yeah. I have a bit of business to take care of myself. How about I meet you back here in a little while?”
They parted ways, Rune heading left up the stairs into the Wind District and Ginna walking straight into the Bannered Mare. There were a fair number of people inside, all of whom turned their immediate attention to the stranger in the doorway, but she ignored them and went straight to the bar to order a pint. The bard near the hearth started playing a bawdy tune and the tavern owner greeted her with a warm, welcoming smile.
“Come on in and make yourself at home. Just stoked the fire.”
“I’ll have a pint of mead.”
“We’ve got Honningbrew on tap. Will that do?” the barkeep asked, drawing out a mug and setting it up on the counter.
“Sure, yeah,” she nodded, glancing around for signs of Mallus.
“New in town, are you?”
“Just passing through.” She didn’t make eye contact, but dropped her coin on the counter and grabbed her mug to find a quiet place to wait.
She was passing the side room behind the hearth when she spotted him, seated alone at a table in the back room. He looked the same, his hair a little longer than she remembered, though the simple clothes he wore didn’t do him justice at all. She’d never seen him without the finest noble clothing her money could buy… well, that wasn’t entirely true, but then those clothes were usually crumpled at the foot of her bed when he wasn’t wearing them.
He didn’t look up when she approached, so quietly he didn’t hear her at first. She cleared her throat to catch his attention and without even looking back he barked, “Can’t a man enjoy a drink in peace around here? I swear…”
“Hello, Mallus,” she cooed, sliding comfortably into the chair across from him and lowering her mug to the table as she leaned back and crossed one leg over the other.
The sound of her voice caught him off guard, and his cold blue eyes widened, a sharp hint of malice wrapped in strange warmth. “Ginna? By the Eight, what are you doing here? I’d heard…”
“That I was in prison?” she tested.
“Actually, yes.” He leaned forward, intrigued by the unexpected turn of events. “They’re saying Brutus took you out because of what you did to Severus.”
Her whole demeanor shifted; even she felt it. Ginna squinted curiously and leaned forward herself, her hand resting instinctively on the hilt of her dagger. “What do you mean? What I did to Severus? What has Brutus been telling people?”
“Slow-acting poison. He said you’d been feeding it to him for years in order to take over his position as Guildmaster. You always were a little mynx, and I had my suspicions you were fucking the old man all along. I mean, why else would he have favored you so? But I never thought you had it in you to kill him, to be honest. Bravo, my girl.” He clapped his hands together, lips drawing into an appreciative grin that not so long ago would have stirred an ache inside her only his touch could soothe. “Bravo!”
But those words were like a punch in the gut, and for a moment she couldn’t even breathe. “Brutus is… he’s telling people I killed Severus?” she gasped.
“You mean you didn’t?” The appreciation drained from his face, only to be replaced by unveiled apathy. “I should have known it was too good to be true. You may have been a little mynx, but killing was never your thing. Anyway,” he waved off their conversation as if it had no importance at all, but to Ginna it meant everything. “What are you doing here? I’m very busy making a new life for myself and as wonderful as it is to see you again, I’d rather not get involved in your twisted, petty family affairs.”
What was she doing there? She had to think for a moment, but her mind was suddenly a complete mess she could barely make heads or tails of. Brutus setting her up was one thing; an unforgivable thing, yes, but him telling people she’d murdered their Guild-father? That was beyond unforgivable. Why? He’d already humiliated her, but to start such a vicious lie… He really was trying to destroy her. Among thieves there was no act more unforgivable than disrespecting one’s Guildmaster, but murdering someone in your own Guild… well, that was a crime no thief could ever be absolved from.
Mallus was starting to rise from the table to leave her with her gaping jaw when she remembered why she was there. “Maven said you’d be expecting me.”
“Maven?” his high brow wrinkled with intrigue. “So you’re working for Maven Black-Briar now? And the plot thickens… I suppose that would explain how you managed to escape custody so quickly.”
“Yes.” She didn’t have time to dwell on her shock, even though it was all she could feel. “I’m working for Maven Black-Briar today, and she said you would fill me in on the plot to get rid of her rival.”
“Hmm, interesting,” he nodded. “All right. I’m going to keep this short then because we have a lot of work to do and not near enough time to do it in.”
“Fine, what’s the plan?”
“Honningbrew’s owner, Sabjorn, is about to hold a tasting for Whiterun’s Captain of the Guard, and we’re going to poison the mead.”
“You have the poison?”
“No, no. That’s the beauty of the whole plan. We’re going to get Sabjorn to give it to us himself.” His malicious grin had always gotten under her skin in ways she couldn’t define. Whenever he would fire it across the room at her, it lit a lustful inferno in her so strong that before long their clothes were little more than a trail of thread leading to the bedroom. But after what he’d told her about Brutus, his devious smile only served to increase the nausea in her gut. “The meadery has quite a pest problem, and everyone in the city knows about it. Pest poison and mead don’t mix well, if you know what I mean.”
“Right, so how do I fit into this?”
“Well, you’re just going to happen by Honningbrew and lend poor Sabjorn a helping hand. He’s going to give you the poison to get rid of the pests, but you’re also going to dump it into the brewing vats.”
She couldn’t deny it was a good plan. “Clever.”
“Thanks,” he grinned again. “Maven and I spent weeks planning this. All we need now is someone like you to go in there and get the job done.”
“Why not you? You’ve done worse. Oh wait, I forgot… That’s actual work.”
His laughter was forced and fake, echoing through the Bannered Mare and turning a few curious heads in their direction. He didn’t speak again until they went back to their business, but he’d lowered his voice. “I’d be the first person he’d suspect, you silly twit. I’ve been working for Sabjorn for months now. Gods, I’m practically a slave… the things he makes me do. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone for that man, and all so I could get close to him, make him trust me. You know as well as I do, the right-hand man is always the first to take the fall when things run afoul.” Didn’t she know it. “I won’t be anywhere near the place when this goes down, keeping my reputation and my association clean. And once he’s in jail and Maven can take over the meadery, who’s going to run Black-Briar West? You’re looking at him, sweet girl. I’ll be set up for life.”
“Of course.” There was always more to his story than he was telling, but Ginna wasn’t in the mood for one of his intricate webs. She just wanted to get on with it, get the job done and get as far away from Mallus Maccius as she could. Gods only knew when he’d contact Brutus and let him know where she was. That kind of information always paid well, and set up for life, or not, Mallus had never been one to turn away an opportunity to stab someone in the back for a coinpurse—as long as he didn’t have to get any of the blood on his hands. “It seems you’ve got it all figured out then. When is this tasting at Honningbrew?”
“Tomorrow morning, so you better get on it before Sabjorn grows a brain and hires someone else to do the dirty work.”
“And how do I get into the brewing vats?”
“Both of the buildings are connected by tunnels the pests infesting the meadery dug through. There’s an entrance in the basement storeroom that used to be boarded over. I’ve already removed the boards so the meadery would get infested. That’s where you should start.”
“All right,” she started to rise from the chair, surprised that her legs actually worked. She felt weak in the knees, and it had nothing to do with Mallus. She was still stunned, but she had to get her head together and get this job done right for Maven before turning her attention to Brutus. “I’ll get over there and dampen old Sabjorn’s spirits. Is there anything else I should know? Anything you’re not telling me?”
For a moment, Mallus leveled his bright blue eyes at her as if the question she’d just asked him had hurt his feelings. She knew better. He didn’t have feelings. “Only that I’m so delighted to see you again, my dear girl. I know we didn’t exactly part on the best of terms, but there will always be an empty place in my heart where you used to dwell… Even though you ran me out of town.”
“I’m not the one who ran you out of town, but I was glad to see you go.” She turned away from the table and started walking back into the bar.
“You always were a cold-hearted bitch,” he called after her, laughing. “It’s one of the things I loved about you.”
She thought of a thousand unpleasant things to say over her shoulder to him, but decided it wasn’t the time or the place to dredge up anymore bad energy. She had a job to do; an important job.
Her emotions were already tangled like a big ball of electric fire in her gut, and she needed to push them deep down inside her in case they started to unravel. Pushing through the doors of the pub, she scanned the merchant circle and saw Rune near one of the food carts, buying apples and chatting with a beautiful Imperial woman.
The woman seemed taken by him, her eyes shining with interest, but he was oblivious to her charms, or maybe he was just a gentleman. Spotting Ginna, he thanked her for the apples and took the small sack she handed over for him to carry them in.
“Did you finish your business?” he asked as he approached, biting into one of the apples with a fierce snap of his teeth.
“No, but I got the details I need to get started. I’ll fill you in once we’re outside the city, and if you want to take a back seat and wait for me here at the inn, I’ll completely understand.”
“Okay,” he shrugged.
She explained what she was doing on the walk to Honningbrew Meadery, Rune listening carefully and weighing out all the details. “I’m sure if the place is as rife with skeevers as he says it is, it’ll be a bit dangerous. They’re venomfangs, vicious little batards… If you don’t want to get involved—”
“Sounds easy enough,” he agreed.
“I’ll give you a few extra septims. It’s only fair.”
“You don’t have to do that. I came along to help in any way I can.”
“Thanks, Rune.” She didn’t realize she’d sighed, but she did. A long deflation of her lungs that sagged her shoulders a little as they walked.
“Hey, Ginna, I can’t help but notice you seem a little off.” Was it that obvious? She’d always been so good at hiding her emotions, keeping them bottled up tight inside her where they could fester and grow like a vicious disease that ate away at her. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, it’s nothing,” she shook her head. “Just bad memories getting me down.”
“I’m here if you ever want to talk.”
“Thanks, Rune. Maybe after this is all done. Right now I just want to focus on this job.”
“I understand. I just wanted you to know that you can talk to me.”
She didn’t know why, but she believed him. That was a first… someone she actually felt like she could trust, and as much as she hated to admit it, she was finding herself in desperate need of someone to confide in and share her burden with.
Rune was just… well, Rune. He didn’t put on airs, or try to impress anyone. He didn’t brag or play things tough. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder what he’d think of her if he actually knew the whole story. And Brynjolf… if Brutus’s rumors made it to Riften, how long before his unfailing trust in her began to dwindle and he forced her out onto the streets to deal with her issues alone?
Gods, her life was such a mess. But there was no time to dwell on it then. She had work to do.