To Catch a Thief: Chapter Eighteen

Sabjorn was, for lack of a better term, a jackass. The minute Ginna and Rune walked into Honningbrew Meadery, he barked at them like a vicious dog, asking if they’d come to gawk and mock his misery. Ginna immediately loathed him, which made it easy to put on her sweetest and most sympathetic face as she offered to lend a helping hand.

“Oh, wonderful,” he rolled his eyes. “And I don’t suppose you’d just do it out of the kindness of your heart, would you?”

“No, sir, I would ask you to pay me the same as you would pay any other worker you might hire to do such a job.”

“Well, I hope you’re not expecting to get paid until the job’s done.”

“Sorry,” she started to turn toward the door. “That’s the only way I operate.”

“Wait,” he cried out. “Wait, all right. I’ll pay you half now and half once you complete the job. Here, this should keep you tided over.” He handed her a heavy bag of gold, which she weighed in her hands and then nodded satisfaction. “You’ll get the other half when I know the job is done. My only demand is that these vermin are permanently exterminated before my reputation is completely destroyed.”

“How would you like me to do this then?”

“I bought some poison. I was going to have my lazy, good-for-nothing assistant, Mallus, take care of it, but he seems to have vanished.” He obviously hadn’t looked very far for him, but she couldn’t help the slow grin that drew at the corners of her mouth in hearing the words lazy, good-for-nothing and Mallus in the same sentence. “If you plant the poison in the vermin’s nest, it should keep them from ever coming back.”

“I can handle that.”

“Here, you’ll need this key to get into the storage area.” He handed over the key and then said, “Don’t come back until every one of those vermin is dead. Do I make myself clear?”

“As a crystal, sir,” she agreed, taking the poison and turning to Rune, who followed her into the meadery to begin the journey downward. “I’ll split the reward with you,” she told him, opening the door into the storage area. She hadn’t even though about that when she’d been talking with Mallus, and the six hundred gold Sabjorn had given her was more than she expected. If he actually got to pay her the remainder of what he owed her, that’d leave both of them with a heavy chunk of coin to split, and she knew Rune could use the money to further his never ending search for the truth about his identity.

The skeevers infesting Honningbrew Meadery were a rare breed known as the venomfang, and a bite from one of them promised an intense sickness the attacked might not come back from. An attack by a pack of them was death, plain and simple.  Hacking their way through wasn’t easy, and both Rune and Ginna were actually a little relieved when they stumbled into a nest of frostbite spiders. The spiders were easy enough to quash, but no sooner had they wiped them out, than did another host of angry skeevers reappear, frothing and vicious and ready to fight to the death.

They followed the tunnel down into a deep cavern beneath the earth to search for their nest, but it wasn’t just skeevers that greeted them there. A raving, mad mage came charging out of the darkness shooting long streams of shock magic that knocked Rune back and almost stunned Ginna completely.

“Son of a bitch!” she muttered, summoning her healing until every bit of her magicka had drained. A detail Mallus had neglected to mention; how very like him. For a moment she actually wondered if her being there was all part of a much more intricate plot, that maybe Brutus had contacted Maven Black-Briar and it was a way to take care of her more quietly. She’d be buried and lost there in the depths of that cellar if she didn’t find a way to fight back.

Quickly scanning through her mind for some spell she could use, Rune rose up to stand behind her and said something she didn’t quite hear. An inexplicable calm washed over her, and the insane mage dropped his hands, the magic fizzling out until only the remnants of sparks could be seen flashing between his fingertips. Rune walked slowly toward the man and reached out his hands, resting them on the sides of his face as if he were talking to an old, trusted friend, and then with a swift jerk he snapped the mage’s his neck and Ginna watched him crumple to the earthen floor.

A band of skeevers raced in to inspect and gnaw upon the body, and Rune turned back toward her. “Are you all right?”

“I think so.” She took the hand he offered and with a quick tug he pulled her to her feet. “What was that?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Just something I’ve always been able to do. I can calm people with my voice.”

“Voice of the Emperor.” She’d seen it used before, growing up in Cyrodiil, and had always envied the pureblood Cyrodiilians who’d been born with such unique and beautiful power. She’d once watched Severus calm an entire gathering of people, who hadn’t even noticed she was walking around stealing their valuables right from under the noses. She’d gotten nothing from her parents, except maybe her deep-seated resentment and trust issues, but both of Rune’s parents must have come from Cyrodiil, which for some reason only seemed to lend more strength to his father’s story about a shipwreck near Solitude. Maybe they were royals, and Rune was some lost heir to the Empire. Wouldn’t that be something?

“That’s what Vex called it,” he nodded. “I don’t use it very often, only when I’m in a real bind, but it seemed like we were in a bit of a bind just now.”

“Rune, you could be an assassin with skills like that,” she chuckled. “Thank you.”

She thought he actually blushed a little, shuffling his feet uncomfortably while she took a moment to gather her strength.

They delved deeper until they came upon the skeevers’ nest. She sprinkled the poison all around it, reserving more than half of it to drop into the mead vats. Finding their way into the boilery was easy, they found the tunnel the skeevers had dug and slipped up into through the basement, which was open, just as Mallus had promised it would be. Sneaking quietly up the stairs, she opened the vat and poured the poison in.

Sabjorn was probably even less appreciative than he’d been when they showed up, and told her he wouldn’t pay her the rest of what he owed her until after the tasting, when he knew for sure the problem had been taken care off. Ginna wanted to crush him like the little bug he was, but instead she took satisfaction in knowing he would get what was coming to him.

“I’ll be back tomorrow morning to collect what you owe me,” she assured him before stepping out into the rain.

“It’s always rains in Whiterun,” Rune noticed, lifting his head to the dark sky.

“Does it?”

“It does every time I’m here.”

“Come on, let’s go get something to eat at the Bannered Mare.”

They spent their night indoors, feasting on spiced venison and baked potatoes, which Rune said were probably the best potatoes he’d ever had in his life. They rented a room from the innkeep, and split their night in half. Rune slept while Ginna went to take care of the jobs she’d gotten from Delvin and Vex, and when she returned, he sat on the balcony outside the room watching the door. For what purpose, she didn’t know, but she was kind of glad he’d offered to do it.

Knowing she was in the same town with Mallus offered little in the way of comfort, but with Rune watching her back, she almost felt safe. She didn’t sleep for a long time after she laid down. She couldn’t stop thinking about what Mallus had said. Brutus telling the guild, and apparently anyone else who would listen, that she’d poisoned the Grey Fox; Severus had died of old age and sickness… hadn’t he?

His illness had been no sudden thing, but an enduring darkness that grew over time until at long last it had consumed him… like a subtle poison in the blood. Lifting her hand into her hair, she rolled onto her side and drew up her legs until she was tucked into an almost fetal position. Had Brutus hated Severus so much that he would actually kill him? It didn’t seem possible, but then she’d never thought he’d hated her enough to do the things he was doing to her either.

Rune was still sitting in the chair on the balcony when she opened the door the next morning, a closed book in his lap and his eyes rested firmly on the entrance into the Bannered Mare. “Sleep well?” he asked thoughtfully.

“As well as I ever do,” she shrugged.

After breaking their fast, they headed over the Honningbrew to collect the rest of their pay from Sabjorn. She had a feeling the bag of gold in her satchel was all she’d get from that man; mostly she just wanted to be there when he went down. It’d feel good watching someone else take a fall, especially someone as rude as Sabjorn.

He was pacing the floors and wringing his hands when they walked in, while Commander Caius lingered near the mead barrels alongside the bar. Mallus was sitting patiently at the table in the corner, and as Ginna walked by, he grinned with unbridled excitement and told her, “Gods, I can’t wait to see Sabjorn squirm.”

“I think that’s the first thing we’ve had in common for a long time,” she crossed her arms and stepped up to the bar. “I’m here for the rest of my pay.”

“Not now,” Sabjorn shooed her away. “After the tasting, I’ll give you the rest of your money, now just go away.”

“I’m not going anywhere without that money, so I’ll just take a seat over there and wait.”

“I suppose you can wait around, if you must, but you’ll just have to wait until after the captain’s finished. Just stay out to of the way.”

She took a seat at the table with Mallus, but Rune lingered near the door beside her, watching it all unfold with his arms crossed.

“Well, Sabjorn, now that you’ve taken care of that little pest problem, let’s get a taste of your mead.” Commander Caius stepped up to lift one of the mugs, ready for his first taste.

“Help yourself, milord. It’s one of my finest brews yet. I call it Honningbrew Reserve. I think you’ll find it quite pleasing to your palate.”

“Oh, come now. This is mead. Not some wine to be sipped and savored.”

Sabjorn watched with hopeful eyes as the commander filled his mug to brimming, and then lifted it to smell before drawing the edge to his lips. He tipped it back, taking several swallows, but then he gagged and gasped, slamming the mug down onto the bar.

“By the Eight! What is in this?”

“I…” Sabjorn stammered. “I don’t know. What’s wrong?”

“You assured me this place was clean! I… I’ll see to it that you remain in irons for the rest of your days!”

“No, please. I… I don’t understand.”

“Silence, you idiot. I should have known better to trust this place after it’s been riddled with filth.”

Ginna and Mallus exchanged glances, and for a moment she actually smiled at him.

“Please, I beg you. This is not what it seems.”

Commander Caius began walking toward them, and for a moment Ginna felt a hitch in her gut. “You,” he pointed at Mallus. “You’re in charge here until I get this all sorted out.”

“Of course, milord.” Mallus rose from the chair. “It would be my pleasure.”

“And you… You’re coming with me to Dragonsreach. We’ll see how quickly your memory clears in the city’s prison. Now, move!”

“Look,” Sabjorn tried in desperation to appeal to the man’s sense of forgiveness. “I assure you, this is all just a huge misunderstanding.”

Caius drew his blade and growled, “I said move!”

The three of them watched as the commander led Sabjorn out of the Honningbrew, and when the door closed at his back, Mallus turned toward dusting his hands as he said, “Farewell, Sabjorn.”

“Well, there goes the rest of our money.” Ginna sighed and glanced over at Rune, he didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing.

“I’m sure Maven will see that you’re well compensated,” Mallus said. “I don’t think that could have gone any better. Do you?”

“It was almost too easy,” she admitted.

“Almost,” he agreed. “You and I always worked well together, didn’t we?”

“I always did all the work and you took all the credit,” she sneered. “It would seem nothing’s changed.”

“Well, you were the one with all the talent. Is there anything else you need before you head back to Riften?”

“Yeah, I need to get a look at Sabjorn’s books.”

“Of course,” he nodded, reaching into his pocket. “So, Maven wants to hunt down Sabjorn’s private partner, then?”

“You’ll have to ask Maven what she wants. I was just asked to look at the books.”

“Well, you’re welcome to take a look around Sabjorn’s office. He keeps most of his private papers stashed in the desk. You’ll need this key.”

“Thanks,” she snatched it out of his palm and started toward the doors that led upstairs. “Oh, by the way, you never mentioned the lunatic living in the tunnels. Doing a little side work for Brutus?”

“Of course not.” He looked away uneasily and then brought his gaze back to meet with hers. “I just thought it would be better to leave some of the details out of our previous discussion. Didn’t want you walking away from the job before it was finished.”

“I’ve never walked away from a job and you know it.”

“Besides,” he went on. “You did Maven a favor, getting rid of him, and saved me a lot of coin having to hire someone else to do it later.”

“You owe my friend here compensation,” she gestured to Rune. “He’s the one who took care of your little problem and I think you should pay him for his efforts. Five-hundred gold should just about cover it.”

“Five-hundred gold? Are you out of your mind?”

“Come on, Mallus. It’s not like you can’t afford it now. Pay the man.”

She walked away, heading up the stairs. She rifled through all of Sabjorn’s belongings, taking everything of value she could find before unlocking his desk and sifting through his paperwork until she found what she was looking for. The promissory note did not name the silent partner, but she recognized the name Gulum-Ei, who had also acted as a go-between in the selling of Goldenglow Estate, and that same bizarre symbol marked the top of the note. She stuffed it into her satchel, wondering if Brynjolf had had any luck with his contact, and then scanned the shelves, her eye catching a beautiful gold decanter she was sure Delvin would be interested in. She took everything of value in Sabjorn’s rooms, making sure not to leave anything behind for Mallus. He wouldn’t need it if Maven Black-Briar was adding him to her permanent payroll.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Mallus asked when she came back into the room slinging her bag over her shoulder.

“Maybe,” she shrugged. The less he knew, the better she would feel about things. If Maven wanted to share more of the details with him, that was her business.

“Look, Ginna,” he started, leaning back against the bar. “Ginna, Ginna, Ginna… there doesn’t have to be all this bad blood between us anymore. We’re friends, and friends should help each other.”

“We aren’t friends, Mallus. We’ve never been friends.”

“You hurt me,” he sighed. “I know you think I’m the enemy, but you don’t have to worry about me running back to Brutus and telling him where you are. In fact, I want to help you as much as I can while I’m here. Especially if you really did have nothing to do with that business Brutus is accusing you of.”

“That man was like a father to me.” She clenched her teeth together so tight when she said that, a bit of spittle flew from her lips. “I would never have done anything to harm him and you know that.”

“And I believe you.” She couldn’t tell if he believed her, or not. She really didn’t care. “If you’re in the area, and you ever need anything fenced, I’m your man, all right? I’ll give you good deals on any stolen merchandise you bring me.”

“Yeah, all right.”

“And if you ever wanna… you know, pick up where we left off in Cyrodiil… Well, the nights here are long and cold and I could always use a body to keep me warm.”

She actually laughed as she turned away from him. “In your dreams, Mallus.” It was the first time she’d actually walked away from him without a twinge of regretful desire. In that moment, she just wanted to get as far away from him as she could.

She opened the door and stepped outside, the late-morning rain tapering off to a slow drizzle. “Does it really always rain in Whiterun?” she looked over her shoulder at Rune.

He just shrugged and offered her a soft smile. “Every time I’m here.”

About erica

Erica North is the fanfiction pseudonym for fantasy/romance author Jennifer Melzer.
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