Rune had overheard enough of her conversation with Mallus that she kept expecting him to ask her about it. Anyone else would have, but he just kept quiet on the road, only talking when she asked him a question, or when he seemed to be going out of his way to lighten the mood. It was kind of strange, but it pushed her just that much closer to giving in and trusting him.
“Hey, did you know if a thief steps into the shadow of a dragon flying overhead, he’s supposed to have three years good luck?” he asked, and when she glanced back at him, she saw he’d stopped and shielded his eyes with his hand to look up at the grey, clouded sky above.
She’d never met anyone like Rune, and she’d known a lot of people in her lifetime. Some good people, some bad, some interesting and some boring, but never anyone quite like Rune. He was almost innocent to the point of naivete, and yet she knew for a fact he was absolutely lethal. Why couldn’t Brutus have been more like him? She would have killed to grow up with a guildbrother like Rune.
“Never heard that one,” she said.
“Well, Delvin says so anyway,” he drew up his shoulders and lowered his gaze, arm dropping at his side, “but the only dragons I’ve ever seen have already been on the ground and I didn’t want to get close enough to try and step into their shadow.”
“Delvin’s full of all kinds of superstitions,” she mused. “Tell me something, Rune.” She waited until he started walking again, catching up with her before she went on. “What do you think of Delvin’s whole theory about the Guild being cursed?”
“That’s a good question,” he decided. “And one that I actually find myself contemplating often, but unlike Bryn, Mercer and Delvin, even Vex, I haven’t been at this long enough to recall the Guild’s glory days. I mean, as long as I can remember it was always just take enough to get by. Anything more than that felt like a risk, but to hear Delvin tell it, taking risks was all part of the big pay-off in the past. Now, it’s like an invitation for failure.”
“But do you think it’s some kind of curse?”
“It could be. I just don’t know. I find myself erring on the side of caution though, just in case.”
“Yeah…” she sighed. “Look, you said I could talk to you, right?”
“I mean really talk? Hardcore personal stuff that I don’t exactly want getting around the Guild right now? I’m just not ready for that, yet.”
“I’m no gossip, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I didn’t think you were,” she smiled across the space between them and then looked back toward the road. “I think I might be cursed.”
“Cursed? What do you mean?”
She drew in a deep breath, trying hard to find the courage inside her to share her burden, and just when she thought it was going to come to the surface, she caught a flash of black and red in the trees that moved quickly onto the road, steel glinting in the sunlight as the assailant drew her blades.
Ginna didn’t even think; she just acted, drawing her dagger and her sword and spinning in to drive the veiled woman down the side of the road, where she stumbled on the drainage ditch and fell back. Ginna tumbled in hard and drove her blade into the other woman’s chest. She gasped, reaching up to wrap her finger’s around Ginna’s wrist, and then those fingers loosened as she twisted the dagger in deep. Ginna pulled back, watching a trickle of blood drip down the slackening jaw of her would-be assassin as her eyes glazed over with death.
Hunkering down over the body, she rifled through her pockets, taking her lockpicks, a few amethysts and about twenty septims. Unfolding the letter of assassination she’d carried in her inner-pocket, Ginna saw her own name etched into the parchment and felt her heart tighten in her chest. The only person she could think of was Mallus. He must have sent a courier to Cyrodiil as soon as she’d left the Bannered Mare the night before, but that still didn’t seem like enough time for Brutus to enact the Black Sacrament. She knew he was a snake, and she supposed she had it coming for putting herself behind the push to get him out of Cyrodiil, but she’d never expected him to actually betray her.
A stunned Rune appeared over her shoulder, his mouth still agape. She pushed up off the ground and handed him the letter. “This is what I wanted to talk to you about.”
She watched his eyes flicker across the writing on the parchment and then he lifted them warily to meet with hers. “Who would want you dead?”
“Someone very important.” Taking the parchment as he handed it back to her, she folded it and tucked it into her satchel with the paperwork she’d taken from Sabjorn’s office. She slung the bag over her shoulder and started walking again. “The same person who set me up to take the fall in Solitude.”
It took Rune a few seconds to follow, as if he were still processing the fact that she’d just taken out a member of the Dark Brotherhood almost without blinking. She didn’t talk until he was beside her, but as they made their way along the side of the road she told him her entire story from beginning to end. Severus taking her in when she was a kid, driving her father out of Cyrodiil, raising her with Brutus as if they’d been his own little children of the shadows. “And he was always jealous of me, from the moment The Grey Fox brought me home to House Dareloth. It was like all the attention that had once been focused on him had shifted to someone else, and he couldn’t stand it. When our Guildfather died last year, it was his will that I succeed him, but I stepped down and yielded the position to Brutus. I just… never wanted it as bad as he did. And now… Mallus told me yesterday that Brutus is telling people I killed the Grey Fox.”
He didn’t interrupt, not even to ask questions, he just listened, occasionally lifting those gentle brown eyes to search her face, and every time he did she swore she saw sadness in them. As if he couldn’t believe a guild-brother would ever do something like that to his guild-sister.
“You need to tell Bryn about this,” he finally said when she hadn’t spoken for a while. “You seem pretty well-guarded, and I’m honored that you chose to share this with me, of all people, Ginna, but that is some really heavy bad. The kind of bad other people should know about, especially if you don’t want them to hear it from someone else before you have a chance to explain.”
“Brynjolf knows some of it,” she sighed. “The parts about why he set me up, anyway. I just… I’ve never been good with letting my personal business air out in the open, you know? I mean… Brynjolf and I…” Brynjolf and her what? Had gotten naked together? Cuddled up in the dark playing house together in Markarth? Shared stories and mead, hopes and dreams? She’d felt so safe with him, protected in ways she’d never let herself feel with anyone else, and yet… “I don’t know if I can trust him.” She barely knew him at all.
The sound of Rune’s laughter surprised her, and when she glanced over at him in curious question, he shook his head. “There is no one in the world I trust more than Brynjolf. He may be a thief, but he’s a damn honorable thief and there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for our family.” He paused to let that sink in before adding, “And I get your trust issues, especially now that I know where you come from, but like it or not, you’re a part of our family now, Ginna. Our family doesn’t keep those kinds of secrets from each other, and we protect more than just each other’s interests.”
She didn’t want to be a part of anyone’s family. She just… ugh. She wanted to take everything she had, the whole couple thousand septims, and hop on a boat to somewhere, anywhere that wasn’t a part of Tamriel. Maybe she could find an island and set up permanent residence alone, drink coconut milk mixed with moon sugar and lay in the sand beneath the sun until she shriveled up and melted away with the tide as it rolled in.
“Look, your secret is safe with me. I promise,” he told her. “And I’m not going to say anything to Brynjolf, even though I think he should know. I just want you to consider talking to him about it, okay? We all help each other down there. It’s what family is supposed to do, but no one can help you if you don’t even tell them you’re in need.”
Asking for help was not a concept Ginna easily wrapped her mind around. Severus had always taught her self-reliance, his guidance and tutelage the stepping stones she’d needed to learn how to help herself so she never found herself in a place that required someone else to get her out, but he’d never prepared her for what she was facing.
“I’ll talk to Brynjolf when we get back to Riften,” she said, though a part of her still didn’t believe she’d go through with it.
After their encounter with the assassin on the road, they were more cautious than they’d been on the way to Whiterun. They camped deep in the woods with only a small fire to keep them warm, slept with one eye open even while the other guarded their camp and traveled off-road all the way to Riften. It added an extra day to their journey, and by the time she saw Riften rising in the distance she was so tired she just wanted to drop at the gates and pay one of the guards to carry her to the nearest bed.
Instead, she parted ways with Rune, paying him half of what she’d earned from Sabjorn, as well as the two-hundred-fifty she’d promised before they left, and then promised to see him in the Cistern later. He didn’t have to say anything, she could tell just looking into his soulful brown eyes that he was silently willing her to open up and talk to Brynjolf. All the way home, he’d given her a thousand reasons why he trusted Brynjolf with his life, but one man’s reasons were never enough. She had to make the decision on her own.
And Brynjolf had given her many reasons to trust him. She just hated the idea of looking vulnerable in front of him. Playing things tough had always been her game. She didn’t need anyone’s help, she never had. The notion that he’d find out from someone else, if he hadn’t already, was worse. He’d probably think she betrayed him, lied to him right from the start.
Shaking her head, she promised, “I will talk to Brynjolf as soon as I finish my business with Maven.”
“You won’t regret it,” he told her, heading toward the Temple of Mara as she turned right and cut across the bridge that led to the Bee & Barb.
She found Maven in the same place, sitting at the table in that small corner room upstairs, studiously leafing through paperwork. “You’re back,” she noticed without looking up. “I trust you have good news for me.”
“Job’s finished,” Ginna told her, reaching deep into her satchel to retrieve the promissory note, which she handed over to Maven. “And here’s the information you requested.”
Maven snatched it out of her hand and unfolded it, her dark blue eyes scanning over the text. Ginna watched the wrinkles around her hard mouth tighten and deepen as she scowled. “Well, this doesn’t tell me much. The only thing that could identify Sabjorn’s partner is this odd little symbol.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “I’ve seen that symbol before, on the papers I found in Aringoth’s safe. Brynjolf was consulting with his sources to get to the bottom of it.”
“Hmph,” she refolded the parchment. “Whoever this mysterious marking represents, they’ll regret starting a war with me. You should take this information to Brynjolf, immediately.” Handing it back over to Ginna, she nodded silent agreement and tucked the note into her pocket. “There is also the matter of your debt to me, which is now clear.” She wouldn’t ever say as much, but Ginna thought the woman was impressed. At least that was what her eyes said when she finally lifted them to look her over. “I want everyone focused on that symbol. Are we clear?”
“Yes, Lady Black-Briar. Will that be all for now?”
“As if that’s not enough,” she crossed her arms. “But no, that isn’t all. There is one other thing. Brynjolf tells me you think yourself above staying their little rathole under the city.” Ginna felt her gut clench for a moment as she wondered if he’d actually put it into those words. “I don’t blame you,” she went on before Ginna could answer. “There isn’t enough money in the world that could persuade me to even set foot in the place.”
“I was raised in Cyrodiil, Lady. In House Dareloth by the Grey Fox.”
“Is that so?” That information seemed to intrigue her. “Severus was an old business associate of mine. We went back quite a ways, he and I.”
“He taught me everything I know.”
“So you were Severus’s little Ghost?” she mused thoughtfully. “You were more than just his protege. You were meant to succeed him.”
Ginna felt a strange sense of comfort, knowing Severus had spoken of her fondly enough that Maven actually remembered their conversation.
“That was his wish, yes.”
“So the rumors I’ve been hearing are false?” There was no hardness in her eyes then, only curiosity.
“What rumors would those be, milady?”
“So many of them, of course. One in particular that caught my ear of late. Word from Cyrodiil is that you poisoned the Grey Fox to take his place.”
“If that were true, I would still be in Cyrodiil sitting at the head of his table, doling out orders and running my Guild, but Brutus Arenicci was Severus’s first pupil and I thought it only fitting the position of Guildmaster should go to him. Though I see now that was a grave error on my part.”
“Turning down a position of power is always a grave error,” Maven squinted, as if narrowing her eyes gave her some secret power to see through lies. “Especially when you’re handing that power over to such a fool.”
“And that fool is willing to go to great lengths to have you taken out of the picture.”
“He is weak, hiding behind slander and lies, and it is only a matter of time before he falls under my blade.”
“Be that as it may, we can’t have his assassins lurking in the Bee & Barb on the lookout for you. I’ve taken care of the Dark Brotherhood, for now, but there are always others who rise to take their place when the jobs don’t get done.”
“Thank you,” she lowered her head. “That puts me in your debt again.”
“A debt I’ve no doubt you will pay off in good time. You’ve proven yourself quite useful to me, and I always take advantage of resourceful associates who do right by me. Which brings me to my next proposition,” she paused for a moment. Ginna was sure she only did it to make her squirm. “I have a house here in Riften, empty at the moment. It has a private porch that leads to the docks, which will allow you to enter and leave the city undetected as you see fit. You will pay me three-hundred and fifty septims a month to rent Honeyside, which I will dock from your payment when you satisfactorily complete jobs for me. If you are happy there, and you continue to do right by me, I might consider selling it to you at some point in time for a modest fee. Who knows? I may even just give it to you one day, if you continue to prove yourself… worthy.”
Ginna studied the woman for a moment, not quite sure what to make of her offer. A house was a huge debt, even if she was only renting it, but it was privacy… maybe even a home of her own one day. She would never admit it to anyone, but a home of her own, even a place like Riften was definitely a step in the right direction. “I don’t know what to say,” she admitted.
“You ask for the keys, you silly twit.” And for a moment, Ginna thought Maven Black-Briar was actually smiling at her as she slipped her hand into the pocket of her fine robe and drew out a set of keys. “Honeyside is located on the northwest corner of the city, tucked back behind Haelga’s little whorehouse, or whatever she’s calling it these days.”
Ginna reached for the keys, the cold metal warming in her hand as she closed her fingers around them. “Thank you, Lady Black-Briar.”
“Now, I believe we’re finished here. Off with you then. Go.”