Dreaming, Ginna had always liked dreaming. It was one of the few places she could do anything, and sometimes she felt like she was actually controlling the will of her dreams. But that dream occupied a dark place, and though she blinked furiously in hopes that her eyes would adjust to that darkness, it didn’t work. And then she heard it, scritch, scritch, scritch, schlunk. Scritch, scritch, schlunk, scritch, scritch.
She tried to run toward the sound, but she couldn’t move. The space she was in was so small, and then she realized, as stark realizations often come in dreams without rational explanation, that she was buried alive, and that awful scritch, scritch, scritching sound was a host of angry, venomfang skeevers clawing their way into her crypt.
Ginna shot from sleep with a gasp, sitting up in the bed and dragging away half the bedsheets with her, but Brynjolf barely noticed. He rolled onto his side away from her, tugging as much of the blankets as he could pull with him as he smacked his lips and muttered something unintelligible. Throwing her legs over the edge of the bed, the creaking floor boards cold beneath her feet, toes curling as she rose to stand.
She was just going to get herself a drink and maybe have a look around the house, but two steps toward the kitchen and the eerie scritch-scritch-scritch sounded near Brynjolf’s side of the bed by the door, made her jump a little, her heart seemingly skipping a beat. It almost sounded like someone was trying to break in, or skeevers really were gnawing their way through the wood. Kneeling down, she searched the floor for her dagger, but it was Brynjolf’s clothes she wound up rifling through, drawing out the sleek, ebony dagger hooked through the scabbard dangling from his belt.
It would do.
She grabbed the worn tavern clothes from her pack and wriggled into that dress as quick as she could before sneaking quietly across the floor. Nearing the door, she leaned close to the wood, listening and then she heard voices.
“…be really angry if you wake them up. We were supposed to do this clean and quiet.”
“If anyone’s going to wake ‘em up, it’ll be you, yammering on back there, now hush up and hold that light a little closer. I’m almost finished.”
Reaching for the door handle, she yanked it open quickly, a stunned and hunching Delvin nearly toppling back over the balcony above the lake and Rune almost dropping the torch in his hands.
“By the eight!” Delvin cursed. “Damn near made my heart explode.”
“Shor’s balls! What are you two doing out here? I thought someone was trying to break into the house.”
“Sorry, pet. Didn’t mean to give you a fright, but I’d say we’re square. I think I wet myself just now.”
“Keep it down. Brynjolf’s asleep.” She slipped out the door and pulled it closed behind her.
“Yeah, Rune. Keep it down.” Delvin nudged the other man in the leg with his elbow, a devilish grin drawing at the corners of his mouth.
“What is going on out here?” Ginna crossed her arms against the damp mist rising off the lake behind the house, fingers briskly moving over the goosebumps raising over her skin.
“Protection,” he explained, gesturing to the masterpiece he’d etched into the wall beside the door, a diamond with a circle in the center. “We don’t want people thinking they can just walk into your place any old time they feel like it, go messing around with your things, taking stuff don’t belong to them.”
“And we can’t exactly do this in broad daylight,” Rune added. “Not all the guards will look the other way.”
“Usually we’re in and out and you never even knew we was here, but someone couldn’t keep his bleeding mouth shut.”
“Sorry,” Rune lowered his head sheepishly.
“It’s all right.” She didn’t have the heart to tell him it had been the carving of his blade that infiltrated her dreams, especially considering he was just trying to be helpful. “I’m just a little on edge, that’s all.”
“Oh right,” Rune nodded apologetic understanding. “I didn’t even think of that.”
“Think of what?” Delvin glanced up at her, dark eyes narrowing curiously.
“It’s a long story, and not one I really feel like telling again tonight.”
“Say no more.” Delvin leaned in to finish the last few strokes with his blade before drawing back to admire his work. “There we go. All done. Took my time on that one. Looks damn nice, if I do say so myself.” He smiled up at her before pushing to stand and stretching the muscles in his back. “Sorry we woke ya.”
“It’s okay. Thanks for that,” she glanced down at the Shadowmark again. “I’d invite you guys in for a drink, but…”
“Maybe some other time,” Delvin said. “You go on back inside and get your beauty sleep, and let Bryn know I did my part.”
“Good night,” Rune waved.
She watched them disappear down the stairs, becoming one with the shadows almost instantly, but for a moment she lingered there on her balcony, overlooking Lake Honrich. The mists hovered eerily over the water, cloaking the fireflies and the lights from the docks until they were little more than a dull glow. Even still, the view was breathtaking, the mountain looming over the lake, the soft lap of water against the boats and land. Remnants of Riften’s once great beauty; it was still there just waiting to be discovered and brought back to the surface.
But could she really see herself staying there for good? Making Riften her home? Even if they did somehow manage to get the Guild back on its feet, she feared her heart would always long for Cyrodiil. If she exposed Brutus’s crime and earned her rightful place at the head of her Guild, it would mean leaving Brynjolf behind, and when she realized that a strange nervousness rumbled deep in her belly.
He was just a guy. There were dozens in Cyrodiil just as good looking, a few even shared her love for making money the easy way and those who didn’t, well, they could often be bribed; everyone had a price, but she didn’t want any of those other guys. She wanted Brynjolf, really wanted him. The thought of leaving Riften and not ever seeing him again made the nervousness inside her turn to nausea and she actually reached out to grip the railing in front of her for a moment.
What was going on inside her? She had never met a man who made her feel the way she did when she was with him, and not just while they were having sex. Even lying quietly with him in bed had felt like bliss; no words were necessary. They could just be together and it was comfortable and right. She felt like she could let her guard down, share parts of herself she’d always wanted to share with someone, but knew she never could. And if that business with the Guild ever calmed down enough that they could travel together again, she really believed the two of them could put the righteous fear of Nocturnal back into the world.
The door opened at her back, startling her for the second time that night. “Ginna?”
“I’m here.” Turning over her shoulder, he stood there in the doorway in nothing but his loincloth, his hair disheveled from sleep.
“Everything all right, lass?”
“Yeah, I heard noises, that’s all. I thought someone was trying to break in.”
“Delvin?” he asked, shivering a little as the slow wind swept in off the lake. He slipped in behind her, arms coming around her, drawing her back into his chest as he rested his chin on her shoulder. Even though he shuddered just a little then, he felt as warm as a blazing hearth against her.
“Yes, but he’s gone now. We should go back inside. You’ll catch your death out here in nothing but your skin.”
“Nah,” he said. “I barely feel it.”
“Well, I feel it.” She led him back inside and locked the door behind them before slipping out of her clothes again and crawling into bed still shivering. She gratefully cuddled up to him, glad for that radiating warmth he put off, as it quickly ebbed the chill from her bones.
His arms around her again, she nestled in tight against him, releasing a comfortable breath as relaxation set in again. He combed the tips of his fingers along her bare shoulder, stroking her to the edge of sleep. “You will need protection on the road to Solitude,” he said, as if they’d been in the middle of a conversation.
“What?” she started to lift her head to look down at him, his hand rising into her hair and falling slowly down her cheek.
“Rune’s good with a bow, but I’d rather you take Thrynn with you.”
“Rune has skills you can’t even begin to imagine. He saved my life in Whiterun and besides, Thrynn doesn’t know me.”
“Rune didn’t know you either before last week.”
“I’d rather take you with me,” she sighed, lowering her head back to his chest, the prospect of leaving him again dampening her spirits. It seemed like every time she started to feel comfortable enough with him to let go a little, something else came between them.
“I know, lass,” he drew in a deep breath and then let it go, the force of it fluttering through her hair. “I’d rather it was me too, but with all that’s been going on here… Mercer would have my head if I took off again. I feel like I’m the only one holding it all together right now.”
“Maybe you are.” For a time they were quiet, each of them lost in thought, and then Ginna asked, “Do you really trust Mercer Frey?”
He tilted his head to try and look down at her, one eyebrow cocked in question. “Of course I trust Mercer. If it weren’t for him, I’d have ended up in Honorhall, or somewhere far worse after my ma and da were killed. Why?”
“I don’t know,” she shook her head. “It’s probably nothing. He makes me… uncomfortable.”
“He’s a little rough around the edges, and sometimes his confidence is easy to mistake for ego, I get that. When you’ve been at this as long as he has, you’re bound to get a little cocky, but Mercer’s a good man. He just needs more time to get to know you. You keep doing what you’re doing, putting us back out there in the world again, and you’ll earn his respect.”
“Maybe.” Ginna yawned and he caught it too, and once more they grew quiet. “What about this Gulum-Ei? What should I expect from him?”
“I can’t believe Gulum-Ei’s mixed up in all this,” he mumbled, stretching his legs beneath the blankets before rolling onto his side to face her. “That Argonian couldn’t find his tail with both hands. Don’t get me wrong, he could scam a beggar out of his last septim, but he’s no mastermind.”
Ginna tangled her fingers into his, loosely drawing their hands to rest on her pillow. “Think he’ll give me any trouble?”
“Trouble?” he scoffed. “He’s one of the most stubborn lizards I’ve ever met. You’ll definitely have your work cut out for you.”
“Hmm,” she yawned again. “So, how do I get him to talk?”
“You’ll probably have to buy him off. It’s the only way to get his attention. If that fails, I want you to follow him and see what he’s been up to. If I know Gulum-Ei, he’s in way over his head and you’ll be able to use that as leverage.”
“He’s going to owe the Guild for his betrayal,” she said.
“Aye,” he agreed in a soft murmur. “He does owe us, and with his fingers in the East Empire Company’s pie, we’ll make good use of that debt.”
“So, keep him alive?”
“Keep him alive. Keep on his tail for now, and he’s bound to step into something he can’t scrape off his boot. And as soon as you have something, head straight back here, to Mercer. There is nothing else more important than this right now. And…” he paused long enough to stifle the yawn that overpowered him. “If you discover he’s holding out on us, and has more loot stashed away than he claims, we’d find that information quite valuable as well.”
“Understood,” she said. “And what about Erikur?”
“Don’t worry about Erikur. Maven put enough coin in his pocket to keep his nose out of the Guild’s business, and whether he likes it or not, you’re one of ours. His warning about you keeping out of Solitude was little more than a last ditch effort to save his pride.” Brynjolf brought her fingers to his lips then and kissed them. “Sleep now, lass.”
She groaned softly as he squeezed her hand. Try as she might to fight it, she was still exhausted, and yet she didn’t want to waste the little bit of time they had together sleeping through his company. “I don’t want to sleep. Sleeping means waking, and waking means leaving and I… I feel so comfortable here with you right now. I don’t want that to end.”
In the dim flicker of light from the hearth she watched the corner of his mouth twitch into a grin. “I’m comfortable too, but I’ll be waiting for you when you get back.”
“Will you? Or will I come home and find that really busy man with no time to say hello because of all the important things he has to do?”
“I had that coming, I suppose,” he admitted. “Look, I know I was a little cold to you after we got to Riften, after everything on the road home… I know I owed you more than just dropping you into the thick of it like I did. I just…” His face was so calm, eyes still closed, brow relaxed. It felt like the kind of conversation they should have been having with eye contact, but something about the way they lay there together made it seem more real than any conversation she’d ever had. “Ginna, I’ve felt things since I met you. Things I don’t even know how to put into words, and I started to get a little—”
She’d felt it too, but more so as he started to pull away from her. That little bit of herself she’d dangled in front of him in Solitude and Markarth had made her feel so exposed, and the emotions were more raw and confusing than anything she’d ever felt before. The warmer he’d been to her, the more of herself she’d let show, until his sudden shift in behavior left her feeling like a fool.
“Aye,” he said softly. “It’s something I couldn’t explain if I tried, but when I was dancing with you while we were at the Embassy, I felt like my whole world just shifted. And when we were in Markarth, it was like my bad luck streak had come to an end, and I’m not just talking about the rotten turn of luck the Guild’s seen this last couple of years. I’m talking about my whole life. I took your jewel that night because you seemed like the kind of person who would have come after me to get it back, and I wanted you to come after me. That was why I told you my name.”
“I would have too,” she mused. “You have no idea the many ways I plotted to kill you while I was in that cell.”
He chuckled. “I deserve that too, I guess.”
“When you showed up to get me out, I still didn’t trust you. Even when I slept in your arms that first night, I didn’t trust you.”
“And then when we were in Markarth, I don’t know, I saw something in you I’d never let myself see in anyone else. But we came back here and all of that was just gone. I spent three days on the road with Rune, and on our way back here I found myself telling him things I’d never told anyone, not even you because I still didn’t trust you.”
“Rune said I should trust you.”
“I never thought I’d be competing with Rune for a woman.”
Ginna snorted laughter. “No, it’s not like that. He’s a good friend, that’s all. A good listener.”
“Ahuh,” he muttered. “That’s how it starts and then before you know it it’s I’m sorry, Bryn, but Rune listens to me and he’s so mysterious… I’m running away to help him find out who he is. Farewell and thanks for the memories.”
She playfully swatted at him and he tucked in, bringing his arms up to hide his face.
“I’m not going to run away with Rune!” she laughed, grabbing his arms to draw them away so he had no choice but to look at her in the dim light from the hearth. Even in the shadows, his eyes were so beautiful and green and she never wanted to look away. “It took a lot for me to open up and tell you the things I did today. It’s taken a lot for me to let myself go as far with you as I have, but every time you blew me off it was like taking five steps back for every step forward I thought I’d taken with you. I want to trust you, Bryn.”
“But you don’t.”
“I want to, and right now that has to be enough.”
“Aye,” he sighed. “I guess that’s as good as it gets then.”
“For now,” she lifted a hand to rest on his cheek and he curled his fingers around her wrist. “I just need time.”
“I’ll give you whatever you need, lass,” he whispered, kissing her fingers.