The road was long, even by carriage, but Ginna and Rune passed the time playing word and dice games in the back of the cart when they weren’t talking or sleeping, and by the time they reached Solitude he’d won two-hundred gold from her. Her thoughts were never far from Brynjolf, wondering what he was doing, who he was with, if he was thinking of her. She didn’t talk about it with Rune though, and he didn’t ask. She sort of liked the idea of keeping whatever was going on between them behind closed doors, as if it belonged to them and them alone.
As they ascended the hill into the city, she had never been readier to finish a job, but as they entered the Winking Skeever and immediately set their sights on the only Argonian in the place, she could tell the lizard wasn’t going to make things easy on her. Argonians… she’d never been very fond of them. Every one she’d ever known had been slippery, at best, treacherous at worst.
Rune hung back as she approached, arms crossed and head tilted as Gulum-Ei looked up at her.
“So, what do we have here? Hmm? Let me guess…” He lifted his open nostrils and sniffed. “By your scent, I’d say you were from the Guild, but that can’t be true because I already told Mercer I wouldn’t deal with them anymore.”
Her scent? She almost lowered her nose to sniff at her own armor, but stopped herself before she went through with it. She didn’t want to know if she smelled like the Cistern. “I’m here about Goldenglow Estate.” She glanced back at Rune, who edged in a little closer to provide a bit of solidarity.
He was a quick one, answering without even batting an eyelash, almost as if he’d been expecting her and had practiced his speech. “Oh, well I don’t deal in land or property, so it looks like you’re out of luck on that front. Now if you’re interested in goods, you’ve come to the right person.”
“You can drop the act, Gajul-Lei.” She loved moves like that, watching a person’s confidence shift, all the muscles in their face tighten with unspoken fear before they scrambled inwardly to cover up the fact that they’d been caught red-handed. “I know who you are.”
“Oh,” he stammered a little. “Wait, did you say Goldenglow Estate? My apologies. I’m sorry to say I know very little about that… bee farm, was it?”
“Really?” She rolled and stretched her neck until it cracked. “That’s funny. My sources say you acted as a broker for its new owner.”
“Maybe I did,” he shrugged, reaching for his goblet. “Maybe I didn’t. I can’t be expected to remember every deal I handle.”
“Right,” she smirked, lowering her hands to her sides and curling her fingertips around the hilt of her dagger. “Look, the people in Riften aren’t very happy with you right now, Gulum-Ei, and you know what happens when the Guild’s unhappy with someone. Especially someone who’s uses are few and far between.” She thought for a moment her veiled threat shook him. The jagged corner of his mouth twitched a little, and then he put his teeth together.
“Last I heard, the people in Riften could barely keep their heads above water.” He’d swallowed hard against his own fear before he said those words, as if taking a flying leap of faith that she wouldn’t really act on her own threat.
“Well, here’s the thing,” she drew her bottom lip between her teeth for a moment and then released it. “I’m not from Riften, and where I come from we don’t so easily forgive and forget such acts of treachery. Now, identify the buyer and we’ll forget what we know. See how easy it could be for you?”
“Easy?” he scoffed laughter. “I don’t care what you threaten me with, or what kind of promises you make. If I tell you the buyer’s name and word gets around, it could ruin me.”
“So, I guess I have to kill you then. Death is always better than a ruined reputation,” she shrugged, drawing the dagger from her hilt.
“Now, now,” he held up a hand to stay her from drawing it out completely. “Let’s not be hasty. How about we strike a little deal instead.”
“What kind of deal?” she narrowed her eyebrows together.
“There is something I’ve been trying to get my hands on. I have a buyer looking for a case of Firebrand Wine, and my sources tell me there just so happens to be such a case up at the Blue Palace.”
“I’m listening.” She uncurled her fingers and let the dagger slip back into place.
“You bring me that case of Firebrand, and I’ll tell you what I can about Goldenglow.”
“That’s it? A case of wine? What’s the catch?”
There had to be a catch. There was always a catch, and even though she was sure Gulum-Ei had no idea who she was, she couldn’t help but wonder if it was a setup. “I don’t know.” She chewed her lip again, glancing back at Rune to see what he thought. She could tell just from his eyes he didn’t think it was a good idea, but she wasn’t sure if his hesitation was on account of his smelling a rat, or just because he’d been clinging so long to the school of steal just enough to get by. “All right,” she agreed. “I’ll bring you your case of wine.”
“Good,” the lizard leered at her, or maybe that was just the way he smiled. She never could tell with Argonians.
Rune followed her out of the Winking Skeever, and though she could tell he wanted to advise against what she was about to do, he didn’t say a word. She dug into her pack as she walked, feeling around the stones inside until her fingers came in contact with her emerald. She pulled it out and slipped it into the pocket of her pants, patting it for good luck and then closing her pack.
“You can go back inside and have a drink,” she said, turning back to offer him a sincere smile. “This is one-man job and I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Brynjolf told me not to let you out of my sight.”
“Did he now?” She wondered what else Brynjolf had said to him before they left.
“I probably shouldn’t have told you that,” he realized his mistake with a wince.
“It’s all right. Your secret is safe with me. I’m just going into the palace. In and out, no strings attached. Two of us will draw more attention.”
“True, but unless you are planning on scaling the walls in broad daylight to climb in through a window, there’s only one way into the Blue Palace, and that’s through the front doors,” he pointed out. “You’ll need someone to distract the guards so you can slip in and find what you’re looking for. Someone to keep an eye out for Erikur, who according to Bryn spends his entire day licking Jarl Elisif’s boots.”
Erikur. How had she forgotten him? She thought it over for a moment, and then agreed with a nod. “All right. Let’s do this then.”
Distracting the guards wasn’t easy. With the Imperial Army in the city, and the Stormcloaks on the rise, it seemed like everyone had their hackles up. When Rune approached the guard at the front gate to strike up a conversation, it was Ginna the man focused on, almost as if he’d never seen a woman before. “Wait,” he stepped past Rune. “Don’t I know you?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“You look very familiar to me. Wait, I remember now. You told me we would have a drink at the Winking Skeever three night’s past, and then you just left me there waiting all night.”
“Sorry, you’re mistaken. I’ve only just arrived in town. You must be confusing me with someone else.”
“Maybe,” he lifted his helmet-shield to get a better look at her. “But I don’t think so. Your hair was a little different, longer, I think, but I never forget a face. I’m pretty sure it was you. It’s your eyes. They’re very striking.”
Rune cast a look toward her from over the guard’s shoulder, nodding to the hallway at his back before slipping into the shadows and ducking back behind the left staircase. “That’s so strange. I promise you that I only just arrived here in Solitude this afternoon.”
“You’re from Cyrodiil,” he noted, lifting the helmet away completely and shaking out the shaggy locks of his light-brown hair. “I remember thinking the first time we met how distinctive your accent was. You told me your father was an Imperial Legate stationed up at Castle Dour. Why didn’t you meet me?”
Ginna had no idea what he was talking about, but her continual insistence that she wasn’t the girl he was looking for didn’t seem to sink in, so she just played along. “My father caught me sneaking off, and wouldn’t let me leave. I’m sorry. He’s very protective, what with the war going on.”
“It’s all right. We’ll have to try to meet up another time.”
She caught sight of Rune over his shoulder again, the satchel on his shoulder heavy with wine as he approached and slid in beside her. “You should meet me there tonight,” she suggested. “Say around ten-thirty?”
The guard’s face lit up, and she knew she was being completely wicked, but it served the man right for not believing her in the first place. “I’ll see you there,” he beamed with excitement.
“Yes, you will.”
Rolling her eyes as she turned, Rune headed out the door in front of her, and they ducked aside into the alcove behind the bushes to inspect the contents of his pack. “What was that all about?”
“Poor fool accused me of standing him up a few nights ago. So I figured I’d stand him up for real just to teach him a lesson.”
“Wow,” he sniggered and shook his head. “Remind me to never get on your bad side.”
“Did you find it?”
“I did,” he held up the satchel. “Firebrand Wine. Six bottles.”
“That’ll have to do. I’ll split my cut with you.”
“No need. I compensated myself fairly with a few items I found in one of the back rooms of the palace.”
They walked all the way back to the Winking Skeever, where Gulum-Ei sat in his little corner waiting for them to return. “Ah, I see you have the wine,” he noticed, reaching his hand out for the heavy satchel. “Hand it over and we’ll talk.”
“Here you go.”
“Good, can’t have my buyers growing impatient and turning to someone else for their wares.”
“I believe you were about to start talking about things I’m actually interested in,” Ginna interrupted before he could go blather on any further.
“Here, take these. I certainly can’t use them, but I suppose I need to pay you something for the goods.” He held up two soul gems for her and she just stared at them in disbelief. They weren’t even decent soul gems that would fetch an honorable price if she turned around and tried to sell them.
“What? You’re trying to bribe me now? I don’t think so.”
“No, no, not at all. I consider it an investment in prolonging my life. As far as Goldenglow Estate goes, I’ll tell you what I know. I was approached by a woman a few months back who wanted me to act as the broker for something big. She flashed a bag of gold in my face and said all I had to do was pay Aringoth for the Estate. I brought him the coin and walked away with her copy of the deed.”
It was Rune who spoke up, his voice laden with confusion and curiosity. “Did she say why she was doing this?”
“Not at all,” he shook his head and took a drink from the mug in his hand. “I tend not to ask a lot of questions when on the job. I’m sure you understand.”
“However,” he went on, “I did notice that she was… angry. And that anger was directed at Mercer Frey.”
“What do you mean she was angry? Specifics, please.” Someone angry with Mercer Frey, that seemed likely. Ginna barely knew him and every time she talked to him he made her angry.
“I can’t explain it any better than that. I didn’t write down everything we said. I just took my cut and walked away when the deal was done.”
“So that’s it? No name or anything?”
“In this business we rarely deal in names, someone like you should know that. Our identity is defined by how much coin we carry.” That much was true. Very few who worked within the shadows used their real names, but something about his story didn’t sit right with Ginna, and when she glanced over at Rune, she could see he wasn’t buying it either.
“I think you’re lying,” she announced.
“Look, that’s all I know. I never promised you I had all the answers. You did your part and I did mine, and now our transaction here is done. I’ll be on my way.”
Shaking her head, she stepped back to take him in. Argonians. Ugh! Why wasn’t she allowed to kill him again? He didn’t seem valuable enough to spare, and surely there was someone else in the East Empire Company they could win over to their side. She watched him rise up from the chair and edge past her to head for the door.
“I’m supposed to tail him,” she said quietly to Rune. “We’ll give him a few minutes and then follow.”
“He’s definitely hiding something.”
“Do you really think this whole mess is just a personal vendetta against Mercer?”
Ginna shrugged and turned to look at him. “What do you think of Mercer, Rune? Honestly?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “He’s a little rough sometimes, but he’s always done right by me. He gave me a fair shake when Brynjolf brought me around, just like he did for you. He always makes sure I’m paid after a job.”
“Brynjolf trusts him,” she said, but even as she said she couldn’t feel it herself. Her limited interactions with the man had left a bad taste in her mouth every time, and if she’d learned anything over the years, it was to trust her gut. “I don’t know. I can’t just trust him because Brynjolf does.”
“You didn’t trust Brynjolf just a few days ago. Maybe Mercer just needs more time to grow on you.”
“Maybe,” she drew in a breath and held it there for a minute, staring at the closed door. “I guess I’ll follow him, see what else I can find out.”
“I’ll come with you. Lead the way.”
She nodded. “Let’s go.”