Marcurio used the money she’d paid him to buy a horse from a farmer just outside of town, and they rode at a steady pace side by side. Traveling with Rune had spoiled Ginna. She realized that long before she and Marcurio left the hold of Winterhold to make their way south toward Whiterun. And she’d thought Brynjolf liked to ramble and boast. Marcurio never shut up. Amidst the endless stream of bragging there were questions, always questions.
Is Ginna your real name, or just some alias you throw around to keep people off your tail? Who’s Gallus? What was in that journal? Where did you get it? Who’s Karliah? Why are we going to Markarth? Why did you say you were already dead? I can’t believe you’re involved with Brynjolf. He’s a real brute, you know. He threatened to have me drawn and quartered. Did you know that? You must have known. You must like the dangerous ones. I can be dangerous, you know? There’s nothing in the world more dangerous than destruction magic. Are you really a thief? You’re not going to steal from me, are you? How do you live with yourself, taking people’s hard-earned money? Hey, is that a dragon up there? I fought a dragon once and I defeated it. Frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Everyone in a panic over nothing. Are you hungry? I’m hungry. We should stop at the next inn and see about some food. Have you ever been to Markarth? The Forsworn are dangerous. If at any time you feel afraid while we’re on the road, take comfort in knowing I’m here…
And on and on and on until she started to wish she’d learned enough magic to silence people with little more than a look. But he seemed so excited to be traveling with her, on some grand adventure he didn’t even know the details of, and she started to wonder just how often Marcurio actually got out of Riften. She let him blather on, mostly ignoring him, thinking about the task at hand, thinking about Brynjolf.
What had Mercer told him? Did he think her dead or believe her traitor? Maybe both?
Gods, she just wanted it all to be over and for the odds to come out in her favor. They were supposed to be turning their bad luck streak around together, not sinking deeper into the mire alone.
“I always thought thieves were a much rowdier bunch,” Marcurio noted on the road just past Whiterun. “At least all those thugs you keep company with in Riften are, but not you. You’re quiet.”
“I’m a ghost,” she said softly. “Ghosts make no sound.”
“Well, that’s cryptic,” he decided. “Are you ever going to tell me what is going on?”
“I didn’t pay you to be my confidante, Marcurio. I paid you to travel with me and roast my enemies alive, if need be. And I paid you quite handsomely, so a little quiet would be appreciated.”
“I bet you never tell Brynjolf to be quiet,” he muttered.
“So what if I don’t? I don’t have to pay Brynjolf to watch my back, he just does. Look, I don’t think this is going to work out. You can keep the gold I gave you and just go back to doing whatever it was you were doing before I found you, okay?”
“I don’t think so.” Stubborn and ridiculous. “You paid me to do a job, and I’m going to do it.”
“Then do it more quietly,” she pleaded. “I have a lot on my mind I’m trying to work through and I can’t think with you babbling on and on like a hen.”
“At least tell me what you mean when you say you’re a ghost. That’s the second time now you’ve made reference to being dead, and to tell the truth it’s a little disturbing. Necromancy, eww.” He shuddered.
“Will it shut you up for awhile?”
“I can’t make any promises,” he said. “I like to talk.”
Groaning, she didn’t even know why she was considering telling him. Only that sharing some of her burden with Rune and Brynjolf had made the burden feel lighter and she was getting tired. She highly doubted sharing anything with Marcurio would ever make her feel better, but the weight was growing heavier and heavier with every step she took.
“People keep stabbing me in the back,” she said. “People I’m supposed to be able to trust, and right now everyone I know thinks I’m dead. So that makes me a ghost. Which is ironic, really, because when I was a girl in Cyrodiil, that was my Guild name. Ghost.”
“What’s a Guild name?”
“An identity you assume to avoid using your real name when interacting with less-than-savory people.”
“Interesting. So, who killed you and made everyone believe you’re dead? Though now that I’ve said that, it sounds completely absurd.” He mulled over that for a bit and then returned his brilliant gaze to her. “It was Brynjolf, wasn’t it? That thug! I always knew he was a murderer.”
“Brynjolf is not a murderer,” she felt her jaw clench. “Despite what you might think of him, he’s a good man.”
“If you think bullying people into handing over their hard-earned money for false protection makes a good man, maybe I’m in the wrong business.”
“Every trade has its place in this world,” she defended. “Mages, warriors, mercenaries, kings, nobles, bandits, jarls, merchants, assassins, thieves. We all play our role. It’s the way of things. It has always been the way of things.”
“Maybe things need to change.”
“Maybe we need less mages and mercenaries in the world.”
“Touché,” he yielded. For a time after that, he was actually quiet and Ginna reveled in that silence. Even when he broke it to say, “You know, you act all tough and rogue, but I bet under that self-made shield of ice, you’re a warm and generous person.”
Sneering back at him, she shook her head. “Shut up, Marcurio.”
He smiled, and didn’t say anything else for the rest of the afternoon.
It took them three days to make the journey to Markarth by horse, and when they arrived, it was to a bizarre skirmish in the market that ended with some poor woman’s death, a madman screaming out, “The Reach will be ours!” before running a blade through her back.
“My word, this place is awful,” Marcurio balked, edging up beside her and pushing her away from the melee as the guards swept in to try and take control of the situation. “I’d heard tell of Forsworn uprisings in the city, but I never imagined…”
“We’re not here to worry about the Forsworn. We’re here to meet with a wizard.”
“Still, be on your guard. I don’t like the smell of this place.”
“Blood and silver, my friend,” a rough man leaning against the wall overheard their conversation and pushed himself into the middle of it.
“Blood and silver, it’s what runs through this city, and you’d be wise not to forget that.”
“Right,” she nodded, grabbing Marcurio’s sleeve and drawing him away from the strange man.
They were barely past him when a Vigilant of Stendarr called out. “Excuse me, do you know anything about this house?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Shame, no one seems to.”
Pushing up the stairs, it seemed impossible to reach the keep without everyone and their child stopping to make conversation. Dragons sighted up near Hag’s End. A new Sibel of Dibella. Rumors of strange dreams up in Dawnstar. Ginna ignored as much of it as possible, grateful when they finally passed through the doors of Understone Keep.
She was a bit taken aback to see the hulking, dark-haired Stormcloak soldier from Candlehearth Hall lingering in the hallway with his arms crossed, nodding at an old Nord talking about honor and freedom and the righteousness of Ulfric’s cause. He looked completely bored and kept glancing toward the stairs as if he were waiting for someone to save him. For a moment, their gazes met and it seemed as if he recognized her too.
Shaking away the bizarre coincidence, they marched forward only to be stopped by a pair of guards.
“The jarl isn’t receiving any visitors. If you have business in Markarth, take it up with his steward.”
“I’m here to see the court wizard, actually.”
“Ah, well, in that case, turn left and make a right at the end of the hall. You’ll find Calcelmo out near the ruins. Fair warning, the old mage doesn’t like to be bothered, so keep that in mind.”
“So this wizard is going to translate your journal?” Marcurio asked, following her through the stone ruins of Understone Keep.
“No, he’s going to let me look at his research so I can take it back to Enthir and then he’s going to translate it.”
“Wouldn’t it just be easier to have this Calcelmo guy translate it?”
“Maybe we don’t want Calcelmo reading the journal,” she rolled her eyes at him, catching a glimpse of several Altmer soldiers marching through the keep behind a Thalmor justiciar. It was the first Thalmor she’d seen since Elenwen’s Embassy soiree, and for a moment she had a deep longing for home, for the comfort and safety she’d always felt among the Aldermi Dominion’s presence.
“…why everything has to be a big secret with you people,” Marcurio drew her back to herself and she glanced toward the wizard leaning over an enchanting table below the entrance to Nchuand-Zel.
“It just does, now keep your teeth together and let me do all the talking, got it?”
“You lead, I’ll follow.”
Calcelmo was already yelling at her before he turned around to face them, leaning over the enchanting table as he did so, and Ginna wondered how he could still be connected to the work he was doing while raising such a ruckus. Enchanting was an acquired skill, something she still had trouble with and she couldn’t begin to imagine breaking her concentration to bellow at anyone while doing it.
“Look, I’m very busy, so this better be important.”
“Sir, we’re looking for Calcelmo.”
“What are you doing? The excavation site is closed. I don’t need any more workers or guards.”
“I’m looking for Calcelmo,” she repeated.
“I’ve already told you, I don’t need to hire anymore guards. Why do you people insist on bothering me while I try to finish my research? You idiot! Do you even know who I am? The most recognized scholar on the Dwemer in all of Tamriel and you people won’t stop bothering me!”
“So, you must be Calcelmo then,” and with an ego bigger than Marcurio’s. Maybe she should have let him do all the talking.
“I… I’m sorry. I… I got too excited. I’m in the middle of some very stressful work and I shouldn’t have lost my temper. How can I help you?”
“I’ve heard you are the authority on ancient Falmer.”
“Then you were well informed.” He pushed off the enchanting table, lowering the hood of his robes. Another Altmer. “I am at this very moment on the cusp of completing my magnum opus on the subject.”
“Splendid,” Ginna sighed pre-emptory relief. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as difficult as she’d thought.
“I’m calling it Calcelmo’s Guide to the Falmer Tongue. It will revolutionize the way we understand those ancient beings.”
“Do you think I could have a look at your work?”
“Preposterous!” And back to the yelling. “That research represents years of personal toil in some of the most dangerous Dwemer ruins in Skyrim! You must be mad to think I’d allow anyone to see it before it’s finished.”
Marcurio pushed her aside and stepped up to meet him. “Calcelmo, sir, I just wanted to take a moment to let you know I am a huge admirer of your work. I’ve read every volume of your lengthy study on the Dwarven culture and society.” So much for standing back and letting her do all the talking. “In fact, it’s how my lovely wife and I found each other. I’m something of an authority on Dwemer culture myself and as an adventurer looking to delve into the Dwemer ruins, she came to me for guidance. It was love at first sight.”
Ginna felt her fists clenching at her sides, her elbow ramming into his ribs on instinct, but he kept going as if he hadn’t even noticed. Calcelmo certainly hadn’t. His face brightened with intrigue and wonder as Marcurio went on with his story.
“The two of us just returned from our most recent endeavor. Mzinchaleft. After our encounters with the Falmer there, well… you understand our desire to expand our knowledge on the subject.”
“Mzinchaleft is one of the most dangerous ruins I’ve ever been to,” Calcelmo sympathized. “How could I possibly deny fellow scholars such as yourselves? I’ll tell you what. My Falmer research is simply just not ready for the public yet, but here, take this key and go take a stroll through my Dwemer Museum. I’m sure you’ll both appreciate it.” He handed Marcurio the key and added, “Only the Dwemer Museum. I can’t have strangers, even astute scholars such as the two of you, in my laboratory.”
“Of course not, sir, and can I just say, thank you? You’re a generous soul, to share your wisdom with those who only dream to scale the heights of your immense knowledge on these lost subjects.”
“Your wife?” Ginna muttered as they hustled away from the ruins and toward the Dwemer Museum across the keep.
“What, I was thinking on the fly? And I did a damn good job of it, if I do say so myself.”
“Where did you learn to bullshit like that?”
“You think I’ve learned nothing in my time in Riften? Con or be conned.”
“Honestly, Marcurio, I’m impressed,” she admitted, hiking up the stairs. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“Stop right there,” the guard at the top of the stairs stepped down to meet them. “The Dwemer Museum is closed and currently off-limits to visitors. If you want to go in, you’ll have to talk to the museum owner.”
“We’ve just come from Calcelmo,” Marcurio held up the key. “He gave my wife and I permission to explore the museum.”
“All right then.” The man stepped aside to let them pass and Ginna stood back to let her mercenary friend unlock the door.
“Stop telling people I’m your wife, or I will cut you.”
“I was just keeping up the deception,” he explained, stepping away and pushing the doors open.
“Speaking of deception, you do realize,” she began stepping through the doors and just out of earshot of the guard, “that I have to get into his laboratory, right?”
“But… he said not to.”
“Which is exactly why I have to. Whatever it is I need to take back to Enthir so he can translate Gallus’s journal is in that laboratory.”
“You’re going to get me killed,” he groaned, “or even worse, arrested.”
“You’ve got your priorities all messed up, don’t you?”
“Because I don’t want to go to prison? You know what they’d do to a guy like me in a place like Cidhna Mine?” She watched a shiver roll through him, his eyes widening in horror. “I’m a good looking man, maybe a little too good looking, but I have no intention of becoming some serial murderer’s love toy.”
“You have serious problems, Marcurio,” she shook her head. “Serious problems. Now cut it out and try to act natural. Though I’m relatively sure at this point you don’t know how to do that, I at least need you to try.”
“This is me, acting natural.”
And he strutted into the museum like he had all the business in the world being there. Ginna walked two steps behind him and wished there was a way to completely disassociate herself from him and act like they didn’t know each other at all.
In hindsight, it was something she was sure she would laugh about later… years later, if they actually managed to pull it off without going to prison or getting killed, but she would have much rather had Rune there at her side, or even better, Brynjolf. Then she remembered she was doing it for them, for the Guild, and she had to make do with the resources at her disposal.
Like it or not, Marcurio was currently her only asset and she’d paid him well to do the job at hand.