“I think I’m going to up my rates,” Marcurio announced when they finally stopped to take shelter for the night. It was the same cave where she and Brynjolf had cooked up their Falmer Blood Elixir scheme, and though Ginna would never say as much out loud, a part of her actually felt comfortable there. Maybe she wasn’t as spoiled as Brynjolf liked to say she was. Marcurio, on the other hand, was uncomfortable, his clothes still damp and the smell inside the cave was so overwhelming he’d threatened to throw up several times. “Or at least modify the fine print on my terms of service.”
Ginna knelt in front of the fire he’d started, warming her hands and shivering inside her wet leather Guild armor. She chuckled a little and watched him unsling his pack before lowering to sit across the fire from her. “I’m sorry taking on this job conflicted with your high moral standards.”
“Well, if I had known when you came up to me at the Frozen Hearth you were planning to drag me on a Skyrim-wide murder spree…” he started, and then dug into his pack for a bottle of brandy. “Oh, who am I kidding. I still probably would have come along. I always was a sucker for a pretty girl in trouble.”
She ignored his flirtation, denying the curious intrigue she’d felt at the Dwemer museum when the tingling of desire rose in her belly after watching him work his magic. Despite how much of a turn off his incessant bragging was, he was actually pretty powerful and there was definitely something sexy about power. She rifled through her own satchel until she found a bit of jerked horker meat to sate her hunger and a bottle of mead to take the edge off the cold she could feel seeping into her bones that made her shoulder throb and ache.
“You really seemed to know a lot about the Dwemer when we were talking to Calcelmo.” She shifted the conversation. “Where did you learn so much about the ruins of Mzinchaleft?”
“You spend enough time in the Bee & Barb, you learn a lot about things you’ll probably never see.” He shrugged. “Mjoll talks about the place constantly, her lost blade, the giant Dwemer construct that nearly killed her, Aerin saving her life after she crawled away.”
Ginna had only crossed paths with Riften’s great champion, Mjoll the Lioness, once but that was enough to turn her stomach. Righteous do-gooder Void-bent on saving Riften from the Thieves Guild. Brynjolf loathed her and Rune told her that Vex had been trying to frame that meddlesome bitch for years, but the charges never seemed to stick.
“If you came to Skyrim to go to the College of Winterhold, how did you wind up in Riften?”
“A few years back I was companion to a thane of Riften, an Altmer battlemage named Anariel. We traveled everywhere together. Fighting the good fight, bringing honor to ourselves and all that good stuff.” He drew his legs up and rested his arms across the top of his knees. “We were in Morthal when she died in battle, clearing out a vampire coven for Jarl Idgrod Ravencrone…”
Lowering his head to rest on his arms, he was quiet for a few minutes, thoughtful and sad as he remembered. Ginna watched the length of his hair slip over his shoulder to slide down his arm. The flames leapt and danced in his eyes, making them look like pools of molten honey. He seemed so vulnerable right then, and in the past she might have taken advantage of that vulnerability without a thought, but it actually made her feel sad.
“I was beside myself after she died,” he went on. “Didn’t know what else to do so I traveled back to Riften with her remains. A part of me just wanted to leave this gods forsaken frozen wasteland, go back to Cyrodiil and forget, but even after she was laid to rest I couldn’t bring myself to leave. It was as though I just sat down on that bench in the Bee & Barb to wait for her, even though I knew she was never coming back. I’ve been there ever since.”
“You loved her?”
Something inside Ginna had shifted, the hardness that had been her buffer for so long softening when she met Brynjolf, and though try as she might to fight it, she saw love enmeshed with tragedy everywhere she looked. Would theirs become another of those fleeting, tragic love songs barely memorable enough for bards to sing?
“Not half as well as she loved me,” he sighed, slugging back long gulps from the bottle of brandy he held. “And I’ve regretted it ever since. I was really young and stupid. I took advantage of her feelings for me because I thought she’d always be there.”
She couldn’t even begin to relate because she’d never had someone love her that way, had never loved anyone else. Not until she’d met Brynjolf. The men in her life had been affectionate to a point, even Mallus had his moments, but none of them really loved her beyond the physical. None of them had laid beside her in the dark talking her to sleep, soft fingertips brushing the hair across her cheek, leaning in to kiss her forehead as her dreams carried her away. None of them had ever wanted to be her partner…
Gods, she longed for his warmth then, a shiver moving through her.
“What about you? How did you wind up in Riften? With Brynjolf of all people?”
“It’s a long story.” One she felt she’d already told too many people.
“Come on, I told you my story, and besides we’ve got nothing but time until the sun comes up,” he pointed out.
“Let’s just say I came in on a debt and found myself never wanting to leave and keep it at that.”
“Maven Black-Briar has that kind of effect on people. If you prove yourself valuable to her and you owe her a debt, she finds a way to make sure she owns you for life.”
“My debt to Maven is paid. I could leave Riften anytime I want. I just… I don’t want to. My heart is there now.” It felt so strange saying those words out loud, admitting to someone else that she was in love. The Ginna she’d been just a few months ago would have never yielded her heart so quickly to a man, and yet just thinking about him made her ache inside.
For a time they were quiet, and then he looked across the fire at her as if he’d been reading her emotions. “What can you possibly see in that guy, Ginna? He’s a rogue and a scoundrel, always running some scam, stealing from anyone and everyone he can.”
“Mm,” she mused softly, remembering how quickly he’d slipped into another persona when they’d been in Markarth together, scamming the people with their mystical Falmer Blood Elixir. “That’s why I like him. I see myself in him.” She leveled her gaze at him, watched the fire leap and dance in his golden eyes before he squinted, trying to make sense of her words. “I see my future.”
“You deserve a better future than what he can give. What could he have to offer you? Prison? A cold blade in a dark alleyway?”
“You seem to keep forgetting, I was already a thief when I met him.”
“Perhaps, but I still say you deserve better.”
“You’ve spent four days with me and you’re already an expert on what kind of life I deserve? You watched me slaughter those people back there in cold blood, Marcurio and you could barely stomach it. I can’t even count the number of people I’ve had to kill in my lifetime.”
“You obviously had your reasons. You said yourself there was no other way. Kill or be killed.”
“There’s always another way. I just choose to do things my way.”
“All right,” he said. “But whatever we were doing there, this is about more than some petty thievery for your Guild. What is this whole thing with the journal all about? Why’s it so important? Who’s Gallus?”
“You shouldn’t worry about those things. The less you know, the better off you’ll be.”
“Well, I’m an official accessory to mass murder, Ginna. I don’t think it gets any better off than that. Come on, I think I have a right to know what we were doing back there. I risked my life and acted against my better judgment to help you.”
“It’s only official if the murderers get caught,” she tried to draw him off the subject with humor, but he wasn’t going to budge. She could see it in his eyes, those serious, mesmerizing eyes that had she not grown a heart and a conscience would have easily drawn her in against her own better judgment.
“Come on,” he said again. “Just give me something, so I don’t spend the rest of my life guilty and wondering how well you conned me into believing you were actually in trouble.”
“All right…” she sighed. “A long time ago the Guild was torn apart when the Guildmaster was stabbed in the back and left for dead in an old Nordic ruin. There were only two people who knew what really happened that day and the wrong one made it back to the Guild. He framed his partner for the crime and she spent decades in exile, hiding in the shadows.” Would that become her life in twenty years? Always on the run from Brutus and the people he’d turned against her with his lies? She was more like Karliah than she’d ever realized; maybe that was why she’d trusted her without question. “Whatever is written in that journal… It will bring that betrayal into the light and it won’t be pretty, but I’m hoping it will protect the people I love from suffering anymore than they already have.” She took another drink, closing her eyes and letting the warmth of that mead rush through her, into her warm cheeks, through her blood until that heat took the edge off of the cold. “I got caught up in it all. I didn’t really even mean to, and now that same backstabbing bastard ran his blade through me and left me for dead in the ruins where he killed his own Guildmaster.”
“Wait, so, someone really did stab you? As in, an actual stabbing?”
Ginna lifted a hand to the healed wound beneath her armor to show him where with a soft pat of her fingers. “Right here.”
“Damn,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Now see, is it really worth it, Ginna? To me that seems like some kind of divine intervention, a message from the gods that you’re in the wrong business.”
Ginna laughed. “You’re a funny guy,” she told him. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
“I’m not being funny, I’m being serious.” But he was smiling.
“I think that’s what makes it so funny. It’s like you just don’t get it.” She took a drink and lowered the bottle to rest at her side. “I mean, think about it, Marcurio. You have your magic, right?”
“Well, yes, but I don’t really see what that has to do with…”
“How long have you known you wanted to be a mage?”
“I don’t know, since I was a boy and I realized the only way someone my size could make an impact was if I took advantage of my affinity for the arcane arts. I used to get bullied a lot, but I don’t see what that has to do…”
“That’s my point exactly. I had nothing as a girl. My father made sure of it when he gambled and pissed away every septim he earned. I had to take care of myself because he wasn’t going to do it. And then I realized one day I didn’t have to do without. That there were things in other people’s pockets, things I wanted, things that would make my life easier and all I had to do to make them mine was reach in and grab them.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“It makes it right for me.”
“But it’s so dangerous… Surely you have other talents. The way you wield blades is remarkable, Ginna, your strategic thought process… You could be a hero, not a rogue.”
“And being a hero isn’t dangerous?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer. “Look at Mjoll. The ruins of Mzinchaleft destroyed her. And what about Anariel?” Watching the light drain from his eyes made her feel cruel, and the guilt that followed was something unfamiliar and cold. It made her feel bad, but she had to drive that point home. “Life is dangerous, Marcurio. No matter what stars we choose to align ourselves with, eventually we all get to die.”
“Well, when you put it that way, I guess I can’t argue,” he admitted, and then, “well, I could argue, but I see no sense in it. You’re obviously very happy with this lifestyle of yours. Who am I to tell you that you shouldn’t live it?” He was thoughtful and quiet again for a time, but the place his mind wandered was soon revealed. “Though I do still say you deserve someone better than Brynjolf. Someone who’s actually willing to get out there and stand beside you. Someone who isn’t afraid to say… oh, I don’t know, join in the fight when you’re in a bind.”
“You mean someone more like you?”
She watched the playful light return to his eyes, the long edges lengthening, brow quirking upward with his suggestive grin. “Now you’re talking. I’d take good care of you. I’d even look the other way while you did… well, whatever it is you feel you need to do with your life. I’d stand beside you in battle, not send you out to fight alone. And I’ve been told my skills as a lover are unmatched.”
What would his hands feel like on her skin? Those long, beautiful fingers trailing across her bare belly, palms warm as he kneaded her breasts, lips whispering against hers. Would she feel the magic he possessed tingling through her body as he rose up inside her? And he had really nice lips, softer than most of the Imperials she’d spent her days with. She wondered what they would feel like against hers, both of them gasping with desire as they writhed and stretched and tangled their bodies together right there in the same place Brynjolf had taken her up against the cold stone walls.
Just thinking about Brynjolf was like a shock to her system. In the past, she’d have had no qualms sating her lust with someone else. She couldn’t even count on both hands the number of men she’d slept with while she’d been with Mallus, and yet just the thought of taking another into her arms felt like a betrayal of the heart. Even if he was sitting in Riften cursing her name, she didn’t want to ruin what they had together by drawing another man between her thighs for some meaningless pleasure. Gods, how quickly being in love changed a person.
Shaking those thoughts from her mind before they could go any further, Ginna laughed again as she stood up. “You and me are never gonna happen, Marcurio.”
“Oh, come on,” he urged, taking another drink. “Don’t tell me you’re not the least bit curious about what I have to offer.”
“Not curious at all,” she lied.
“It was worth a shot,” he shrugged. “And it’s your loss.”