Even on horseback, the journey to Riften took two days on account of the heavy blizzard that hammered Winterhold and followed them down through Eastmarch until they were well past Windhelm. A part of her thought she would feel relieved upon seeing the sunlight glinting off Lake Honrich after all that snow, the looming city atop the pier she’d begun to think of as home a welcome beacon in her darkness, but the dread in her gut made her feel like she’d swallowed a hundred iron ingots that were all rattling heavily around inside her.
On the road she’d been able to speculate, even avoid the cold, hard facts. She could pretend that Brynjolf was waiting for her in Honeyside, heart heavy with grief until she walked through the doors like a ghost come back from the grave. She knew instinctively nothing would be further from the truth. Mercer had sold her out to Brutus; he’d want to justify that crime with reason and what better reason than aligning her with Karliah’s plot from the get-go?
Despite everything, Mercer wasn’t an idiot. To get away with murder for twenty-five years, one had to be clever and she was relatively sure the story he’d told to the Guild about her was one she’d have a hard time undoing. Even with proof of his treachery to back her up.
Hofgrir was surprised to see her, the first confirmation of her untimely death come back to haunt her. He didn’t say as much, but when she assured the horsemaster that her steed was legitimately purchased from the stables in Windhelm, he didn’t question her. Just said, “Keep your gold, girl. I’ll take good care of your horse.”
“You’re a good man, Hofgrir.”
“Awe, shucks,” he blushed.
Turning to Marcurio as they headed toward the gates, she tried to smile at him, but it wouldn’t come. In a few hours’ time, he might very well be the only friend she had left. It was a depressing thought. “Thanks again, for everything, but it’s time for us to part ways.”
“Are you sure?” he tilted his head to look at her, bright amber eyes squinting. “I may not know what you’re up against, but I have a feeling it’s going to be dangerous. You might need my help.”
“I might, but I have to handle this on my own.”
“All right,” he agreed. “But if you need me, you know where I’ll be, and since you recently overpaid my fee, our next adventure together is on the house.”
“Thanks,” she nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“And Ginna,” he called as she turned right to head toward Honeyside. “Be careful.”
Turning the key into the lock, she pushed open the doors and stepped into the biggest mess she’d ever seen. Tables overturned, drawers hanging open as if someone had been there looking for evidence… or losing their mind. The mattress had been pulled apart, the bedframe turned over, and as she glanced toward the stairs she realized she didn’t even want to know what the lower floor looked like.
At least she knew how Brynjolf had reacted to whatever Mercer’d told him; with rage. Facing him would be the hardest thing she’d ever endured, she realized. She had no idea what to expect, but she knew in her heart theirs would not be a happy reunion and it broke her heart. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how he must be feeling, how he would react to Mercer’s betrayal once he learned the truth. Everything he’d ever known; a lie. And what if Mercer was there? Would his presence make it even harder for them to convince the Guild of his treachery, even with Gallus’s journal to back up their claims?
There wasn’t time to clean up. She knew she needed to get to the Flagon and find Karliah, but she just wanted a minute to herself to think. Traveling with Marcurio hadn’t exactly provided her with much in the way of quiet time.
Ginna righted the table and pushed it up against the wall under the windows, rearranging the chairs around it before sitting down in one of them for a moment to collect her thoughts and find her courage. In the course of her life she’d never shied away from anything, but she was dreading what lay ahead. Cast out of two Guilds in two months. Surely that had to be some kind of record, she mused, pushing her back into the chair to stretch her shoulder and alleviate the constant ache.
She didn’t know why, but for some reason she felt much more broken up about losing her Riften family than she had knowing she might never be able to face the people in Cyrodiil again. That family had fallen apart when Severus died, leaving behind a scant few who could have cared less who led them, as long as the jobs kept rolling in. And it wasn’t just losing Brynjolf that broke her heart. Never sharing stories with Rune and Delvin again, never actually getting to trade secrets with Vipir. Thrynn and Ninruin would never tell her they respected what she was doing again. She would even miss the scathing tone with which Vex always told her not to muck things up.
How had she grown so attached to them already? Why was the thought of losing them all so difficult to bear?
She only gave herself thirty minutes to dwell on those sorrows, and then she picked up her pride and left the house. She walked slowly through Riften, watching the people weave in and out of the streets, heading over to the market. Mjoll and Aerin stood near the entrance to the Bee & Barb, Mjoll smiling at her and calling out, “Welcome back, friend.”
Maven spied her as she was crossing the bridge and walking down the steps, holding up a hand to stop her. Ginna waited for the woman to approach, her sharp blue eyes squinting with curiosity as she did. “You’re… alive,” she noted. “Brynjolf said you…”
“It’s a long story, Lady Black-Briar, and one I’m sure you’ll be interested to hear.”
“Indeed, I will. There was talk of betrayal.”
“Such talk should be ignored.” She was proud of the conviction in her voice. If only she could keep that strength when she faced Brynjolf. The funny thing was Maven was far more intimidating. “Though I would be wary of Mercer Frey, if I were you. Much of your own troubles as of late have been the direct result of his treachery.”
“Color me intrigued.” Her eyebrow shot up and she crossed her arms. “But here is not the place to discuss such things. Come with me.”
“You are not preparing to argue with me, are you?”
“Of course not,” she lowered her eyes to the cracks in the pier beneath her feet. “I was just going to say I would be honored to come with you.”
Maven led her to Black-Briar Manor, inviting her inside and showing her to the dining room after shooing her daughter Ingun out of the house. “Go on, go find something useful to do for a change,” she hissed, gesturing for Ginna to take a seat at the table.
Ingun fretted under her mother’s insult, but she did as she was told without question, leaving the two of them alone in the manor. While Maven poured them both teeming mugs of Black-Briar mead, Ginna took a moment to look around the house. Decorated in lavish, spun-silk embroidered banners, Black-Briar Manor made Honeyside look like a slum. Even the silver flatware on the table was genuine, the set itself probably worth more than the very house Maven had rented to her.
“Now,” she lowered casually into the chair at the head of the table like a true matriarch. “Tell me everything.”
There were benefits to running into Maven before meeting with the Guild. Though Maven had no idea what the Nightingales were, she didn’t seem to care about them as long as they didn’t interfere with her business. Leafing through Gallus’s old journal was enough to convince her of Mercer’s plot. Closing the book and returning it to Ginna so she could take it to Brynjolf, she leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers together, elbows lowering to the tabletop.
“This is an interesting turn of events,” she decided. “It was my influence in his corner that put him in that position of power after Gallus’s death, but it never once occurred to me that he’d been the one to kill him. Things ran smoothly when Gallus was in control, and Mercer assured me that would not change. One can only wonder what else that loathsome little skeever was keeping from me.”
“It’s difficult to say, Lady.” Ginna gulped down several swallows of her mead, glad for the courage it was giving her as it worked through her blood.
“Well, regardless, something needs to be done.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “I was on my way to meet Karliah so we could present this information to the Guild when I ran into you.”
“I’d heard rumors she’s been lingering in the shadows of that wretched little tavern down there. You should get this information to Brynjolf right away, but in the future I’d ask you to come directly to me with such matters. Without my influence, your little operation would have fallen apart ages ago. I have every right to know the goings on down there.”
“I agree, Lady Black-Briar.”
“I want to be informed as soon as Mercer’s been dealt with. Am I clear?”
“Good, now, don’t you have some business to take care of?”
Pushing her chair away from the table, Ginna rose and bowed her head to Maven. “I will be sure to keep you informed on the Mercer situation.”
“Oh, and Ginna,” she called out when she was reaching for the door. She turned to find Maven leaning against the doorframe with her arms crossed. “If you tell anyone I said this to you, I’ll deny it, but I’m glad you’re back. Things have been running so much more smoothly since you’ve become a part of that ragged little operation. I see good things for you if you keep this up.”
“I won’t let you down,” she assured her, pushing through the doors and into the early afternoon daylight.