They called her Grelod the Kind, though everyone in Riften knew there was nothing kind about the woman who ran Honorhall Orphanage. On a quiet, rainy day when the ships were docked and everyone stayed indoors, the old bat’s raspy bellows could be heard on the other side of town, a sound that never failed to send a fit of shudders rippling through Marcurio. It always made him want to send a letter to his mother in Cyrodiil and thank her for everything she’d ever done for him.
“I swear to Gods, I’m going sneak in there one night and get all the children out and then I’m going to burn that place to the ground,” Ginna was saying, her scowling gaze flaring over her shoulder across the pier at Honorhall. “That woman is an abomination and the way she treats those children is appalling. Vipir’s told a few horrendous stories about her, and you know recently one of the children ran away. I’ve heard rumors that he fled back to Windhelm and performed the Black Sacrament in hopes the Dark Brotherhood would come and kill that rotten hag.”
Marcurio had stopped listening to her a while ago, though he should have been grateful. He’d been silently praying for weeks that she would talk about something other than Brynjolf and all the important Guild business keeping him occupied and distracting him from her. He’d warned her that a man like Brynjolf would never be good enough for her, but no. She hadn’t listened. She’d gone off and married that roguish scoundrel of hers the same day she’d come back from Winterhold.
He’d been bracing himself all day for their departure on the morrow, knowing their trip to Falkreath would be riddled with volumes of incessant complaining.
“Are you coming inside, or are you just going to stand there all day letting flies into my house?” She brought him back to the moment, to the open door in front of him. Marcurio sighed and took a step into Honeyside. He always hesitated on the doorstep, a strange sense of déjà vu trickling through his blood before he crossed over the threshold. And it wasn’t just Brynjolf that gave him shudders, though he was sure the man was just going to love coming home to find him there again. The scathing glares were harmless enough, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before Ginna’s husband got tired of not being the only man in her life and reverted back to threats of bodily harm.
“Couldn’t we just have talked on the pier again?” he stepped through door and closed it behind him. “I probably shouldn’t even be here,” he noted with another sigh, following her to the table opposite the hearth and dropping into the chair across from her.
“Who says? Brynjolf?” Ginna reached onto the shelf behind her and drew down a bottle of brandy; Cyrodiliic Brandy—the good stuff. “I told you a hundred times already, I took care of Brynjolf. He’s not going to bother you. In fact, he’s the one that told me to find you.”
“Sure, he’s not going to bother me today, but what about tomorrow.”
“He won’t bother you then either, I swear, Marcurio.” Thunking the cork from the top of the bottle, even at that slight distance between them he could smell its sweet, almost fruity flavor. It really was the good stuff; only the best for Ginna, which for a thief seemed rare and confusing. Most of the thieves he’d known over the years tended to be pinchpennies, but not her. She spent money like a Black-Briar, and with as much time as she’d spent in Maven’s company, Marcurio started to wonder if Riften’s wicked matron had actually adopted her. She’d given Ginna the house, which was more than Maven could say she’d done for her own son, Sibbi. Not to say Sibbi didn’t belong in prison, the little skeever. “You are so paranoid.”
“I’m not paranoid,” he scowled, eagerly reaching for the goblet she pushed toward him. “I just like my face the way it is now. And I like living in Riften, despite the things I’ve been known to say about this wretched town.”
“He won’t touch your pretty face, I promise. Now quit bellyaching and drink your brandy.” I need to talk to you about something important.”
“Again?” They’d already met once that day, earlier that morning, and they were set to leave on some super-secret mission first thing in the morning. She’d been calling on him to travel with her a lot, and while he was grateful for the company and the coin, he couldn’t help but feel he wasn’t her first choice. Not that it should matter in his line of work, work was work, but he like Ginna and he didn’t like being second best, didn’t like knowing that she’d take Rune over him in a heartbeat if her thieving companion were actually in town. Rune wouldn’t ask questions or try to appeal to her obviously lacking sense of honor whenever she was hunkering down in front of some poor sod’s front door with lockpicks in hand.
But Marcurio noticed that Ginna had changed after returning from whatever bizarre business had carried her and her thieving skeever of a husband away from Riften a few weeks earlier. She hadn’t shared many of the details during their recent travels together, but word on the streets was that Mercer Frey was dead, and justly so, and it had been Ginna who’d put him to the blade.
She hadn’t offered up any details and he hadn’t felt comfortable asking her about it. The less he knew about the Thieves Guild and their business, the better off he was, and yet he still found himself running sidelong to their business as her hired companion. It was a definite conflict of interest in his line of work, but again, coin was coin, and she had plenty of it to line his pockets, or so it seemed.
But he had noticed a difference in her. She’d come back harder and more withdrawn, though he kept telling himself maybe she’d always been that way. After all, he’d only known her a couple months, and yet still, he couldn’t help feeling that some strange darkness had taken hold of her. Even Brynjolf seemed different… well, when he was actually around.
Marcurio had been at Honeyside several times over the last month, and he’d only seen Brynjolf there twice. The other man had barely acknowledged him, saying hello to his wife before slipping down the stairs and not returning until after Marcurio had left. He was busy, running the Guild, or so Ginna said, but the mage couldn’t help feeling that something darker was going on than she would ever admit.
“Are our travel plans changing, or are we still on for tomorrow morning?”
“Yeah… about that,” she lowered her head, staring into her cup as her voice trailed off. “Brynjolf has decided he should come with me instead.”
“And you want your coin back?”
“No, no,” she shook her head. “He wants me to get my coin back, but I consider it an investment in our next job together, so you hold onto it.”
“I see,” he nodded, leaning back in the chair behind him and crossing his arms. “He doesn’t like that you travel with me.”
“No, he doesn’t, but I do. He takes issue with the fact that I have to pay you as much as I do, but I’ve assured him time and again that it’s worth it. You’re a good companion, and your skill as a mage is truly unmatched… at least in my limited experience with mages, anyway.” She swirled the liquid in her cup and then sipped it slowly before lowering it to the table again. “In fact as soon as I come back from this trip, I have another huge job lined up and I’m going to need a bit of magical back-up, I think. So, hopefully you’ll be here in town when I’m ready to go on that job and you can travel with me then to earn that five-hundred gold.”
“What? Are you raiding the Mage’s College?” he snorted a little at his own joke, knowing not even greedy little Ginna was that stupid.
Even she laughed, and then grew serious again. “No, remember when I told you I’d been arrested in Solitude?”
“How could I forget?” He smirked to himself, still not believing that was the only time she’d ever been in prison. It was a rare thing for a thief to go through life without spending time behind bars, but they all said she was one of the best.
“I’ll be heading there soon to do some business with a potential client, a powerful man who could get the Guild well on its way to glory again.”
“Okay…” He sipped from his brandy and then tilted his head, waiting for her to tell him why she wanted to hire him and not partner with her go-to guy from the Guild. She and Rune were nearly inseparable, another reason he supposed Brynjolf was always scowling, but Rune had been away for a while and Marcurio was starting to doubt the Imperial thief was ever coming back. “And where do I come in?”
“That important client I mentioned,” she started, lowering a shameful gaze to the table. “He’s one of the reasons I was in prison. Maven cleared things with him, but he made it loud and clear that I was to stay out of Solitude, or I might find myself back in that cell.”
“Why tell this to me?”
“You’re a mage,” she shrugged, looking up as if that alone should answer his question. “And an Imperial. You have the Voice of the Emperor at your disposal, and I know for a fact that there are spells designed to cool hot tempers. You must know a few of them.”
“Wait a minute,” he shook his head. “Isn’t Rune an Imperial?”
“Well, yeah, but he’s not a mage and I have no idea when he’s coming back. We haven’t heard from him.” She lowered her head again, trying to hide the worry and sorrow she felt over her distant friend’s absence. Before she’d come back and announced that she’d tied the knot with Brynjolf, Marcurio had hoped he could eventually be that kind of friend to her as well, but it didn’t look like that would ever be very likely, no matter how often she told him they were friends. “I need something a little stronger than Imperial power in case things with Erikur get more heated than I can handle. A calming spell or something.”
“Erikur? The Thane?”
“You know him?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” He’d had his own bit of a run in with Solitude’s most egomaniacal Thane, and though it had been years since last they’d met, he’d never quite forgotten it. Funny, but he always imagined Erikur had forgotten and yet he still avoided Solitude unless it was absolutely necessary. “Let’s just say we don’t exactly get on and leave it at that.”
The trouble had actually been with the Thane he’d been more than just a companion to. Anariel had taken them to Solitude to collect on a job she’d done for young King Torygg’s steward, Falk Firebeard. Erikur had propositioned her rather inappropriately just outside the Blue Palace as they were leaving, while Marcurio was standing right there. When she refused the Thane’s advances, he followed her through the streets trying to bribe her as if she were little better than a prostitute. Marcurio’s temper bubbled up inside him until it reached a boiling point that nearly singed the fur trim on the old, drunken windbag’s fine clothes. Erikur had kicked them both out of Solitude with the help of the guards, swearing if he ever saw either of them in his city again he’d see them hanged.
They’d laughed about it all the way to Morthal, where Anariel had died less than a week later by his own hand, whispering, “Please forgive me,” as she guided the stake in his trembling hand toward her heart.
“Marcurio?” Ginna prodded from across the table. The edge in her tone suggested she’d said his name at least twice, but he hadn’t heard her. Lost in his thoughts, his aching mind trying desperately to cling to memories that should have died out long ago.
“Sorry.” He slugged the last few swallows of his brandy back in one shot and lowered the cup to the table rather heavily. “I can’t come with you to Solitude, Ginna.” He pushed the chair away from the table and stood up. “I should go. I’m suddenly not feeling up to this anymore.” Digging into the pocket of his robes, he drew out the heavy coinpurse she’d given him that morning and set it gently on the table and then he walked toward the door. He didn’t know where he was going; there was no escaping her memory. Everywhere in Riften reminded him of Anariel, especially Honeyside, which had once been home to the Thane of Riften.
He was reaching for the door handle when she called out to him again. “Marcurio, are you all right?”
He shook his head, though he hadn’t meant to. “I’m fine, I just… I need some air. Good luck, Ginna. I hope whatever you and Brynjolf have to do, it works out for you and your Guild.” He was grateful for the damp chill of the air that gushed in with the opening door, the familiar scent of fish and water, rain and mud and new grass. She got up to come after him, lingering in the doorframe and watching him as he lifted his hood to keep out the slow drizzle and walked toward Mistveil Keep, but she didn’t follow and he was glad.
It was times like that it paid to have friends who understood the value of distance and privacy. Gods knew Ginna had enough secrets of her own hidden away, things she’d never tell him no matter how close a friend she claimed he’d become to her since they’d met.
Passing through the southern gate, he made his way through the rising mist, toward the waterside. Sometimes the gentle lapping of the water against the shore was almost enough to quiet the tangle of thoughts inside his head, to quell the never ending ache he still felt for her, but not that evening. The fog hovering over the lake swirled in around him like a cloak, seeped through his robes until his skin prickled with gooseflesh and his bones ached almost arthritically. Brisk hands rushed across the fabric in an attempt to warm himself, but it was no use.
It had taken him years to learn how to put those memories out of his mind, the pleading, raspy whisper of his lover begging him to find the strength to kill her before the monster inside overpowered her. He’d bargained with her for hours, insisting that he would guard and protect her, keep her secret forever, hide her away by day and keep her safe until the sun went down.
“You can feed from me,” he’d said. “Just please…” Tears had blurred his vision, only clearing when he blinked and they rushed down his face like two warm drops of rain. “Please, don’t ask me to do this.”
“Marc,” she whispered, her hand resting against his cheek, twitching fingers fluttering through the loose strands of hair that fell down his face. “I know you do not love me…”
“No,” he shook his head. “You’re wrong, Ana. I do love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m just a fool, an idiot, but I can change. I will change. I swear it to you. Let me prove to you that I am a good man, a man worthy of your love.”
All the green in her eyes, that luscious, beautiful green that had always reminded him of spring, was gone, the red-tinged orbs staring back at him so unlike the ones he’d fallen in love, he almost didn’t believe it was still her, but he would learn to love her as she was. He would do anything to keep her, to prove himself to her.
She swallowed hard against the dry ache in her throat, reaching once more for the wooden stake on the ground beside her. “If you truly love me then please, Marcurio, let me die in peace, here in your arms before I no longer know who I am.”
She’d lowered the wooden instrument into his hand and closed his fingers around it, drawing its jagged tip toward her heart. The last time he had kissed her was the only one he truly remembered, her cool breath passing across his lips when she exhaled, the soft tip of her tongue caressing his.
“I have walked this world for two-hundred and fifty years,” she murmured, tightening her fingers around his. “I’ve seen war and death, blight and famine, darkness, so much darkness. I’ve watched entire cities fall to ruin, but in all my years I have never known anyone as brave or beautiful as you are, my love.”
The kind of madness that came with killing someone you love never went away. In time, he’d learned to coincide with it, to tamp it down deep into the dark recesses of his soul, but it was always there. Taunting his every waking moment, haunting his nightly dreams. There was no way around the blame. He had killed her. He’d run that splintered stake right through her heart while screams of agonizing torment burned in his throat and she hadn’t even tried to fight him.
If you truly love me, please, Marcurio, let me die in peace…
“At least one of us is at peace,” he muttered under his breath, kicking the stone beneath his foot into the lake and watching it whiz off into the distance before plunking down with a thick and heavy splash that sent reverberating ripples in all directions.
Her final words had been, “Please forgive me.” And so he had forgiven her, but there were days he actually wished her dying request had been, “Forgive yourself.”
Even still, he doubted he ever would.