It wasn’t an uncommon thing to wake to shouting and mayhem in Riften. There was always some thief attempting to be crafty and getting caught in the dead of night, rousing the townspeople with their torches and their blades. Normally Marcurio slept right through it and had to hear about the night’s mishap from Keerava, but something about the harried direction of those shouts startled him from sleep. He sat up in the dark, oblivious to the throbbing agony in his head. His left hand immediately flashed open to draw from the elements around him until a small orb of white-blue light popped into existence and illuminated the room.
There were no windows in his room at the Bee & Barb. Windows were for folks just visiting, people who might want to look out on the lake, Keerava said. Why anyone who lived in their little skeever hole of a town would actually want to look out the window was beyond her; in fact, she thought she was doing him a favor, helping him forget upon waking that he was still a resident of Riften—Skyrim’s most disgusting city.
Though he begged to differ on that account. He still thought Markarth was dirtier than Riften, maybe even more corrupt, but it was a close tie.
Allowing the candlelight orb to hover near the bed, he sat up and reached for his robes. Seated on the edge of the bed, he slid into them and tied them around his waist before slipping his boots on over his bare feet.
It was probably nothing, he told himself as he reached into the bedside table drawer for his dagger and dropped it into his belt. Even if it was nothing, it was always better to be safe than sorry. He left the orb pulsating where he’d cast it and after unlocking it, he yanked open the door and darted down the stairs to see what was going on.
The afternoon lunch crowd was standing in the southern doorway that opened into the Merchants’ Circle, even Keerava, who Marcurio swore had never left her station behind the counter in all the years since he’d lived there. He was relatively sure the woman never slept, so her presence in the doorway surprised him.
“What’s going on?” He edged his way through the small crowd until he arrived between Talen-Jei and Keerava. “I heard shouting. It woke me.”
“Ha!” Keerava’s smoky voice rasped. “Was it the shouting that woke you, or the fact that you slept damn near half the day away, you drunken lout?”
Sleeping well past sunrise was yet another disadvantage to having no windows, though the two bottles of Alto wine with a Velvet LeChance chaser probably didn’t help matters. He narrowed his eyes over the Argonian woman, but didn’t bring it up for fear of catching the handle of her broomstick across the back of his neck. “It was definitely the shouting. What time is it, anyway?”
“Just before noon.” Talen-Jei replied without drawing his stare from the marketplace. “There was a murder,” he went on before Marcurio was forced to ask again what had happened.
“Oh,” he shrugged, heading back inside the Bee & Barb for a hair of the dog that bit him to take the edge off the throbbing ache lingering like a haze in the back of his skull. “Is that all?”
“Is that all?” Keerava barked. “You make it sound like murders happen here every day.”
“They do, Keerava,” he reminded her. “The guards killed that thief trying to break into Balimund’s place just two nights ago, or have you forgotten that excitement so soon?” Ginna said that thief wasn’t from the Riften Guild, but some rival faction out of Eastmarch that called itself the Summerset Shadows. Had it been one of her own, the guards probably would have looked the other way, especially now that things in the Riften Guild seemed to be on the mend.
Ambling toward the bar, he glanced back over his shoulder to see if she was going to follow him and at least pour him a mug of mead, but none of the people in the doorway seemed to want to move.
“Catching a thief and putting him to death is one thing, a cold-blooded killing right here in Riften is something else entirely.” Keerava said. “They’re saying it was the Dark Brotherhood, but rumor has it Maven Black-Briar knew nothing about it, so she’s stomping all over the city with a hive in her bonnet about that.”
“Wait a minute,” Marcurio started back toward the door again, his long fingers drawing Haelga out of the way to squeeze back through the crowd. “You mean someone actually got murdered?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” the Argonian woman squeaked. “That old woman who runs the orphanage, Grelod the Kind, murdered in cold blood right in her bed.”
He felt his brow wrinkle, bits of his last conversation with Ginna echoing through his throbbing brain. She’d said just the day before she wanted to burn Honorhall Orphanage to the ground, and though he liked to tell himself she was a thief and not an assassin, he’d watched her kill an entire room full of people with the turn of a valve when they were Markarth and she hadn’t even batted an eyelash. But that had been a kill or be killed situation, and unless Grelod were keeping a heavy coinpurse full of gold and jewels under her bed, he liked to think Ginna’s fantasy about freeing the children of Honorhall was just that: a fantasy. On the other hand, he wasn’t sure.
“Someone murdered Grelod the Kind?” He swallowed against the aching doubt rising in the back of this throat. Why had he let himself get mixed up with the Thieves Guild anyway? Ginna was cute and everything, but she was married now for one thing, and she’d been nothing but trouble since the day she’d walked into Riften. “Was it a fire?”
“Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said?” Keerava shook her head, her bright gold eyes rising beneath the horns above her brow. “Someone murdered her right in her bed. A dagger to the heart. Constance discovered her this morning and the guards are questioning her again. If anyone in Riften had any motivation to kill that woman, it would have been Connie, but she’s too sweet. I don’t think she’d swat at a bee buzzing around her face, much less plunge a dagger into someone who really deserved it.”
“Keerava,” Talen-Jei scolded in a hushed whisper. “Watch your tongue regarding who deserves what, or else this place will be crawling with guards before you can say Blackmarsh.”
“Oh hush,” she waved her hand at him and turned away from the door. “Let them come around here and question me. I was here all night, Marcurio as my witness.”
“It’s true,” he agreed. “She was here until I stumbled off to bed around sunup, just as you were coming down the stairs.”
“And whoever killed her did it quietly because this place was like a ghost town last night. Not a creak in the streets, or so to speak.”
Ghosts. Marcurio decided he didn’t need to be reminded of the ghost that had followed him all over Riften the night before, so he started to turn back into the Bee & Barb to follow Keerava to the bar for that mug of mead to cure his hangover. Just as he was turning, however, he caught a glimpse of his walking toward the Temple of Mara, black ponytails swaying with every step. He shook his head and did a double-take, hoping to dislodge the image from his mind, but even after blinking several times, the ghost was still there, still determinedly stalking the path to the temple.
“Pinch me,” he muttered to Talen-Jei.
“What are you talking about, you foolish mage?”
“Pinch me, Talen-Jei. I think I might still be dreaming.”
“How about I hit you instead?” the Argonian offered, but Marcurio pushed him out of the way and started across the pier toward the Temple of Mara. His hurried feet carried him forward, across the bridge to the other side of the pier, the pounding in his head suddenly forgotten. His heart thundered though, hammering in his ears as if he’d been under water holding his breath and when he passed Riftweald Manor he thought for a moment he might pass out. Ducking around the corner, he was just in time to see the ghost cross the threshold into the temple, the golden double doors swaying closed behind her.
He rushed up the stairs, lingering for a moment in front of those doors and wondering what he would find on the other side when he opened them. Maybe he was still dreaming, he considered, his slow hand sliding down the length of his arm, twitching fingers pinching the flesh on his wrist until the stinging response made him flinch.
“Not dreaming,” he muttered, glancing back over his shoulder at the town behind him. Riften was picking up its jaw in the aftermath of murder, Grelka already calling out her sarcastic sales pitch about buying armor from her and living to tell about it. Shaking his head again, he reached for the handles and with a deep breath pushed to doors open, expecting to find the temple empty. Much to his surprise his ghost stood impatiently with her arms crossed near the altar arguing with Priestess Dinya.
“I don’t see why I should have to answer to you,” the ghost was saying. Her voice, it was different, alleviating some of the tension squeezing Marcurio’s chest, and with her back to him, it was easier to convince himself he’d only been seeing what he wanted to see. The way she wore her raven-black hair was a popular style among many Altmer women, not exclusive to the one he’d loved. “I was told to speak directly to Maramal. Now is he here or not.”
“I’m sorry, but as I’ve already told you, Maramal is incredibly busy and cannot be disturbed. If you’ll just tell me what you need, perhaps I can be of help to you.”
“Look,” the ghost crossed her arms, turning her head so Marcurio could see her face again. That tightness in his chest was back, his breath caught in the back of his throat as he took a tentative step toward her. “The priest who sent me told me to speak with Maramal and he claimed the letter I carry contained urgent business that should not be ignored. If you won’t let me see him now, I will sit here in your temple until he’s free from whatever important business you’ve cooked up for him.”
“You say a priest sent you?” Dinya Blue asked.
“I didn’t stutter,” the ghost replied.
Discouraged by her attitude, the priestess was starting to lose her temper. “Does this priest who sent you have a name?”
“Is there another priest among you robes who goes by that name?”
“Excuse me for a moment.” Dinya turned away, muttering over her shoulder as she walked. “I’ll see if Maramal can be interrupted.”
Marcurio hadn’t noticed, but his feet kept moving him forward and just as the ghost was turning around with a huff to inspect the temple, he found himself standing just two feet away from her. A gasp caught in his chest when he saw her face and the light-headedness he’d felt in the streets returned.
“Ana?” he shook his head, still trying to wake himself from this bizarre dream he’d woken into.
There was a strange look in her soft green eyes when he spoke that name, startled recognition, but she quickly veiled it and glanced away from him. There was no mistaking it though, she was Anariel; she had to be.
“Ana, is it really you? It… it can’t be. I…”
“I’m sorry, but you must have mistaken me for someone else.”
“No.” He swallowed hard, his throat as dry as if he’d swallowed several tundra cotton flowers without a drink to wash them down. Head still spinning, he took another tentative step toward her. Everything about her… her eyes, the tight purse of her serious mouth, her nose, the beautiful curve of her long neck. But how? How could she be standing before him? It was impossible. Well, not entirely impossible. There were those in Skyrim who secretly practiced the art of Necromancy, but he’d visited he grave enough times to know her remains were still undisturbed. “Ana, I would know you anywhere.”
“Obviously not,” she snapped, a twisted grin drawing at the edges of her mouth. “I’ve already told you you’re mistaken.”
His lips opened in protest, but there was no time for sound to escape them. Maramal marched out of his quarters and toward the altar, lowering his hood as he approached.
“You’ve brought word from Dawnstar? From Erandur, is that correct?”
“You must be Maramal.” She turned away from Marcurio, reaching into her robes and bringing out a roll of sealed parchment, which she passed to the priest. “Erandur requires aid. The man is desperate, as you will see from the missive.”
The monk cracked the seal and unrolled the letter, his dark brown eyes scanning quickly across the words before lifting back to the ghost with veiled urgency flickering in their depths. “What happened to the wizard?”
“I’d been in Dawnstar for months before Erandur asked me to deliver his message. If there was a wizard, he was long gone before I arrived.”
“Blast,” he muttered under his breath. “I’ll have to send word to the college, put in a request for aid. I’ve no one here to send.”
Marcurio didn’t know what spirit possessed him to step forward in that moment, but once more it were as if his feet moved without his permission. “If you’ve need of a mage, maybe I can assist.”
Maramal turned toward him with surprise, as if he hadn’t even realized he’d been standing there. “Marcurio, what are you doing here?”
“I…” He looked toward the ghost, hazel eyes vying desperately for her attention, but she refused to look at him. “I came to pay my respects to Mara and ask for her blessing after a particularly rough night.” At least part of that sentence was true. And still it seemed all too strange that considering the night he’d had that he should come face to face with that ghost upon waking. Despite the lingering ache of his own pinching fingers near his wrist, he couldn’t help feeling he was still dreaming.
Maramal didn’t even try to hide his disgusted glare. He made no bones about his distaste for the people of Riften and their unforgiveable leanings toward debauchery, as he liked to call it. “It seems Mara brings us exactly what we need just when we are in need of it, and right now Dawnstar is in need of a mage.” The monk returned his gaze to the messenger. “How would you feel about taking a trip on behalf of the Temple?”
His first instinct was always his coinpurse. “What’s in it for me?”
“If you return, you will be fairly compensated for your efforts.”
“Wait a minute, if I return? What exactly is going on in Dawnstar?”
“You haven’t heard?” Maramal asked, as if everyone knew. Maybe they did, and Marcurio himself had missed that bit of news. “The entire town is plagued by nightmares. Cursed by Vaermina, my fellow servant of Mara requires the aid of a powerful mage to help him break the spell before everyone in the town goes mad.”
“It’s a bit late for that, I’m afraid,” the ghost chimed in. “Everyone in Dawnstar is already mad, though how much of that is on account of the curse, it’s hard to tell.” She offered an easy chuckle, one that only served to further disturb the monk between them. “Either way, it’s your problem. Now, about my compensation. Erandur assured me you would see I was paid for delivering his message.”
“Of course,” Maramal sighed. “The temple hasn’t much in the way of financial resources to dole out, but I offer you this Amulet of Mara for your services.” He held the token out to her, but the ghost only stared at it.
“I’ve no use for an Amulet of Mara,” she sneered.
“Well, I’m afraid that’s all I have to offer you right now. If you have no use for it, perhaps you can sell it. Now if you’ll excuse me… Marcurio, come with me. I’d like to discuss this problem in Dawnstar with you in depth before you set out.”
“I’ll be expecting more than my usual fee, you understand.”
“Yes, yes,” the monk released another breath of discontent. “Everyone always expects more than they are worth. How much will you require to carry out this task? I’ll pay you half now, and half when you return from Dawnstar and assure me the problem has been taken care of.”
“One thousand gold,” he said.
“Very well. Now come along.”
He shuffled past the ghost, head craning over his shoulder as he followed Maramal into the back room. She didn’t even look up at him, almost as if she were purposely avoiding his eyes for fear he might recognize her.
But there was no way the woman standing with her arms crossed, an Amulet of Mara dangling from her finger, could possibly be Anariel. He hadn’t just watched her die; he’d killed her. The shiver that rolled the length of his spine made him feel cold in ways he hadn’t felt in years, and as he turned the corner he swore she lifted her gaze to watch him go, their eyes meeting briefly before Maramal tugged him inside and closed the door.