Time didn’t drag away the memories.
Onóra had been alive long enough herself to know that first hand, and yet a part of her expected to walk through Riften without incident, without being recognized for what she was: the spitting image of her dead sister. A ghost perhaps, turning a few heads and sparking remembrance, but the mage who’d followed her into the temple had more than just appreciative memory in his eyes.
He’d known Anariel and well, judging from the look he wore, but not well enough to know she’d had a sister.
That didn’t surprise her.
Anariel had always been a bit self-righteous. Her complacency had been the very thing that tore them apart in the first place. Gods forbid anyone associate her with a killer, even if being a thane and hero probably put more dead bodies behind her than Onóra could ever lay claim to as an assassin. Justice for the wronged only was only excusable with the blessing of a Jarl. Society was flawed that way.
She couldn’t take the chance that someone else in town had been closer to her twin, close enough to know Onóra was out there. The Gods alone knew the kinds of stories Anariel would have told her friends.
Coming out of the temple she took note of the Hall of the Dead just left at the bottom of the stairs and on a whim she turned in that direction. The Nords of Skyrim were nothing, if not predictable. A cemetery could often be found within walking distance of the Hall of the Dead, and if her sister had been buried in Riften that would be where she found her.
Despite everything that transpired between them before they parted, despite the fact that Onora looked Death in the eye every single day, a part of her still missed her sister. She still struggled with knowing the other half of her soul, the strong half, had been taken away before she ever had a chance to tell Anariel the in spite of it all, she still loved her more than she’d ever loved anyone or anything else in the world.
Sharply rounding the corner, she came face to face with a broad-shouldered Nord who was almost as tall as she was, his fiery red hair contrasting with his pale white, freckled skin and a pair of bright green eyes so stunning they almost rivaled the large emerald in the ring that adorned his right forefinger. But it wasn’t the beauty of his eyes that stunned her; it was the glowering recognition that flared to life in them. A thief, judging from the number of pockets adorning his black leather armor.
“My ma used to say true evil never dies, but I always thought she was just superstitious,” the man said.
“I beg your pardon?” She drew her head back to really look at him, to determine if she’d somehow crossed paths with him before. She’d faced off against plenty of thieves in her day, usually when their heists went awry and someone in the household wound up on the end of a blade. The family would hire her to exact vengeance, but if that were the case they wouldn’t be standing face to face.
He lifted a hand to scratch through the short beard on his chin, squinting as if narrowing his eyes would make sense of the woman standing before him. “She also said to never trust a magic user. What is this? Some kind of necromancy? I always thought that bastard was shady, and my wife is gonna be more than a wee bit disappointed when I tell her I actually had a legitimate reason to take him down.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m not buying it lass, so cut the act. Where’s he been hiding you all these years?” The strong grip of his hand around her bicep took her by surprise, hard fingers pressing bruises into the tender flesh along the back of her arm, and when he yanked her closer there was actually a hint of fear sparking through her blood. “I’ve worked too hard for this. You’re not taking my Guild down again. I’ll kill ya this time if I have to.”
“Let go of me.” She tried to wrench out of his grip, but he was strong and the fury in his eyes told her he wasn’t about to let her go until he got answers.
“Not until you tell me what your plans are.”
“I have no plans,” she insisted, her mind racing for a solution. She could feel her fear stimulating the magicka inside her, drawing it to the surface and in her free hand the energy began to gather. But she was never given a chance to use it.
“The lady said let go, Brynjolf.” A blast of electricity surged through the man holding onto her, and she felt the tingling bite of it course through his body into hers before his hand loosened and he fell back unconscious.
A quick shot over her shoulder and she saw the Imperial mage from the temple standing in the shadowed stone archway beside the cemetery, his amber eyes alight with rage, chest heaving as the anger began to dissipate and a new emotion took over. Regretful fear.
“Eight Divines!” he hissed, rushing forward and kneeling down over the thief, his healing hands working over the man. The subtle chiming of restoration magic hummed in her ears. “Ginna’s going to have my head on a pike.”
Brynjolf began to stir, groaning as he rolled his head along the soft grass behind his head. The mage was distracted by his own regretful attack, and Onóra glanced through the cemetery for the easiest way to escape the situation without further inquiry, struggle or notice. The gates on the other side of the cemetery were closed and probably locked and she didn’t want to head back through the way she’d come in case the guards had been alerted to the skirmish.
Shooting a look back over her shoulder, she felt so trapped and helpless, like some kind of victim—feelings she was completely unaccustomed to.
Gods, she’d just wanted to pay her sister the respects she deserved. Eyes scanning through the cemetery again, her sudden inclination to escape the scene was thwarted when she caught sight of a meticulously carved, almost monolithic stone with the words THANE OF RIFTEN etched across the base. Without even thinking, she started toward that stone, as if the soul of her sister drew her in, and when she saw Anariel of the Summerset Isles every muscle in her throat tightened with grief.
All those years, she’d felt it, known it in her heart, but seeing that stone suddenly made it feel more real, more final than it ever had before. She thought she could just pay her respects and walk away, but that grief overwhelmed her and she knelt on the ground before the stone, her hand reaching out to trace the letters of her sister’s name.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t put my blade in your heart, mage,” the Nord at her back challenged, his stamina and health quickly recharging. Onóra could hear him shuffling to regain his feet, but she didn’t look back at them when he added, “And don’t hide behind Ginna’s skirts either. Even she won’t protect you once she finds out you attacked me.”
“She will when she finds out you’re threatening innocent citizens,” the mage countered. “Doesn’t that go against one of your stupid Guild codes? None of which have ever made any sense, by the way, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you.” Brynjolf pointed out. “You know what she cost us, Marcurio. The two of you are at least half the reason my Guild is in such a bad way in the first place. She thwarted one of our biggest heists, landed Vipir in prison for almost a year and nearly got me killed. That bitch set us back decades and we are still trying to recover everything we lost on her account.”
“It wasn’t just her fault, and you know that now as well as I do. There were other forces at work against you. Supernatural forces, if what Ginna’s told me is true.”
“Ginna needs to learn when to keep her teeth together, and supernatural or not, it still doesn’t change what your precious thane did to my Guild.”
“That may be so, but that woman isn’t who you think she is,” Marcurio said quietly. “I thought it was her too, and who better than I would know her anywhere?”
He posed that question so softly, Onóra barely heard him over the emotional turmoil in her own head. She needed to get out of there, to get away from that town, those people who once knew her sister, but try as she might to push herself to stand and walk away, she couldn’t move. It was like Anariel had reached up out of the earth, the bones of her hands gripping around her wrists and holding her fast where she knelt. For the first time in decades she was among people who’d known her sister, people who might actually know what had really happened to her.
She died, the voice in Onora’s head reminded her. That’s all you’ll ever need to know.
“It’s not her.”
“That explanation might buy you a speck of time while I try to sort it all out in my head, but it doesn’t make my blade thirst for your blood any less right now,” Brynjolf hissed in obvious pain. “If I were you, I’d get the lass away from our backdoor and quickly because if Vipir happens to see her, no amount of promise from you that she isn’t who he thinks she is will save her.”
Onóra turned to look over her shoulder, watching as the Nord groaned his way to his feet. He shook out the fiery locks of his bright hair and dusted himself off, stretching the ache of shock magic from his bones. He met her gaze, cold green eyes scrutinizing her with such hate, the killer inside awoke and tangled with the protective streak that had driven her to do unspeakable things over the centuries in the name of her sister. Returning his animosity tenfold, his scowl deepened the dimpled scar that marred his cheek beneath the patchy, unshaven red hair that covered his mug. Then he turned into the crypt, disappearing through some secret underground entrance.
The mage followed until he arrived behind her, and when she looked up into his warm, molten amber eyes she saw such tenderness, such love it actually made something inside her quiver. Something she quickly pushed deep down into her belly and tried desperately to ignore.
“I could have handled that myself.”
“Maybe,” Marcurio shrugged his left shoulder up, a slow smile dawning at the corners of his mouth. “But I’ve been itching to take some of my frustrations out on that guy for years. Believe me when I tell you he had it coming.” He laughed, a soft chuckle that battered at her secure defenses, and then he lowered a hand to help her to her feet.
Onora regarded that hand, the smooth white palm a gentle contrast against his olive skin, the dark hairs on his arm still raised in reaction to the shock magic he’d just issued moments before. She didn’t take it, but rose to her feet to tower over him almost in challenge, a gesture meant to show him she was strong, that she didn’t need help from anyone.
“Brynjolf’s more bark than he is bite. He rarely fights his own battles, but he’s right about Vipir the Fleet.”
Vipir the Fleet? What kind of person walked around with a name like that?
“We should get you out of here before he rears his ugly Nord head from the cistern.”
“Don’t worry,” she assured him. “I was just leaving.”
“Were you heading back to Dawnstar? Maybe we could travel together?”
Was he daft?
“I don’t think so, now if you’ll excuse me…” She brushed past him, heading toward the stone arches that led back into the temple courtyard. Intent on walking all the way to the front gates and as far from Riften, from her sister and those people who knew her as her feet would carry her, his next words actually stopped her in her tracks.
“Family was always a sore subject with Anariel,” he broke the awkward silence, unintimidated by the fact that she was more than a head taller than he was. “She never mentioned she had a sister, much less that she was a twin. All she ever said was that they were all dead.”
He could have no way of knowing how deeply those words cut her, the knife of her own twin’s denial of her existence wrenching in her heart. After everything, she’d gone to the grave still hating the only person in the world who would have died for her without question. It burned in her belly, the acid of anxiety and sorrow rising up like bile in the back of her throat.
“Yeah, well…” she barely looked back at him when she said, “she lied. I guess she wasn’t such a righteous do-gooder after all.”
“Wait,” he called after her, picking up the pace to catch up with her before she could slip away. Falling into step beside her, he began to babble apologetically. “That came out wrong. I mean, it came out right, but it was a cruel thing to say. I never think things through when I’m talking. It’s probably one of the reasons I’m still single at my age. Most men I know have long since settled down, even that brutish rogue who just tried to rough you up is married. And I’m still trying to figure out why she married him. I mean, she’s just as bad as he is when it comes to putting her hands in pockets they don’t belong in, and she’s a nightmare with a blade, but aside from that she’s a nice woman.”
“Look,” she stopped walking and squared off against him. “I don’t know how you knew my sister and I don’t care. She’s just as dead to me now as I was to her, and maybe I thought I wanted to know what happened, but I was wrong and I was stupid to come here. Now back off, or I’ll…”
“You know, it’s remarkable how much you look like her. Even the way your eyes bunch at the corners when you’re angry… It’s uncanny.”
Okay, he was an idiot. There was no other explanation for the cumbersome way he threw around such hurtful, almost spiteful commentary without a thought.
“Let me travel with you to Dawnstar,” he proposed again. “I’ll watch your back, get you there safely. I am an apprenticed wizard and my skill in battle is unmatched.”
“Do I look like I need an escort to Dawnstar?” she retorted, the simple nerve of the guy intriguing her in ways she couldn’t even begin to understand.
“Well, no, especially not if you’re anything like your sister when it comes to wielding a blade.”
She drew the dagger from her hip so fast, he barely knew it was coming until it arrived at his throat. He let out a surprised gasp when his shoulders connected to the stone wall behind him. The stubble on his neck felt deliciously rough against her knuckles, the pulse of adrenaline thumping through his jugular beneath her blade.
“My sister and I are nothing alike, little man. I was smart enough to not get myself killed. You’d do well to remember that.”
Withdrawing just as quickly as she’d moved in on him, the sound of trouble brought a guard shuffling into the yard at her back. “What’s the trouble here? Marcurio?”
“No trouble, sir,” he gulped those words free, lifting a hand to stroke his throat where her dagger had been just seconds before.
“No lollygagging then. Go on, find something to do before I haul you both in for disrupting my mood.”
“Mood disruption is not a crime,” the mage shot back, an edge in his tone that almost made Onóra laugh out loud.
“Perhaps not, but disturbing the peace is reason enough for me to cart you off to the dungeons. Don’t tempt me, young man.”
Marcurio lifted away from the wall, still running his hand over his neck as he shouldered past her without another word and walked out into the street. He didn’t look back.
A strange surge of guilt fluttered through her as she returned her dagger to the hilt and watched him go. Never in her life had anyone looked upon her with such fascination, wonder or delight. Scorn, derision, anxiety, yes, but never genuine interest or intrigue. She didn’t know how she felt about that, but there wasn’t time to give it much thought. The guard who’d threatened them was eying her with unspoken promise of further questioning if she didn’t walk away, and the last thing she needed was someone asking her why she’d come to Riften.
She needed to get back to Windhelm anyway to put Aventus Aretino’s mind at ease.
As she slipped out of the courtyard, she glanced up just in time to catch one last look at the mage who’d known her sister, and then he disappeared into the tavern, the double doors closing at his back.