She’d nicked the skin on his throat. Marcurio could feel the sting where her blade had been, the tender throb of pain in the places her fingers pressed into his neck, and his shoulders felt like two crumbling bricks barely holding his throbbing head in place.
It was oddly exhilarating the more he thought about it, being manhandled that way by a woman. Even more intriguing was the emotional repercussions of that manhandling occurring at the hands of a woman who looked exactly like the only one he’d ever loved.
He deserved to be punished for the things he’d done to her, deserved everything she threw at him from beyond the grave, and maybe it was foolish, but he swore to himself her sister’s coming to Riften was just that—a sign from Anariel that in some way she was still with him. She would make sure he never forgot for as long as he lived.
Stuffing the last of his magicka potions and the book he’d been reading into his satchel, he slung it over his shoulder and reached for the Staff of Hag’s Wrath to carry with him. He took a long look around his empty room at the Bee & Barb. Every time he left on a job, it never failed to rumble in the back of his mind that it could very well be the last time he ever laid eyes on the room he’d called home for more than five years. Not that he should miss it, but he would nonetheless.
Keerava would probably rent it out to someone else while he was gone; she always did.
He stopped on the way out to say goodbye and leave his key with Keerava, and stepped back out into the murky daylight. He spied Mjoll and Aerin chatting amicably with Marise in front of the empty kiosk where Brynjolf often peddled snake oil, and he offered a smile when the Lioness lifted her hand in farewell.
“Safe travels to you, my friend,” she called.
Riften may have been a dive, according to most of its residents, and though he’d struggled with the notion of it for years, it was still home. He’d grown comfortable there, loved the people, the rugged, homey structures, the feel of the wooden pier beneath his feet as he traveled her streets. Bypassing Haelga’s bunkhouse, which had brought him more comfort than he would ever admit and arriving in front of Honeyside, he lifted a tentative hand to knock on the door and silently prayed that Brynjolf hadn’t returned home yet.
Another confrontation with Ginna’s brutish Nord spouse was the last thing he needed to send him off on what might be his final farewell.
He remembered Ginna was supposed to have left that morning with her husband on some job she couldn’t share the details of, but he hoped Brynjolf’s presence in the cemetery less than an hour earlier meant she hadn’t gone yet and that he was still underground. She’d been a good friend to him over the last couple of months, one of the better friends he’d had in years, and though he couldn’t even begin to understand why he felt so compelled to say goodbye to her, he had a feeling he’d regret it for the rest of his days if he didn’t.
“Wow, Marc,” he muttered to himself, raising his knuckles to knock again. “Bleak much?”
The door opened and she leaned into the frame, the disheveled braids of her white-gold hair and the pillow lines embedded in her smooth cheeks suggested he’d woke her and a momentary surge of guilt gripped him. He was always doing things like that, annoying things, as Ginna bluntly classified them. Things that made it hard for other people to like him. And yet she liked him anyway. She’d even called him friend.
“Marcurio.” He watched the edge of her mouth twitch with a small smile.
“I’m sorry, did I wake you?”
“Yeah, but it’s all right. I have a million things to do today and I never meant to sleep this late.” She stepped aside to silently invite him in with a sweeping arm. “Bryn and I were up until long after the sun came up this morning talking. He was supposed to wake me when he got up, but he never does what I ask him to. It’s like he purposely goes out of his way to do the exact opposite of everything I say.”
Marcurio chuckled, sliding in past her and taking a long look around the house. It never failed to surprise him how homey it still felt, how even the presence of another couple with different tastes in décor—most of which was quite obviously stolen—couldn’t wrench Anariel’s spirit from the walls of that dwelling. For a moment, while Ginna closed the door at his back, he closed his eyes and breathed in. It was probably just the alchemy lab downstairs, but he swore he could still smell her there. Lavender, honeycomb, tundra cotton.
“It’s like being married to a… I don’t know what. A rebellious teenage boy who thrives on making me growl at him.”
Funny she should say that because that was exactly what he thought of Brynjolf, and that was putting it mildly. The man was a childish bully and it was impossible to fathom what she even saw in him. And yet Anariel had forgiven all of his quirks—loving him without thought or question just the way he was.
He hadn’t deserved her anymore than Brynjolf deserved Ginna.
“You obviously love him very much to put up with him.”
An almost dreamy breath escaped her as she admitted, “I do love that hot-headed Nord. I don’t know what it is about him, but sometimes just a look from him is enough to set my soul on fire.”
“Does he make you happy?”
“When he’s not driving me up the wall,” she laughed. “Well, I guess even then he makes me happy.”
“In the end, I guess that’s all that matters.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, and when he turned back around to face her she was grinning in such a way he actually felt like maybe she was with the right man. Everyone had a soul mate, or so some of Mara’s prophets liked to tout. Too bad he’d put a wooden stake through the heart of his. “So, what’s up with you? You okay? You seemed a little off when you left here yesterday.”
“I’m okay.” As okay as a man who’d just had his life threatened by the spitting image of the only woman who’d ever gotten under his skin so deep he couldn’t have dug her out with the tip of a blade if he tried. “Weird things going on up in my head, but I’ll be all right. I always am.”
“What kind of weird things? You wanna talk about it?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I just wanted to stop by and say goodbye, and of course, let you know when your rebellious teenage bully of a husband comes barreling through the door asking for permission to have me crucified that it wasn’t my fault.”
Ginna’s soft laughter lightened the air in the room. “Okay,” she nodded. “I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that if Brynjolf wants to kill you, it must be Middas.”
“We had a bit of a confrontation this afternoon, and I got a little…” He paused, looking for the right words to explain the compelling nature to protect a stranger who looked so much like Anariel he couldn’t breathe at the thought of losing her all over again. Even though he knew it wasn’t her, he just couldn’t stomach allowing anyone else to hurt her ever again. “Well, let’s just say I demonstrated my formidable power and he wound up on his backside staring up at the sky.”
“What?” she balked. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. It’s a long story and I don’t really have time to explain. I’m leaving Riften for awhile.”
“Marcurio, don’t be stupid,” she rolled her eyes. “Don’t leave town because of Brynjolf. I can talk to him, keep him on a leash until he calms down. Besides, we are heading over to Solitude tomorrow, so that’ll put some space between you.”
“I’m not leaving town because of Brynjolf, don’t worry. I have a job, and from the sounds of things it’s a pretty dangerous job. There’s no telling when I’ll be back, if I even come back at all, so I wanted to make sure I said goodbye.”
“A dangerous job?”
He watched concern furrow her smooth forehead, her exotic blue eyes narrowing with worry. For a moment she was all Nord, the hint of Imperial blood in her veins barely noticeable at all in any of her features. When she’d first come to Skyrim, the gentle olive tone of her skin had been the only real indication there was Imperial blood in her at all, but all that time in the cold and shadows had made her pale as fine porcelain. She really was a beautiful woman; Brynjolf probably had no idea how lucky he really was.
“What kind of dangerous job?”
“I can’t really talk about it,” he explained. “But I wanted to let you know I was heading out.”
“Well, where are you going?”
“Dawnstar.” It was really all he could say. Maramal didn’t want the details of Vaermina’s curse spreading any further than it already had, and who could blame the man. People tended to panic when a Daedric Prince caused trouble like that, a widespread fear trickling through the land that another Oblivion Crisis was on the rise.
“Does this have anything to do with all those rumors? The nightmares up there driving everyone mad?”
“Really, Ginna, I can’t say anymore. Just… if I’m not back in a couple of months, I’m probably not coming back at all. I’ve already left word with Jarl Laila’s steward to ensure that what little I have to my name goes to you in the event of my death. And I’ve requested for my remains to be returned to Riften. I don’t have anyone else here, no other friends really, no family. Would you see that I’m buried in the cemetery behind the Hall of the Dead? Beside Anariel?”
“Marcurio!” She said his name with more emotion than he’d expected from her. Ginna wasn’t exactly forthcoming with her feelings, and though they’d definitely built a friendship he would always treasure, he knew in his heart that she would probably never care for him even half as much as he did for her. Another lesson from Anariel: treasure every soul that touches your life. “This all sounds so serious. I don’t like it.”
He pursed his lips together, half-nodding in agreement. “I don’t like it much either, but work is work and it’s gonna pay well. Besides, I’ve got to get out of this place for a while. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t worry about you? You just told me you put your affairs in order and asked me to bury you behind the Hall of the Dead and you tell me not to worry about you? Eight Divines, Marcurio!” He was surprised when her balled fists rushed into his chest, knocking him unexpectedly back a few steps. “What am I supposed to think, if not the worst?”
“Come on,” he mustered a playful grin that didn’t go deeper than the surface. “You know better than anyone I can handle myself.” After a moment’s silence, during which she obviously didn’t know what to say, he asked, “So, will you do it?”
Ginna closed her eyes and turned her head away from him, the full buds of her soft mouth so tight all the color seemed to drain from them until the whole of her face became a pale mask of hidden emotion. “In the event that you don’t return, I will bury you next to Anariel in the cemetery behind the Hall of the Dead.”
“You better be leaving me a bunch of really good stuff when you die.” The playful banter that flashed in her eyes spoke more of her feelings for him than any words she’d ever said to him in the time they’d been friends. “I like shiny things, you know that.”
“Oh, you get all the good stuff. All my diamonds, the millions of Septims I’ve hoarded away through the years, my manor just north of Windhelm.”
“Well, I should get going.”
She embraced him, a warm hug that called into question everything he thought he knew about her. Maybe it was living with that hot-headed husband of hers, who so obviously felt everything around him with every fiber of his being, but if he didn’t know any better he’d think she was actually opening up to the notion of giving her heart to the people around her.
He took one last look around Honeyside before he finally parted ways with Ginna, wanting to get out of Riften, and her house before Brynjolf came home and found him there. He wondered, as he stepped through the front gates and sauntered toward the stables to retrieve his horse, if he would run into Anariel’s sister again on the road, or perhaps in Dawnstar when he arrived. It was hard to say, and even harder to fathom why in the world he’d actually want to see a woman who reminded him so much of the darkest time in his life it made his soul shudder.
But he did want to see her again, to know her in ways he’d never allowed himself to know Anariel.
It would have seemed crazy to anyone else had he spoken it out loud, but Marcurio really felt like the Gods were giving him some kind of second chance.
“This time, I’ll do it right,” he promised himself, stepping into the stirrup and hoisting himself into the saddle.