Ginna should have been nervous walking through the gates of Solitude, considering it had only been a handful of months since she’d poisoned and seduced Erikur, Thane of Solitude. That had been the night her own Guildbrother made his betrayal known, the night she’d crossed blades with Brynjolf for the first time and learned for the first time how a caged animal felt. Looking sidelong at her husband, she couldn’t help but smile a little to herself. Their marriage might not be all flowers and fluff, but she only need to meet his eyes to know in her heart he was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
Her last visit to the city had been with Rune and had carried them straight into the Blue Palace in search of a rare case of wine meant to ply Gulum-Ei’s tightly pursed lips. The risk hadn’t returned them the information they were after, and they’d wound up having to tail the sneaky Argonian anyway, but at least it hadn’t come down the lizard’s death. She would have hated having his slimy black blood on her hands, especially considering he was the Guild’s link to the East Empire Trading Company and Brynjolf had stressed the importance of keeping him alive before she left.
Stalking straight toward the Winking Skeever, she intended to make good on the Argonian’s offer to fence a few goods for her. She had a heavy satchel of jewelry she’d taken from a silver smith in Markarth to unload and not another fence for miles.
“You want me to go and talk to Erikur while you settle up with the lizard?” Brynjolf offered, stopping in front of the tavern and drawing his hand up to rest on her shoulder.
“No way.” She beamed up at him, delighting in the flash of surprise that warmed his bright green eyes. “I came all this way to see the man’s face when he finds out I’m the one Delvin sent to do his dirty business.”
“That’s bold, lass, and I still say it’s a bad idea to go pushing Erikur’s buttons on purpose. If this whole thing backfires, we’ll never hear the end of it from Delvin, and as much as I hate to play the maturity card on this, we need to approach with caution in order to ensure this goes well.”
“If Delvin was worried it was going to backfire, he wouldn’t have sent me in the first place,” she pointed out. “Trust me, Bryn. I got this.”
“Trust you,” he muttered, shaking his head and following her through the double doors of the Winking Skeever. “Every time you say the words trust me lately I get a sour feeling in my guts.”
“If you can’t trust me, who can you trust?” She grinned back over her shoulder at him and then headed left, straight for Gulum-Ei, who was sitting in his usual corner enjoying a plate of seared slaughterfish and seasoned rice. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t my favorite Argonian.” She dropped down into the chair across from him, absolutely giddy with the frantic look in the lizard’s eyes.
“It’s been awhile since I saw you here, Ghost.”
After news spread about her taking out Mercer, her old Guildname had spread with it, until everyone in the Skyrim Underground knew exactly who she was and what she’d done. Part of her thought that had something to do with Delvin. He’d been absolutely giddy when he’d learned her identity.
Gulum-Ei swallowed hard, his scaly throat constricting almost painfully against the movement. “And I see you brought a friend…” Eyes trailing upward, they bulged when he realized exactly who her friend was. “Brynjolf, it’s been even longer since I last saw you. What brings you? Looking for information? Come to check on the Trading Company take?”
“Just doing a bit of sight-seeing.”
“I heard about Mercer,” he said quietly. “I can’t believe he got away with it as long as he did.”
“I’m not here to talk about Mercer. I’m here to sell you some goods. Now are you buying, or do I hunt down the Caravan and strike a better deal with the Khajiit?”
“All right, all right,” he nodded, lifting a clawed hand to placate her. “There’s no need to be testy. We’re all friends here. I’ve got plenty of coin. Let’s see what you brought me.”
The Argonian eyed each piece of jewelry carefully, checking the craftsmanship and the quality of the stones. She knew exactly what every piece was worth and kept waiting for him to try and stiff her, but after inspecting the last silver and emerald necklace he looked up with what could only presumably be a smile.
“These are exceptional. Wherever did you find them… no, wait, I don’t want to know. I’ll give you sixteen hundred for the whole lot,” he offered in his raspy tone.
“I want eighteen-fifty and a favor.”
“Eighteen-fifty?” He balked. “And a favor? I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Oh come on,” she rolled her eyes. “One teeny-tiny little favor never hurt anyone, Gulum-Ei, but if you’d rather I take my business to Ri’saad…”
“Trust me, neither you or I wants her anywhere near that cat,” Brynjolf chuckled.
He cringed at the mention of the Khajiit Caravan leader and relented without even asking what her favor was. “Eighteen-fifty,” he agreed. “Now what else did you need?”
“I have a very rare item and I’m looking for a buyer, a private collector,” she began, catching the odd look Brynjolf cast in her direction. “I want you to quietly put the word out that one of the legendary Eyes of the Falmer is up for grabs. I want ten thousand Septims for it and if you can find someone willing to pay that much, I’ll give you five percent of the profits.”
“Make it ten percent and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
“All right,” she agreed, feeling pleased with herself. She would have gone as high as twenty if he really pushed it, but parting with a thousand gold was no skin off her back, especially not if Nocturnal’s promise of riches beyond their wildest dreams panned out. Holding her hand out, she shook with the Argonian and told him to send a Courier to Riften when he found a buyer.
She was on her way to the door when Gulum-Ei called after her to come back. Turning toward him, he actually started walking out to meet with her. “Hey, I almost forgot. There was word on the street a couple days ago that your old Guildmaster was here.”
“Brutus?” she whispered, glancing up at Brynjolf who was lingering over her shoulder. “Here in Solitude?”
“That’s what I heard,” the lizard glanced around almost suspiciously. “I also heard what he did to House Dareloth.” Shuddering against the grind of his own sharp teeth, he snarled a little before going on. “So I had him tailed while he was here just in case I ran into you again and you wanted to know what he was up to.”
“And? How much do you want for that information?”
“Not a Septim.” He shook his head. “After the things he’s done, I know exactly where I’m standing on this matter.”
“Awe, Gulum-Ei, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were starting to like me.”
Grimacing at her suggestion, he avoided Brynjolf’s amused stare.
“So what’s the word on the streets?” Brynjolf asked.
“Three days ago he met with a thief named Jaree-Ra about some shipwreck heist he’s been trying to pull off out near Solitude Lighthouse. That same night the light went out and an incoming merchant ship was destroyed just off the coast. Everyone onboard was killed and all the merchandise disappeared. Jaree-Ra and his shady sister Deeja haven’t been in town since, but my bet is your old friend made plans with those two schemers to loot the wreckage and split the profits.”
Nocturnal warned her that Brutus was coming, but she’d never expected to be so close to him so quickly, and for some reason she had felt almost certain the quest to destroy him would take her back to Cyrodiil. The thought of him in Skyrim intrigued her, mostly because if there was anyone more spoiled and pampered than Ginna, anyone who couldn’t handle the cold or harsh weather and terrain of the Northern province, it was Brutus. She hoped wherever he was, he was freezing his arse off and cursing every stupid choice he’d ever made while he suffered Skyrim’s frigid embrace.
“Thanks, we’ll look into it.”
Outside the Winking Skeever she tried to veil her thoughts from Brynjolf, but he knew her too well. “I’ve seen that look before, and frankly it terrifies me. What’s going on in that pretty little head of yours, Ginna?”
“Nothing,” she shrugged. “I just think it might be wise to look into this shipwreck while we’re here, see if we can track him down.”
“Aye.” Surprisingly, he’d agreed with her. “The sooner we can get on with taking that bastard out so we can get this Skeleton Key off our hands, the better.”
His superstitious wariness of the Key didn’t go unnoticed, and though there was a part of her that secretly longed to discover its power and bask in its glory she knew she could never fully express that to Brynjolf. Carrying out Nocturnal’s wishes was little more than a burdenous task he’d give anything to be done with; she could feel it every time they spoke of it.
“Agreed,” she nodded, a part of her feeling especially giddy at the thought of finally having her revenge on Brutus. “So, I’ll go talk to Erikur and find out what we can do for him. Why don’t you ask around and see if you can find out anything about this Jaree-Ra and his plans for Solitude Lighthouse?”
“I don’t think so.”
He stopped walking, allowing her several steps before she finally realized he wasn’t beside her anymore. Turning back to face him, his eyes spoke volumes. No words were necessary for him to express the jealous flare of anger he felt at the thought of her meeting with Erikur alone, and she supposed considering her history with the man and the fact that he’d once watched her use her body to lure Solitude’s Thane away from a Thalmor Embassy party, Brynjolf had every right to be a little wary.
“Bryn,” she stepped forward to placate him. “I swear you have nothing to worry about when it comes to Erikur. The man repulses me. He was a means to an end, that’s all, and you know I’m done with that kind of stuff.”
“It isn’t you I’m worried about.”
His teeth were ground so tight together, it was no wonder his head hadn’t exploded from the pressure and for a moment she almost grinned. She’d never been with a man so jealous and possessive of her before, and while it certainly had its annoying aspects something about his macho Nord need to firmly establish himself as her one and only made her shiver with an unspoken need to back him into a dark alley and show him no one else in the world mattered to her but him.
“I’m coming with you, and when we’re through with Erikur we’ll do some digging into this Brutus business together. I didn’t put Guild business in the Cistern aside to come all this way and sit in the shadows while you do all the work.”
“All right,” she said, falling in beside him to loop her arm through his. “But don’t lose your temper with him if he starts to get fresh. I can handle him.”
“If he starts to get fresh, I’ll crack his skull myself.”
They found Erikur sitting on a plush bench in the Blue Palace behind Jarl Elisif’s steward, Falk Firebeard. When he looked up and saw the two of them arriving at the top of the staircase, his pale face flushed bright red with righteous anger and he pushed up from his cozy seat to charge them right back down the stairs.
“What in the names of the Eight Divines are you doing here?” he growled through clenched teeth, bits of spittle flecking his lips as he shoved them out of the palace and into the courtyard. “I thought I made it perfectly clear that if I ever saw you here again, I wouldn’t hesitate to put you back in that cell where you belong.”
“Delvin Mallory sent me.” She took more pleasure in that reveal than she probably should have, watching Erikur’s bloodshot blue eyes bulge with disbelief. “He said you have a job for me.”
“You’ve got to be gods damned kidding me,” he snarled. “You’re who he sent? Well, you can head straight back to your skeever den and tell Delvin Mallory I’ll find someone else to get this job done.”
“All right,” she shrugged, starting to turn away much to Brynjolf’s shock and dismay. “But you’ll have a hell of a time finding someone who can handle what you need done as well as I can. I’m the best at what I do and that’s why Delvin sent me. Come on, Bryn. Let’s go find something to eat.”
“Ginna…” he started.
“No, no, it’s fine. If Thane Erikur thinks he can get this job done without us, I’d like to see him try.” She tossed Brynjolf a look meant to quell his anxiety and suggest he follow her lead, but she could see he was furious with her for not playing nice. “It’ll be a real hoot watching him struggle, and when he has no choice but to come crying to us to help him again after sending us away we can charge him three times what Delvin’s charging now.”
She started to walk away, but just as she suspected Erikur called for her to wait and she stopped on the cobblestone street without looking back. “All right,” he started toward her. She could hear his footsteps, the deliberate swagger of his confident walk hesitating as he approached. “All right, but the minute you even so much as look at me wrong, you’re dead, do you understand me, bitch?”
“Whoa,” Brynjolf held up his hand. “I understand you’re still upset with the lass after everything she did to you, and honestly no one blames you for that, but there’s no need for death threats and petty name calling.”
Ignoring him, Erikur waited for her to turn back around to face him. When she did, she could see nothing but pure hatred in those bloodshot eyes of his. “I’m not accustomed to dealing with people who are unreliable, which is why I asked Delvin to send me his best.”
“Again, that’s why he sent me.”
“Hmph,” he shook his head. “That remains to be seen. Nothing raises my ire more than having an agreement broken. It’s bad for business and it wastes my time.”
“You won’t have that problem with me, I can assure you.”
“Good, now if you’ll follow me, I’d like to get down to business.”
He pushed past them and headed down the pathway, turning left into a lavish backyard and stopping to unlock the door of the biggest personal residence, aside from the Blue Palace, in Solitude. They entered his home together, Brynjolf pinning her with a rather testy look that promised she was going to get a real earful once they were alone again.
Sitting down beside the arcane enchanter in his office, Erikur leveled his wary gaze over her again and said, “As I said, I don’t like it when people break agreements and Captain Volf of the Dainty Sload has decided to test my patience on this matter by neglecting to honor a trade agreement we struck up a few months ago.”
“With a name like Volf, I’m surprised you trusted him in the first place,” Ginna snickered. Neither Brynjolf nor Erikur were amused. Clearing her throat, she asked, “I assume this is where I enter the picture.”
“I need you to help me show him the error of his ways by sneaking on board the Sloan and planting some contraband.”
“What sort of contraband?”
“You’ll need to get your hands on some Balmora Blue from Sabine Nyette down by the docks. She’s the firstmate of another ship, the Red Wave, and she’s been known to deal in… well, let’s just say she can provide you with what you’ll need.”
“Do you have any idea how expensive Balmora Blue is?” Brynjolf crossed his arms.
“That’s not my problem, it’s yours. Unless you want me to find someone else to…”
“It’s not a problem,” Ginna intervened. “So what do you want me to do once I have the Balmora Blue?”
“Once you get your hands on it, you’ll need to head out to the Dainty Sload and plant it in Captain Volf’s footlocker. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Consider it done,” she assured him.
“Captain Volf is ashore right now and I want the authorities to be waiting for him when he gets back. Now, get going. I don’t want to see your face again until the job’s done.”
“Aye-aye, sir!” Ginna saluted him and turned back into the house without another word, stepping out into the fading afternoon and breathing in the fresh scent of the sea drifting in on the wind. There were so few places in Skyrim that reminded her of home, but for a single, fleeting moment that smell made her long for Cyrodiil. Her nostalgic revelry didn’t last long.
Brynjolf gripped her shoulder in Erikur’s yard and spun her around to face him. “Are you absolutely starkers, lass?”
“Maybe just a little,” she shrugged, reaching up to lay her hand against the coarse stubble on his scarred cheek. She curled and tickled her fingers through that bristling red hair and then stepped a little closer to him. “But you already knew that. In fact, if I remember correctly, you’re quite fond of telling me how much you love that about me.”
“You can’t play games with important clients like that,” he scolded, her playful touch barely even quelling his temper. “Your little tactic could have lost this very important job for us…”
“Come on, Brynjolf. Lighten up. That’s how you have to talk to people like Erikur, self-important windbag that he is. If I let him push me around, how is that going to win the Guild any respect?”
“That bloody Skeleton Key is making you far too bold, Ginna. I don’t like it.”
Stepping back from him, she let her hand slide away from his face and drop to her side. “And it’s turning you into a coward.”
She watched his face blanch at that statement, eyes firing as they narrowed over her in unspoken rage. “I am not a coward.”
“No?” she challenged. Inside she could feel her stomach quivering with dread at the harsh words she’d spoken. She didn’t think he was a coward at all, so why would she say that with such conviction. Even still, why wasn’t she able to stop the words that next escaped her. “Then stop second-guessing everything we do. Stop cowering from every challenge like it’s going to swallow you whole. The man I fell in love with would never let someone like Erikur push him around…”
As soon as she said those words, she knew they weren’t true. Brynjolf may have been tough as nails under most circumstances, but he’d let Mercer walk all over him his entire life, and thinking back on the day he’d sprung her from the Solitude jail, he had allowed Erikur to do the same. He had a real soft spot when it came to the things he cared about, a soft spot that could very easily destroy him if he wasn’t careful.
Gods, he was right. The Skeleton Key was making her far bolder than even she wanted to be, grinding away every bit of gentleness she’d come to express with him and stealing every ounce of tact she possessed until she could barely control the words that came out of her mouth when she was talking to him. They’d had arguments before the key, both of them stubborn and headstrong to a point that was bound to make them lock horns from time to time, but their tempers of late had well surpassed the realm of simple argument. That Key was tearing them apart.
It was too late to take it back though, and Brynjolf stiffened. Holding his shoulders upright as he shook his head and turned away from her with a curt, “All right then, lass,” before walking out of the garden without another word, Ginna just stood there for a minute watching his back.
She reached into her pocket and drew out the Skeleton Key. She looked at it, eyes squinting with distrust and anger. “You’re going to ruin everything in my life that matters to me, aren’t you?”
The soft green design on the handle seemed to glow in answer, offering sinister warmth that silently pleaded trust me. She could feel its power tingling in her hand, crawling along the rising hairs of her arm, across her shoulder and down into her heart.
Shaking it off, she thrust the key back into her pocket and started after Brynjolf. She didn’t know how she was going to smooth things over, much less how they would ever survive the task Nocturnal had set before them. A heavy feeling of dread clung to her being as she realized they probably wouldn’t, and the chills that trembled through her body confirmed that dread for everything it was.