Ginna had never been around a lot of happily married couples. To be more precise, there hadn’t been any married couples in House Dareloth, only a partnership of thieves in the Cyrodiil Guild that lived outside the household and occasionally stopped in to enjoy one of Severus’s elaborate parties. She didn’t know if a married couple was supposed to be at each other’s throats all the time or not, but the constant tension between her and Brynjolf could not be a good sign for a happy future.
His refusal to accept her apology after she’d called him a coward definitely irritated her at first, but the more time she had to herself to think about it, the more she realized he was right. They were saying sorry a lot more often than seemed normal. It was like every apology preceded an even bigger argument than the last one. How long before they blew apart and couldn’t put things back together again.
The thought was terrifying. All her life she’d never dreamed she’d have someone like Brynjolf in her life, a man who actually loved her for more than the amount of gold she could lift, who needed more than just the damp warmth between her thighs to satisfy his lust. When they were in each other’s arms, she felt safe and understood, full in ways she’d never felt before and for a moment she closed her eyes and she could almost feel the heated whisper of his breath against her ear murmuring, “My Ginna, my love,” in the dark.
But how did they stop the raging inferno of their tempers from coming between them when it was that very fire that obviously attracted them to each other in the first place? And why did it seem that no matter what she did to help him get the Guild out of the trenches, it wasn’t enough. He was always so worried she would tarnish it and make them look bad. She knew things had been bad for them, but she also knew how to conduct herself. She’d been a thief all her life, and no matter how different their Guild rules and preferences may have been from the Guild she grew up in, she knew better than anyone not to draw unwanted attention to their practices.
She was a ghost, for Sheogorath’s sake. She’d spent her entire existence learning how not to draw attention to herself. On the other hand, she’d also learned that sometimes a thief had to draw attention to herself if she wanted to divert that very attention away.
Two roguish sailors in rough leather armor lingered outside the entrance to the East Empire Trading Company in quiet conversation with each other, and Ginna watched them for a while before sauntering slowly toward them. “Hey boys,” she grinned, flashing her smile like a weapon. They both softened immediately, their bodies relaxing as she approached. “What brings you to Solitude?”
“We’re with the crew of the Red Wave,” the dark-eyed Breton said with unfailing pride.
“Ooh, so you’re pirates?”
The other man was a Redguard, and much taller. He had smooth mocha skin and the most perfectly arranged black braids crawling back his skull. Both ears dangled and glittered with silver hoops and when he smiled he flashed a gold tooth that made him appear frighteningly handsome.
“Some may call us pirates, but we think of ourselves as simple sailors.” He spoke with a thick accent she couldn’t quite place and when he took another step toward her he towered over her as his dark brown eyes roved up and down her body with appreciation. “You sound like you’re not from these parts either? You from Cyrodiil, yah?”
“No,” she shook her head, a part of her feeling a tingling alarm at so bold a question. It might have meant nothing, but the last thing she wanted was to run into someone who knew Brutus before she ran into him first—preferably with the Nightingale Blade Karliah had gifted her. “I’m from Windhelm. Have you been in town long? I’m looking for a good time, but no one around here seems willing to share their… sources. Security must be pretty tight in Solitude, huh?”
“Tight enough,” the Breton shrugged.
“What kind of party you looking for?” The roguish Redguard drew a soft pink tongue across his lower lip and there was a moment when Ginna actually thought if I wasn’t already married before quickly snapping that thought from her mind. She was already married and gorgeous as the pirate was he had nothing on Brynjolf.
“Skooma maybe,” she shrugged. “Sleeping Tree Sap.”
“Child’s play, girl,” he said. “I know where you can get your hands on something sweeter.”
His Breton counterpart nudged him with an elbow but the Redguard ignored him.
“Balmora Blue.” He cocked a thin black eyebrow at her, still refusing to acknowledge his friend’s urgings to close his mouth.
“Wow,” she cooed, sliding a little closer to him. “How much?”
“Five hundred gold.”
“That seems a bit high,” she challenged softly.
“Oh no,” he shook his head. “It’s worth every Septim, I tell you.”
“All right,” she agreed. “How soon can you get it to me?”
“Meet me back here with the gold in an hour.”
They agreed and she watched the two of them arguing as they walked away from her. She overheard his counterpart scolding him that if Sabine found out they were digging into her private footlocker so he could get laid, she’d have them both hung. The last thing she heard the Redguard say was, “Sabine ain’t gonna know nothin’ unless you tell her, and we make a quick, under the table five hundred gold while I get a much desired piece of ass.”
Rolling her eyes at that last part of their conversation, she waited until they reached the end of the dock and then she rushed toward Brynjolf who had gone up the stairs and back toward the city. Without a word she grabbed the sleeve of his armor and pulled him with her, the two of them ducking and crouching quietly through the shadows until they arrived at the opposite end of the prow. She could see the Redguard taking off his armor, his sketchy Breton friend still going on about them getting into trouble with Sabine if she found out. He kept glancing up at the ship, waiting for their captain to lean over and catch them in the act.
“What are we doing, lass?” He crouched so close behind her she could smell the leather of his armor, the familiarity of his nearness gripping her heart and squeezing it inside her chest.
“They’re going to get me some Balmora Blue for a third of the price Sabine wanted to charge me.” She grinned back over her shoulder at him, watching his bright eyes spark with approval. “Only we’re not paying them either.” The light quickly flashed from his eyes, his mouth curling into confused question. “I’m watching where they go, and after they’ve gone back over to the Trading Company, we’re going down to check her stash. I’ll take what we need and we’ll go from there.”
The approval returned as he nodded respect and lifted a hand to rest on his shoulder as he hunched a little closer to her back. His shoulder edged gently against her spine, face resting against hers as he watched the pirates argue on the dock. “Clever move,” he whispered, kissing her cheek. The roughness of his facial hair brushing against her skin sent shivers through her and she nestled her face into his, closing her eyes for a moment to just enjoy being near him in a brief moment of peace. She breathed in his familiar, comforting scent, musk and leather and the crisp cold of fresh air. The wind rustled through his hair, the strands of it stroking her as it moved.
“I thought so.” Glancing back toward the edge of the dock, the Redguard dove almost silently into the water. His paranoid friend crossed his arms and looked around to make sure no one else was watching. “All right, we know the general location of her footlocker, so let’s make ourselves invisible for a while. We’ll hide in the brush up there and wait for them to leave again.”
With a nod, he crouched a few steps back and Ginna turned to follow, occasionally watching over her shoulder for the Redguard pirate to resurface. They made their way up the stairs again and into the dense brush along the roadside, ducking into position side by side just within view of the Red Wave.
“I talked to a couple of guards,” he said after a few minutes. “The Dainty Sload is just north of here.” Gesturing toward the point of his finger, Ginna scanned the horizon and nodded.
“There’s a dock behind the East Empire Trading Company,” she remembered. “Rune and I came out near there when we were tracking down Gulum-Ei. After we have the Balmora Blue, we can probably sneak through there and into the secret underground tunnel system the smugglers use, but we’ll have to wait until dark to go in, stick to the shadows and sneak by because those guys will be looking for me to return.”
“All right, you lead.”
With a curt nod, she turned toward the Red Wave again, watching as the Redguard Pirate secured the Balmora Blue in one of his pouches and buckled his armor back over his broad, bare chest. Even from their distant vantage point, she could see the two of them were still arguing over the Redguard’s decision, but she could no longer make out what they were saying. It didn’t matter, they were doing exactly what she hoped they would do.
She waited until they were halfway back to the docks on the other side, and then said, “Okay, I’m going in.”
“I’ve got your back.”
Slinking down the hillside, she clung to the shadows and kept her eye on the docks and the Red Wave. She ducked in under the dock, the water immediately seeping into her boots, its cold fingers soaking through the legs of her pants until her armor clung heavily to her body and made ever movement feel labored and stiff. She dug the Skeleton Key from her pocket and gripped it in her hand, its energy aligning with her own. When the time came it would guide her exactly where she needed to go; she could feel it.
Treading water as it deepened, she turned to look back over her shoulder at Brynjolf and then filling her lungs with a deep breath, she slipped below the water and began swimming around the structure. Down, down, deeper she swam, her eyes stinging as she blinked through the cold, murky water. A salmon swam by her, and then another, but she kept slicing through the water like a blade. When she found the footlocker, she could feel her lungs aching with the need for air, but there was no way she was rising to the surface without what she’d come for.
She slid the Skeleton Key into the lock and jiggled it until she found its weak point and then she turned until the springs aligned and the lock gave way to her prodding. It popped, trapped bubbles of air from inside the chest rushing past her face as she lifted the lid and scanned the contents. A heavy satchel of gold sat nestled beside two bottles of Balmora Blue. She took it all and pushed the lid back down until she heard it click into place and then she swam quickly upward.
Ginna breached the surface of the water, her burning lungs desperately longing for air. She gulped several rasping breaths as she swam toward the shoreline beneath the dock and then walked up onto the sandy grass. Brynjolf had come down to wait for her, and stood with his arms crossed an expectant, yet wary look on his face.
“I’ve got it,” she whispered, holding up the bottle to show him.
“Good work, love. Come on, let’s head back up to the inn and try to get those clothes dried before you catch your death.”
Lowering his arm over her shoulder, he led her back up the hill and onto the road leading into Solitude. She dripped all the way, shivering and shuddering in her own armor. No one even seemed to notice her shivering wet and sloshing into the inn, and while Brynjolf paid for a room upstairs, she trembled near the stairs waiting for him.
He led her to their room and as soon as they were behind the closed doors, he started unbuckling her armor and peeling it away from her clammy skin until she stood naked and freezing before him. His hands were so warm, his body heat practically radiating into her own skin and when he backed away to yank the comforter from the bed and wrap it around her, she longed to just grab him and pull him to her until his nearness took the edge off the chill.
“There’s a tailor’s shop just across the street. I’ll walk over and get you something dry to wear. You curl up here and stay warm, all right?” He gripped both shoulders in his large hands and then lowered his lips to her forehead in a soft kiss before withdrawing and leaving her to shiver in the room alone.
She sat down in the chair and pulled her legs up close to her body, wrapping the blanket as close as she could and resting her head on her arms. They worked so well together, she reflected, and had done so since the day they met. It was as if they only needed to exchange glances to know exactly what the other was planning, making it easy to collaborate their efforts to get the job done. She’d never had a partner like that, and that alone spoke volumes against any doubt she had that she and Brynjolf weren’t meant to be together.
Despite how often they butted heads or how differently their approaches were, they were the perfect team when it came time to get down to business. So why couldn’t they put those efforts into practice in their personal relationship as well?
Unless Nocturnal was deliberately playing them against each other to keep them solitary and devoted to nothing but her?
Swallowing hard against that painful thought, Ginna found herself thinking of Gallus Desidenius, the former Guildmaster who’d died at Mercer’s hand and left Karliah painfully alone. What had their relationship been like, she wondered? Had Gallus and Karliah coexisted peaceably together, or did they find themselves in the same tense position, always butting heads while remaining completely enamored with each other.
As painful as it was for her Dunmer friend to talk about Gallus, Ginna would have to ask her when they returned to Riften. She didn’t want to lose Brynjolf, but if they couldn’t find balance between shadow and light together, they were never going to last.
He wasn’t gone long, returning with a lavish, royal blue silk dressing gown and a pair of simple leather shoes. Holding up the gown, he let it unfurl until it reached the floor, his bright green eyes alight with a strange sense of pride. “I know this isn’t your typical attire, and you’re not exactly going to be doing much dirty work in it, but when I saw this in the shop I imagined you in it and you looked so lovely it took my breath away.”
Ginna rose from the chair, still holding the blanket around her as she walked toward the gown. She’d had so many beautiful gowns like that one growing up with Severus. Her Guildfather had believed strongly that they should flaunt their wealth and power, blend in among nobility as if they truly belonged there in order to instill awe, wonder and fear of the power House Dareloth held in the city. He’d conducted the most outlandish gatherings, expensive parties brimming with rich, powerful political allies that guaranteed their Guild remained top rung. As children he would deck both her and Brutus in the most expensive clothing money could buy and parade them around with pride while rich, powerful clients cooed and pinched their cheeks. As young adults they’d often been charged with the task of mingling with important guests in order to lighten their pockets of valuables, a job Brutus hated with a passion.
Those parties had ceased after he’d grown ill, stopping completely once Brutus became Guildmaster and refused to kiss ass the way their father had always done; she had missed them more than he would ever know and had watched with great sadness as their position in upper class society began to drift so far from the place Severus had asserted them.
Loosening her hand from the blanket she touched the velvet bodice, fingers gliding over the surface with unbridled excitement. He’d always scolded her for throwing money around frivolously, calling her pampered and spoiled, and yet he was always giving her gifts like that when she least expected them. Fine jewels he’d lifted, pretty trinkets that reminded him of her.
“Bryn, this is beautiful.”
“Aye,” he agreed, “and so are you.” His hand came up to cradle her cheek and lift her face toward his as his lips lowered to brush gently against hers.
That hand fell to her shoulder, brushing back the blanket until her bare skin prickled with gooseflesh under his touch. Still kissing him, she let go of the blanket and reached between them to deftly unbuckle his armor. The dress and the blanket were both lost in the shuffle of bodies and armor as he backed her onto the bed and fell in above her with a playful growl that made her laugh almost as much as the tickle of his beard as he kissed his way down into the smooth arch of her long neck and over her shoulder. His warm, strong hand cupped the mound of her breast, squeezing tenderly before dipping in to taste the puckered flesh of her taut nipple.
Ginna sucked in a deep breath, arching her body against his and lifting an almost desperate hand into his soft hair. Fingers tangled against the strands, gripping softly as he went lower, kissing the ticklish skin of her belly until she squirmed. He brushed his lips across her hip bone, strong fingers squeezing the fleshy part of her thigh as he fell onto the mattress between her legs and lifted his devious gaze to meet hers.
Before Brynjolf she’d never been with a man so eager to please her, so willing to satisfy her needs. He took great pleasure in her whimpering pleas for more as his wicked tongue lashed and tasted her with such skill it took mere moments before she cried out release, her entire body tensing and shuddering as blissful waves of pleasure rolled through her again and again.
As he rose to enter her, she arched into him and moaned softly against his freckled shoulder, her legs lifting around his until they found the perfect rhythm together. Gone were the chills that wracked her body as his heat became hers and all the tension that had built between them melted away. It always seemed to disappear when he was inside her, when they were in that blissful place together where every argument and harsh word felt completely irrelevant to their existence.
The soft flutter of his hair against her face, his warm breath on her skin, the crushing weight of his hard body moving in perfect rhythm with hers stimulated every nerve inside her until her body sang with pleasure.
He rolled with her until she was above him and looking down, their hands entwined beside his shoulders, eyes locked. The things she saw in him when they were together like this were enough to spark every emotion inside her until she wanted to cry at the sheer overwhelming power of the love they shared. It was so much deeper than physical attraction, so much stronger than any bond she’d ever known with another. It was the greatest, most painfully beautiful thing she’d ever shared with anyone, and the thought of how much time they spent hurting each other when they could have just loved one another made her ache.
“I love you,” she whispered across his lips.
Brynjolf nuzzled the tip of his nose against hers, rising into her kiss again to answer, “I love you.”
That had to be all that mattered, and it had to be strong enough to get them through whatever darkness lay ahead because she knew in her heart now that she’d found him she would never be able to survive if he wasn’t a part of her.
“Do you promise?”
“Aye,” he murmured into her kiss. “I swear it.”
“I swear it too,” she said.