Brynjolf leaned against the entrance of the practice room, arms crossed over his broad chest and scrutinizing eyes flitting through the Cistern. He’d spent an hour showing Aventus how to effortlessly cut a coinpurse, but practice with a dummy was hardly preparation. He needed a target, and the streets of Riften were out of the question until he knew the kid wouldn’t get caught. He’d done well in the market that morning, but cutting purses was a whole new game.
The last thing he needed was Maven lecturing about how to raise a proper thief, one who didn’t get caught and require her to pull strings. If he was going to do this thing, he would do it his way.
“All right, lad,” he knelt in front of him and gripped his shoulders, looking him square in the eyes. Aventus held his stare almost reverently, every part of him ready to absorb the wisdom about to be imparted. “Listen to me very carefully. A thief’s Guild is his family. Family is more important than anything else in this world, so we never stab our family in the back. That means we don’t rat each other out no matter what the circumstances and we never steal from anyone else in our own Guild. Do you understand?”
He nodded almost eagerly. “Yes, sir, I understand.”
“Since we’re training, we’re going to bend a few of the rules. Don’t get too comfortable with the idea of taking things from anyone in this Guild. Do you understand me? That kind of thinking will get you killed and judging from all I’ve learned about you in the last twenty-four hours I don’t think you want to die.”
Aventus gulped before he shook his head to confirm that assumption, his big blue eyes searching Brynjolf’s face before looking over his shoulder at Thrynn loosing arrows into the target across the archway. He’d considering letting him practice on Vex’s new toy, Garthar, but he still didn’t know how he felt about that guy. Besides, Thrynn was the most intimidating man in the Cistern and if he could convince the kid to at least try and cut his purse, he’d be one step closer to ruthless thieving.
“Fear cannot be a factor in your game. You can’t think about the size of the man, the lady’s position in a Jarl’s court. Whether she be Queen of Skyrim or a bandit thug, a target is a target, my boy. All the ever matters is that you get in, you get what you’re after and you walk away unnoticed with the prize.”
“But…what if he hurts me?”
“The only way he’d even try to hurt you would be if you got caught,” he shrugged casually. “So don’t get caught.” He swallowed hard again and nodded before Brynjolf patted him on his way with, “Make me proud and I’ll never make you eat another apple again, no matter how many of the wretched things you steal.”
Aventus swallowed hard and nodded again. He was terrified, but he needed to learn how to put his fears aside and get a job done or he’d be useless to the Guild.
Brynjolf watched from the shadow of the doorway as the kid walked casually across the cistern. He stopped for a few minutes to flip through the pages of a book on one of the shelves, and then he stepped up to the alchemy table like he was going to make a potion, but he was just wasting time and sizing up his mark.
He stopped near the water’s edge and watched Thrynn load and release arrow after arrow. Then he made his move, slipping in almost effortlessly behind the man and running the little dagger he’d been training with right through his purse. Coin and jewel spilled onto the stone floor in a clatter and the old bandit spun around in a furious frenzy to grab Aventus by both arms. He lifted him five feet off the ground before turning and slamming him into the wall. He had his dagger to the boy’s throat before Brynjolf could holler, “All right, Thrynn! Put the boy down.”
“You tryin’ to steal from me?” he snarled. “Huh?”
Aventus didn’t say a word, but squirmed and kicked his dangling feet while Thrynn’s tight fingers squeezed him to near choking.
“I said let my boy go.”
“I don’t care who’s kid he is, the little brat just ran a dagger through my purse.”
“Put him down, Thrynn,” Brynjolf said almost casually. “It was just a practice lesson. I told him to do it.”
“Practice?” He guffawed in a gruff, throaty display of disbelief. “What, we’re teaching new recruits to steal from full-fledged Guildmembers now?”
“I’m teaching him fearless cutpursing. That there’s no target too big or too scary to go after if you’ve got the skill.” Reaching in, he unclenched the man’s tight fingers and drew the trembling boy out of his grip to lower him to the ground. It was a strangely endearing moment when Aventus clung to him, arms locked around his legs in search of comfort from his fears. Brynjolf lowered a hand to the top of his head to soothe him. “I picked the biggest, most brutal man in the Cistern and told him to come at you. Obviously he needs to work on his stealth.”
“Yeah well, I ever feel his hand on my coin again and I’ll slit his little throat.”
Brynjolf shoved Aventus behind him and stalked up on Thrynn in an intimidating stance. “You ever threaten my boy again and I’ll slit your throat.” The two of them stood there for a moment sizing each other up and then Brynjolf reinforced his position. “It was a lesson, Thrynn. Nothing else. If the kid ever tries to steal from you while I’m in the room, come to me before you do anything rash. If I didn’t set him to the task, I’ll deal with his punishment myself. Are we clear?”
“Yeah.” Thrynn narrowed his eyes and then looked down over Brynjolf’s shoulder at Aventus. “You need to work on your sneak skills, kid. I heard you coming from a mile away.”
Backing off, Brynjolf lowered his hand to Aventus shoulder and steered him away from the scene. “So,” he looked down at his charge. “What did you learn from that?”
“Don’t steal from the Guild,” he muttered, still a little wide-eyed and trembling. “Especially not Thrynn.”
“Or Vex,” he laughed. “Believe me when I tell you I couldn’t protect you from her if I tried. So keep your hands to yourself down here unless we’re only practicing. Got it?”
“What else did you learn?”
“Not to cut a purse unless I’m ready to catch the contents somehow.”
“Very good. Now let’s go see old Uncle Delvin. He’s gonna teach you how to sneak.”
Ginna didn’t stir from sleep when he and the boy came home late that afternoon. Standing in the doorway Brynjolf just stared at her for a few minutes and then told Aventus to go downstairs and play quietly before making his way into the kitchen. Rune was sitting at the table with a journal and quill, his hand scrawling across the half-empty page beneath it.
“She okay?” He gestured toward the unmoving body in the bed as Rune finished his thought and lowered the quill onto the parchment.
“She’s just tired, I think.”
Jerking the chair from the table, Brynjolf sat down and leaned back to grab a bottle of mead from the shelf behind him. He popped the cork and filled his mug, offering the bottle to his companion. “How long has she been asleep?”
“A few hours. I figured since we were leaving again tomorrow it was better to just let her catch up on lost sleep.”
“You going to need me to stick around?”
“Only if you want to,” he shrugged. “I spent the afternoon getting the last of our books in order while he practiced cutting dummy coin purses. Kid’s not a bad little cutpurse, but I set him up against Thrynn and he got caught. Needs to work on his sneaking.”
“Thrynn didn’t hurt him, did he?”
“Nah, he just scared him a little, but he’s all right now. I imagine with a few weeks practice I could take him into a city like Markarth or Solitude and make a killing.”
“That’s good to hear,” he nodded. “I had a good feeling about him.”
“Look, I’m not planning to head back out again tonight, but if you want to stay for supper you’re more than welcome. The lad really likes you. Did nothing but talk about you all day.”
“I like him too,” he smiled, “but maybe another time. The three of you need time to get used to being a family together.”
“You’re just as much a part of our family as he is, Rune.”
“I know,” he nodded. “But I still think I’m going to pass this time. I’ve been doing some more digging through a few old ledgers and dockets that just happened to find their way into my travel pack when I was at the Imperial City docks. One of the ledgers had a stack of passenger lists tucked into the back. I haven’t found mention of the Alessia Fair yet, but I think I’m closer than ever to finding out who was on the ship that brought me to Skyrim.”
That poor kid, Brynjolf sympathized.
Most of the Guild knew where they’d come from before they were orphaned, and while the majority of their stories were dreadful to hear when told, they at least had stories to tell. Rune had spent his whole life clinging to nothing but a handful of carved symbols that had been tucked into his pockets before whatever family had been traveling with him disappeared into the frigid depths of the Sea of Ghosts.
He had no idea who he was or where he’d come from. Maybe it was better that way, but no one had ever been able to convince him of that simple fact. Brynjolf supposed he had a right to know who he was, where he’d come from. He just wasn’t sure knowing the truth would actually bring him the peace he was looking for.
“Go on then,” he waved him away. “Dig up your dirt and find your truths. If we need you, I’ll come find you in the Cistern.”
“Thanks, Brynjolf. Let Ginna know I’ll be ready to go before sun up tomorrow?”
He sat at the table alone once Rune had gone, sipping his mead and watching Ginna sleep. She looked so peaceful, so warm and he wanted to crawl into bed with her to drift away, but sleep was still the enemy, or rather his dreams were the enemy. He was lucky to grab an hour or two at night before he woke with a start in a cold sweat, his mind so heavy he couldn’t fall back asleep no matter how hard he tried. He was exhausted, and fatigue was never good for a man who needed all of his senses at full capacity.
Rising, he stalked quietly toward the bed and lay down on his side atop the blankets. Resting his head on the pillow beside hers, he just stared. He couldn’t even count the number of times he’d memorized every detail of her face while she was sleeping, especially over the last couple of months. But damn if he wouldn’t be grateful for all those sleepless nights once she was away in Whiterun taking care of business. He’d only have to close his eyes in order to see her.
Reaching over he traced the distinct edge of her cheekbone, fingertip trailing down the line of her jaw. He brushed the full pout of her soft lips and then leaned in to kiss them, smiling to himself when she reacted without waking. She inched a little closer, nuzzling into his warmth with a soft sigh.
Gods, he loved the woman. It still felt strange to him whenever he thought too hard about it. He’d spent so much of his life avoiding any kind of relationship that might entangle his heart or make him feel vulnerable, but the moment he’d first laid eyes on Ginna he knew he could never walk away from her, never live without her. Sometimes it made him feel weak and soft in ways he’d never admit to anyone but her while their bodies were tangled together in the dark.
But he couldn’t afford to be either weak or soft if he wanted to protect her and the boy from everything on their path. They were treading dangerous ground, and he couldn’t afford to let the unease he felt distract him from the greatest responsibility he’d ever undertaken in his life: the safety and protection of his family. No matter what happened they could never wind up like his parents, dead before they even had a chance at life together.
He kissed her again and then got out of bed to make them all something to eat before she woke, and when she finally did the three of them sat down at the dinner table together like a real family.