Rune gripped the leather sleeve of Ginna’s Guild armor outside Honningbrew Meadery and drew her away from the door before she could just crash right through it. “Are you really sure you want to do this? You don’t even know what you’ll find in there.”
“You make it sound so dirty,” she snickered. “Like we’re going to walk in and catch him with his pants down, some lusty Argonian maid bent backwards over the bar. Actually… now that I think about it, that’s probably exactly what we’ll find. Come on, I’ll enjoy making him squirm.”
“Ginna, be serious for one minute.”
“All right,” she straightened her face and swallowed her amusement. “I’m being serious. Just watch my back and keep your eye on the doors. The minute we see anything fishy, we’re out of there.”
“And if there is no way out? Then what do we do?”
“We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry so much. I already told you Brutus hated him.”
“Right, and what better way to draw himself into Brutus’s good graces than to hand you over to him?”
As if she hadn’t thought the very same thing on the thirty minute walk from Whiterun. It was a very real possibility. Part of her still believed it had been Mallus who ratted her out after she’d helped him wrench control of Honningbrew from Sabjorn so Maven could take over. Only two things kept her walking: a hope that working with Maven had taught him a few lessons in respect and the remote possibility that Brutus had swept in and carved Mallus’s heart out for some bizarre Daedric ritual he was planning.
“Mallus is a snake,” she admitted.
“Yes, I met him.”
“This is a guy who would probably turn his own mother over to an enemy if he thought it would win him favor.”
“Then why are we here, Ginna? I’m telling you right now that Brynjolf would not approve of this.”
“You’re probably right,” she nodded, “but then Brynjolf’s not here. Is he?” She let him stew on that for a few seconds and then she reached for the door knob again. “He can be as mad as he wants about it when I get home, but right now there’s really nothing he can do to stop me. Are you coming?”
Rune’s gentle hazel eyes flared with conflict and then they softened, his shoulders sagging in defeat. “Someone’s got to watch your back.”
Not much had changed inside Honningbrew, which operated publicly as the Black-Briar West facility. All traces were gone that the place had ever been infested with skeevers, and where it had once smelled of desperation and Nord defeat, Mallus had really cleaned the place up until it was almost classy. There was a bearded, lanky warrior in leather armor sitting at the counter sampling the wares, and at the sound of the door opening both Mallus and his customer glanced up from the tasting. The bearded man scanned her over with bloodshot blue eyes before shrugging and returning his attention to the mead at hand.
“It’s been awhile since I saw you.” He stood up straight and almost nervously reached to tuck a loose lock of his black hair behind his ear.
“I’m surprised to find you still here, Mallus. I think this job could be a new record for you.”
“Yes, well, I’ve never been one to walk away from an opportunity to make high end cash for little to no work at all. What brings you to Whiterun?”
She strode toward the counter and glanced over at the patron before hiking herself up to sit on the stool beside him. Rune remained by the door with his arms crossed in a menacing fashion, brows knitted together as he scanned the interior of the meadery for danger.
“Did you bring me any… merchandise?”
“Maybe,” she didn’t look away from his customer. “I’d feel more comfortable talking if we were alone.”
“Mm,” the thin lines of his black brow arched upward, an appreciative grin quirking at his lips as he read far more into her words than she’d intended. Fortunately, it served its purpose. “I knew you couldn’t stay away. All right, Torvar, meadery’s closing.”
“Oh, come on.” The patron grumbled in protest.
“Sorry, but a man’s got needs and it’s been a long time since mine were fulfilled.” He stepped out from behind the counter and walked the man toward the door, barely acknowledging Rune there before shoving the drunken customer out into the evening. Ginna slid off the stool again and followed. He drew the doors closed, sliding the locks into place and then turning back to face her while brushing off his hands. “I thought he was going to be here all night.”
“You know why I’m here?”
“Darling, I’ve been dreaming about this every night since you helped me clear that wheezing Nord menace from the meadery. I knew you’d come to your senses eventually and realize you couldn’t live without me.”
Ginna started to laugh. The serious look he wore was almost too much for her to stomach, and after a few seconds she felt her sides begin to ache with the hilarity of his ego. “You actually think I’m here to fuck you after everything you did to me?” The laughter died as her hands shot out to grasp the open collar of his tunic, fabric bunching beneath her fingers as she threw him back into the door with a hard thud and drew back her fist.
“Hey, whoa, whoa. What is this…” he stammered, hands coming up in shaking surrender as he surveyed her face with wary, wide blue eyes.
“Don’t play stupid with me, you little rat. You contacted Brutus when I was in Whiterun helping you with your little meadery scheme. Bastard tried to have me killed when I was just a few miles out of town.” She heard the distinct rush of blade on scabbard as Rune drew his dagger from his belt to let her know he had her back. “How much did he pay you to give me up?”
“I haven’t spoken with Brutus in ages, Ginna, and why would I? He’s always made his feelings for me abundantly clear, and besides, why would I betray you after everything you’ve done to help me even though I probably didn’t deserve it.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Mallus. Maybe because your ambitions have always lain within your coinpurse, and you had to know my brother would pay big for information about where I was and how he could get me out of the picture.”
“Well, I hate to disappoint you, but the only contact I’ve had with your brother has been through the grapevine. I hear he burned your family home to the ground, and now he’s here in Skyrim on the hunt for his dear, sweet sister.” For a moment his cruelty mingled with regret, the hard slits of his eyes almost softening when she loosened her hold. “I may not have treated you with the respect you always deserved, but I’ll always have a soft spot for you, Ginna. I’d never directly try to harm you.”
“And why should I believe you?”
“Why would I want you dead, Ginna?” he asked, reaching up to straighten the wrinkles her grip had left in the fabric of his shirt. “I told you the last time you were here I’d be more than happy to rekindle things with you.”
“And you also told me you had no intention of running back to my brother to betray me, spoken awfully quickly for a man with no ill intent, might I add. Had you already sent word to him at that point? Or did you actually wait until I was out the door before you ratted me out?”
“I did not rat you out. What’s it going to take for you to believe me?”
“Blood maybe,” she shrugged, taking a step back to look him over. “Your blood.”
“What, you’re going to kill me?”
“I don’t know, maybe I should.” She nodded toward her partner. “Rune, hold him down.”
Rune’s brow furrowed, but he slid in behind Mallus without question and drew him to the floor. Ginna lowered and pinned herself against his body, legs straddling his chest and holding his arms steady, she lifted her dagger to his throat and gently pressed against his jugular. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d been in that position with him in the past, the playful skirmishes whenever he’d done something to try and purposely hurt her that always ended in a flurry of raw passion.
“Come on, Ginna,” he squirmed a little beneath her, and she could see he was thinking about it too, an almost erotic grin forming as his voice softened. “After everything we’ve been through together, you’ve got to believe me. I’m on your side. I’ve always been on your side.”
She laughed again, an emotional moment of conflict carving through her defenses. At one time in her life she thought the man on the floor beneath her would be the one she spent her life with—a never ending struggle between love and hate that always put her at odds with herself and her family. Now she felt nothing for him. No inklings of desire, no momentary lapse of heartache. Brynjolf was ten times the man Mallus could never hope to be; he loved her with all of himself, without ever asking her to do anything other than love him in return. Life with Mallus had been oddly simplistic; sex, lies, sex, betrayal, sex…
There’d been so little emotion involved that it would have been easy spending the rest of her life caught between the sheets with him. And though anyone from the outside looking in might have thought the tears welling in her eyes had something to do with Mallus, really she just wanted to go home and curl up in bed beside her husband and forget that their life together was filled with insurmountable struggles and uncertainty.
“Give me one good reason I should let you live.”
“Because believe it or not, for once I’m actually innocent. I’ve had no contact with Brutus Arenicci, save what I’ve heard through the grapevine, as I said. I work for Maven now, and believe when I tell you she’s made it perfectly clear that in betraying you, I betray her. The last thing I want is to get on that woman’s bad side. I enjoy living a great deal. Why would I put my life in jeopardy?”
Maven was an intimidating force to be reckoned with; it almost touched her that the woman had included her safety in negotiating terms with Mallus.
“Swear to me you’ve had no contact with Brutus? That you have no idea what he’s up to and the you’re not going to summon him up the minute I walk out of here to deal the terms of my assassination.”
“I swear it. On my honor.”
“You don’t have any honor, Mallus.” The wave of emotion passed. Backing off from him and sheathing her dagger in her belt, she rose and gestured for Rune to let him go. Holding her hand out to help him up from the floor, he reluctantly took it and then let go to brush the dust from his backside. “I’ve got a bunch of stolen goods for you in my pack. Let’s trade.”
“What? You throw me down like you want to play rough and then back off?” He reached for her arm in an attempt to draw her body against his to show her he was still game for whatever she might want to play. “It’s been a long time, Ginna. What do you say you let me show you just how much I missed you.”
Ginna shrugged out of his grip and pushed him gently away. “I’m with someone else now,” she told him.
He chuckled and walked back toward the counter. “That never stopped you in the past.”
Holding up her hand to show him the ring on her finger, she said, “It stops me now.”
“Maven said you married into the Riften Guild, but I never thought it was anything but a power play from a desperate thief with nothing left to lose.” She wasn’t sure if she should feel uncomfortable with the fact that Maven and Mallus had discussed her personal life. “This doesn’t sound like my Ginna at all. Settling down, getting all comfortable. Next thing you know you’ll be shacked up in some house in the country and popping out little Nords.”
“I’m not yours, Mallus, and I never will be again. Now are we gonna trade, or what?”
Rune relaxed in the background, still on guard while she and Mallus dealt through the stolen jewelry she’d lifted from the pockets in Whiterun while seeking out Olfrid Battle-Born. She sold him everything she had on her, fattening her coinpurse by more than nine-hundred gold before slinging her pack over her shoulder.
“You keep in contact with Maven on a regular basis?”
“Of course. She sends a guy out at least once a week to check on business, review the books and pick up the meadery take. Every once in a while she comes herself.”
“Good. I want you to send word to her if you hear from Brutus. He’s up to something, and if he makes contact it’s very important you inform us.”
“And what’s in it for me?”
“What’s in it for you?” she scoffed and drew her dagger again, letting the light glint across the blade to show him she meant business. “Your life, Mallus. You keep playing the right side of the fence, and I’ll make sure you get to keep it.”
“All right,” he sighed defeat. “I’ll keep my eyes and my ears open. If I hear anything I think might be of use to your… cause, I’ll send word to Maven.”
“Thank you.” She started toward the door, joining Rune on the way out.
Once they were outside, Rune edged closer to her as they walked, asking, “Do you think he’s telling the truth?”
“For now,” she shrugged, lifting her hood up over her head to shield her face from the steady drizzle of rain. “But as soon a Brutus makes it worth his while, he’ll probably turn. I’ll have to let Maven know to keep closer eye than usual on him.”
“Part of you only wanted to make him jealous, didn’t it?”
“Maybe a little. He did a lot of really rotten things to me over the years, and yet a part of me thought I couldn’t do any better.”
The constant mist drenched through their armor long before they made it back to the stables to retrieve their horses, and with the sun going down Ginna could feel the damp chill already setting into her body. She hated the notion of spending any more time away from home than she had to, but traveling in weather like that was bound to get them sick. Besides, she was tired and hungry and she couldn’t stomach the idea of shivering inside her wet armor until they found a dry place to spend the night.
“We should just stay here tonight,” she told Rune. “Get a room at the Bannered Mare and head out early in the morning.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, not really. The greatest part of me just wants to go home, but we’re not gonna get there tonight no matter how fast we ride, so we might as well just get some food and rest a bit. I’m tired.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Maybe you could go see your pretty girlfriend. What’s her name? Carla, Carina?”
“Carlotta,” he said. “And she’s not my girlfriend.”
“No, but I bet she could be… even if just for tonight.”
“Why are you always trying to get me laid?”
“Everybody needs a little love sometimes, my friend.”
Rune chuckled and nudged into her as they started up the hill past the stables. “I’m not that kind of guy and you know it. Come on. Let’s go get something to eat.”