“Welcome to Mistveil Keep. How might I assist you?” Anuriel’s greeting was pleasant, but turning toward Lydia, her voice cooled.
It was late when they arrived in Riften and the steward was overseeing court business while Jarl Laila had dinner in the main hall. Apart from a couple of guards wandering back and forth, they were the only ones up by the throne. This was a relief as Elspeth wanted to deal with as few people as possible, although she did not know what to make of Anuriel’s reaction to Lydia.
“Yes,” began Elspeth. “We are looking for an Altmer woman who we’ve been told has been living in Riften or in the Rift for several years now.” She paused, not entirely certain that she should reveal the next part. Lydia had reassured her that Jarl Laila was a vocal supporter of the Stormcloaks and harbored no sympathy for the Imperials or the Thalmor. But in Skyrim such political sentiment did not necessarily extend to the needs of a fugitive, particularly if she happened to be an Altmer from Cyrodill. Elspeth considered this but with little choice she reluctantly continued, keeping her voice low. “She would have sought someplace secluded perhaps, as she was trying to avoid the Thalmor.”
Anuriel looked thoughtful for a moment and gestured toward bench in the corner behind the throne. “I need more details,” she explained as they sat down.
Based on the information from Calcelmo, Elspeth gave an approximation of when the Altmer might have arrived and that her name was Harinde, although Elspeth supposed she might have taken yet another name.
“She sounds familiar…she sounds like someone who was associated with Birkir Wartooth before he died. His son, Trygve, became Laila’s thane last year. I believe he is taking care of his father’s affairs now.”
“So, we can find the son at Honeyside?” asked Lydia, referring to the home designated in Riften for the Thane.
“You could try. He comes by only occasionally. You might consider him one of those out-and-about Thanes.”
Lydia smiled knowingly. “Should we talk to Jarl Laila then?”
Anuriel rubbed her fingers over her brow. “I’m going to be straight with you Lydia. Jarl Laila is…well, she’s not exactly pleased with Balgruuf right now and is not inclined to do him—or anyone associated with his court—any favors.”
Elspeth looked at Lydia who simply rolled her eyes. “Is it personal or political this time?”
“These days, they are one in the same, aren’t they?” She sat back and thought for a moment before she continued. “I remember how helpful you were a few years back. We were light on housecarls and guards and heavy on bandits and you did us a good turn. Laila may be displeased with Balgruuf right now, but I can look past it.”
“Thank you,” said Elspeth.
“Wait here,” she said as she stood up and retreated to a room in the back. When she returned she had a ledger, which she began paging through as she sat back down. “It’s as I expected,” she said, mostly to herself. She pursed her lips and paused, as if considering her next statement very deliberately. “Wartooth sold his property a short time after this Altmer would have arrived. And then I believe he purchased more.” She paused and looked at the women cautiously.
“Okay,” said Elspeth slowly. “Where?”
Anuriel lowered her head and, after glancing over the main hall, said quietly. “I think he bought the property off the record. It’s not illegal…exactly. But it means that we don’t have the information here.”
“Well, where can we get this information?” asked Lydia.
Anuriel cringed a bit. “That would be the province of Maven Black-Briar, and I can say, without a doubt, that she will not be forthcoming with either of the likes of you.” She shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe what she was going to say next. “Even if she did, she would probably send you to one of her associates anyway.”
“Her associates?” asked Elspeth, somewhat irreverently. She was becoming impatient.
The steward responded while looking past them, keeping her eye on the movement in the main hall. “The Thieves Guild,” she said.
Lydia’s eyes widened, “The Thieves Guild?”
“Yes,” she said. “Officially, I am supposed to say that they are little more than unorganized rabble and not much of a threat at all. But, they are still active and they handle much of Maven’s unofficial business and hold whatever records she might keep of such business.”
Lydia was quiet and so Elspeth asked, “Then where can we find them?”
“You’ll want to talk to a man named Brynjolf. He’s the ginger whose been trying to sell some elixir in the market during the day, and he’s in the Bee and Barb at night. Keerava, the publican, can point him out.” She looked up and gestured toward the main hall again. “And I would greatly appreciate if you didn’t mention that I sent you.”
“Of course,” said Lydia. “Thank you, Anuriel.”
Outside Mistveil Keep, Lydia grabbed Elspeth’s arm suddenly. “I think we should take false names. Like you did in Markarth.” Her voice was uneasy.
“Okay,” she agreed. “Trying to maintain the integrity of Balgruuf’s court?”
Lydia turned and said, “Sure, why not?”
“If you want to wait in the room while I talk to this Brynjolf, I don’t mind.”
But Lydia wouldn’t hear of it. Ever since Markarth and Elspeth’s encounter with Ondolemar, Lydia had been wrecked with guilt for not being closer, not helping. And she also felt terrible about Northwatch Keep, despite the fact that Elspeth probably would have knocked her out cold had she tried to go along on that one. Regardless, she wasn’t leaving Elspeth alone, not again.
“So, you’ll be Anya and I’ll be….” Lydia paused and thought for a moment.
“Runa!” suggested Elspeth, excitedly.
“No,” Lydia shook her head, her tone suggesting that her aunt’s name was out of the question. “I’ll use Miriam. That was my maternal grandmother’s name. She was fierce, a warrior and an adventurer.”
And so, Anya and Miriam made their way back to the Bee and Barb. It was crowded and they pushed through the throng of people, looking for a place to sit. Lydia had walked ahead to grab an empty table toward the back, when Elspeth heard someone from back by the door.
“Elspeth! Elspeth Aurilie!”
So much for my false name, she thought. She turned around to see where the voice was coming from. There were several rather large Nords standing in her way. She looked back to check for Lydia and when turned and looked for the voice again she was yanked into a tight, shoulder-crushing embrace, her face awkwardly squashed into someone’s burnt orange mage’s robe.
“Oh my gods, you’re alive.”
“argmph,” she grunted as she tried to wrestle herself away. Before she could, however, she was pushed back and held at arm’s length by—
“Marcurio? What are you doing here?” Elspeth couldn’t even recall the last time she’d seen the Imperial mage who now stood before her, dumbfounded.
“What are YOU doing here? Why aren’t you dead?” Elspeth raised her eyebrows at him, but before she could ask what on Nirn he was talking about, he continued. “You were still at Arcane when…weren’t you?” He continued to look at her in disbelief.
“Oh,” she said slowly. “I was…in the city when it happened,” she explained, somewhat touched by his concern. Marcurio was a highly skilled destruction mage, and the year their studies overlapped at the university was one of fierce competition and rivalry.
He went to respond but was interrupted by Lydia. “I found us a table,” she said as she pushed her way back to Elspeth. “Who is this?”
“Hello,” he said, immediately straightening himself and replacing his look of concern and incredulity with his more typical look exaggerated self-assurance. “I’m Marcurio.” He put out his hand, which Lydia took.
“I’m Miriam,” she said; her pseudonym sounded forced and false, but he didn’t seem to notice. “You two know each other?
“Are you kidding!” exclaimed Elspeth, her tone clearly one of mockery. “Marcurio was once the finest destruction apprentice at Arcane University.”
“Oh,” said Lydia as she pulled her hand back and crossed her arms across her chest. “What changed?”
Elspeth waved her hand and Marcurio scowled. “Yep,” he said. “Elspeth showed up. I left Arcane when I realized that they had nothing left to teach me and I work here now. People hire me to keep them alive. I mean, why settle for just stabbing your foes when you can roast them alive in a gout of arcane fire?” He locked his eyes seductively to Lydia’s.
Elspeth rolled her eyes, but Lydia nodded along in attempt to humor the mage. Finally, Elspeth said, “It was, ah, nice to see you Marcurio. But we have business here. If you’ll excuse us—”
But Marcurio ignored her in favor of holding Lydia’s attention by continuing his spiel. “So,” he said, “if there is anything I can do for you—or, more to the point, to you….”
“Can you hammer a six inch spike through a board with your penis?” asked Lydia, while Elspeth chuckled. Gods, she loved Lydia’s bawdy side.
“Not right now,” he said, his face as deadpan as hers.
“Girl’s gotta have her standards,” she said as she slung her arm through Elspeth’s bent elbow and led her to a table in the back.
Elspeth leaned in to her. “You know he’s going to follow us everywhere now, don’t you?”
She looked back and, indeed, Marcurio appeared to be following them. “Meh,” she said. “He’s cute. I’ll just keep him in my armor pocket and feed him taffy treats and aim him toward bandits every now and then to make him feel useful.”
They sat at the table and Lydia brought them drinks. Marcurio happily accepted the Black Briar mead Lydia placed in front of him.
For the love of Talos, Elspeth thought. Marcurio didn’t drink mead if there was brandy available. Either he has fully assimilated up here or he was actually trying to endear himself to Lydia. She shook her head and scanned the room, stopping to look at the tall ginger standing against the far wall.
“I think that’s him,” she said to Lydia, who needed in agreement.
Marcurio choked on his mead. “You’re here to see Brynjolf?” he sputtered. “Well,” he said as Elspeth nodded. He swallowed the rest of his drink and placed his tankard firmly on the table. “It was very nice to see you. Thank you for the mead, Miriam. I wish you well in your endeavors.” Then he stood up and turned, walking briskly away from the table as the women looked on, somewhat relieved but also a little perplexed by his sudden departure.
“That doesn’t bode well,” said Lydia.
Elspeth shrugged it off. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in Marcurio’s impression of another man.” She took a deep breath and walked over to the nicely dressed ginger. Although, upon closer inspection, she observed that while the clothes were very nice, there was something that made them ill-suited to his frame.
“Are you Brynjolf?” she asked.
He lowered his eyes, looking her over quickly. “I am,” he said. “What can I do for you, lass?”
His brogue was warm and sweet. Lass, she thought. I bet that melts all girls’ hearts. “I was told that you might have some information I need.”
“Oh, you were now.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “And who told you that?”
“I was asked not to say.” She looked at him intently. She was surprised at how little he intimidated her. It seemed the incident with Ondolemar had endowed her with confidence for dealing with people she might have otherwise found dubious. Or maybe it was the brogue.
“Well, any information I have isn’t going to come cheap.”
“I can pay you.” Elspeth tried to sound convincing, but Brynjolf shook his head.
“I doubt you can afford my prices lass,” he said. “But we might be able to work something out.” He gestured back toward the table where Lydia was waiting. “Let’s sit.”
Lydia regarded him somewhat rigidly when he sat down, but as soon as she heard that sweet brogue, Elspeth could practically feel her knees weaken under the table. She told Brynjolf what she was looking for and in return, he proposed a simple job. All she needed to do was steal a ring from one of Riften’s merchants and plant it on another. Elspeth nodded along as Brynjolf relayed the details of the crime.
“Wait!” interjected Lydia. “You aren’t seriously considering this, are you?” She didn’t understand why a simple bribe wasn’t sufficient.
“As a matter of fact….”
“You’re not a thief,” she protested.
“Well, I’m no doxy either,” she said. “But you know how that almost went down.” She looked at Brynjolf who was now regarding her with wide-eyed curiosity. “I didn’t sleep with him!”
“You’ll get no judgment from me lass,” he reassured her. Brynjolf was intrigued. Well, the Breton intrigued him. The Nord just seemed uptight.
“Besides,” Elspeth continued, “I am a thief.”
“Oh Elspeth,” she said, trying to be encouraging, “Stealing something doesn’t make you a thief.”
Elspeth put her hand up and leaned over to Lydia. “Look, I know what you’re trying to do but I just have to do this. You can stay here while I take care of it. I really don’t mind.”
Lydia looked back over at Brynjolf and shook her head. “No,” she said. “You’re right…it’s fine.”
Elspeth made the final arrangements and found Brynjolf in the market the next morning.
She wandered around a bit and then on his signal, walked along the far edge of the market. As soon as she heard, “But don’t listen to me, here is Miriam, who came all the way from Markarth to buy more Falmer Blood Elixir,” she moved.
Poor Lydia, she thought as she sidled up behind Madesi’s stall. The Argonian was plenty distracted and it took mere seconds to extract the ring from his locked cabinet. The next step, planting the ring on another merchant, Brand-Shei, proved to be slightly more difficult. She approached him slowly, quietly. While she waited for the guard behind her to leave she wondered if there was a way to write a reverse Clairvoyance spell. Instead of detecting things, you could detect if you were being detected. Maybe in your mind you could see an eye that would open and shut as you were detected and hidden.
Elspeth was so distracted by her brilliant reverse Clairvoyance spell idea that she nearly missed the perfect opportunity to drop the ring in Brand-Shei’s tunic as he turned away, craning his neck to look to the other side of the market. But she caught him just before he turned back, and her movements mimicked that of anyone who might brush past someone, lightly patting his arm when passing through tight quarters.
Brynjolf smiled at her when she returned. “Meet me in the Ragged Flagon in the Ratway tonight,” he instructed.
Later that evening as they strolled down the wooden steps to the level below the main market place, Elspeth observed that Lydia’s manner had gone beyond nervous apprehension. She was twitchy.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
But Lydia didn’t answer. As they came by the entrance of the Ratway, she turned to Elspeth and asked, “Do you have that hood Collette gave me before we left the college?”
“Sure,” said Elspeth, as she rooted around in her satchel. She pulled out the folded hood and handed it over. “What do you need that for?”
“If it’s terribly dark in there, I want to light a magelight and not have it burn out in two seconds.”
“It’s a restoration hood,” said Elspeth.
“Maybe it will be drafty. Does it really matter?” Lydia tugged the hood onto her head and looked away. Elspeth shook her curtness off—she had given Lydia many opportunities to sit this one. She would deal with her friend’s anxiety later.
The Ratway was disgusting. It reeked of every rot possible and the women nearly added to the stench of vomit every time they turned a corner and the odor of a new combination of rancid corpse, bodily fluids, and rotted food hit them in the face. To make matters worse, they kept getting lost and it was a good hour before they came upon the Ragged Flagon.
The tavern was somewhat more tolerable—it didn’t smell quite as bad anyway. Brynjolf waved them over when he spotted them talking to Dirge, a burly and mean-looking Nord with what Elspeth described later as “epic chops.” Elspeth was pleased to see Brynjolf in armor; it was a look more suited to him.
“Well lass,” he said as the women joined him at the table. “I did a little poking around. The information you’re looking for? It’s a lot more valuable than you let on.”
“Okay,” she said. “What do you want?”
Brynjolf looked past the women and gestured for two other individuals to join them. “Elspeth and Miriam,” he began. “This is Delvin Mallory and Vex. They have jobs for you. Apparently, members of the guild have become a little too recognized to accomplish much of anything around town. You finish these Riften jobs successfully and I’ll get your information for you.”
Elspeth braced herself for Lydia’s protest, but she just sat at the table looking around nervously. Delvin leaned forward and sized Elspeth up and down. “Brynjolf tells me you’re quite the little pick pocket but that you friend claims you’re not a thief. Said you planted that ring on Brand-Shei just as easily as you’d scratch your own head. So where’d you learn to pilfer like that?”
She cleared her throat and paused. Finally, she said, “I trained a bit back in Cyrodill…with Ciro Renate.”
Vex who had looked mostly disinterested, now turned her full attention to Elspeth. “Ciro Renate,” she said. “From Imperial City?”
Delvin scowled, first at Brynjolf and then at Elspeth. “I don’t believe you. If you trained with him, how is it you’re not a thief?”
She expected as much. “My mentor had some…connections you could say. She arranged for me to train with him and then practice around town with her. She paid him herself. He didn’t take what I’d stolen.”
Lydia looked up suddenly. “Xeri just let you pickpocket people all around the city?”
Elspeth took a deep breath. “Yes, well I would steal while she watched and then she would, you know, catch me and have me return what I’d stolen and apologize to the mark.” She looked down. Those were some of her most humiliating memories. It was probably the right thing to do, but there were few kind words for a child caught pick pocketing in Imperial City. Though, with Xeri there she was probably spared a few smacks upside the head.
When she looked back at the thieves they were staring at her, lips pursed. Finally, Vex let out a snort. Brynjolf put his shaking head in his hand and Delvin simply burst out laughing. “Oh pet” he said. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Well,” said Brynjolf. “You’re not going to return what you steal for us. And, you’re not going to get caught.”
“Wait,” said Elspeth. “I have one condition.”
“You’re not really in a position to be setting conditions,” said Vex sternly.
“I won’t steal an amulet of the Divines,” she said firmly, swallowing against the tightness that was growing in her throat. “Especially not Talos.” Her voice was raw now.
Vex and Delvin looked a bit confused though Brynjolf’s face softened a little. “Don’t worry lass,” he assured her. “We don’t deal in that sort of thing.”
For four days, Elspeth and Lydia slunk around Riften. Elspeth found the thrill of stealing to be exhilarating exactly once. After that, she found the waiting and the sneaking and the sliding in and out of the shadows rather tedious. They only nearly botched one—a numbers job at Haelga’s Bunkhouse—which Lydia miraculously salvaged when she distracted Haelga by asking her for “work” and talked with her just long enough for Elspeth to finish adjusting the business ledger.
Back at the Flagon, even Vex reluctantly admitted that she was impressed. “They’ll know we’re back in business in Riften now. I hope you’ll consider joining our ranks pet,” Delvin said to Elspeth, before he and Vex went back to their business.
“Stay here just a moment,” said Byrnjolf, as he exited to the back.
Lydia seemed more at ease. Elspeth, now closer to Nerussa than ever, was the one feeling a bit twitchy. She looked around the tavern some more. No one paid them much attention, which was probably a good thing. Feeling the need to do something with her hands, she grabbed a book sitting on the barrel behind her chair.
“Shadowmarks?” she said, as she paged through the book. It was a book of symbols that were unfamiliar to her—until she got to one, a circle with a square inside labeled, “Empty.” “Ly—Miriam,” she said. “This is the mark on Breezehome, by the door.” She turned the book toward Lydia, who recognized the symbol but looked utterly perplexed otherwise.
“That mark has been there for years,” said Lydia. “I just thought it was the result of some late-night prank or dare.”
Elspeth turned to the explanation in the book, but before she could read it, Brynjolf was back and beckoning them to follow. He led them through a storage closet and into an enormous open room atop what appeared to be Riften’s underground reservoir. The Cistern. There was flooring and pathways over the water with sleeping, storage, cooking, and training areas. It was an interesting setup, all things considered. Elspeth looked over at Lydia who had put the hood back on and was now walking a bit stiffly, her eyes lowered and scanning the room constantly.
“Are you sure I can’t entice you to join us lass?” asked Brynjolf as they made their way across one of the pathways running down the center of the room. “You could join me at a Thalmor Embassy party next week. I can’t imagine you’d feel all that bad stealing from them.”
Elspeth cringed inwardly at the thought of an embassy full of Justiciars, but smiled and shook her head. “It’s tempting, but I’ll never set foot in there. And you wouldn’t want me too either.”
They approached a desk in the far corner. “Mercer,” said Brynjolf, nodding toward the man leaning over the desk. He looked up and sneered. “I hear you took care of some work; the guild offers its thanks,” he said, though his tone was a bit scornful.
I don’t want your thanks, thought Elspeth. I want to know where I can find this off-the-record property. Mercer started thumbing through some ledgers on the desk and Brynjolf nodded at her reassuringly.
From the other end of the room came the grating sound of a heavy door closing and voices chatting. Brynjolf looked over. “Rune!” he called, which caused Lydia to stiffen and hold her breath. When Elspeth checked, she was looking down and away. Mercer studied Lydia suspiciously while Brynjolf kept trying to get his associate’s attention. “Rune, come use your Emperor’s Voice to convince this lass to join us.”
Rune came up beside Brynjolf and Elspeth liked him immediately. Apart from his heavily pocketed armor, he didn’t look like a thief at all. He had a broad, warm smile and the third sweetest face in all of Skyrim. Were it not for Onmund, this Imperial could probably have convinced Elspeth to do just about anything. “This is Elspeth,” said Brynjolf. “She took care of most of our local jobs this week. And that’s her friend, Miriam.”
Rune moved closer to say hello and Lydia just barely looked out from her hood, biting her lip and keeping her chin down. When Rune saw her, his face fell—all traces of its sweetness replaced with dread—and he looked back at Brynjolf, his lip twitching. “Brynjolf!” he said, “That’s…that’s Lydia!”
Elspeth looked at Lydia who was now staring at Rune, her face pale and emotionless. Brynjolf’s face, on the other hand, was a shade just slightly redder than his hair. Elspeth knew she had to act quickly and she lunged toward Mercer, attempting to grab the ledger with the information she so desperately needed. All she managed to do, however, was tumble and smack her elbow on Mercer’s desk as he snatched it away from her.
No one was paying attention to her, however. When she looked up from the side of the desk where she had stumbled, everyone was staring at Lydia.
“LYDIA?!?” Brynjolf’s voice filled with a fury unlike any Elspeth had ever heard, and was at a loss for words apart from “SHOR’S BALLS!” which echoed throughout the Cistern.