Honorhall Orphanage. It had seemed so much bigger when Selene was a child. That was the way of things. The older she got, the smaller the world became. Old Grelod wouldn’t look so big, either. She’d be stooped, her bones brittle with age, palsy sending terrible shivers in her bony hands. Selene wouldn’t even have to use a blade. She could probably break the matron’s neck with her bare hands.
But no. That was not why she was in Riften. She had made her choice, and she was going to stand by it. At least for the time being, Grelod the Kind would live. The decision had been for her benefit, not Grelod’s; the desire for revenge was such a heavy burden to carry around. She wasn’t an angry adolescent anymore. She was a grown woman, and a hero at that, although she hated the word. The old witch hadn’t ruined Selene’s life; she had shaped it, no matter how harshly. She wouldn’t be where she was today if not for Grelod.
Thus, she turned her gaze away from the orphanage and walked up the stairs to Mistveil Keep. As Thane of Whiterun and Haafingar, she was supposed to present herself to jarls when she arrived in their city. Even though she only intended to stay the night, it was early, so she decided to pay her respects while she was there. Besides, Ulfric had said good things about The Rift’s jarl, and Selene was looking forward to meeting her.
She had left Windhelm with no plan, only a resolution to let the winds guide her. Unfortunately, the winds weren’t in the mood to guide her, and she’d wandered for months. Getting over Ulfric had been harder than she’d anticipated, and she had spent most of her time in the western half of Skyrim, as far away from Windhelm as possible while time healed her. She spent time in Markarth and Solitude, offering her services as a sellsword, and she got to know the jarls and their courts. She became friends with Falk Firebeard and Elisif the Fair, who had made her Thane of Haafingar. In addition to mercenary work, she also slipped back into her old ways, depending on larceny to put food on the table when there was no work. In the ten months since she had left Ulfric in Solitude, she had killed more than twenty Forsworn, slain eleven dragons, routed a dozen bandit camps and vampiric covens, and stolen hundreds of Septims worth of goods and coin.
Although she had visited Whiterun, she hadn’t stayed long. Farkas hadn’t liked the fact that she was with Ulfric, but things between the two of them were as good as always. With Vilkas, the relationship was awkward, strained. Although it didn’t make it hurt any less, Selene understood. There would always be tension of some sort between her and Vilkas; they could have had something epic if the timing had been right. But she was beginning to realize the timing would never be right. Vilkas would always be the one that got away. She just hoped they could find a way to be friends again.
Thus, she was on her own. She was bored now, and she was lonely, especially since she had lost Liska. The fox had gone into heat last winter, and she had wandered off one night and hadn’t come back for weeks. When Selene did see her again, it was more of a “goodbye” than a return. A male had stood at the edge of the woods watching her warily while Liska had come up to her and cooed. Selene picked her up and snuggled with her for a while, and then the pregnant fox had tottered back to her mate. She hadn’t seen her since.
As spring warmed the mountains and the trees started to leaf out, the winds brought the scent of blossoms but still no direction. Seeing Delphine was out of the question at the moment. She had received a letter from Ulfric while she was in Solitude about Delphine and her ties to the Thalmor, recommending that she keep her distance until they could find out more. The Dawnguard was still a possibility, and the more vampires she killed, the more she leaned toward going to The Rift and seeing what the outfit was all about. After decimating a few covens for the Jarl of The Reach late in the summer, she decided to head east to Fort Dawnguard.
She stopped in Riften for the night before beginning the last leg of her trip. She hadn’t been back to the city since she had climbed the wall of the orphanage and left out the back gate, but it hadn’t changed much. The well still dominated the ring of merchants in the center of town, and the fetid canal still meandered along below. With her enhanced sense of smell, Selene would think the odor would bother her, but for some reason it smelled like home. She guessed it was home in some weird sense.
When she entered the keep, the housecarl, a big, scary-looking Nord with a Mohawk and deep-maroon warpaint, stepped in front of her. “Halt,” he said. “If you have business with the jarl, speak with me first.”
“Of course. Selene Stormblade, Thane of Whiterun and Haafingar.”
“Are you telling me Ulfric didn’t make you Thane of Eastmarch?” the jarl called.
The housecarl smiled coldly and stepped aside, and Selene approached the throne. The jarl was around forty, red-haired and full-lipped, and she looked just as bored as most other jarls Selene had met. Her steward, a white-haired Bosmer, sat next to her and nodded amicably at Selene. Others milled around the throne room but didn’t give her a passing glance, so she didn’t bother with them, either. When she reached the dais where the jarl sat, she gave a slight bow and said, “I haven’t seen Jarl Ulfric since we took Solitude.”
“No excuse. I’m sure he knows how to find you; he should have done it already. Well met, Selene Stormblade. I am Jarl Laila Law-Giver, and this is my steward, Anuriel.”
“Well met, milady. Anuriel.”
“What brings you to Riften?”
“I’m just stopping in for the night on my way to Fort Dawnguard.”
“We’ll arrange a room for you.”
“Thank you, but I’ve already booked a room at the Bee and Barb,” she lied.
Selene and Laila hit it off well and chatted for several hours, and by the time Selene left, she was on a first-name basis with the jarl. She asked Selene all sorts of questions about the rebellion and her work for Ulfric, but she was also interested in her campaign against the dragons and how she came to know she was Dragonborn. The big concerns in Laila’s city seemed to be poverty and the Thieves Guild, and though she did what she could to help the economy, she didn’t believe the Guild was a problem. “Oh, they have their little place down in the sewers, but my advisors tell me there’s nothing to worry about. Still, I’ve put one of my people on it. Maven Black-Briar. Have you met her in your travels?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“She owns Black-Briar Meadery and acts as an advisor to me on a regular basis. She has done extensive investigation into the Thieves Guild, and from what she says, they’re struggling to keep afloat. The people can worry if they’d like, but I don’t see them as much of a threat.”
The sun was beginning to set when Selene left the keep and headed across the merchants’ circle toward the Bee and Barb, noting the types of items for sale. Jeweler, blacksmith, some other sort of armorer, a cart selling general goods, a food vendor, and a—what was that? He had potions, but he didn’t appear to be an alchemist. If he was, his lab must be somewhere else. Ah, well. She’d find out tomorrow morning. For now, she was tired and wanted to get into some comfortable clothes and have some food and a few drinks.
The Bee and Barb was clean, well lit, and roomy, but it was crowded. There were maybe twenty patrons sitting at the tables or the bar or just standing around. She walked toward the bar, but an Argonian met her halfway in. “Welcome to the Bee and Barb, traveler,” he said, his tail flicking absently behind him. There was a smile in his voice, but she couldn’t see it on his face. Argonians’ reptilian features had always been somewhat of an enigma to Selene, so she really didn’t know whether he was smiling or not. “Perhaps you’d like to try one of our specialty drinks.”
“I’d love to, but later. Right now, I just want a room and some mead.”
“I believe we can accommodate you. See Keerava.”
She nodded and walked over to the bar, where Keerava, also an Argonian, stood talking to a customer. When Selene sat down, she came over.
“Unless you have coin, keep walking. We don’t give handouts.”
“Got the coin. Need a room.”
“Good. Ten Septims.” Selene counted out the coin and slid it across the bar, and Keerava motioned for the male. “Talen-Jei. Set our friend here up in a room.”
“Follow me, stranger.” She followed him upstairs and into one of the rooms. He paused in the doorway. “Would you like some fresh wash water?”
“Aye, that would be great. Thank you.”
Talen-Jei brought Selene some water, and she cleaned up and put on a dress before going back down to the pub for dinner. She sat at a table, and when the Argonian stopped by to take her order she asked for venison stew and Black-Briar. When he told her the price, a hand seemed to come out of nowhere and drop a fistful of coins in his hand.
“It’s on me. Bring me some mead as well, will you?”
“There’s a good lad.”
Talen-Jei walked away, and the most beautiful man Selene had ever seen sat down across the table. He was around thirty, maybe a little older, with flaming-red hair and beard, eyes that shone brilliant green even in the dim light of the tavern, and a dazzling smile. It seemed his only flaw was a jagged scar on his left cheek, but it only served to make him more interesting. He had an odd scent, as if he had just walked through the sewer, but it didn’t detract from his appeal. His clothing was expensive, as was his showy diamond ring.
“A newcomer to Riften,” he trilled in the strangest accent she’d ever heard. It seemed the man was brimming with superlatives. “What brings you to our fair city, lass?”
“I’m passing through on my way to Fort Dawnguard.”
He looked her over appreciatively. “You don’t look much like a soldier.”
Selene grinned at him. “You’d be surprised.”
“I’ll bet. I’m Brynjolf.”
“Lovely name for a lovely lady. Is this your first time here? I could show you the sights if you need a guide.”
“Thanks, but I’ve been here before. I lived at Honorhall for a while as a child.”
Brynjolf raised an eyebrow. “Honorhall? Really. I have some friends who are alumni of the orphanage. Coming back for a visit, then?”
She shuddered. “Not remotely. Honestly, I’m just staying the night.”
“That’s too bad. You certainly brighten the place up. You’re the most beautiful woman to pass through this place in years.”
Selene laughed. “Oh, sweet Dibella! Does that crap actually work for you?”
Brynjolf laughed along with her. “Of course it works! It’s one of my best lines. But in this case, it’s true, I assure you.”
His scent said he wasn’t lying. “In that case, thank you.”
Talen-Jei brought their drinks and her food, grunted at Brynjolf and moved away.
“I take it you and he don’t get along.”
The redhead shrugged. “We’ve had our differences.” He took a sip of his mead, then leaned toward Selene and took her hand. “Perhaps you should consider staying awhile. At least a few days. I’m sure things have changed since you left, so I could still give you that tour.”
“Fort Dawnguard isn’t far. I’ll probably be in town from time to time. Maybe you can give me the tour then.”
Disappointment crossed Brynjolf’s face, but he nodded his understanding. “If you change your mind, I’ll be in the market tomorrow from eight o’clock on.”
He placed a gentle kiss between her second and third knuckles, and it was all Selene could do not to melt and run all over the floor. He took his mead, got up and crossed the room, where he stood talking to an angry-looking woman, and he didn’t look back at her; but Selene didn’t take her eyes off him. The way he stood, the way he spoke, even the way he sipped his mead expressed an almost forced refinement, a mask for the public, but one that he’d worn so long that he could no longer remove it. It had become who he was. The man was smooth personified. He was magnetic, and although the men glowered and grumbled at him, every single one of the women smiled and said hello when they passed him, even if they were with their husbands—probably why the men glowered and grumbled.
The woman who was with him was attractive but unremarkable. She was dark-haired and –eyed, and she wore a sleeveless leather cuirass mostly covered by her arms, which stayed folded across her chest. She maintained a sour expression and even looked angry when she smiled. While she was obviously with Brynjolf, it was just as evident that she was not with him. They were friends, business associates, but not a couple. Selene was glad, because if anything could change her mind about staying in Riften, it might just be the suave redhead.
She finished her dinner and ordered a second mug of mead, but when Talen-Jei asked for payment, she realized her coin purse was gone. The bastard had pickpocketed her! It could have been anybody, of course, but Selene knew it wasn’t just anyone; it was Brynjolf. Her first reaction was anger, but when she caught him giving her a sidelong glance, she couldn’t help smiling. Okay. He wanted to play; she could play.
“Never mind,” she told Talen-Jei. “Thank you.” She studied Brynjolf for a moment, looked him over critically, not to admire the view this time but to check for targets, before she made her move. When she was reasonably certain she knew where her money was, she sashayed over and stepped between him and the woman, swiftly reaching into his pocket and pulling out not only her coin purse but his as well. “I’ve been thinking about it,” she cooed as the woman grunted and backed away, “and I think a tour would be a great idea.”
“Fantastic. You know where to find me, then. I’ll see you tomorrow in the marketplace.”
Selene gave him a winning smile and turned toward the stairs, giving the woman an apologetic shrug as she passed her. In the room, she secured her coin purse and left his on the table in full view of the door. She had a hunch he would come back for it later. Her room was almost directly above the spot where Brynjolf stood with the woman, whom he called Sapphire, and Selene settled into bed, listening to his trilling voice as he gossiped with his companion. Who talked like that? Who cared? Let him talk.
But Selene also warned herself to be cautious. She knew who she was dealing with now. He was a thief, and the mask that he wore for the public, whether permanent or not, was meant to do exactly what he had done to her: romance her, draw her in with his allure, and distract her long enough to relieve her of her belongings. It had worked perfectly on Selene, who was a practiced thief. She should have known better. Still, she had gotten her money back and taken his while she was at it. Now it was a game.
She chuckled as she drifted off to sleep. Brynjolf was in check, and it was his move. She couldn’t wait to see what he’d do to get out.
* * *
When Selene awoke the next morning, she saw she had been right: Brynjolf’s coin purse was gone. So was everything else she owned, except for the dress she had been wearing the night before, which was hung on the back of a chair. His scent lingered on the fabric of the dress. “That son of a bitch!” she muttered. “I’m gonna kick his arse all the way to Oblivion and back!”
She washed up and dressed, using the time to find a calm center so she didn’t go out to the marketplace raging like an idiot. It was a game, she reminded herself. He had just made a move she hadn’t expected. He figured she would go to him when she woke and found her gear missing, and he would probably play innocent. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, lass!” Selene could hear him now and see those emerald eyes wide with innocence. He couldn’t know she could smell him from a mile away. And oh, he smelled wonderful.
When she was as presentable as she could be without her personal belongings, she made her way through the tavern and out to the merchants’ circle, where Brynjolf stood at his stall in the middle of a sales pitch. She watched with amusement as he promised unequaled sexual prowess, centuries-long life, and a host of other ridiculous capabilities that no one in their right mind would believe; yet a woman actually bought one. After she left the stall, Selene wandered over.
“Make love like a sabre cat?” she teased him.
“Hey, it worked, no? Did you see Haelga? She all but asked if I could manufacture it in bulk. She could be my only customer and I’d be set for life.”
Selene nodded. “Not a lot going on above the neck?”
“Most of Haelga’s thoughts occur below the belt, if you get my meaning. So. How about that tour?”
“How about giving me my stuff back first?”
Brynjolf’s eyes widened. “I’ve no idea—”
“What you’re talking about, lass.” She leaned on the counter, smiled seductively, and spoke slowly, every word dripping with honey. “You know, Brynjolf, you really should be careful sneaking into a lady’s room and pilfering her things. You never know who you might be robbing. She could be a Dark Brotherhood assassin, or a mercenary trained to kill since she was a babe. She could be an envoy for Ulfric Stormcloak himself. Why, she could even be the Dragonborn! And by the Divines, if she could kill a dragon, I doubt she’d have any trouble with you.”
Brynjolf looked at her blankly for a moment and then started laughing. “You, lass, are amazing,” he chortled. He leaned on the counter so they were practically nose to nose. “Tell you what. I have a little errand, and I need an extra pair of hands. You help me out, and I’ll give your things back.”
“Oh, you’d give my things back anyway. Believe me.” She reached out and scratched the whiskers beneath his chin. “But I’ll still help you. What do you need me to do?”
“Behind you, to your left, is Madesi, the Argonian jeweler. To your right is Brand-Shei. Not an Argonian, despite the name. The dark elf was raised by the lizards. Must have had quite a childhood, don’t you think? I’m going to create a distraction with my little miracle potion here while you steal Madesi’s silver ring from his strong box and plant it on Brand-Shei.”
“Why are we doing it?”
“Someone wants Brand-Shei put out of business. That’s all you need to know.”
“I’m ready when you are.”
He started his spiel, calling everyone over to his stall and telling them about the wonders of his Falmer Blood Elixir. Selene melted into the crowd and backed slowly toward Madesi’s stand while all eyes were trained on Brynjolf. Taking a quick look around to make sure nobody was watching, she ducked behind the stand and opened the sliding door. The strong box was locked, but it was a simple lock, and with one pick and about ten seconds, she was in and out of the box and the ring was around her index finger. Staying crouched, she crept out from behind the stall and peered around a gap in the low wall surrounding the circle to check for guards, but they were all watching Brynjolf as well. Selene darted across the gap and snuck behind the next stand and over to Brand-Shei’s, where he was leaning against a barrel, arguing with Brynjolf.
“Come on, Brynjolf, this is just another of your scams,” he groused. “Falmer? You mean the snow elves?”
“The exact same,” Brynjolf replied, keeping eye contact with the Dunmer.
“Do you actually expect us to believe…” Selene dropped the ring into Brand-Shei’s pocket while he was arguing and backed away before he finished his sentence.
Brynjolf talked for a few more minutes and made another sale before the crowd started to drift away, muttering to themselves and each other about scams. Selene thought about going into the Bee and Barb for a while so as not to arouse suspicion, but seeing that her breakfast money had been stolen, she stopped at Brynjolf’s stand instead.
“Looks like I picked the right person for the job.”
“Now. My gear?”
He lifted the lid of the barrel next to him, and nestled safely inside were her belongings. Her bow and sword were tucked into a nook behind the stand.
“What’s really in that stuff?” she asked as she shouldered her bow.
“It’s a healing potion with some deer’s blood and honey mixed in,” he whispered. “See? It really is beneficial. Still set on joining the Dawnguard, then?”
“Why do you ask?”
“My organization is always on the lookout for new blood, and I think you’d fit right in. There’s lots of coin to be made, especially for somebody with your talent.”
His “organization.” Selene knew what he was talking about, of course, and not just by what she’d heard from Jarl Laila. The Thieves Guild was notorious, not only in Skyrim but all across Tamriel. She hadn’t been interested in joining the one in Cyrodiil, but she had briefly considered joining this one when she had returned to Skyrim two years ago. She was coming to Riften to kill Grelod, after all. But then she’d gotten sidetracked and one thing led to another; next thing she knew, she had titles, and honor, and the most powerful man in Skyrim as a lover. She was Stormblade. She was the Dragonborn. Had she stayed in Windhelm, who knows what could have happened? Ulfric had hinted at marriage once or twice. She could have ended up becoming queen. Joining the Thieves Guild now was a step back. Wasn’t it?
If so, then why, when she looked at the well in the center of town and at that accursed orphanage across the canal, when the odor of fish mingled with the scent of boiling honey to create a cloying miasma over the city, when she thought about living and working in the sewers of Riften and skulking around in the shadows—when she looked at Brynjolf—why did she feel as though she would be trading up? Perhaps she wasn’t getting sidetracked in Riften. Maybe the Dawnguard was the distraction.
“Perhaps I can stick around for a couple of days,” she said with a smile.
“You’ll be glad you did. I guarantee it.”
Selene chuckled. “The man who peddles Falmer Blood Elixir is giving me guarantees? I can’t tell you how reassuring that is. I’m going back to the Bee and Barb to pay for a couple more nights, and then I’ll be ready for my tour. Should I meet you here or in the Ragged Flagon?” He looked a little surprised, and she said, “What? Did you think I didn’t know what you were talking about?”
“Here might be best. There are some bad elements in the Ratway. Could be dangerous for a little lass like you.”
“Ragged Flagon it is, then.” She stepped closer and whispered in his ear. “You know all those things I said when I was warning you about robbing a stranger?”
“Some of them are true.” She placed a quick kiss on his cheek and turned away before he could ask which ones.