“Maven Black-Briar wants to see you right away,” Brynjolf told Selene one afternoon as she passed through the cistern after a job.
Selene’s eyes widened. “What’d I do?”
He chuckled. “It’s nothing like that, I assure you. She wants to talk business.”
“What kind of business?”
“That’s between you and Maven, and I prefer to keep it that way. I wouldn’t keep her waiting, though.”
Selene found Maven Black-Briar in an office on the second floor of the Bee and Barb. She looked severe, her hair pulled away from her face and her eyebrows tweezed in such a way that it always appeared she was angry. Then again, maybe she was always angry. Her scent was cold, faint, almost as if she weren’t even alive. This woman was in control of everything—everything—even her scent.
Maven looked her over. “Brynjolf seems to think you can do no wrong. You don’t look so impressive to me.”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“Is that confidence or arrogance I hear? Strange how often they’re confused.”
“Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but I am the best at what I do.”
“We’ll see about that. It’s been a long time since Brynjolf has sent me someone I can rely on.”
“Sounds like you’ve lost faith in the Guild.”
“Faith? I never had faith in the Guild, or in anybody else, for that matter. All I care about is cause and effect. Did the job get done, and was it done correctly? There’s no gray area. If it is done to my satisfaction, there’s payment. If not, there are consequences.”
“Understood. What do you need me to do?”
“You’re to sabotage Honningbrew Meadery in Whiterun. Meet with Mallus Maccius at the Bannered Mare; he will fill you in on all the details. When the job is finished, search the office and look at the books. Sabjorn has been up to something and I want to know what. There’s no way he could fund that meadery without help.”
“You’re thinking a silent partner?”
“Indeed. By the way, just in case I wasn’t clear before, you butcher this and you will be sorry.”
Selene nodded and left, and as she made her way back to Honeyside to pack, she found herself trembling. Brynjolf was afraid of Maven, as were most of the people she knew, but she had thought they were overreacting. Really, how bad could she be? How bad, indeed.
* * *
“Maven is sending me to Whiterun,” Selene informed Mercer and Brynjolf.
“Yes,” Mercer sneered. “You’re doing the Honningbrew job, I assume. Just watch yourself and don’t muck this up.”
“What is it with you guys always warning me not to mess up?” she snapped with frustration. “Have I botched a single job since I joined you? I know what I’m doing, Mercer. What do I have to do to prove that to you?”
Brynjolf suppressed a chuckle, and Mercer glowered at him. “What are you laughing at?”
“She’s right, you know. And with all due respect, you have been kind of hard on her.”
“Fine, fine, I’ll ease up,” Mercer agreed. “Now, get going.”
* * *
When Selene arrived in Whiterun, the sun was just coming up and Mallus most likely wasn’t at the Mare, so she stopped at Breezehome to clean up and catch up with Lydia, then went to Jorrvaskr and visited the twins for a while. She met Mallus in the back room of the Mare late that afternoon. Mallus was in his thirties with tired eyes and stringy black hair. The Imperial had lived a hard life, and it showed on his face and in his raspy voice. “I’ll keep this short, because we’ve got a lot to do,” he said, not bothering with courtesies. “Honningbrew has a new line coming out called ‘Honningbrew Reserve.’ Sabjorn, the owner, is going to hold a tasting for Whiterun’s captain of the guard, and we’re going to poison the mead.”
“We’re killing the captain of the guard? Isn’t that more the Dark Brotherhood’s territory?”
“No, no. It won’t be enough to harm the captain, just enough to notice. Sabjorn is the mark, not Sinmir.”
“Do you have the poison?”
“No, that’s the beauty of the whole plan. Sabjorn has it, and he’s going to give it to us. See, Honningbrew has a pest problem at the moment. Venomous skeevers have tunneled their way into the meadery. The whole town knows about it. It’s not doing a lot for business, if you know what I mean.”
Selene shuddered inwardly. She hated skeevers. “What do you need me to do?”
“Sabjorn needs somebody to help get rid of the pests. You’re going to happen by and lend him a helping hand. He’ll give you the poison. Use part of it on the skeevers’ nest and dump the rest into the brewing vats.”
“Why bother poisoning the nest?”
“Maven has plans for this place once Sabjorn is out of the way, so we don’t want them coming back. The best place to start is in the meadery’s basement. The skeevers dug tunnels between the meadery and the brewhouse. The entrance to the basement was boarded up, but I removed the boards. Now get going before that ass grows a brain and hires somebody else to do it.”
Selene narrowed her eyes at him. “I can understand why Maven wants him out of business, but what do you get out of all this?”
“I made the mistake of borrowing money from Sabjorn, which he’s allowing me to work off. And by ‘work,’ I mean be his slave and do every dirty job he can think of. I just want him out. Plus, Maven has said she’ll put me in charge of the place once he’s gone.”
“All right, I’m on it.”
An hour later, she walked into Honningbrew Meadery armed with two swords and a handful of healing potions and poison cures to find an aging Nord standing over a dead skeever. His lips were pursed, and it looked like he had been sucking on lemons. “What are you gawking at?” he demanded in a high-pitched, condescending tone. “Can you see I have problems here?”
“Are you kidding me? Look at this place! I’m holding a tasting for the captain of the guard tomorrow morning, but if he sees the meadery in this state, I’ll be ruined.”
“Maybe I can help.”
He frowned at her. “Oh, really. Just out of the kindness of your heart, I suppose. Well, don’t expect to get paid until the job is done.”
“Never mind, then.” Selene turned to leave.
“Oh, very well,” Sabjorn sighed. “I’ll give you half now and the rest when the job’s done. But I want those pests permanently eliminated.”
“How do I go about that?”
“There is some poison near the entrance to the basement. Plant it in the vermin’s nest, and it should stop them from ever coming back. My lazy, good-for-nothing assistant was supposed to handle this, but he seems to have gone missing. I suppose that’s what I get.”
“What do you mean?”
“I loaned him some money a while back, an amount he couldn’t possibly hope to pay back, so he’s working it off. Free labor for me! Although, I guess you get what you pay for.”
He handed Selene a small bag of gold, and she placed it in one of her pockets without counting it. “I’m on my way.”
“Don’t come back until every one of those things is dead!”
Selene found the box of poison just inside the basement door, and she stuffed it in her pack. She would poison the nest, but she’d deal with the skeevers she came across the old-fashioned way. She got started right away; two of the critters were just coming through the hole where Mallus had removed the boards. They died easily by Selene’s sword, and she stepped through the hole into the tunnel.
She came across a group of four around fifty yards in, and though she managed to kill them all, she got bitten in the process. She tried to ignore it and soldier on, but she didn’t get much farther before dizziness and nausea took over and she dropped to her knees. Mallus had said the skeevers were venomous, and the swirling in Selene’s stomach was proof. She retrieved a poison cure potion from her pack. Potions that neutralized poison were rare, and she was grateful to have come across several of them when she was fighting the Silver Hand. She swallowed the potion, grimacing at the bitter taste, and waited several long minutes before it started to work and her stomach settled. When she was finally able to stand without her belly doing flip-flops, she continued on her way.
She fought a nest of frostbite spiders in one cavern and a few more solitary skeevers before coming upon a room laid with bear traps. Eight or ten mead barrels were stored in the room, and a tripwire had been strung across the doorway to the next corridor. Funny, Mallus hadn’t mentioned having set traps this far in. Selene doubted it had just slipped his mind, and she wondered why he had neglected to give her this information. She stepped around the bear traps and over the tripwire and moved on until the tunnel came to a sharp left turn. She peered carefully around the edge to see six skeevers entering the tunnel, heading her way. Swords at the ready, she stepped into the open and began mowing through the vermin, fighting back the nausea after one of them got close enough to bite her.
The narrow passage suddenly grew measurably hotter as a fireball whizzed past her head and hit the wall behind her. She looked up from the skeever she was fighting to see a man at the entrance to the next cavern, white-haired, wearing only a fur skirt and boots, and holding balls of blue and orange in his hands, which he proceeded to lob at her. Selene ducked the fire and lightning bolts, decapitated the last skeever, and charged the mage. He was quick, though, hovering inches above the ground and floating backward, just out of her reach. He hurled another fireball at her, catching her in what she had come to refer to as the “fireball shoulder.” The leather Thieves Guild armor was more effective at blocking the heat than she would have thought, but it still hurt; that, combined with the nausea from the skeever bite, only served to make her angry.
“You’re pissing me off!” she shouted at the mage as he flung another lightning bolt at her, which she ducked past. He backed away again, and Selene realized swords weren’t going to kill this guy. She needed a ranged attack. She hadn’t brought her bow, though, so she would use the only ranged weapon she had: her Thu’um.
The mage shrieked as he burst into flames. He careened around the room, arms flailing, screaming something about revenge, until he finally crumpled to the floor, still burning. Selene stayed back from him, surprised her Shout had caused such a conflagration, and looked around the room while he roasted. She found an alchemy lab, on which a foul-smelling concoction was brewing. It smelled vaguely of lamp oil, and she wondered if the mage had spilled some on himself, causing him to ignite so terribly. A chest held some poisons and a few gold pieces, and a journal lay on the floor next to the chest. Selene opened the book and read.
Her first thought when she had seen him was “madman,” and oh, had she been right. His name was Hamelyn, and he had been exiled and imprisoned for something, although she couldn’t figure out exactly what. Whatever it was, the people of Whiterun and the College of Winterhold thought he was evil and insane, and he was well on his way to proving them right. He had been breeding the creatures, which he called “venomfang,” in an effort to build an army. An army of venomfang skeevers to destroy Whiterun and Winterhold. She shuddered at the notion.
Farkas had said once that everybody has a weakness. Frostbite spiders were his. Selene supposed skeevers were hers. The thought of hundreds of giant, venomous rodents running through the streets of Whiterun was enough to give her nightmares.
Even without an enhanced sense of smell it wouldn’t have been hard to find the nest. The area behind the alchemy table reeked of rotten meat, feces, and musk. She stepped gingerly through the nest, sprinkling the poison throughout, taking care to leave plenty for the brewing vats, and got out as quickly as she could. She was going to take a very long, hot bath after this was over.
There wasn’t enough of Hamelyn left to search, so Selene took the doorway to the next tunnel, which led to the basement of the brewhouse. The floor here was also laid with bear traps, which she slipped around before taking the stairs up to the main floor. One long room was lined on either side with three massive brewing vats, and a balcony provided access each of them. She ascended the stairs and dropped poison in each of the vats, then raided a chest tucked away in a corner for a few pieces of gold.
Back on the main floor, she ran into Mallus, who had just come in with an empty keg. “Is the job done?” he asked her.
Selene nodded. “Take your pick.”
Mallus took the keg to the nearest vat and filled it with the poisoned Honningbrew Reserve. “Let’s go,” he said. “The captain of the guard is waiting.”
The morning sun strained to shine through the overcast sky as Selene followed Mallus back to the meadery, where an impatient Sabjorn stood behind the counter. “Well?” he asked as Mallus set the keg up.
“Well, it’s about time. Captain Sinmir is already here, and I had to stall him far too long. You’ll have to wait until after the tasting for your payment. If I pay you at all. What took you so long?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just turned his back and waved to Sinmir.
Selene went to the back of the room to stand with Mallus as Sinmir got up from his seat and approached the counter. He nodded at Selene. “Hail, Stormblade.”
“Well met, Sinmir—Captain. Good to see you.”
Refusing to be upstaged, Sabjorn said, “It’s lovely to have you here today, Captain. It’s such an honor that you will be the first to try our new Honningbrew Reserve. I think it will be quite pleasing to your palate.”
“Come now, Sabjorn, this is mead! It’s not some wine to be tasted and savored. Especially not for a Nord.” He drew a mugful of mead, raised his cup in toast, and chugged it. When he was finished, his brow furrowed with a confused expression. He looked at the empty cup and up at Sabjorn as the color drained from his face. “By the Nine, what—what is in this?” he choked out.
“I don’t understand. What’s wrong?”
Sinmir chucked the mug to the floor. “Sabjorn, you assured me this place was clean!” He groaned and placed a hand on his stomach, taking several deep breaths before speaking again. “I should have known better than to trust this place after it’s been riddled with filth. I’ll see to it that you’re in irons for the rest of your days.”
“I beg you, Captain. This is not what it seems.”
Captain Sinmir crossed the room and stood before Mallus. “You’re in charge until I can sort this all out. I’m taking Sabjorn to the dungeon, and after my stomach settles, he’s going to give me some answers!” He turned to Sabjorn. “Now, move.”
Sabjorn stood fast. “I assure you, this is all just a huge misunderstanding. Surely something can be done.”
Sinmir drew his sword. “I said move!”
Mallus offered a jibe at Sabjorn as he followed the captain out the door, and then he looked over at Selene. “I don’t think that could have gone better!”
“I almost feel sorry for the guy, but you were right—he’s an ass. He actually bragged about how he got you to work for free.”
“Okay, what else do you need from me?”
“I need to look at his books.”
“Maven’s looking for Sabjorn’s private partner, eh? Here’s the key to his desk. He keeps most of his papers stashed there.”
Selene took the key but stayed put, leveling a glare at Mallus.
“You forgot to mention the lunatic living in the tunnels.”
He looked at her sheepishly and said, “I thought it was better to leave out some of the details. Didn’t want to risk you walking away.”
“I wouldn’t have walked away, and I would have been better prepared. Did you know he was breeding an army?”
Mallus’s eyes widened. “You’re joking.”
“No, he wanted to raise an army of venomous skeevers to destroy Whiterun and the College of Winterhold.”
“It’s a sick world,” he muttered. “But you did us a favor, getting rid of him. Now I don’t have to spend more gold hiring somebody else to do it.”
Selene went upstairs to Sabjorn’s bedroom to have a look around. She picked up a few pieces of jewelry and some gold she found, considering it compensation for killing Hamelyn, something she doubted Maven would pay extra for. She also pocketed a very nice golden Honningbrew decanter that was probably worth more than everything else she picked up. The books didn’t show much, but she did find a promissory note stashed away in a dresser. There was no name on the note, just the cloaked-dagger symbol she had seen at Goldenglow. The silent partner assured Sabjorn in the note that they would keep Maven and her “cronies” at bay. It seemed to Selene that the silent partner underestimated Maven and her cronies.
* * *
Snow in the mountains and two pesky dragons slowed Selene down, and what should have been a three-day trip took five. It was nearly suppertime when she arrived in Riften, and she made straight for the Bee and Barb. Better to talk to Maven and get it over with before going home. She was exhausted, and if she stopped at home to put her things down, she might just plop into bed and fall asleep.
“I trust you have good news for me?” Maven challenged her.
“Everything went according to plan. Sabjorn is locked up, and Mallus is in charge of Honningbrew. Oh, and I found this.” She handed her the promissory note.
“This doesn’t tell me anything,” Maven muttered as she looked over the document. “What is this little symbol?”
“I don’t know, but I’ve seen it before. It was on a document at Goldenglow, too.”
The hard-nosed businesswoman narrowed her eyes. “Well, whoever they are, they’ll regret starting a war with me. Anything else?”
“Aye, there was a mage living in the tunnels between the meadery and the brewhouse.”
Maven raised her already lofty eyebrows. “A mage? Whatever for?”
“He was breeding the skeevers with the intention of turning them loose on Whiterun. I took care of him.”
“Good. You look as though you’ve been on the road for days.”
“Take the night off, for the Divines’ sake take a bath, and then get that document to the Guild first thing tomorrow.” She picked up a sword that was lying on her desk. “As for your payment, I think you will find this more than adequate for your services.”
It was an iron sword with some sort of enchantment applied to it, and Selene didn’t think it was adequate at all, especially after the confrontation with Hamelyn. She was glad she’d picked up a few things while she was at the meadery. “Thank you, Maven,” was all she said before she turned and left the office.
With anyone else, she might have complained about the paltry recompense but not with Maven. This was a woman who didn’t tolerate any bullshit, and Selene had to admit she liked her style. She was dangerous, though, someone you watched your step around. But more, she wielded a tremendous amount of power, too much for a woman in her position. She thought about what Brynjolf had said. One word from her, and you could spend the rest of the Fourth Era in prison. Or end up floating in Lake Honrich.
The Companions had a running gag: How do you get over fear of the dark? Be the scariest thing in it. Selene had tackled dragons, falmer, hordes of undead, and armies of Imperials; and she firmly believed she was scarier than all of them. Even skeevers only gave her a brief pause. Maven Black-Briar, however, might just be the scariest of them all.