Selene followed Brynjolf through a false back panel in the Flagon’s pantry and into a cavernous cistern. A domed ceiling covered a pond much like the one in the tavern, but this one had a small island in the center and four stone bridges leading to it. Four exits led out of the center room, including the one they had just come from. Cots and chests were laid out around the perimeter, in addition to a cooking and eating area, an office section with a desk and display shelves, and a small archery range. A few people milled around the eating area and archery range, all wearing the same black armor. The hall was dimly lit, the air was chilly, and the smell of mold was prevalent; but it felt safe and welcoming, and Selene was instantly comfortable there.
Brynjolf led her across one of the bridges to the island, where a fiftyish Breton with salt-and-pepper hair waited. He might have been attractive if not for the scowl. Instead, he just looked severe. But it was scent that really disturbed her. It wasn’t right, but she couldn’t reason why. Something about him was just off, and it set her on edge. He didn’t really scare her, but he was definitely someone to tread carefully around.
“Mercer,” said Brynjolf, “this is the one I was telling you about. Selene, meet Mercer Frey.”
“This had better not be another waste of Guild resources,” Mercer groused. He looked Selene over. “It’s real simple: you do what we say, when we say, and you’ll get rich. Botch the job, and you don’t get paid. And keep your blade clean. We’re not your common highway bandits here. Is that understood?”
“So Brynjolf says you’ve got what it takes. We’ll see about that. I have a little project that will test just how good you are.”
Brynjolf, who had been looking at Selene, jerked his head toward Mercer. “You’re not thinking of Goldenglow, are you? Even our little Vex couldn’t manage that.”
“If she’s as good as you say she is, I don’t see the problem. Give her the details, and get it done.” He gave Selene a curt nod and started to turn away.
“Mercer,” Brynjolf called, and the Guild Master stopped. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
The Breton looked back at Selene. “Oh, yes. You’re in. Welcome to the Guild. See Tonilia in the Ragged Flagon for your armor.” He turned away and stalked across the bridge toward the office.
“He seemed friendly,” Selene muttered sarcastically.
Brynjolf chuckled. “He just has a lot on his mind.” He talked about the mission as they walked back to the tavern. “Goldenglow Estate is a bee farm. They raise the wretched little creatures for their honey. It’s owned by a smart-mouthed wood elf by the name of Aringoth, and we want to teach him a lesson. You’re going to clear out the main house and burn down three of the estate’s hives.”
“What’s the catch?”
“The catch is you can’t burn the whole place to the ground. Our client would be furious if you did, and we can’t afford to get on her bad side.”
“I’m guessing the client is Maven Black-Briar.”
“Aye. That’s why you can’t burn all the hives. If you did, she’d have to import honey for the meadery, which would cut into her profits. We had an arrangement with Maven. We kept an eye on Goldenglow to make sure the operation kept running smoothly. In return, Maven allowed us to extort Aringoth and bring in a huge payout.” Selene rolled her eyes. “You might as well get used to it, lass. I won’t put you in that position again, but a large chunk of the Guild’s coin comes from racketeering. Let’s face it: we’re the bad guys.”
Her mind went to General Tullius telling saying the Imperials weren’t the bad guys. “I’ll live.”
Brynjolf sat down at a table on the deck and Selene sat across from him. “See, Goldenglow was bringing in a hefty sum for the Guild, but out of the clear blue, Aringoth stopped sending us our cut. We sent Vex in and found out he had dismissed the city guard and hired a bunch of mercenaries to watch the place. Vex barely made it out alive. You should talk to her before you go.”
“What about Aringoth?”
“Maven prefers that he remain alive, but if he tries to stop you, kill him.”
“So how dangerous is it to cross Maven?”
“Nothing happens in Riften without Maven’s consent. One word from her, and you could spend the rest of the Fourth Era in prison. Or end up floating in Lake Honrich. The Guild has a lot riding on this, so don’t make me look foolish by mucking it up. I don’t want to end up floating in Lake Honrich, either.”
Selene raised an eyebrow. “Don’t just assume I’m gonna muck it up, and I won’t make you look foolish. Don’t worry your pretty head about it. I know what I’m doing.”
Brynjolf smiled. “Aye, I believe you do. My apologies.”
She started to get up from the table. “I’m off, then.”
“You’re not going now, are you?”
“It’s just past dinnertime, should be getting dark out. It’s the best time to get out there, especially if I’m to talk to Vex before I go.”
“You don’t want to rest up first?”
Selene shrugged. “I don’t sleep much, so it’s no trouble for me to go now. The sooner I get it over with, the better, right?”
“Suit yourself. Vex is the blonde at the bar. And Selene, watch yourself out there. Those mercenaries don’t take prisoners.”
She scratched him under the chin. “Neither do I.”
* * *
Vex left no doubt that she saw Selene as a threat. “Let’s get one thing straight: I’m the best infiltrator in the Guild, and you’re not about to replace me. Got that?”
“I’m not here to replace you, Vex. I’m here to help you.”
“Yeah, well, just keep that in mind. And don’t come to me with anything but business. This is not a friendship. Got that?”
The pretty Imperial was certainly living up to her name. Selene wanted to deck her. “Somehow I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Brynjolf said you could tell me about Goldenglow.”
“I tried to get in to teach him a lesson, but I found out he’d more than tripled the guard. There must have been eight of them in there. It was like he was daring us to come and get him.”
“Guards aside, what’s the best way get in?”
“Goldenglow sits on an island in the middle of Lake Honrich. There’s a bridge, but I doubt the mercenaries are going to just let you walk across like you own the place. You’ll have to swim.”
“Hmm. Going in dripping wet is not conducive to sneaking.”
“There’s a sewer tunnel that dumps into the lake on the northwest side of the island. That’s how I got in. It should still be unguarded. You can slip in there and wait ’til you dry off. When you’re ready to go in, I’d recommend you come back up to the surface and pick your way into the back door. Can you pick a lock?”
“Better than you.”
With that, Vex actually smiled. “We’ll have to put that to the test sometime. I’d go top to bottom if I were you. Aringoth’s room is on the top floor, and you may be able to get keys from him to help you with safes and chests. Look, be careful out there. I don’t know what kind of experience you have, but I wouldn’t recommend fighting your way through. Sneak in, and sneak out; just stay away from the mercenaries as best you can.”
As she headed toward the deck where Tonilia sat, the bald Breton who had warned Brynjolf about Drahff and Hewnon took her arm. “Have a seat,” he offered, and Selene sat down. “I heard you tell Brynjolf you knew what you were doing.”
“That’s not to say I don’t need advice if you have some to give.”
“There’s a good girl.” He held out a hand for her to shake. “Delvin Mallory. I heard you say you picked locks better than Vex, but any other training you need, we can help you out. I’m the stealth expert; Niruin can train you in archery, and Vipir can teach you pickpocketing.”
“Did you say Vipir?” she asked, her face lighting up.
“Do you know him?”
“That’s what it was! I was trying to think of his name when I came into the Ratway this morning. Aye, I know him. We lived at the orphanage together.”
Delvin chuckled. “Good ol’ Honorhall.”
“You too, eh?”
“Long before you and Vipir, but yeah. Anyhow, Vex and I can also send some jobs your way if you want to earn some extra coin. And who knows? Maybe you’ll be the break we need.”
“I heard you think the Guild is cursed.”
“They all think I’m crazy, but bad luck just don’t last this long. You be extra careful when you go to Goldenglow. You may know what you’re doing, but the curse, the luck, all that are hanging over your head.”
“But I don’t believe in luck, Delvin.”
He laughed. “You’re a thief and you don’t believe in luck? That’s the best one I’ve heard all year!”
“We make our own luck.”
“Well, humor me, then, and just be extra careful.”
Tonilia, a sweet-faced Redguard in her thirties, had already put a set of armor together for Selene. Tonilia’s job was to provide supplies for the thieves, but she also acted as a fence. “If you come across anything you don’t exactly own, bring it to me and I’ll give you a fair price—minus a little slice for the Guild, of course.”
Selene thanked Tonilia for the armor and headed to the Bee and Barb, where she enjoyed a quick meal before going to her room and lying down for a nap. She didn’t expect to sleep with so many things going through her mind. Brynjolf, Goldenglow, mercenaries, the Guild, Brynjolf, Vipir, Mercer Frey and his odd scent, Delvin Mallory’s certainty that they were cursed, Brynjolf—
“Oh, just stop it,” she said aloud to herself before closing her eyes.
She dozed on an off throughout the night and got up sometime in the wee hours of the morning. She donned her new armor and equipped her bow, arrows, daggers, and a knapsack that was empty except for a few healing potions. She left the Bee and Barb and went out the city gates, veering left and walking along the lakeshore. She turned back and looked up at Honeyside, the little house standing silent guard over the lake. Someday soon, she would sit on that deck with a bottle of mead and watch the sunset. Maybe she could sweet talk Brynjolf into joining her.
The island was in the center of the lake, and it appeared to be about a 200-yard swim, not including the time it would take to look for the sewer grate. She stood on the northeast side, trying to calculate in her mind how far she could swim while laden with a bow, daggers, and knapsack, how long it would take to get from her location on the northeast side of the island to the northwest, and how long she would have to swim underwater before finding the grate. She’d looked for underwater tunnels before, and she’d been fortunate to find the entrance easily. But she also hadn’t had to swim half a mile before finding it. She was directly across from the back door Vex spoke of, and she decided to swim for that and find a place to hide while she dried off and assessed her next move.
She waded in and swam across the lake, squeezing the excess water from her hair before she climbed the rocks to the plateau where the house rested and found another sewer grate next to the back door. She opened the grate and climbed into the hole, replacing it behind her, and tucked herself into a corner to wait until nightfall. When she was living at the Palace of the Kings, Ulfric had taught her to play chess. He said it taught patience. Well, sitting in the corner of a sewer for sixteen hours would definitely test her patience.
Ulfric. It had taken months to get over him, and she still thought about him every day. Usually, anyway. But as she sat in the sewer with nothing to do but think, she realized she hadn’t thought of him in two days. Now it was Brynjolf she couldn’t get out of her head. He had been so smooth when he had bought her dinner and sat down to flirt with her and pick her pocket; he was a pro at charming women. She probably couldn’t trust him as far as she could throw him. He’d likely slept with every woman in the Thieves Guild, maybe every woman in Riften. But something about the red-haired rogue just felt right. It made her want to trust him and almost believe she could. Something about Brynjolf felt like home.
Brynjolf notwithstanding, the Ragged Flagon and the Thieves Guild felt like home as well. She had been happy with the Companions, and she’d been happy with Ulfric and the Stormcloaks, but something had been missing. She had always said, “This is temporary. There’s somewhere I have to be.” How many times had she told Farkas that Whiterun was just a waypoint for her on the way to Riften?
Selene waited until nearly midnight to emerge from the sewer. Fortunately, the moons were new and there wasn’t much light shining on Goldenglow’s back door. The lock was a bitch to pick, and she went through five picks before the tumblers finally fell into place. She slipped inside and found the house nearly silent. She could smell the mercenaries, but none of them were nearby. In the kitchen, she found a few Septims and a satchel containing a circlet. Farther in was a locked closet containing chests loaded with gold, jewels, and potions. She left the potions, but the gold and gems fit nicely into her armor’s many pockets.
She finally found the mercenaries in a small niche off the dining room. Two of them sat at a table playing dice, and one marched up and down the hallway adjacent to the dining room. Selene went through the dining room to the opposite door, easily sneaking past the mercenaries because they were making so much noise of their own noise. The hallway met the one with the sentry, with stairs to the left and a gated doorway to the right. The sentry was evidently guarding the gated door. She decided to take Vex’s advice and try the upstairs first before seeing what was locked away there.
On the second floor, she found a lounge with several tables, all containing varying amounts of gold. It appeared as though they had just left their money on the table after a night of gambling. That was probably a bad idea, she thought as she helped herself to the coin. After sneaking past another mercenary who wasn’t doing his job, Selene came to Aringoth’s bedroom. A mercenary sat at a table in an antechamber with his back to the door, and it was easy to slip past him, but the door was locked. He was too close; there was no way she would get that door unlocked without him hearing. Thus, she did what she had to do. She drew her daggers, stepped up behind him, and slit his throat. He died with a soft gurgle, and Selene lowered him quietly to the floor.
Aringoth was in his room, sitting at a desk; but he appeared to be dozing, his chin propped on a fist and his eyes closed. Selene swiped a bag of gold from a table and looted the chest at the foot of his bed, and then she carefully pulled a couple of keys and a few Septims from his pocket. She was about to leave when she noticed a small statue on a nightstand on the far side of the room. It was gold and depicted a bee sitting on a honeycomb. If that statue was solid gold, it could be worth a fortune. She tiptoed around the bed, careful not to wake Aringoth, who was mumbling in his sleep. The statue was ugly, but at the same time it was magnificent. And heavy. Swimming back across the lake with this baby was going to be a joy to behold. Still, she imagined it would be worth it.
As she turned away from the nightstand, she locked eyes with Aringoth. He was awake and staring at her. He didn’t alert the guards, didn’t speak or even move. He simply sighed and watched her cross the room. The Bosmer probably wasn’t surprised she was there. He had to have figured that the Guild would send someone else after Vex had failed. In any case, it seemed he was letting her rob him. Why in Oblivion would he do that?
She left the room and silently explored the rest of the second floor, in which she found little but a few coins and a sleeping mercenary. Back downstairs, she waited until the sentry was walking in the other direction and tried one of the keys on the gate. It swung open on the first try, and she closed it softly after going through, just in time to hear the sentry’s footsteps approaching again. The room she entered was no more than a landing; a flight of stairs led down to the basement. Selene waited until the sentry turned and went back down the hall, and she carefully descended the stairs. She snuck past a couple of mercenaries who were languishing in a storage area and went through a door to find even more storage. Nothing there but a few deer hides and a slaughterfish mounted on a plaque.
Down the hall from the storage room, she found another guard. This one wasn’t going to be easy to sneak past. He sat in a chair facing a set of stairs she would have to descend. She drew her daggers and crept up behind him, but just as she was about to strike, he stood and turned around.
“Aha!” he cried. “Thought you were good, huh?”
Selene didn’t speak, just crouched into a fighting stance as the mercenary drew his sword. He took a swing at her and connected with her side, ripping a gash in her brand-new armor and the flesh beneath. She gasped with pain and stepped to the side, thrusting her fire-enchanted dagger at his ribs while she moved. The blow landed, and his paltry fur armor wasn’t enough to stop the red-hot blade from sinking in. He snarled as she withdrew it and reached for his side instead of launching a counterattack, and Selene stepped behind him and sent the shock dagger into the back of his neck. He swung his elbow back, catching the side of her head and stunning her. She staggered against the wall, losing contact with her dagger. Turning his head, he reached up to pull the blade out, but something inside his neck snapped. A confused expression came over his face, and then the light went out of his eyes and he fell dead before her.
With her back to the wall, Selene slid to the floor, rubbing her temple where the mercenary had struck her. She didn’t think she had a concussion; he had just knocked her silly. Still, it was a few moments before her head stopped spinning and she was seeing clearly again. She drank a healing potion, but not knowing what lay before her, she didn’t want to take the time to unbuckle her armor and examine her wound. She just prayed it wasn’t bad enough to leave a trail of blood behind her. When she finally felt she could stand, she got up and pulled her dagger from the mercenary’s neck and wiped both blades on his clothes, then went downstairs.
On the next level, she found a safe and a large chest. She tried one of the keys on the safe, and it opened easily, revealing some gold and a document, folded in half with a broken seal. Selene opened the document to find a bill of sale for Goldenglow. It seemed Aringoth had sold the estate to an unknown buyer. There was no name, only a symbol at the top that looked like a dagger draped in a cloak. Mercer Frey was going to have a fit. She rolled the document up and stuffed it in the empty potion bottle, making sure the cork was nice and tight so it would stay dry when she swam back across the lake, and then she opened the unlocked chest. She collected a hundred Septims or so from the chest and a table nearby and then went through a gate that led back to the sewer.
Once she was safely in the sewer, she took off her armor and checked the wound. It was far from life threatening, but she would probably need stitches. After swimming across the lake, she might actually need a healer because that water was far from sanitary. The fact that she hadn’t thought to bring any sort of first aid supplies irked her, but she couldn’t worry about it now. The job wasn’t over; she still had to burn the hives.
The hives were on a nearby island, which was connected to the main property by a foot bridge. Unfortunately the bridge was guarded by three mercenaries. She thought she could sneak by if she went under the bridge, and then she could wade or swim around to the backside where the hives were located. She crouched low and stayed in the shadows, moving very slowly through the shallow water so as not to make a splash. When she reached the island, she started around the side. The water was deeper in some places than others, and it stung the wound in her side, but she made it around back with no real trouble. Getting up to the hives, however, was not an easy task. The only way up was to climb several steep rocks, and though she was a great climber, with wet feet it was hard to keep her footing. She slipped once and fell into the water with a loud splash, and she waited for someone to investigate, silently swearing at herself and rubbing her temple, which had started to throb. When no one came after several minutes, she assumed they hadn’t heard and tried again.
She finally reached the surface and crept around a high fence that acted as a windbreak. In the center was a meadow of tall flowers, grass, and clover, and the hives stood like small huts against the fence. The hives were relatively quiet, and Selene wondered if the bees were sleeping. Did bees sleep at night like humans did? It was no matter. She walked down the line until she came to the third hive; and she drew her fire-enchanted bow, nocked an arrow, and shot. When the arrow landed, flames immediately spread across the wooden structure. She stepped back to the second hive and did the same, and it also caught fire easily. The last one, however, refused to catch. It took half a dozen arrows and a couple of precious minutes before the flames started to spread, and by the time she was fleeing around the fence to jump into the lake, the guards were already approaching to investigate. She was almost all the way to the mainland before someone noticed an arrow and realized it was arson, too far away to be detected.
With a heavy sigh of relief, Selene waded to the shore and squeezed the water out of her hair before starting the walk back to Riften. It was nearly dawn when she arrived in the Ragged Flagon, and she found Brynjolf asleep on a cot, lying on his stomach with one arm dangling over the side. She decided to let him sleep and come back later and was just turning away when he muttered, “Hey, get back here. I’m awake.”
“I suppose you always snore like that when you’re awake.”
“I wasn’t snoring,” he declared as he sat up.
“You keep telling yourself that.” Selene plopped down next to him, and his scent changed right away, but this wasn’t the time or the place for anything other than business, so she ignored it. She reached into her pack for the bottle containing the bill of sale and handed it to Brynjolf.
“Cheers,” he said, holding up the bottle for a toast.
“There’s something more interesting than a healing potion in there, I assure you.”
He uncorked the bottle and fished the document out, eyes widening as he read. “Aringoth sold Goldenglow? What is that idiot thinking? He has no idea the extent of Maven’s fury when she’s been cut out of a deal. There’s no buyer named, though. Any idea what this symbol is?”
Selene shook her head. “Never seen it before.”
“Blast. All right, I’ll check my sources and speak to Mercer. In the meantime, get some food and rest.”
She set her knapsack at his feet. “Here’s the rest of what I stole.”
“I’ll go through it in the morning.” His brow suddenly furrowed with worry, and he brushed his fingers across her cheek. “Wait, are you hurt?”
“On top of the fight in the Ratway yesterday morning, I got elbowed in the head and took a sword in my side, but it’s all minor. Except for my headache.”
“So you had trouble?”
“Not much. I only had to kill two of the mercenaries; I snuck past all the rest.”
“That’s not much? By the Eight, lass, who are you?”
Selene chuckled. “Funny thing. Aringoth actually saw me in his room. He watched me steal a statue from his nightstand and just let me go. He didn’t sound an alarm or anything.”
“He probably figured we’d get him sooner or later and there was no point fighting it.”
“Who knows? Before I go, there’s the matter of my pay.”
Brynjolf chuckled. “You’re smart as a whip, lass. Come with me.” He went to Mercer’s desk, where he retrieved a small sack of gold. “Keep doing right by us and there’s plenty more where that came from.”
“Thank you, sir. Now I’m off to the Bee and Barb. I’ll stop back in tomorrow.”
“Do. The rest of the Guild wants to meet you. Oh, come here. I want to show you something.” He led her past a handful of sleeping thieves to one of the nooks leading off the cistern, where a ladder ascended up to the surface. “Secret entrance. It comes out in a crypt in the cemetery, beneath the Temple of Mara.”
“Nice. I’ll see you later, then.” She started up the ladder, but Brynjolf didn’t move, simply stood and watched her climb. “What is it?” she asked.
“Nothing. Just admiring the view.”
She rewarded him with a laugh and continued up the ladder toward the exit.