Selene had played in the Ratway once as a child after sneaking out of the orphanage with an older boy when Grelod wasn’t looking. She had enjoyed navigating the dark tunnels, throwing rocks at skeevers, and hiding from vagrants. The boy had even managed to pickpocket a bum lying in a corner. She had earned the beating of her life, and it was probably the stupidest thing she had ever done, but it certainly wasn’t the last dank labyrinth she’d explore. In fact, if not for that adventure, she might never have escaped Honorhall, because it had given her the idea of escaping permanently. She tried to think of the boy’s name as she drew her daggers and pushed open the door to the sewer—Victor, Viper, something with a V. She wondered what had ever happened to him.
Two thugs stood in the tunnel at the first turn, talking about how they were cheating the Thieves Guild. One, with a gruff voice and the scent of boiled cabbage, was unhappy because their plans weren’t moving as swiftly as they had imagined. The other, whose voice was pompous and high-pitched, made it clear that he was the brains of the outfit and the unhappy one should just worry about cracking skulls. There was no way around the pair, so she snuck up behind them and waited just outside the turn.
“I’m going to check the door and make sure nobody’s—what’s this?” The pompous one stuck his head around the corner to see Selene standing there, smiling at him. Cabbage Man turned around and barked, “Hey!”
“There’s probably no way you’re going to just let me go through, is there?” she asked.
“Not likely,” said pompous. He drew his sword and swung at her, but Selene ducked out of his reach and took a swipe at his sword arm with her fire-enchanted dagger. He squealed like a little girl and dropped the sword as his tunic caught fire, and Selene lunged in and stabbed him in the belly. He dropped with a whimper.
She stepped over the body to challenge Cabbage Man, who stood waiting. He threw his hands up in the air. “I ain’t gonna hit no lady.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“I’m not. You’re free to pass. I’ll take care of Drahff, there.”
If he didn’t want to fight, Selene wouldn’t argue, even if his reasoning was a bit silly. She eased around him, daggers still at the ready in case he tried something, but he simply stood his ground and let her go. She turned the corner and walked through another room to find a gap in the tunnel with a drawbridge that was pulled up on the other side. On the level below, a door led off into another hallway. She could either go back with Cabbage Man or drop to the lower level and continue on, so she jumped.
She passed a few vagrants in the sewers, and they ignored her for the most part. She killed a skeever who got in her way, but other than that she didn’t have any trouble until she happened upon a shadowy room full of bear traps. The traps were easy to see with her night vision, but she completely missed the brawny Imperial who came at her from the corner, fists swinging. He wasn’t afraid to hit a lady, and he sent her sprawling; only lightning reflexes kept her from getting her hand caught in one of the traps. Her jaw throbbed with pain, but as she worked it she realized it wasn’t broken. She was going to have a lovely bruise, though. She scrambled to her feet as he approached her again, and she managed to duck his next swing and jab him in the ribs with her shock dagger.
“Damn you,” he muttered, “that hurt.” He swung around again, his fist barely missing her, and she caught his arm again. “Will you stop that?” he cried furiously.
“Let me pass, or I’ll cut you to ribbons.”
He stopped and regarded her. “You’re not here to rob me?”
“I’m just trying to get to the Ragged Flagon. This was the only way through.”
“Well, you didn’t have to stab me!”
“You were beating me up!”
“Well, go on. Get out of here before I decide to beat you up some more.”
Once again, Selene didn’t argue. She tiptoed around the rest of the bear traps and out the far door, where she found a set of stairs leading back up to the first level. After a few more twists and turns she came to a room that was open to the world above. Sunlight shone in through a grate and illuminated a tiny oasis of flowers and butterflies. Unfortunately, a bloody axe stuck into a stump detracted from the beauty of the scene. When she entered the next room, she came full circle. The drawbridge stood just outside the far door and down a short hallway. A flight of stairs led down to yet another door, and she heaved a sigh of relief when she opened it and stepped into a huge hall and out of the freakish maze of the Ratway.
The hall was round, and a shallow drainage pond dominated the center of the room, with several nooks located around the perimeter. The nooks appeared as if they had once been market stalls, but now they only held barrels and bales of straw. The tavern Brynjolf had spoken of was on the far side, and it wasn’t much to look at. The bar stood at the back, and a few tables and chairs had been placed in front of it and on a deck overlooking the pond. There were only a handful of people in the tavern, including the bartender and Brynjolf, who was talking about her as she approached.
“This one’s different; I’m telling you.”
“We’ve heard it before, Bryn,” said a rough-looking Nord in leather armor.
“No, you didn’t see her. She turned a fishing job around on me, and that wasn’t all. Then in the market this morning…the lass is an artist.”
“Give it up, Bryn,” the bartender urged him. “You and Delvin and Vex are a dying breed. And even if she is as good as you say, what are the chances she’s gonna make it through the Ratway? Face it, you’re never gonna see her again.”
Selene cleared her throat, and they all looked up with surprise.
“Oh no?” Brynjolf quipped. “Then what, my friend, do you say about that? Well, well, color me impressed, lass!”
“You were right. The Ratway is dangerous. I’m afraid I killed one of your men when he tried to attack me. I think the other one ran off.”
The bartender and the roughneck laughed, but Brynjolf looked at her with concern. “One of my men? What did they look like?”
Selene shrugged. “Just your typical Nord thugs. One was named Drahff. He’s the one I killed, I think.”
Everyone bristled at Selene’s mention of Drahff, and a bald Breton sitting at one of the tables grunted. “Drahff and Hewnon,” he muttered. “You said they attacked you?”
“Well, Drahff did. I guess I overheard some things I wasn’t supposed to hear.”
“Lemme guess: they were conspiring against the Guild.” Selene nodded. “Bryn, I told you they was trouble!”
“You were right, Delvin; I’m sorry I doubted you. And you took Drahff out all by yourself? Again, lass, I’m impressed.”
“I told you you’d be surprised.”
“Vekel, how about a drink for the lady?”
The bartender drew a mug of mead, and Brynjolf took it and his own mug and led Selene to a table on the deck. He sat down across from her and slouched back in his seat as though he were a jarl lounging on his throne. He was no longer wearing his fine clothes but had changed into a black-leather cuirass with at least a million buckles and pockets, probably the Guild’s armor, because some of the others were similarly dressed. The dark armor helped him blend with the shadows around him, and it seemed as though he might disappear at any moment. “Where did you learn to pick a pocket like that?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I was just always pretty good at it. I hide in the shadows, and I pick pockets. I’m also a good fighter, which came in very handy.”
“And the guy with the bear traps.”
“Sorry you had so much trouble.”
“Oh, it was no trouble,” she assured him. “It was easy.”
“She’s headstrong, too.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bag of coin, which he dropped on the table. “You ran away so quickly earlier, I didn’t get a chance to pay you.”
“That’s okay; I knew where you’d be.”
“There’s a lot more where that came from if you’re interested. I happen to have a job I can give you right now. It’s local, and you can be back in time for supper.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to handle a few deadbeat merchants. Keerava in the Bee and Barb, Bersi Honey-Hand in the Pawned Prawn, and Haelga at the bunkhouse—you remember Haelga, the one who bought the Falmer Blood Elixir—all owe the Guild some serious coin; and you’re going to talk them into paying up.” When she leaned back and folded her arms across her chest, he said, “Do you have a problem with that?”
“If I say ‘yes,’ I’m out, right?”
“I need to know up front what you can handle and what you can’t.”
“I can handle it just fine; I just don’t like bullies. I’m a thief, not a thug.”
“Ah, I get it. Nothing says you have to strong arm them. There are plenty of ways to get what you want, of which I’m sure you’re aware. You’re a smart lass, and you have a way with words. I’ll tell you what I know about each of them, and I doubt you’ll have any trouble.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“Keerava is as stubborn as they come, but she has a soft spot for family and for Talen-Jei. You might be able to persuade him to help you get through to her. As for Haelga and Bersi, you might be able to charm them into paying up.”
“Haelga’s a lesbian?”
“Haelga is a devout follower of Dibella, and she’s not picky about her lovers. The woman will sleep with just about anything that walks. Bersi is married, but he has a wandering eye. As easily as you distracted me, you’ll have him eating out of the palm of your hand just by setting foot in his shop. If you don’t want to go that route, both Haelga and Bersi have trinkets they’re fond of. Haelga’s is a statue of Dibella, and Bersi’s is a hideous Dwemer urn he keeps out front. People are so fond of their little toys.”
“What do they owe?”
“They owe about a hundred gold each, but the money’s really not what’s important here. It’s the message. They need to learn to take the Guild seriously. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you not to kill any of them.” As Selene slowly relaxed, uncrossed her arms, and reached for her mug, he watched her carefully. “So it’s not extortion itself that bothers you, just the manner of collection. You’re an odd one, lass.”
“Better odd than dull.”
Brynjolf threw back his head and laughed heartily. “I can’t even imagine a dull moment with you. All right, then. Get to it, and then meet me back here. Any more questions?”
“Just one. Where am I going to sleep after Keerava kicks me out of the Bee and Barb?”
He chuckled again and raised an eyebrow. “I have an idea or two.”
Selene laughed and got up from the table. “Bye, Brynjolf,” she sing-songed as she scratched the whiskers under his chin. She fled the Ragged Flagon, thankful for the gloom, because she was pretty sure she was blushing. The lever was just where Brynjolf had said it was, and Selene pulled it and crossed the drawbridge, grumbling to herself. If she had been smart, she’d have run straight for Fort Dawnguard the minute he had given her stuff back. But leave it to her to go all soft because some pretty scoundrel caught her eye.
The lunch rush was just ending when Selene stepped into the Bee and Barb and sidled up to Talen-Jei. “What do you want?” he asked unceremoniously. Selene had already learned that he wasn’t being rude; he was just being concise.
“I wanted to ask you about Keerava. How’d you two meet?”
“The first time I ever walked into the inn, there she was. Been smitten with her ever since.” He leaned in close and whispered. “I’m thinking of asking her to marry me.”
“It would be, but I’m having trouble finding the items I need for the ring.”
“What kind of items do you need?”
“Each Argonian wedding band has three flawless amethysts set into the design. I have the band, but I can’t find the stones.”
“I might be able to help with that.”
“You would do that? Oh, but you’re with Brynjolf. You must want something.”
“I do need something, but I’ll get you the stones either way. That being said, if you could help me talk some sense into Keerava about the money she owes the Guild, it would be greatly appreciated.”
“I don’t think it can be done. She knows that the Thieves Guild is in a bad way, and she believes she doesn’t have to pay.” He lowered his voice again and said, “I’m only telling you this because I care about Keerava. She has some family on a farm in Morrowind. Perhaps that information will help you get what you need from her.”
“Thanks, Talen-Jei. And I’m sorry.”
“Just make sure she doesn’t get hurt.”
She went to the bar and sat on a stool, waiting for Keerava. “I’ve come to collect what you owe Brynjolf,” she told the Argonian when she came over.
“No. I told him I wasn’t paying him anymore, and I meant it. Now, get out of my inn.”
“Okay, I’ll go, but you should know that the Guild has some information about members of your family living in Morrowind. I haven’t known them very long, so I don’t really know what they would do with that knowledge. I just know that if it were my family, I’d want to know what I was up against.”
“How could they possibly—no. No, don’t let them hurt my family. They mean too much to me.” She dug into a strongbox under the counter and brought out a bag of coins. “Here. Tell Brynjolf he’ll have no more trouble from me.” Selene stood and watched her for a few moments. “What is it?” Keerava finally asked.
“Can I still stay here tonight?”
“Yes, your money is still good here. Just don’t expect me to be your best friend.”
Selene went out the door and across the bridge to Haelga’s bunkhouse. The attractive blonde was standing at the front desk looking bored when Selene walked in. “This ain’t an inn,” she snapped. “If you want a room, go to the Bee and Barb.”
Selene didn’t respond, just wandered around the room until she found the Dibella statue. She picked it up and held it across her arms as though it were a large bouquet of flowers.
“Put that back,” Haelga demanded.
Selene set the statue on the counter and smiled congenially at Haelga. “Dibella, huh?”
“You need to put that back!”
“Actually, I need to collect a debt from you. For Brynjolf.”
Haelga’s eyes widened. “What—don’t hurt the statue, please.”
“I don’t know; it’s kind of tacky. Maybe I should drop it down the well.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“No, of course not. But I am going to take it. Looking it over, I’d say it’s worth about a hundred Septims, wouldn’t you? See, it’s real simple. You owe Brynjolf some coin, and you’re not paying. Thus, I’ll take the statue as payment.”
“You’re going to hold my statue hostage?”
“No, I’m going to sell your statue to get the coin you owe the Guild.”
“Wait here.” She opened the door behind her, and Selene could hear her rummaging through a drawer. After a moment she came out with a bag and held it out for Selene.
She sifted through the bag and confirmed there were roughly a hundred Septims. “See how easy that was? Next time, if you owe the Guild money, just pay it on time, and you won’t have to worry about me stealing your statue in the middle of the night when you’re not around to pay for it.”
“You should go now.”
“Going right now. Pleasure doing business with you, Haelga.”
On her way out the door, she collided with a very upset Argonian woman who was muttering to herself and not watching where she was going. She swayed when she bumped into Selene and whimpered a bit. “I’m sorry,” she whined.
“It’s okay, just try to be more careful. What’s the matter?”
“It’s the skooma. I tried some last year, and I now I can’t stop. My boss sent me home from work and said if I show up like this one more time, he’s going to fire me. I can’t lose my job.”
Selene pulled a healing potion out of her bag. “Here, take this. What’s your name?”
“Okay, Wujeeta. I want you to get yourself clean. If you need more potions, come to me, but no more skooma.”
“Thank you, stranger.”
“It’s Selene. Now, where’d you get the skooma?”
Wujeeta blanched. “Oh, no, I can’t tell you that! They’ll kill me!”
“Wujeeta, they’re hurting you and others, and I can stop them. Besides, you owe me for the potion.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll tell you. It’s Sarthis Idren in the Riften Warehouse. I don’t know who his supplier is, though. The warehouse is locked up tight, and he usually meets me outside.”
Selene patted the Argonian on the shoulder. “I’ll take care of it. You just stay healthy, okay?”
Wujeeta reached out and hugged her. “You’re a true friend, Selene.”
As she parted ways with the Argonian woman and headed for the Pawned Prawn, she stopped in front of a cute little house on the edge of the water. Peering around the side, she could see what appeared to be a deck over the lake. A “for sale” sign stood outside, so she assumed it was empty. The city guard was on the other side of the canal and not looking in her direction, so she decided to check out the inside. She picked the lock quickly and went in.
She walked into a kitchen area that opened onto a den, or possibly a bedroom. A door at the back of the room did indeed open onto a deck that not only overlooked the lake but had stairs leading down to the road below. Back inside, Selene noticed a flight of stairs leading down to a cellar, where she found three fairly large rooms. Two were connected by a wide doorway and could be used for labs or combat practice. The third was surely a bedroom. Selene stood in the center of the basement and turned in a circle, a broad smile crossing her face. She wanted this house. She’d have to talk to Laila’s steward about buying it.
The guard was standing in front of the door when Selene opened it. She stopped short, thinking she was caught, but he simply asked her if she was planning on buying the house.
“I might,” she replied. “It’s just the right size for me.”
“There’s a Guild stash in the back, you know.”
What? Did everybody just assume because she was talking to Brynjolf in the market this morning that she was with the Thieves Guild?
She passed the guard and went across the bridge and into the Pawned Prawn, where Bersi Honey-Hand, a balding, fortyish Nord, stood behind the counter. He smiled and raised his eyebrows appreciatively when he saw her.
“Well met, stranger,” he said enthusiastically.
Selene stopped and looked at the urn, which stood on a shelf across from the counter. Brynjolf had said it was ugly; she actually liked it.
“What can I do for you today?” Bersi asked her, placing his hands on the counter and leaning toward her.
“I’m not actually shopping today. I came to talk to you about your debt to the Thieves Guild.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, I’m sure you do.” She reached out and stroked the back of his hand. “We’re really not asking for all that much, you know. And just think of all the benefits you get with us on your payroll. A smart, strong, handsome man like you should be able to see the whole picture.”
“Well, the protection is nice,” he muttered. “I don’t get a lot of theft in my shop.”
Selene gave him a sweet smile. “See? You help us, and we help you. As for me personally, I do other jobs outside the Guild, so I might be able to throw quite a lot of business your way. As long as you help my friends.”
“And if I say no?”
Selene shrugged. “I can find others to buy and sell from. I don’t know about Brynjolf, though. I hear he has quite a temper. Much better to deal with me, don’t you think?”
“Aye, much better. All right.” He brought out his strongbox and counted out a hundred coins, which he dropped into a sack and handed to Selene. “You will come back, right?”
“Of course I will, Bersi.” She trailed a finger along the back of his hand. “Honey-Hand. I wonder why they call you that.”
He was still staring at her, eyes and jaw open wide, when she walked out the door.
* * *
Selene walked up to the table where Brynjolf sat and dropped the three bags of gold on the table, then plopped down across from him.
“Very nice, lass! And you did it clean?”
“Not a drop of blood was shed, no trinkets were harmed, and I didn’t have to sleep with Haelga. I also managed to keep my room at the Bee and Barb.”
“Can’t say I’m not disappointed about that. Did they give you any trouble?”
She shook her head. “Not really. I feel dirty, though. I didn’t like doing that.”
He reached into one of the bags, counted out fifty coins, and handed them to her. “Perhaps that’ll help.”
“It doesn’t hurt, but no, it doesn’t really help, either.”
“Well, don’t worry, lass. We can work around your code of honor. We all have things we’d rather not do. Fortunately the Guild is large enough that we can delegate appropriately. Are you ready to see our operation and how everything works?”
“I have a couple of questions first. Are you guys involved in the city’s skooma operation?”
“No, we keep skooma for the patrons, and we’ll occasionally run a shipment through for the Khajiit, but we don’t push it in Riften if that’s what you’re asking. Why?”
“I have a name, and I’m thinking of going to the jarl about it.”
He chuckled with amusement. “A thief who fights crime?”
“I want to buy the house over by Haelga’s. I figured solving a crime for Laila would go a long way toward being allowed to buy the house.”
“‘Laila’? You’re on a first-name basis with the jarl?” Selene simply smiled in response. “Is there anything else you haven’t told me about yourself?”
“Then Divines help me. You said you had two questions.”
“Yeah. Word on the street is that the Guild is in a bad way.”
Brynjolf took a sip of his mead and nodded. “We are going through a bit of a rough patch. Delvin will tell you it’s a curse, that we’ve gotten somebody piss-drunk mad at us, but I think it’s just bad luck. A lot of it, but still. I have a feeling, though, that with you working for us, our rough patch might be over. You just worry about making us lots of coin and let me worry about everything else, all right?”
He stood up and headed toward the back room of the tavern, motioning for Selene to follow. “Now, come with me, and I’ll show you our operation.”