The silk feels fragile beneath my fingertips as I run my hands over the bodice of the dress to smooth the creases, the deep violet shade appearing almost stained with black when I move, the candlelight casting uneasy shadows over the fragile material that hangs from my body.
'I thought the plan was to kill the soldier without being noticed.' Brynjolf's voice is quiet and low from the bed behind me, the thief having silently watched me dress myself in Sapphire's gifted silk gown for the past few minutes.
Wearing something so delicate and precious today feels wrong, I think, looking down at the dress and remembering the moment that the raven-haired thief had given it to me, realising that she had acquired it from this very city and I had doubted that I would ever find an occasion to wear it. And now I'll probably never be able to wear it again, after today is over and I leave this city covered with Gaius Maro's blood.
'That's the plan,' I reply to Brynjolf at last as I turn around to face him, fighting my desire to take off the dress and climb back into bed, suddenly regretting that the past hours of our restless night were spent in relative silence as we both tried and failed to sleep. I didn't want to be touched and he didn't try to convince me otherwise... but gods, now I wish he had.
Leaning back against the pillows, the redhead casts his gaze over me slowly, the tired shadows beneath his eyes creasing with laughter lines as he smiles. 'Well, I hate to break it to you, lass, but if you're wearing that dress, you're going to be noticed,' he says mildly. 'You look incredible. I feel sorry for the bride, to be upstaged by the common bard on her wedding day.'
'Common?' I repeat with a short laugh, trying to ignore my gratified blush at his compliment. 'You need to work on that one, Bryn.'
'Forgive me, I'm not used to charming women who are quite so well dressed.' Brynjolf sits up straighter, a serious expression settling upon his face. 'Let me try again. I feel sorry for the bride to be upstaged by such a stunningly beautiful and immeasurably talented thief masquerading as a common bard.'
'That's better,' I say lightly before I look down at the dress again, feeling a nauseous flutter in my stomach and finding it impossible to tell whether the feeling is one of nerves or a strange childlike excitement. Brynjolf may never have complimented a woman so beautifully dressed, but neither have I ever been one myself, I think, my hands carefully smoothing the bodice of the gown again as I momentarily forget the reason for my attire and what awaits me at dawn. Just a little while longer in this easy illusion, I tell myself as I twist my body and turn my head around to make sure that the dress hangs neatly over my hips and does not show where my daggers are strapped awkwardly to the tops of my boots at my thighs - but as I turn to check that my weapons are suitably concealed from the side, I feel a familiar distant jolt of pain in my throat as I turn my head and I realise that I cannot stay lost in this sweet present, nor can I ignore what is ahead or what has passed. Mercer and Astrid have both made sure of that.
I raise my hand to my neck, knowing that the scar across my throat is painfully noticeable above the low cut of my dress, my fingertips feeling the torn white skin as tentatively as I touched the dress moments ago, wishing that my skin were made of same unblemished silk. I can't deny that it looks ugly, I think with despair, marvelling for a moment at my own sudden pathetic desire simply to look beautiful, to seem the part and to play the young girl's game, as a child dreams of wearing a fine gown and a crown and becoming a princess for the day. Like in the stories I told to the younger girls at Honorhall, and the ones I told to myself before I realise they were just stories.
I realise Brynjolf is still watching me, and I drop my hand abruptly. 'It's probably going to draw some attention, isn't it?' I say sardonically. 'I suppose at least a large noticeable scar will make it easy for them to identify me as the murderer when I get caught.'
'You're not going to get caught,' the thief tells me, his tone slightly edged as his gaze follows the previous path of my hand to the scar at my neck, and he hesitates for a moment before continuing with a nod to my throat. 'But if that's worrying you…'
He moves to the foot of the bed and reaches down to search through his satchel, and I am about to question him when a few seconds later he withdraws his hand and rises from the bed.
'It doesn't quite match your dress, I know, and it won't hide the scar completely,' he says as he comes to stand before me and holds up a silver necklace, the delicate chainwork in a choker style and adorned with an array of small lilac gems. 'But at least this way, you'll never know if they're looking at your necklace or your neck.'
I open my mouth and close it wordlessly, wanting to thank him for his thoughtfulness and yet finding that something is stopping me from speaking. I'm going to leave him in a few minutes and I might never come back, I think, suddenly afraid to let his affection touch me, to fall into his arms and to have him hold me for a moment longer - not when that moment may be the very last. And if I think that, then I'll never be able to let him go.
'Isn't wearing a stolen necklace going to get me in more trouble?' I say finally, forcing my tone to be light. 'When I'm caught, should I admit to being a thief or an assassin first?'
'Like I said, you're not going to get caught in the first place,' the thief replies, before he holds up the necklace again, a small smile still in his eyes. 'Now turn around for me,' he says softly, and I hesitate for only a moment before obeying, turning away from the thief as he steps up closer behind me. 'And that's why I'll be there,' he continues a few seconds later as he reaches around my shoulders from behind to place the necklace at my throat. 'If you get into trouble over the corpse at your feet or the stolen necklace at your throat, I'll make sure you can find a safe away out of that trouble. I promise you that, lass.'
My body shivers and my breath catches at the silver's cool touch against my skin, and I try to hold still as Brynjolf finishes clasping the choker at my neck, forcing myself to acclimatise to the cold. 'Please,' I murmur, and I turn back to the thief as soon as his hands leave the back of my neck, my heart suddenly uneasy with both his words and the loss of his touch as I hear Astrid's voice echo unbidden in my mind, cautioning me when I nearly risked Sapphire's life, reminding me how dangerous it would be to hold on to something I cannot bear to lose. 'Stay away today,' I tell him, making my voice firmer. 'You don't even have an invitation to the wedding, and there will be a lot of guards there watching for anyone suspicious. And aside from the guards, what if Cicero-'
'Wren,' Brynjolf interrupts, a flash of irritation in his eyes at the mention of the jester, even as one corner of his mouth turns up in his familiar half-smile. 'Did you just use the fact that I don't have an invitation as a reason for me not to go?' He raises one hand to my throat, his fingertips carefully brushing against the necklace to ensure the amethysts lie flat as his green eyes hold my gaze. 'Has my charm worked so well that you've forgotten what I am?'
The gentle touch of his fingers on the delicate torn skin of my neck is as keen as the cool silver and I let my shoulders rise and fall in a sigh, thinking of the past touches felt by my throat and the most intimate parts of me and wondering if I am a fool to trust these touches now. Maybe playing the fool is sweeter than giving voice to my fears, I think, my heart suddenly aching to tell Brynjolf everything that he is to me; at once the warm candlelight in the dark and the safety of the shadows, the comforting lock on a door that I do not wish to open again, the smiling half-mooned eyes and sound of easy true laughter and sighs of pleasure from my own lips and his, not begged or bargained for but given and wanted and shared. Safety, like I am worthy of it, held securely for however long it lasts.
I bite my lip, forcing the tumble of words to the back of my mind. 'An honest thief,' I reply at last, trying not to think of all the other things that the auburn-haired man standing before me could be. All the things that he chooses not to be.
'Then trust my honesty when I say that you don't need to fear for me. Trespassing a wedding won't pose much of a challenge.' Brynjolf drops his hand, a quiet ferocity in his eyes. 'I'm good at what I do, lass. Don't doubt that.'
I stare at him for a few long seconds, not sure whether to let myself believe him or whether I should argue further - and as I hold the thief's determined gaze, I realise that I would be fighting a battle already lost if I tried once more to persuade him to stay away. A battle that I would fight regardless, but a battle that I do not have the time to fight now, with dawn approaching and death waiting.
'I don't doubt that you're good at what you do,' I say finally, truthfully, knowing that he is capable of looking out for himself. 'I doubt everything and everyone else that might try to hurt you, or me.' Before Brynjolf can open his mouth to reply, I reach up to his shoulders and hold him tightly. 'Just promise me you'll be careful today.'
The thief makes a soft sigh of laughter. 'I said you don't need to worry, lass, I won't be in any-'
'And I said promise me,' I interrupt sharply, needing to hear him say it. 'You like making all sorts of claims to worship me and obey me in bed, so I'm certain you can make me one more promise. So swear to me you'll be careful. Now.'
Brynjolf's gaze holds mine for a few seconds, the laughter in his eyes flashing with a fire that I recognise from our most intimate moments. Maybe it's the deepest kind of his honesty. 'Aye, Wren, I promise that I'll be careful,' he says at last, before he grins. 'As careful as you, that is. So try to remember that, when you're inevitably considering doing something dangerous today. Maybe you'll think twice about it.'
I sigh, knowing that I will not have a better promise from him in the time we have left to us now. Which has slipped away too quickly. 'Fine,' I say, trying to keep my voice from faltering as I step back from Brynjolf. 'If you still want to show me the way to the castle, we need to leave. It must be near dawn now.'
'Dawn again,' the thief mutters under his breath as he turns away to pick up his dagger and fasten it to his hip. 'I've come to hate it, lass.'
'So have I.' I turn away too to find my jacket, not wanting to venture outside in only my dress, the morning cold and my nerves getting the better of me as I pull on my Guild leathers and not for the first time I wish that the sun would not rise, the darkness would fall once more, and the dawn would stay away until I was ready to face it. But I doubt that I will ever be ready, I think nervously as I reach into the pockets of my jacket to find the small chipped ruby that I have carried since I left Riften and the Nightingale amulet given to me by Karliah, wondering if the Dunmer's trust in me and Brynjolf's affection are both misplaced. Maybe, but their trust and affection aren't what I need today, I remind myself, feeling my daggers strapped to my thighs beneath my dress and my blades tucked into my boots - and yet my hands move of their own accord, and with my back still to the thief, I withdraw both the gem and the amulet from my pocket and carefully tuck them into the bodice of my dress, wanting them close to my heart.
With his hood covering his auburn hair and my hand locked in his, Brynjolf leads me silently through Solitude's streets of mosaic and silver, the city bathed in the grey gloom of the night meeting the dawn. I pay little attention to my surroundings as I walk beside Brynjolf, feeling my silver dagger and the ebonwraith blade digging into my thighs and knees alternately with each step. This is madness, I think, my worn boots scuffing the walkways softly as I struggle to shake the feeling that I am foolish to take another step forward. This isn't hiding in shadows or a victim's bed. This is a show on an unfamiliar stage, with an audience... and I have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
My thoughts troubled, the realisation strikes me far too late, and as the first fingers of sunlight fall upon the clean wide streets, it dawns on me that I recognise none of the buildings around me and that I will have no idea how to return to the safety of the tavern after the wedding. After the murder, I correct myself, and my mind jumps ahead to what awaits me on that unfamiliar stage and my stomach knots tightly against a wave of nausea. I might die here, but Maro will die with me, and no one else.
I stop walking abruptly, pulling my hand from Brynjolf's before he too stops and turns to look at me. 'I'll find my way from here without you,' I say. 'I need to find Cicero, and after what happened last night, I should find him alone without you.'
'That's the last thing you should do after what happened.' Brynjolf crosses his arms, his expression troubled beneath the shadows of his hood. 'Let me show you the rest of the way to the castle. That's what we agreed.'
I open my mouth to reply but I hesitate when I notice a man and a woman walking towards us, evidently dressed for an occasion beyond a mere morning walk, the woman's silk gown adorned with feathers of indigo and emerald with jewels to match while her companion wears plum velvet trimmed with gold. And I was worried about drawing attention... if these are merely the wedding guests, I will be easily overlooked as a common bard after all.
I wait until they have passed and continued down the street before I turn back to Brynjolf, unable to stop myself from smiling slightly at the convenient timing. 'I doubt I'll struggle to find it,' I say, nodding in the direction of the couple.
The thief sighs and shakes his head, whether at my words or at the undeniable truth that I do not need him to guide me the rest of the way, but before he can start to argue, I lift my hands to my chest and unfasten the neck of my jacket, the cold morning air biting the tender scar at my throat as I slide my fingers beneath the silk neckline of my gown, and Brynjolf's frown turns to a smile.
'I don't think now's the time, lass,' he says lightly as he watches me, although his smile vanishes just as quickly as it came when I withdraw the small fractured ruby from my bodice and hold the gem out to him.
'Take this with you,' I say, watching the thief's eyes darken at the sight of the ruby, just as they did when I tried to return it to him during our journey to Solitude. 'You said it's kept you safe and you've never been caught since you found it. So take it today.'
As I expected, Brynjolf does not move an inch. 'I gave it to you for that exact reason,' he says, his tone short. 'You keep it.'
'Last night you promised you'd listen to me,' I say, my impatience rising already when I realise he will not simply obey me. 'You promised I wouldn't have to ask twice. So keep your promise, keep the ruby, and let me go alone as I ask.'
Brynjolf is silent for a moment, his gaze growing cold as he looks at the gem in my hand. 'When I gave it to you and watched you leave Riften, I fooled myself into thinking that letting you go wasn't a mistake.' He looks up at me again, and when he speaks, his voice is quiet and edged. 'I didn't carry that worthless stone all these years for superstition like I told you. I carried it as a reminder not to make a mistake like that again, or let myself be blind.' The thief's mouth hardens in a grimace. 'But it didn't work. My blindness got you hurt before you left the Guild, and leaving you now to do this alone feels like I am rendering us both blind. So if you really want to go without me, keep the fucking thing and let me fool myself into thinking I'm not making another mistake by letting you go alone.'
The vehemence in his voice startles me for a moment, before I realise his edge is a poor disguise for the fragility beneath. My disguise is just as sharp. 'I'm not blind,' I say quietly. 'Not with my contract today, or the Brotherhood, or anything else. I'm not blind with you, Brynjolf.' I pause, watching his reaction carefully. 'Or maybe I am half-blind. I know for certain that you're a thief, but I doubt your honesty.'
His brows knit with regret. 'I've given you reason to doubt me,' he says. 'If I hadn't been blind with Mercer, maybe you wouldn't have-'
'I'm not talking about Mercer,' I interrupt sharply, and I hold up the gem to him again, the deep red looking dull in the dawn shadows. 'What is this? Honestly? It clearly means something to you, you've carried it for years but you seem to hate the sight of it. Why?'
'You want to talk about this now?' At my stubborn silence, the thief shakes his head. 'I told you, it's a reminder. Of what is irrelevant,' he adds before I can question him, his voice softening a little. 'Look, talking about the past won't make either of us happy. It's better left unsaid. And before you argue, lass, tell me, you honestly wouldn't agree with me there? You'd rather talk about everything in the past that you've tried so hard to forget?'
I falter, feeling the warmth of the gem between my cold fingertips and trying not to think of all the things I have worked hard to forget, and the thief jumps on my hesitation.
'Let's just leave it,' he says, and he reaches up to cover my hand with his, closing my fist around the ruby. 'Keep this. It makes a better lucky charm than a reminder, anyway.'
'No,' I say, pulling my hand from his, suddenly overcome with the feeling of unfairness. He knows me intimately, from where I began to where I am now, but I can't say the same for him. 'Not until you tell me what you are trying to forget.'
He sighs, an easy smile at his mouth, the forced action almost seeming effortless. 'Maybe I've already forgotten,' he says lightly.
I stare back at him, realising that his resilience will outlast mine. I'm no more capable of overpowering him than I was able to best Mercer, or Grelod's guests, I think with despair, suddenly feeling as blind as Brynjolf fears to be himself. 'You know my worst pain,' I say finally, remembering the moment in his bed when he told me he knew about Honorhall. 'I didn't tell you, you found out on your own.' I try and fail to keep the bitterness from my voice. 'The least you can do is tell me yours of your own volition now.'
Pain flashes across the thief's handsome face half-hidden in the shadows beneath his hood, my words evidently wounding him deeper than I anticipate. 'I'd never compare my pain to yours, Wren,' he says softly. 'Mine was a result of my own failing. Yours was a terrible cruelty done to you.'
'One that you know,' I say, no longer guarding the coldness in my voice. 'More than I ever told you. Don't I deserve to know you like you know me?' As a group of people pass us laden with woven baskets of white and pink bouquets, I feel a flash of frustration, torn between wanting to find warmth in these last precious moments with Brynjolf and knowing I must remain cold to be able to face what is ahead. And if Cicero knows about my plan for Astrid and intends to either help or turn me over to her, I can't show weakness, much less think about what I deserve. 'But maybe I don't,' I say shortly, and I look down as I shove the ruby into the pocket of my Guild jacket. 'Fine, I'll keep the gem, whatever it is, but you're letting me go and I'm doing this alone. You don't have to tell me anything, but I have to do this, and clearly we could stand here arguing over it for hours and not coming to an agreement.' I make a sarcastic sigh of laughter. 'Maybe we are only convincing to each other in bed, Bryn.'
I turn away, but the thief grabs my arm and pulls me back to face him roughly. 'Don't reduce us to that,' he says, his voice sharp and low and his hand gripping my elbow hard. 'Don't reduce yourself to my bedwarmer or me to yours. I fucking care for you, Wren, regardless of whether you choose to come to my bed or not, and I'll keep telling you that until you believe it. And this?' Still holding my arm, he raises his other hand and I notice the ruby between his fingers, and despite everything I feel a flutter of admiration that he managed to pick my pocket so effortlessly even now. 'I stole it twice, right here in this gods damned city, once when I thought too highly both of the ruby and of myself, and once again when I knew that my ability to save people was as worthless as the gem. It was half a lifetime ago, and I carried it all these years as a reminder of what it had cost me, and every day I swore that the next time someone trusted me, if they put their faith in me in any capacity no matter how significant or small, I wouldn't let them down. I'd do everything in my power to repay their trust with their safety.'
Brynjolf relaxes his hold on my arm, but the fire in his eyes remains as he looks down at me.
'Then I met you,' he says softly. 'And you didn't trust me, let alone ask me to keep you safe or rely on me for protection, so I tried to convince myself that I didn't owe you your safety beyond what I could offer you in the Guild... but gods, lass, I would kill to keep you safe, I'd spend my life in prison to buy your freedom and I'd bear any depths of pain if it meant you didn't have to bear any yourself. I would-' His voice low and harsh, he stops himself abruptly and his eyes leave mine as he looks instead at the gem in his other hand. 'But I couldn't keep you safe, and this fucking stone just reminds me that my life isn't enough to protect you. It isn't enough to keep anyone safe. And I don't want a reminder of that anymore, not when I want to treasure every moment I have with you without thinking of the mistakes that I've made or how it would feel to lose you. I just want you, safe, always.'
'I don't care what mistakes you think you've made,' I say, feeling my heart gripping tightly in my chest to witness his pain, and I reach up to cover his hand with mine as he holds the imperfect ruby between us. 'You're enough, Bryn, with or without this gem, no matter what has happened.'
The thief makes a quiet scoff of derision and I grip his hand harder, forcing him to look back at me.
'You might not want a reminder anymore but I've carried that stupid gem you hate all the way from Riften, through everything that has happened since then,' I tell him sharply, my frustration getting the better of me, knowing he is on the edge of telling me the truth behind the stolen ruby and forgetting everything else but the touch of his skin against mine, the look in his eyes and the proximity of his body to mine. The proximity to a new kind of honesty, one where he isn't afraid to tell me what haunts him. 'I kept it because it reminded me of you and because it forced me to believe that I had to survive long enough to return it to you. Why do you think I brought it with me today? I know how dangerous this contract will be, I know that this might be the last time I see you, and I-'
Brynjolf leans down and kisses me roughly, his mouth crushing mine into silence with his harsh kiss. 'You're not going to die here,' he says, breaking apart only far enough to speak as he releases his hold on my arm and instead moves his hand to the back of my neck, gripping me in place despite my lack of intention to pull away in the slightest. 'You're not,' he murmurs against my mouth as he kisses me again, pushing my lips apart as I cling to him and give in willingly, opening my mouth wider to find his tongue with mine, wanting nothing more than to stay in this moment of clarity. He'll die for me, but that would kill me.
The crisp steel sound of jangling armour behind me makes me pull away from the thief's kiss far sooner than I desire, still in his arms as I turn my head to look around and I watch four guards pass us by, almost catching my reflection in their polished plate. Will Maro wear the same? I wonder, the thought frightening me more than I want to admit. But I can't turn back now.
'I won't die, because you'll keep me safe,' I say softly as I look at Brynjolf. 'But to do that, you have to keep yourself safe first.' I press his hand against his chest, the gem still in his grasp. 'It's your turn to take it and bring it back to me after today. Don't argue with me. Just take it and bring it back.'
The thief looks at me without speaking for several long seconds, and for a moment I imagine I can see a shadow of a smile at the thief's mouth. 'You look nothing like her,' he says at last, almost too quietly for me to hear, as if he is talking not to me but to himself. 'And yet you're as stubborn as the lass and damn near as impossible to argue with. She would have loved you.'
Brynjolf sighs softly and offers no further explanation, his smile abruptly gone and a look of resignation on his face, although the pain is suddenly fractured with a strange flicker of relief, as if some part of him has longed to itself of its burden. He's free in this moment of truth, as I was, when I cut Grelod's throat, when Mercer marked me, when I stood before Astrid and realised I would one day kill her.
'Gods, Wren, I can't lose you too,' he says quietly into the silence, the broken tone of his voice penetrating my heart.
'You aren't going to lose me,' I whisper, gripping his hand more tightly against his chest, suddenly afraid for him to share whatever pain he has carried along with the gem. 'You don't have to fear for me, or for yourself. Remember? You are good at what you do, you said it yourself.'
But the thief's eyes seem frosted, and he pulls his hand from mine gently before he crosses his arms in front of his chest, the ruby hidden in his closed fist. 'Good at what I do,' he repeats sarcastically, falling silent for a few seconds as he turns his gaze away, the morning air between us feeling colder in those moments. 'They have cells beneath the gallows,' he tells me abruptly before I can think of what to say. 'Did you see the grates in the ground when we watched the execution yesterday? They're cut into the ceilings of Castle Dour's dungeons so that the other prisoners can see and hear what happens above, and what will happen to them.'
'You were there?' I say, afraid to interrupt him but more afraid of the distant look in his eyes and not wanting him to be alone. I reach up and touch his arm, more gently than he held me but hoping he feels it as keenly nonetheless. 'You were imprisoned in the cells under the gallows?'
'Aye,' Brynjolf says. 'For a few days, a long time ago.'
'But you broke free and escaped,' I prompt, and the thief laughs, although the sound is short and chilly.
'Well, I didn't persuade the guards to my innocence,' he says. 'The evidence was sizeable, given that I was caught stealing by the jeweller I was trying to rob and a dozen witnesses who watched me running away with my worthless prize. I wasn't so quick with my hands as a lad of twelve… and I wasn't smart enough to know what was worth risking my neck for. They caught me easily.' He pauses, and the distant chill in his eyes deepens. 'They caught us.'
At my look of confusion, the thief shakes his head, as if trying to rid his mind of the thoughts within, as if by denying their existence he can make them untrue. And I suspect he knows as well as I do that it doesn't ever work.
'My sister, Gwenyth,' he says finally, and I feel my heart clutch tightly in my chest, remembering what the thief had said the night before. He told me that he could speak from experience, when we talked of losing someone, I think, wishing I could offer some form of comfort and prevent him from reliving the story any further, knowing where it must be leading and already knowing the end as vividly as my own, but the thief continues before I can form the words to stop him. 'When I was caught by the jeweller, I ran, fooling myself that I was evading them, and I led them right back to where Gwen was hiding, down by the docks in the abandoned storehouse that we and a dozen other orphans and runaways called a home. The guards arrived a few minutes later, as Gwen was pointing out to me that the ruby was ruined on one side, and they arrested us both.'
The thief unfolds his arms and shrugs my hand away as he looks down at the gem still in his grasp, toying with the ruby in his fingers, turning it between its flawed and flawless faces.
'I listened to her begging for someone to grant her mercy before they kicked the bucket from under her feet and let her hang,' he says evenly, his voice devoid of emotion and his jaw set hard. 'The drop didn't snap her neck, so after I listened to her begging, I listened to her dying. It felt like hours.'
It feels like years, I think distantly as the thief pauses, wanting to reach out and touch him again, to tell him that I understand and that those moments of loss are not limited to the minutes or hours in which they happen. They're forever, after. Before I can decide whether to speak, let alone think of a way to comfort him, Brynjolf continues in an almost careless tone.
'I would've been next if the horse thief in the cell next to me hadn't been such a worthless lockpick,' he says. 'I convinced him to give me the last of his lockpicks before he could waste the last of them. I broke myself out and then freed the thief beside me. He showed me a way out through the dungeons while I made some grand claims about recovering Gwen's body, swearing to avenge her and burn the entire damn city to the ground. The thief put me straight. I'd just gotten myself caught pickpocketing an old man; did I really think I was going to evade the entire city guard with a little girl's corpse on my shoulders?'
He shakes his head as if in answer to his own question, and he finally looks up to meet my gaze.
'The horse thief had a cousin in the Thieves Guild,' he says briskly. 'He took me to Riften and I've been with the Guild ever since… well, until I returned to Solitude a few years later and took the gem back, along with the lives of the guard captain who caught us, the jeweller who saw me, and the hangman who executed Gwenyth.'
The faintest trace of a smile pulls at the thief's mouth, although it is unlike any smile I have ever seen upon Brynjolf's face, and for one moment, I am looking at Astrid, at Grelod, at Mercer. At myself, in the rare moments when I have won after losing for so long, no matter the price of my victory.
'Delvin didn't let me leave Riften for a long time after that, thinking I had developed a keener taste for blood than gold,' Brynjolf says, the smile vanishing as quickly as it came. 'He was always afraid of stepping on the Brotherhood's toes, so he gave me a choice; either respect the Guild's rules or find another place to live... never mind that I had already killed all but one of the people responsible for what happened to my sister. So I traded one family for another. And this-' Brynjolf holds up the gem, the harsh bitterness in both his words and his emerald eyes. 'This was the price for it.'
'It wasn't your fault,' I say, knowing my words are hollow, knowing the bitterness as keenly as I have felt it in my own heart. It is sadness, for the loss, and it is guilt, for not having done more, even when more was not possible. 'Bryn, you aren't responsible for what happened. You couldn't have done anything differently.'
The thief shrugs again and drops his hand, nonchalant as I expect. 'If I knew then what I knew now, I wouldn't have let us get caught,' he says. 'And if I somehow had allowed us to be captured, I would have escaped the cells quick enough to break her out of hers before they hanged her.' He shakes his head again. 'I wouldn't have been so stupid to run and lead them right to her.'
'You were a child,' I say sharply, trying to imagine how frightened he must have been then and how the long years since might only have deepened the memory of his fear. 'If you hadn't run, they would have caught you.'
'They did,' Brynjolf says. 'And they hanged a child anyway. Gwenyth was barely ten. And she wasn't the youngest. The Jarl at the time had little mercy for thieves, and Solitude's nobility enjoy their entertainment. The fucking bastards didn't care whether she was guilty or not. My guilt was enough for both of us... except she was the only one that paid for it. Look, you know now,' he adds before I can speak, his tone abrupt enough to tell me not to try to comfort him or question him further. 'It's why I hate this gods damned city, it's why I have no intention of letting you walk into Castle Dour alone, and it's why I swore I'd never stand by helpless and watch someone feel the same way again.' Brynjolf lifts one hand to my shoulder, holding me gently. 'It's why I said what I did last night,' he says. 'And it's why I tried to keep you in Riften. Cutting their throats made me feel better, but it didn't bring her back. Wren, you deserve the pleasure of killing Astrid for what she's done, but you deserve to have a life afterwards even more. I waited for my revenge until I had all the weapons I needed to survive. Are you sure that you have all that you need to finish this and to survive what might happen?'
I rest my hands on his chest, my mind still clouded with his pain and not capable of facing the prospect of Astrid or my own revenge. 'You shouldn't have come here at all,' I say, wishing I had been stronger in Falkreath, wishing I had turned him away any of the nights and days since. 'If you're wanted in Solitude, you're risking your life being here. What if someone recognises you and they catch you? Bryn, you should-'
'It's been a long time since I was twelve, lass, I doubt I'd be so easily recognised or remembered,' Brynjolf says dryly. 'Besides, I've been back here several times over the years, on Guild business.' He glowers. 'More often than I'd like. But this time I didn't mind. I had to come, for the Guild and for you. And I'll leave with you.' He raises his other hand to my face, carefully tucking a stray curl back behind my ear, and when he speaks again his voice is hardened and there is a look of careful detached appraisal in his eyes. 'Now tell me how many you have,' he says, and at my frown of confusion, the thief looks pointedly me up and down. 'Weapons, lass.'
'You saw me get dressed,' I answer. 'A blade in each of my boots and my daggers here.' I gesture to my thighs, wishing that I could have stowed my final blade in my bodice and cursing the tight fit of my gown. But I look the part, and I have enough weapons to finish this. 'But that's not important right now,' I continue in a rush. 'What happened with your sister, you know I understand, you know I know how it feels. Please, Bryn, don't blame yourself for what happened. You did only what you-'
'It's in the past,' Brynjolf interrupts predictably. 'She's in the past. I learnt from it. I swore I'd not make the same mistakes again... which is why I'm having such a hard time letting you go right now. So just promise me, lass. If it comes down to a time when you have to make a choice between you or someone else, between you or completing your contract, between you or anything else…' Brynjolf cups my cheeks with both hands, his skin warm against mine as he looks down at me. 'It's you.'
I nod, finding myself unable to speak and suddenly feeling terrified of parting ways with the thief and walking through the city alone, the wide gleaming streets and crystal glass and sweet smelling flowers seeming false now when I know that they hide a deeper cruelty, a pain I wish I could heal but know that I cannot. He once lost someone he loved here, I think as I look up at Brynjolf, and the thought enters my mind that I might lose not only him but my own life here too, and suddenly the task of walking away from him is a hundred times harder than it was in Riften, when my path ahead still felt intangible and distant. Dying for Astrid suddenly seems like madness, I think, but I force myself to remember the dreams that plagued me in the void after Mercer cut my throat, the torment of guilt and injustice eternal. If I go back there without at least trying, I know what awaits me, and Brynjolf won't be there to make it better, I remind myself, hardening my heart and drawing a deep breath, the fresh morning air sending a cold embrace through my clothing and yet I feel the warmth from the Nightingale amulet against my heart. Karliah lost five years of her life in pursuit of her revenge and she still would see it through to the end. She graced me with her trust and the shadows; the least I can do is try to be strong like her.
'If you dare get yourself in trouble today, I swear to Nocturnal that I'll make you pay for all eternity,' I manage to say lightly, afraid of the fears clouding my mind, but the sight of the thief's first true smile makes my heart lift and for a moment not one of my fears matters.
'An eternity of you, eh?' Brynjolf's eyes crinkle into crescent moons. 'Where are the guards? I'll hand myself over now.'
Before I can reply, the thief leans down to kiss me, lightly, carefully, barely touching his lips to mine, and I have to fight my desire to wrap my arms around his neck and cling to him with all the strength I have left. Let him go, I tell myself, but despite my best intentions, all I can do is grip him tighter and try to pull him back to kiss me properly, not wanting the moment to end – and yet the thief breaks the contact of our mouths too soon, his hands slipping from my cheeks to the back of my head, holding me close and resting his forehead gently against mine.
'I'll finish that kiss when I see you again,' he murmurs. 'Promise me you'll watch your own back today. Promise me you'll trust your instincts.'
'I promise,' I say, although in my mind I doubt my instincts, or at least my ability to heed them for what they are. My instincts made me fear Mercer, and yet I still walked the path that led me to the void at his hands.
'And promise me you'll remember what I once said about Castle Dour dungeons.' Brynjolf says quietly. 'I don't want you to end up there, Wren. Be careful.'
'You wouldn't help break me out of jail?' I say lightly, not wanting to think about how careful I need to be today.
'I know the damn place well enough, lass, I'd rescue you the minute they locked the door,' he says, his voice clipped. 'But I'd rather you not be in there for even a minute. So just watch yourself, all right?' His tone softens. 'And remember that I'll find you, whatever happens.'
He closes his eyes as his fingers snake loosely into my hair, and I close my eyes too, holding him tightly, dreading the moment when I know he will break away and take his hands from my hair and let me go.
His hands, I think, realisation dawning on me in that moment. 'Did you put it in my pocket again, Bryn?' I murmur as I open my eyes, and the familiar sound of the thief's quiet laugh sends a warm comforting shiver through my body.
'There's a question I've never been asked before, lass,' he says softly as he too opens his eyes. 'And yes, I put the gem in your pocket again.'
'Then take it out and take it with you,' I say, and when the thief does not release his hold on me or move his hands an inch, I make my voice firmer, needing him to be the one to break apart. 'Now, Brynjolf.'
The redhead sighs a slow sigh and steps back, letting his fingers untwine from my hair carefully before his left hand dips down swiftly into one of the pockets of my Guild jacket and he withdraws the ruby. My own hands feeling keenly empty, I watch in silence as Brynjolf tucks the gem into his pocket and I feel my heart ache deeply, pulled in opposing directions of both relief and despair.
We stand for a moment, the green of the thief's eyes seeming black even as the dawn starts to lift the darkness from around us – although in a form of twisted exchange with the lightening dawn, I feel only the weight of Brynjolf's pain and past along with my own pressing more heavily on me as I contemplate turning away and continuing alone a mere moment from now. To both my relief and my despair once more, Brynjolf takes the responsibility of parting ways, as he steps back and turns away almost abruptly, as if the rising dawn is as heavy on his shoulders as it is on mine, and without another word, he disappears down a narrow alley away from the main street and vanishes into the grey shadows of early morning before I can find the words to say goodbye.
Wreaths of white roses and tumbling lilac orchids frame the glittering wide plaza of the square leading to the gates, the scatterings of rose petals underfoot already little more than a pink slush beneath the eager footsteps of the large crowds that have congregated at the guarded entrance to Castle Dour. My stage, I think, daunted as I hang back at the edge of the crowd, the place a flurry of excited voices and a rainbow of fabrics and jewels worn by the well-wishers and spectators and guests queuing to be admitted inside. And other assassins? I wonder as I stop walking and cast my gaze around the square as best I can, cursing myself for not being taller and yet trying to make my body as small as possible to appear inconspicuous to the armed guards, their swords and gleaming plate as numerous as the floral displays lining the entrance to the castle. And a touch more deadly than the roses, I think as I observe the guards at the gates to the inner courtyard, their tall broad forms clad in polished glass and steel and their eyes just as hard and defensive as they question each person looking to enter. The thought forces me to recall what I am doing here, and more importantly, who I am looking to find amidst the noise and colour and excitement. This is his stage, not mine.
I cross my arms over my chest as I look for the jester, quickly finding that the sea of colourful clothing and noise is the perfect camouflage for him. And the worst for me, I think, conscious of the occasional glances I receive from the other nearby guests, their eyes taking in the rough leathers of my Guild jacket with distaste, the suspicion in their gazes making me miss Brynjolf's presence twice as keenly as when I parted from him. I should have agreed to do it his way, my way, not out here in the open with all eyes on me.
Suddenly I hear an excited tinkle of bells directly behind me and I whirl around to find Cicero standing a mere three feet away, his wild red hair barely contained beneath his jauntily-placed jester's hat and a wide smile upon his thin face. Dark shadows hang in the hollows of his eyes and I suspect he has slept as little as I have, but the pale grey of his irises are bright with excitement.
'You're late!' he cries as I step back instinctively to put some distance between us, remembering the touch of his hands on my bare body the night before, and suddenly a bitter realisation hits me. If I die today, the last hands to have touched my naked body will be his.
'Are you ready?' I say abruptly, feeling the chill of the morning air work its way beneath my jacket and through the delicate silk of my dress.
Cicero throws his arms wide, the loud ringing of bells his answer. 'Don't I look ready?' he says, mock outrage in his voice as he gestures to his clothing, the jester's patched red and blacks no different than what I have seen him wear before.
'You didn't want to dress for the occasion, then,' I say dryly, and Cicero giggles loudly, seemingly oblivious to the strange looks we receive from the people around us.
'Of course I dressed, Wren, I can't very well go naked, can I?' he says with a wicked grin before he shudders dramatically. 'This frosty unfriendly land is far too cold for poor Cicero to do that, and a jester stripped of his bells and colours, why, all the fair maidens that looked upon sweet Cicero would cry out in sorrow and lust!'
'Lust?' I echo, and in spite of everything, I feel my mouth pull into a sarcastic smile. 'Of course, I'm sure you've left a path of swooning women all the way to Solitude.'
The jester laughs delightedly at my jab, the excitement brightening in his grey eyes. 'Such a cruel bird,' he says happily, seemingly not offended in the slightest. 'Such a fair maiden with such a sweetly biting and dangerous tongue!'
'I'm hardly a fair maiden,' I say shortly, feeling my face flush awkwardly at the jester's mention of my tongue, remembering suddenly what Brynjolf had said the night before and knowing that I cannot forget the danger that the jester poses to me - and yet, even as I look at Cicero and remember the touch of his hands on my body, an uncomfortable shiver teases down my spine with the truth that I could not tell Brynjolf the night before. I would rather Cicero touch himself to the thought of me than have him expose my plans to Astrid, I think, the awkward flush of my cheeks deepening as another realisation hits me. And if I die today with the jester's touch the last on my body, at least his hands were unexpectedly gentle.
'No,' Cicero agrees matter-of-factly, mercifully oblivious to my thoughts. 'Maidens are silk and perfume, a fine pretence, flimsy as a single feather. But a little bird, soft fragile wings hiding clawed talons, and a piercing beak to penetrate the deserving, the unsuspecting...' The jester lapses into silence for a few moments before he speaks again, his voice low. 'Fair maidens know not that sorrow and lust are one and the same, having and not having, bereft and overcome.'
I draw my arms tighter around me, feeling a strange shiver down my spine with his words. 'We should get moving,' I say, not wanting to waste any more time, but as I start to turn away to the guarded gates, Cicero grabs my arm and pulls me back.
'No, we should wait, sweet bird, I'm not dressed for a fight,' he says mildly, and at his last word I hear a sudden shout from ahead, and when I turn to look at the gates leading to the inner courtyard of the castle, I realise that a confrontation has broken out between two guests jostling to be allowed entry first – neither are victorious, as the guards intervene at once, steel separating the arguing guests in an instant.
'How-' I start, wondering how Cicero foresaw the fight before it broke out.
'Shield your eyes, my dear!' he cries out gallantly as the guards start to escort the arguing guests through the crowd away from the entrance. 'Oh, such a terrible display of manners, on such a glorious day. You should be ashamed!'
'What happened to not drawing attention to ourselves?' I whisper. 'Cicero-'
'Fret not, songbird,' the jester says, looking at me with a serious expression. 'Let Cicero play his part, and you play yours. Play the pretence of a silk maiden. We all have our parts to play, oh yes, and it's silly to argue with the masters of the stage. The jester is the jester, the sweet bird is the sweet bird, and the...' He stops abruptly, a frown creasing his thin face as he looks to either side of me. 'Where is he? Your shadow? The ill-tempered one?'
'He's not coming with us,' I say, well aware of who the jester means and feeling Brynjolf's absence all the more keenly in that moment.
The jester hums softly, his frown disappearing as abruptly as it came. 'Lost her jewel and lost her shadow,' he mutters to himself. 'She has her jester, though, bells and colours and red ribbons, and she'll have two eyes by the end of the night, oh yes, blue as the morning sky, of hope, of a dawn come at last.' His voice brightens once more as he continues his previous thread of thought. 'Anyway, as Cicero was saying, the jester is the jester, the sweet bird is the sweet bird, and the thief is the thief. The jester can't be the sweet bird and the sweet bird can't be the thief, not now, not anymore, and the thief certainly can't be the jester, not ever. He'd make a terrible jester. No laughter, no smiles, and certainly no jokes.'
'I'm sure he would've smiled at you or told more jokes if you hadn't held a knife to his throat when you first met,' I point out, although I suspect that no manner of pleasant introduction between Brynjolf and Cicero could have forged a friendly relationship between the two. More than their differing preferences for blood or gold separate them.
Cicero only hums thoughtfully again, and after several long seconds, I find myself relieved of his lack of response, preferring that we wait in silence. Although his strange conversations are at least a distraction from thinking about what is ahead, I think as I stand looking up at the gates, my eyes blurring for a moment as I stare at the pristine white walls, and when I close my eyes tightly I see the same walls imprinted in scarlet on my eyelids.
'Shall I tell you a story while we wait?' Cicero asks suddenly from beside me, and I open my eyes to find him staring at me, his own eyes wide and eager, as a child anticipating their favourite game. 'Oh, let me tell a story!'
I hesitate, remembering vividly all of the jester's strange ramblings in the short time that I have known him. And last night most of all, when he caught me naked and unarmed and told me the story of how he watches me from the shadows. 'I don't think so,' I say quietly, conscious that Brynjolf is not here to intervene. 'We have more important things to talk about,' I add, careful to keep my voice lowered as I realise now is the only time to discuss my plan for my contract. And what worked with Lorias will hopefully work with a soldier too. 'I know a way to get Maro alone, and then-'
'Improvisation is the finest art of performance,' Cicero interrupts brightly. 'Planning the steps of the dance leads to perfection, and perfection leads to fear, and fear ruins it all, songbird. We'll just sing and see where the notes lead us.'
'So just see what happens?' I repeat, cursing myself for not having had this conversation with him before now. But telling Cicero that I'll offer myself to the soldier never seemed appropriate, I think, although suddenly I wonder why it now seems appropriate. Maybe since the jester touched my wet naked body last night. 'Cicero, we can't risk attracting any attention by-'
'But on the contrary, songbird, we're here not only to draw attention, but to be the very centre of it.' The jester inclines his head and lowers his voice abruptly, his words little more than a murmur. 'Did you forget already? The rose and the knife, the drawing of the curtain, the deception and the truth... don't you remember?'
'I remember,' I say, recalling perfectly well the moment when he drew a dying rose and held it to my stomach without my realising. For anyone else, he promised a knife.
'You remember,' Cicero echoes, his eyes holding mine unblinkingly. 'But you have not yet learnt the lesson. Just like the poor fool... oh but he learnt, the hard way, in the end... I can tell the story quietly, you know. It's a good story, a sad story, a scary story, of love and death and the deepest of things unnamed. The Rose and the Knife, yes, the title of the play, for the maid was as fair as a rose and there were knives too many to count.' The jester's face lights up with a sudden smile. 'If you knew the lines, you could act the maid and I the fool, but sweet talented Cicero is used to playing all the parts, and he knows the tale far better. Shall I tell it to you, sweet bird? Quietly, of course. We wouldn't want to attract attention.'
'I don't think-' I start to say, but the jester does not wait for me to finish speaking before he continues, and I realise that he is not in the least interested in my answer to his question or whether I want to hear his story.
'There once was a fool who knew only light and love,' he says softly, his words slow and measured. 'He was the laughter in the night, warming like a fire before cold hands. Those that knew him loved him dearly, craved the laughter and the warmth and his smiles, but there was only one that he loved dearly in return, and it was her warmth he craved, her laughter he dreamt of in those cold nights, her smile he wished to capture with his lips and make it his own for eternity. She was his light and his love. His life.' Cicero closes his eyes for a moment, his body still and his mouth barely moving. 'But laughter can be cold too, and betrayal of the heart turns hands colder still, and one day he wrapped those spurned cold hands around her white slender throat, oh, sad fool, hateful love, loyal treachery, he learnt the truth of deception then, and the pretence of a maiden's smile. I ought to have given her a rose, he murmured, again and again and again, screaming one moment, laughing the next, his hands flooding with blood, knives slipping between his fingers as he wept red. He had become life and death, you see, sweet bird. Deathly pale was his skin, were his eyes, flowing blood his hair and his hungry mouth. When he tried to wash it away, he couldn't. It was always there, beneath the surface, waiting, as lips always hide a smile. The poison was in his veins, with no way of drawing it out, and that's when he learnt... the rose and the knife, the paradise of beauty and the steel pain... they are the same, as the sorrow and the lust are the same, as night and day, as eyes lidded and eyes opened wide, a mouth straight or smiling, loving bruises or cold laughter. They are all the same. They are all...' The jester pauses as he stares at me, his eyes stormy grey and pained. 'Blood, sweet bird, blood and life, which is death too, night and day, open eyes and closed eyes. That poor fool, as he held her body, laughing, crying, he knew he was living death, life is dying, he relived as she died, again and again and again, crying, laughing...' The jester tails off, the storm in his eyes cooling as he looks away from me. 'Laughing, always,' he mutters under his breath, staring at the ground as if waiting for something to appear there. 'He was merry in death, as he was in life. The fool... the poor fool.'
Silence falls, and for a few long-drawn seconds, the murmur of the crowds around us seems to dim in my ears and the only sound I can hear is the steady slow beating of my heart. And his? I wonder suddenly, uncertain whether the strange echo of a heartbeat that I can hear is some trick of the jester's or if I am only imagining it. Or maybe mine is not steady at all, but twice as fast and too quick for me to count.
'Who was the fool?' I ask, my voice hushed and the question tumbling from my lips although I already know the answer. He speaks in riddles and poetry, but he has never hidden who he is.
Cicero looks up at me sharply, startled as if he had forgotten my presence, his grey eyes bright with bitter vehemence as he stares at me silently for several seconds, although somewhere beneath the pain I almost see a flash of fear. 'He was first man I killed,' Cicero answers at last, and before I can blink in surprise or discern whether his words are merely another riddle, the jester shrugs his slim shoulders, the motion purposefully aggressive to make the bells sewn into his clothing jingle loudly. 'A nameless man. You'll hear no songs of him. He has no story. Life may be death and death life, but there's the one truth that has no lie; a man without a story is no man at all. And every fool has a hundred stories, but does that make him a hundred fools or one man? Oh look!' the jester exclaims suddenly with a chiming of bells as he waves towards the gates and I turn around to find that the crowd ahead has thinned, opening the way to the tall white gates of the castle. 'Light and life and love await us... and you didn't even notice, sweet bird.'
I turn back to him to find him beaming widely, no trace remaining of his pain or the bitter chill that lingered in his expression. As I look at him, the jester's grey eyes flicker downward, and I follow his gaze to realise with a jolt that he holds a small white rose against my navel, the petals pressed directly against the place where the shadowmark is scarred into my skin.
'Twice innocent,' Cicero murmurs as my body freezes instinctively, part of me knowing that the jester will not draw a blade on me here and yet my tense muscles hold me in place, wary that the rose in his hand will change to a knife if I move even an inch. 'Twice blind. Forget the fool's story, sweet bird. White pure innocence, you must wear it today, the best of disguises for the darkest of deeds.' He taps the rose against my stomach as he did the first time when we stood together in Falkreath city, the white of the petals stark against the dark Guild leathers that I am still wearing over my silk gown. 'It's time to play the part.' Cicero's voice drops lower and harder, his tone at once strange and yet familiar. 'Take it off, Wren.'
The low force of his words startles me, and for one wild moment I think that the rose is indeed a knife and the jester's pale hand is Mercer's, precise, skilled, capable of marking my skin and claiming every inch of me in any way he decides. Commanding with a touch as easily as with his voice.
Before I can force the thought from my mind, Cicero's expression breaks in a wide smile and he breaks the moment too as he takes a step backwards, holding the rose up with a flourish. 'And take poor Cicero's gift of innocence,' he says, his voice returned to its normal pitch. 'Only brides wear pure white gowns, t'is true, but as far as the silly fool knows, there are no rules about pure white roses.'
I take a slow breath and hesitate for only a moment, realising that the jester is right and I have no choice but to play the part given to me. The part I gave to myself, for Astrid, in exchange for the parts she took from me, I remember as I lift my hands to my chest and begin to remove my jacket, my fingers steady with the fastenings. The deceptions of innocence and roses aside, at least I'm no longer a fool or afraid.
Goosebumps rise on my exposed skin above my breasts with the kiss of the cool morning air as I hurry to pull off my Guild leathers to reveal my deep violet gown, quickly feeling conscious of the scar at my throat that is only partly concealed by the jewels Brynjolf gave me - but before I can adjust the necklace to best cover Mercer's handiwork, I hear the jester make a soft intake of breath, and I look up to find him staring at me with his grey eyes wide and his lips parted slightly, a strangely enraptured expression upon his pale face.
'Fair maiden of silk and perfume after all,' he murmurs, his gaze moving over my body with a precision as careful as Brynjolf and the former Guildmaster's, and the goosebumps already gracing my skin seem to turn to needles when I suddenly realise that I feel as vulnerable and exposed as I felt beneath Mercer's hard gaze or Brynjolf's selfless touch. It's my nakedness.
I clutch my Guild leathers to me, the comforting weight as familiar to me as both Guildmasters, until Cicero proffers his white rose once more and holds out his other hand for the exchange. I am the fool to trust him, given what he knows about my intentions with Astrid, I think, hesitating for only a moment longer before I pass him my Guild jacket and take the rose, the stem curiously smooth and thornless and the petals a brilliant untouched white. But if he wants to play a game, then my only choice is to play along too.
'To the stage, then,' Cicero says, and I look up from the rose to find his eyes wild and excited. 'We have a song to sing, and the audience awaits. Don't forget to smile.'
'... and the man says, that's not a horker, that's my wife!' Cicero's peals of laughter drown out the mild titters of the watching crowd, the jester's audience largely consisting of children and a couple of drunken older women who seem not to be guests but rather kitchen maids shirking their duties to make the most of the revelries. Although Cicero's more likely to be relieved of his job than them, I think as I step forward, flagon in hand, to refill the maids' glasses. Their eyes glazed with the sweet winter wine and vague boredom, the women seem not to see me as I pour their drinks, and I wonder if that is Cicero's plan. To entertain children and bore everyone else to point where they ignore us entirely.
Recognising some sense in the jester's idea and yet feeling my impatience grow with every passing hour that Cicero insists on playing the part of entertainer rather than assassin, I sidle away to replenish my flagon from one of the glass fountains at the edges of the cavernous ballroom, the polished heartwood tables lining the hall nearly collapsing beneath the weight of the artfully displayed food and drink. We should have a waterfall of wine in the Cistern, I think absentmindedly, dipping the flagon into the fountain to fill it with the deep plum liquid, resisting the urge to sample it myself.
To my relief, the invitation Astrid gave to me is only one of a hundred, and between the array of jesters, jugglers, musicians and dancers, my disguise as a bard goes blessedly unnoticed; instead I gladly adopt the responsibility of nothing more than a wine flagon, knowing that the nerves drying my throat would betray me should I be asked to sing, and much preferring the task of ensuring the guests never find their cups empty. And ensuring Maro doesn't leave my sight.
For the hundredth time, I scan across the ballroom and find where Gaius Maro presently stands beneath one of the marble archways that lead out onto the twilit castle gardens. His charges remain within arm's reach of the soldier, the regal bride's cascade of white lace and silks and the blond groom's exquisite jewelled golden cape having made it easy for me to keep their protector within my sights. An easy target, but one that has come with several dozen witnesses at any time, I think, sighing quietly as I observe the well-wishers surrounding the bride and groom and my mark. I look away, knowing that it is not yet the time, and instead make my way back to Cicero, finding that the jester has lost his meagre audience in my absence.
'No taste for honest laughs,' he mutters under his breath, stuffing a myriad of rainbow feathers up his sleeves, evidently part of a failed act although I have no desire to enquire further.
I glance across the ballroom once more, my eyes already trained to look beyond the distractions of the revelry, seeing only the lean steel form of the soldier destined to meet his end at my blades. Astrid was right, he is handsome, I think, noting the clean hard lines of Maro's brow, cheeks and jaw that mirror the unyielding edges of his armour, his mouth a hard line too and his deep brown wavy hair tied back and away from his face, presumably so as not to impair his vision while he surveys everyone in the vicinity. I'm not close enough to see if his eyes really are as blue as Astrid claimed, although I suppose they will be in my hands soon enough.
Despite my resolve, nausea clenches my stomach at the thought and I turn back to Cicero quickly, more relieved of the jester's presence than I anticipated. He will make this easier, as if cutting out the soldier's blue eyes were nothing more than a game.
'Another hour or so and I'll approach him,' I tell Cicero quietly, wanting the festivities to be at their peak when I proposition the soldier, conscious that he is not likely to be drunk himself but at least any witnesses might not be sober enough to intervene or apprehend me. 'Follow me when I do.'
Cicero only hums a tune in response, the feathers safely back in his sleeves and his attention now on tracing the patches of red and black on his chest, a familiar tinkling of bells arising from beneath his fingers. I clutch the flagon of wine and stand beside him silently, letting the noise and colour wash over me for a while, the clamour of voices and laughter and the sound of glasses and cups making me imagine for a second that I am back in the Ragged Flagon. Although the Flagon was just as likely to be deathly quiet too, I think, remembering its watery dark scent and the taste of its questionable wine and the way the shadows lingered in its depths. There's little such place for a thief to hide here, I realise, before the thought of one particular thief draws my thoughts away and I wonder if Brynjolf is among the crowds or he has found a place to watch hidden from shadows that I cannot see. He will be fine, I reassure myself, sorrow fluttering for a moment deep in my heart when I remember that Brynjolf has escaped this city before but not without losing something in the process.
'You needn't sing, little bird,' Cicero says suddenly, and I look back at the jester to find him staring across the ballroom. 'But you might want to stretch your wings and fly.'
I follow his gaze to where my own eyes lingered previously, and with a jolt I realise that the bride and groom have disappeared, along with Maro. Panicked, I scan the cavernous hall hurriedly but I see no sign of the couple and their guard amidst the swathes of colourful chattering guests.
'Where did they go?' I turn to the jester, frustration edging my voice when I know I should have kept a more vigilant watch on my target. Instead of daydreaming of a place I might not see again and a person I cannot afford to think of right now.
Cicero shrugs, his nonchalance testing my patience even more. 'Cicero knows not, he was thinking of heroes and wordsmiths and the pain of being unappreciated in one's own time,' he says petulantly before casting a narrow-eyed glare at me. 'You didn't laugh either. Were your poor fool's jokes not amusing enough for the sharp-tongued bird?'
'I have more important things to think about than making sure that I laugh at your jokes,' I say, the jester's eyes widening in both indignation and delight at my retort. 'Come on, help me find where they went.'
'More important things?' Cicero repeats, following me as I start to walk away, keeping to the edge of the ballroom as I head in the direction of the archways leading out to the gardens where I last saw my mark. 'Poor Wren, you are the greater fool than I, for there is nothing more important than laughter… except maybe… hm… a good bowl of horker stew…'
I sigh, trying not to register my panic that the soldier and the newlyweds are out of my sight and Cicero seems not to be concerned. 'Then feel free to think of Maro as a very tasty horker,' I mutter, and the jester bursts into loud laughter, drawing startled glances from a group of guests nearby as we make our way past them.
'Oh, how delectable!' Cicero dances ahead of me, bells jangling loudly enough to almost drown out his voice as he sings beneath his breath. 'Oh, yes, let's hunt them then, tasty worms for the fool and his hungry bird, eyes drawn and thirst bestirred… come, come, in the fresh night air might we snare... a horker, or even a wife!'
The jester darts forward through the crowds and I hurry to keep up behind him, still clutching the flagon of wine in my hands and nearly tripping over the hem of my gown, feeling my daggers dig uncomfortably against my thighs as I walk towards the archways. A few bruises on my legs will be worth it, I think, and a minute later I step out into the courtyard, the heat of the ballroom and clamour of noise and myriad scents of food and wine giving way to the delicate aroma of the roses and a faint cinnamon warmth from the lanterns illuminating the gardens in a soft glow. The white walls of the castle rise high on all sides and into the distance, a number of balconies providing the corresponding rooms within with a view overlooking the gardens and rainbows of candlelight falling onto the garden paths from the myriad of stained glass windows of the castle.
I breathe deeply, the night air cooling the flush in my cheeks from the heat of the ballroom, and I look around slowly, realising that the gardens are more a maze than the colourful chaos of the main hall. They could be anywhere, I think as I scan the winding path ahead of me leading deeper into the gardens, the array of ornamental trees and flowers more vibrant than the clothes of the few guests that walk the courtyard in the starlight.
Cicero murmurs indistinctly from beside me, and I glance at him to find him closed-eyed, dancing slowly from foot to foot, clearly still unconcerned that our target is lost to us.
'Aren't you going to help me look for them?' I hiss, but the jester does not open his eyes, a soft smile at his mouth.
'When we're done here and on our way back home, I should compose a song for the stars,' he says thoughtfully. Eyes still closed, he tilts his head back and breathes a deep sigh. 'There is such beauty in the sky at night, sweet bird… sweet, night bird...'
Night bird, nightingale, I'm still wingless, I think as I turn away in frustration and cast another look around the gardens, suddenly fearing that Cicero's distraction will continue in the moments when I must undertake my contract, when I am hoping to rely on him the most. I've killed before and I'll kill again, taking Maro's life is nothing when I have come this far, but that's not all Astrid has told me to do.
Imagining the blueness of the soldier's eyes and feeling my stomach twist with nausea, I take a deep steadying breath and look up at the night sky, the leafy heights of the trees swaying in the gentle evening breeze. Cicero is right, the stars are beautiful, but they aren't what I need, I think as I notice a dark flutter of wings amidst the foliage above and I cannot help but wish that I had the ability to see from the eyes of the ravens settling in the trees. Maybe that comes later for a Nightingale if I live long enough, I think flippantly, picturing Karliah's violet eyes and recalling the hue of the Twilight Sepulcher. She would be able to find Maro effortlessly.
Suddenly a flash of unadulterated white catches my attention at the edge of my vision and I hear a burst of warm laughter above, followed by the faint sound of gentle kisses. My heart beating fast, I look away from the birds and towards one of the balconies, the bride's gown seeming to almost glitter beneath the open sky as her new husband wraps his arms around her and lays kisses upon her neck. No sign of Maro, but he must be in the chamber beyond, I realise, although the thought slips away from me easily as I watch the pair embrace, and suddenly I feel keenly aware of my own body, my own neck, my own lips, and for the few moments that I watch the couple from far below, the rest of the night vanishes, the hours past and the hours ahead vanish. Their happiness will be tainted by what I do tonight.
'They're up there,' I murmur at last to Cicero, knowing I cannot draw out the illusion and risk losing them from my sight again.
A disinterested jingle of bells at my side answers me. 'A song for the stars, yes,' Cicero mutters as I scan the face of the castle wall and try to ascertain exactly how I am to find the correct room that leads to the balcony. 'Pretty stars, innocent stars, watching always… where's your rose, Wren?'
I do not reply, more concerned with figuring out how to reach the bride and groom rather than engaging in Cicero's nonsense, concluding that I may have to resort to wandering the castle for hours and trying every door on the second floor before I find the right room. And pray that Maro is the only guard I encounter on the way.
'The rose, Wren!' Cicero grabs my arm and pulls me around to face him, wine sloshing in the flagon and insistence edging his voice. 'The rose, the innocent rose, I gave it to you at the gates, perfect and unspoilt, where is it?'
'What?' I snap in confusion, trying to remember when I had last held the rose, realising that I had exchanged it for a wine flagon at some point during the festivities. 'I think I left it on a table in the ballroom.'
The jester breathes a long suffering sigh, disappointment clouding his grey eyes. 'Then I suppose we'll just have to pluck another one,' he says irritably. 'And hope that the little girls here only like to catch bouquets rather than eat them.' He sighs again, before his expression brightens abruptly into a wide smile. 'Oh, this means we'll have to improvise! The greatest art, the most fun! Come along then, naughty bird. Let's find our horker. You bring the wine and I'll bring, hmm… an excessive amount of talent and laughter, naturally.'
With a ringing of bells, he darts forward along one of the paths through the garden, and I pause only for a moment before I follow in his footsteps, hoping that he has a better sense of direction than me.
'Do you know where-' I start, but the jester shushes me, waving his hand to silence my question.
'Quiet is best now,' he says, not turning around to look at me as he takes a winding path between fragrant blossom trees towards the deep shadow of the castle walls. 'Save your voice, songbird. We have a private performance to attend.'
Sensing the futility in arguing, I oblige and follow Cicero wordlessly along the path, glancing back once at the balcony and praying that the couple remain where they are. A minute later, Cicero ducks beneath a leafy canopy and I follow, emerging into a small secluded courtyard nestled against the castle wall, a marble bench tucked between pale pink rose bushes and a fountain sending a delicate arc of water into the air.
I see the small door into the castle half-hidden behind the rose bushes before Cicero points it out, and I dart forward quicker than the jester. 'You've been here before?' I whisper as I hurry towards the door. Maybe he was imprisoned in the dungeons here once, just as Brynjolf was.
'Cicero is fond of quiet pretty places,' he says dreamily, following to stand beside me at the rose bushes that shroud the door. 'He seeks them out, like a moth to a flame, like the hungry darkness to… oh, be careful!' he hisses, grabbing my wrist to stop me as I reach to part the roses. 'Sharp thorns, prickly stems, they aren't kind to delicate hands!'
'Cicero-' I start, hardly concerned about a few scratches, but the jester pushes in front of me and pulls the rose bush aside with one hand.
'We don't want to spoil the quiet pretty place with your blood, Wren,' Cicero says primly, gesturing me towards the door with a flourish of his other hand.
'I thought you liked the colour red,' I say flippantly as I step forward and reach for the door handle.
'Oh yes,' Cicero says. 'Flushed cheeks, red skies of morning, a fool spinning scarlet threads, and-' He stops speaking abruptly as I try to open the door and unsurprisingly find it locked. 'Oh Mother, oh bother, what to do?'
I do not reply to the jester as I reach up to free a pin from my hair, trying not to let my mind race back to the Thieves Guild, or to the night I entered the Cistern for the first time, or to the thief that had led me there. He said he'd be here if I needed him, but how would I even know where he is or how to ask for his help? I think, suddenly feeling as small as I did the night I met the red-haired thief. The carving knife felt heavy, Mercer's gaze felt heavy, but Brynjolf's hands on my waist and my hair pins teasing the lock felt safe, encouraging, reminding me of what I can accomplish.
The roses guarding the hidden door into the depths of Castle Dour prove to be more of a challenge than the lock; I hear the familiar click after only a few seconds, and I push open the door to reveal a narrow lightless passageway, mercifully silent and empty of both guards and guests.
Behind me, Cicero squeals softly. 'Quick hands, quiet pretty hands, quick quick quickly now,' he says, before he skips around me and he steps inside first. 'Come on, Cicero is losing count in his mind of the windows, and if he loses count, he loses his mind! Quick, quick… six, seven, four, two up one down, he needs silence to remember...'
Trying to remember my own estimation of the balcony's location, I follow the jester inside and close the door behind us, the distant sounds of the revelry silenced abruptly. So quiet, every scream will carry down these halls, I think as Cicero leads the way through the darkness to a stairwell rising steeply at the end of the passageway. My eyes mercifully adjusting to the lack of light quickly, I decide to simply try to memorise our path so that we can find our way back rather than, but after two steep spiral stairwells and several winding dark passageways, and Cicero's decision to backtrack and retrace our steps twice, I soon lose all sense of how to find my way back to the rose-hidden door without the jester. But at least there aren't guards so far.
I realise my luck ends there, and when Cicero finally opens a door to another passageway, torchlit and wider than the other hidden hallways, my nerves rise sharply when we find the way guarded by six men armed in steel, standing at intervals down the passageway. And a seventh soldier by the door at the end, familiar and blue eyed and waiting for me.
Trying to move naturally and yet suddenly conscious of my daggers beneath the fine silk of my dress, I walk with Cicero down the passageway, the other guards not stopping us but their gazes hard and suspicious as we pass, their hands conspicuously resting on the hilts of their weapons. Blocking the closed door at the end of the hallway, Gaius Maro waits silently, his expression mirroring those of his comrades. Closer and in the brighter torchlight, I realise that Maro is not much older than I am, but a head taller and twice as wide of shoulder. Handsome as he was from afar, and now I know that Astrid was right about his eyes too. I feel my heart beat faster as we approach.
Maro and half a dozen armed guards, or Maro and two likely drunk newlyweds? I wonder, the thought needing little consideration before I realise that I have to get into the room away from the other guards.
Cicero clearly arrives at the same conclusion, and he leaps forward to close the final steps between us and the doomed soldier, beaming a wide smile. 'We're here for the bride and groom!' he says. 'Let us pass, shiny steel man!'
Maro does not flinch, his blue eyes taking in Cicero with disdain. 'The lord and lady are not to be disturbed,' Maro says bluntly, his voice as cold as his eyes. 'Leave, now.'
'Oh, you needn't worry, we only came to sing songs and caper for the couple! See, here!' Cicero reaches into his sleeve and pulls out a small wilted bouquet of pansies, pink and purple petals scattering on the floor as he waves the dead flowers in the soldier's face, and as Maro's expression hardens further, I force myself to step forward and act.
'Forgive the fool, he's had a little too much to drink,' I say to Maro, hoping that he will consider us less of a threat if he believes Cicero to be intoxicated. I feel like I am drunk enough for the both of us, I think, lightheaded and heart pounding as Maro turns his cool blue gaze onto me and I continue speaking, trying to sound at ease. 'We mean no harm. We were in the gardens when the bride and groom called down to me from their balcony and asked me to bring them more wine.' I hold up the flagon. 'I understand that we can't enter their private room, but please can you pass this along to them on my behalf, as they commanded?'
Maro does not move to take the wine flagon from my hands. 'I don't think so.' His suspicion does not leave his eyes, but in the ice blue I see a flicker of a different type of caution. He serves to a fault; he doesn't want to be wrong and disobey his masters' commands. 'They have wine.'
'They clearly want more, as they sent for it.' I pause, hoping that my smile appears innocent and charming rather than nervous. 'Of course, ask them if you like. We will wait, at your pleasure and theirs. I only want to obey their order and then return to my duties in the ballroom.' I turn to look at Cicero, his grey eyes wide with excitement, no doubt delighted by my lies. 'Clean the mess up while we wait,' I tell him sharply, throwing a pointed glance at the petals on the floor. 'I don't have time for your antics tonight.'
Cicero squeals and drops to his hands and knees in an instant, pale skeletal hands scooping the dead flowers towards him. 'Yes, mistress, yes, Mother, yes, my lady,' he chatters under his breath. 'Back to the wine, back to the ballroom, back to business.'
I make a weary sigh before I look back at Maro, finding the soldier studying me closely, not guarded in his open appraisal of every inch of my body. Of my worth, of my danger, I think, remembering how I felt the first time I stepped foot into the Cistern and stood before Mercer's desk, under his gaze, at his mercy. As I stand before Maro, it does not take much for me to emulate how I felt in those moments with Mercer, shrinking back on myself and making myself seem small. Insignificant, a soft young woman in a silk dress, a little bird naked.
'Stay,' Gaius Maro says shortly, and he turns away to the door, rapping his steel-clad knuckles on the oak twice.
Distantly from within, I hear a man's voice answer, and Maro opens the door, the hinges silent. From my position behind the soldier, I catch a glance of the expansive chamber beyond, filled with rich drapes of plum and gilded mahogany furniture lit with a warm candlelight, but before I can make any more sense of the room, there is a flash of scarlet and black movement from the corner of my eye.
'Congratulations!' Cicero sings as he bounds to his feet, nimbly avoiding the soldier as he darts past him into the room, throwing his handfuls of petals wildly into the air. 'Sweet bride, lucky groom, many congrat– oh!'
The jester makes it only a few feet into the room before Maro grabs him by the arm with one hand, twisting him into a locking hold while the soldier's other hand drops to his sword. Cicero has the good sense not to squeal loudly and I have to force myself not to race forward in panic into the room, conscious of the guards in the hallway and not wanting to draw them to us.
'I told you not to drink so much, you damned fool,' I scold lightly, praying that Maro does not call for the aid of his guards. To my relief, Maro seems to realise he is more than capable of detaining the jester by himself, and as I step across the threshold unhurriedly, he does not call for his comrades and nor do they approach of their own volition, evidently judging us minor threats. But the door is still open, they could come to his aid at any moment.
'Please, steel man, I only came to caper,' Cicero says meekly, mercifully not resisting Maro's hold. 'Wine, caper, oh, some nice tasty capers with horker-'
'What's this?' The groom appears from beneath an ornate archway leading out to the open balcony; having set aside his fine golden cape, he is fair and flushed of face, although the drunken bliss turns to bewilderment at the scene he finds before him, his guard holding a strange jester and a young woman standing with a flagon of wine just inside the threshold of their private chamber. 'Gaius, we asked not to be disturbed.'
'Disturbed, crazy, oh no, not the poor fool,' Cicero says, his voice earnest and his eyes wide as he looks up at the groom from the soldier's steel hold. 'He's sweet as a lamb, or a baby bird, yes, he's so sorry, so very sorry. We just wanted to say congratulations, such a lovely day, lovely weather, hm, lovely words and kisses, yes! New life, new beginnings, yes, yes!'
'Apologies, my lord,' I say, and as the groom turns his gaze to me, I awkwardly make a curtsy with the wine flagon still grasped in both hands, hoping that the motion does not reveal the shape of my daggers under the thin silk of my dress. 'He really means no harm. If you just ignore him, he'll stop soon enough.'
'Men rarely work that way,' the dark-haired bride says, following her husband into the chamber from the balcony, her regal posture a little more relaxed and a jewelled goblet in her hand. A nearly empty goblet, at least. 'Ignoring them only confuses them further, and I imagine this one is easily confused?'
'He seems more of a danger to himself,' the groom observes drily. 'Let him go, Gaius, I'll have no blood shed here, and much less that of a halfwit.'
Maro obeys immediately, although his expression cannot disguise exactly how he feels about releasing the jester. Cicero, however, makes up for the soldier's cold suspicion with a wide gracious smile at the groom, falling to his knees amongst the petals on the plush rug covering the floor.
'Sweet kind lord,' Cicero says, looking up at him in awe. 'Gentle lord to let the halfwit jester go. Half the brains, half the smarts, he meant no harm, t'was a jape, a joke, a fool's game, half the mind means double the fun, double the laughs, double the delight!'
'Fools and their laughs,' the bride says, her tone as unimpressed as her new husband's, and she casts a cool eyed gaze at the jester. 'Did any of our guests truly find your flowers and ribbons entertaining?'
Rather than insulted, Cicero appears delighted by her cutting remark, and he clambers ungainly to his feet, half-skipping and half-stumbling as he backs away a few steps further into the room. 'Very well, very well, something of a more… intriguing nature?' he says excitably, reaching with one hand to his other sleeve, and as if from thin air suddenly he brandishes a long dark slender implement, a moment later bringing one end down with a sharp slap against his other hand.
I forget you're just a delicate soft thing, Mercer's voice murmurs in my ear with the stark hard sound, and I feel my wrists chained to the bed, my body bent over for him, his hands gripping my sore skin, his mouth and tongue pressed to the raw marks where he whipped me hard. You know I can hurt you but I can also make you feel so good.
I step back instinctively and almost drop the wine flagon in my sudden fear, realising that Cicero's implement is a black leather bound riding crop with a coil of leather strips at the end. And Mercer isn't here, I force myself to realise too, although under the violent beating of my heart, I feel my throat throb and the shadowmark scar at my navel tingle and for a wild moment I feel the Guildmaster's hands on every inch of my cold skin.
Drunken laughter jolts me back to reality, and to my relief I find that the newlyweds seem hardly perturbed by the jester's act, instead smirking in their inebriation as they eye the jester's riding crop.
'Well, I'm sure our guests weren't treated to that,' the groom comments, as his wife giggles.
'Oh no, and what is a treat but a sweet bite!' Cicero says in delight, stroking the length of the crop with one hand as he holds it aloft. 'Unsuspecting, sharp and sweet and, oh, let the fool think… well then, let me tell you the tale of the wife and the horker, it's quite the tale, with a sting in the tail, and, oh, quite a… sting!' The jester accompanies his final word with a sharp slap of the crop against his leg, the hidden bells in his motley jingling. 'I will play the part of the hero, the horker, the man with a tale to tell and a tail to tie, and the sweet wife shall be-'
'Enough of this,' Maro interrupts harshly, stepping forward with his hand on the hilt of his sword.
'Oh, Gaius, relax a little.' The groom raises his hand to stop the soldier before Maro can draw his weapon. 'Halfwit he may be, but now I'm curious what other devices he has hidden up his sleeves.'
The bride giggles again, leaning against her husband. 'Or anywhere else on his person,' she says.
They're drunk enough to not see the danger, I think with satisfaction as Cicero beams innocently at the couple. But Maro does. The soldier casts a hard eyed look at Cicero before turning back to his masters, steel-armoured hand still resting at his sword. 'My lord, my lady, I would advise-'
'Let him dance his dance a while,' the groom commands, his arm snaking around his wife's white lace waist. 'The night is still young and I'll not have it said we turned away gestures of goodwill and celebration.' He eyes the crop in Cicero's hands. 'Or gestures of a… what was it? An intriguing nature?'
'Yes, close the door and take the wine from this quiet creature,' the bride says to Maro, pointing with her goblet to me, her gaze wavering drunkenly as she studies me. 'See if you can put a smile on Gaius' face and I'll double whatever pay you've been promised tonight,' she tells me in a failed attempt of a stage whisper. 'The poor boy needs a good-'
'Come! Come!' Cicero cries out, waving the riding crop as he darts towards the archway and the balcony beyond. 'I need space for my dance, and the stars are so pretty, they sparkle like the eyes of the fair bride. Sweet eyes, like sweet sunrise, oh, and the taste of sweet thighs!'
As Cicero whips the leather against his leg and bounds out to the balcony, the groom draws his bride close and mutters something in her ear, both of them giggling as they follow Cicero out to the balcony. I stand with the wine flagon in hand and the soldier beside me, and suddenly I have to fight the urge to laugh and confess to Maro that he is not alone in his surprise. She even told me to try to seduce him, I think, as Maro abruptly turns away without a word or glance to me and he strides to the chamber door, closing it with a hard snap, no doubt relieving some of his displeasure on the hinges rather than the true object of his irritation.
'I would apologise again for the jester, but it seems the happy couple are quite enjoying his act,' I say lightly, and as Maro turns back to me, I feel a shiver run down my spine as I study him at proximity for the first time, my gaze drawn to his startlingly blue eyes.
The soldier makes a brief sound of acknowledgement in his throat but offers no other response to my words, and instead he starts forward as if to walk past me, no doubt intending to follow his masters and the sound of Cicero's chattering voice in the direction of the balcony. He has no desire to be alone with me, much less at the expense of his duty, I think, and I quickly adjust my hold on wine flagon and reach with one hand to touch the soldier's steel-clad arm before he can move past me, not sure if I should draw my blades at this moment and try to end him while I have him separated from the bride and groom but knowing for certain that I need him to stay with me now.
Maro stops, and although I know he doesn't feel the touch on his skin, the icy narrow eyed gaze he gives me is enough to know that my attention is entirely unwanted. The eyes are beautiful but cold, I think, struck once more by the doomed man's looks and yet knowing I will likely have better luck at seducing the bride and groom both. Had he Brynjolf's charm rather than a soldier's cold armour, he would be spending his night in his own lover's bed instead of overseeing a drunken couple consummate their vows, I think, realising that it matters little and I have to try to draw him to me nonetheless. His life is over. I have to end it.
'I think they'll be occupied for some time,' I continue, and I smile a small smile, adjusting my posture a little. 'You could probably relieve yourself of your duties for a few moments. Perhaps you would like a private song?'
Maro's expression does not change in the slightest, and I cannot discern whether he is uninterested or simply unaware of my suggestion. 'Private song?' he repeats, his tone dismissive.
'Yes, I imagine you have worked hard enough tonight,' I say softly as I trawl my fingers gently over the hard polished lines of his armoured forearm, leaning my body towards him. 'And I promise I am more entertaining than the fool.'
The soldier makes a snort of derision and he pulls his arm away roughly. 'Go ply your trade elsewhere,' he snaps, his distaste tangible now as he looks me up and down, the space between us icy cold.
He's not Lorias, ready to jump on any whore who offers him her mouth, I realise, my cheeks flushing red and a strange combination of unease and relief rising inside me with the prospect of having to take my mark's life without first incapacitating him with a base distraction. I have to offer him nothing but a quick end, if I can give it to him.
'As you wish,' I say, but before I can decide whether to drop the flagon and try to reach for my daggers, Cicero calls from the balcony, his voice high-pitched and excitable.
'Wine, wine, bring the wine!' The jester's bells punctuate his words, and when I turn towards the archway, I see him out on the balcony, waving at me with the riding crop, the bride and groom still giggling beside him. They are easier for Cicero to entertain than children and maids. 'This tale goes better with wine, come along, come!'
'Excuse me,' I say to Maro, deciding that at least intoxicating the couple to their limits will remove any threat they pose when I strike at the soldier. And who knows, maybe if I get them drunk enough, they'll even command him to remove his armour and lie down for me.
I force my wishful thinking from my mind and turn back towards the balcony, but before I can take one step forward, Maro grabs my arm and turns me back to face him, startling me with his sudden steel grip as I struggle not to spill any wine from the flagon.
'Your dress,' he says quietly, and I look up at the soldier's face, his sky blue eyes flickering down over my body. His hold is not gentle, and his gaze is still mired with distaste, although the almost unapparent smirk at his mouth suddenly makes me feel small and daunted by his proximity. Like prey. Maybe he wants me after all. 'That is fine silk.'
'I wanted to look my best,' I manage to say, conscious of the way an uncomfortable chill seems to emanate from the hard cold edges of his armour. He should be warm with desire, but this is different. This is icy rage. 'Does it please you?'
'It pleases me greatly.' Gaius Maro leans down to bring his head to my level, his startling eyes studying my face for several long moments before he leans closer to my ear. 'You've one too many blades under that dress for a whore, haven't you?' he murmurs, and from the corner of my eye, I notice his other hand fall to the hilt of his sword.