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Birdsong

Chapter Text

Prologue


The evening sky is dark, the air heavy and still. The waterfall to the east rushes fast and loud. Mother says a storm is coming, with worry knotting her brow as she mentions the leaky roof, but Father laughs merrily and pulls her close.

'Let the storm take it all,' he says. 'I want an excuse to buy you a castle.'

I have never seen him so happy, and Mother's smile lights up her eyes. She says she has no use for a castle, just a sturdy roof.

Father kisses her cheek. 'Then the castle will have the sturdiest of roofs, my love.'

I play by the fire, only half-listening to them, instead dreaming of my tiara. Mother told me that Father's discovery will change our lives. I don't know what ebony is, but I know that mines sometimes have gems, and so when Father came home that evening I demanded a silver crown of amethysts. Father laughed and said I could have a thousand if I like. Mother told him not to encourage me, but he said to her that that even halved with his friend who discovered the hidden mine with him, the profits will let us buy anything we want. I deduce that it means I will have as many tiaras as I desire and so I start to plan what I want them to look like, with sparkling gems every colour of the rainbow.

As the storm presses in, they send me up to bed. I protest, as usual, for the fire is warm and my bed is cold. Father promises me that in the castle we'll have fires in every room, and servants to stoke them. Mother sighs.

'Don't worry, you'll have as many servants as you want, too,' Father says to her. He leans in to bring his mouth to her ear, his voice very low, but I still hear. 'But you won't need a fire to keep you warm, my love.'

She pushes him away, but the smile at her lips makes her eyes smile too. She stands up and marches me upstairs to my bed, tucking me in and laying a quick kiss on my forehead. Tonight she leaves without telling me a story but I don't care, too busy imagining the necklaces and rings that will match my tiara.

As I feel myself drifting off to sleep, I listen to the murmur of their voices downstairs, punctuated with Mother's quiet laughter. Soon I hear the wet sounds of kissing. I cover my ears and am glad when the storm starts to lash the house. The thundering rain drowns everything and I listen to the waterfall, the crashing water lulling me to sleep.

Some time later, I wake up with a jolt, but it's still pitch dark and I shouldn't be awake yet. My throat is dry. The storm has calmed, the heavy rain now a soft steady drizzle, whispering on the roof above. It seems louder than the earlier torrent. I see the firelight still glowing from down the stairs, but the house is silent.

I get up from my bed, my mind thinking only of getting a drink. The barrel outside in the yard will be full of cool fresh rainwater. Storm water tastes the nicest.

The stairs creak. When I step into the main room, I see the fire dying out. The warm hazy light falls upon Mother. She lies awkwardly, one arm at a funny angle, blood oozing from a red gash at her throat. Father lies beside her. His neck bears the same wound, blood spilling over his chest, while a deep tear runs across his stomach.

'Mother?' I whisper.

The tall slender figure of a woman rises from the shadows beside Father before I can take a step forward. She is hooded and masked, with her eyes uncovered. Her deep scarlet and black clothing is splattered with blood.

'Hail Sithis,' the masked woman says quietly, her voice like silk. I see her eyes, blue in the firelight, narrowing as behind the cowl she smiles.

I can only watch, paralysed in fear, as she drops a sprig of nightshade on Mother's breast, and then another on Father's stomach. She looks at me, inclining her head. I see a few blonde strands slip out from beneath her hood.

'They're dead, little girl.' She says it like describing the weather. 'They're better that way.'

Before I can blink, she pushes open the front door and steps out into the storm. I hear the rain splashing into the barrel before she closes the door, and then suddenly everything is quiet.

I walk to Mother and Father but do not touch them, not wanting to disturb their game, knowing it must be some grown up thing. I kneel beside the dying fire, waiting for them to wake up.

At some point, the fire dies out.

I start to feel cold.

 


 

Ten years later

 

I leave at midnight. The drunk guards outside in the nearby alley are harassing a whore and haven't noticed a thing. No one heard the screams. They never do, I remind myself. How many times have people walked past this place and chosen not to hear the screams?

My fingers slippery with blood, I fumble with the lock on the courtyard gate, listening to the guardsmen slurring at the woman. It is dark, with only faint torchlight emanating from further down the street, and I have to strain my eyes to focus on the gate. Years ago, one of the other children showed me how to tease a lock with a hair pin; the girl had used the skill to get into the food cupboards at night, stuffing her starving belly with all the sweet things she could reach. I force the memory from my mind, not wanting to think about what had happened when she had been caught with sugar on her mouth.

I put the bloody handle of the carving knife between my teeth and pull a fresh pin from my hair, but my hands start to shake with the realisation of what I have done as I taste the rusty tang in my mouth. All that blood... She always made it seem like she was iron beneath the old tough flesh and impenetrable to harm. We always thought she was more like some sinewy hagraven with cruel magic in her veins. I feel a flair of satisfaction that I proved she was neither of those things. The bitch was soft and squishy and her throat cut like warm butter.

Behind me, I suddenly hear the sound of the door back into the orphanage opening and I whirl around, taking the carving knife from my mouth, fear pulsing in my stomach when I think a guard must've come into the orphanage through the other way and found the body.

'Ma?'

I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that it's only Lily. Her thin tattered nightgown flutters around her skinny legs as she stands in the doorway. Her hair is messy and her eyelids droop. The girl often sleepwalks. Or she simply believes the hazy dreams of deep night are real.

'Yes, it's Ma,' I say gently, not wanting to disturb her illusion. 'Go back to bed, my darling.'

'Are you leaving?' Lily asks, walking towards me.

'No, my love. I'm just making sure you're safe here.' I quickly crouch down and drop the knife and my satchel to the ground, wiping my hands on my dress as I straighten up, just in time before Lily puts her arms around my waist and leans into me.

'Don't leave, Ma,' the girl says into my breast.

I feel tears threaten my eyes. I blink hurriedly, careful not to touch the girl with my blood-smeared hand. 'I'm not leaving, Lily,' I say softly. 'I promise. Let's get you back to bed.'

I leave my satchel and the knife by the gate and Lily lets me guide her back into the orphanage. The dirt and grime of the younger children's dormitory is easily overlooked at night, but it's not so easy to ignore the smell. The chamberpots are overflowing, the beds stale, and dust and filth clog up the air; as I walk with Lily to her bed, I realise one of the children at the far end has been sick and left untended. It's Constance's day off, I think, remembering that was why I planned it tonight. The woman had left that morning after sitting awake with one of the ill children, her dark brow furrowed anxiously, promising the younger ones around her skirts that she would return tomorrow. With her gone, I had to wait several long hours, until the night's guest had left and the children had been sent to bed, and then I could retrieve the carving knife I had hidden beneath my mattress. I suddenly picture what Constance will find come the morning, if the children don't find it first: the old woman's body lying on her bed, her throat ripped and blood dripping through the sheets to the ground.

I wipe my hands on my dress once more and push the image out of my mind as I tuck Lily back into the bed she shares with one of the other girls. As I look down at them, I feel a cold regret wash over me. I should've done this sooner, I think, imagining all the children that had been hurt within the walls of this place. I feel a flicker of anger. I wish someone else had done this sooner.

Lily looks up at me sleepily through long eyelashes. 'Grelod will punish you if you try to leave,' she whispers.

I wonder if she is more conscious than I thought. 'She won't punish anyone ever again,' I whisper back. 'Just go to sleep, darling, and it'll be better in the morning.'

'Tell me a story first, Ma,' Lily says. 'I like your stories.'

I think of the story of carving knife by the gate, the old cruel woman bled out in the room upstairs, the guards outside in the nearby alley that I need to sneak past; the story of the young woman with a racing heart and blood on her hands from the murder she has just committed.

'There once was a beautiful princess,' I murmur, stroking the girl's hair. 'Her name was Lily. She wore the most beautiful dresses and ate the sweetest of treats and played all day with the best toys in the palace.'

'Are you there in the palace, Ma?' Her eyes close and she snuggles beneath the thin sheets.

'I'll always be wherever you are, my darling,' I whisper. 'Don't be afraid.'

Though I have told her those words countless times before, she always believes them. As I embellish the story, Lily soon drifts back into a deep sleep, her brow furrowed. I linger for a moment, my hand stroking her soft fair hair.

When I walk out of the orphanage for the last time, my eyes are wet. I take a breath and sling my satchel over my shoulder before calmly unlocking the courtyard gate. I can no longer hear the guards down the alley, nor the whore who had grabbed their attention. As I push the gate open with a long piercing creak, I grasp the carving knife close to me and wait. No one comes. Far off, from the tavern by the market square, I hear laughter and voices, but the night's revellers are too far away to see me. I walk out of the courtyard and let the gate swing shut behind me.

I take the lower walkway down to the canals. I feel my heart in my throat as I move quickly, moving between the light and the shadows, knowing the former will illuminate the bloodstains on my gown while the latter is as good as death in this city. But luck is on my side and I encounter no one as I reach an empty jetty near the Ratway gates. I hurry down the slippery wooden steps to the water, taking off my satchel and placing the knife on the ground as I drop to my knees. I lean down and splash water on my face, relishing the sensation. I cast a quick look around before I strip off my dress and wash myself clean before finding my spare clothes. I apologise in my head to Elric as I put on his stolen shirt and trousers, knowing the lad will find a way survive until one of the taller boys grow out of their clothes. Or maybe he won't, I think, and for the first time I wonder what will happen to the others left at the orphanage, whether Constance will stay or if someone else will take over Grelod's duty. And maybe it'll be someone even worse.

I can't think about them now, I tell myself firmly, knowing my priority is staying out of sight, staying alive, and staying out of jail. What do murderers get? The thought flits through my mind as I wipe the carving knife clean with my discarded dress and tuck the weapon into my satchel. That's when I notice my stained shoes and start to scrub the old leather as clean of blood as I can. Or maybe they just kill murderers and save the cell space. Grelod sometimes let us go to the executions they hold in square in front of the Keep. The people on the block or at the end of the rope were usually murderers, or thieves. Would they have executed her, if they knew what she did? The thought is not new to me. It's only now that I realise it doesn't matter. Her death is not justice, whether it comes by my messy handiwork or by the hangman's noose. It is only her end.

And my beginning. I steel myself, shaking my head to rid myself of my thoughts. I straighten up. The boy's shirt is a little tight across my chest and the trousers too short in the leg but I make do, glad to leave the stained dress in a pile of rubbish further down the walkway. That done, I stand by the water's edge, listening to the canals. The sound of water settles my heart for a moment, before I realise I am cold. The nights are mild in Riften but down here in the dark lower walkways, I discover that the air is cool and brisk. I realise I did not think to steal a jacket or cloak. Then I realise I have no food, nor anywhere to safely sleep and alleviate the exhaustion that suddenly overcomes me. I realise I did not plan beyond this moment. Free, clean, and without a clue what the hell I am supposed to do now.

I slip my hand into my satchel, remembering that I stole enough gold from Grelod's lockbox to get me to another city. But which? And then what? The questions swirl in my head as I realise the coin is not enough to last forever and that I have no skills and no idea what I am capable of doing. Except being an attraction for the old woman's guests who came and paid to touch the children, I think before I can stop myself. And now murder. I feel cold fear strike through me when the reality of my situation hits me and I realise I cannot so easily escape the horror of what is still so close behind me.

I take deep breaths as I try to get my thoughts under control. Somewhere in my panic-stricken mind, I come to the conclusion that I cannot make any decisions right away; after all, there is no carriage leaving Riften at this hour. I suddenly and desperately want to sleep, to rest in front of a crackling fire with warm food in my stomach - and with my limited knowledge of the city, I know of only one place where I can have those things. The tavern, I think. Everything else can wait til the morning. I set off back to the city groundlevel, glad to have a plan, even if it is only a temporary one.

The torches burn brighter here and as I approach the Bee and Barb I see that several patrons have spilled out into the nearby marketplace, raucously singing a tune. A small group of men stand in my path to the tavern entrance and suddenly my heart beats faster as I approach them, keeping my head down and giving them as wide a berth as possible. I pray to every god I know for them to ignore me.

The men notice me while the gods ignore me.

'Hey, sweetheart,' one of the men calls to me. 'What's a pretty little doll like you doing on your own?'

I ignore him and try to walk past, but the man steps directly in front of me, forcing me to stop.

'Hang on, I asked you a question, darlin',' he says, his dark eyes looking me up and down. 'What're you doing all alone in the middle of the night, eh?'

His other friends step up to me too. The three of them are not particularly brawny, but they tower over me and I suddenly remember how I felt the first time Grelod pushed me into the private room where one of her guests waited. I was ten, barely a year at the orphanage. He had walked up to me, a giant to my eyes, and looked down at my body; a prize won, a privilege bought.

'I think she wants company,' I hear one of them say as nausea races through my stomach with my memories.

'I don't,' I say coldly, trying to make my voice strong. I step to the side but the one on the left blocks my way.

'Then why are you heading to the Bee, hm?' he says. His hand goes to my arm, his touch making my skin crawl through my thin shirt. 'It's crowded in there. Why don't you stay out here with us?'

'We'll take care of you,' another says.

'After you take care of us,' the one in the middle says, his dark eyes glinting.

I remember the carving knife in my satchel and how it felt to push it into Grelod's throat not an hour ago. 'Don't touch me,' I say, wrenching out of his hold, the memory turning my stomach and dousing me in a cold sweat. 'I'll kill you.'

There comes a moment of silence before the three burst out laughing.

'You'll kill us?'

'With your little claws, kitten?' The one in the middle smirks, his deep eyes narrowing with dangerous amusement. 'Come on then,' he says, reaching for the neck of my shirt, whether intending to rip the garment off me or drag me closer I can't be sure. 'Let's see those claws.'

Suddenly, I feel a hand on my shoulder from behind and I feel a jolt of fear that their friend has come to join in too, but the hand pulls me firmly back and out of reach of the men before they can touch me.

I turn my head to see a tall man standing at my side, attired in dark clothing, the sturdy wool and leather jacket emphasising his broad shoulders. Auburn hair falls in waves to those shoulders, a silver scar runs down his right cheek, and my heart suddenly races faster when I see a dagger at his hip, the handle well worn. It'll cut better than my knife, that's for certain.

'This one's mine, lads,' he says, his hand moving to grasp my elbow and pulling me behind him slightly as he looks at the three men. 'So why don't you fuck off?'

'We saw her first,' the one on the left says.

A quick laugh comes from the man beside me. 'And? I saw the sky first this morning, doesn't mean it's mine.'

'Find your own whore,' the middle one spits, reaching for me again.

The red-haired man at my side pulls me back again. Before I can blink, a gold coin materialises in his hand and he puts it into my palm. 'You saw her first but I've paid her,' he says. 'Whores go where the money is. So back the fuck off and let me enjoy what I've bought.'

The men seem dumbfounded for a moment.

It is the middle one that steps forward, his dark eyes narrowed dangerously. 'Or what?' he says quietly.

The man beside me sighs. 'Or we stand here arguing and the guard that's about to walk past will take her for himself and ruin everyone's fun. Or maybe I kill you. Unfortunately for me, guard will probably be here first.'

The men look around the market. 'There's no fucking guard here,' the middle one says.

'I said about to walk past.' The redhead snorts in derision. 'Not very attentive, are you?'

I see one of the men ball their fists and the dark-eyed one is about to take another step forward when the man on the right looks over my head and elbows his friend. I turn my head too. A pair of guards step out from one of the streets and begin to make their patrol through the market square. What look like straight guards, too, I realise, noticing their posture and alert gaze as they survey the area. The night guards are more likely drunk than not, and usually consort with criminals rather than hunt them, so the presence of the two sober and vigilant guards now seems to put the men in front of me on edge.

The man in the middle folds his arms and glares coldly as he turns back. 'You with the damn guard?'

The redhead at my side laughs. 'Not those ones, anyway. Now get out of the way so the lass and I can get a drink.'

For a moment, the men seem tempted to refuse, but they must see something in the red-haired man's eyes, or maybe they spy the dagger, as finally the one in the middle turns away with a curse and the others soon follow. The red-haired man at my side keeps a hold on my arm until they have moved elsewhere in the marketplace, then he lets go of me and steps back.

I draw further away, my body tense, ready to run.

'Don't worry, lass, I'm not really looking to buy.' His voice bears a lilting accent and a pair of deep green eyes flicker over my face. 'You all right?'

'I'm fine,' I say quickly, suddenly feeling conscious of myself under his gaze. 'Thank you for... for your help.' I hold out the coin. 'Here.'

'Keep it. For the inconvenience.' His brow furrows. 'On behalf of men everywhere, I apologise.'

'Are you sure?' I keep my hand held out. 'You really don't need it?'

'No, lass, I don't need it,' he says, an amused smile at his lips.

'Then... thanks.' I hold the coin in my fist, not wanting to open my satchel and risk him seeing the carving knife beside my stolen purse.

He nods towards the tavern door. 'You were heading in?'

'I...' My words falter as I look up at him, my heart suddenly beating faster, my reaction borne of years of finding out exactly what men want. Though the red-haired man's gaze does not drop from my eyes to take in my body, that in itself unnerves me, and I still half-expect him to drag me into an alley and claim his money's worth. At his steady eye contact and careful distance, I feel a flicker of nervous anticipation in my stomach, not unlike how I felt when Grelod would open the dormitory door after nightfall, narrowed eyes searching, deciding which of us would be spending that night in the private room, not sleeping, not alone.

I mentally shake myself, to rid myself of the thoughts and my fear. Not everyone is like that bitch and her fucking guests, I remind myself. And right now I just want to eat and sleep someplace warm, preferably with a lock on the door.

'Yes,' I say finally. 'I was.'

The corner of the man's mouth pulls up in a half smile. 'Then after you.'

He steps aside to let me pass. I walk up to the tavern door and with a deep breath I push it open.

Chapter Text

The Bee and Barb is warm and smells of ale and cooking and honey. I breathe in, my stomach growling. I feel my cheeks start to glow in the stuffy warmth from the roaring fire.

The low-ceilinged main room is crowded and noisy even at this hour. The red-haired man who intervened with the men outside gives me a quick smile and disappears off into the crowd. I keep my head down as I approach the bar, suddenly conscious that one of these people might recognise me. There could be one of Grelod's guests right here, I think, the thought sending cold shiver down my back. She was not stupid. Not just anyone was allowed in to the orphanage, and those she did invite inside were infrequent enough so as not to arouse attention; where the brothels in town might take one or two an hour, Honorhall often only saw one or two guests a fortnight. Some became regulars, some would be seen once and never again. Though I never knew names, or where the guests hailed from, they were mostly highborn, or at least wealthy enough to appear that way. They had to be, to afford the price. And I knew it highly likely that at least a few of the guests over the years were from Riften. But that doesn't mean they're here, in this tavern, at this hour, I remind myself. But still my eyes wander, scouring the tavern's patrons for a familiar face, familiar hands, a familiar voice telling me words I don't want to hear.

The Argonian woman behind the bar makes me jump out of my thoughts. 'What'll it be?' she asks, her voice raspy, her eyes moving over me impatiently. 'Drink? Food?'

'Both,' I say, taking a moment to relish the fact that I have never carried so much money nor had the freedom to buy anything I liked. 'Whatever's hot. And whatever's good. And a room for the night.'

I give her the coin still in my hand and reach down into my satchel to pull a few more from my purse, careful to position my body so neither the Argonian nor the any of the people around me at the bar can see the carving knife.

Luck is on my side: no one screams murder, the coins buy me a cup of wine, a bowl of beef and vegetable stew, and the promise of the third room on the left upstairs. Through the crowd I spot an empty table in the corner, where I settle with my back to the wall, my satchel safely tucked between my feet.

I sip my wine and watch the Bee and Barb patrons surreptitiously, not wanting to attract attention to myself by staring. The tavern seems to be a popular place with both nobles and those distinctly ignoble, and even in these small hours of the night, the tavern is packed, with nearly all the tables occupied by patrons laughing and talking louder and faster than I can comprehend. I try to listen to the flurry of conversations around me but they all blur into one steady hum of noise with naught but snippets reaching my ears; two Nord men argue over mead, a soft-voiced Bosmer female recounts a delay at Riften gates, and a young man flirts with a serving girl, who rebukes him sweetly as she passes, telling him to come back in a few years when he knows how to use that sad little cock between his legs.

I reconnect as the same serving maid approaches me, carrying my food, and I give her quick and quiet thanks. I devour the stew in a couple of minutes, trying to make it last and yet unable to deny myself the pleasure of having a well cooked meal in my ravenous stomach. Maybe murder gives you an appetite, I think flippantly, before gulping down another spoonful of stew and quickly following it with a mouthful of wine. The drink makes my tongue curl at first, but halfway through the cup I find myself not noticing the bitterness any more; instead, I feel warm and satisfied, and by the time I've finished my meal and am nearly at the bottom of my cup, I am feeling a strange sense of contentment, for the first time I can remember.

And now what? The thought starts to gnaw at my stomach. I clutch my cup of wine, wishing I could have more but realising that this was a luxury I cannot afford to repeat. Well aware that my purse isn't going to fill itself, I know that the coin I have should be put to good use. Considering that by all accounts I am now on the run for murder with no idea in the world what to do or where to go.

Panic rises in me abrupty. Gods, I should've planned this better, I think, as my thoughts about the future spiral faster in my mind, but I do my best to remind myself that I had little choice, little time, little means to do anything differently. At nineteen, I had become far too old to be at the orphanage, let alone too old for Grelod's guests. All I had was access to the knife and the knowledge that it had to be either this or find myself sold on. Most went that way around sixteen. Grelod had only kept me longer because I was small of height and could pass for younger with the more gullible guests. And they paid more for it when she underaged me, I think. She could not do it for long. With time, my maturity began to show, and no one visited Honorhall for want of a woman, having little desire for breasts and hips. It was a week ago that Grelod took me and two of the older girls to the Bunkhouse early one morning to discuss prices with Haelga; the blonde decided she would take me and Lynna at the end of the month. As serving maids, she said, though her smile and the rumours I had heard told me otherwise. I tried to remind myself that Lynna and I were lucky compared to Erenil; Haelga did not think her pretty enough, and so Grelod took the elf girl out again that evening, most likely to one of the brothels on the lower canals, and when Grelod came back, Erenil was not with her. I was glad that I at least had the chance to get away before finding myself in a worse situation.

But I could've just run, a small voice whispers inside my head, reminding me that I could have picked the lock and left the orphanage without fear of being hunted for murder; coinless but still free. Killing Grelod was purely for my own satisfaction. I remember it vividly at that moment, the way her eyes narrowed with anger when she realised I had picked the lock into her room, the fury changing to fear when she saw the carving knife in my hand, the way she screamed to raise an alarm, the way the only reply she got was silence and my body on top of hers, the sudden strength in me pinning her on the bed as I brought the knife down to her neck. The wrinkled skin parted like paper beneath the blade, blood overflowing like too much ink poured through thin parchment; my applied force was enough so that even the old blunt carving knife sliced her throat deep and clean. No, it wasn't clean. I took two more cuts at her throat, vicious deep swipes to ensure she would stay dead. The edges of her torn skin seemed to curl back on themselves as the blood spurted through.

I down the last of my wine, closing my eyes as I feel the liquid slip down my throat. It's done, I tell myself. Thinking about it is only going to make everything ahead that much harder.

'Want another drink, lass?'

My eyes snap open and I whip my head to the side, my heart pounding at being caught off-guard.

It is the auburn haired man from before, standing beside my table with a smile at his mouth. 'Hey, I'm not going to bite,' he says at my startled reaction. His green eyes crinkle up as he grins. 'I only do that when requested.'

I calm myself. 'Sorry,' I say. 'I'm just... I've got things on my mind.'

'I can tell.' He inclines his head. 'Mind if I sit?'

I hesitate, not wanting company, but not wanting to seem impolite, given his helpful intervention earlier. Besides, even if he's just a man wanting a fuck, he's not likely to try anything in a crowded tavern.

'All right,' I say eventually.

He takes the seat beside me and I watch him cautiously as he calls over the serving girl and orders two cups of wine. In the bright candlelight of the tavern, I notice more about him than our encounter outside allowed. As he produces a few coins from his pocket and slips them into the serving girl's hand, I quickly decide that he is one of those men who seem to know they are handsome and care little about it. His auburn hair is tousled and pulled messily back at the temples, his face bearing frown and laughter lines in equal measure, with an unkempt stubble shadowing his square jaw. Each movement he makes, the charming grin he gives the serving girl and the way he settles back in his chair, is quick and precise and yet both careless and effortless as if he has done it all before and cares little to repeat it again. It might be true enough, I think. He is older than me, maybe as little as fifteen years but perhaps as much as twenty five. As the fire and candlelight catches the bright green of his eyes, he looks like a young man, drunk and excited, and yet the same light casts shadows beneath his eyes and along the lines of his face, seemingly weathered by years of those easy charming grins – and whatever event that left the slender silver scar that runs from cheekbone to jaw.

He notices me watching him. His half-smile lets me know he's used to it. 'Do you want to make some coin beyond that one piece, lass?' he says.

The suddenness of his question throws me for a moment. 'Excuse me?'

'I know a way you can earn some gold, if you're interested,' he says.

I feel cold dread wash over me as I realise my fears are proven right, and while the redhead is handsome – and the charming smile that pulls at his mouth strangely seems to make my own lips want to smile too – I have no intention to make coin that way. 'No, thanks,' I say shortly.

A frown comes across his brow. 'I'm not asking you to actually sell yourself, lass,' he says. 'Even if you did, I don't think I could afford the price someone of your beauty would command.'

I feel a blush stalk over my cheeks, more with the obviousness of the line than with anything else.

The redhead grins. 'That was bad, I know,' he admits. 'Never mix whore jokes with pick up lines.'

'It might have worked on a whore,' I say, my mouth curving into a smile before I can help it.

'I'll try it sometime and let you know.' His green eyes laugh. 'You got a name, lass?'

I falter. Grelod rarely kept records of the children who stayed at Honorhall, but I know it will soon be common knowledge that she is dead, and it will only take Constance or one of the other children giving up my name and the fact I disappeared on the night of the murder for people to put two and two together. I realise I have to leave that life, that person, behind. But a name? I panic for a moment, my mind blank. I take a quick sip of my wine to fill the pause, and as I do so my eyes land upon a picture on the wall, a flock of birds in flight, and suddenly I think of the wrens and sparrows that flew past the orphanage while we played in the courtyard, when I wished I had wings to fly.

'Wren,' I say. 'Like the bird.'

'Brynjolf.' His eyes flicker over me. 'And are you new in Riften, Wren? I don't think I've seen you around before.'

'I've lived here for a bit,' I say vaguely.

'But just never gone outside?' he says.

Beyond running errands for Grelod, attending executions and the occasional successful break out for a few hours, no. The thought that I have never left the orphanage for any length of time – never slept anywhere other than my hard bed in the dormitory for the past ten years – makes me suddenly defensive. 'And you have eyes everywhere to know that, do you?' I say sarcastically.

Brynjolf laughs. 'There are eyes everywhere, lass. Not all are mine. The ones I do have somehow never spotted you before, though.'

'Maybe you just weren't looking in the right places then,' I say abruptly.

'Well, I've found you now and that's good enough for me.' The smile lingers at his mouth. 'And good for you too, if you want work.'

'What work, exactly?' I say, wary, but we are interrupted before Brynjolf can answer.

The serving girl appears with our drinks. She's pretty, a rosy cheeked plump Nord with ruby red lips and hair like ebony. I notice the way she leans her body at an angle to set down the drinks on the table, and how she pushes out her chest to further show the spill of her breasts above her tight dress. For the best advantage to the redhead, I think, and I hear the smile in Brynjolf's voice as he thanks her for the drinks, to which she responds with a sweet laugh and a promise that if he has any other need of her, he just has to ask. Unbidden, I feel a sudden sense of annoyance as he tells her he'll keep it in mind.

She leaves and I reach for one of the cups of wine, wondering why the hell I should be feeling irritated. I feel Brynjolf's gaze on me as I sip my drink, relishing the taste of wine once more and the way it seems to be loosening some of the tension from my body.

'Ever stolen anything, Wren?' Brynjolf asks suddenly.

I lower my cup and look around, making sure no one is listening. 'Stolen anything?' I whisper.

The redhead snorts with laughter. 'No need to be so furtive,' he says, amused. 'People rarely see what's right in front of them. And you didn't answer my question.'

'If I've ever stolen anything?' I falter, thinking of the coin in my purse, the knife in my satchel and the clothes I wear. Does a woman's life count too? 'Maybe,' I say cautiously, keeping my voice low.

Brynjolf grins. 'So I thought. Figured you wouldn't be averse to a little illegal activity.'

'How could you possibly know that?' I ask, panicked that what I've done is written on my face.

'Easy, lass, I'm not about to turn you in for confessing to a bit of thievery. And as for how I can tell, it's all about sizing up your mark. You're in clothes too small and anyone with fifty gold pieces in their purse would've at least bought clothes that fit.'

I flush with the thought that his eyes have lingered on my body long enough to notice my tight clothing before I take in the rest of his words. 'How do you know I have fifty gold pieces?'

He smiles apologetically. 'I may have picked your purse. Sorry. It's a habit. Can't help myself.'

'You pickpocketed me?' I grab my satchel from beside my feet and clutch it to my lap, a mix of fear and anger coursing through me.

Brynjolf laughs. 'Not now, although I could've done. I did it outside.'

'How...' I stare at him, feeling my face flush with humiliation, wondering if he had done it during the encounter with the men or after, wondering how I could be so blind not to see. 'I didn't feel anything,' I say.

'That's not something a man usually wants to hear, but I'm glad on this occasion.' Brynjolf grins. 'Don't worry, I didn't take anything.' His eyes hold mine, still smiling. 'Didn't want to cut my fingers on that clunky old knife you've got in there.'

I feel cold panic wash over me and in my fear I can't think of anything to say, any excuse to give as to why I have a knife in my satchel with a coin purse of stolen gold. It doesn't take a genius to work it out, I think, my body poised on the edge of my chair, ready to flee.

Brynjolf's face changes as he sees my reaction, the smile giving way to a small frown and when his eyes meet mine, the expression in them is serious. 'Look, it's all right.' His voice is lower. 'You don't have to be afraid. Whatever you've done, I'm not going to turn you in. You have my word, Wren.'

Something in his voice makes me believe him, though I have little reason to do so. 'What do you want, then?' I ask quietly, my body refusing to relax.

'Help,' he says simply. He tilts his head over to the two Nords, whose argument has progressed from mead to women. 'See them?'

I turn to look across the room, just as one of the Nords loudly declares that elf cunt is always smaller than the human equivalent, to which the other laughs and proceeds to demonstrate his own opinion on the matter with his fingers as guidance.

Brynjolf makes a grimace. 'That was bad timing,' he says. 'I feel like I should apologise again.'

'I've heard worse,' I say, recalling how some guests liked to explain exactly what they were doing whilst doing it. Don't go there, I tell myself firmly, feeling the icy fingers of dread clawing down my back. I look at Brynjolf. 'So what about them?'

'The one with the fair hair, see him? He's got some papers in his breast pocket, a property deed. I need it lifted off him and a false copy planted in its place.'

I frown, confused as I look at the fair Nord. 'And you can't do this yourself?'

'Unfortunately not.' Brynjolf looks back at me. 'He knows me and my... associates. He'll be more than a little wary if I go anywhere near him. But you, lass... if I've never seen you before, then I'm sure he's never seen you before. He won't know what you're after.'

'I've never pickpocketed anyone before,' I say. I never killed anyone before this night, either, I think, and suddenly I can't help but want to laugh at the thought that I would be afraid of stealing something after cutting a woman's throat.

'Then think of this as training,' Brynjolf says. 'Look, I pay well for extra pairs of hands.' His eyes flicker down to where I still cling my satchel against me. 'Yours are small. I'd wager they'll slip into a pocket far easier than mine do.' His half-smile returns as his gaze return to my eyes. 'And it doesn't hurt to be beautiful when trying to get close to a man's pockets, lass.'

His flattery is as blatant as before and yet somehow I know I blush for a different reason. Maybe it's the wine, I think, as my heart flutters at the compliment.

'I'll double what's in your purse,' Brynjolf goes on. 'How does that sound?'

I blink at the offer. 'They must be valuable papers,' I say.

'They are,' he says simply. 'So what do you say?'

The thought of that much coin makes me dizzy. I could buy another cup of wine and still get out of the city, I think, not to mention the extra gold would give me more time to figure out what the hell I'm going to do.

My mind makes the decision for me before I can fully process it. I drink the rest of my wine in one go and stand up abruptly, putting my satchel back over my shoulder. If I'm doing this, I want my knife with me. 'Fine,' I say, only half-believing what I'm saying. 'I'll get your papers. Where's the false copy?'

Brynjolf's grin makes his green eyes crinkle up again. He pulls a small fold of papers out of his pocket and hands them to me. I tuck them into my right sleeve and am about to walk away when he reaches out and catches my arm. 'Lass,' he says quickly, his smile faltering for the slightest of moments. 'Don't-' He stops whatever he was going to say and the easy smile pulls at his mouth once more. 'Just watch yourself, all right?'

'Don't worry, I'll get your papers,' I say, pulling out of his hold, not liking the way my body seems to tense at his touch, leaving my heart racing too fast.

As I walk across the room, I start to doubt myself and wonder if this is such a good idea, considering the possibility that I will spend the rest of the night in a cell or worse. Just think of the gold, I tell myself as the two Nords notice me walking towards them and I suddenly feel dizzy from the wine I drank too quickly. I know I can do this. Will it be harder than what I have already done tonight?

When I come to their table, the two men stop their conversation and look up at me. The fair one is handsome, with blond curls and sky-blue eyes, although his gaze is almost as unsteady as my legs feel; the empty bottles on the table are testament to how much the two have consumed so far. This makes it easier, I think, as the Nord's blue gaze flickers over my body. He's probably more defenceless than Grelod.

'I heard what you were saying.' My voice doesn't sound like mine and I return the man's gaze, my eyes moving pointedly over his body. He's a noble, or maybe a noble's son, or at least rich enough to afford the fine embroidered velvet of his jerkin. 'I wanted to prove you wrong,' I tell him.

The fair Nord's eyes narrow in confusion. 'What the fuck are you talking about, girl?'

'What you said about elves. And humans.' I curve my mouth into a smile. 'Don't you want to know how I compare to an elf? I could tell you I'm smaller but I'd prefer to show you so you know I'm not lying.' I throw a cold glance to his friend before turning back to the fair Nord. 'Your friend here can keep his fingers to himself. I'd rather we use something of yours as measurement.'

Comprehension slowly dawns on his face, and he grins widely. 'Is that so? Then let's get better acquainted, sweetheart.' He reaches forward and pulls me towards him, his sudden drunken movement near enough toppling me over onto his lap.

I grab the back of his chair to keep myself upright, although I let him keep a hold of my other arm and I lean close, taking my inspiration from the serving girl as I push my chest out; though not as well-endowed as the maid, the tightness of my shirt seems to please the men, as their eyes don't look at my face again. 'I'm not taking my clothes off out here,' I say. 'Come on. I've got a room.'

I feel a keen sense of power as the Nord immediately jumps up from his chair and follows me. Is offering him my body really all it takes to get a stranger to follow me? I think, relishing the sudden feeling of control, having never felt anything like it before. Yet as I walk across the room to a staircase on the far side, I feel a pair of green eyes watching me, and I start to feel more self-conscious than powerful, before I quickly clear my mind and hurry to the stairs, the fair Nord stranger close at my heels.

Upstairs, I find the third door on the left and push open the door, but I've barely taken two steps into the room before large hands grab my hips and turn me around.

'You're so pretty,' the Nord slurs before he leans down and his mouth crashes against mine.

I stumble with the force of his kiss, but his hands bury in my hair tight, loosening a few brown curls from their pins as he pulls me close to his sturdy body. He tastes of ale. But even drunk he kisses better than any of Grelod's guests ever did, I think distantly, remembering fumbling touches and dry tense kisses. Some were nervous, embarrassed by their twisted desires. Some weren't, though, I remember with an uncomfortable shiver before the Nord's tongue pushes into my mouth, distracting me from my thoughts. My own tongue reacts more eagerly than I planned and I wrap my arms around his neck, leaning into the kiss willingly. The room seems to spin and I shut my eyes. It's the wine, I assure myself as my body seems to grow warmer with the taste of the Nord's keen tongue and his groping hands as they move over my body.

As his hands grab at my chest, his drunk and clumsy fingers pulling at the tight fastenings of my shirt, I let my own hands reciprocate, running down his chest, feeling the luxurious touch of velvet. It's so soft, I think distractedly, but when my fingers run over a pocket, I suddenly remember what I'm supposed to be doing and I force my eyes open.

I clutch at his chest, tugging sharply at his clothing as if to tear it free from his body as I open my mouth beneath his again and lick at his tongue, making a moan in my throat as I pull the small fold of paper out of his breast pocket and slip it quickly up my left sleeve. I kiss him harder, hoping he didn't notice, and swiftly pull the papers from my other sleeve and tuck them into his pocket. As his tongue lashes back against mine and his hands grope eagerly at my breasts through the material, I'm confident he hasn't noticed a thing.

A sudden and intense thrill of power chases through me, twice as strong as before. I wonder if he would notice if I pulled out my knife and jammed it into his throat, I think. The realisation that it was so easy – that with just a few words and offering my body, I could make a stranger not only follow me and but that I could take something from him without his knowledge – sends satisfaction racing through me.

When the fair Nord gets through my shirt fastenings and his hands roughly grab at my bare breasts, I feel a thrill of a different kind, one I've not felt before. As I feel his warm breath on my mouth, I lean into the groping touch of his hands, my heart pounding as I feel my nipples suddenly stiffen - and the quiet moan of pleasure I make then is not just to distract him. It doesn't hurt, or feel bad, I realise, somewhere in my drunken mind wondering how I could have hated all those guests at the orphanage, if this was what they did. Is this what they did? I try and fail to remember as the Nord leans down to kiss me again, the wine on my tongue and the ale on his mixing in my mouth.

A moment later his hands drop to the waistband of my trousers. 'Let me see if you're lying, then,' he breathes against my mouth.

His touch at my navel jerks me back into reality.

'Wait,' I say quickly, pulling away, my lips sore, conscious of my exposed breasts, conscious of the warmth flooding through me. 'Would you get me some wine?'

'What? You think I'm wasting coin on bloody wine when I've already got into your room?' the Nord says with a short laugh as his mouth presses hard against mine once more.

I enjoy it for a moment, and when his eager hands move back up to my chest, I gasp against his mouth, feeling heat rising in my body fast.

I pull back, breathless, afraid, wanting. 'Please,' I say, making my voice sweet. I let my hands slide down his stomach. The wine and the memories of Grelod's more talkative guests tell me what to say, though the words sound strange when I hear my voice say them. 'Didn't I tell you I like wine before getting fucked hard? And after I've had a man come in my mouth. So you need to get me two cups of wine tonight.' I smile, toying with the fastenings of his trousers. 'If you bring more, you can find out the other reasons why I like wine.'

Even intoxicated, the Nord gets the idea pretty quickly. 'This was my lucky night,' he says, and with one last rough kiss to my lips he's out the door.

I hear his footsteps down the stairs, quicker than my heartbeat. I fasten up my shirt, although suddenly I'm aware that the material strains to meet and I realise I'm breathing heavily. I pause for a moment, watching my chest rise and fall.

What the hell was I thinking?

I try to get my breathing under control, but the feeling caused in me by the man's hands on my body and his tongue in my mouth lingers despite my efforts to push it aside. A shiver runs down my back as I manage to finish fastening my shirt and my hands brush over my breasts, still sensitive from his touch. I wanted it.

I shake my head to dispel my thoughts, remembering my purpose for being here when I feel the papers scratch against my arm under my sleeve. I wanted the gold, I tell myself, and I manage to believe it, although I cannot so easily suppress the thrill of how easy the whole thing was.

I don't dare use the stairs. I spot a window on the far side of the upstairs hallway and push it open; the cool night air clears my head and steadies my racing pulse. I lean out and look to the ground. The distance isn't far.

I climb out the window and take a breath before I drop down onto the ground, my landing light and graceful enough to avoid injury, years of being underfed having kept me light on my feet.

I wait outside the tavern, in the shadows but within sight of the door. I keep a watchful eye on the three men who approached me earlier – they've moved on to an alley just off the marketplace, where they've found themselves a whore who seems willing enough to entertain them. I watch them with a mix of distaste and curiosity twisting my stomach. She's against the wall, the men around her. Through the torchlight, I watch the whore drop to her knees before the men as they pull down their trousers. The sight of their cocks sends a cold chill through me though the night is still mild. Touch it, little girl, a voice whispers in my mind. The whore takes one in mouth, two in hand.

'Always something to see in this city, eh, lass?'

The low voice to my left makes me jump and I whirl around to see Brynjolf standing not five feet from me. The half-grin is there, but his green eyes flicker over me briefly with an expression I cannot read and in my surprise suddenly all I can think of is the fair Nord's hands on me and the whore on her knees - but in my head, it all gets mixed up and I picture myself as the whore and the red-haired thief as the Nord, his hands cupping my breasts while I take him in hand.

I feel my face flush and I hurry to retrieve the papers, now slightly crumpled, and hold them out to him. 'Here,' I say abruptly. 'He didn't notice.'

Brynjolf takes the papers from me. 'Nice work, Wren. I don't know how I would've got close enough to lift these.' He tucks them inside one of the pockets of his jacket. 'Can't say the lad was my type.'

I'm keenly conscious of the pleasured murmurings audible from the alley. 'Your type isn't drunk men?' I say flippantly. 'That's good to know.'

Brynjolf laughs, his eyes crinkling up. 'No, lass, that's definitely not my type. He seemed convinced he was yours, though. I've never seen a man climb a flight of stairs so fast. I wonder if he does everything with a woman in such haste.'

Brynjolf pulls a small coin purse from one of his pockets and pushes it into my hands. I take it eagerly, the weight feeling welcome in my hands, before I notice it's distinctly lighter than my own purse.

'Don't worry,' Brynjolf says before I can point this out. 'I'm not trying to cheat you. I just don't carry that much gold on me. The city's not safe, you know,' he says with a roguish grin that seems to send a shiver of nerves through me. 'There are thieves everywhere. Look, come with me and I'll get the rest of what I owe you.'

I hesitate, clutching the purse, suddenly afraid to venture into the dark maze of the city, conscious of the two cups of wine I have drunk and the way my heart seems to flutter nervously around the auburn-haired thief. 'It's all right,' I say. 'This is still enough to get me out of the city, so don't worry about the rest.'

'Out of the city?' Brynjolf repeats.

I nod and look down to tuck the coin purse safely into my satchel. The knife stares back out at me and I close my satchel quickly, not wanting to see it, not wanting to think about it.

The redhead is silent for a few moments, and when I look back up, a small frown is at his brow and his green eyes flicker over my face, slightly narrowed with some thought I cannot comprehend.

'You know,' he starts eventually, his tone even. 'There's always the opportunity to make more coin, if you're interested.'

I hesitate. 'You mean stealing more things?' I ask tentatively, and at Brynjolf's nod, I feel a nervous flutter in my stomach, having never considered a life of crime - although until recently, I had never really thought about any life beyond Honorhall. It was only ever a dream of a life, one I never thought possible for fear of being sold or having to remain in the orphanage to become a second Constance, too scared to leave the children to suffer Grelod's kindness alone.

'There's a lot of coin to be had,' Brynjolf adds lightly.

The gold felt good in my hands, I think, recalling its weight, its promise, its potential, tempting me more than I expected. Besides, I've started my new life with murder, is a bit of thievery so wrong now?

Brynjolf watches my face closely, not speaking. In the silence, I hear one of the men in the alley groan with satisfaction, the sound of his pleasure sending an uncomfortable chill through me. Did the whore try thieving first? I wonder. The thought makes me feel cold.

'All right,' I say quickly, crossing my arms over my body. 'What do you want me to steal?'

'Easy, lass,' Brynjolf says, the half-smile pulling at his mouth. 'You've done enough for one night. Let's get you your coin and we'll go from there. Come on.' He turns and takes a step away from the tavern, before he pauses and looks back at me, the torchlight catching the bright green in his eyes. 'And stay close to me. Thieves aren't the only ones who wander Riften at night.'

With another grin, Brynjolf turns and sets off. My feet hesitate for a fraction of a moment before I follow, my heart thudding nervously, leaving the sounds of the whore and the men behind.

Chapter Text

Brynjolf leads me through a dark maze of alleys and streets. In the winding depths of the city, some streets are lit with dying torches, while some are simply at the mercy of moonlight. And there are heavy clouds crowding the sky tonight, I think, as I follow close behind the red-haired thief. He seems unhindered by the darkness, moving swiftly and easily through the shadows as if the path is lit by bright sunlight. I don't have the same skill. Soon I lose any sense of bearings and I know I could sooner find my way to Elsweyr than I could retrace my steps back to the centre of the city; though I have lived in Riften for a decade, I have rarely explored it alone, or at night.

And yet here I am. The thought frightens me, and as the fresh night air clears my head from the wine, I start to wonder what the hell I am doing. I take some comfort in the fact that we encounter no one beyond a few beggars hiding in the shadows, although I hear noises - voices and screams and laughter, among other sounds - from adjacent and nearby alleys. I can't be sure if we're just lucky we don't encounter anyone or if Brynjolf is purposefully leading me down safer paths.

Finally we come to an open area where silence hangs heavily. Far off ahead through the darkness, I see a single candle at the foot of a statue, illuminating a shrine. The distant candlelight is enough for me to see where Brynjolf has led me; tombstones loom out of the darkness and as I try to keep up with the thief, I nearly trip over a mound of earth. A grave, I think. A strangely bitter smell fills my nose and my hand brushes against a flower or plant of some kind, but in the shadows I can't make it out, though I see it growing in clumps around the graves. The scent gnaws at something in my memory, but it slips through my mind before I can place it, leaving me with nothing but a sense of foreboding.

My nerves get the better of me, and I slow my pace, hesitant to follow any further. Am I afraid of the dead? I tease myself, before I wonder suddenly if Grelod will be buried here when they find her.

'Why are we in a graveyard?' I whisper, speaking for the first time since we left the tavern.

Brynjolf stops abruptly and turns around. 'This is safe,' he says softly. 'You can trust me, Wren.'

'Trust you?' I repeat. The idea seems laughable. Have I ever trusted anybody?  'I don't even know you. And you're a thief.'

He laughs quietly, the sound sending a shiver through my body. 'True enough, I'm a thief. But I promise I'll never steal anything from you, lass.'

I get the sudden feeling that he is lying, or that there is some part of me that simply doesn't believe his words. I don't have time question or dwell on it, however, as Brynjolf turns and leads me further through the graveyard. I expect him to head towards the candlelit shrine but he cuts to the left, and as I follow I see a large open tomb loom out of the shadows.

'Hang on.' Brynjolf stops at the entrance to the tomb. 'I should ask, do you think you could find your way back here on your own?'

'No,' I say honestly. 'Why?'

'A precaution. In case I don't get my way and you have to forget this place existed. Come on.'

He doesn't give me a chance to question what he means, as he steps into the tomb and I hear a quiet clicking sound. A scraping noise cuts through the quiet of the graveyard and the back wall of the tomb drops down to reveal a tunnel that disappears down into pitch darkness, for gods only know how deep. I hear the faint sound of rushing water below.

'Trust me,' Brynjolf says, before I can even voice my fear. He looks at me, although I'm certain he can see me better than I can see him. 'I'm not leading you anywhere you're going to get hurt.'

Again I feel a flicker of unease, as if my body knows that whatever waits down beneath this tomb will hurt me. But what's the alternative? I think, considering the possibility of trying to find my way through Riften's alleys back to the tavern, knowing I'll get hopelessly lost in seconds. Or worse.

I nod once, and step up to the gap in the ground, watching Brynjolf hold onto the edge and lower himself down, presumably on a ladder, although my eyes are still not adjusted to the darkness and all I see is the shadowy shape of the thief's upper body above the gap.

'I can't really see anything,' I say, trying not to let my fear sound in my voice.

'That's all right, lass. Give me your hand.' I feel Brynjolf reach out and take my hand, guiding it to the edge and placing it on a rusted metal rung. 'Feel the ladder?'

I nod again, assuming he can see me.

'Hold on to it. It's not far down, and I'll be right ahead of you.' Though the darkness hides his face, I hear the smile in his voice. 'So if you fall, you'll land on me, all right?'

He lets go of my hand and he disappears down the tunnel. I sit on the edge and cling to the ladder as I lower myself down, my heart racing, and not just from the idea of lowering myself down into the unknown.

However, Brynjolf is right; the ladder is not too long, and as I descend, I hear the sound of rushing water growing louder. My worn leather shoes slip a little on the rusted metal but I keep my balance as I climb down and half a minute later I feel strong hands gently take my waist.

My heart skitters at the contact but I force myself to ignore it, as Brynjolf guides me down the last rungs and my feet hit cold stone. The passageway in which I find myself is dimly lit with a strange blue-white light.

'Just some steps now,' Brynjolf says, letting go of my waist.

'I'm sure even I can manage those,' I say.

He laughs quietly and leads the way on, after pulling a rusted chain on his left. I hear a scraping stone sound far above as the tomb closes once more. The short passageway leads down a series of steep steps and ends with a heavy metal door, lit overhead by a lantern emitting that strange pale glow that I assume to be some form of magelight. As we approach the door, I notice Brynjolf reach into one of his pockets and pull out a pair of lockpicks.

'Are you breaking in?' I ask, confused as he steps up to the door.

He laughs again. 'No, lass, but it's kind of an unspoken rule that if you can't break your way in here without damaging the lock, you're not welcome.' He pauses, his lockpicks poised. 'You any good at it?'

I hesitate. 'Probably not as good as you,' I say.

Brynjolf grins. 'Few are, lass. Give it a go, anyway.'

He holds out the lockpicks but I shake my head, not knowing how to work with those. I pull a pin from my hair and step up to the door, my heart beating anxiously with the challenge. Imagine I'm leaving behind Grelod's dead body again, I tell myself as I set to work. The incentive has the effect I desire, as I suddenly remember what I am capable of. Does picking a lock really compare with cutting a person's throat? I wonder, fully aware that the latter required of me more determination than skill, but nonetheless the thought calms my nerves considerably. Without my fingers slick and sticky with blood, I work faster and in about a minute I hear the lock click open.

'Nicely done.' Brynjolf steps up to the door and pushes it open. 'I reckon you'll fit in just fine, Wren.'

I try not to pay attention to the strange fluttering in my stomach as I hear the admiration in his voice. I follow him through the door, my footsteps slowing as my eyes take in the room where I find myself.

It is a huge circular cavern, with a high stone ceiling and walls that reverberate the sound of fast rushing water. On the far side, I see a waterfall pouring down one of the walls, the water running through a gulley into a large pool of water in the centre. Stone walkways cross over the pool, leading to four alcoved areas of the cavern. The place is dimly lit by lanterns of both natural candlelight and pale magelight, and as I follow Brynjolf across the stone walkway, I see beds around the edge of the room – only afew are occupied, but the sight of these unknown people still sets my heart racing fast.

My unsteady heart doesn't relax as Brynjolf leads me over the water and to the alcove on the far side of the cavern, which is lit brighter than the rest of the place, presumably because this is the only area of the cavern where someone appears to be awake. A tall broad-shouldered man leans over a wide desk; the surface is littered with papers and gold coins are stacked messily on one side, next to a candle nearly burned out. As we approach, the man behind the desk looks up. His brown hair is short and he wears similar clothing to Brynjolf, a lightly armoured black jacket with an array of pockets. The candlelight dances over the hard lines of his face as he leans over the desk; a little older than Brynjolf, I see more than one scar on his face and there are dark shadows beneath the deep-set brown eyes. Those eyes flicker past Brynjolf and onto me, narrowing as they watch me approach, and suddenly I feel about half my size.

He straightens up and inclines his head as we come to stand in front of the desk. I notice he has a dagger at each hip, a pair of solid golden blades - and the look he gives me is just as deadly. The way his dark gaze slowly moves up and down my body sets my heart racing with nerves although he's yet to say a word. His eyes take in the way my shirt pulls tight over the curve of my breasts, the messy curls of my hair escaping its dwindling pins, the shape of my legs in their boy's trousers. He looks at the satchel at my side, seemingly weighing the contents with his eyes and finding it unimpressive. A small frown appears at his dark brow before his gaze moves over my body again.

I fold my arms across my chest, feeling cold and uneasy.

Brynjolf pulls out the papers from his pocket. 'Here. The Withercroft deeds.' He drops them on the desk. 'And the sorry bastard is now carrying the false papers. You can thank Wren here for it, although I'd like a finder's fee, if you think we can stretch to it.'

His tone is light and joking but the man behind the desk doesn't seem to want to engage in banter. He turns to Brynjolf. 'I told you to outsource it,' the man says. His voice is low and hard.

'Which I did.' Brynjolf gestures to me. 'Outsourced. Wren is new to the area. The drunken fool never saw her coming.' A small half-smile pulls at his mouth and his green eyes flicker back to me. 'Although I'm sure he thought he was going to, eh, lass?'

'I said outsource, not bring me some waif into our fucking headquarters.' The man's hard gaze moves over me once more and I suddenly feel stripped beneath his commanding stare. 'What is she doing here, Brynjolf?'

'She's here for her payment,' Brynjolf says. 'And a place to stay. I think she might be useful to the Guild.'

'Did you?' The man seems unimpressed. 'And does she have any skills at all or is this you thinking with your cock rather than your head?'

'Please, Mercer, you know me better than that.' Brynjolf's voice is still light and easy and I can't tell if his words are meant sarcastically or not. 'Look, she's small and quick and wants to make some gold. She did the job clean and fast, and she unlocked the Cistern without so much as a single broken pick. It wouldn't hurt to have a new face around here, would it? Anything she doesn't know, she'll learn.'

'I don't have time to play teacher and neither do you,' snaps the man I assume to be named Mercer. 'What good is she to me? So she stole from an idiot too fucking drunk to notice where her hands were going. Any whore with half a mind could manage the same thing.'

The ice in his words makes irritation flare in my stomach suddenly. 'Yet somehow none of you could get those papers yourselves,' I say before I can stop myself. 'And I'm not a whore,' I add sharply, standing up straighter to try to seem a little taller.

The man's hard gaze turns onto me. He looks me up and down again, slowly, as if deliberating some thought I cannot fathom. His gaze lingers over my tight clothing, effectively diminishing me back down to feel half my size in moments. A small smirk forms at his lips. 'So brave for a little bird,' he says softly. He looks at me for a second longer before his smile vanishes and he turns back to Brynjolf. 'Fine. Since you're so certain she'll be useful, I'll give her a week. If by then she hasn't made us back what you've paid her, she's out. Take her to Delvin. He can deal with her.'

'I'll see that she settles in,' Brynjolf says swiftly.

Mercer surveys him for a moment, and I see a small calculating frown flicker across his face before he shrugs. 'Entertain yourself however you want, Brynjolf, as long as you don't forget what you're supposed to be doing here.' His eyes move back onto me. 'And I'd advise you learn quick, Wren. You've got seven days to prove your worth or you're out of here.'

He turns his gaze back down to the papers on his desk.

'Come on, Mercer, you can do better than that,' Brynjolf says. 'When Thrynn joined, you near enough shook the man's bloody hand.'

'Thrynn brought me three grand's worth of loot from the caravans he robbed on his way here.' Mercer doesn't look up. 'Your little bird has started at a loss. She better make up for it.'

Brynjolf rolls his eyes. 'How about you just trust me, eh? She'll be good for this place. So welcome her to the family properly, would you?'

Mercer makes an irritated sigh before he looks back at me. 'Fine. Seeing as Brynjolf is so confident in your abilities, I'll just have to take his word for it until I can see them for myself. Whatever he's told you about this place, it doesn't matter. It's simple. You do as you're told and bring in gold and this place will be the best thing that ever happened to you. I can guarantee that.' The small smirk returns to his mouth, though his dark eyes remain ice cold. 'Welcome to the Thieves Guild, Wren.'

I feel a jolt of apprehension in my lower stomach. 'Thank you,' I say, but he has already turned his gaze back down to the papers on his desk.

'Come on, lass, you should meet Delvin before turning in.' Brynjolf goes to move away from the desk before he pauses. 'Oh, and your pay.' He scoops up one of the piles of coins off the desk and holds them out to me, still neatly stacked flat in his palm.

I half expect Mercer to look up and object, but he doesn't react at all. Brynjolf isn't just a lackey here, I realise, before I wonder for a moment what would happen if I grabbed some of the coins without being offered.

'Thanks.' I open my satchel and retrieve my coin purse, letting Brynjolf drop the coins on top of my stolen gold. Except these new coins are probably stolen too, aren't they?

I'm more than willing to leave the desk and follow Brynjolf back across the cavern, although I have the distinct feeling of being watched by a pair of dark hard eyes as I walk away. The thought sends an uncomfortable shiver down my back.

'Ragged Flagon's just through here,' Brynjolf says, leading me to a storage area off to the left of the pool.

'The Ragged Flagon?' I repeat, the name of the tavern familiar to me. As are the stories, I think. I remember how two of the older boys from the orphanage broke out one night and came back with the dawn, drunk, with five bottles of skooma and three broken bones between them.

Some of my concern must come through in my voice, as Brynjolf laughs a quick laugh as he leads me past piles of sacks, crates and lockboxes to a wooden door at the back of the alcove. 'Ah, don't believe the tales. We don't get that much trouble there. A few brawls over gold, the occasional knife fight, maybe.' He stops by the door and turns back to the look at me, grinning. 'But you'll probably handle yourself well in those, won't you? With that blade of yours, you could probably take out at least two guildmembers that I can think of.'

'I doubt that, I'm not much of a fighter,' I say, as if I've ever actually fought before. Unless you count fighting back, and failing. Or cutting an old woman's neck. 'It's just for defence.'

'You need better defence,' Brynjolf says. 'We'll find you a real weapon tomorrow. And make sure you know how to use it. We work in the shadows here, and Mercer and I would rather you didn't get your hands bloody. It tends to bloody the gold too.' He shrugs. 'But sometimes the shadows try to kill you, and if they do, you should know how to kill them first.'

I watch as he turns back to the door and pushes it open. 'No lockpicks needed to get in this way?' I ask as he steps aside to let me pass into a hallway and shuts the door behind us.

'No, we like drinking too much to bother with all that,' Brynjolf replies lightly, turning to face me. 'Plus Vekel will knock you flat if you try getting into the Cistern from his side without his say so.'

'Well, I can't wait to meet him next,' I say sarcastically before I can stop myself.

Brynjolf laughs. 'You pay your tab and Vekel will be your best friend, I swear.' He pauses. 'And don't mind Mercer. Just bring him gold and don't piss him off and you'll be fine.'

Will I? I wonder, thinking how I've already started off by taking a stack of his gold. 'That's a fair enough rule,' I say cautiously. 'Seems like everything pisses him off, though.'

The redhead shrugs. 'Eh, he's stressed. Guildmembers are starting to believe Delvin's stories about a curse and it's becoming a standard excuse for anyone failing to bring in coin.' Brynjolf sighs. 'Though the way things are going, I'm starting to believe him too.'

'A curse?' I repeat dubiously, not taking him for the superstitious type. 'What sort of curse?'

Brynjolf shakes his head, a weary expression on his face. 'Another time, lass, it's too late in the night for all that. But let's just say I'm glad you switched those deeds for us without any problems. Mercer might not have shown his gratitude but we needed that done fast and clean and by someone not known to be associated with the Guild.' A smile pulls at his mouth. 'By the time the mark figures out who you're now working for, the damage will be done. You did well.' His eyes hold mine. 'Maybe we're not so cursed after all, if I was lucky enough to find you.'

Under his gaze I feel my heart skip nervously, his words unsettling me. 'I'm sure anyone else in that tavern could've done what I did,' I say quickly. 'The serving girl did say she'd fulfil any need you had of her.'

Brynjolf scoffs. 'I don't know, she probably would've let him bed her and completely forgotten about the papers.'

I make a small laugh, conscious of that fragile moment when I nearly did that exact thing. 'Well, then maybe it was lucky I was there,' I say lightly.

'Oh, I know it was.' His eyes flicker over my face for a moment before a quick smile appears at his mouth. 'Anyway, come on. You must be tired. Meet Delvin and then we'll get you to bed, lass.'

I feel a strange flip in my stomach with his words but I have no time to think about it as Brynjolf turns and leads the way down the short hallway, pushing open the door at the end to reveal a cavernous room not unlike the one we have just left. I see a pool of water on the far side, though it is too dark for me to make out much beyond it.

It doesn't quite live up to the stories, I think. I half-expected it to be like the Bee and Barb, full of life and noise, even at this late hour. The place is barren, dark, and cold. Really fucking cold, I think, hugging my arms around my body, feeling the chill in my exposed ankles and through my thin shirt as I follow Brynjolf through the Flagon, my footsteps echoing in the dark hidden recesses. It is almost as quiet as the graveyard; the water in the far-off pool is still, and the few shadowy shapes of people I see around the tables seem to fall silent as I pass. And I thought Mercer was unwelcoming. I don't see faces. Most of the tables are unoccupied and those that aren't are the tables furthest removed from the light.

I follow Brynjolf as he leads me to the bar, above which hang half a dozen lanterns. There is no one behind the bar, but at the far end I see a hooded figure sitting alone, staring into a clear glass of some purplish liquid. Right in middle of the bar sits a man wearing the same armour as Brynjolf and Mercer, with dark greying hair shaved to the quick and deep furrows at his brow, one big hand cupped around a tankard, a crumpled note in the other.

'Fucking cats,' he mutters, as Brynjolf stops beside him.

'Gnives giving you grief?' the redhead says.

'Grief? I just lost a hundred septims to that damn shadowfur.' He has a broad thick accent and swears again under his breath as he screws up the note in his hand. 'Here's hoping the bastard never makes it back from Windhelm to claim his coin.'

Brynjolf laughs. 'You know you were a fool to bet against him, Del. Have you seen Sapphire, by the way? She's not in the Cistern and I'd like a word.'

'She's off claiming a debt.' The man drinks deep from his tankard. 'Horses are stubborn with their gold, apparently.'

Brynjolf sighs. 'Keep an eye on it for me, would you? I get the feeling she's working him for more than we'll ever see and if Mercer catches on, I'll never hear the end of it.'

'Aye, Bryn, I'll keep an eye on it.' The man turns around and his gaze flickers over to me. 'And who's this lovely creature?'

'Wren, our newest recruit.' Brynjolf turns to me. 'Wren, this is Delvin Mallory. Delvin handles the jobs and coin for the Guild. If there's any work to be had, or if there's anything you need to know, he's your man. Or if you want to get flattered mercilessly til your head hurts.'

Delvin scowls at the thief before he turns to me and his face softens into a wide grin. 'I prefer pleasurably flattered to mercilessly, sweetheart. But other than that, Brynjolf's got it about right. I'm the most important man around here. And unlike some guildmembers, I know how to treat a lady.' He stands up and holds out his hand. I unfold my arms and take it cautiously, and he brings my hand to his lips in a light kiss. I don't miss the direction of his gaze as his eyes flicker over my body and back up to my face, but he lets go of my hand quickly and sits back down with an easy grin, his gaze firmly back on my eyes. 'I'd wager you haven't had as gentlemanly a welcome from any other guildmembers.'

'Give us a chance, she's only met me and Mercer,' Brynjolf says. 'And since when am I anything but the perfect gentleman?'

The older man snorts with laughter. 'Didn't give the lady a kiss on the hand, did you?'

'Well, I didn't get the opportunity to play the dashing hero,' Brynjolf says.

Didn't he? I think, remembering how he intervened with the men outside the tavern. I feel a sudden flicker of curiosity over how I would've reacted had the red-haired thief kissed my hand instead of putting a coin into it.

'He did give me gold, though,' I tell Delvin, to his laughter.

'And that's a nice greeting,' Brynjolf says swiftly before Delvin can say a word. 'Everyone likes gold.'

Delvin scoffs and looks back at me. 'All right, let me guess. The lad just plucked you out of your life with naught but the promise of wealth and septims aplenty, and now you find yourself here without a clue which way is up?'

'Sounds about right,' I say with a small smile as I hear Brynjolf sigh.

Delvin grins widely. 'Well, don't worry. You can count on me, sweetheart. You need anything, information, work, coin, a friendly ear, I'm the one you come to, all right? And I guarantee I'm the most handsome and charming company you'll get around here.'

'The lass can make that judgement herself,' Brynjolf says.

'Aye, I hope she does.' Delvin gestures to the barstool beside him. 'Take a seat, Wren, let's get better acquainted. What's your pleasure? Mead? Wine?'

'Its been a long night,' Brynjolf says. 'Give her a chance to catch her breath, eh? I just wanted her to meet you so she knows there's more to the Guild than just me and Mercer.'

'Thank the gods you did.' Delvin looks seriously at me. 'First thing to tell you, sweetheart. Those two sorry bastards have it all wrong. They think life's all about coin. Whereas I know the value of other pleasures, like a good pint of ale, a warm bed, the smile of a beautiful young woman.'

'But can't coin buy those things?' I point out, with a smile.

Delvin laughs raucously, the sound echoing in the dark corners of the Flagon. 'Oh, you'll fit right in around here,' he says. 'Aye, you'll do just fine. Come see me tomorrow once you've got your bearings, I've a couple of jobs that might interest you. Local, easy, enough to get your feet wet and your purse a little fuller. So don't fret, sweetheart. You'll be feeling at home here in no time, all right?'

'Thank you,' I say, feeling oddly comforted by the stranger's words. Maybe purely because the welcome I got from Mercer was so discomforting, I think, still feeling his hard gaze on me.

'Such manners, lovely little bird,' Delvin murmurs as he brings his tankard to his mouth once more. 'You don't hear many thank yous down here.'

'All right, well, thanks for the chat, Delvin,' Brynjolf says briskly, to older thief's snort of laughter.

'Smart little shit,' Delvin says into his tankard.

'And that's more like the manners we have down here. Come on, lass.' I feel Brynjolf's hand briefly at the small of my back. 'You need to sleep or you'll be no good to anyone tomorrow.'

The touch of his hand makes my heart jump and suddenly any comfort I felt at Delvin's reassurances disappears. I remain on edge as Brynjolf leads the way back through the Ragged Flagon and into the Cistern once more, the sound of rushing water filling my ears again. I glance across the room and notice the desk is now empty, though the candle has not yet died out.

A moment later, Brynjolf stops beside an empty bed tucked up against the wall and turns to look at me. 'Here. I'd say take your pick of the empty beds but your fellow guildmembers can be territorial, the cat least of all.' He gestures with his foot beneath the bed, where I see a small chest. 'Guild rules, whatever's under your bed is yours. We don't steal from each other. And it's safe to sleep here. No one's getting through the Flagon or the tomb, I assure you.'

'Sleep here?' The thought of sleeping next to all these strangers makes my heart thud anxiously. It's not like I'll be sleeping in their beds, I tell myself firmly, but the thought only makes my heart beat faster, thinking of Honorhall, thinking of Grelod's private room and the bed, the shutters on the windows, the creak of the door; suddenly the memories flood me and I cannot decide which guests were worse, the ones that wanted to touch and be touched or the ones that wanted to sleep beside a frightened child all night.

Brynjolf notices my reluctance, although I'm confident he can't know why. 'If you want me to take you back to the Bee and Barb, I will,' he says softly. 'Whatever you want, Wren.' He inclines his head, his smile not faltering but his eyes searching mine with some expression I cannot discern. 'I suppose you might prefer to conclude that bit of business with the charming Nord waiting for you in your room.'

The thought of the events of earlier shake me back into the present. I killed Grelod and I'll never see one of her guests again. What I'm afraid of are ghosts and memories.

'I don't,' I answer firmly, not wanting to think on the part of me that seemed to enjoy kissing the fair Nord and how eagerly my body reacted beneath his drunken touch.

Brynjolf's smile makes me forget that part of me existed. 'Then his loss is my gain,' he says. 'Poor man. If I didn't know him better, I'd feel sorry for him still waiting there for you.'

'I doubt he'd still be waiting,' I say.

'Aye, he would,' Brynjolf says. 'Now get some sleep, if you can. You'll get used to the sound of water pretty quick.'

'I don't mind it,' I say. It reminds me of home, I think before I stop myself, my stomach hollow for a moment before I push the thought aside. I'd rather dwell on Grelod's dripping torn throat and every fucking guest than think of home.

Brynjolf's eyes crinkle up as he smiles. 'Then sleep well, Wren. And welcome to the Guild.'

'Thank you,' I say quickly as he goes to turn away, suddenly afraid for him to leave me alone in this unfamiliar place, but I have no idea how to ask him to stay, or why I should want to, when he is as unfamiliar as the place in which I find myself.

'That's all right, lass.' Brynjolf gives me another grin before turning and heading back the way we came. I watch him disappear into the shadows and a few moments later I hear the door to the Ragged Flagon open and close behind him.

I stand for a few moments, frozen, poised, prepared for someone to jump out of the shadows. When several long seconds pass, and then a minute, I feel my rapid heart rate start to settle. For a while I stand there, seeing no movement and hearing nothing but the water and the faint sounds of someone snoring. Eventually, tentatively, I sit down cross-legged on the bed.

I clutch my satchel in my lap, feeling my intense exhaustion for the first time but uncertainty rushing more keenly through me as I wonder what the hell I am doing here. I was supposed to get out of the city, I think, not sure how or why I have ended up in a dark underground cavern as the newest member of a guild of thieves. Gold, that's why. I open my satchel and look at my coins, thinking how easy it was – if I can get this in a day, in a week I could have enough coin to take me anywhere in Skyrim and start a new life far away from Riften and the past.

My eyes slide to the knife still tucked beside my coin purse. Was it only a couple of hours ago that I cut Grelod's throat and left Honorhall? Suddenly I think of Lily. She'll be fast asleep right now, I tell myself firmly, not letting myself imagine her crying out for her mother, for some comfort in the cold orphanage, for a story with a happy ending. I quickly look at my coins again, dipping my hand into my purse and feeling the cold solid shapes to distract myself from my thoughts, but before I can help it, my eyes slide back to my knife. I'll go as far away as possible, I remind myself as I lean back against the wall, listening to the water. And soon.

Chapter Text

I follow the trail of gold as it leads me from my bed through the Cistern; someone's turned the cavern into a maze, a game, a hunt. Occasionally the trail disappears and I make a note to let Delvin know; missing coins are bad. I decide to tell him in the morning.

But it's evernight here, and I know the gag in my mouth will stop me telling anyone anything. The silence is deafening. I find myself before a locked door. It opens at my touch and I enter, Lynna following at my heels.

'You should've seen her face,' the Imperial says. She has hair like spun gold and eyes that glitter, though the light is dim and fading. 'Some people look better dead. You proved that.'

I try to tell Lynna to shut up, I have to focus if I'm going to get the gold, but no words come from my lips.

Inside is empty, stripped, with nothing of value left. I'm too late. My disappointment cuts fierce through me. I've yet to fail a job and this one was important; I start to panic that I will not be able to explain myself, the gag suddenly tightening in my mouth, cutting into my skin, starting to choke the air from my lungs.

'Well, you can always come with me,' Lynna says. I turn to look at her, horror filling my heart, knowing where she has ended up, knowing she must serve drinks and serve men. She smiles. 'Come, little bird.'

Then I feel fingers trace lightly over my bare shoulders and I turn around. 'Rune?' I try to say, but beneath the gag my voice is naught but a faint moan.

'You've got to practise,' Rune says. I go to reach for my daggers but he shakes his head, laughing. His blue eyes hold mine for a moment before the dark blond thief dips his head and kisses my neck, his lips gentle, his tongue cold over my skin.

I like it too much and I gasp against the gag with the intense pleasure. My hands reach out for him, wanting, but he pulls away, and pulls two daggers from his sleeves. They glint in bright light, though the lanterns in the room are burning out, and I shield my eyes.

'We don't want to hurt you, sweetheart,' he says, although I see only him, and I know he wouldn't hurt me, and I know he would never call me sweetheart.

I look around and find the room is suddenly crowded. I don't recognise faces, except one. I turn away, not wanting to see, not wanting to hear, trying to find Rune again but he has disappeared.

'Please-' I start, my chest tight, the word escaping the gag as a choked gurgle.

'Please, please, please don't hurt me,' the old woman's voice cries mockingly in my ear, her words, and mine. I turn to look, finding her changed by death; her limbs sinewy, her nose a beak, the hagraven I hunted.

I pull away and grab desperately for Lynna's hand, but she vanishes. I push through the bodies, slow, my limbs dragging as I try to get to the door; it is locked again. I stagger down to my knees and reach up for pins but they're not in my hair, and the touch of my fingers scrapes rough at my scalp. I look down at my hands, my nails turned to talons; I try to use my claws to unlock the door, but before I can get out I feel hard hands on my shoulders, pulling me backwards, falling through the darkness that engulfs the room.

'Try flying next time,' a voice whispers, low and hard. 'Try-'

 

I wake with a jolt and in a cold sweat, my heart beating louder than the crashing water. My skin is hot and sticky, my mouth choked with the edge of my pillow. I push myself up abruptly, gasping for breath and untangling myself from my sheets, needing to get away, to get free. To wake up, I think vaguely and I stumble out of bed, still half asleep, and find my way across the Cistern to the water room off one of the alcoves.

Once inside, I lock the door behind me, feeling glad somewhere in my half-consciousness that so far the thieves seem to respect the lock on this door, at least. I strip off my nightshirt and walk barefooted over the grated floor, coming to stand beneath the flow of water that pours warm from the pipe above. The water wakes me up as it washes the cool sweat from my body, my panicked heart rate slowly settling down.

Just a stupid dream, I think as my mind clears. Another one. I tilt my head back and let the water rush over my face, trying not to think about it, knowing the images will fade by the morning if I don't let them linger in my mind.

I stand under the water until I feel calm enough to go back to bed, at which point I realise I didn't bring anything to dry myself with, so I do my best to wring out my hair before putting my nightshirt back on over my wet body. I unlock the door to the Cistern.

More awake now, my vision and head cleared by the water, I look across the Cistern and realise with a sharp jolt that the Guildmaster is at his desk, the candles still burning bright. His jacket discarded, the sleeves of his shirt are rolled up to his elbows, his forearms exposed and taut as he leans over his desk. As soon I step out of the water room, he looks up at me and our eyes meet. I stop abruptly at the sight of him, caught off-guard, wondering how I walked right past him before. I stand frozen as his dark eyes take in my appearance slowly, deliberately, and I'm suddenly conscious of the way my shirt clings to my dripping wet body, the hem of the garment reaching only to the tops of my thighs, the ties at my chest loose and the thin material sticking to the shape of my breasts.

My cheeks flush red as I see the smirk form at Mercer's mouth as his gaze flickers back up to my face, and I realise I have been standing there for several long seconds under his stare.

Quickly, I wrap my arms across my body and take the long way around the pool to my bed, not wanting to pass by his desk. I keep my eyes directed at the stone floor, half-wishing for it to collapse beneath me and for me to fall into the dark oblivion as I did in my dream.

I get back into bed and huddle wet beneath the covers, wanting to put on something dry but not wanting to take off my nightshirt to do so, feeling the effects of the Guildmaster's gaze as keenly as if he is still watching me. I roll over and face the wall, thinking of my dream and starting to wonder if I had talked in my sleep. Or making any other sounds. I blush with the possibility, although my embarrassment vanishes beneath a discomforting sense of unease when I consider the thought of Mercer Frey being awake while I sleep oblivious and defenceless. A strange shiver runs down my back and I don't even consider trying to fall asleep again until I hear footsteps across the Cistern and the sound of a door slamming.

 

*

 

'Easy,' Sapphire says. 'Keep your arms steady.'

'I'm trying,' I say, irritably.

'Trying and failing.' The raven-haired thief sighs. 'Shoot it, then.'

The three thieves watch as I let an arrow fly. It misses the target and ricochets weakly off the stone wall, disappearing somewhere behind one of the chests.

'Fuck,' I say under my breath, as I hear Sapphire make a quiet snort of laughter from where she watches atop the straw bales.

'You need to learn from a real archer.' Niruin steps forward with his bow in hand. 'May I?' He doesn't wait for a response as he nocks an arrow and I hear the thrum as it hits the target. When I turn to look, I see the arrow is dead centre.

Sapphire sighs. 'Do you always have to show off, elf?'

Niruin laughs his high bright laugh as he turns to look at her. 'I do it to impress you, my goddess. One day I hope you'll realise that claiming your heart and affections is my true target.'

'Go pick up your arrow, fetcher,' Sapphire says coldly, glaring at him with her hazel eyes.

Unfazed as always, the Bosmer bows with a flourish. 'As my goddess commands,' he says before he walks to the target and retrieves his arrow. He looks around. 'Now, where was yours, little bird? Somewhere in the Flagon?'

'Maybe if you were the target, I'd shoot better,' I say, frustrated that after four weeks of training, I still miss half my shots. 'Let's just face it, I'm never going to be good at this.'

Rune comes to stand beside me. 'Don't worry yourself, Wren,' he says. 'You have enough other talents that more than make up for not being an expert archer.'

I feel a flutter of appreciation at his compliment. 'Thank you, Rune,' I say with a smile, and the dark blond thief returns my smile with his own, the look in his eyes sincere. Though he has barely a year's more experience in the Guild than I do, I let myself believe his reassuring words. They're always as sincere and kind as the look in his eyes, I think. Suddenly, last night's dream comes to mind, and I flush when I realise the best part was when he was kissing my neck. A stupid dream, I remind myself, knowing that my interest in Rune goes no further than friendship, but even as I think it, I remember how his mouth felt against my skin, and how the contact pleased me, even for only a second.

'You know, you probably are too weak to use a bow,' Sapphire says to me, and at my frown she hurries to clarify. 'I mean small. Delicate. Fragile.'

'And that's better than weak?' I ask, not liking the idea of being seen as weak or fragile, knowing what happens to those who cannot defend themselves. I hold the bow out to Niruin. 'I give up with these lessons. Take it. Shoot both at once, seeing as you're such a bloody expert.'

'An expert?' Niruin repeats in horror as if I've spat on him. 'I'm a master marksman, I'll have you know. There's not one person in this festering city that could shoot an arrow like I can.'

'Then I'm a fool for trying to compare with you, aren't I?' I say flippantly. 'Take the damn bow, elf, my poor weak arms can't hold it for very long.'

Niruin snorts with laughter. 'Hey, Sapphire was the one who called you weak.' He takes the bow from my hands and turns around to the dark-haired thief, who glares at him. 'Cruel goddess that she is.'

'I can be crueller,' Sapphire informs him. Her slender pale hands gesture to her thigh and the dagger fastened there. 'Keep calling me a goddess and I'll cut your tongue out.'

'My tongue would be glad to belong to such a creature as yourself.' Niruin grins. 'And I assure you, you'll find it to your liking.'

'Come on, Wren,' Sapphire says to me, ignoring his words as she jumps down from the straw bales and walks over to me. 'Let's get a drink. And no,' she adds to the wood elf as he moves to follow her. 'You're not welcome. And neither are you, Rune.'

Rune holds up his hands as her cold gaze dares him to argue. 'I wasn't asking, Saph,' he says lightly. His deep blue eyes move to me. 'Want to practise your daggerwork again tomorrow, then?'

I nod, grateful for his efforts over the past month. At least I'm strong enough to handle a blade, I think. The pair of small steel daggers at my thighs have cut nothing more than the training dummy so far, but I use them well enough – and I have a lot of potential, as Rune insists. He assures me I'm more than capable of defending myself should a job go awry. I only nod and smile gratefully whenever he says it, already conscious of what I am capable of. But murdering someone in their bed is different to defending myself in combat.

Niruin's eyes follow Sapphire as we head for the door. 'Maybe you'll permit me to practise my daggerwork as well, fair creature.' I don't look around but I hear the smile in his voice. 'In your bed tonight.'

Sapphire doesn't turn around either. 'You come anywhere near my bed and I'll make sure it's the last time you draw that dagger of yours,' she says as she pushes open the door to the training room.

The elf's laughter rings out into the Cistern. 'You wouldn't say such things if you witnessed my skills,' he calls after her. 'One day, sweet Sapphire, one day.'

'Not going to happen.' Sapphire lets the door swing shut behind us, cutting off Niruin's laughter with a sharp slam.

I hurry to follow her as she strides through the Cistern, our echoing footsteps drowned by the crashing water and the sounds of Thrynn and Vex in the kitchen area arguing loudly over a failed job. As we pass, I don't strain my ears to try to hear the details, knowing the basics well enough by now; for every success, the Guild seems to run into trouble, with lost shipments, wrong information, and worthless goods. I feel a flicker of satisfaction that my jobs, though small, have been steady and clean, and the stash of gold beneath my bed is slowly growing. There's more than enough coin there to get me out of Riften. The thought, although comforting, also disconcerts me. There has been enough there for a while, and yet I'm still here.

At this time between dusk and nightfall, the Cistern is almost deserted. The beds are empty, save for the one set furthest back from the water, where Gnives is curled up and sleeping soundly, waiting for the night to fall. As Sapphire and I come to the pool's edge, I look across the water and see Mercer at his desk, and even at the distance I see the furrow at his brow as he scowls over the documents spread before him. My interactions with the Guildmaster have been non-existent since my first week was up and he icily declared I could stay in the Guild as long as I continued to bring in coin and kept in line. Thank the gods that line has required me to be nowhere near Mercer Frey, I think as I watch him frown over his work, immensely grateful that I get my jobs from Delvin and don't have to report back to the Guildmaster at all.

As if he hears my thoughts, Mercer looks up suddenly and his dark hard eyes meet mine. I look away quickly and turn my attention back to Sapphire, my cheeks flushing violently, remembering what happened after I woke from my dream clearer than I remember the dream itself. As Sapphire and I walk towards the door to the Ragged Flagon, I'm conscious of the Guildmaster's gaze following me and suddenly I feel like I am wearing nothing but my wet nightshirt again, my skin exposed to him, my body as good as naked. Pretend that was part of the dream too, I tell myself, swiftly deciding to forget it ever happened.

'You know, I don't think Niruin will admit defeat any time soon,' I say to Sapphire. 'He's persistent, you have to give him that.'

'Persistent, and pushing his luck,' Sapphire says shortly. 'If he keeps it up, I'll slit his throat.'

I don't reply, not doubting her. I'm confident the Bosmer means little harm but I understand Sapphire's disinterest in encouraging him, or indeed any of the other guildmembers who like to try their luck with the pretty raven-haired thief. I take a quick sideways glance at her and see that her face is scrunched in a scowl to rival Mercer's. I don't push the conversation, knowing the thoughts likely running though her mind.

The others don't know, though, and so they keep pushing. I feel a keen sense of relief that the thieves in the Cistern are generally suspicious and most of the other guildmembers are still too wary of the new blood to try their luck beyond the occasional remark or drunken proposition. And those are easy enough to brush off, I think. Far easier than the memories. I glance at Sapphire again as we leave the Cistern and head into the Ragged Flagon, knowing the raven-haired thief has memories of her own that are as difficult to forget as mine.

'Ah, my two favourite women.' At his usual place at the bar, tankard in hand and papers stacked before him, Delvin turns to us with a wide grin as Sapphire and I wait to get drinks. He gives me a wink before his eyes flicker over to Sapphire. 'And what're you doing here, sweetheart? Aren't you supposed to be running a job for me tonight?'

'Give me a minute, old man,' Sapphire snaps. 'Can't I get a drink first?'

Delvin chuckles at her as Vekel appears behind the bar and I put down coins for two cups of wine. 'I'm not stopping you, love,' Delvin says to Sapphire. 'But you know how I feel about drinking on the job.'

'Technically you're always drinking on the job,' I point out, nodding at the papers in front of him.

The old thief's laughter echoes in the recesses of the Flagon. 'Aye, bird, suppose you're right about that.' He raises his tankard and drinks before his eyes return to the raven-haired thief. 'Just make it quick, Saph. People don't rob themselves, you know.'

She rolls her eyes and picks up the cups Vekel places on the bar before us. 'Come on,' she says to me, and we leave Delvin chuckling while we find a nearby table.

Sapphire drinks in silence while I look around the near-empty Flagon, listening to the quiet murmurings and the gently lapping water of the dark pool. Though united by a common interest in hiding from the law, the clientele of the Ragged Flagon is varied. One afternoon, I walked into the Flagon to get work from Delvin and could barely fight my way to the bar through the throng of people wanting to drink, gamble and sell wares. The next day, the place was deserted save for a couple of guildmembers playing cards. I quickly became used to the unpredictability of the place, just as I learned fast that there is no schedule to the dealings of the Guild. My first day, I half-expected a regime like at Honorhall, for doors to lock and rules to be laid down. But I suppose locking doors wouldn't work here.

I hear sudden laughter and I look over to the source; evidently finished reprimanding Thrynn, Vex has arrived in the Flagon and taken the stool beside Delvin at the bar, one leg crossed over the other, her glass dagger fastened at her hip.

'If you think this counts as a come-on, you're stupider than you look,' the blonde thief says, as Vekel puts a bottle of mead before her.

'Sweetheart, of a hundred other places you could sit, you chose the one next to me.' Delvin slips a few coins to Vekel. 'Let me get that for you, darlin'.'

'I can pay for myself,' Vex snaps, slapping his hand away. 'And I'm here for business, you cretin, not to have you drool over me. That shipment we arranged for Thrynn got intercepted before he arrived. Just who have you been running your mouth to?'

'Running my mouth?' Delvin sighs. 'Vex, you know me better than that.'

The blonde's delicate pointed features arrange into a scowl. 'Well, someone got to the mark before we did, and I sure as hell didn't let anything slip.'

'So I must have?' Delvin brings his tankard to his mouth. 'Have a drink and calm yourself down, love. Then we'll talk.'

Vex doesn't seem inclined to agree. In my short time at the Guild, I have quickly learnt that her white-blonde hair is matched by her white-hot temper, having been at the receiving end of her vicious tongue more than once - for taking an extra hour on a job or bringing her goods she deemed worthless, or just looking at her the wrong way. Another good reason for getting my work from Delvin rather than anyone else, I think, returning my attention to my drink as Vex starts laying into Delvin about the failed job.

I'm almost at the bottom of my cup when a short while later my eyes are suddenly drawn to the entrance to the Cistern and I see Brynjolf cut through the Flagon, heading towards the bar. As I watch the auburn-haired thief stop beside Delvin and Vex and interrupt their bickering, I feel the familiar flutter of nerves that by now I know has little to do with logic or sense. Stupid girl, I tell myself, not for the first time, having known for a while that I cannot keep fooling myself; when my nerves about joining the Guild settled down as I fell into the routine and everything new became familiar, the tentative knotting in my stomach whenever Brynjolf was near did not subside and I realised I was nervous around him for a different reason. And it gets worse with every charming word or smile he directs my way, I think, even as I remind myself that charm is as natural to the redhead as breathing, and to trust the smiles as anything genuine would be entirely foolish. Like trusting a thief not to steal when it's just too easy for them to do so.

I sip at the last of my wine and watch surreptitiously as the redhead talks with Delvin and Vex at the bar. Brynjolf's hand goes to the small of the blonde thief's back as he leans in to say something in her ear, and she laughs, the irritation vanishing from her silver eyes. He always knows how to calm her down, I think, well aware of the rumours about the two of them.

I turn to Sapphire, suddenly irritated. 'Want help with that job tonight?' I ask.

She raises an eyebrow. 'You want to help me lift silks from a canal warehouse?'

'Sure, why not?' I say flippantly, as if the thought of lugging around goods along the canal walkways is my idea of fun. It'll be more fun than sitting here thinking about the ways the redhead might enjoy calming down the blonde.

Sapphire doesn't look convinced. 'We don't even get to keep the goods, you know. I have to take them to the client. No profit in it for us.'

'Well, maybe we can pinch a few extra for ourselves.' I make a smile. 'I've always dreamt of being a princess with a pretty silk dress.'

Sapphire snorts. 'I bet you wanted a tiara too, didn't you?'

'Of course I did,' I say, feeling a strange jolt in my stomach with her words, though I scarce let myself think why. 'So you want some help or not?'

'It would save me doing two trips.' She makes an apologetic smile. 'But the client's a greedy bastard trying to undercut a new rival, Wren, he's stingy and barely paying enough for my time as it is, and with the Guild's cut too...'

'Keep the pay,' I tell her. 'Consider it my good deed of the day.'

Sapphire's hazel eyes blink in surprise before she quickly makes a small grateful smile. 'Then sure, come along.'

I return the smile and down the rest of my drink. 'Let's go, then. We can get drunk when we're done.' I laugh at Sapphire's sigh of reluctance. 'Please, Saph, I don't fancy having to carry all the silks as well as you.'

'Gods, you're as bad as Delvin,' Sapphire mutters darkly, but she finishes her drink and stands up. 'Fine. Let me get the bags.'

She leads the way across the Flagon, and we're almost at the door to the Cistern when I hear someone call my name close behind and a second later I feel a light touch at my arm.

'Hey, lass, wait up a minute.'

I stop walking, my stomach fluttering nervously before I can even control it, and I turn around to see Brynjolf standing before me, the easy half-smile at his mouth as he lets go of my arm and his eyes meet mine. He looks no different than when I last saw him yesterday, or any of the other times I've run into him around the Guild in the past month, but suddenly I'm on edge as if it's the first time I'm near him, conscious of myself and my body, and him and his. Gods, get a fucking grip, I tell myself, feeing vulnerable even entertaining those thoughts.

If the thief ever notices my nervousness, he never calls attention to it. 'Want a drink?' Brynjolf says. 'I've pocketed enough gold today to buy you both a bottle of wine. Maybe even Black-Briar mead if you ask me nicely.'

'I'll pass on the drink,' Sapphire says coolly, coming to stand beside me. 'But I'll take the gold, thanks.'

Brynjolf sighs. 'It's always a painful moment when a woman prefers coins to your company.' His green eyes flicker back to me. 'And you, lass? Come have a drink, eh?'

'We're actually heading out,' I say apologetically, as if I'd like nothing more than to watch him laugh with the pretty blonde thief. 'Some other time?'

'I'll hold you to that.' His eyes scan my face, and I wonder if he can read my thoughts. 'You know, Vex has a job in the works that might be perfect for you. You should talk to her about it.'

'And get her head bitten off for blinking at her wrong,' Sapphire says sarcastically.

'Play nice, Saph,' the redhead says with a laugh. 'You're meant to be pretending we're all wonderful people down here, remember? How else are we going to get Wren to stay if we ruin those illusions?'

'I never once believed that there was anyone decent down here and I've done just fine for five years,' Sapphire says.

Brynjolf laughs again. 'You wound me, lass. I thought I'd managed to convince you of my good qualities by now.' He looks back at me. 'So where are you heading?'

'To help Sapphire with a job,' I tell him.

'Down at the canals?' At my nod, a small frown sets in at Brynjolf's brow. 'It can wait, you know.'

'Delvin's already pestering me to get it done,' Sapphire says.

'I'll talk to him,' Brynjolf says, the frown still creasing his brow. 'I'd rather you didn't go wandering the canals at night. It's not safe.'

I feel a flicker of appreciation at his concern, a feeling that I quickly force myself to disregard. I was down in the canal walkways the night we met, I remember. And I only had my carving knife for protection back then.

'We'd do it in the day time, but I think someone might notice if we wander into the warehouse and try to make off with their finest silks,' I say with a smile.

Brynjolf's smile mirrors my own, the green in his eyes glittering. 'Ever heard of that strange time when it's starting to get light but there's still no one around?' he says lightly. 'They call it the dawn, lass. I'd rather you did the job then. The dark brings out more than just thieves down there and I guarantee they know those walkways better than you.'

'Well, it will be dawn by the time we get going,' Sapphire says pointedly, which makes Brynjolf laugh.

'All right, fine,' he says, grinning. 'You both know what you're doing, after all. I'm just saying. Be careful.'

'Oh, go worry about someone else, Brynjolf,' Sapphire says. 'We can take care of ourselves.'

'I don't doubt it, Saph.' He looks back at me, the light catching the green in his eyes. 'Come see me after, all right? I'll buy you that drink.'

'All right,' I say, and I feel the nerves flutter in my stomach more keenly as his smile crinkles up his eyes.

'Come on, Wren, people don't rob themselves,' Sapphire says, turning and heading towards the Cistern door.

'You know you're in trouble when you're quoting Delvin,' Brynjolf remarks. His gaze stays on me. 'Don't be out too late, lass. I can't say I'm a patient man, especially when I've been promised a drink with a beautiful woman.'

My stomach does an uncomfortable flip and I manage to give him a quick smile before I follow Sapphire, cursing myself, knowing that the concern and smiles and compliments are not specially reserved for me. Brynjolf charms anything that moves, I think, well aware that half the auburn-haired thief's success comes from the skill of his silver tongue. Unbidden I feel my cheeks flush when I find myself curious about the skill of his tongue, and I hurry to follow Sapphire, my face warm and heart uneasy. I don't want that, I think. I can't. As the weeks passed, I easily forgot how I liked the touch of the fair Nord in the Bee and Barb, the night I joined the Guild. It's not so easy to forget the years before. Suddenly the blush that stalked up my cheeks a moment ago disappears as I feel icy hands claw down my back and I hear cold whispers in my ear.

I find it easy to put aside my thoughts as we leave the Cistern a short while later and make our way through the city. To walk Riften at night requires more than a sharp blade. You need a sharper mind, I think, as Sapphire and I navigate the dark alleys of the city in the direction of the canals. More than once we slip back into the shadows to avoid encountering the night life of the city – a group of men, a couple of whores, a hooded figure, a patrol of guards, all we pass by unseen, using the city's maze-like network of alleys and hidden pathways to our advantage, along with the darkness itself. Delvin says to be a master thief is to be at one with the shadows, to know how to use them, to let them cloak us in darkness and make us easily overlooked. From the first day, I was a quick study, knowing the importance of the thief's greatest skill. To choose when to be seen and when not to be seen is the most powerful weapon of all.

And knowing where to run and hide helps too, I think, as we take a shortcut down to the western side of the canals, avoiding the city centre. Down on the canal walkway, Sapphire leads the way past the stores to the warehouses and I follow, suddenly recalling the last time I was here. In a blood stained dress, with a bloody knife and bloody hands. I touch the daggers at my thighs, reminding me that tonight is different, that I am different. The past is behind me.

A haze rises off the gently lapping waters and our boots slip a little on the wooden walkways. We come to the warehouse, fortunately not meeting a soul. Maybe I just always get lucky down here, I think, as Sapphire points out the right warehouse door to me.

It's an easy job; I pick the lock in a few minutes and once inside Sapphire locates the items; twelve bolts of silks that seem to glisten like water even in the deep dark of night. We pack them carefully in the bags Sapphire brought with us.

'You would've had to do two trips to get all this yourself,' I point out quietly to the raven-haired thief as we finish packing the bags. 'Why didn't you ask one of the others for help?'

'I don't need help,' she says, her voice sharp.

I close up my full knapsack. 'I know you don't,' I murmur after a while, and I look across at her. 'Just know you can ask me next time.'

Sapphire doesn't look up. When she finally speaks, her voice is little more than a whisper. 'I know, Wren,' she says. She fastens up her bag and stands up, lifting it onto her shoulder. 'Come on.'

I go to pick up the knapsack and near enough drop it back on the ground. 'How can silks be so fucking heavy?' I mutter irritably.

Sapphire laughs quietly, the sound sweet and unfamiliar to my ears; I can count on both hands the number of times I've heard her laugh in the past month. 'You really are a delicate little bird, aren't you?' she teases. 'Hold up, then.' She swings her bag down from her shoulder and opens it up. 'Give me some of yours.'

The gesture makes my heart flutter warmly and I help her transfer some of my silks into her knapsack.

'Better?' she says, when I slip the bag onto my back.

'Much,' I say. Although the reduced weight still makes my shoulders ache a little, my appreciation at her thoughtfulness makes it easy to ignore.

Sapphire leads the way back along the canal, our pace a little slower now, and not only because of our heavy bags; the raven-haired thief eyes the stores and warehouses we pass, lingering at a few that look promising.

'Want to do a bit of shopping?' Sapphire murmurs after a while, when we are nearing the hidden stairwell out of the lower walkways.

'Have we got time?' I say, tempted by the thought of extra profit, but not so tempted by the idea of carrying more things or lingering in the canals. The night air is cool enough for goosebumps to rise on my skin even beneath my sturdy jacket.

'There's always time.' Sapphire slings her bag down to the ground and points at a nearby door into what seems to be a trader's office. 'Get me in there and I'll find us something to make this trip worthwhile.'

I comply, glad enough to drop the knapsack onto the walkway before getting to work on the lock. The door opens with a creak and I look around the walkways nervously, but I see no one nearby through the mists rising off the waters.

'Watch the stash,' Sapphire says. 'I'll be quick.'

She disappears into the building before I can say anything.

I stand beside the bags of stolen silks, my heart suddenly racing uneasily. As I listen to the water lap against the wooden walkways, a shiver passes down my back as if I am being watched.

There's no one here, I tell myself, glancing ahead down the walkway before turning to look back the way we came. Dark clouds blanket the stars and shadows hang at the edges of the walkways. Then one of the shadows off to my right seems to move.

My hands haven't even brushed against my daggers before I feel an arm grab tight around my neck from behind, choking the air from my throat while a gloved hand presses a cloth to my mouth and nose. I struggle and taste a bitter flavour on the rough fabric as I try to scream for Sapphire; the acrid perfume clogs my lungs and on inhalation sends a fierce dizziness through my head as if I've drunk enough wine to fill the canals.

Don't breathe it in, I think, but before the thought has even fully processed in my mind I feel my body stagger as all strength leaves my limbs and a moment later everything goes dark.

Chapter Text

When my eyes open, I feel a sharp ache deep in my head and my vision swims, making nausea ripple through my stomach. I close my eyes again tight until I feel it pass, and when I open them again, I find myself sitting against a wall in a darkened room.

'Sleep well?'

The woman's voice from somewhere in front of me makes my heart stop for a moment. I know it. I race to comprehend why the voice is so familiar to me – someone from the Flagon? Someone I've robbed? A guest? – but I cannot place it, and all I have in my mind is a keen sense of danger.

'Where am I?' I whisper, my voice hoarse. I swallow to try to soothe my throat, but the taste of the bitter poison lingers on the back of my tongue and I suddenly remember what happened. Fear races through me and I reach down in vain for my daggers, knowing the sheathes are empty before I even touch them. I look ahead towards the source of the voice, willing my eyes to adjust faster. 'Who are you? What do you want?'

'Shh. You're safe. I'm not going to hurt you, sweet thing.' I hear the smile in her words. 'What a shame you didn't say the same to Grelod, hm?'

Panic rises in my stomach and I strain my eyes to see the person speaking and if there is some way of escaping. Shapes start to form. Where I am appears to be a small windowless wooden shack, filled with piles of junk and broken furniture, some covered with old sheets. To my left I see a closed door, presumably locked. Ahead I see a low dresser, atop of which sits a woman, slender, hooded, little more than a dark shadow to my eyes, one leg crossed over the other, her foot swinging gently.

At my silence, the woman laughs quietly. 'The silent little bird sings only in the darkness of night, it seems,' she murmurs. 'But I am the night, little one. You can sing to me and only I will hear it, I swear. You needn't fear.'

'Why am I here?' I say, trying to make my voice stronger.

I hear another soft laugh. 'Call this an... intervention. Just as you intervened when you took Grelod's life and robbed me of my duty.'

'Your duty?' I repeat, my heart beating fast at the mention of the old woman again. 'What do you mean?'

Her fingers tap drum lightly against the edge of the table. 'What I mean is she was to die at the hands of one of my associates, as we had been contracted to do. Yet you got there first.'

I start to understand, but that understanding doesn't reassure me. 'Someone ordered you to kill Grelod?'

'Of course, do you think you were the first one to want her dead? You were the first to see it done, but over the years I have lost count of the poor broken creatures that have whispered in the night, stabbing at bits of flesh and reciting words, all trying to call my family forth to punish the old woman for the beatings and the cruelty and the special guests she let touch them for coin.' The woman seems to enjoy the words, as she draws out her speech languidly and I hear the smile in her voice. 'And then there you were, butchering the hag in her bed without a second thought, carelessly rendering me and my family... obsolete.'

She leaves the word hanging in the air ominously, but suddenly the memories are stronger than my fear for the woman, and I feel an intense burn of anger in my stomach that she and her family, whoever they are, ignored the requests of all the children before me.

'Then maybe you should've done it sooner,' I say coldly.

She laughs again. 'If I had, you wouldn't have enjoyed the pleasure of doing it yourself. And I bet it was pleasurable, wasn't it?' She puts her hand on her stomach. 'Did you feel it here? The thrill of murdering that woman who hurt you and so many others, it must have been satisfying to make ribbons of her throat.' The woman uncrosses her legs, her knees spread a little, and her hand slips down to between her legs. 'Or did you feel it here?' she says, her voice curling over her smile. 'Some of my more... expressive of familymembers take the thrill of killing to another level of pleasure.'

I feel my skin crawl with the suggestion. 'I felt nothing but relief, and fear,' I tell her, well aware that any sort of desire was the last thing I felt within Honorhall's walls. 'I was free at last, and I was afraid of being caught.'

'How... dull.' My answer seems to disappoint her. 'In any case, the fact remains that you killed a contract we had accepted. And that means you owe us a life.' Her change in tone is abrupt, the slow and soft replaced with a businesslike briskness. 'So it's up to you whose life goes to the Void; yours or another's.' She clearly sees my horrified expression, as she laughs again lightly. 'Don't worry, I'd rather not kill you. I think you might prove quite useful to me, and I'm loathe to kill such a sweet little creature who kills so passionately. So I've chosen someone for you, someone whose life I don't mind losing. Kill them, and your debt to me is paid.'

I stare at her, a chill passing through me with her words. 'And if I refuse to kill someone?'

'I will kill you,' she says simply. 'A life for a life. Sithis demands it.'

The strange word flickers something inside me, although in my fear I cannot understand why my stomach suddenly feels so hollow. 'I don't know who Sithis is,' I say, 'but I don't want to kill anyone.'

'Even if the person I want you to kill is a monster, just like Grelod?' She pauses, letting her words sink in. 'Admittedly, this one doesn't hurt little boys and girls, but they have hurt someone else very, very badly and they must be punished for their cruelty.' The woman inclines her head. 'I know you can do that. But will you?'

'I...' I falter, my own hesitation frightening me. I'm not considering this, I think, even as it begins to dawn on me that I could do it. I suddenly remember how sweet it felt to watch the life leave Grelod's eyes, knowing she would not hurt anyone again. I think of the blood already on my hands. And if I can both save myself and stop someone from hurting others, then I know my answer. 'Yes,' I whisper finally.

'Yes,' the woman murmurs back, her voice a low thrum of satisfaction. 'Yes, you will.' She jumps up and walks towards me. 'Then I have a gift for you, sweet thing,' she says as I hear the crisp sigh of a dagger as she draws it from its sheathe.

Instinctively I withdraw, but as she holds the dagger out in her gloved hand, the handle first, I realise she does not intend to plunge it into my heart. I stand up unsteadily and reach out to take the weapon. It is lighter than my steel daggers, the handle bound in supple leather, the blade a dark metal I do not know. It is much smaller, too, and sharper; even in the darkness I can see its razor edge.

The woman returns to the dresser, and a moment later light flares in a small lantern there, illuminating the dingy small room and the woman, though I see little of her face, as she is hooded and cowled. She wears a deep scarlet cloth and leather armour that hugs her slender form, and there is a curved dagger at her hip that seems to glow a dark red. Goosebumps rising on the back of my neck, I watch silently as she goes to one of the piles of junk near to me and with a flourish pulls off the dirty linen sheet that covers it.

My heart stops when I realise it was not junk underneath the sheet at all, but a bound, gagged and blindfolded woman, with hair the colour of hay and skin like snow. She flinches at the removal of the sheet, struggling against the leather that binds her wrists behind her back, muffled sounds coming from behind the gag.

The hooded woman laughs quietly as she returns to sit on the edge of the dresser. 'I told you to be quiet and still,' she says, her tone teasing. 'Else you'll distract my guest here, and distractions lead to mistakes, and mistakes can be... messy.'

The prisoner stops struggling, although I can hear her rapid breathing behind the gag. As fast as my own, I realise, feeling my heart pounding, realising what the scarlet-clad hooded woman expects me of me. Here and now. When handed the blade and faced with the victim, I suddenly forget my quickness to agree to the demand.

'What did she do?' I whisper.

'I told you already,' the woman replies, her tone shorter as she settles on the dresser and crosses her legs. 'She hurt someone badly and now must suffer in return. It is your responsibility to see it done.'

'I don't know what she did,' I say, wanting to back away but feeling the wooden wall behind me and knowing there is nowhere to run. 'I don't know if she deserves-'

'Wren,' she interrupts softly, my heart uneasy at the sound of my name in her voice. 'When you start thinking about who deserves what, you try to turn the world into something it isn't. Did you deserve what happened to you as a child? Maybe you don't think so, but others would disagree.' She stands up once more and comes close to me, her voice in my ear sending chill through me. 'When she hurt you, when they touched you, they all thought you deserved it, or at least did not care that maybe you didn't deserve it. Don't you remember?'

I feel her hand take my shoulder and she turns me to the kneeling prisoner.

'Remember?' she says again, leaning down to my ear. 'The pain is easily forgotten, after enough time, but how could you forget how it felt to be so helpless, so powerless? How can you forget what it is like to be at another's mercy?'

I don't move, her words pulling at memories I don't want to bring to the surface again. It's in the past, I tell myself, my fingers tightening around the dagger instinctively as unease sets over me. I have a new life, I'm safe. Then I think how easily this woman ambushed me and it hits me that there is no such thing as safe.

'Listen to what she has to say to you,' the woman murmurs before letting go of me and swiftly removing the gag from the bound woman.

The prisoner gasps, red lips quivering. 'Please,' she says, her high voice breaking with fear. 'I don't know what you think I've done, but I didn't do anything, I didn't hurt anyone! Please, don't hurt me.'

Please, please don't hurt me. Grelod had begged like this too, the moment before I brought the knife down. So had we, I think, remembering a child's pleas, a little girl terrified and hurt, used, degraded, no longer innocent about how cold the world truly can be.

My memories douse me in ice and before I comprehend what I am doing I step up to the kneeling woman and bring the dagger across her throat.

The sight freezes my heart. I use the same pressure as the last time I cut someone's throat, but I forget that the dagger in my hand is not the dull carving knife that hacked apart Grelod; the razor-sharp blade cuts clean through to the bone. Blood bursts out in waves as her neck opens wide to me; the fraction of a moment seems to last for hours as I stare into her wide exposed throat, watching her life leave her, my mind racing with the thought of what words were formed there, whether the throat tasted more of wine or water, if the delicate white skin now torn had been kissed oft or not at all. Before I know it, the moment ends and the body collapses onto the ground, convulsing as the blood pumps out of the wound and spreads a pool over the floorboards. The red tide laps against my boots.

The woman clad in scarlet laughs softly. 'You are an artist, sweet thing,' she says, before she pulls something from her pocket and steps up to the corpse. A bitter scent fills my nose.

This is what the graveyard smells like, I realise with a jolt. Nightshade.

The woman drops a single sprig on the body. 'Hail Sithis,' she murmurs.

Hail Sithis. The words cut through my mind already reeling with memories I had long forced aside. They're dead, little girl. They're better that way.

I drop the dagger to the ground with a wet clatter and I stagger backwards, my feet slipping in the blood as realisation crashes over me.

Mother, Father, the night of the storm, the night I spent kneeling beside their cold bodies.

I clutch at the wall behind me as I gasp for breath and stare at the woman, seeing her for who she is, my heart clenching tight with the knowledge. It was her, I realise, eyes racing over her slender body, hearing her voice, knowing the blonde hair that hides beneath the hood. She was the one.

The woman turns to look at me. I see her eyes smiling, blue as a clear sky, more familiar to me than the faces of my parents. 'Why are you afraid, Wren?' she says quietly. 'There is no need to be. She was the only one in this shack that needed to die tonight.'

Her eyes hold mine and the thought suddenly hits me that if I remember her from that night, she might remember me too. She knows enough about me and Honorhall, I think, but does she know about my life before, the life she took from me? As I stare at her and she stares back, still smiling, I wonder how many people she has killed and whether she would even remember my parents, much less the little girl who saw her for a few seconds. My mousy brown hair was fairer as a child, my eyes and smiles less guarded, and I know I am much changed by the ten years between girl and woman. She can't know who I am or what she did to my parents, I think, certain that if it were the case, she would have surely killed me right away before I could recognise her. Before I could kill her for what she did.

'I'm not afraid,' I say, although my voice trembles. I quickly glance down at the dagger lying where I dropped it in the blood, wondering if I can grab it before she has time to react.

The woman follows the direction of my eyes but mistakes the object of my gaze. She nudges the corpse with her foot. 'She was beautiful, wasn't she? But too beautiful to live. The man who took the contract didn't want anyone else to know her touch or her gentle kiss.' She laughs a low laugh. 'Gardeners build walls to protect their most beautiful flowers from greedy, hungry eyes. This man wanted his flower plucked from the earth so no one else might witness and devour its perfection.'

I stare at her, horror filling my pounding heart. 'That's why you had me kill her?' I whisper, feeling my stomach tighten. 'Because of a jealous lover?'

'You say it like it's a poor excuse. And there are no poor excuses when Sithis has been sworn a soul. The only thing that matters is that we must deliver it.' She drops down and picks up the dagger from the red pool, letting the blood drip from the blade. 'And the fact that you killed when I told you to.' I see the smile in her eyes as she holds out the dagger to me once more. 'That's all I need. That's all Sithis needs. The Dread Lord has a plan for you, Wren, and I would make you his instrument. Take this dagger. We will call it...' Her blue eyes smile. 'The Blade of Justice. Use it in the name of the Dark Brotherhood. In my name. Kill who I tell you to kill and dispense justice as I demand it.'

I feel a shiver of fear pass down my back. I have heard enough in my time at Riften to know who the Dark Brotherhood are. I am staring at one of the deadliest assassins in Skyrim and knowing that I must kill her.

The woman extends the blood-drenched dagger to me. I hold my breath, considering my chances of grabbing it and plunging it into her face. She holds the dagger in her left hand, I realise; her right is at her side, and I wonder how quickly she can draw her own blade. The strange red glow of the dagger at her side unnerves me, and I know without a doubt that she can use the weapon better than I can. If I am an artist, she is clearly the painter who washes the world in scarlet.

'Who are you?' I whisper, my voice faint with the realisation that she will almost certainly kill me before I can do the same to her.

'I am Astrid.' The woman smiles. 'Some little birds fly in the dark. I am the entire night sky. Now take the dagger and consider your oath with the Brotherhood to be made, in blood, as it should be.'

As my fingers touch the slippery handle of the Blade of Justice, I make an oath in my mind. Astrid will die by this blade, I think as I grasp the dagger. And it will be justice.

Astrid lets go of the Blade and steps back, smiling. 'May you kill well with it. And soon. There's a contract in Riften I've been saving for someone as... tender-hearted as you. I'm afraid this one doesn't touch children so you might have to use other inspiration for the kill. Do you think you can handle it anyway?'

The sweet tone of her voice makes my skin crawl. 'What have they done?' I ask.

She laughs as she removes the Blade of Justice's sheathe from her hip and holds it out to me. 'Now, you won't get to know the details about all the contracts. Remember, you kill when I tell you to. This much you can know: his name is Eravyn, he is a Dunmer merchant, and lives on the western side of Riften. And the contact requested that he be told something the moment before he dies. The price has been paid. Can you remember that?'

I nod once. How would you even know if I said it or not? I think as I take the sheathe and wipe the blood off the dagger onto my thigh.

It's as if Astrid reads my mind. 'Sithis will be watching, little bird,' she says. 'He always watches.' She turns and goes back to the dresser and I wonder if I could strike now, but before I can even take a step forward she turns back to me, a coin purse in her hand. 'Your payment in advance.' She holds the purse in front of me. 'You like gold, don't you? Thieves always do.'

I hesitate before I sheathe my dagger and take the gold, the weight of coins strangely calming me. 'And then what?' I ask, putting the purse into my trouser pocket and fastening the sheathe to my thigh.

Astrid laughs softly as she returns to the dresser and sits on the edge. 'Don't worry, you will have more work.' She inclines her head. 'The blood calls to you, doesn't it? I hear the same song.'

'Coin calls to me,' I say shortly, though I know I am lying. Your blood calls to me. 'I'll kill for the money and that's it.'

Astrid smiles as she sits back on the dresser. 'Of course you will. I'll contact you when you complete your contract. We will meet again, Wren. If you continue to impress me.' She hooks one leg over the other once more and looks at me. 'Back to the Thieves Guild with you for now.'

I don't ask how she knows I'm with the Guild, aware that she has likely been following me for some time. It doesn't matter, anyway, I think as I wait for her to unlock the door. She has found me, and I have found her.

She laughs when she notices my hesitation. 'It's open, sweet thing. You could've tried to leave at any time.' Her blue eyes stare into mine and I hear the impatience in her voice. 'Now go. The town of Ivarstead is just to the west. You will find a carriage to take you to Riften. Your first assignment is waiting for you.'

I take one last look at the woman who will meet her end at the edge of my dagger. My last assignment. I push open the door out of the shack, my feet slipping in the blood, my heart cold.

 

*

 

By the time I walk through Riften's alleys in the direction of the Guild, two days have passed and my head is clear. I had barely reached Ivarstead when I turned around and returned to the isolated wooden shack in the fields, suddenly wondering why the hell I had walked away without even trying to cut the woman's throat. There was nothing to be found in the shack but the body and the blood, and my own violent fury that I had not done it while I had the chance. There was no chance, I think as I near the graveyard, reminding myself of the reality: I am no fighter. I can only assume that Astrid has at least ten years of expertise in the art of killing, while my skill with a dagger comes down to four weeks of occasionally sparring with Rune. Had I made a move towards her, I've no doubt in my mind that she would've cut me down. The thought of dying before I can make her pay sends cold anger racing through me. There must be a time in her life when she takes off that glowing dagger, I think. A time when she is vulnerable. I just have to get close enough to her to find out when and where that time is.

I touch the Blade of Justice at my side and remember my oath. I don't let myself think of my parents, just as I haven't for a decade, but I do think about what Astrid took from me; a life that did not include Honorhall, a life where I was safe. And she said a life for a life, I remember, my heart steeling with the thought.

The sight of the graveyard bathed in the last of the evening sunlight makes my heart warm a little. I suddenly realise how glad I am to be back here. And a good night's sleep in my own bed wouldn't go amiss. I brush my hand through the nightshade, knowing the familiarity of its scent at last, before I head to the tomb and open the entranceway to the Guild.

I follow the sounds of the rushing water along the Cistern passageway and retrieve my lockpicks from my pocket before I drop to my knees in front of the locked door. Before I can unlock the Cistern door, it opens from the other side, and I find myself face to face with the Guildmaster.

Not face to face, I realise, my cheeks abruptly flushing at the awkwardness of my position, on my knees before Mercer Frey with my head level with his groin. I scuttle backwards, dropping my lockpicks in my haste, and scramble back to standing.

Mercer looks down at me, a smirk forming at his mouth. He steps towards me, his dark eyes fixed on mine as suddenly he slams the door behind him, shutting us in the dimly lit passageway. 'And just where have you been, little bird?' he says softly.

'I...' Under Mercer's hard gaze I feel half my size, just as I did the first time he laid eyes on me. 'I was... on a job.'

'Were you?' His voice is sarcastic and his eyes narrow as they survey me. 'You think I don't know every job that's going on around here? Try again.'

'It was a personal matter,' I say, having no intention of confessing what happened. 'Look, it's private, I can't talk about it.'

'No, I think you can.' Mercer takes another step forward, the smile at his mouth as cold as the look in his eyes. 'Last chance, Wren. Tell me where you've been.' His voice is low and dangerous and I feel a shiver of unease move through me.

'I can't,' I say again, trying to make my voice strong as I look up at him. 'It's got nothing to-'

Before I can finish speaking, Mercer grabs the collar of my jacket and shoves me back against the wall, one arm across my neck pinning me there, his other hand against the wall above my head. 'Wrong answer, little bird,' he says as I gasp at the impact against the hard stone. 'Try the truth this time.'

I struggle against him but the strength of his arm pressing hard against my throat is unyielding and I quickly realise I'm going nowhere. 'I can't tell you,' I manage to say, his proximity setting my body on edge just as keenly as my encounter with Astrid did. 'It's got nothing to do with the Guild, I swear, but I can't tell you where I was.'

He smirks, the dim light making his dark eyes glimmer with amusement at my vulnerable position. 'I'm asking nicely right now, little bird,' he says softly. 'I wonder what would happen if I didn't ask so nicely?'

A cold shiver races down my back at his words. 'I...' I try to answer, but in my fear my words catch in my throat.

Mercer looks down at me silently for several seconds, watching me as I try not to let my uneasiness show, until suddenly he snorts with laughter. 'Relax, for fuck's sake,' he says. He releases me abruptly and takes a step back before his hand goes to his pocket.

For a moment I panic, thinking he is going to make good on his words and find some way to force the truth out of me, but all he retrieves from his pocket is a crumpled note.

'The little bird's wings are now in shadow,' Mercer reads. 'When the night sky sings, uncage her.' He makes a sound of derision in his throat. 'What a fucking hard code to crack. I swear it's a bloody miracle the Brotherhood are still around, if this is the level they play at.'

'The Brotherhood?' I repeat nervously, staying frozen against the wall as I watch him slip the note back into his pocket. 'So... you know, then?'

'Gods, you're as stupid as they are.' Mercer exhales a laugh as he looks back at me. 'You'll fit right in, then. Astrid's claimed you for the Dark Brotherhood, fine, though gods only know why she thinks you'll be any use when you get scared by your own shadow. If she sends you a contract, you can take it, as long as it doesn't implicate the Guild or get in our way. But that doesn't mean you get to pass over your work here. You work for me. You do as I say. Understood?'

I stand stunned for a moment at the quick harshness of his words, caught off guard that he knows before I've even told him, my body still reeling from being shoved up against the wall.

He takes a step towards me, the light catching the dangerous glint in his eyes. 'I said, is that understood?'

'Yes,' I say quickly, feeling the hard wall behind me and the Guildmaster's hard gaze in front of me, feeling equally trapped by both.

'Good. So, you met Astrid.' His voice curls over her name. 'Wish I could've seen that. Does the woman still get off on murder?'

I feel my cheeks blush with the question. 'I... don't... I mean, she seemed to enjoy it when I killed someone but not like that, not in that way.' I flounder over my words, suddenly uncomfortable under the Guildmaster's gaze and the topic of conversation.

He laughs a short harsh laugh at my reaction. 'Such an awkward little bird, aren't you? Almost as awkward as you look when you wander around the Cistern in your wet little shirt.' His mouth pulls into a satisfied smirk as my cheeks flush redder at the memory. 'And I think you're lying. That's not the Astrid I remember.'

Despite my discomfort, his words spark a sudden little hope in me. 'You know her well?' I say, my heart fluttering eagerly with the idea that he might know something that would let me get close to her, some information about where she might be vulnerable, some way I can kill her.

Mercer raises an eyebrow. 'Obviously,' is all he says.

I wait for him to elaborate, but he only inclines his head and looks at me, his eyes steadily narrowing, and I realise he's not going to divulge anything to me.

'I should...' I start to say, meaning to go to the Cistern door, but he blocks my path, his hand reaching out to close tight around my elbow, pulling me close to him.

'We're not done.' His grip is like iron as he holds me in place. 'I take it she's given you a contract. Who?'

'I can't tell you,' I say.

Mercer sighs. 'That's another wrong answer, Wren, and I'm getting fucking tired of your wrong answers.'

'It's not going to get in the Guild's way, so you don't need to know,' I tell him sharply, deciding that I'm getting tired of him being in my way.

'I decide that, not you.' His brow furrows and I see the irritation in his eyes. 'I'm bored of playing with you,' he says softly, 'so just spit it out before I lose my patience.'

I feel a strange flicker of curiosity and suddenly I want to ask him just what happens when Mercer Frey loses his patience. I might as well say I want to get my throat cut, I think, suspecting that the two are one and the same, and I quickly decide that if I want to live long enough to enact my vengeance on Astrid, I cannot risk antagonising the Guildmaster. And I have little to fear as he already knows I'm in the Brotherhood. If he wanted to turn me in or jeopardise my chances of getting close to Astrid, he could; I decide that giving him the contract's name will hardly endanger my position any further. And his hold on my arm hurts, too.

'He's a dark elf,' I say shortly. 'Eravyn, a merchant who lives on the western side.'

Mercer releases my arm, a satisfied smile curling at his mouth. 'There. Isn't it easier when you co-operate? Now fuck off and get some work from Delvin, you've fallen behind and gods know you need to be of some use to me around here.' He walks around me and strides away down the passageway before I can even exhale in relief.

I still feel the ache from where his hand gripped my arm as I move back to the door and I drop down onto my knees to pick up my lockpicks. Co-operate, I think angrily, realising that the Guildmaster's idea of co-operation consists of intimidation on one side and obedience on the other.

I enter the Cistern to find it completely empty, and I feel a strange pang in my stomach that no one is here to give me a warmer welcome than Mercer's. In truth, just the sight of my bed is welcoming enough, I think as I hurry over and take off my jacket before carefully removing the Blade of Justice from my thigh. I tuck the dagger safely under my pillow, grab some clean clothes from the chest beneath my bed and head across to the water room, my exhaustion secondary to my need to wash the last few days away.

This might be the best thing about the Guild, I think as I stand under the force of the warm water, letting it wash away the dirt of the road. It doesn't wash away everything, though. I see the faint red mark on my arm from Mercer's hold, making anger burn in me once more. I close my eyes and tilt back my head under the water, but as the water trickles down my neck, I suddenly picture it as blood, a scarlet torrent that rushes from my throat, drenching me, turning the water a bright red as it splatters over my feet and down the drains. I snap open my eyes, reassuring myself as I look down at my body and the water that it's only my imagination, even as my mind gnaws at a frightening thought. There will be a lot more blood before this is over.

I dry myself with my old clothes and pull on my clean shirt and trousers before I unlock the door and return to my bed; exhausted, I curl up beneath the sheets and, as I slowly fall asleep, I feel the shape of the dagger still beneath my pillow.

Chapter Text

I wake to the sounds of echoing voices and rushing water, and I groan quietly into my pillow, wishing for a few more hours in bed. But I have work to do, I remind myself. Beneath my heavy head, I feel the Blade of Justice under my pillow and realise I cannot waste any time. More than that, I do not want to waste any time. The sooner I do what Astrid wants, the sooner I find her, and the sooner I kill her.

I force open my eyes and my heart jumps with surprise to find Sapphire sitting cross-legged at the end of my bed, watching me with a small frown at her dark brow.

She jumps too when she realises I'm awake and she opens her mouth to say something, before she quickly closes it again, her expression uncertain.

I smile, my heart settling and suddenly immensely glad to see her. 'You watching me sleep now?' I tease as I pull myself up to sitting. 'Don't you have anything better to do, Saph?'

The worried look in her eyes lessens and I see a small smile pull at her mouth. 'Sorry for wanting to make sure you didn't disappear into thin air again,' she says sarcastically. 'And trust me, I have far better things to do.' She jerks her head in the direction of the Flagon door. 'But Delvin's got a job for you and apparently I'm his messenger for the day.'

I sigh with the thought of having to get back to work already. Especially when my hands must do more than thieving now. 'I hope he's at least compensating you for your time,' I say lightly.

'If you consider an invitation to drink with him as compensation.' Sapphire's hands clasp together on her lap as her hazel eyes flicker over my face. 'You're all right, then?'

'I'm fine,' I say, not sure if I should tell her about what happened in the shack and what I intend to do, uncertain whether she would want to help me tear Astrid to pieces or if she would think me a fool for trying to avenge nothing more than a memory.

She's no stranger to dispensing her own justice though. I had no intentions of telling anyone in the Guild where I had come from and why, but halfway through my first week when Sapphire and I worked a job together and I overheard talk on the streets about Grelod's murder, Sapphire was near enough to see my reaction before I could hide my panic behind an impassive mask. It was only after a few more days of our working together that I realised that Sapphire wore a mask just as I did. I read something in her, and she in me. Soon the thief opened up to me about her past, and I mine; however, while she willingly told me how she cut the throats of the bandits who hurt her, I could not bring myself to admit what I did to Grelod, still fearing being caught for her murder and not trusting anyone with the truth, not even the raven-haired thief who quickly became the closest thing to a friend I have ever had. Instead I spun her a story about how I escaped the horrors of Honorhall a week prior to the murder and told her I was sorry I had not killed the bitch myself. Whether Sapphire believed me or not, she never said. It's different, I tell myself when I feel guilty about withholding that particular truth from her. The bandits were far away, and by all accounts living outside the law already. The woman I murdered is buried as an innocent victim in the graveyard above where I sleep.

'You just... vanished,' Sapphire says. 'I didn't know if-' I hear the uncertainty in her voice for a moment before she stops and looks down at her hands.

'I wasn't hurt,' I say quickly.

'We didn't know that.' Her tone is cooler, and when she looks back up at me, her eyes are guarded. 'We searched for you all night, not knowing whether you were in trouble. You never said you had ties to the Dark Brotherhood and they might call on you.'

I realise she thinks I went willingly, or at least went knowing who took me. For a moment, I wonder why, before it dawns on me. 'So that's what Mercer said?' I ask, not sure why he would make it sound like I had pre-existing ties to the Brotherhood when he knows I was only just recruited.

'He told us it was just a... reacquaintance with old friends, that you had been taken by the Brotherhood to make good on a contract you'd been neglecting.' She pauses, her eyes searching mine. 'Was that not the case?'

I hesitate, not knowing what to say, and it hits me that I would prefer for them all to think I'm a willing assassin rather than a little girl so easily ambushed in the dark. 'I suppose you could all it a reacquaintance,' I say slowly, not exactly lying. 'I wasn't expecting it, though. I don't really know anything about the Brotherhood beyond my contract.'

'I see.' Whether Sapphire believes me or not, I cannot tell, and I suddenly feel a pang of guilt once again for not sharing the entire truth with her. She stares down at her nails, purposefully not meeting my eyes. 'I'm sorry,' she says suddenly, softly, her voice so quiet I barely hear. 'I shouldn't have left you alone out there. I'm sorry, Wren.'

Her words touch my heart, even though I know that if Astrid wanted me taken, she would've managed it at some other time. The thought makes me uneasy and I force a bright smile on my face. 'No need to apologise,' I say lightly. 'I'm not hurt and I've got a second source of income. It all worked out fine, Saph.'

She seems startled by my casual tone. 'I suppose that's true.' She looks down at her hands again before glancing up at me. 'Just... I'll be there to watch your back next time,' she says awkwardly. 'All right, Wren?' Then she scowls. 'And you should remember to watch your own back. I had carry all those damn silks to the client by myself, thanks to you.'

I laugh. 'Sorry. I'll make it up to you. Drinks later?'

'Sure.' Her eyes smile more than her mouth, and I know the look is genuine. 'You should go see what Delvin wants.'

After she's gone, I lean back against the wall for a few moments. Now I am back at the Cistern, the scarlet-armoured woman and the prisoner whose throat I cut in the shack seem far away, like little more than a bad dream that maybe I could forget. But I'm not a child who still believes she can forget, I think as I slip my hand beneath my pillow and bring out my dagger. I steel my heart, remembering my oath.

A short while later in the Flagon, Delvin gives me a sly wink but otherwise doesn't question me when I ask him for the location of a dark elf merchant named Eravyn on the western side of the city. He tells me to give him an hour and in the meantime I need to run a quick switch for him in the market, before he hands me a necklace inlaid with fake amethysts. I agree and head out, half-wishing Delvin needed longer than an hour to find the man I must kill, knowing that he will soon be real, a flesh and blood person, and no longer just a name. And I will never think that name again, I decide. Soon he will be just a body, flesh that must be torn, blood that must be spilt.

An hour later, I exchange the stolen jewelled necklace with Delvin for a small fold of paper, and I head to an antiques store on the west side of the city, my stomach twisting with nerves and my hand flitting down to my thigh more than once to check my dagger is still there. From a nearby alley, careful to avoid the attentions of any guards, I watch the dark elf through the window of his store; I take note of his short stature and simple clothing, the deeply carved lines at his forehead and beneath his eyes, the sea-like blue-grey of his skin. He smiles a lot as he helps a woman with her purchase. I draw back into the alley and wait, my stomach knotting with sudden doubt.

The afternoon is fading to dusk when he locks up his store. As he turns from the door, I notice how his bright crimson eyes catch the dying sunlight like blood. My heart uneasy, I follow him at a cautious distance as he heads towards his home. He takes several shortcuts, braving small winding alleyways that make me nervous to turn the corners. Is he purposefully making it easy for me? I wonder, as the sky darkens and the shadows grow, the Dunmer's step unhurried, providing me with more than enough opportunity to slip up behind him, bury the Blade of Justice into the back of his neck and whisper the words into his ear. His clothing is made of soft cotton; he has no protection, nor seems to think he needs it. The moment is right there, but something holds me back, my feet slowing, letting the distance between us grow, until we are within sight of his modest but well-kept house and I can only watch as he opens the door and disappears inside.

I duck into a shadowy alley just around the corner from the Dunmer's house, trying not to acknowledge the strange sense of relief I feel at my missed opportunity. I'll just break in and kill him, I think, but when a couple of guards pass by the alley entrance and I instinctively retreat back into the shadows, I stay there, shrouded in the darkness and out of sight of the dark elf's house. I'll come back when he's sleeping, I decide, when the night guards are drunk and busy with their own transgressions.

My heart noticeably lighter with my plan, I turn away and retrace my steps, my feet taking me back to the Guild swifter than I've ever made the journey before.

The Ragged Flagon is crowded and noisy but I find Sapphire in a far corner; one of her jobs on the side has paid off and she's almost giddy with the extra gold she's made. Her smile lightens my heart further, as does the copious drink, and soon my thoughts of the dark elf fade to little more than a vague gnawing sense of foreboding. Niruin and Rune join us a short while later. The Bosmer comments that he hopes I don't intend to use a bow for my assassinations. Rune just smiles and tells me he's glad that I'm back. I smile in return, and in the small hours when the wine makes me sleepy and unsteady on my feet, the dark blond thief helps me back to the Cistern and into my bed, tucking the sheets gently about my still-clothed body. I fall asleep before I can even thank him, my dreams coming to me fast, my mind full of images of blood red eyes and blood red hands.

 

*

A week passes and the Blade of Justice remains unblooded. I carry out small jobs for Delvin while I follow the Dunmer around Riften day and night. One morning, I watch the dark elf help an old woman carry her purchases home; that afternoon, he gives his entire purse to a beggar. One day, he even rescues a little girl's kitten from a roof, and I wonder why the hell someone wants him dead. The only remotely indecent thing he does is to visit a brothel most nights just after dark, but when I sidle in and slip a handful of coins to the madam, I learn that he indulges in the pleasure of just one whore, a pretty female dark elf with eyes like rubies, who claims the most scandalous thing he has done is fucked her against a wall and promptly apologised for taking her too hard.

On the sixth day, I follow him down a strangely familiar street, but it's not until I'm standing in sight of Honorhall that I register where the Dunmer has led me. My heart thuds violently to be near the place again. I force myself to take a deep breath as I try to keep my thoughts under control, focusing my attention on the Dunmer as he enters the orphanage. Is this why someone wants him dead? I wonder, my stomach twisting instinctively in fear, until I remember that it's the late afternoon, Grelod is dead, and there are no more guests. He is not one of them. The realisation that the Dunmer is likely visiting Honorhall to adopt one of the children cuts through my heart. If I kill him, I deprive them of a good father, and then I am no better than Astrid.

I walk slowly back to the Guild, my heart like ice. I put my hand in my pocket, touching my coin purse, feeling the weight of the gold, but the action does not soothe me as it normally does. I stay afraid, and cold.

It's not long before the smell of nightshade fills my nose. Without warning my feet take me to the far side of the graveyard, where the soft mounds of earth are fresher. Though I have no desire to be here, I stop beside a patch of ground where the grass is yet to fully regrow; Grelod, rotting, her throat shredded, buried beneath a neatly cut stone. Loving guardian, honoured citizen. Fury burns through my stomach so violently I gasp aloud. In over a month, I never heard mention of my real name or any reports of missing orphans being wanted for questioning, but neither have I heard anyone speak of what Grelod and her guests did. The children's evident silence has protected me from being wanted for murder, but it has also protected Grelod. She deserves to be known for who she really was.

Astrid's voice suddenly enters my mind and I whirl around, my heart racing, thinking she's behind me with her glowing dagger and a cloth of poison to make everything go dark again. When you start thinking about who deserves what, you try to turn the world into something it isn't.

I turn back to the grave, hearing her words properly at last.

Did my parents deserve what happened to them?

Did I?

My hands brush over the tombstone, and as I look down I notice that the first tentative shoots of nightshade are starting to grow at the base.

I breathe out slowly, realising why I have delayed to wet the Blade of Justice with the Dunmer's blood; I wanted it to be justice, to be deserved. Maybe that was a childish longing, a little girl desperately trying to find a reason, needing an answer, wanting some explanation for why bad things happen.

Suddenly I notice the sun is setting and my hands are cold on the gravestone, but with the darkening sky comes my resolution and the acceptance that completing the contract brings me closer to Astrid, and eventually, close enough to kill her. And I want Astrid to suffer, like she wanted my parents dead, like Grelod's guests wanted to touch me. I realise that none of them cared if someone else got hurt because of what they wanted.

Justified or not, I can at least do it cleaner than I killed Grelod, I think, deciding at last that I will find a way into Dunmer's house and complete my contract there, quickly, safely, as cleanly as possible, not stabbed in the back and left to bleed out in an alley. I know he deserves better than that, at least.

I breathe out again before I take my hands from the cool smooth gravestone borne of my first murder, resolved at last to commit another, but before I can turn around I hear a familiar voice behind me.

'Someone you knew, lass?'

I whirl around, the sight of the redhead making my heart jump in my chest. I've barely seen him all week, much less spoken to him; the extent of our interactions since I returned has gone no further than catching sight of him across the Cistern once or twice while he talked with Mercer. As I look at Brynjolf, I realise what I didn't from my quick glances at him across the Cistern; dark shadows linger beneath tired green eyes, his broad shoulders are tensed, the unshaven stubble is more unkempt than before, and though the easy smile turns the edges of his mouth upwards as he comes to stand in front of me, I get the feeling he's spent more time this week frowning than smiling, and suddenly I want nothing more than to pull him into my arms and ask if there's any way I can relieve that tension.

Enough, stupid girl. I shut down my thoughts and step away from Grelod's grave. 'It's nobody,' I reply.

Brynjolf's eyes flicker past me to the gravestone. An expression I cannot read flashes across his face before he quickly looks back at me and the easy smile returns. 'I never welcomed you back, did I?' he says. 'Forgive me? Maven's been on my back about finding this bastard who's messing with her and I'm just about ready to drown myself in Black-Briar mead to make it all go away.'

I've heard enough about the Black-Briar matriarch to understand how bad his week must have been, particularly if it's revolved around the subject of the mysterious saboteur who seems to be thwarting the Guild's larger plans at every turn. Delvin called it a curse, I remember, but from the gossip of other guildmembers I've gathered that Maven thinks it's a business rival trying to tear her empire and its association with the Guild apart. I want to ask Brynjolf what he thinks it is, but I can tell he has no desire to speak of work, and I've no desire to bring up the subject that has clearly caused him nothing but grief this week.

'Have you tried drinking the mead instead of drowning yourself it?' I say lightly. 'Getting drunk usually helps if you're stressed.'

Brynjolf laughs. 'True enough, lass. But so does the company of a beautiful woman. And pickpocketing, incidentally.' He grins. 'Maybe you can help me out with that?'

'Unfortunately, I haven't got much of value in my pockets,' I tell him with a smile, trying not to pay attention to the pathetic fluttering of my heart with his blatant flattery.

'Hey, remember I said I'd never steal from you.' He inclines his head. 'No, I meant keep me company while I pickpocket other people. Let's go to a tavern. You're not on a job, right? So let's go get drunk somewhere warm with lots of pockets. The Flagon's too cold, and right now I don't want to be anywhere near the Guild.'

I hesitate, the thought of drinking with him alone, away from the other guildmembers and the necessity of work, appeals to me far more than it should. With my mind finally resolved, however, I'm painfully aware that if I put off my contract another night, I may never do it. Besides, I'm meant to be pleasing Astrid, not myself. It hits me that if I were pleasing myself, I would never be on my way to kill the dark elf, much less considering turning the redhead's offer down.

'I'm not on a job,' I say vaguely, 'but I am sort of in the middle of... something.'

My ambiguity doesn't fool the thief. 'Ah. Brotherhood business, then?' Brynjolf's smile doesn't falter but I see something flicker in his eyes, but whether it's curiosity, doubt or something else, I cannot tell. 'You know, you managed to keep that one quiet for a while, lass.'

'For a while?' I repeat, confused, before I remember I didn't refute Mercer's claim that I was with the Dark Brotherhood before my disappearance. 'Well, it wasn't really relevant to the Guild,' I say. A sudden thought comes to me. 'Do you know Astrid?' I ask him.

Brynjolf seems surprised by my abrupt question. 'Astrid? I know of her, but I don't involve myself in Brotherhood business. What do you want to know, exactly?'

I realise I'm not sure how to ask for what I really want to know. How do you ask how to kill someone? 'Where does she live?' I settle for asking.

'I'd guess the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary. All the members live there, as far as I know. As to where their Sanctuary actually is, I've never known, nor wanted to know.' Brynjolf must notice my disappointment, though I do my best to hide it. 'You might try Delvin if you need to get word to Astrid. He's been known to fence for her. And to hear him say it, he and Astrid have had an... interesting relationship in the past.'

Though I feel a tentative spark of hope at the possibility of the lead, I realise it's not enough to go on. And there I almost thought I could just sneak into her house and kill her instead of the Dunmer tonight.

'Well, thanks anyway,' I say offhandedly, as if it were only a casual question. I notice the setting sun and the gathering dusk shadows, realising I am running out of time if I want to get to the Dunmer's house before he leaves to see his ruby-eyed whore. 'I really should go,' I say lightly to Brynjolf. 'But promise me you'll stay away from the Black-Briar mead?'

I give him a smile before I start to head back the way I came.

'Wait up, Wren.' Brynjolf falls into step with me. 'Want some company?'

'I told you what I'm doing,' I remind him.

'I know. So who are we killing tonight, lass?'

His easy tone makes me stop and look at him in surprise. 'You want to come with me while I murder someone?' I say incredulously.

'Why not? It might be fun.' Brynjolf grins, his green eyes catching the last of the warm sunlight. 'And I still owe you that drink, remember, the one you promised I could buy you? Which reminds me, by the way, you don't have to invent a Dark Brotherhood kidnapping just to get out of having a drink with me.'

I can't help but laugh. 'Do women do that a lot?' I say. 'Make up excuses not to drink with you?'

'Too often, Wren,' he says. 'Yours was the most creative excuse.' He gives me his charming smile. 'And the one I most didn't want to hear. Look, I'm a man of my word and you should be a woman of yours, lass. Kidnappings and assassinations can't stop us fulfilling promises, you know, so if I've got to be an accessory to murder to get you to have a drink with me tonight, then that's what going to happen.'

I feel my heart flutter under his gaze, quickly warming to the idea of having a familiar face and the promise of a strong drink waiting for me once I leave the Dunmer's house. And the nerves I get from being near the redhead are a welcome distraction from the gnawing panic when I think about cutting the dark elf's throat.

'All right,' I say eventually. 'As long as you know what you're getting yourself into.'

Brynjolf only smiles and gestures for me to lead the way. I comply, and the redhead follows me as I set off along my now-familiar path through the city to the dark elf's street.

When we get within sight of the Dunmer's house a short while later, night has nearly fallen and I see light flickering through the windows of his house, like many of the other houses on the street. I hesitate in the nearby alley, knowing that if I break in now, it will be a confrontation rather than an assassination, and though the dark elf is small and unarmoured, I know that desperate defence is a strong enough weapon to at least pose a challenge. And give him enough time to raise an alarm.

After several minutes have passed and I still haven't made up my mind about what to do, the red-haired thief beside me breaks the silence. 'So are we murdering this person in an alley?' he says lightly.

'No,' I say, my voice firm. 'I need to get into his house. That one.'

Brynjolf looks through the gathering darkness at the house I point out before he turns back to me, a small smile at his mouth. 'Dare I suggest you use to talents to your advantage and just break in once he's gone to bed?'

'But he won't be going to bed for a while,' I say. 'He usually goes to a brothel after nightfall.'

'Gods, have you been hanging around a brothel, lass?' Brynjolf laughs quietly. 'You might get all those men's hopes up. Among other things.' He takes another look at the house. 'Fine, then come back later. Kill him while he's sleeping.'

'I can't, Astrid said the contact wants him to see it coming,' I say. 'I have to tell him the price is paid.'

'Then wake up him before telling him?' Brynjolf suggests, an amused smile at his lips. 'Look, let him have his fun with his whores and just come back later tonight. Wait for him to go to sleep, tell him whatever you have to, then cut his throat.'

'Whore,' I correct him, not sure why it matters. 'He only sees one whore.'

Brynjolf raises an eyebrow. 'Then he'll be back in his own bed even quicker. Come on, Wren. Let's just come back in a few hours.'

My resolve already wavering with the nearness of the Dunmer's house, I know I cannot wait until later. I think fast, knowing he's going to walk down the alley soon enough and I'll be forced to try to kill him here in the darkness, knowing he doesn't deserve that. He's a good man, or at least seems to be, I think, remembering all the dark elf's acts of charity.

The thought comes to me and I turn to Brynjolf. 'Rob me,' I say.

The redhead raises an eyebrow. 'Come again?'

'Pretend to rob me,' I repeat. 'Steal my gold, rough me up a bit, you know?'

'Rough you up a bit?' the thief repeats, a smile pulling at his mouth as his eyes glitter. 'Whatever do you mean, lass?'

I feel my cheeks flush as I realise how it sounds. 'You know, make it seem like you're attacking me,' I say quickly. 'He's going to walk down here any minute. If he's the same man I've been watching all week, he'll see what's happening and want to help.'

Though his eyes are still laughing with my suggestion, Brynjolf seems sceptical, but before he can say a word I carry on.

'He's trusting. Charitable. He'll fall for it. You run off, leaving me on my own, and he'll offer to help me. He'll take me back to his house if I ask him. And then I can...' I trail off, not thinking that part of the plan through. I'll figure something out, I think. At least it will just be him and me, inside, and I will be an invited guest, not an intruder. People trust guests, don't they? I suddenly want to laugh at the thought.

A frown creases Brynjolf's brow. 'You know, I could just do this for you,' he says. 'You go back to the Guild and I'll deal with him.'

I feel my heart flutter at the offer, my words faltering for a moment. 'I can't let you have blood on your hands for me,' I say eventually.

'Lass, there's already blood on my hands, a little more won't hurt.' His green eyes hold mine unwaveringly. 'I'd rather you not put yourself in danger or try some scheme. Let me do it for you.'

As I find myself tempted by the idea of handing the responsibility over to someone else, fear starts to gnaw at my stomach, telling me that Astrid will somehow know, and that if I screw it up, I also screw up my chance of finding her and killing her. Besides, I think flippantly, won't Sithis be watching to see if I deliver his promised soul?

'I have to do it myself,' I tell Brynjolf.

He looks at me for a moment longer before he sighs. 'All right, it's your call. But at least let me help you.'

'Then rob me,' I say firmly, before I turn and walk further down the alley. 'If I've read him right, he'll be over in an instant and I can get him to take me into his house, where there'll be no guards and it'll be quick and quiet.'

'Fine. If you think that'll work.' Brynjolf follows me as I stop halfway down the alley and I pull out my coin purse from one of my secure pockets. 'You know, Wren, I could be offended. You're saying I look the type to go around accosting beautiful women in alleys. One question, though,' he adds lightly before I can respond. 'Can you define rough you up? I want to know what's expected of me.'

'Just... go with your instincts,' I say vaguely. 'As long as it's convincing to him.'

'All right, then,' he murmurs. 'Be careful what you wish for.'

I try not to feel the flicker of nerves as I move my coin purse to the easily accessible pocket at my hip, so that Brynjolf can take it from me when the Dunmer comes. 'I've put my gold in this pocket,' I say, pointing out which one.

The small smile at Brynjolf's mouth as his eyes move down my body to where I point sends a keen jolt through my lower stomach. 'Don't worry, lass, I'll find it,' he says quietly.

I turn away, suddenly feeling warm under his gaze, and I busy myself with removing the Blade of Justice from my thigh and refastening the dagger to my forearm, making sure it is well hidden under my shirt sleeve.

Night has fallen heavy and still, the starlight and far-off torches of the adjacent street setting the alley in a dim half-light. We wait in silence, doubt starting to creep into my mind. What if someone else walks past? I think. Or a guard? Trepidation hangs deep in my stomach, the feeling not helped by the redhead's silence. Brynjolf not having anything to say is almost more unnerving than what I'm about to do.

I haven't even heard the footsteps approaching, much less seen any sign of the Dunmer, when Brynjolf suddenly grabs my shoulders and pushes me to the wall behind me.

I stumble backwards, my breath catching in my surprise as the thief moves close to me and pins me against the wall, one of his hands at my shoulder, the other going to my jaw. His eyes meet mine with a small smile before he pulls up my chin, leans down and kisses my mouth hard.

Stunned, my heart pounding, a moment later I feel Brynjolf's mouth open against mine, easing apart my lips wide, and his tongue slips into my mouth to touch my own. The contact is enough for my body to reconnect with my mind and I gasp against his mouth as sudden warmth floods through me. I feel the thief's smile at my lips and he does it again, his tongue licking roughly against mine before pushing deeper into my mouth.

Pleasure cuts through my body and forces all other thought from my mind; before I even know what I'm doing, I reach up and bury my hands in Brynjolf's hair, dragging his head down close as I open my mouth wider beneath his, meeting his tongue's request with my own frantic demand, wanting more, wanting him, wanting.

The thief satisfies my demand, pressing me harder to the wall while his kiss grows rougher, quickly tasting every part of my mouth his tongue can reach; I cling tight to him as an unfamiliar hunger aches keenly in my lower stomach. A quiet whimper escapes me when Brynjolf breaks apart a few moments later, leaving my mouth wet and gasping for breath, and his quick fingers unfasten my jacket with such speed I've barely taken a breath before he has the garment undone and pulled apart. I shiver as I feel the night air through my shirt, raising goosebumps on my chest and stomach, though I know it's more with the thought that the red-haired thief is one layer closer to my skin. Brynjolf grabs my waist and pulls me away from the wall enough to tear my jacket from my body. He throws the garment aside and I haven't heard it hit the ground before he leans back down and kisses me again, quick and hard, his hands closing around my wrists and pinning them to the wall either side of my head, leaving my body open for his to press against me. His tongue teases mine once more before he leaves my mouth and lays kisses along my jaw.

'Cry out, lass,' Brynjolf murmurs against my skin, his lips quickly moving down to my neck. 'Else I'm not going to stop and you'll miss your chance.'

My mind races to catch up with what he's saying, when all I want is for him not to stop. The dark elf, the man I'm supposed to be murdering, I remember vaguely, but I wonder why the hell I should care.

My shallow breath hitches as the thief kisses down my neck, his stubble scratching at my hot skin. I open my eyes, not sure when I closed them, trying to bring myself back to reality, but I feel Brynjolf's tongue and teeth at the base of my neck and suddenly he bites down, sucking hard and wet at my skin, the feral action of his mouth enough to make me cry out as requested, although not with pain or fear. Gods, how can something feel so good? Just then I see movement through the shadows to my right and I realise the dark elf is at the entrance to the alleyway and if I don't act now, he'll just assume we're two lovers enjoying themselves in an alley.

Gods, but I want that, I want him to fuck me, here, now, I think desperately, feeling my body's warmth and suddenly conscious of the ache between my legs, longing for something I've never wanted but now I know I want more than anything. I force myself to remember that to the thief it's just a fulfilled request, just a convincing act, and as I see the dark elf turn his gaze towards us, I know I have to stop this before I throw away my opportunity in exchange for a fantasy. It's not real. The man I have to kill is real.

'Stop!' I force myself to cry, struggling against Brynjolf's body, freeing my hands from his hold on them against the wall. 'Get off me! Someone help!'

It takes all my strength to push the thief back and get away from the wall, my legs unsteady and my heart racing as Brynjolf's eyes burn into mine, the green darkened and catching the starlight, making me ache with a need I've never had before.

'Stay away from me,' I tell him loudly as I back away, half-serious, suddenly keenly afraid of the feeling inside me as my body burns hot with desire and begs for the thief's touch.

'You're not going anywhere,' Brynjolf says, his voice hard and unlike his, and he strides after me, grabbing me and pulling me back into his arms, laying another forceful kiss on my mouth that makes me stumble backwards without even pretending. I clutch at his chest, pushing him away even as I eagerly take my last taste of his lips.

'Let go of me!' I cry out as I hear footsteps approaching down the alley behind me.

'Hey!' the Dunmer shouts, his voice echoing. 'Leave her alone.'

I see the quick flash of the thief's grin as his hand knots in my hair and he tilts my head back, his mouth crashing against mine in one last rough kiss. I gasp for breath as he releases me and pushes me back, just as I feel hands on my shoulders, gently pulling me backwards and out of the thief's range.

'You keep away from her,' the dark elf says, his hands remaining protectively on my shoulders as he draws me back before stepping in front of me.

'For now.' The redhead grins and holds up my coin purse. I almost marvel at his skill when I realise he could've drawn a knife on me at any point he had me up against the wall and I wouldn't have noticed. 'Come and get it,' Brynjolf says, his voice quiet, his eyes glittering dangerously. The dark elf lunges forward to try and catch him, but the thief is quick and easily sidesteps the Dunmer, laughing as his green eyes lock onto mine. 'Don't think I'm done with you,' he says softly, before he turns and disappears into the shadows of the alley.

The elf starts to follow, but I grab his arm. 'No, it's just some gold,' I say as I clutch at him tightly. 'Please, don't leave me on my own out here.'

The Dunmer quickly turns away from the shadows that swallowed the thief and looks at me in concern. 'It's all right, I'm not going anywhere,' he says, the innately harsh tone of his voice softened at the edges. His blood-red eyes seem black in the semi-darkness. 'Are you all right? Did he hurt you?'

'I- I don't...' I falter before I collapse to my knees on the ground, not entirely pretending, my legs still weak from the thief's kiss, my lips sore and my body wanting. 'I'm fine,' I manage to say as the elf crouches own beside me. 'Thank you. Gods, if you hadn't been here-'

'You're safe now,' he says, placing a tentative hand on my shoulder. His touch feels cold through my shirt, but I soon realise it's not that his hand is actually cold; rather, my skin is burning hot.

'My jacket...' I start feebly, looking down the alley where the thief threw it, suddenly remembering how viciously he tore it from my body, and how desperately I wish the Dunmer had never walked past.

I try to catch my breath as the dark elf finds my jacket. He brushes off the dirt from the street before handing it to me. 'Where do you live?' he asks gently as I put my jacket on. 'I'll take you home.'

'East side,' I say. He holds out his hand to help me back to my feet. 'It's such a long way. I don't know if I-' I stumble and reach out for him to keep myself upright.

'Easy, it's all right.' The dark elf slips a careful arm around my shoulders to steady me. 'You're in shock. It will pass, I promise.'

The concern in his voice makes my stomach twist with the uncomfortable knowledge of how I will repay his kindness. 'I just need to sit down,' I say.

The Dunmer doesn't even hesitate. 'I live just around the corner,' he says. 'It's cold out here. Do you want to come with me until you feel a little better?'

Just like that. I feel once again that quiet thrill of power, the satisfaction that for once someone is at my mercy. Will he expose his neck for my Blade just as willingly too?

'Yes,' I say. 'Thank you.'

The dark elf keeps his arm around me as he guides me to the house I have been watching for a week, and finally, my heart beating fast with unease and my mouth still wet from the redhead's kiss, I go inside.

Chapter Text

The dark elf settles me down in a chair next to a dying fire, which he quickly stokes back to life. He thought he would be out for a few hours with the ruby-eyed whore, I think, as he piles logs onto the grate. When the blaze emits a comfortable warmth to the modest living room, the Dunmer stands up and I tentatively ask for wine to calm my nerves, the request genuine. He hurries to oblige, his eyes looking over me with concern. I don't even have to tell him what I'll do for the wine, I think, suddenly remembering the fair Nord in the Bee and Barb and how I convinced him to leave the room. My face flushes, the memory leaving me strangely warm, though I put it down to the crackling fire.

'Thank you,' I say to dark elf as he takes a chair on the other side of the fire, a safe and cautious distance from me. 'I should be buying you a drink for what you did,' I add as I take a deep sip of the wine, the liquid leaving a cool trail down my throat.

'There's no need for that,' he says. 'Anyone else would've done the same.'

'Not the man who was attacking me,' I say, though the words taste of a lie in my mouth as I remember how Brynjolf intervened and saved me from a similar situation the night we met.

'He's gone now,' the dark elf says firmly, his scarlet eyes seeming almost orange in the firelight as he looks at me. 'I'll give the guards his description. With any luck, they'll find him before he tries to hurt anyone else.'

You won't tell them anything, I think, my desire to kill the Dunmer suddenly twice as urgent with the thought of the redhead being caught by the guards.

'I hope so,' I reply, as I wonder at the best time to strike, conscious of the unshuttered windows and how close the house is to the street, knowing that the distance between us is too great for me to now draw my dagger and for it to reach his neck. If I don't make this quick and clean, he might have time to scream for help and enough time for someone to hear it. I take another sip of my drink. 'I'm so sorry for interrupting your evening like this,' I say sincerely, 'if you had plans...'

'No, you aren't interrupting at all,' the elf says, even as I know some part of his mind thinks of his pretty whore.

I feel a sharp pang of guilt as I realise that I will be the last company he'll ever have; I wonder if I should've done as Brynjolf suggested and let the Dunmer have his fun before killing him in his bed.

If I had, I wouldn't know what kissing the red-haired thief is like, I realise, half-wishing I was still oblivious, not sure how I will face Brynjolf again without thinking of what happened and how eagerly I lost myself in the moment, to the ignorance of all else. He could've pulled a knife on me and I wouldn't have noticed, as long as he kept his tongue in my mouth, I think, my cheeks flushing with the memory. Just like I could've pulled a knife on the fair Nord.

I suddenly realise how I can get close enough to the dark elf to bring the Blade across his throat. I push aside the nervous knotting of my stomach, having no time for hesitation. More drink helped before, I think, and swallow a gulp of the wine.

I make a smile at him over the cup. 'So do you do this a lot?' I ask lightly. 'Rescue women in alleys, I mean?'

The deep lines of his face deepen with his own smile. 'Not often,' he says, although I'm certain that if I watched him long enough, I'd see him rescue more than one woman.

Movement in the street outside draws my eyes to the window and I feel a nervous jolt when I see a figure move past the house, the ostentatious jingle of armour giving away the guard. At least they didn't walk by when we were in the alley, I think, but my heart starts beating faster and I know I have to act before my nerves get the better of me.

I down the rest of my wine and stand up, the bitter taste in my mouth making my head swim for a moment. I put the empty cup on the chair and turn to see the Dunmer rising to his feet.

'Let me see you home,' he says and starts towards the door, but before he has gone two steps I close the gap between us and take his arm.

'Wait,' I say, before I lean in and kiss him, light, frigid, awkward as if my lips have never kissed before, as if they do not still tingle with the taste of the auburn-haired thief.

Even the brief contact with the stranger's mouth is enough to remind me of Brynjolf's kiss and suddenly I feel warmth flood through me once more, my body wanting again, the abrupt desire startling me.

The Dunmer pulls away quickly, his hands going to my shoulders to break us apart, his crimson eyes surprised.

'I'm sorry, I just-' I stammer before he can open his mouth to question me. 'I just wanted to thank you.'

'You don't have to thank me,' he says, holding me gently back at the shoulders. 'And not like that.'

I meet his blood-red gaze, my resolve wavering, barely believing that I intend to kill what appears to be a good man. The least I can do is make his last moments good too.

'But I want to,' I say softly, leaning in to tentatively touch my lips to his again, and this time he doesn't push me away quite so abruptly – though it's only a few seconds before he has me held at arm's length again.

'You are still in shock from what happened,' he says. 'You don't even know me. Let me just take you home-'

I stop his words with my mouth, my kiss more persistent, clutching at his shoulders to keep him close. He doesn't push me away. When I pull back a moment later I see the flicker of guarded desire in his eyes, stoked to life as fast as the fire. I'm lucky I got to him before he went to visit his ruby-eyed woman, I think, knowing that if he had already had his satisfaction tonight, he would've been far less susceptible.

I run my hands down the front of my jacket, my fingers clumsy over the fastenings where the redhead's flew so nimbly. 'I know enough about you,' I say, my body suddenly tingling with the memory as I pull off my jacket and throw it on the floor. I look back at the Dunmer's eyes, wishing they were green. 'You make me feel safe. And no one has ever made me feel like that.'

I press my body close to his and kiss him again, and this time he doesn't push me away at all; his resolve weaker than mine, his lips respond to mine gently for a moment before he breaks our kiss.

'I will take you home,' he murmurs, the look in his eyes torn; the charitable and the base need, the kind man and his whore.

The wine I drank too quickly begins to make me feel a little light-headed and I can't think of anything else to say. 'Can we go upstairs?' I ask.

He hesitates, his eyes flickering over me, a small frown at his brow. 'I don't even know your name,' he says.

Another name, I think, wondering how many identities I will wear and drown in blood. 'Lynna,' I say, deciding it fits, knowing the girl is a whore now, that she does what she must.

I don't ask the dark elf for his name in return, already knowing it and not wanting to know it; I bring our mouths together again and I feel his arms tighten around my willing body as I lean into him. Just a willing body, and a sharp dagger.

Upstairs, the room is dark, the window shuttered, the bed made neatly. The Dunmer lights a single candle, the shadows jumping off the wooden walls uneasily, mimicking the beating of my heart; the sight of his bed sends a nervous chill down my back as my mind races with what might happen, what he thinks will happen, what he wants to happen, even as I remind myself that nothing is actually going to happen. Just get him lying down under me, like I did with Grelod.

But the thought of Grelod makes me think of Honorhall, of the beds there, of one bed in one room and one girl who did not want to be there. I feel the cold fear claw at my back and I close my eyes, desperately trying to think of something to stop my mind going where I know it cannot, knowing that there is nothing but pain for me there.

I was willing with Brynjolf, I realise, aware that the feeling he caused me was the opposite of pain. I wanted to be touched.

When hands gently grasp my waist from behind and I feel a warm body behind mine, I suddenly imagine that it is the thief, and the chill down my spine turns to a shiver of pleasure.

My head a little dizzy from the wine, I turn around to meet his mouth, his kiss still light and uncertain; I wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him fast and hard as the thief kissed me, fooling my body that it is him. My body is only too eager to believe, half-drunk and still warm from the fire. I eagerly open my mouth under his, finding his tongue; he tastes of some herb I don't know and somewhere in my mind I hope that the dark elf's last meal was a good one. I close my eyes and kiss him harder, imagining the hair is red and the eyes are green, and when the half-smiling mouth opens to taste my tongue again I reciprocate with such fervency the Dunmer stumbles back onto the bed. I push him down flat and climb on top of him, straddling his hips, my breath catching with my sudden desire as I am aware of his hardness pressing between my legs.

I lean down over him and kiss him, my tongue keen in his mouth. His own tongue is gentler, his hands on my hips tentative, but the contact is enough to make my body recall Brynjolf's touch, Brynjolf's tongue, Brynjolf's body against mine; I break apart with a gasp and he kisses down my throat, his lips running over the sensitive area of my neck where the thief bit and sucked at my skin. The memory makes me moan quietly with longing and I close my eyes as my needing mouth finds his again, forcing his tongue to react to mine.

'I want you,' I whisper against his lips, finally telling him, finally admitting it to myself. 'I want you so bad it scares me.'

I feel gentle hands cup my face and I open my eyes, wanting to see him, wanting to see his eyes and his smile.

'Don't be scared, Lynna,' the Dunmer beneath me says, ruining the illusion.

'Shh.' I kiss him quiet, knowing I can't imagine the harsh voice as the thief's easy lilt. 'Just touch me,' I say, grabbing his hands and putting them on my chest as I sit up on him, sit back on him, daring to rock my hips against him. The resulting feeling makes me gasp quietly as I work myself against the hardness of his cock, the unfamiliar ache of desire between my legs heightening abruptly at the contact even through our clothes.

My breathing growing fast, he sits up beneath me and I feel cautious fingers start to loosen the ties of my shirt. I help, pulling at the material viciously until the shirt is open to my ribs, suddenly not only wanting but needing to be touched. I'm about to tear the garment off altogether when I feel the rub of the Blade of Justice against my forearm. Not yet, I think somewhere in my mind as instead I slip my hands under my shirt and unfasten my binding beneath the material, letting it fall apart; I feel a shiver at being exposed and at my own inclination, but when gentle hands move up to caress my breasts, my breath catches with their touch, imagining the fingers are slender and precise, skilled at dipping into pockets. I go to kiss him again, wanting his tongue in my mouth again, but his lips move down my neck instead, kissing down my throat, down my chest, until his mouth latches on to one breast, teasing my nipple with his tongue.

'Gods, yes,' I whimper, tilting my head back, my breathing shortening with the keen pleasure coursing through me. I bury my hands in his hair as a few moments later his mouth moves up over my breast and back to my neck, kissing softly at the sensitive skin that still aches with the thief's tongue and teeth. The memory makes me shiver with pleasure. 'Bite me,' I beg desperately.

He complies; his teeth press lightly against my skin, and it's nothing like the way the thief feasted at my neck earlier, but his efforts coupled with my memory are enough to make a hitched moan rise in my throat and for my hips to suddenly rock involuntarily over his hardness once more. My fingers knot in his short hair and I hold his head against my neck, wanting it to last, wanting more.

'Lynna,' I hear a voice murmur in my ear. The Dunmer, I realise with a jolt, my racing heart skipping a beat when reality forces its way back into my mind.

I open my eyes. Remember who this is, and who this isn't. In the dancing candlelight, I see the sea-blue colour of his skin, the darkness of his short hair, and when he pulls back to look at me too, I see the red of his eyes, and a sudden cold stillness comes over me as I realise I cannot pretend any longer.

'Lie back,' I murmur, before I kiss the dark elf one last time, deeply, my mouth wet.

I push him flat on the bed again and sit back on his hips, feeling his desire hard beneath me, vaguely aware of my body's inclination to delay, to take its pleasure, a pleasure it begs me to indulge. But this is an illusion. I don't want him. I know who I want. And I know who I must kill.

I pull back my sleeve and draw the dagger from its sheathe.

'The price is paid,' I whisper, looking down at Eravyn.

Recognition dawns in his crimson eyes before I drive the Blade of Justice deep into his throat.

He chokes out blood in great splutters, the wound gushing warm over my hands as I feel the dagger touch bone. I pull the Blade back quickly, horrified, and I close my eyes tight, not wanting to see it, not wanting to hear it, pretending I'm elsewhere, not astride a corpse of my making with my breasts exposed and hot blood on my hands. Between my legs I feel his still hard cock and before I can stop myself I rock my hips slowly, wanting to feel that desire once more, waning to believe the illusion again, until the wetness of the blood drenching my hands becomes too difficult to ignore and the reality of the situation hits me.

Imagine if someone found me, a woman riding a corpse to get herself off, I think, realising how utterly ridiculous I must look. And I have to look. I force myself to open my eyes and turn my gaze down, my heart clenching painfully when I see what I have done, wanting to retch at the blood and mess of his throat.

I sit atop the body for a while, my breathing slowing as the scarlet flood pours out of him. He was alive and kissing me a few moments ago, I think. Now he is flesh and blood and nothing more.

'Hail Sithis,' I whisper, feeling hollow and strangely calm at once. Astrid's time will come, I promise the Dread Lord in my head, too afraid to whisper it aloud. Tell her if you want, Sithis. But I have made a contract. Here is my Sacrament. Astrid will die by my hand.

I climb off the Dunmer's body, my head spinning when I stand up from the bed, unsure if it's the wine or something else. My breathing still shallow, I wipe my hands off on the bed sheets and clean the Blade of Justice before slipping it back into its sheathe and reattaching it to my thigh. I refasten my binding, my breasts still feeling the ghost of hands and a tongue, my skin still hot and sensitive. I quickly lace up my shirt, trying not to think about what happened or breathe in the scent of blood. I've done what was required. I just have to get out.

I blow out the candle, leaving the blood-soaked bed and the corpse to the mercy of the shadows. I go to the shuttered window and peer through the cracks, but I have to ditch my idea of jumping down when I realise the window is too high and directly faces the street. I go back downstairs, praying for a back entrance or window, suddenly concerned that I will have to leave the house through the front door and end up running straight into a guard, not knowing how I would explain the flecks of blood drying on my skin and the sopping wet red sleeves of my shirt.

My feet barely touch the final step of the stairs when I realise I'm not alone.

'Have fun?'

Brynjolf's voice makes me jump, and for a moment I'm convinced I failed to kill the Dunmer and I'm still trying to imagine his voice as the thief's. When I see him standing by the fire, I don't get the normal flutter of nerves; I feel desire cut through me like a hot knife, my body still half-believing it was him touching me in place of the dark elf.

There is the easy half-smile on his handsome face, and yet his jaw is set hard and his eyes scan my face with an expression I cannot read; in the warm flickering firelight I can't decide if it's laughter, anger or something else that burns in his eyes.

I feel the heat of my face, still flushed from upstairs, heightening with the blaze still bright in the fireplace.

'What are you doing in here?' I ask, trying to sound normal and not like I was crying out in pleasure at imagining his hands on me and his cock between my legs.

'It doesn't take that long to kill someone, lass.' Brynjolf walks over to me and holds out my coin purse, the smile still on his face. 'I got concerned.'

I take the purse, conscious that the ache between my legs seems to return fervently with the sound of his voice. 'Well, there's no need to be concerned,' I say. 'I'm done here now.'

He inclines his head as he looks at me, the smile not wavering. 'I guess you are.'

The awkward silence hangs in the air while I try and fail desperately to think of some way to fill it, the task seeming impossible when the sight of him pushes all power of speech from my body and replaces it with the memory of how it felt to kiss him, to have his hands on me, to feel him underneath me. That wasn't him, I remind myself. And the kiss in the alley was a convincing act I asked for, nothing more.

'We should probably go,' Brynjolf suggests lightly. 'It's generally a bad idea to hang around a murder scene. Don't forget your jacket, Wren.' He disappears through to the back room of the house and I follow, picking my jacket up off the floor and slipping my arms through the sleeves, feeling cold and hot at once.

The dead elf's house backs onto a narrow alley via an unlocked door, though I suspect the door was locked before Brynjolf's arrival. Once outside, I open my mouth and breathe deep the cool night air; though it freshens my tongue from the taste of the elf and the scent of blood, my head stays scattered and dizzy from the combination of murder and more kisses in half an hour than I've had in a lifetime. Without a word Brynjolf sets off and I can only follow silently, not trusting myself to try to talk to him. The alley snakes through the residential area and I quickly lose my sense of direction, simply letting the thief lead the way.

We walk back to the Guild and through the graveyard, and at the bottom of the tomb, the thief doesn't help me off the end of the ladder, for which I'm grateful, conscious that the mere thought of having his hands on me again makes my heart beat twice as fast.

We're almost at the Cistern door when Brynjolf stops and catches my arm. 'Wait a second.' He turns me to face him before letting go of my arm. 'I need to say something.'

I look at him, my stomach knotting nervously. 'What is it?' I ask, trying to not to sound wary, conscious that the thief is no longer smiling and the expression in his eyes is hard.

'You didn't have to fuck him, you know,' Brynjolf says shortly. 'I told you I would kill him for you to save yourself the trouble. You only had to ask.'

I blink, taken aback. 'I didn't fuck him,' I say, my cheeks feeling warm.

Brynjolf's face is like stone. 'No? What the hell did I hear then?'

I flush a brighter red with embarrassment, not sure which is worse: Brynjolf thinking I actually fucked the Dunmer or the thought of telling the redhead that I was imagining it was him underneath me.

'I didn't fuck him,' I say again firmly. 'I just... distracted him, to get him lying down, so I could-'

'You don't have to explain it to me,' Brynjolf interrupts. 'I really don't want to know, Wren. I'm just saying, you didn't have to, all right?'

He turns to the door, his hands going to his pocket for his lockpicks.

'But I didn't,' I say again, anger striking through me with his refusal to believe me. I grab his arm and pull him back to face me. 'Why do you suddenly care, anyway? You didn't seem to mind when I stole those papers for you, the night we met. You were more than happy for me to go upstairs with that man, knowing full well what he wanted with me.'

'I minded,' Brynjolf snaps, looking down at me with his eyes like fire. 'Even then, I'd known you half an hour and the thought of that bastard groping at you made me want to cut his fucking throat apart.'

The violence of his words stuns me and I stand wordless for a moment, not sure what to think.

'Well, I cut this one's throat for you,' I point out eventually, trying to make my voice light, but for once Brynjolf doesn't seem to want to joke.

'Gods, Wren, you don't get what I'm trying to-' Brynjolf stops himself, his jaw set. When he speaks again, his voice is lower and harder, almost like how he had sounded in the alley. 'Just don't fucking make me listen to you with another man again.'

I stare at him, scared to believe what I think he is saying. 'Brynjolf,' I start, not sure what to say, just knowing I want to say something, but he doesn't give me a chance to find the words.

'We can talk later,' he says, his tone cold. He pulls his arm out of my hold, although I didn't even realise my hand was still there. 'I need a fucking drink. And you need to wash that blood off you.'

It's a testament to his skills – or he just isn't as angry as he seems – that he unlocks the door as effortlessly as normal. I follow him in silence into the Cistern but when he strides off in the direction of the Ragged Flagon I stop and stand by the pool's edge, watching him go, no idea what I'm supposed to think.

Fortunately, I don't have time to think at all, as the raven-haired thief appears beside me, with Niruin close at her heels.

'What's his problem?' Sapphire asks, her hazel eyes following after Brynjolf as he slams the Flagon door behind him, the echo lost beneath the Cistern water.

'And just what have you been doing, little bird?' the Bosmer cuts in before I can even begin to come up with an answer as to what's wrong with Brynjolf.

I turn to look at Niruin, following the direction of his gaze. 'Work,' I say shortly, folding my arms and hiding my bloody hands, not wanting to talk about it, not wanting to think about it.

The elf grins knowingly and opens his mouth but Sapphire gets there first. 'Want a drink, then?' she asks me swiftly. Her eyes flicker down to my stained sleeves. 'When you're ready. We'll wait for you in the Flagon.'

'I'm actually a bit tired,' I say truthfully. And I'm not about to follow the redhead into the tavern when he clearly has no desire to talk to me. I force a smile on my face as my stomach twists with uncertainty over what just happened. 'Tomorrow, all right?'

'All right.' Sapphire surveys me for a moment, a flicker of concern in her eyes. 'Sleep well, then.'

I manage to keep my smile on my face until she and Niruin turn away and I watch the two of them head into the Flagon, knowing I won't sleep well, or at all, my mind reeling as my senses still try to process everything of the night; how it felt to hold a blade as it cut through to the bone, the smell of the torrents of blood and the raw insides of exposed flesh, the taste of Brynjolf's tongue keen in my mouth and the warmth of my needing body, the sight of the dark elf's crimson eyes as he understood the words I whispered. The sight of his crimson eyes when the realisation came too late.

Abruptly I drop to my knees beside the pool, submerging my hands in the water, watching the dried flakes of blood come away from my skin. When this blood is gone, I will not think of it again, I tell myself, knowing it is too late to regret what I did. I listen to the rushing water, letting it soothe me, letting it wash away tonight from my mind. Everything from tonight. My questions over the auburn-haired thief I also try to put aside, knowing that some foolish part of me had begun to believe all his charming words and flattery were sincere. He talks like that to everyone, I remind myself, thinking of his easy smiles and flirtations with the other female guildmembers. But does he kiss them like that too? I stop that thought, knowing what happened in the alley was him just fulfilling my request and making it convincing and I shouldn't take it as anything more. Was that all it was, though? The thoughts swirl in my head, leaving me with nothing but confusion and a vague sense of fear.

The Dunmer's desire got him killed. My heart tightens in my chest when I suddenly wonder what my desire will do to me.

I stay on my knees by the pool's edge for longer than I realise, until the sound of laughter as a couple of guildmembers enter the Cistern jerks me back into reality, and I look down at my hands, having forgotten that they are still submerged in the water. My skin is wrinkled, the flesh softened and plump, and clean.

Entirely clean, as if they have never been drenched in blood.

My hands cold from the water, I stand up and dry them on my jacket before I head across the Cistern to my bed, realising that once I have washed the sleeves of my shirt, it will be as if tonight never happened.

Chapter Text

With the Blade of Justice in one hand and a blunt training dagger in the other, I spar with Rune in the training room for most of the morning, deciding that I should probably be ready for when Astrid makes contact now that I have completed the task she requested. And I really need the practice, I think as I'm forced to yield once more to Rune's assault. While I am certain the Blade has tasted more blood than Rune's pair of steel daggers, he's still far better than me, never missing a beat - although with my smaller size and the advantage of speed, I have him at bladepoint more than once. Though at least one of those times he lets me win. I appreciate the gesture nonetheless.

I'm about to sidestep Rune's cut when I hear the door to the training room open and I turn around to see Brynjolf standing in the doorway, my body freezing at the sight of him. He seems in a better mood than last night, an easy smile on his face as he meets my eyes, but it doesn't make me feel any less nervous, my hands suddenly feeling spare and awkward.

'And you're dead,' Rune says, as I feel the flat of his dagger lightly touch my throat.

'I was distracted,' I say, turning back to him, the blade against my neck the least of my concerns, my mind racing with the thought of what Brynjolf might want, following how things were left the previous night.

'And now you're dead.' Rune lowers his daggers and his blue eyes flicker over to the redhead.

'Don't mind me, lad,' Brynjolf says as he leans against the wall near the door. 'You two carry on. Though Wren's right. Women can't help but be distracted when I'm around. It's a blessing and a curse for me, but it also gave you an unfair advantage.'

'Did you want something?' I say, my voice more abrupt than I intend, my nerves putting me on edge.

The redhead doesn't seem to mind my tone. His quick laugh echoes in the room. 'Yes, I need a word with you, Wren. But only if you put the daggers away.' His green eyes move over to Rune. 'Give us a minute, eh?'

His words are conspicuously an order and not a question, but I know Rune wouldn't have argued anyway. The dark blond thief sheathes his daggers. 'Of course,' he says. He looks at me seriously. 'You would've won that last one. You're really improving, you know.'

'You've taught me well,' I point out with a smile, which makes his eyes brighten as he smiles back before taking his leave.

A moment later, the door closes behind Rune and I turn away from Brynjolf, retreating to the straw bales and putting the training dagger down, my heart uneasy to be alone with the redhead again, every part of me recalling what happened last night, even though I tried my hardest to wipe my memory clean.

'So you're still practising your daggerwork with Rune?' Brynjolf scoffs. 'The lad can hardly manage two lockpicks.'

'He's been really helpful, actually,' I say defensively, on Rune's behalf and my own, knowing my skill with a blade is largely because of his efforts.

'Helpful?' I hear the smile in Brynjolf's voice. 'You know he wants to do more than teach you how to use a dagger, right? The poor bastard never takes his eyes off you.'

I feel my cheeks flush as I sheathe the Blade of Justice at my thigh. 'He hasn't tried anything with me,' I say, hesitant to turn back around to face him.

'Of course he hasn't, because he's the closest thing to a gentleman you'll find down here,' Brynjolf says. 'I expect he'll keep quiet about how bad he wants you until the day you make the first move.'

'Well, I'm not going to,' I say abruptly, feeling my face warm with the topic of discussion as finally I turn to look at him. He still leans against the wall near to the door, his arms folded and his green eyes trained on me.

'No?' Brynjolf inclines his head. 'You could do a lot worse, especially here.'

'You don't think very highly of your fellow guildmembers, do you?' I say.

'I'm not talking about my fellow guildmembers. You should've asked me.' He grins easily as my heart skips a beat. 'To practise your daggers with, I mean. I'm a far better teacher than Rune.'

I raise an eyebrow, unsurprised by his self-confidence. 'Really.'

Brynjolf laughs and pushes away from the wall, taking a step further into the room. 'Yes, really. Come on. Show me your stance.'

I hesitate before I pick up the training dagger and draw the Blade once more, turning my body slightly to the side and holding the daggers angled as Rune showed me. 'Good enough?'

Brynjolf's eyes flicker over my body appraisingly. 'Not bad, lass. But you've got one thing wrong.'

I frown, even as I feel goosebumps rise on my skin under his gaze. 'What's that?'

The familiar half-smile pulls at his mouth and he looks me up and down again, the feeling of his green eyes moving purposefully over my body making my breath catch in my throat for a moment. 'You're going to try to kill me from all the way over there, are you?'

I feel my heart beating fast in my chest. 'I was taught you should let the enemy come to you,' I say lightly.

Brynjolf laughs a short laugh. 'You're right about that,' he says. He pauses. 'Do I have to be your enemy, though?'

I lower my daggers, my body suddenly on edge. 'What do you mean?'

'I mean forgive me for being such a prick last night after our little murder adventure,' he says easily. 'I've no right to tell you what you can and can't do. It won't happen again.'

'Oh.' I try not to feel the sudden sense of disappointment that cuts through me, though I can barely understand the feeling to begin with. 'All right.'

'All right?' His smile remains at his mouth, but Brynjolf's eyes hold mine unwaveringly with some expression I cannot comprehend. 'Does that mean I'm forgiven?'

'Of course,' I say, making my voice firmer. 'There's nothing to forgive.'

Brynjolf raises an eyebrow. 'Is that so?' He pauses for a moment again, his eyes still searching mine. 'Then you don't mind me being jealous when I hear you moaning as another man touches you?'

The nerves in my stomach flutter violently with his words. 'You were jealous?' I manage to say eventually, my tone even, as if my heart isn't pounding hard enough for him to hear. 'Why would you be jealous?'

'For several reasons,' Brynjolf says. He inclines his head, the smile still at his mouth as he looks across the room at me. 'Partly because I think I could make you moan louder if I touched you, Wren.'

My breath catches and I suddenly feel conscious of my body, my hands, my mouth, every part of me recalling what happened in the alley and in the Dunmer's bed when I was imagining the man beneath me was the auburn-haired thief.

'I...' I start, not even sure what I'm going to say, but in the end I don't have to find the words as the door opens and Sapphire walks inside, closely followed by Niruin, bows in their hands, evidently ready to train.

'If I didn't like goddess why the hell do you think I want to be called princess?' Sapphire is saying, her voice exasperated. She stops short just inside the doorway when she catches sight of me and Brynjolf.

'Tell me what works for you, then,' Niruin says. 'I live to please you, Sapphire.'

'You not speaking at all would please me,' the raven-haired thief says shortly. She looks between me and the redhead. 'Am I interrupting?'

Brynjolf laughs easily. 'Yes, you are, but I'll let you off. Princess.' He grins as she scowls. He turns back to me and I feel my heart flutter as his green eyes meet mine. 'I clearly wasn't convincing enough, was I?' he says. 'I'll try harder next time, lass. You can hold me to that.'

I can only stand stunned as with one last grin Brynjolf turns away and leaves the room.

'Convincing?' Sapphire repeats, curiosity in her hazel eyes. 'What's he talking about?'

'He's just trying to convince me that he'd be better than Rune at teaching me daggerwork,' I lie, not wanting to tell her the truth just yet, much less with Niruin at her side. Especially since I have no idea what the truth actually is.

'Well, he's probably right,' the Bosmer says. 'But it's not all about the teacher. I mean, I'm the best archer this side of Tamriel and even I couldn't teach you the bow, little bird.'

I sigh and say nothing. Fortunately, the elf is more interested in impressing Sapphire than talking with me, and his attentions quickly return to the raven-haired thief, whom he asks for a kiss if he hits the target fifty times. She offers him a kiss from her blade in return.

I hop up onto the straw bales to watch their training, trying not to think about what Brynjolf said, trying not to feel the cautious warm fluttering in my stomach as it fights with my sudden uncertainty. I can't tell if the thief's words are charm or serious, I think, finding myself unable to trust my own judgment on the matter, knowing my desire for the auburn-haired thief clouds my mind, making me susceptible to believe an illusion, just as I did the night before.

The day passes quickly and when Sapphire leaves the Cistern on a job in the early evening, I go to the Flagon and find Rune, who he is more than content to spend the rest of the night drinking with me. I feel a flicker of awkwardness to be alone with him, remembering Brynjolf's words, but I quickly push it aside and remind myself that nothing has changed between us as far as I am concerned. What does Brynjolf know about what Rune wants, anyway? I think, when the redhead has hardly been forthcoming about what he himself wants. To make me moan louder than I did last night? I force myself to put the thought to the back of my mind.

The Flagon grows crowded and the small hours of the morning are crawling by when I hear raised voices at the bar, Delvin's among them. Thinking it's merely the beginnings of another fight over a hand of cards or Delvin's flattery has got him into trouble again, I don't pay it much mind. Rune heads to the bar a short while later to get a final round of drinks, but when he returns, he wears a worried expression on his handsome face.

'Sapphire got caught on her job,' the dark blond thief tells me, as he places the drinks on the table. 'They took her to jail.'

I don't hear it at first, the words taking a moment to sink in. When my mind finally processes what Rune said, I feel my chest tighten abruptly. 'What happened?' I demand. 'Where is she? Is she all right?'

'She's fine,' Rune says quickly, seeing my panic. 'Brynjolf went to get her out. They're saying she's safe.'

I stand up, my stomach clawing with worry, my head spinning a little from the wine. 'Where?' I say.

'No one said. Wren-'

I don't give him a chance to finish, as I turn and cut through the crowd, heading back to the Cistern. Is this how she felt when I vanished? I think, feeling my heart race at the thought of Sapphire being caught, being taken against her will, being hurt. I walk faster, taking deep breaths to try and clear my head from the wine, my sudden fear sobering me up fast.

In the Cistern, I catch sight of Mercer heading in the direction of his room off one of the alcoves. I've never been so glad to see the Guildmaster, I think as I near enough run to catch up with him.

'Mercer,' I call out, and he stops to turn and watch me as I come to stand in front of him. 'Where's Sapphire?' I ask quickly.

'Sapphire?' Mercer scoffs. 'Why the fuck should I care? The stupid slut couldn't do a simple job without getting herself caught by a couple of guards.'

'I don't give a fuck, just tell me where she is,' I say sharply, my fear for Sapphire greater than my fear of the Guildmaster. 'I need to make sure she's all right.'

Mercer doesn't seem to mind my tone; he just laughs a short harsh laugh, a smirk forming at his mouth, although I don't see how I've said anything funny. 'Don't worry, little bird,' he says. 'Brynjolf is taking care of her. He's taken her somewhere safe and away from the Guild.'

'Where?' I demand, my frustration starting to rise, knowing he will withhold the information for as long as possible.

Mercer surprises me by telling me immediately. 'The Overlook,' he says. 'You know it?'

I don't bother giving him an answer before I turn away, knowing the tavern he means; the place is on the lakeside edge of Riften and is well acquainted with the Guild, although more for our extortion of the tavern's debts than for honest patronage.

'I don't think you'll like what you find there, though,' Mercer adds offhandedly before I've even taken two steps.

I turn around. 'What do you mean?'

Mercer inclines his head. 'Well, you're chasing after Brynjolf, aren't you?' His smile is sarcastic and almost pitying. 'The way you look at him with those big eyes and blush like a girl every time he talks to you. You want him, right?'

My face flushes before I can control it and I glare at the Guildmaster, having no desire to talk to him about my feelings for the auburn-haired thief when I can barely acknowledge them myself.

'Don't look at me like that,' Mercer says with another laugh. 'I'm just giving you fair warning, little bird. If you're looking to ride his cock tonight, you might have to get in line.' His smirk twists my stomach. 'He's occupied with Sapphire right now.'

His words make my cheeks flush redder. I stare at him, not wanting to hear what he means. 'He's helping her get out of jail,' I say slowly.

'And then he helped her get out of her clothes,' Mercer says. His amusement is obvious. 'They've been screwing for years. You weren't aware?'

'I...' My words falter. 'They're friends.'

'Friends?' he repeats, his voice mocking. 'Like you're friends with Sapphire? Do you fuck her from time to time as well?' Mercer's dark gaze flickers down over my body, a smile curling his mouth. 'I'd like to see that.'

I don't register his words, for once not feeling his gaze on my body. 'But he...' I stop myself, not wanting to admit to the Guildmaster how utterly stupid I suddenly feel. 'I have to go,' I say instead.

'To the Overlook?' The suggestion makes Mercer snort with laughter. 'Yeah, why not go see for yourself. Just don't say I didn't warn you. Although if you have any sort of sense in that little head of yours, you'd have realised by now that that stupid bastard can't resist playing the hero in exchange for a pretty cunt. Why do you think you're even here, Wren?'

I turn away quickly, not wanting to hear any more, but his words echo in my head louder than the rushing water as I walk through the Cistern and make my way out to the graveyard. I already know the Guildmaster enjoys making me feel uncomfortable at every opportunity, I remind myself, not putting it past Mercer to say what he did just to hurt me. But why would he lie? The question nags at the edge of my mind, knowing he would have nothing to gain from making it up. And it's not like Brynjolf or Sapphire aren't free to do whatever they want with each other, anyway. As I leave the Guild and set off in the direction of the Overlook, my stomach feels knotted tight and a sense of foreboding crawls down my back, like I know somehow that Mercer is right and I am not going to like what I find.

Even with the shortcuts and secret paths I have discovered from my time with the Guild, it takes over an hour to get to the far side of the city. It's closer to dawn than dusk by the time I reach the Overlook; from the tavern's vantage point, I can see the lake beyond the city wall, the cold starlight glinting off the dark water, making the lake seem like a mass of rippling black scales. I look out at it for a while, wanting the water to comfort me but the dark restless expanse only makes me uneasy, and I try to steady my breathing before I head inside.

Far removed from the bustle of the heart of the city, the place is quiet, the early hours of the morning thinning the patrons down to not much more than a few committed drunks. I head over to the young Breton woman behind the bar, remembering how Brynjolf once sent me here to claim a debt for him; he had laughed when I told him how the barmaid called him a gold-hungry bastard with a forked silver tongue.

She looks up at me as I reach the bar, her expression soon darkening with recognition.

'Seen Brynjolf?' I ask casually.

She turns her gaze back to the glass she is polishing. 'Yeah, I've seen him.'

I wait, but she keeps polishing glasses and doesn't seem inclined to give me any more of an answer. 'Is he here?' I say.

She shrugs.

A moment later, I drop a few coins on the bar. 'Is he here?' I repeat, sharper.

The Breton puts down the glass before she slides the gold swiftly off the bar and into her hand. 'Last on the left.'

The knot in my stomach tightens. 'Thanks,' I manage to say.

At the top of the stairs, I hesitate, wondering if I should turn around and leave. Sapphire is safe, I know that much. Do I really need to know any more?

A second later, my feet take me quietly down the hallway, treading light on the floorboards. Near to the last door on the left, I hear their voices through the closed door. I can't fool myself otherwise. Sapphire's quick tone, Brynjolf's easy lilt, they are easy to distinguish, though most of the words are muffled. I listen to Sapphire talking. I hear him talking. I move closer.

He says he needs to go back. She's says she's scared. She doesn't want to go back to the Cistern, in case someone is watching the graveyard, in case someone set her up and they'll follow her back to the Guild. He tells her to stay here tonight, it's safe, she'll be safe. She says she'll stay only if he stays, he makes her feel safe. One of them kisses the other. He murmurs something I don't hear, murmurs her name, before they kiss again. And again. I don't hear the sounds of clothes being taken off. They are already naked. They have been here for a while.

I want to leave but my body refuses to move, some part of me wanting the torture; and so I stand there for too long, listening to them as they get into it, my skin crawling and my heart thudding loudly, so loudly I'm convinced they'll hear. They don't. It feels like a long time, each kiss, each groan, each moan lasting an hour to my ears. My legs keep me rooted in place until I hear her come, with quick quiet moans of pleasure, each hollowing out my stomach. She calls out his name, Bryn, Bryn, yes, Bryn, and I release my own breath with hers, slow, not realising I had been holding it. At last, my legs move.

Downstairs, I consider getting a drink and sitting near the stairway, curious to see what Brynjolf and Sapphire would do when they concluded their business and found me waiting here. Why should they care? I remind myself that this is no betrayal, that I have no claims on Brynjolf and that he owes me nothing, that Sapphire too is free to do as she pleases - but while I know it to be true, my heart still aches as if I've lost something, and I quickly leave the Overlook, wishing I had turned around and left when I had the chance.

I walk back to the Guild, feeling empty in my stomach. I try to put it from my mind, the sounds of the two thieves in bed together, but I hear it in my head, over and over. Gods, I am stupid. I don't let myself wonder why Brynjolf even said those things to me if he's so quick to get into bed with the raven-haired thief. Maybe he's always been in her bed and I just didn't see it, I think, recalling what Mercer had said. I start to think of their interactions when I have witnessed them, wondering how I did not see anything between them, starting to imagine all the interactions I have not witnessed.

Well, he was clearly convincing enough to Sapphire, I think, wondering if it was a challenge to get through the defences that the raven-haired thief keeps high around herself, wondering how it felt for Sapphire to be close to a man after what happened to her, wondering if she was as scared as I am. But Brynjolf makes her feel safe, I realise, knowing she and I have more in common than our scarred pasts.

By the time I return to the Guild, it's nearly dawn. Below ground, the rushing sound of the Cistern soothes me, alleviating the ache in my heart for a few fragile moments as I stand at the water's edge. This was a distraction, I realise, as I look into the water, remembering the blood I washed from my hands not so long ago. A stupid distraction. It hits me that while Astrid still lives, none of the rest matters, not Brynjolf, not Sapphire, not even myself. I need nothing else but her death and my revenge. I want nothing else but that.

Suddenly I remember my first night here, remembering that I was only ever here for the gold. The thought calms me as I close my eyes and listen to the water, convincing myself that my only concern is finding Astrid and ensuring I have enough money to take me to wherever she is. Let them do what they want, if it makes them happy, that's all that matters. 

As I look towards my bed, wanting nothing more than to curl up and sleep, I see Mercer is back at his desk and I know he has waited up for me to return. As he looks up at me, I see the laughter in his eyes even from this distance.

'Wren,' he calls, the amusement apparent in his voice. 'Here, now.'

I consider ignoring him, not wanting to see his satisfaction up close, but when he calls my name again, his tone sharper, I decide against refusing his command. Annoying the Guildmaster would just be the crown on top of a shit night, I think as I walk over to Mercer's desk, arms folded, trying to keep my feelings off my face.

Mercer eyes me as I come to stand before him, and I know he can see straight through my impassive mask. 'I didn't want to be right, you know.' His voice suggests the opposite. 'But unfortunately those two have history and you can't keep them apart for long.'

'Did you want me for something?' I say sharply.

Mercer tilts his head, a smile forming at his mouth. 'Why the bad temper? I didn't crush your heart, did I?' he says sarcastically. 'So the little bird actually has a heart? How... sweet.'

'Fuck off, Mercer,' I snap, turning away, having had more than enough of being his amusement for the night.

I haven't walked very far before the Guildmaster moves around his desk and catches up with me, grabbing my arm and jerking me back to him. 'Watch how you talk to me, Wren,' he says coldly. 'Unless you want me to throw your ass out onto the streets with nothing but the clothes on your back.' He looks down at me, his hold like steel, his gaze like ice. 'Maybe I'll even take those too. Then maybe you'll realise a little bird like you could get herself into a lot of trouble if she's not careful.'

The knot in my stomach tightens abruptly at his words but barely a moment passes before Mercer releases my arm and steps back, the now-familiar smirk at his mouth once more.

'Now fuck off and go to bed,' he says, and I'm only too eager to comply, even though it angers me to give him the satisfaction of my obedience.

By my bed, I pull off my boots and jacket and put away my dagger, but I wait until I hear Mercer leave the Cistern and go to his room before I undress and climb between the sheets, my body exhausted, my mind reeling. Was it only last night that I cut the Dunmer's throat? I wonder before I can stop myself, before I remember that I washed away that night with the blood from my hands. Was it only a few hours earlier that Brynjolf told me he was jealous of another man touching me? That memory is easy enough to forget; I drown it in the sound of the two thieves moaning in pleasure.

I don't sleep for a long time, some small part of me keeping the rest of my body awake, waiting to hear the redhead and the raven-haired thief return to the Cistern. They don't. When I hear one of the guildmembers rise from their bed with the new day, I turn to face the wall and huddle down beneath the sheets, letting my exhaustion take me, my last thoughts on Astrid, wondering when she will find out that I have completed my contract, whether she will deliver another assignment to me in person, or whether she'll never make contact with me again.

I can't trust that she'll come to me, I think as I finally drift off to sleep. So maybe I should consider going to her.

*

I sleep for much of the day. When I finally get up, I take it to be the late afternoon. I don't see any sign of Sapphire of Brynjolf; the only people I see in the Cistern are Thrynn and a couple of female guildmembers over in the kitchen, the ex-bandit retelling a daring raid he once carried out. Relief rushes through me as I listen to Thrynn's voice echoing in the depths of the cavern; no part of me is looking forward to seeing the redhead or the raven-haired thief, and the fact that neither of them are here makes me feel a little more inclined to get out of bed.

I spend the rest of the afternoon flitting between the Flagon and the Cistern, waiting for Mercer or Delvin to show their faces, knowing one or both might have information on where I can find Astrid. Unfortunately for me, the Guildmaster is the first to make an appearance, and I take a breath before approaching his desk.

'Mercer?' I stand awkwardly as he pores over what appear to be maps of some kind, a small frown at his brow. 'Have you got a minute?'

He looks up. As his dark gaze flickers over my body, I feel a sharp jolt in my stomach and quickly draw my arms over my torso, remembering his words of last night, suddenly feeling as if he has forcibly stripped me of my clothes already. It's as if the Guildmaster notices my uncomfortable reaction - and indeed enjoys it - as he looks back down at the papers with a smirk on his face.

'What do you want, little bird?' he says, his voice brisk. 'If you're here to cry over your broken heart, you can fuck off right now.'

'I'm not,' I say shortly, not wanting to discuss or even think about anything from the previous night. 'I was wondering if I could ask you something...' Suddenly I feel a flicker of nerves and I forget what I was going to say. 'I mean, I just wondered... I wanted your help with something that's been-'

'Gods, just get on with it,' Mercer snaps, not looking up. 'I don't have all day to listen to you trying to make a sentence.'

I almost baulk at his words, before I steel my heart and force myself to continue. 'Astrid,' I say. I hasten to elaborate, not wanting to reveal my true intentions. 'Well, I mean, the Dark Brotherhood in general. When Astrid recruited me, I didn't know anything about them, and I still don't know anything. I don't even know where the Sanctuary is.'

Mercer's attention remains on his work. 'And you're bothering me because...?'

'Everyone says you know everything there is to know about, well, everything,' I say, trying to make my voice softer, sweeter. 'I figured out of all the people I could ask, you would be able to help me.'

'Flattery doesn't work on me,' Mercer says, his tone bored. 'Try another tactic.'

'It's not flattery if it's true,' I say quickly, even as I know I was stupid to try it in the first place. 'I know you know Astrid. I mean, that note you got when she recruited me, she sent it to you directly, didn't she? So you must know her.'

Mercer sighs. 'And what is it you want to know?'

'Where I can find the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary and where I can find Astrid,' I answer swiftly, tired of delaying.

Mercer looks up then, his dark eyes narrowing as he surveys me. 'Are you planning on flying away to the Sanctuary, little bird?' he asks.

'No,' I say, although the thought of spending any more time here appeals very little to me at the moment, not knowing how I will look at Sapphire or Brynjolf without hearing her moan his name and imagining what he was doing to her that made her moan like that.

The Guildmaster laughs. 'You're a fucking terrible liar.' He inclines his head and looks at me for several long moments. 'No,' he says finally. 'I think if Astrid wanted you to know, she would have told you. I'm not telling you anything, Wren.' A small smile forms at his mouth as he evidently enjoys my disappointment, before he looks back down at his work. 'Now was that all? If you're going to stand there all day, at least make it amusing for me and go jump in the water first.'

I feel my cheeks flush and I stalk away without another word. What else did I expect? I think as irritation and disappointment coil in my stomach. For him to tell me exactly what I needed to know and say you're welcome? I mentally slap myself for thinking that Mercer Frey would ever help me.

I head to the Ragged Flagon and order a drink, waiting at the bar for Delvin to show up. He takes his time. The old thief has clearly had a successful prior engagement, as he comes into the tavern an hour later unable to keep the grin off his face.

'Saved it for you,' I say, patting his normal stool and giving him a smile.

'Have you been drinking alone?' Delvin makes a tsk sound as he settles in his stool and Vekel puts a brimming tankard in front of him. 'Well, don't worry, sweetheart. I'm always in the mood to keep a pretty lady company.' He nods at Vekel, who brings me another cup of my favourite wine, knowing well enough what it is by now.

I accept the drink gladly. 'I'm actually in the middle of a Brotherhood contract,' I tell Delvin, sipping my wine. 'I just wanted to ask you something.'

'Ah,' he says, taking a deep drink from his tankard. 'So this is business, not pleasure.'

'Can't it be both?' I say, my voice like honey, to which I receive his hacking laughter.

'I suppose it can, sweetheart,' Delvin says. 'Well, tell me what you want to know and we'll see what I can divulge.'

'Well, it's my current contract. I need to speak to Astrid about it, but she hasn't given me any way to contact her.' I pause. 'Do you know where I might find her?'

'Ah, Astrid.' Delvin grins with some memory I'm not sure I want to know. 'A lovely creature, like yourself. But I don't think I'll be able to help you there. She's one of those women who can't be found unless she wants to be.'

'What about their Sanctuary?' I ask, trying not to let my disappointment show. 'Do you know where that is?'

Delvin takes another drink from his tankard, his eyes surveying me with curiosity. 'Aye, sweetheart, but it's classified. On a strictly need-to-know basis.'

'But I need to know, Delvin,' I say sweetly, nudging his leg with my foot.

The old thief grins at my efforts. 'Sorry, love, but I'm not about to cross Astrid. We... well, we have our history. You know what I mean?'

'Everyone has fucking history, apparently,' I say before I can stop myself, thinking of Sapphire and the redhead, irritation cutting through me hard as I realise Delvin isn't going to tell me anything either.

Delvin chuckles. 'Something else on your mind, darlin'? I might be able to help.'

'Nothing,' I say firmly. I pause, deciding to push a little further. 'What about Mercer? What's his history with Astrid? He knows her pretty well, right?'

'Mercer? He and Astrid have what you'd call an... arrangement. There was some bad blood between them, but it's to be expected from any Guildmaster and leader of the Brotherhood.' Delvin shrugs. 'Relations between our families have never exactly been stable, sweetheart; too much shared interest, you might say. When Astrid took charge of the Brotherhood, things were a little less stable. I said she's a private person, so naturally, she didn't much like that we at the Guild make it our business to know everything.' He scoffs into his tankard. 'But that's our job, see. How else are we going to blackmail people and extort the gold we want if we don't know how to get them drunk or what they like in bed?' Delvin raises his tankard to me, a roguish smile on his face. 'I've still to get two out of two with you, sweetheart.'

I laugh and raise my cup to his before taking a sip, thinking fast.

'So Mercer has that sort of dirt on everyone, even someone like Astrid?' I say, as if I don't believe it, as if it's just an idle question, as if I'm not hanging on Delvin's every word. 'How is that even possible? The man's smart but no one can remember the favourite drink and sexual perversion of every important person in Skyrim.'

'Well, he's got files, of course,' Delvin says. 'I reckon they're more valuable than any pretty piece of jewellery you could steal. But Mercer's also got a sense for these things, you know? Doesn't need it in writing. That's what makes a true thief, sweetheart. Good instincts.'

I long to return the conversation to Mercer's files - and specifically the location of those files - but I'm conscious of making my intentions obvious. Delvin is no fool and I know he would wonder why my sudden interest in the Guildmaster's secret documents.

Secret documents that might have some information on Astrid.

I smile at the old thief as my heart races with excitement over the potential lead. 'And do you have those good instincts too, Delvin?' I ask charmingly.

'Of course.' My attentions seem to please him and he leans in. 'Do you know what my instincts told me the moment you walked into the Flagon for the first time, trailing behind Bryn all quiet and meek and looking like we were going to eat you alive?'

'You've never told me,' I say, although I'm not sure I want to know.

'I knew that you were going to change things around here. That you'd be good for this place.' Delvin leans back, grinning. 'And that one day you'll make my dreams come true and kiss me, sweetheart.'

I laugh. 'One day, Delvin,' I say lightly. 'Buy me enough wine and we'll see.'

Delvin accepts the challenge and I spend a while drinking with him, until the Tonilia appears to discuss business and the old thief pulls out some papers and I get the hint that he needs to work. I leave them to it, my mind racing with what I learnt. Where would Mercer keep these files? The answer isn't hard to guess, though the thought sends a shiver down my spine. I guess I'm breaking into his room, then.

When I enter the Cistern again, I hear raised voices and look to the source, realising with an uncomfortable twist in my stomach that Brynjolf has returned and is talking with Mercer at his desk. More like arguing, I realise. Brynjolf's tone is abrupt, his arms folded, his broad shoulders tense. Even from the distance, I can see he looks tired. Well, I would be tired too if I had been fucking Sapphire all night, I think before I remind myself it's none of my business. Nor is the argument taking place, but I linger at the edge of the Cistern anyway to listen in.

'I told you, I can do it by myself-'

Mercer cuts over the redhead. 'You know the lizard as well as I do, Brynjolf. He won't be so easy to persuade.'

'I don't give a shit,' Brynjolf snaps. 'I'll deal with him on my own, I don't need or want her coming with me.'

Mercer snorts with laughter. 'Don't you? Well, too bad. I want that information whether you have to beat it out of him or the girl has to get on her knees and suck on his little scaly cock for it.'

'If you think she'll do that, you're a fucking idiot,' Brynjolf says.

Mercer doesn't seem to mind the redhead's tone and only smirks. 'Is that so? From what I hear, maybe she'll do it if you blindfold the bitch and tell her it's you.'

Before Brynjolf can retort, Mercer's gaze suddenly flickers over to me and the smirk at his mouth widens; I consider making a run for it back to the Flagon, but before I can even move the Guildmaster calls across the Cistern to me.

'Wren, come over here for a minute,' he says.

Brynjolf's head whips around and I see the anger burning bright in his eyes before his expression rearranges at the sight of me; his mouth curves into the familiar charming smile and his gaze follows me closely as I approach, though I'm convinced I see a flicker of wariness in his green eyes as I walk over.

He doesn't know I know, I realise. I force myself to return his smile as if I also don't know, having no desire to ever mention what l overheard last night, much less with the Guildmaster present to enjoy my pain.

'What is it?' I say, stopping at a safe distance, reluctant to be too close to Brynjolf or Mercer, not liking my body's reaction to either of them.

'Just thought you might want to say goodbye,' Mercer says lightly, as if such pleasantries are normal for him. 'Brynjolf is off to Solitude to interrogate an agent of ours who's been stepping out of line. And since Sapphire's little run in with the law last night, we figured she might as well go too. Clear her head. Keep her safe.' He looks at Brynjolf. 'You will keep her safe, won't you?'

Brynjolf's jaw is set as he looks at Mercer. 'Of course I will,' he says shortly.

'Good.' The Guildmaster appears to be enjoying himself, and I know it's at my expense as he turns to look at me, his dark eyes glittering. 'See, Wren, you don't need to worry about Sapphire. Brynjolf will look after her to the best of his abilities, just like he did last night.'

I force myself to meet the redhead's eyes, anger flaring inside me at the Guildmaster's obvious attempt to toy with me. 'Well, good luck, then,' I say, trying not to sound bitter or like anything is different than it was two days ago, before we kissed in the alley, before he told me he was jealous, before I heard first-hand exactly how he looks after Sapphire.

'Thanks, lass,' Brynjolf says with a smile, and suddenly I don't want to stand here any longer, unable to look at him without hearing him murmur Sapphire's name as he kissed her, as he fucked her, as he made her come.

'Was that all?' I say abruptly to Mercer.

The Guildmaster laughs. 'So bad-tempered today, little bird. Something on your mind?'

I feel Brynjolf's eyes on me and I hear him and Sapphire moaning in my head. How often are they going to fuck while on their trip to Solitude?  'Why do you care?' I snap at Mercer, having had enough of him trying to wind me up. 'Are we done here?'

I'm surprised when the Guildmaster doesn't react to my tone. 'Yes, we're done,' he says with a smile. 'Fly away.'

I don't have to be told twice, and I leave quickly, deciding to go above ground and lose myself in the city for a while, not wanting to be anyway near the Guild. At least I won't have to run into Sapphire and Brynjolf for a while, I think, even as I feel an undeniable flicker of jealousy that they will be alone together for weeks. They've been alone together for years before I even got here, I remind myself, suddenly feeling like an intruder.

I haven't reached the Cistern door before Brynjolf catches up with me. 'Hey, lass, can I have a second?' he says from behind, but I find I can't even turn around.

'Sorry,' I say over my shoulder, trying to think of an excuse. 'I... need to talk to Delvin,' I tell him, before I realise I'm going in completely the wrong direction to do that.

'He can wait.' The redhead takes my arm gently and I've no choice but to stop and face him.

To be close to Brynjolf again reminds me of what it was like in the alley, to have his body against mine, his mouth on mine, his tongue licking at mine. Then I picture him with the raven-haired thief and the pathetic fluttering in my stomach turns to tight knots.

I force a smile on my face. 'That was good of you to help Sapphire last night,' I say before he can speak. 'Getting her out of jail can't have been easy.'

'Well, apparently I'm the only idiot around here who can pay off a jailer.' His easy smile and voice bear no suggestion that anything might be amiss, and the realisation that he is going to pretend as if he wasn't fucking Sapphire all night hits me hard. The stupid little bird does have a heart, I think bitterly, feeling it break.

'Where is she?' I ask.

'She's safe, I promise,' Brynjolf says. 'She said to tell you she's fine. She just doesn't want to be near the Guild right now, in case someone's following her. She thinks she might have been set up.'

I already know that, I want to say, remembering what I overheard of their conversation. 'Well, I'm just glad she's all right,' I say, as the rest of what I overheard last night replays in my head too. 'Sorry but I really have to go.'

'Hang on a second.' Brynjolf catches my wrist and holds me in place. His eyes scan my face. 'I promised I'd do a better job of convincing you, didn't I?' His charming smile cuts my heart. 'I don't want you to think I've forgotten, lass, because trust me, I haven't.'

'I don't need convincing,' I say abruptly. 'Just leave it, all right?'

'Just leave it?' Brynjolf repeats, the smile still on his face but doubt flickering in his eyes. He doesn't let go of my wrist. 'Look, I'm not going to Solitude til tomorrow. By my reckoning I now owe you at least two drinks. And we were going to go somewhere far from the Guild and everyone else, weren't we?'

How about the Overlook?  'Don't bother,' I say, my voice sharper than I intend. 'You look tired. You should get some rest before you and Sapphire head to Solitude. I imagine the journey will be quite exhausting for you. Now please-' I pull my hand out of his hold. 'Just leave me alone, Brynjolf.'

I turn and leave the Cistern before I can look at his expression, my stomach twisting with regret, wishing the words back in my mouth. True to my demand, Brynjolf doesn't follow me. The sound of the rushing water starts to fade.

A stupid distraction, I remind myself, trying to stop my heart from beating so fast as I climb up the ladder to the graveyard. Forget it. Forget him. He'll be gone to Solitude soon, then I won't have to feel like this anymore.

And maybe I'll be gone soon too. It suddenly hits me that I might not see the auburn-haired thief again, if I get the information I need to find Astrid before he returns to Riften. It's easier that way, I think firmly, ignoring the way my stomach feels hollow at thought.

As I leave the tomb and breathe in the dusk air, the scent of nightshade reaches me, the bitter smell no longer terrifying. It's a reminder. It's Astrid. I force my head to be clear of everything, focusing my mind on my task as I remind myself that I have to get my hands on Mercer's documents, knowing that the risk of breaking into his room is worth even the slightest chance he might have something that will help me find and destroy Astrid.

And his files will surely be more accommodating than the Guildmaster himself.

Chapter Text

I work as fast as I can, cursing with each broken pick and exhaling slowly to keep my hand and heart steady. I force aside everything of the last few days - the awkward goodbye with Sapphire as I tried to pretend I haven't heard her moaning in pleasure, the way Brynjolf did just as I requested and left me alone, the tense waiting for Mercer to leave the Cistern so I could sidle down the passageway off one of the alcoves and come to stand before the door to the Guildmaster's room.

And the way my heart keeps getting faster every time this door refuses to fucking open, I think as I drop another broken lockpick. Although prepared for a challenge, it takes a long time to break in, and after what feels like an hour I almost lose heart and give up, knowing it would not go well for me if Mercer walked down the passageway and found me here.

Just when I'm about to admit defeat, I finally hear the lock give. I hold my breath and adjust the pick a hair's breadth. The resulting click is sweeter than any sound I've ever heard and I feel a thrill chase through me, realising that I have just broken into the private room of the leader of the Thieves Guild. And it'll be just as sweet when I slit Astrid's throat, I think as I scoop up the sizeable pile of broken picks triumphantly and stuff them into a pocket before standing up and slowly pushing open the door to Mercer's room. The hinges well-oiled, it doesn't make a sound. I walk inside and close the door firmly behind me.

The Guildmaster's room is decorated with minimal flair like the rest of the Cistern, but the furniture and wall hangings are expensive, even to my largely untrained eye. The place is cast in a flickering light from the half a dozen or so candles still burning on a desk over on the far side, the surface of which is littered with papers held in messy piles beneath stacks of coins and gems. Without delay, I head towards it before I notice the substantial iron safe on the other side of the large wooden-framed bed. I can tell without even looking too closely that the lock on the safe is far beyond my skill or luck, but on top of it there are more stacks of papers, all bound in different coloured leather sheaths, neater than those on the desk, seemingly in some semblance of order. Assuming that the papers on the desk are the drafts and the books atop the safe are the finished product, I step around the bed and hurry to the iron safe. The books appear to be categorised by markings I cannot decode and so I start at the first book on the left, hoping, perhaps naively, that Mercer likes alphabetising his dirt.

Disappointment cuts through me as I realise that Mercer's documents appear to be written entirely in code and are completely unreadable.

'Fuck,' I murmur. I put the first dossier back and choose another at random, the leather sheath tinted a different colour, but this too is illegible to me and I feel frustration rising fast inside me, wondering how I'll know if I'm even reading about Astrid, let alone how I will narrow down the information I need to find and destroy her.

And I thought getting in here was the hard bit. I mentally reprimand myself for my stupidity in thinking I'd find exactly what I needed just waiting for me.

My frustration rising fast, I try another book, and another, not wanting to waste the opportunity, but besides from a few sketches and maps of places I don't know, I cannot decipher a thing. I shove the book back into its place and swear under my breath again. Maybe I should just take his gold and gems and be done with it, I think, even as I pull out one more file, still fooling myself that I can find something worthwhile.

Before I've even opened the pages, I hear the quiet click of the door closing, and it's like a knife cuts down through my heart down to my stomach.

Fuck.

I drop the book on the ground and whirl around to find Mercer standing in front of the closed door. My blood turns cold and my heart stops for a moment as our eyes meet, mine wide in fear, his dark and narrowed.

And almost surprised. There's a brief moment when I think the Guildmaster is caught off-guard that I managed to break into his room. Then his eyes catch the uneasy candlelight and I see the fury burning like fire.

'Well, this should be amusing,' Mercer says softly, unnerving me when I expected him to shout. His eyes never leaving mine, he takes a key from his trouser pocket and locks the door behind him.

I try to speak, to explain, to lie, but as he puts the key back into his pocket, I can only stand there, my body frozen in fear, and before I can reconnect my mind to think of a way out, Mercer strides across the room and grabs me by the throat.

I cry out as he shoves me hard against the wall, holding me there with his grip like steel at my neck.

'And just what the hell do you think you're doing in here?' he says, his voice low and dangerous.

'Look, Mercer, I was just-' My mind goes blank and I can't think of any lie as to why I broke into his room. Any words I might've said choke in my throat as his hand tightens around my neck and I start to struggle to breathe.

'Just...? Just what? Just... stuttering? Trying to come up with a bullshit excuse?' Mercer snorts with derision as he looks down at me, and I see the fury in his eyes change to contempt. 'Gods, you're not really a Dark Brotherhood assassin, are you? When you get caught with your dagger in someone's throat, do you just stand there dumb and wait for the guards to haul your ass to jail?' He laughs a short laugh. 'Or maybe you've never actually killed anyone with that little dagger of yours.'

His pressure on my neck increases and I feel the blood pounding in my head as my body begs for breath, and I clutch feebly at his arms. Mercer releases me abruptly a few seconds later. He takes a step back, his mouth curling into a smile as I gasp to take in air and touch my throat gingerly, my fear diminishing beneath my own fury, wondering if I could reach for my little dagger and kill him before he drew his own twin blades, wanting him to know how much blood the Blade of Justice has tasted and spilt over my hands.

Mercer's eyes narrow as if he hears my thoughts. 'Do you really think you can fool me, Wren?' The way his mouth twists sarcastically over my name lets me know exactly what he thinks of my fake identity. Then his eyes flash into mine. 'Turn around, little bird.'

He doesn't wait for me to obey, grabbing my shoulders and turning me around before pushing me face first against the wall. I'm just quick enough to get my hands up and in front of my face to protect it from hitting against the stone. The Guildmaster laughs softly again as I gasp in pain and before I can try to get away I feel his body close behind mine and his hands run swiftly down my sides and around to my chest, checking my pockets, pulling out their contents and throwing them to the floor.

'I haven't taken anything,' I tell him quickly, hearing my coin purse and lockpicks fall to the ground.

Mercer doesn't reply. My upper body checked, he reaches down and I feel a nervous jolt in my lower stomach as he removes the Blade of Justice from my thigh. I hear the dagger clatter to the floor and my entire body tenses as Mercer's hands move purposefully over my hips and thighs, his quick fingers searching my pockets there.

'Well, you're proving to be a shit thief as well,' he says a moment later, stepping back, having ascertained I managed to steal nothing from him. I take my hands from the wall and go to turn around, but he grabs my wrists and twists them behind my back, shoving me front-first to the wall again, the side of my face hitting the rough stone hard. 'No, did I tell you to move?' he snaps. 'You move and I break your fucking arms.'

I swear as pain shoots up to my shoulders and through my head but I don't struggle, not doubting his threat. Gods, why didn't I leave earlier? I think, wishing I had just stolen his gold and left when I could.

I remain motionless facing the wall as Mercer releases his hold on me and walks away, his footsteps across the room drowned by my racing heartbeat - though I hear clearly enough the sounds of a drawer opening and then the metallic slither of chains. Before I can process what's happening or even think of moving he is behind me again and he grabs my forearms, twisting them back behind me, and a moment later I feel cold metal cuffs close with a quiet click about my wrists.

'What the fuck-' I start to say as panic races inside me and I try to pull my hands free of the shackles; though my hands are small, the metal binds are too tight around my wrists for my hands to slip out, and when I try to jerk my arms apart behind my back, I find a short chain links the two cuffs together. As I hear Mercer step back with a quiet laugh, I realise the shackles are not coming loose. Hot anger floods through me. 'You fucking bastard!'

'Shh. Since you're clearly such an expert at picking locks, why don't you get yourself out of those?' Mercer laughs again. 'Turn around. I want to watch.'

I whirl around to face him. His eyes glitter with amusement and I feel another keen jolt in my stomach as his gaze meanders up and down my body, taking in my bound form with satisfaction.

'Where's the fucking key?' I say viciously, conscious of my inability to defend myself physically if he draws his daggers.

The Guildmaster moves back to lean against his desk. 'Just shut up and get on with it, Wren,' he says. A cold smile pulls at his mouth. 'If you got in here surely you can manage those binds.'

'Where is the key?' I demand again, struggling against the cuffs, hearing the chain clink behind me. 'You son of a-'

'Don't test my patience,' he snaps, his smile vanishing as quickly as it came. 'You're lucky I haven't slit your throat. Tell me what you were looking for in here and your pretty little neck might remain that way.'

I don't even consider telling him the truth. 'Information,' I answer shortly, knowing full well that it won't be enough.

As expected, Mercer only looks at me, unimpressed.

'It's Dark Brotherhood business,' I say. 'You know I can't talk about that.'

'Like hell you can't,' he says. 'Answer my question now or it's going to be a long night for you, Wren.'

'It'll be a longer night for me if I give away Brotherhood secrets,' I say, even as my heart beats nervously at his words. 'I'm working on a contract. Astrid said if I jeopardise it, she'll kill me.'

'And what do you think I do to thieving little sluts who go places they shouldn't?' Mercer says, raising an eyebrow.

I clench my jaw and stare back at him, not letting my fear or discomfort show, even as the binds dig into my wrists behind my back and my body turns cold at his words.

At my silence, Mercer makes a quiet laugh and his hands go to his chest. 'A long night it is, then,' he says mildly as he starts removing his jacket, his fingers loosening the buckles and fastenings slowly. 'Though I suggest you tell me what information you were after before I lose my patience with you.'

'It's Brotherhood business,' I say again, wary of his movements. 'I've been working on an important contract and thought you might have information on a mark I'm trying to reach. That's all.'

'What mark?' His hands move steadily down the fastenings at his stomach.

'I can't tell you,' I say firmly, knowing it'd be a mistake that could cost me everything. Without knowing exactly what relationship Astrid and Mercer enjoyed in the past - and the terms of their relationship now - I cannot know he wouldn't betray my plans to her. Even if he didn't tell her, I have the unnerving suspicion that once I voice my intentions, someone will hear, someone will know, someone will stop me, and Astrid will end up killing me before I even get close enough to bring the Blade of Justice to her throat.

Mercer doesn't respond to my words. He holds my gaze as he finishes removing his jacket and lays the discarded garment on the back of the chair at his desk. 'Don't you remember how much easier this goes when you co-operate, Wren?' he says finally.

'Look, I'm sorry I broke into your room,' I say sharply, 'but it's got nothing to do with the Guild, so what I was looking for is no concern of yours.'

'Everything that happens here is a concern of mine,' he snaps, an irritated frown at his brow. 'You seem to forget that you work for me before you work for that bitch Astrid.'

'That bitch Astrid?' I repeat, trying not to let my interest show in my voice. 'I thought you had an... arrangement with her.'

His eyes narrow. 'What has Delvin been filling your little head with? The Guild and the Brotherhood have an agreement not to step on each other's toes and that's all you need to know.' His gaze moves over my bound form again. 'And that I don't need to hire an assassin to do my dirty work. When I kill someone, I prefer that they know exactly who is killing them, and why.'

'And you're really going to kill me for breaking into your room?' I say, trying to sound incredulous, even though I wouldn't put such a thing past him. 'I didn't even take anything.'

Mercer raises an eyebrow. 'Then clearly you're a useless thief, in which case I've got no use for you here at all, have I?'

I open my mouth and close it, not sure how to argue his assessment.

He smirks again. 'Nothing to say? Good. You're prettier when you don't talk.'

He loosens the ties of his shirt before he swiftly pulls it up and over his head. I can't help my gaze as it races over his bare torso, my eyes following the taut muscles that ripple over his chest and abdomen, his skin scarred in more places than I can count. How many people have tried to kill him and failed? The thought frightens me. I think of my dagger lying useless on the floor and how my small and slight body barely reaches Mercer's broad shoulders. I feel the hard shackles digging in at my wrists and a flutter of nerves cut through my lower stomach.

Mercer catches the direction of my gaze before I have time to return my attention to his face. A small smile sets in at his mouth. 'Tell me who your mark is and what information you were looking for,' he says, almost lazily, as if he knows already, or at least knows that I'm not going to answer him.

'No,' I say firmly, holding my ground, although under his gaze my legs feel unsteady.

He makes a tsk sound before he strides over to me. I back away instinctively, although I've nowhere to go; my bound arms hit the wall behind me with a quiet clink as the chains scrape the stone. That makes him laugh quietly.

'Do you think you're going anywhere?' Mercer says as he comes to stand before me. His proximity sets my heart beating faster, and as his gaze flickers down my body, I am suddenly twice as conscious of the binds keeping my arms useless behind me. Mercer must be thinking of them too. 'You can't get out of those shackles, can you, little bird?' he says softly.

I glare at the Guildmaster, not needing to confirm it for him.

That makes him laugh again. 'Don't look at me like that. You're lucky I'm in a good mood.'

'Give me the fucking key-' I start angrily, but he raises his hand and presses it over my mouth, silencing my demand.

'Be careful, Wren,' he says, his voice low, his eyes penetrating mine. 'Since you're clearly not going to co-operate or manage to get out of those shackles yourself, the only way you're leaving this room is if I feel inclined to let you go.' Mercer uncovers my mouth but he doesn't take his hand away; he runs his fingertips along my lips slowly, a cold smile pulling at his own mouth as he looks down at me. 'And I'm more inclined to find out if that little mouth of yours has a use besides talking.'

At his words, a strange feeling ripples through my lower stomach. Fear, I think, and while I can't deny it, I'm conscious that it's not the only reason I feel the nervous tightness in my stomach and the shiver down my lower back.

Afraid of what he wants and afraid of myself, I can only stand in fear as Mercer's hand traces down my throat and to the collar of my jacket, my body freezing at the touch of his fingers on the bare skin of my neck. His dark gaze holds mine as he raises his other hand and he begins to unfasten my jacket.

'Don't-' I start to protest, trying to move to the side and get away from him, but Mercer grasps the collar of my jacket tight and holds me firm against the wall, his arms like steel.

'One more word and I'll gag you as well,' he says quietly. 'And then I'll make you wish I hadn't.'

He releases me and his fingers work quickly at the fastenings down my torso before he pulls open my jacket, my breath catching as his hands brush against my breasts through my shirt, the feeling in my stomach heightening abruptly.

Mercer pushes my jacket back over my shoulders, though my bound arms prevent him from taking it off completely. He takes a step back, and I think for a moment that he's had enough, that I've amused him enough, that his words are all idle threats. That's as stupid as believing I'd find what I needed in his files, I think, feeling my heart skip a beat when the Guildmaster draws one of his golden daggers, the candlelight glinting off the sharp blade.

He smirks as my eyes widen in fear. 'If I was going to kill you tonight, little bird, I would've done it already,' he says as his left hand grasps at the neck of my shirt and he brings the dagger close to my neck. 'And I can think of more inventive ways of killing you than slitting your throat.'

In one quick motion, he brings the tip of the dagger down from my neck to my navel, cutting clean through my shirt. The sound of the material tearing sends a shiver through me that I know he notices. My pulse thuds violently as Mercer brings the dagger back up and does the same to my binding before he swiftly rips the torn pieces apart to reveal my breasts.

His slow satisfied smile as he looks over me makes my stomach flip and an unexpected warmth flood through me, even as my bare chest and torso seem to shiver with goosebumps. I struggle instinctively to cover myself, the chain behind me taut and clinking as I try and fail to bring my arms in front of my body in order to close the open pieces of my shirt. That only makes Mercer laugh quietly.

'Come on, now you don't want me to see you?' He moves closer, his gaze flickering down over my breasts once more before he looks back into my eyes, his own glinting with satisfaction. 'Then maybe you shouldn't have been standing in the middle of my room, like a frightened little bird caught in the torchlight.' He leans close, bringing his mouth to my ear. 'Just waiting for me to find you and strip your feathers.'

His low voice seems to thrum throughout my body, every part of me on edge as I feel his breath on my ear and his body close to mine. Every part of me, I realise with a jolt. Unbidden, I feel a flicker of desire cut through me as I am forced to remember the last time I was bare and this close to a man, how I ripped open my shirt of my own volition, how it felt to have the dark elf's hands on my breasts, his mouth, his tongue, how I wanted it. I feel my heart racing fast, my blood like fire, like I am straddling his hips and his hard cock is pressing between my legs and making me feel in a way I didn't know possible.

'So what else have you been hiding under those clothes?' Mercer says softly, stepping back, toying with the dagger in his hands as his gaze moves over me languidly. 'You want me to find out, don't you?'

My breath catches in my throat with the question. Tell him no, tell him to fuck off and unbind me, I beg my mouth and tongue, but the two seem to ignore my pleas. My lips part but no words come, only a quiet intake of breath as I realise my body is warm and nervous and aches with the same longing that I felt when Brynjolf kissed me with his tongue, when the Dunmer was underneath me, when I craved something my mind didn't even want to comprehend. For the first time, I seem to forget what came before. I forget the years of pain, of fear, of being used in a way I did not ask for. I forget everything except the feeling inside me, a feeling I did not ask for either.

The Guildmaster returns his dagger to his hip, the sound of the blade slipping into the sheathe sending a shiver through me. He steps up close to me again and his hands go to the ties of my trousers. I feel another jolt through my lower stomach and my arms make a last instinctive attempt to break free of the shackles and stop him, but Mercer's deft fingers undo the fastenings in moments and before I can reconnect my mind with my body, his hand pushes down beneath my smallclothes and between my legs.

I gasp, partly at his touch, partly with the realisation that his strong slender fingers find me warm and wet.

'I'll take that for a yes.' Mercer watches my face with a smirk at his mouth as his fingers quickly find where I am most sensitive before I even acknowledge that part of me exists, the skilful touch of his fingers at my clit sending pleasure cutting through me, and while somewhere in my mind I plead for my body not to react, I feel his touch between my legs swiftly working me wetter.

When Mercer's hand moves up to roughly cup my breast, my breath catches loudly with my sudden sensitivity, my nipple stiffening under one sweep of his thumb, and Mercer laughs.

'A resounding yes,' he says as he toys with me for a moment. 'And here I thought you might at least try to pretend you didn't want it. I suppose your little cunt is stronger than your mind, isn't it?' His eyes flash into mine with amusement. 'Let's find out, shall we?'

Abruptly he takes his hands from me and wrenches my trousers down to my ankles, my body flinching with the cool air and at being stripped bare. Mercer briefly drops to one knee to pull off my boots and free my legs from my trousers before he stands up and steps back from me.

The way his dark eyes move over my naked bound body makes the shackles feel tighter at my wrists.

'You look better featherless,' Mercer tells me, his gaze meandering over my breasts and between my legs. 'I've a mind to ban you from wearing anything in the Cistern again. You're a fucking useless thief but you can at least give me something to look at.' His gaze returns to my eyes. 'But you want me to do more than look, don't you?' He points to the edge of the bed. 'Sit there,' he orders.

I stay where I am against the wall, afraid and uncertain, suddenly realising that this is no pretence or convincing act, that I have no dagger to bury in his throat, that the only way out of here is if he lets me go. Aware of the way he intends this to end, and the way I unexpectedly want it to end, a cold shiver crawls down my back even as I feel the eager wet ache of desire between my legs, the contradiction freezing my body in its fear and longing.

At my hesitation, Mercer's eyes narrow. 'If you're going to start being uncooperative again, I won't play so nice with you, Wren,' he says, his voice harder. 'Sit on that fucking bed now.'

A second passes before my feet take me to the bed. Legs shaking, my body wanting, I sit down on the edge.

'That's better.' Mercer comes over to me and drops onto his knees onto the floor in front of me. 'Maybe this'll teach you to obey me more often, little bird.'

He roughly pulls my legs apart and before I can register my body's instinctive unease at being exposed to him, Mercer grabs my hips, pulling them up and towards him as he brings his mouth to my hot core.

The first lick of his tongue between my legs makes me gasp, not expecting it, not knowing it, not prepared for how it feels as Mercer runs his tongue slow and wide over me. He tastes me once before he pulls back and his eyes flicker up to my face, his dark gaze glittering with amusement at my startled intake of breath. He leans forward once more and I flinch in pleasure as his tongue starts to lick fast and wet against my clit, deftly working me breathless and hot before I can even think about trying to control the feeling rising inside me.

Mercer's fingers dig sharply into the tops of my thighs as he holds me in place but I hardly feel it. Though I try to bite my lip and stop myself, a quiet hitched moan escapes me as the ache of longing between my legs swiftly turns to fierce pleasure; instinctively my legs tighten around Mercer, my hips starting to move urgently against the relentless motion of his tongue, every inch of me wanting more keenly than ever before, my body now knowing exactly what it wants and how it feels to have it.

My bare chest is rising and falling rapidly with my shallow breathing when Mercer suddenly stops and pushes my legs away from him. Before I can stop myself, I whine needily for his tongue to return, despising my body for its reaction but feeling utterly powerless against it.

'Oh, you want me to continue?' Mercer laughs as he wipes his mouth off with the bed sheet before he stands up. As I desperately try to catch my breath and stop the feeling inside me, one of his hands knots tight in my hair at the back of my head while his other hand roughly pulls my jaw up to face him. 'Do I even need to ask? You're wetter than a fucking ocean.' The Guildmaster looks down at me for a few long moments, his eyes hard and laughing at my weakness. 'Beg,' he says.

I stare up at him, cheeks flushed, my breathing fractured, hating him, hating myself for playing into his hands, hating that he was right and knew that my needy body is indeed stronger than my mind.

'I said, beg.' Standing between my parted legs, Mercer reaches down with one hand, his fingers slipping back to my wet core to continue the efforts of his tongue at that sensitive part of me, making the pleasure flutter violently through me once more. 'You want me to indulge you? Beg for it.'

'I-' Whatever words I was going to say get lost beneath my hitched moan as his touch between my legs grows rougher, pleasure mounting fast in me.

A moment later, Mercer takes his hand away, making me whimper with need again. He grabs my hair in both hands, my curls loosening from their pins, the slivers of metal scratching painfully at my scalp as he jerks my head back abruptly so I look up at him.

'Beg,' Mercer demands, his voice hard and unyielding. Somewhere in my mind I realise he will not relent unless I give him what he wants, and in that moment, my body cares little to resist.

'Please,' I say frantically, suddenly desperate to have him finish what he has started. 'Please!'

A smirk flashes across Mercer's face before he lets go of me. 'Move back,' he commands as his hands go to his trouser fastenings.

I wriggle backwards on the bed as best I can, my arms useless in their binds and my legs weak from the skill of his tongue and hand. Mercer kicks off his boots and rids himself of his trousers, and the sight of his hard cock floods me with an urgent longing I don't want to feel. Heat rises in my neck with my desire.

His smug smile returns as he notices my shallow breaths. 'Don't worry, little bird, you're going to get it,' he says in a low voice.

Mercer joins me on the bed and moves to kneel up in front of me, pulling me over to him; my arms useless, one of his hands grips my shoulder, holding me up and angled towards his cock, while his other hand knots in my hair at my scalp. He jerks my head forward.

'I don't want you to just look at it,' he snaps. 'Open your fucking mouth.'

My hands bound behind my back, I can't even hold myself upright much less do anything else beyond what he commanded. The moment I open my mouth for him, Mercer pulls my head closer and he pushes his cock between my parted lips. Above me, I hear his breath catch as I take him in, and I barely have time to relax my muscles and widen my mouth for him before he thrusts his cock deep down my throat. My reflexes resist and I choke as he starts to move roughly back and forth against my throat, the pressure hurting my neck, but my moan of discomfort only makes his movements grow rougher, his hand gripping at my scalp as he jerks my head forward in time with his fast thrusts. Incapacitated and useless with my hands or head, I use my mouth and suck down on him hard, running my tongue against his cock as he moves deep inside my mouth, and after a few moments I hear him make a soft hitched laugh.

'Finally a use for you,' he murmurs and his hand tightens in my hair, holding me in place as he thrusts violently against the back of my throat again.

My neck aches when Mercer releases me and pulls his wet cock from my mouth. I barely catch my breath before he shoves me flat on the bed and moves over me, ignoring my gasp of pain at the pressure on my bound arms underneath me, the hardness of the shackles cutting into my skin. He spreads my legs wide and takes his cock in hand, positioning himself at my entrance. Mercer's eyes meet mine as I look up at him, anticipation and apprehension flooding me in equal parts. The Guildmaster looks down at me, the familiar smirk curling at his mouth as his gaze burns with desire, mockery, or satisfaction, I can't tell which or if the dark fire in his eyes is something else altogether; I feel my heart race as I try to discern the look in his gaze, when without warning he suddenly pushes himself roughly inside me.

I cry out loudly, the sharp pain between my legs more than my pleasure, my body startled at the intrusion even as it begged so desperately for it.

Mercer pulls back swiftly and slams into me once more, causing another keen moan to rise in my throat. 'Gods, you're so tight,' he mutters in satisfaction, adjusting his weight on his arms as he leans over me and pushes his cock deeper inside me, and I hear him make a groan of pleasure a moment later when I've taken every inch of him.

I gasp again, feeling my muscles fluttering around his cock desperately to accommodate him. Mercer doesn't wait for me to get used to him as he starts thrusting rough and fast, working himself deep within me at a merciless pace. Before long, a fractured moan escapes me, although I can scarcely tell if it is pain or pleasure that heats my body and quickens my breathing once more.

Distantly, I soon start to become aware of the shackles digging sharply into my wrists and the painful ache in my arms under the pressure of our combined weight and Mercer's unyielding rough force against my body.

'My arms,' I whimper at him, barely able to get my words out, the discomfort of my binds only partly to blame.

Mercer laughs and thrusts hard in me once more. 'I should've known you'd want it from behind,' he says before he pulls out of me, his cock slick. 'More bitch than bird, aren't you?'

His strong hands grasp at my body and quickly he rolls me over onto my front before shoving my face down against the pillow and grabbing my hips. I turn my head to the side and try to catch my breath as Mercer pulls up my lower body until I'm on my knees with my ass in the air. He moves to kneel behind me and without hesitation, he pushes his cock back into my hot wet core and resumes his rough and hard pace, the angle hitting right where my body wants him. I cry out keenly into the pillow with the sensation, pleasure flooding violently through every part of me as he thrusts faster.

His tight grip on my hips starts to hurt but I barely register it in my pleasure, instead feeling the building ache between my legs, hearing his hips slap against my ass, still tasting him in my mouth and feeling him at the back of my throat, every sense heightening as he fucks me hard and relentless.

Suddenly, still inside me, Mercer stops and his hands leave my hips. I cry out longingly, but he doesn't seem to care.

'You break into my room again and I won't be so generous.' He grabs the shackles at my wrists and pulls abruptly, forcibly dragging my upper body backwards so I'm upright on my knees. I cry out as pain shoots through my arms and I hear his voice right in my ear. 'Break in here again and I'll kill you, understood?'

'Yes,' I whimper, my body begging for him to resume his efforts, even as I feel my heart flutter warningly at his threat.

'I didn't hear you,' Mercer says, his words punctuated by his sharp intake of breath as he thrusts upwards inside me.

'Yes!' I cry out, half in pleasure, half in response to his words.

I hear him laugh before he shoves me back down and pulls up my hips again, although he barely needs to hold me now. As he drives his cock faster inside me, I willingly arch my back deep to better feel his brutal thrusts, each making me moan louder and louder with the pleasure until a minute later I'm screaming and my hips shudder as I come hard, the feeling tearing through me like fire for the first time, my whole body tensing violently before my muscles give way and all I can do is gasp desperately for breath into the pillow.

I feel Mercer's pace quickening and he slams into me violently, soon groaning with his own pleasure as he spends himself inside me. His hips jerk fast against my ass as he finishes, his fingers digging into my skin tight to hold my limp body steady.

A few moments later, Mercer pulls out of me and releases my hips, my weak body slumping down onto the bed. His quiet laugh of satisfaction sends a shiver through my dazed hot body and suddenly, finally, my mind reconnects with the rest of me.

What the hell did I just do?

I hear the Guildmaster get up from the bed. Realising I am still face down and prone, I force my body to roll over and struggle to a sitting position, every part of me hot and overworked and suddenly shaking with the intense realisation of what happened. Conscious of my nakedness, I draw my legs close to me and I try to bring my arms across my body before I'm reminded of the shackles, feeling the soreness of my wrists from where the metal binds have dug grooves into my skin.

Then I become aware of the fierce ache between my legs and my face warms in the silence as I realise how loudly I screamed.

Mercer takes his time pulling his trousers back on, his gaze flicking over to me as he fastens the ties loosely. The laughter in his dark eyes as he surveys my flushed naked body makes my skin crawl. 'So does the little bird want to go free now, or does she want more?'

Fury burns ferociously in my stomach at the sarcastic satisfied tone of his voice. For a moment, I don't think I can make words, my throat sore with my screams and the hard thrusts of his cock. 'Get the key,' I manage to say sharply, moving my arms against the shackles.

Mercer laughs. 'You sound frustrated, Wren,' he says, his eyes gleaming with amusement. 'Your wet little cunt need another seeing to already?'

'Give me the fucking key,' I snap, my body burning with both the remnants of desire and an intense anger at myself for having felt that desire in the first place.

He laughs again before he goes to his desk and opens one of the drawers, pulling out a small silver key on a chain. When he comes over to the bed and reaches out to me, I recoil instinctively, not wanting his hands anywhere near me now, but Mercer grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me back to him sharply before slipping the chain over my head and around my neck, letting the key hang between my breasts. The metal is cool against my flushed skin.

When he moves away, I realise he doesn't mean to unlock the cuffs himself. I feel another rush of anger before I lean my head down to my breasts and take the chain in my mouth, pulling it with my teeth until I bite down on the key. I straighten up and turn my head, dropping the key over my shoulder so that it hangs down my back, all the while conscious of Mercer's amused gaze as he watches my efforts from where he leans against his desk. Feeling another flicker of fury that he is enjoying my struggle when he could so easily just unlock the cuffs himself, I manage to twist my bound hands upwards behind my back and reach the key at it hangs at my shoulder blades. I gasp with the pain as I yank the key free, the chain digging into my throat before the clasp gives way, and I waste no time in finding the lock on the shackles and finally releasing my wrists from their binds.

My intense moan of relief as I finally move my aching arms forward elicits another laugh from Mercer.

'For such a small thing, you like to make a lot of noise,' he says. 'You're really in the wrong profession, you know that? You're a shit thief and assassin but you'd make a great whore.'

I ignore him as I stand up from the bed, my legs unsteady as I locate my smallclothes and trousers on the floor and start to dress. As I fasten my trousers, I feel the soreness at my hips and see red marks forming on my skin from Mercer's grip, and I pull on my boots quickly, trying not to think about how easily I let him take all my clothes off, how my skin begged for the touch of his hands, how every part of me wanted him.

'So are you going to tell me who your mark is and what you were looking for in here?' Mercer says lazily as I fasten up my jacket, hiding the torn state of my binding and shirt. 'Or do I really have to fuck the information out of you?'

'No,' I snap, starting to pick up my things he emptied from my pockets.

'Are you sure you don't want to rethink that answer? If you tell me the target and what information you were hoping to find, I could be persuaded to help you, Wren.'

As I replace the Blade of Justice at my thigh, I don't hesitate in my answer. Trusting Mercer Frey with my plans would be the very last resort; his association with Astrid aside, I know that he wouldn't offer his help without wanting something else in return, and I suspect that he's not the sort of man to consider bedding a woman as worthy payment for his aid - what I would have to give in return would go beyond spreading my legs for him. And that's never going to happen again, anyway, I think, not sure how I even let it happen in the first place, when I can think of nothing worse than submitting to the Guildmaster, or any man like him.

'Did you ever consider that the mark might be you?' I say pointedly as I turn to look at him.

Mercer snorts with laughter. 'If you're the new standard of Brotherhood assassin, I think I'll be fine.' His dark gaze flickers over my body slowly, and though I am now clothed, I still feel stripped and bound on the bed beneath him. 'And you know that if you ever tried to kill me, I'd do worse than bind your wings and give you the good hard fuck you're begging for, little bird,' he says, inclining his head, his voice quiet and low. 'I'd make sure you never flew again.'

I stare at him, not doubting him for a second. 'Then maybe I should just fly away from here for good while I can,' I say, thinking I should have done it before, realising how stupid I was to break into his room.

'And make your nest with the Dark Brotherhood?' Mercer scoffs and leans back against his desk. 'You're not a killer. You're barely even a thief. You're just a scared little girl playing in worlds too big and dark for her.'

'I'm not playing,' I tell him coldly, before I realise I didn't deny the scared part.

Mercer's expression tells me what he thinks of that. He folds his arms over his still-bare chest. 'Fly away then. You're easy enough to replace. The coin you've brought in has been small change and your skills are average at best.'

I fold my arms too, wanting a triumph over him, feeling as if I am still chained and at his mercy. 'I got through your door, though,' I point out mockingly.

His smile vanishes and his expression turns to ice. 'And I got through yours,' he says. 'Which was the greater challenge?'

He doesn't need an answer as my cheeks flush violently while I think of all my broken lockpicks and how quickly I let him rip my clothes from my body.

Smirking, Mercer pushes away from his desk and goes to the door, taking the key from his pocket and unlocking the door before turning back to me. 'Now fuck off,' he says. 'I'm not going to indulge you a second time tonight and you won't like what I have in mind for you if you stay.'

I heed his dismissal. I stalk past him and out from the room, my blood boiling with no hint of desire now. Just fury at my own stupidity, I think as I slam the Guildmaster's door shut behind me, before the rational part of my mind reminds me that it's probably not the best idea. I hear the echoes of the slamming door in the depths of the Cistern, for a moment louder than the rushing water. As loud as I screamed for him? I wonder, feeling my face flush brighter with the memory.

I walk quickly back to the main area of the Cistern, wanting to curl up in my bed and let sleep erase what happened, but my irritation rises higher as I find Thrynn just around the corner in the kitchen. He is mercifully alone, yet the way the ex-bandit grins knowingly at me tells me this isn't going to be a pleasant encounter.

'Well, this is... interesting.' Thrynn eyes me up and down, taking in my flushed appearance. 'So that was you screaming in Mercer's room, was it?'

'Fuck off,' I tell him, to his husky laughter.

'Gods, it was!' He makes a low whistle. 'The new bird and the Guildmaster.'

'You tell anyone and you'll have Mercer to answer to,' I say fiercely, as if Mercer would even care.

The threat works, however, as Thrynn folds his arms with a scowl. 'Fine. Doubt the others would believe me, anyway.' His scowl turns back into a grin. 'So I take it you're not opposed to warming our beds around here? Fancy getting in mine now?'

'Go fuck yourself,' I say before I walk around him and head to my bed, hearing his laughter follow me across the Cistern.

Back in my own bed, I barely sleep all night. Despite my determination to forget what happened, it proves impossible to ignore the keen ache between my legs, serving as an unavoidable reminder of what transpired in the Guildmaster's room, though I scarcely believe it. I scarcely believe it of myself, I think, wondering what possessed me to let it happen, what part of me wanted it to happen.

I know what part of me, I think, feeling my cheeks flush even as I huddle in the darkness beneath the covers, and I quickly stop my thoughts there, not wanting to think about it anymore.

I curl up close to the wall and bring my knees to my chest, knowing I will not sleep, knowing I will not forget, instead simply resolving to stay as far away as I can from Mercer Frey from this moment forward. Delvin can give me work, and with enough persuasion and drink, just maybe he'll give me the way to find Astrid too, I think, and with that settled in my mind, I realise that I have no need to be anywhere near the Guildmaster again.

Much less naked and begging for him.

Chapter Text

I get up early and head above ground before anyone else is awake. Chilly dawn mists hang in the graveyard and I draw my arms around my body as I walk between the grassy mounds, looking for a clump of fresh nightshade. It doesn't kill you when it's newly flowered, I suddenly hear Grelod's voice in my head, remembering her scowl when I would shy away from the smell of the bitter concoction, the weak yet vile blend of nightshade and ground raspberry leaves that would linger in my throat for hours. It just kills the little gutter rats you'll bring into this world if you don't drink.

Trying to push the memory aside, I pluck a few sprigs of nightshade before stuffing them into a pocket and returning to the Cistern, my heart feeling tight in my chest. At Honorhall, there was normally no need for such precautions; the girls tended not to stay too long once they became women, but there were times when Grelod would need to give the older girls the tea, to prevent any more unwanted children filling the orphanage's walls.

For a moment, I try to imagine Mercer Frey as a father, and the resulting image is both so terrifying and disconcerting that I have to quickly erase it from my mind. Like everything that happened last night, I think, still feeling the keen ache between my legs, wondering how I ever could have found being touched by the Guildmaster pleasurable. I didn't, I tell myself firmly, hoping that if I think it enough, it'll become true and I'll manage to forget how I screamed for him.

To my relief, none of my fellow guildmembers rise from their beds and interrupt me as I brew the tea in the Cistern kitchen. As I bring the cup to my lips, the scent of the nightshade chokes me, making me suddenly think of Astrid and the night she left the flowers on my parents' corpses; I quickly force the tea down to drown the memories. It makes my tongue curl, nausea rising fast in my stomach, and for a moment I panic that I have made it too strong. I shut my eyes tight as a bitter roll of sickness passes through me before my heart rate slowly returns to normal and the feeling starts to pass, leaving me with an acrid tang in my mouth and a strange hollow feeling inside, not in my stomach, but in my heart.

If there's ever a reason not to go anywhere near Mercer Frey again, this is it, I think, as I swallow some water to try to wash away the taste. With no intention to hang around the Cistern all day and deciding a cup of wine might help the bitter taste on my tongue, I head to the Flagon, planning to wait for Delvin to make an appearance and give me something to do, preferably as far away from the Guildmaster as possible.

In the tavern, Vex makes an appearance before the old thief, to my disappointment. Work is work, though, I remind myself, and I wait for her to settle down at a table in the corner with a couple of dossiers before finishing up my drink and going over to her.

'Got any work going?' I ask, standing by the table as she reads her files.

Her eyes flicker over me with the familiar icy glare she seems to reserve specially for me these days. 'Can't you bother someone else?' she says with a sigh.

I blink in surprise at her tone. 'Well, I was going to bother Delvin,' I say lightly, 'but you showed up first.'

She doesn't find it funny. 'Lucky me,' she says. 'Fine, if it'll get you out of my face.' She reaches into one of her pockets and hands me a slip of paper. 'A new store we're intending to familiarise ourselves with. Clear out the safe for me. I'll have the gold, but seeing as Bryn's not here, Mercer will want the documents himself.'

'You don't have anything else?' I ask, my stomach sinking at the thought of having to deal with Mercer.

Vex raises an eyebrow. 'Too good for this, are you?' she says sarcastically. 'If you don't like it, maybe think about another profession you're more suited to. Though I don't think you'll make much gold from whining.'

'Fine, I'll take the job,' I say, irritation starting to rise in me, bitter as the taste of nightshade, not sure why the blonde-haired thief even has a problem with me. 'Dare I ask what's my cut of the gold, or is that considered whining too?'

She scowls at my tone. 'How about I don't cut your throat for asking stupid questions?' she says. 'Go do your job and you'll get paid. Now, are we done?'

The blonde looks back down at her work and I consider myself dismissed; I leave quickly, even less inclined to hang around the Flagon or the Cistern now. Brynjolf, Sapphire, Mercer, Vex... I start to wonder if I'll end up trying to avoid half the Guild.

I spend the day in the district to the north of the marketplace, lingering in streets near the store written down on Vex's scrap of paper, waiting for the proprietor to close up for the day. As I wait, I busy myself with a little shopping, where I can; with the guard patrols and the brightness of the day, there are far too many eyes and too much light for me to feel at ease, but I manage to break into a couple of houses and pocket a few necklaces and rings before dusk falls and I can turn my attentions to my actual work at hand. Though if Vex has any say in it, I'll probably have made more coin off robbing these houses than what she'll pay me for her job.

From the gathering shadows of a nearby alleyway, I watch the owner lock up his store and disappear down the adjacent street. I give him a few minutes in case he returns, not intending to ever be caught having broken into a man's private property again, and then I wait a little longer, letting the shadows darken the street as I watch a couple of guards walk past in the opposite direction, before finally I pull out my lockpicks again and get to work.

Ten minutes later, my pockets weighed down with the stolen coin and a small fold of papers in my pocket, I slip out a window at the side of the store and breathe in the night air for a moment before hurrying back in the direction of the Guild, satisfaction chasing through me at how easy the job was. When I pass through the marketplace, carefully avoiding the people milling around the Bee and Barb, I suddenly think of the night I joined the Guild, that night when I first made coin from thievery. And the night I met Brynjolf, I think as, not for the first time since he left, I start to wonder where he is at this moment, whether he reached Solitude safely, and if he is there, how many pockets he has picked in the city so far. And how many times he has fucked Sapphire, I think, and before I can stop myself, I wonder if he does to her what Mercer did to me last night, whether the thief's silver tongue is as skilled between a woman's legs as it is at charming their hearts. Though I try to stop the thought, I wonder how it would feel to have him part my legs and kiss me there. No wonder Sapphire moaned like that.

By the time I get back to the Guild, my stomach is tied up in jealous knots and I am in a dark mood. I intend to go to Flagon turn in Vex's job and spend the rest of the evening plying Delvin with drinks and flattery in the hope that he will let something slip about Astrid, but when I enter the Cistern, I look across to find Mercer at his desk and everything falls from my mind.

He didn't even have to try, I think furiously, recalling my body's unexpected and eager reaction to him. Wetter than a fucking ocean. My skin flushes with humiliation as I stand there looking at him, suddenly picturing the taut and scarred body beneath the armour, remembering the strength of his grip on my hips, the feeling of him at the back of my throat and deep inside me, even as I desperately try to force it from my mind.

Mentally cursing myself for ever going into his room last night, I start towards the door to the Flagon, deciding to give the stolen papers to Vex along with the gold and just pretend I couldn't find the Guildmaster, but I'm not even anywhere near the door when I hear his voice across the Cistern.

'Wren,' he calls. 'Over here, now.'

The sound of his voice sends another hot wave of anger through me, the command grating at me, and I wonder how I ever could've obeyed him so willingly last night. More than obeyed, I remember with another rush of humiliation. I begged.

At my hesitation, Mercer calls me over again, his tone sharper, and I realise I might as well get the inevitable over with sooner rather than later. Reluctantly I turn around and head over to his desk, folding my arms across my body, feeling like every step towards him strips me of an item of clothing, until I come to stand before him and feel as naked and flushed as I did last night.

I wait for the inevitable comments, the smug smile at his victory and my weakness, but Mercer's attention remains focused on the gold, his slender fingers stacking the coins too fast for me to count.

'What do you want?' I say eventually, every passing second making my body more on edge.

Mercer looks up finally, though I wish he hadn't. His gaze moves lazily over my body, lingering between my legs and at my breasts, as if my clothes are indeed invisible. He knows what's beneath them now, I remind myself, knowing that in his mind I can be as good as naked whenever he chooses. The thought that I have no say in the matter makes a strange combination of anger and unease ripple through my stomach, although I know the feeling is directed at myself just as much as it is towards Mercer. I let him, I remember. I begged for it. I wanted it.

As if he hears my thoughts, the Guildmaster smirks and turns his gaze back down to his coins. 'Did you not listen to me when I said you look better featherless?' he says mildly.

I ignore him, feeling my cheeks start to flush. 'Here.' I drop the stolen documents on a free space of his desk, resisting the urge to knock over all his stacks of coin. 'Vex said you'd want these.'

Mercer unfolds the papers, his dark eyes scanning over them briefly before he throws them to the edge of his desk. 'And the gold?' he asks.

'Vex told me to give it to her,' I answer.

'And I'm telling you to give it to me,' he says slowly, as if I am stupid.

I don't hesitate or try to argue, instead quickly pulling out the gold and leaving the bags on his desk too. Let Vex take it up with Mercer if she's got a problem, I think, feeling my mood brighten marginally at the thought of the blonde thief being yelled at by the Guildmaster. Though who knows whether I'll ever see my cut of the gold now. I decide the coin is the least of my concerns, conscious that the primary one is staying as far away from Mercer as I can.

'Are we done, then?' I say, my voice brisk.

'Not quite, little bird.' Mercer reaches down to one of the drawers of his desk and withdraws a scrap of parchment and a sizeable coin purse. 'A letter for you, and payment.' He holds them out to me, one in each hand.

I don't take either. 'Payment for what?' I ask cautiously, afraid that taking the gold will mean acceptance of some service he expects me to perform. A whore with half a mind, I think, remembering that was what Mercer thought of me when we first met.

The Guildmaster evidently knows what I'm thinking. 'It's not from me, Wren,' he says with a snort of laughter. 'Enjoyable as it was, your little cunt isn't worth this much coin. And why would I pay for what you'll give for free?' He smirks as my face flushes red. 'So how about you just read the note and find out who it's from?'

Furious, I go to take the purse and the letter, but Mercer holds back the gold.

'I just said to read it first,' he says. 'Or did I fuck you so hard last night you can't even follow simple instructions now?'

Frustration rising in me fast, I snatch the note from him and unfold it, quickly reading the three words written there. Nelia, Mara's temple. The hand is unfamiliar, so I know it's not a job request from Vex or Delvin, and the writing is unlike the tight scrawl I recall seeing in Mercer's documents, so I know for certain that it's not from him. I try to think who else might write to me, but only one name comes to mind.

Astrid.

The realisation that this is my next contract sends a chill through my body, promptly chasing away the hot and furious humiliation left in me by Mercer's comments. I turn the paper over desperately, hoping for some other message, but the paper is blank save for those three words; the name and the place of a person who she wants me to kill. There is no mention of the Dunmer, though I'm sure Astrid must know I killed him as she demanded. So why hasn't she come to find me? Or invited me to the Sanctuary? The thought that I murdered the dark elf and yet am still no closer to Astrid douses me in ice, as I wonder how many people I will have to kill before I get to her. If I ever do.

I feel Mercer's gaze and I quickly screw the paper up and shove it into my pocket. 'Give me the gold,' I say shortly, wanting to leave, my mind reeling with Astrid's letter and finding myself entirely unable to deal with being in Mercer's presence too.

The Guildmaster only raises an eyebrow, my coin purse still in his hand. 'Ask nicely, little bird,' he says, a smile curling his mouth. 'I know you know how to beg.'

I glare at him, knowing that trying to grab the purse from him would be pointless, but resolved never to beg him for anything again.

'How about please?' Mercer suggests mockingly, echoing my desperate words of the previous night. 'Please, please?'

'Just give me my gold,' I snap, trying not to recall my cries of pleasure along with my pleas for him to continue.

Mercer laughs. 'Gods, you're really only fun when you're naked, aren't you?' He sighs and holds out the coin purse. 'Fly away, then.'

I reach out for the gold but before I can take it, his other hand grabs my wrist tight. The feeling of his hand on my skin sends an uncomfortable jolt to my stomach, and suddenly I wonder how I let him touch every bare inch of me.

'But don't fly far,' he says quietly. 'I've got work for you later tonight.'

I feel a shiver of unease pass down my back. 'What?' I ask warily, never having been given work directly from the Guildmaster.

'You'll find out.' Mercer lets go of my wrist and finally pushes the coin purse into my hand. 'And don't look so fucking grim. You enjoyed yourself the last time I put you to task.' He smirks as I feel my face flush with the memory, and his eyes flicker once over my body before he looks back down and starts counting coins again. 'The graveyard in an hour. If you're late, you'll have to beg a lot better than you did last night.'

I leave his desk, humiliation warming my blood. I knew it would be like this, I remind myself as I put Astrid's payment in the chest under my bed and hurry towards the Flagon. Of course he wasn't going to just pretend like last night didn't happen. By now, I am well aware of the Guildmaster's enjoyment in my discomfort. And I seem to play right into his hands, I think, but that thought leads me to thinking of Mercer's hands, and just how it felt to have them on me last night, and then suddenly my body is so torn by desire and furious hatred that I slam the Flagon door behind me hard enough to nearly bring it off its hinges.

My bad mood isn't helped when I find the Flagon crowded this evening. Being small proves an advantage as I slip mostly unharassed between the bodies and noise, dodging a badly thrown glass as a group of Argonians get in a fight over skooma, yet despite my small size it still takes a long time to make my way through the tavern and over to the far corner where Tonilia sits with her wares. Once we've handled business and I've traded my stolen jewellery for lockpicks and coin, I head to the bar and spend the remainder of the hour buying drinks for Delvin, trying to loosen up his tongue and convince him to share what he knows about Astrid. Even drunk, the old thief is not so easily manipulated. Beyond the fact that he fences for her, and that they were apparently intimately involved at one point, Delvin gives me little else, except that the last time he went to the Sanctuary to see her, the smell of the pines in the rain made him nauseous.

And there are thousands of fucking pine trees in Skyrim, I think in irritation as I realise my hour is up and I have to admit defeat. This was just another stupid idea of mine. I leave Delvin at the bar and reluctantly set off back towards the Cistern door, my frustration and despair rising at the thought that I may never see Astrid again, no matter how many contracts I complete or how drunk I get Delvin. I think of the note in my pocket, the next name, the next flesh and blood to tear and spill. Will ending their life even bring me any closer to Astrid?

Wracked with a sudden sense of hopelessness, I try my best to push aside the thought of my quest for revenge, knowing that the last thing I need tonight is for my mind to be distracted whilst in the vicinity of Mercer Frey. Not for the first time this hour, I consider refusing his command, wondering what would the worst the Guildmaster could do if I disobeyed him.

My despair regarding Astrid gets overwhelmed by an unmistakable fear when I find I cannot answer that question. He was clear enough that he'd kill me if I broke into his room again, I remember, feeling my heart skip nervously just as it did last night when he made the threat, believing without a doubt that his words were genuine. And that he'd find a more inventive way to kill me than cutting my throat. Without further hesitation, my feet take me out of the Cistern and I hurry down the passageway towards the graveyard ladder, reassuring myself that at least now I will be on my guard to prevent a repeat of last night. I'll just never turn my back to him and give him a chance to bind my arms, I promise myself as I start to climb the ladder, not letting my mind dwell on the fact that Mercer could have unchained me halfway through and I still would've begged him to continue.

 

*

 

I emerge from the tomb cautiously, looking around the graveyard for the Guildmaster. The night is murky and rainclouds hang low in the sky, casting everything into heavy darkness. My eyes still fairly slow to adjust to the dark, I stay near the tomb and look around nervously, straining my gaze to find Mercer, and eventually I make out a shadowy figure at the far edge of the graveyard, standing near to the fresher mounds. For a moment, the wild thought enters my mind that Grelod had risen from her grave and my heart stops beating for a second, my hand racing instinctively to my dagger, ready to cut her throat again.

When the shadow starts walking towards me, it soon becomes familiar, and I exhale quietly in relief to see that the figure is Mercer, not Grelod, stepping out of the darkness and coming to stand before me.

Nonetheless, I keep my hand on my dagger.

The Guildmaster notices, and through the shadows I see his amused smile. 'Don't tell me you're actually that stupid,' he says languidly. 'I thought you had at least part of a brain in that pretty little head of yours.'

Flushing with anger, I take my hand from the Blade of Justice and fold my arms. 'What are we doing?' I say, and though I try to make my tone sharp, I hear the unease creep into my voice.

'What do you think?' Mercer snorts with laughter. 'Gods, it's like you're still a bloody new recruit. I've got a job to run, obviously. Try to keep up.'

'I didn't know you even did jobs,' I mutter as he sets off through the graveyard and I hurry to follow him, glad at least that the excursion he is taking me on is related to the Guild.

Mercer laughs. 'Not very observant, are you?' he says sarcastically. 'You're lucky you're easy on the eyes. Do you think I just sit around the Flagon getting drunk all the time like the rest of you layabouts?'

I resist the urge to bite back, though I'd like to point out to him the sizeable quantity of gold I've accumulated in the chest beneath my bed, and the fact that it's a rare occasion to see more than a couple guildmembers in the Ragged Flagon at a time.

'What is this job, then?' I say instead.

'Something beyond your concern, so quit asking questions,' Mercer says, impatience clipping his tone. 'Maven doesn't trust this to anyone else in the Guild, and I'm starting to doubt whether you have the mental capacity to even understand these things, anyway.'

Again, I have to stop myself from rising to his words. 'And you couldn't do this job on your own?' I let the sarcasm cut into my voice, hoping it hides my fear about not knowing why the hell I am here with him.

'I want to see your skills in action,' he says. 'All I've heard is how good a lock pick you are. It's about time I saw for myself. Although judging by your efforts to break out of those shackles last night, I don't think I'll be impressed. Maybe you'll do better when you're not chained and dripping wet?'

I feel a flush of anger and refuse to answer, which makes Mercer laugh.

'Yes, you're more agreeable when you don't talk,' he says. 'You open your mouth when I tell you to and tonight will go far easier on the both of us.'

I'm inclined to agree and simply not open my mouth at all. I keep my arms folded across my body and follow him in silence, and thankfully Mercer doesn't talk to me again as he leads the way to the heart of the city.

The Guildmaster walks fast and I have to hurry to keep up with his long strides. He moves through the shadows quickly, little more than a shadow himself, and I quickly realise he knows more secret ways around Riften than I ever could; we make it to the centre of the city in record time, due to a few hidden shortcuts that I know I'll never remember. Mercer heads south of the market, towards Mistveil Keep, before turning down a stone paved street into a brightly lit residential area.

The place is peaceful and still, a stark contrast to the thronging noise or eerie silence found elsewhere in Riften; no whores walk the street, nor any other sellers trying to shift their wares; instead, we pass by three guards, their steel sparkling clean in the torchlight. My feet falter slightly and my body tenses, now an instinctive reaction to the presence of the law, yet Mercer seems unconcerned as he continues down the street. I look around nervously, spotting another cluster of guards further along, and I soon understand why the neighbourhood is so heavily patrolled - fronted by ornate plaza courtyards, the houses that line the wide street are grand three-storey structures of a deep red timber, with windows paned with colourful stained glass and I realise that this is the place where Riften's rich and powerful live. And clearly the place where I should do my shopping, I think, wondering how much gold I could make from robbing just one of these houses. Or just one room.

Wondering if that is indeed Mercer's intent and feeling slightly more enthusiastic about accompanying him if that is the case, I follow him along the street before he cuts down a narrow walkway between two houses, one spilling warm rainbow lights through its windows, the other house dark and apparently empty. The path leads to the back of the houses and a series of gated gardens; as Mercer unlocks the gate leading to the unlit house, a myriad of scents work their way through the still night air to me, flowers and fruits that I did not know could grow in a place such as Riften. I breathe in eagerly, for a moment remembering a time when I did not live in a city, when my home was a little house beside a waterfall, where the roof leaked and the rain came through. From one of the gardens, I hear the soft musical tinkling of water falling from a fountain, the sound catching something in my heart for a fragile moment.

Mercer's voice brings me back to reality. 'Sometime tonight would be best,' he says sarcastically as he waits for me inside the garden. 'And shut that gate behind you.'

I was meant to not let myself get distracted, I remember, and so I do as requested and follow Mercer through the garden to the back door of the house, shaking my head to rid myself of my thoughts.

At the door, Mercer turns to me. 'Unlock it,' he orders.

Although I resent giving him the satisfaction of my obedience, I pull my lockpicks from my pocket, finding myself more than willing to prove my skills to him. I have to drop to my knees to manage the lock and I quickly realise that the design is far more complex than I anticipated. But nothing is as hard as the one on Mercer's door, I remind myself, the thought steadying my hand, and after only a minute I hear the satisfying quiet click of the lock giving way.

Mercer scoffs but says nothing, which I take to mean he's not disappointed. I feel a strange thrill of triumph as he pushes open the door and I follow him into the empty dark house, resisting the urge to remind him how I unlocked his door last night too and that maybe I'm not as useless a thief as he thinks. But we both know I was easier than the lock, I think, and my small victory vanishes beneath my flush of humiliation.

Inside the house, the scent of lilies and lavender lingers from the garden, interspersed with the keen spice of juniper berries and wine. The ceilings are high and even in the dark of night I can see the expensive furnishings, the exquisite fabrics, the trinkets and treasures that draw my gaze. As I follow Mercer through the hallway and up a wide grand staircase to the first floor, I start to imagine the gold I would make from stripping this place bare. I could live off the profits for the rest of my life, I think longingly, hoping that I will get a cut of whatever coin Mercer will make tonight.

The Guildmaster leads the way up another flight of stairs to the top floor and at the end of the hall he pushes open the door into what appears to be a study. Bookshelves line the walls of the small room and a neatly ordered desk stands before another stained glass window. I've barely looked around the room before I hear a soft scraping sound as Mercer locates a hidden safe behind a bookshelf on the left hand side, and I realise that either he's broken in here before or Delvin was right and Mercer's instincts are far beyond what I expected.

'What are you looking for?' I ask as he pulls what appears to be a key from his pocket, although in the dim street light through the window, I can barely make out the small metal object in his hand before he turns his back to me and I hear the click of the safe unlocking.

'Leverage,' Mercer answers as he opens the safe and starts rifling through the papers and items within. 'Maven is being double-crossed in a deal with one of her business partners. Now shut the fuck up.'

I fold my arms, more than happy not to talk to him anymore. I look around the study, my eyes falling on more than one valuable object, noting the ornately bound books on the shelves and the oil painting of Lake Honrich on one of the walls. I go over to the desk and find a paperweight of what appears to be glacial crystal; when I pick it up, the faint coloured light through the window sends rainbows off the clear surface of the paperweight.

'Can I steal stuff, then?' I ask Mercer, but he ignores me, which I interpret to mean that I can't. What the fuck am I even here for, then? I want to ask irritably as I put the weight back on the desk, afraid of the answer to my question.

'Son of a bitch,' Mercer mutters a few moments later. He is scanning over some papers, though how he can read them in this dim light I have no idea. 'What a stupid fucking bastard.'

I leave him to it and go over to a bookshelf, trying to read the spines. Both my eyesight and my instincts are clearly not as good as the Guildmaster's, and I hear the noise downstairs a few moments later than Mercer does. When he swears under his breath again and he goes over to lock the study door, I'm about to question him until I suddenly hear it too; footsteps far below, the creak of a door opening, faint laughter and voices.

Panic rises in me when I realise the owners of the house have returned. As I hear Mercer turn a key in the lock of the door, I hurry to the window in naive hope of escaping that way, but quickly I realise that not only is the jump is two floors high, but the panes are fixed fast and smashing them open would alert the two guards I see on the street right below.

I look back at Mercer but he doesn't seem too bothered by the fact that we might get caught breaking and entering. He returns to the safe and pulls a few more sheets of paper from inside.

'What now?' I breathe, hearing the distant creaking of footsteps on the first flight of stairs. 'What if they find us?'

Mercer snorts quietly at the fear in my voice and he closes the safe. 'You're supposedly the assassin. Don't you fancy getting your blade wet?'

'You'd really kill them?' I think for a moment, trying to calm my panic. 'But surely we can't. If Maven wanted them dead, she wouldn't have asked you to find leverage. She would've asked you to kill them.' Or contracted one of the Brotherhood and maybe I would've had to kill them myself, I think.

'Clever girl.' Mercer turns around and his gaze trawls over my body, his eyes seeming darker in the dim coloured light. 'Then if not your blade, let's see if we can get something else wet.'

I glare at him, my neck suddenly hot as I realise what he's suggesting. 'You're serious?'

'We've got to do something to kill time until they go to bed and we can get the hell out of here.' He pockets the documents and his hands go to his trousers, loosening the ties there. 'You can start by getting on your knees and then we'll see what you've earned in return.'

'Fuck off, Mercer,' I hiss, folding my arms as my heart starting beating faster. 'You really think I'm going to let you touch me again?

'Let me?' Mercer laughs quietly at my words. 'Wren, we both know you were begging for it and I was generous enough to oblige you.'

'You started it,' I snap, furious at myself for ever giving in to him. I lower my voice back to a whisper, conscious of the noises below. 'You were the one that tore my clothes off me. If you don't remember, I was chained and couldn't do anything to stop you.'

'And pleading for me to keep going didn't work, did it?' Even at a murmur, the sarcasm drips from him voice. 'It's all right if you have to play the victim to get yourself off. I enjoy it well enough.' Mercer leaves the ties of his trousers half undone and steps towards me. 'You need me to get you started again? Fine, but don't expect me to make a habit of it, you've got to earn it next time.'

As his hands reach for me, I back away but find myself up against a bookshelf, the feeling of being trapped by him uncomfortably familiar. 'Next time?' I repeat. 'There isn't going to be a this time, so just fuck off-'

I slap back his hands when he goes for my trousers again, the sound startling me with its loudness, and I have to fight back an equally loud gasp as Mercer grabs my wrists tight.

'If you want it rough, you know you can have it rough,' he says in a low voice, and I'm forced to remember just how rough he gave it last night. How rough I wanted it.

'I don't want it all, you bastard,' I hiss, forcing the thought from my mind as I try to free my hands from his, but the bruises on my hips attest to the strength of his hold and I already know I'm not going anywhere.

'Oh really?' Mercer smirks. 'So if I stick my hand down your trousers right now, I won't find you hot and wet for me?'

'Trust me, you won't,' I say icily, although at his words I suddenly recall just how hot my body burned for him and how the efforts of his quick relentless tongue at my core left me wet and longing for him. I try to crush it down but the memory flushes me with heat once more, though I can barely tell if it is humiliation or desire that warms my body.

Mercer's snort of laughter tells me what he thinks of my words. 'Lets see, shall we?'

Swiftly he brings both my hands up above my head and against the bookshelf, pinning my wrists there easily with one strong hand while his other hand goes down to my trousers.

'I don't really care what you think you want.' His fingers rip loose the ties of my trousers. 'I know what you want, little bird, whether you like it or not. If I don't find you wet I'll step down from the Guild and become a priest at the fucking Temple of Mara.'

'You-' I start, but before I can even form an insult or Mercer's hand can find its way beneath the material, I hear a faint moan from the room directly under us and I realise the creaking floorboards have turned into what I can only assume is a creaking bed frame. Warmth rises in my cheeks as I distantly hear their pleasure, even though I know I have little reason to feel embarrassed, considering Mercer has heard me making far more noise than what I can hear from the room below.

Mercer laughs softly. 'I'll make you come before they do,' he says as his hand pulls the material of my trousers away from my skin. 'And as hard as you did the last time.'

In that moment, I know I can't let him touch me, I can't let him win, I can't let him find out that he is right and my body wants him in spite of my determination never to be touched by him again. I struggle to get out of his hold, but Mercer's arm is like steel and his grip around my wrists unyielding, so I do what I can and pull up one of my knees to my thigh, stopping his hand from getting between my legs.

'Please-' I try, but he shoves my leg back easily, my limbs weakening as quickly as my resolve.

'Shh, you don't have to beg yet, little bird,' he says softly, leaning closer to me. 'I'm going to make you come regardless. You want that, don't you?'

Before I can even think of a reply, his hand slips down beneath my trousers and smallclothes. My breath catches sharply at the same moment Mercer exhales a smug laugh.

'Look who was right,' he murmurs, his fingers slick as they explore me for the second time. 'At least your pretty little cunt knows what's good for it.'

'Enough,' I hiss, trying to free my hands so I could push him away, trying to ignore the fact that my body grows hotter with his touch and the way my hips seem to rise to meet his hand.

'Enough?' He inclines his head as his fingers slowly start circling my clit, the sore ache between my legs from his brutal efforts last night turning quickly into pleasure. His gaze burns into mine as I desperately try not to react, even as my legs instinctively part a little to accommodate his hand. 'Are you sure about that? You never want me to do this again?'

Knowing I cannot argue my body's response to him, all I can do is struggle to get my arms out of his hold. At my feeble attempt to get away, Mercer tightens his grip at my wrists above my head and his slow touch between my legs abruptly grows harsher, his fingers making hard fast strokes over my clit, and I have to quickly bite back a gasp of pleasure at the increased pressure.

'I told you we can play rough, but somehow I don't think you'll be able to keep quiet if we do,' Mercer says, watching me with amusement, not relenting in his touch. 'Now answer me. You don't want me to do this again?'

'No, I don't-' I start, but a quiet hitched moan escapes me before the words fully leave my mouth and fierce pleasure courses deep through my lower stomach. Between my legs I feel his fingers slide wet in my desire.

Mercer makes a satisfied laugh in his throat. 'That didn't take long, did it? Now shut that mouth of yours and be quiet.'

He releases his hold on my wrists above my head and pulls my trousers and smallclothes halfway down my thighs to let his fingers move unrestricted. The material bunches over the Blade of Justice strapped to my thigh and I remember distantly that I had intended to use it against the Guildmaster to prevent a repeat of last night. Now free from his hold, I put my hands on his chest, thinking to push him away, to stop him, to stop this, but my hands only clutch uselessly at the pockets of his armour as his fingers continue to work me roughly, my wrists aching from his hold and pleasure swiftly building in me before I can fully comprehend it.

Somewhere in my mind I wonder why the hell I am letting this happen again, but the thought disappears, or I push it aside, or in that moment I just don't care. One of my hands goes to Mercer's arm, feeling the muscles working there as his fingers move skilfully between my legs. My grip tightens on his forearm, holding him in place as my hips press forward against his hand, wanting to feel more, wanting it harder in every sense.

'You're lucky you're a good tight fuck else I'd never put up with you being so damn needy,' Mercer mutters, as his free hand reaches behind me and grabs my ass, pulling me forward hard as his fingers push just as hard against me.

The pressure makes my body thrum with pleasure and my hips rock violently with the motion of his fingers, another fractured moan soon escaping me before I remember I'm supposed to be quiet.

I hear Mercer swear under his breath before he crowds me against the bookshelf, shoving his shoulder against my mouth, one of the buckles of his armour scraping my cheek. 'Bite down,' he says. 'You make any more noise and you'll regret it.'

My mouth opens and I bite obediently at his shoulder, wetting the material of his jacket with my saliva as I try to contain my moans. My mouth fills with the taste of leather and the bitter tang of metal; the buckle is ice cold against the heat of my tongue.

'Now come for me,' Mercer says in my ear. 'You know you want to.'

His fingers make the same demand and I can't help myself from obeying; a few moments later I bite down deep as the pleasure crashes over me abruptly in waves that I ride out hard and wet against his hand, the feeling quicker and fiercer than last night. I gasp into his shoulder as my thighs tighten to try to hold on to the feeling, to make it last longer, until all the tension suddenly leaves my muscles and I can only clutch weakly at Mercer's body to keep myself upright.

'Aren't you so desperate to finish,' Mercer mutters with a laugh as I try to catch my breath. 'Such an impatient wet little bird.'

He takes his hand from me, wiping his fingers on my smallclothes before putting both his hands on my shoulders. 'On your knees,' he says. 'This'll keep that mouth of yours quiet.'

My body dazed and limp from the release, I drop to my knees before him, and when he pushes down his trousers I open my mouth obediently for his cock, relieved that at least this time I have my hands free.

It doesn't make much difference. Both his hands knot tight in my hair and he jerks my head forward until I feel his width filling my throat. He holds himself there for a few moments as once again my reflexes try to resist; my breathing still not recovered, I feel my pulse thudding desperately as I struggle for air through my nose, my throat gagging at the pressure. Mercer starts moving my head back and forth, my lips sliding along his length, before he suddenly pushes himself deeper at the same time as he jerks me towards him sharply. Before I can get used to it, he repeats the motion, and again; my mouth full of him, I barely hear my stifled whine of discomfort.

I grasp weakly at his hips and I try to suck down on his cock like before, wanting to bring him to his pleasure quickly, but the rough pace at which he moves my head to build his satisfaction starts to hurt and I can only concentrate on keeping my neck relaxed to ease the discomfort as Mercer fucks the back of my throat hard.

After a while, one of his hands leaves my hair to hold one of the bookshelves behind me, yet his grip on my head and the rhythm at which he moves me is no less merciless. He keeps his pace for longer than I think I can bear, until finally both his hands grab rough fistfuls of my hair again and he jerks my head faster and faster until above me I hear his breath catch.

He comes into my mouth, pulling himself back a little so he finishes over my tongue rather than deep down my throat. I choke as my mouth fills with his pleasure, but Mercer grips my head in place until I have swallowed every bit of him down, my tongue lapping at his cock as I try to stop his seed from spilling out of my mouth.

'Maybe I'll keep you under my desk from now on,' the Guildmaster murmurs with a quiet laugh when he's finished, holding me there for a while longer before he pulls himself wetly from my mouth and steps back. He looks down at me as he sets about pulling up his trousers, amusement in his dark eyes. 'You can stand up now, Wren. I'm done with you.'

A furious blush stalks up my neck and I force myself to my feet quickly, suddenly wondering what the hell I am even doing on my knees before the Guildmaster. As I refasten my own trousers with unsteady hands, my fingers brush against the Blade of Justice at my thigh and anger mounts in me abruptly, twice as fast as the pleasure. I wasn't chained, and I had my dagger right here, I think, realising that instead of clutching at his hips while he took his pleasure in my throat, I could've reached for my dagger and cut off his cock. Rather than wanting to suck down on it.

As Mercer conceals the safe behind the bookshelf once again, it hits me that I could have stopped it, or at least tried to stop it, or at least made a stronger show of acting like I wanted to stop it.

But I didn't.

Suddenly more afraid of myself than Mercer, I draw my arms close around me and keep my distance from the Guildmaster as he walks to the study door. The gentle whine of the hinges into the silence makes me realise that I can no longer hear anything from below, no voices, no laughter, no rhythmic creak of the bed.

Did they finish before me, or was Mercer good to his word? I wonder as he disappears out into the hallway without a word. I force the thought from my mind, and force myself to follow him.

The house is silent, though warm candlelight still flickers from downstairs. I hesitate at the top of the staircase, fearing that the owners are still awake, but Mercer seems unconcerned and I soon decide that if I get caught, I'll at least have the satisfaction of seeing Mercer clapped in shackles too.

I never get that satisfaction, and a minute later we step back out into the gardens once more, the night air pressing in close and heavy with the threat of a storm. As Mercer strides ahead, I slow my pace and breathe in the fresh scents of the gardens while I listen to the fountain, wanting to sip the splashing water, my mouth still tasting of Mercer and the remnants of nightshade tea. And I'm never tasting either again, I think as I leave the garden and follow the Guildmaster back through the city in the direction of the marketplace. Once was bad enough, twice is just stupid. I decide I will never find out about a third time.

We're almost in sight of the Bee and Barb when Mercer stops halfway down a shadowy alley and turns to look at me. Even in the darkness I see the derisive smile at his mouth as his gaze flickers over my body. Immediately on edge, I steel myself and prepare to reach for my dagger, thinking that this time I will do anything to prevent him coming anywhere near me and my weak-willed body, but the Guildmaster only smirks and points down the alley.

'Be a good girl and run back to the Guild,' he says. 'I need to finish the job and I doubt Maven has much patience for needy little sluts like you.'

My cheeks burn with humiliation and I suddenly wonder why I am even still following him around. 'Fuck you,' I say viciously, but Mercer only laughs.

'No, you'll be the one getting fucked later, if you're lucky,' he tells me. 'I won't be too long, so try to have some restraint til I get back to the Cistern.'

'I don't think so,' I snap. 'You're never touching me again.'

I turn sharply and walk away in the direction of the marketplace, hearing the Guildmaster laugh behind me. 'We'll see about that, little bird,' I hear him say, his voice low and amused, his words sending a chill through me even through my hot anger.

I cut through the market square, the place crowded with the tavern's usual nightly overspill of patrons. I nearly walk into a group of drunken men before I force my mind to think clearly; before they can even say a word, I dart away and find the shadows of a nearby alley. I head in the direction of the graveyard with my heart uneasy and my hand on my dagger, starting to doubt my ability to protect myself from Riften's streets at night if my defences are so easily overcome by one strong hand at my wrists.

Hearing raised voices somewhere ahead a short while later, I double back and take another alley, wondering what Mercer would do if I misstepped tonight and never returned to the Guild. If it were Brynjolf, he would've walked me back to the Cistern, I think suddenly, knowing the redhead wouldn't have left me to mercy of Riften at night. But if it were Brynjolf... I shut the thought down fast, not wanting my mind to go down that path, the fury and unease in my stomach from earlier starting to twist into nervous knots.

As I near the graveyard, Mercer's words echo in my head and I find my feet slowing, reluctant to be in the Cistern when he returns from his business with Maven, fearing that my body will betray me once more, though I am well aware that my humiliation and regret lingers longer than whatever pleasure he gives me. I'd prefer to leave the Guild right now rather than be on my knees before him again, or any man like him.

In that moment, I decide that that is exactly what I will do. At least, until my body forgets his touch and I can pretend these two days never happened.

And besides, I remind myself, my hand still resting lightly on the Blade of Justice at my thigh, I have business elsewhere in the city.

Chapter Text

Quietly, not wanting to disturb the sleeping thief, I leave a note beside Rune's bed, explaining that I'm working a job and won't be around the Guild much for a few days but I'll be back soon. As I go to leave his bed, I get the sudden urge to linger, to curl up beneath the sheets with him and sleep a while there, and for a brief moment I imagine myself wrapped in his arms and held against his chest. I could tell him everything and he'd probably still want to help me, I think, certain that Rune would try his best to make me feel better, to make me feel safe. Like letting me win our daggerplay so I can fool myself that I am strong. As I watch the steady rise and fall of his shoulders, my stomach feels hollow when I realise that I can't keep fooling myself, and whether I want to believe them or not, I do not deserve the thief's kind lies, not when I am on my way to commit murder for the fourth time. And with no guarantee that taking their life is justified or whether it will bring me any closer to the woman whose life I actually want to take.

My heart cold, I return to my own bed and quickly pack my things, remembering the last time I stuffed spare clothes into my satchel, reliving how my heart raced as I pushed open Grelod's door, how it felt to cut a throat for the first time, how the blood flooded over the bed and dripped onto the floorboards. Did they ever get the stains out? I wonder, as my gaze falls upon the carving knife at the very bottom of my chest, where it has been hidden since I joined the Guild. Something constricts in my stomach at the sight of the knife and I am struck by how large and unwieldy it now appears, barely able to imagine how tightly I gripped it that night and how desperately I brought it down on the old woman's neck. Maybe I didn't, I think, looking at the clean blunt blade, remembering how fervently I wiped the blood away all those weeks ago, suddenly wishing I could do the same to my memories.

A cold shiver passes down my back and I slam the chest shut, before slinging my satchel over my shoulder and leaving the Cistern.

I stay away from the Guild entirely. I sink gold on a room at a run-down little tavern called the God's Tap, though the establishment's patrons are distinctly ungodly in the amount of ale they enjoy at every hour of the day. Their insobriety and lack of awareness, coupled with the tavern's location in the district just north of the Temple of Mara, makes it an ideal place for me to stay unseen and unharassed as I steel myself to undertake my contract.

The Rift's early autumn storms have hit the city, and when I venture out to the temple a few days after I leave the Cistern, thunder clouds hang unbroken and low in the dark morning sky and the air is heavy in anticipation of another storm. As I approach the large wooden building set back from the street, I conceal my dagger in my satchel, conscious that walking armed into a holy place might arouse suspicion - but I soon start to wonder if having my blade to hand might be wiser. From the unkempt and cracked courtyard outside and the coarse weeds growing up the chipped marble statues either side of the door, the Temple of Mara looks to all intents and purposes to be abandoned, and I know well enough by now that rats aren't the only creatures drawn to Riften's derelict places.

Then the Blade will taste more blood than I planned, I think resolutely, one hand on my satchel and ready to retrieve my dagger as I climb the steep steps and push open the door to the temple.

Inside, dozens of candles illuminate the large high-ceilinged room, setting a warm dancing light over the rows of wooden pews that face a large raised altar at the far end. As I look around, I breathe in lavender and mountain flowers and some sweet green scent I do not know, but the flora growing in the wooden planters appears to be the only living thing in the room; the place is deserted, though faintly I hear a soft murmur of voices, seemingly coming from behind one of the doors that lead off from the chamber.

My feet hesitate, the calm and tranquillity of the temple conversely setting my heart beating rapidly with unease, but I force myself forward to the first door on the left. It is unlocked and I find myself in a small room filled with an assortment of objects laid out on tables; my nerves disappear as my eyes race eagerly around the room, taking in several coin purses, stacks of books and what appear to be spell tomes, along with a collection of other trinkets that must have been offered to the temple. To Mara, I correct myself, wondering briefly if I am really considering stealing from a god; it doesn't take much deliberation before I start swiftly towards the plumpest of the coin purses, my spirits lightening a little with what might be the easiest theft I've ever made, wondering just how stupid the priests must be to leave all their doors unlocked in this city.

Before I can reach my hand out to take the purse, I hear footsteps echo softly from the main chamber, and as I draw back hastily from the offerings, a deep female voice comes from behind me.

'Are you here for Mara's blessing, child?'

I whirl around and find two women in worn patched robes standing in the doorway, one a tall navy-skinned Dunmer with dark eyes and dark hair, and the other an Imperial, younger and spindly of limb, lingering just behind the dark elf. My heart skips when I realise one of them might be Nelia. But which?

'I am,' I lie, hoping they didn't see where my hands had been going. I rush to sound apologetic. 'I'm sorry, I didn't see anyone and I wasn't sure where to go.'

The dark elf smiles kindly. 'There is no need to apologise,' she says. 'Mara bids you welcome. As do we. Step forward and I will confer the Lady's blessing.'

I obey and she meets me halfway before outreaching her hand to touch my head. I look down and close my eyes, trying not to remember the last time someone touched my head. More like grabbed handfuls of my hair as he came in my mouth.

'May Mara's light guide you,' the Dunmer murmurs as my skin flushes with my memories. 'May her honour protect you, and her love warm you.'

She steps back and I do the same, forcing my mouth into a smile.

'Thank you...' I trail off expectantly, waiting for her to give me her name, waiting to know if the Blade will soon have its second taste of Dunmer blood.

'Dinya,' the older woman says. 'And you are most welcome. Mara's temple has seen little in the way of visitors lately and I am only too glad to share the Lady's word.'

I don't tell her that my visit to the temple is not to discuss love or the gods but to find the person I must murder. And it's not this dark elf priestess. 'Don't many people come here?' I say, as if I scarcely believe it, as if I haven't spent long enough in Riften to know that its citizens need only walk down the right alley to find on offer a variety of pursuits more pleasurable than praying.

'In times of darkness, people often turn away from the light further.' Dinya's deep black eyes hold mine and suddenly my heart skips nervously. 'Sometimes,' the priestess murmurs, 'the shadows grow so familiar that we become afraid of what the light might show.'

I force myself to ignore the uncomfortable flicker of unease that passes through me at her words. 'I'm not afraid of the light,' I say, although I taste the lie in my mouth. 'I know the shadows are dangerous.'

'So the Divines instil in us at our births, when they first bring us into the light,' Dinya says. 'Yet some of us choose to return to the darkness, and at times it can seem more comforting than a mother's protection, a friend's devotion, or a lover's embrace.' She smiles again, her serious expression softening. 'I hope you find whatever comfort you seek here, child. I must attend to my duties, but I'm sure my apprentice would be glad to pray with you.' Dinya gestures to the young Imperial woman behind her. 'Nelia, please sit a while with our visitor, if she wishes it.'

The Imperial named Nelia nods as my stomach tightens abruptly. 'I would be happy to,' she says, her voice sweet and faint. She looks at me with eyes like the grey sky outside, threatening to break with rain. 'Would you like to pray?'

I nod, not trusting myself with words.

Dinya bids me farewell before leaving me alone in the main chamber with her apprentice. I sit beside Nelia on one of the wooden pews and the apprentice bows her head over her clasped hands; she starts to murmur words I cannot quite make out and I try to keep my heartbeat steady, wondering if I should draw the Blade of Justice and finish this now.

And when the Dunmer priestess finds the bloody mess, she'll tell the guards all about the short young woman with hair the colour of a baby bird's wing, I think, knowing how stupid it would be to kill the apprentice here, in the warm glowing light of the temple, with my face and my dagger unconcealed by darkness. I remember Dinya's words. Her lies, I remind myself. The shadows are where I am safest.

I close my eyes and I pray, but not for redemption or love or light. The gods answer the request I make of them; the apprentice soon excuses herself quietly with a smile and follows Dinya into another room of the temple, graciously giving me more than enough opportunity to slip back into the offerings chamber, where I stuff a small silver statue, a leather bound book and one fat coin purse into my satchel before pulling up my hood and leaving the Temple of Mara.

My conscience prickles uncomfortably until I am out of sight of the building and on my way towards the canals; not wanting to go back to the Flagon to trade, I take the stolen items to Grinner, a wide-mouthed old Breton who moves things out of the city for the Guild when he's not drowning himself in mead or choked up on skooma. This early in the day, Grinner is mostly coherent when I find him in his little dead-end alley near the steps down into the northern canal walkways; at first Grinner mistakes me for Sapphire and calls me his little gem, but the misconception seems to work to my benefit as he gives me more than a fair amount of gold in exchange for the silver statuette. He has no interest in the book, however, and so I slip it back into my satchel, deciding to sell it to Tonilia when I return to the Guild.

The thought of the Guild makes my heart twist with a strange feeling of longing and unease; although missing my bed and the familiar sound of the rushing waters, I am painfully aware of the reason I left. Once was a mistake, twice was pure stupidity, I remind myself, my resolve never to go near Mercer Frey again even stronger now after a few nights away from the Guild and its Guildmaster.

A distant rumble of thunder cuts into my thoughts. I look up to find the morning sky darkening to a deeper grey and I hurry in the direction of the God's Tap, intending to wait until dusk before returning to the Temple of Mara to follow the young apprentice home. And this time I won't delay and deliberate over whether it is right or wrong, I think, suddenly remembering the priestess' words and how she looked at me with her deep dark eyes, as if she saw some part of me I didn't want to be seen. Whether I want it or not, the light will not help me now.

Despite my determination, I do not return to the temple that night. I'm a few streets away from the tavern when the clouds finally break with a deafening roll of thunder and rain starts to lash down hard. By the time I arrive at the God's Tap, I am shivering and drenched through to the skin, and the last thing on my mind is venturing back out into the storm to follow the Imperial woman. Rain continues to thunder down relentlessly throughout the day; when night falls and muddy water from the flooded streets starts seeping through the tavern's front door, I retreat to my little room in the eaves and curl up on my bed, clutching the Blade of Justice close to me, the noise of crashing rain above me soon lulling me into an uneasy sleep.

By the following evening, the flooding subsides and the rain lessens to a light drizzle. I strap my dagger to my thigh and pull up my hood before stepping out in the chilly wet dusk of Riften's streets.

Unlike my first contract, it's not difficult to find evidence of the young apprentice's indecency. Though I linger for hours in the darkness and spitting rain, I see no sign of her the first night, but when I return at twilight the next evening, the air hazy and damp with the threat of another downpour, my heart jumps at the sight of the slender Imperial woman leaving the Temple of Mara. I hurry to follow her as she walks quickly through darkening alleys that wind wide and far from the city centre, my nerves heightening with every passing minute until finally the robed figure ahead of me descends into the southern canals and I realise Nelia is walking into one the roughest areas in Riften.

The dark brings out more than just thieves down there. My stomach twists uncomfortably as I hear Brynjolf's voice in my head, warning me and Sapphire away from the canals. He was right, I think, remembering how Astrid kidnapped me down here. Beneath my fear, I'm conscious of my sudden desire for Astrid to press the poisoned rag to my face again, for her to take me somewhere alone, for her to stand not five feet from me and hand me a dagger. This time, I wouldn't hesitate to bury the Blade of Justice inside her, I think, not for the first time wishing that I had done it when I had the chance.

My heart beating fast, I keep as close to Nelia as I can and draw my blade quietly, not to end her life but to protect my own. Traversing the canals proves riskier than normal, with parts of the walkways ankle-deep in water from the storms and others completely submerged and impassable. The mists that rise hazy and thick above the water impair my vision and I hurry to keep close to the apprentice, not wanting to lose sight of her or make a wrong step into the cold dark waters. The flooding, however, seems to have driven away much of the normal trade - we pass by only a handful of people, all too intoxicated or otherwise engaged to give much notice to either the skinny robed Imperial or the small hooded woman behind her. Despite encountering no trouble, I feel goosebumps rise on my skin as we walk deeper into the maze of the canals, unease crawling down my back with the sensation of being watched from the shadows.

Ahead, Nelia disappears into a small warehouse and I hasten to follow, my feet slipping on the wooden walkways as I come to stand at the entrance to the building, the doors hanging off their hinges and a hazy violet-tinged light coming from within. When the scent and smoke reaches me, I realise with a jolt where the apprentice has led me. And it's a crude skooma den, at that, I think, well aware that many hideouts in Riften are near enough reputable establishments in their own right, with guards and opening hours and protocols - and the help of the Guild or other investors to keep business running smoothly. As I scan the warehouse interior from the shadows, I see no guards, nor any elaborate apparatus, nor indeed any sort of suggestion that this place anything more than an abandoned hovel appropriated by those wanting to feed their desire somewhere hidden and without interruption. Lit by a number of small fires either in metal buckets or built straight onto the ground, the warehouse is littered with piles of odd discarded junk and broken furniture. And broken people, I think, watching as the robed apprentice picks her way between the dozen or so shadowy figures slumped around the fires, as if the people she passes are no more animate than the piles of rubbish. They ignore her in return; some of the den's patrons are awake and breathing in the violet smoke as they heat crystals over the flames, while others are unconscious and closed-eyed, and then there are a few who gaze into the shadows, and although their eyes are open, it is as if they too are unconscious and unseeing.

It's not a business, I realise as I stand at the threshold. It's a shelter where people can hide, from everyone, from the light, from themselves. It's a sanctuary.

My heart uneasy, I take a deep breath before I step inside.

At the far aide of the warehouse, the apprentice approaches a Khajiit wearing tattered rags, his pitch black fur cast in a violet glow from the jar of purple magelight in front of him. I notice his wares in a chest beside him. Maybe some business is conducted here, after all, I think, watching as Nelia hands over gold and the cat hands over a small drawstring purse; the apprentice slips it into a pocket of her robes and crosses the warehouse to a ladder leading up to the upper floor.

Keeping my dagger drawn, I follow. No one stops me or questions my intentions as I walk through the warehouse and follow the apprentice up the ladder, my fingers catching on the splintering wooden rungs, gripping tight to the Blade of Justice as I climb.

The upper floor of the warehouse is divided into small rooms, and I'm just close enough behind Nelia to see her push open a door at the far end and disappear into the room within. I linger outside for several long minutes, knowing the apprentice's intentions and wondering if it would be wiser waiting for her to take whatever she purchased from the Khajiit and to fall unconscious before I enter and cut her throat. I stand for a while, my nerves heightening with every minute until the sense of unease becomes too much to bear and I realise how desperately I want to leave this place. I take a slow deep breath to steady my heart, before I push open the door and step inside.

The room is small and empty, save for a nest of filthy rags in the corner, seemingly made into a makeshift bed by the previous occupant. Like the rest of the windowless den, the air bears the residue of skooma and smoke. Nelia sits with her back against the wall, the drawstring purse empty beside her, one hand holding a small metal dish filled with violet and black crystals, while magical fire flickers from the palm of her other hand, heating the contents of the dish from underneath.

She doesn't look up as I close the door behind me. Her gaze remains on the fire and the dish, as the crystallised skooma within begins to smoulder and the heady scent starts to fill the room afresh.

'The shadows are dangerous,' Nelia murmurs. 'I knew it was you. I knew you would come.'

I have only taken a step towards her when I pause, caught off-guard. 'You were expecting me?' I say, my fingers tightening around the Blade's handle, ready to strike if she screams out for help, though I doubt anyone in this place would hear or care.

'Do you know what I prayed for, when you came to the temple?' she says, not answering my question, her attention on heating the little purplish crystals in the dish above the flames. 'What I always pray for?' She breathes in the first tendrils of violet smoke. 'For this. For oblivion.' Nelia closes her eyes and holds her breath before exhaling slowly with a sigh of pleasure. 'For forgetting,' she whispers, so quietly I can barely hear. 'For peace.'

I feel something cold twist tightly in my stomach at her words, although I cannot tell if it is fear or something else that sends the uncomfortable chill through me. 'Then be glad I am here,' I say softly.

'I am,' Nelia replies. The crystals emit a plume of thick smoke and the apprentice leans forward, inhaling deep and long, taking in more breath than I think her lungs can accommodate before she finally exhales slowly, her slim shoulders slumping. 'I am,' she whispers as she sighs again in relief.

I feel my head starting to swim and I step forward, trying not to let the fumes cloud my mind as I approach the apprentice.

'I know what you prayed for,' Nelia says.

I hesitate to engage, wondering if it is only a ploy to distract me in order to turn the flames in her hand onto me, but as I bring the Blade of Justice to the side of her neck, she turns to look up at me and I see no fear in her large grey eyes, nor surprise; there is only relief. And her eyes are black, not grey, I think, noticing the dilation of her pupils. Black as Dinya's. Like she's seeing me, all of me.

'I prayed for you to leave so I could steal the temple's offerings,' I tell her honestly.

A small smile curves her mouth but Nelia says nothing as she looks back at the dish, making the fire burn brighter from her palm. 'When I first joined the temple, I thought it would be my sanctuary,' she says as the crystals smoulder violently. 'But I can't escape.'

She inhales deeply, her intake of breath drawing the purple haze inside her, but the remnants rise through the air to me as I stand beside the apprentice and I taste the smoke on my tongue. Don't breathe it in, I tell myself, trying to hold my breath, even as my mind seems to blur at the edges.

Nelia's large eyes flicker up to me and I wonder if she even realises my dagger is still at her throat. 'Mara says the light of our love can save even the darkest of souls. Do you think that's true? Do you think it can save my soul? Your soul?'

Her question sends a shiver down my back and my mind struggles to come up with an answer, the sight of her large dark eyes as invasive as the violet smoke that starts to fill my lungs. My fingers tighten around my dagger and I am about to draw the Blade of Justice across her neck when the truth hits me. Anything I tell her will die with her.

'Maybe it can save some people,' I answer, lowering the dagger. 'But I don't intend to find out. A long time ago, someone killed the people I loved the most. I'd rather live in darkness than risk that happening again.' My voice falters as I suddenly and inexplicably feel tears choke my throat. 'I can't let that happen again,' I tell her.

'Neither can I,' Neila says softly, and she looks back down, a small smile at her mouth before she breathes in the last of the thick purple smoke.

The crystals turn to ash. The apprentice sighs long and deep before she lets the fire in her hand flicker out and she drops the dish on the ground. The darkness swarms the room, but for once my eyes are quick to adjust. Although the fire is extinguished and the only source of light gone, the room seems brighter to me, more colourful, the empty blackness of the shadows instead now tinged a clear violet. Knowing it is an illusion borne of the skooma, I blink quickly to try to disperse my skewed vision.

'The shadows are dangerous,' Nelia murmurs. 'You were right. But I'm not afraid. Once you know the darkness, there is nothing else to fear, except the light. Have this.' Suddenly she reaches into a pocket of her robes and presses a small glass bottle into my hand. 'A little love for you. It won't hurt, I promise. It might be the only thing that doesn't.'

'I don't-' I start, but Nelia slumps back against the wall and her eyes close before I can utter another word. Her head lolls to the side and she falls into a deep sleep.

I stand motionless for a long while, the erratic beating of my heart at odds with the slow steady rise and fall of the apprentice's bony shoulders. I look down at the small glass bottle; the contents unknown to me, I tilt the half-empty vial to the side and the dark violet substance runs like syrup. A kind of liquid skooma, maybe, or something like it, I think as I clutch the dagger in one hand and the vial in the other, wondering which oblivion to give her.

I could leave her here and she'd probably wind up dead eventually, I realise, knowing well enough that the crystals and the vials are the least of the dangers in places like these. Any one of the people below might do my job for me, if the idea came into their addled minds.

Suddenly, I know I cannot leave her to the mercy of another's hands and an unknown brutality. I put the vial in my pocket and push back my hood before I drop to my knees and gently move Nelia's fragile body so that her head rests on my lap. I hold her there for a while, hearing her steady breathing, wondering what she is dreaming of, or whether she is simply thinking of nothing at all. For her sake and mine, I hope it's nothing, I think, not wishing a nightmare on her and unable to bear the thought that I might be about to end a good dream.

In one quick deep motion, I draw the Blade of Justice from ear to ear and cut her throat wide. The blood flows hot over my hands, bathing the dagger and my lap in a deep dark red. The apprentice doesn't struggle or splutter. I watch and try to slow my breath to match hers as the life leaves her.

Eventually, I hear rain start to fall lightly on the roof of the warehouse.

'This one isn't yours, Sithis,' I murmur. 'Leave her in peace.'

I put the Blade of Justice on the floor beside me before gently moving the limp body off my lap and laying her down.

I don't know how long I sit beside her body, not wanting to leave her to rot in this place but knowing I don't have the strength to carry her out of the warehouse, much less to the graveyard where I could bury her. She shouldn't be stuck in the dirt next to Grelod, anyway, I think before suddenly I wonder whether the Dunmer merchant was buried or if he was cremated, and if the fair-haired woman has rotted into the floorboards of the shack where Astrid demanded I kill her, and what will happen to Nelia's body in the days and weeks after I leave her here.

I shut my eyes and take a deep breath, my thoughts running fast and fierce through my mind, not wanting to dwell upon any of them. The smell of the skooma hangs heavy in the air and my lungs fill with the remnants of the smoke, and my thoughts only grow faster and fiercer, until I get the desperate and intense urge not to think about anything at all.

By some instinct I cannot comprehend, my fingers slip into my pocket and retrieve the small glass bottle Nelia pushed into my hand. I open my eyes as I remove the lid, blinking to clear my vision, though the room is still appears tinted a bright violet.

The liquid glows a bright bluish purple and it carries the scent of skooma yet somehow sweeter, like the sap of a flowering tree. Before I can wonder what it is or question my intention, I bring the vial to my lips and tip the substance down my throat.

It tastes sweet and floral, with a sharp tangy edge that lingers on my tongue for a few moments after I swallow. The liquid slips down thick like honey, at once warming and chilling me; goosebumps rise on my skin as heat warms my stomach.

For a while, I sit beside the apprentice's body and wait for something else to happen, to feel something, to feel anything. As I wait, my mind seems to move slower, though I hear every murmur and cough and breath from downstairs as if they are happening right beside me. I listen to the rain crashing on the roof above, the sound lulling my eyelids shut and my limbs heavy before I even realise it. It's like I'm back home, my mind tells me vaguely, but in that moment, I am not sure whether home is the little house by the waterfall or the cavern beneath the graveyard or if it is right here. Before I can decide, the thought slips from my mind and I let it go.

I wait, eyes closed, but what feels like hours pass from the moment I swallowed the sap-like substance and still nothing happens.

Nothing, I realise, suddenly aware that I feel nothing, remember nothing, fear nothing. It's all nothing.

Then my consciousness falters and my mind drifts. Into oblivion, I think, before I slump back against the wall, the pool of blood ebbing slowly between the apprentice's body and my own.

 

*

 

A violent shiver passes through me. I hear gruff laughter, a spluttering cough, and the crackle of a fire.

'She don't like you much,' someone says, a low male voice racked with wheezy breaths.

My consciousness fades and distantly I hear a quiet hiss of pleasure, the sound of air sucked sharply between fangs.

'I had a maid like her once,' a rasping voice says, closer to me than the other one. 'Pretty little thing. She would've married me if I asked her.'

'Why didn't you?' the other asks.

'Because she was a whore, and you don't marry whores.'

My mind slips again as I try to understand.

The deep hitched breaths start to lull me to sleep, the heady fumes filling my lungs and calling me back to my oblivion once more, until another convulsion overtakes me and I suddenly become aware of my body. This isn't oblivion, I think vaguely, feeling a hard unyielding floor beneath me as I lie on my side, something wet warming my cheek where my face presses against the rough wooden floorboards. Then I feel a hand stroking my lower leg.

The deep breathing fades until the sounds of the fire crackling and a faint sigh of relief is all I can hear. The cold hand on my leg moves over my knee. My limbs immobile, my skin tingles and suddenly I cannot tell if I am clothed or if my legs are bare.

Then comes the first voice again, this time an angry snarl. 'You said I could have her first if I gave you my last crystal.'

'Have the corpse. She's still warm and the blood'll make her good and wet for you.' I hear a hiss of laughter and movement close behind me, and then the hand on my leg is joined by another, equally cold; together they feel my thigh and my hip, one hand cupping the curve of my ass, the other moving over my hip and down between my legs.

Another vicious shiver wracks my body at the same time I hear the other voice swear; across the room I hear someone standing up. 'You said I could have her.'

'You can have what's left when I'm finished with her.' The hands leave my body and I hear the fumbling of clothes, the sound of laces being loosened and pulled undone.

'No, I want her first.'

A hiss of fury comes from behind me. 'I said you can have the corpse.'

'And I said I want the live one first, you fucking-'

The sounds of scuffling and a gasp of pain set my heart pounding loudly in my chest, the sudden violent beating of my heart jerking my mind out of its stupor. The den, I remember frantically, the apprentice, whatever the fuck it was that I drank. Fear courses through my body as I listen to the sounds of the two men fighting, knowing what they intend. I have to get away. My fingers crawl to my thigh, but my relief at finding my trousers still on is overwhelmed by my panic when I realise my dagger is missing. I feel around for it desperately, my fingers slipping in the wetness on the floor, remembering that it is the blood I spilled from the woman lying dead beside me.

My consciousness wavers again as I fumble desperately for the dagger and I feel a numb heaviness take over my limbs, urging me to return to the oblivion where I know nothing hurts. I can't, I think, afraid, hopeless, when suddenly my hand brushes over the familiar hilt of the Blade of Justice and my mind reconnects with my body in an abrupt and painful rush.

I open my eyes. With a speed I did not know I possessed, I grasp the Blade of Justice and force my body up from the floor, my feet and hands slipping in the pool of blood from Nelia's corpse as I struggle to standing and turn around.

The room is no longer tinted violet to my eyes. It is dark and grim and a small weak fire burns in the centre of the room, built near to the feet of the dead body. The two figures beside the flames break apart from their struggle and turn to look at me, the firelight dancing over their faces. One is a male Nord in rags, squat and balding with a black eye and blood trickling from a split lip. The other man isn't human; the green-grey scaly skin of the tall Argonian's bare upper body festers with sores and untended scars; unlike the Nord, whose pupils are wide and black with his intoxication, the lizard's slanted eyes are a bright poisonous yellow, the pupils two dark slits.

'Now what?' the Nord asks the Argonian, his voice thick from his bleeding lip. 'She's awake.'

'We put her back to sleep,' the lizard says as if it's obvious.

'Stay away from me,' I say before either of them can take a step forward. The sharp voice that comes out of my mouth does not sound like my own and I hold up the dagger as I stand beside the apprentice's corpse, my boots stained by the blood. 'Come any closer and I'll cut your throats.'

Unlike the men I threatened on the night I joined the Guild, the two addicts don't laugh in my face, but I almost wish they had; the lizard's wide hungry smile sends a chill down my back when I catch sight of his razor sharp fangs.

With a swiftness I did not expect, he steps forward to block my path to the door. 'No need for that, sweetling,' he says quietly. 'We're all friends. What's your name, hm?'

'You said I could have her first,' the Nord mutters angrily from beside the fire, but neither I nor the Argonian pay him any mind.

'Move out the way or I'll kill you,' I say, gripping the Blade of Justice tighter, ready to strike.

A soft laugh rasps from the lizard's throat. 'My pretty whore looked just like you,' he tells me. 'Clean little neck. Soft little neck. Lie down and I won't bleed you like I did her.'

He hisses and shows his fangs, the sight freezing my body in fear and suddenly making me forget how to hold a dagger, much less how to use it in combat. You fight back, it will hurt more, I think, hearing Grelod's warning, heeding it, knowing she was right. For a moment, terror grounds me where I stand as the lizard moves towards me, until some vague instinct flickers inside me and my fingers tighten abruptly around the handle of the Blade of Justice. The feel of the dagger in my hand calms some part of my heart, hardens it, turns it to sharp steel - as the Argonian lunges for me, my hand rises and the dagger slashes wide through the air, connecting with his bare stomach, the sharpness of the Blade tearing clean through his scales.

Black blood bursts from between the torn scales, showering me in a dark rain. The Argonian hisses viciously, but as he grabs my shoulders and leans down to bury his fangs in my neck, the hours of daggerplay return to me and in one swift motion I twist the dagger in my hand and plunge it into the centre of the lizard's chest, pushing with all my weight, hearing an agonised cry and feeling the cold scaly hands clutch uselessly at my shoulders.

I pull free the dagger with a gasp of effort and shove the Argonian backwards. He collapses down onto his knees, blood pouring from him, and despite my fear, I feel a keen thrill of satisfaction pass through me at the sight of a man kneeling before me and at my mercy.

And I have no mercy. I step forward and bring the Blade of Justice across the lizard's throat viciously, ending him, before I kick the corpse down to the ground. My boots slip in the second tide of blood.

My eyes flicker over to the balding Nord still standing by the fire. He stares at me and I stare at him, and in that brief moment, I cannot tell if the look in his dark dilated eyes is one of fear or admiration.

Then he runs for the door.

He's quicker than I gave him credit for and the Nord is out in the hallway and halfway down the ladder before I can even think about burying the Blade in his back. I rush after him through the warehouse and follow him out into the canals, the heavy rain making my blood-wet boots slip on the walkways. I race to keep up with the Nord, my heart thudding dangerously with the knowledge that if he gets away, if he is sentient enough to remember my face, he will be able to link me with the two corpses left behind, and the thought of even the slimmest chance of being caught drenches me in cold fear as surely as the lashing rain.

I lose sight of the Nord as he disappears around a corner; when I follow, I find the way forward completely under water and impassable. I scour the darkness through the steady rain for a sign of him, but soon realise that he must know the canals far better than I do, as he has vanished without a trace. Panic courses through me and I stop by the water's edge, my bloody hand gripping my dagger tight.

Now what?

I close my eyes and listen to the water, wishing for it to calm my pounding heart, but the sound of the rain crashing into the canals only makes my fear mount faster, conscious that the storm will not wash away the red and black stains on my clothes and skin. I need to go somewhere safe and hidden, before someone finds me looking like this. I try to think, to decide what to do, but my mind is blurry and panicked and incapable of thinking of anything beyond how Neila's sad dark eyes looked into mine and how it felt to bury my dagger into the lizard's chest. Aware of the fact that hiding here or returning to the God's Tap to lay low are equally foolish options, I find only one other option presents itself to me, and in that moment I realise how desperately I wish to be back at the Guild. I should've stayed and curled up in Rune's arms when I still could, when I still could've fooled myself that I deserve that kindness. Quickly, my heart cold, I pull my hood over my head, my hair matted by the rain and the blood of the apprentice and the Argonian. With my dagger clutched in my hand, I head back to the Guild.

I run fast and keep to the shadows, relieved that the rainstorm has left the alleys near enough deserted. It's not until I'm in the graveyard that I slow to a walk, breathless and exhausted, and I sheathe the Blade of Justice at my thigh. My fingers slide wet as I open the entrance to the tomb, something catching in my heart at the familiar sound of the stone pulling back.

As I descend the ladder and walk along the passageway to the Cistern door, I hear the distant rushing water, the noise growing louder with each step, but the comfort I usually take from the sound does not seem to reach me now. At the door, I drop to my knees and pull out my lockpicks as normal, but my fingers fumble with the lock and the picks slip from my wet hands to the ground and a sudden sense of despair crashes over me. I look down at my hands, at the red blood that was meant to be there, and the black blood that wasn't. I didn't hesitate to kill him, I think, recalling the pleasure I took from burying my dagger in his chest. A pleasure I've wanted for a long time.

Without warning, I remember vividly the guests of Honorhall, the way I would bite my lip to keep quiet, the way I heeded every threat, the way that after a while I did not even entertain the thought of struggling or fighting, much less imagining how it would feel to cut their throats as they knelt before me.

Bitter unease claws down my back at the memories I thought that I had managed to forget, and despite my relief that I killed the Argonian before he could hurt me, I feel a hollowness in my stomach as I realise how many throats I wish I could've cut before now. And those I wish I hadn't cut, I think, picturing the woman in the shack, picturing the Dunmer underneath me, picturing Nelia sleeping peaceful and oblivious.

Suddenly exhausted and not wanting to think about it anymore, I give up with the lock, knowing my shaking wet hands are too unsteady to be of any use. I move down the passageway away from the door and sit against the stone wall, bringing my knees to my chest and closing my eyes.

For a moment, I forgot everything, I think, remembering the precious moments in the den when there was nothing. I lean back against the wall and feel the strength leave my body, my mind begging for oblivion again before I lose consciousness and everything falls dark.

Chapter Text

My skin tingles and the sound of rushing water plays in my ears, like a stream of endless sighs. My limbs refuse to move as I lie beside the waterfall, my body sinking into the soft emptiness beneath me, the sensation unpleasant, as if I am being crushed and left floating in the air at once. I struggle to get up, to get out, but the harder I fight, the deeper I seem to fall.

'I'll put you to sleep.' A hand strokes me, touches me, groping at my ass and breasts. 'I'll make you wish you were dead.'

I reach desperately for my dagger in the void around me, panic rising fast. My heart lifts in relief when my hand lands upon a familiar object, but when I look down, I find my fingers clutching only the blunt, clunky carving knife. The blade is chipped and rusted and dripping violet blood.

The creature standing over me laughs, a shape of dark shadows without form or substance, save for a pair of eyes, the colour a clear sky blue. 'You look better dead,' it says. Its groping turns to innocent caresses, gentle and loving as if I am the creature's favourite child, though it only leaves me shivering with an intense chill and the urgency to get away.

Something weighs down my arm and the effort of trying to lift the carving knife is excruciating, but the fear and the sudden violence of my heartbeat is twice as painful when I find I cannot even raise the blade an inch to defend myself - I can only stare up into the darkness, feeling myself sink further into the void under the watch of the bright blue eyes.

'I'll kill you,' I try to say, but my mouth doesn't move any more than my arms.

Astrid smiles, her hand stroking my hair softly. 'Sithis is waiting for you,' she murmurs. 'Sithis is watching. Sithis is-'

I wake abruptly with a violent jolt, my heart beating twice as fast as normal. My eyes snap open in fear, Astrid's voice so clear in my mind it's as if she is still leaning over me.

She's not, I realise, recognising the stone walls of the Cistern, hearing the water rushing somewhere nearby, my heart rate slowing to a more natural speed as my surroundings become familiar - but as I stare at the wall, I notice that the pattern of the stones is slightly different than normal, and that the sheets smell musty and the straw mattress beneath me feels hard and unused, and with a jolt I realise I am not in my own bed.

Confusion clouding my mind, I roll over and my heart abruptly jumps again when I find Rune sitting beside the bed bed. The dark blond thief looks up from the book he is reading, relief lighting his dark blue eyes.

'Wren. You're awake.' Rune puts the book aside and hurries to help me into a sitting position, his hands gentle on my shoulders. 'How are you feeling?'

'Tired,' I say truthfully, an unusual lethargy weighing down my limbs in a way that I've never felt before, not even after a restless night. It's as if I'm still dreaming, still immobile. 'What...' I start to say, but my question tails off as I suddenly remember exactly what happened and I look down to find my clothes stained and the loose curls of my hair matted with dried blood.

From not one but two people, I remember, my stomach coiling uncomfortably as the events of the previous night return to me, although my memories seem tainted in a violet haze that makes the details difficult to recall. Or maybe I just don't want to remember any part of it, a voice whispers, leaving a painful hollowness in my stomach.

I look at Rune and the concern in his deep blue eyes makes my heart hurt too, knowing I don't deserve it. 'I fell asleep in the passageway,' I say, as if that was the extent of what happened. Fell asleep, passed out, gave myself over to oblivion.

The thief nods. 'You didn't look very comfortable there,' he says lightly, thankfully not questioning why I was lying down in the passageway in the first place. 'I thought you might prefer to be on a bed rather than the stone floor.'

'You carried me here?' At his nod, I feel a rush of gratitude and relief that Rune was the one who happened upon me last night and carried me into the Cistern, doubting if I would've been treated quite so gently if any of the other guildmembers had found me.

Or the Guildmaster, I think, suddenly realising that being left on the uncomfortable stone floor might've been the least of my concerns had Mercer found me unconscious and entirely vulnerable. My gaze darts past Rune to scan the Cistern, but the Guildmaster's desk is mercifully empty, as is the rest of the Cistern.

I smile at Rune, the keen sense of relief making me feel a little lighter. 'You couldn't manage to carry me across the Cistern to my own bed, though?' I tease. 'Surely I'm not that heavy, am I?'

Rune laughs. 'Well, you were drenched from the storm, I didn't want to get your bed wet and muddy,' he explains.

Although we both know my clothes are sodden and stained by the blood more than the rain, his consideration makes any joking reply I was going to say falter on my lips. I open my mouth and close it, not knowing how to respond to his kindness, not knowing how to thank him properly when he has never asked for nor suggested that he expects anything in return.

He's the closest thing to a gentleman I'll find down here, I think, remembering what Brynjolf had said, realising that he was right. At least in that regard I didn't need convincing.

'Thank you,' I blurt out, my voice awkward as I try both to ignore my thoughts and to find the words to thank him. 'For finding me last night, and for... for carrying me,' I finish lamely.

If Rune notices my awkwardness, he doesn't comment upon it, for which I am grateful. 'No problem, Wren,' he says. 'I'm just glad you're back and you're safe.' He pauses, his gaze moving over my face. 'Are you all right?'

I force my mouth into a smile and bitterly wish that I could tell him everything about what happened last night, to tell him that I killed a woman and realised I am broken as she was, and to admit that I killed a man on a desperate instinct and I liked it. But no amount of daggerplay is going to trick me into thinking I'm strong enough to share those truths.

'Of course,' I answer brightly, seeing the concern in Rune's eyes, knowing he doesn't believe me. 'Can we train later?' I say before he can speak, wanting nothing more than to return to the normal routine, despite the fact that my limbs still feel as exhausted and useless as they were in my dream and I wonder if I can even get out of bed, much less hold a dagger properly.

Rune is evidently thinking along the same lines. 'If you're sure,' he says, his tone dubious.

'I'm sure,' I say firmly. 'Just give me some time to...' I tail off and gesture awkwardly to my bloody clothes and hair.

'Of course.' Rune gets the hint and stands up, thankfully not pushing the subject of my appearance further. 'Whenever you want, Wren. Come find me.'

I return his smile gratefully and watch him go as he heads into the Flagon. When the door has closed behind him, I shut my eyes and listen to the rushing sound of the Cistern, the exhaustion in my body tempting me to sleep a while longer, until the thought of returning to my dream sets my heart beating uneasily and the sound of the water makes my skin suddenly itch with the sensation of the dried blood.

My legs unsteady, I force myself up and cross over the water pool to my own bed, finding that Rune has left the Blade of Justice on my pillow, presumably having removed it from my body to let me sleep more comfortably. I feel a flicker of fear when I think that I was so unconscious I wasn't aware of someone taking my dagger from me, but the feeling gets pushed aside when I realise with a jolt that the dagger is completely clean, without a drop of blood on the handle or the blade, despite the floods it spilled from two bodies last night. Either the rain washed it away, or Rune did. The thought twists my heart in a way I cannot comprehend, and I quickly hide the dagger beneath my pillow before gathering some clean clothes and walking back across the Cistern.

In the water room with the door securely locked, I start to peel the clothing off my body, the bloody material sticking to my skin. When I pull off my trousers, I feel something in my hip pocket, and a moment later my fingers retrieve an empty glass bottle - the object is unfamiliar to me for a few confused seconds, until I remember what it is and I quickly shove the empty vial back into my pocket. Stupid girl, I think and strip off the rest of my clothes, leaving the bloody heap on the stone floor before I walk naked to the rushing water.

I don't know how long I stand beneath the flow, the metallic smell of the dried blood slowly fading as the water runs red off my body. I thread my fingers through my hair, loosening the tangles as I try to stop my mind from wandering to last night. I fulfilled Astrid's contract and I left and that's all, I think firmly, and by the time I have rinsed clean my blood-matted hair and washed the last of the blood from my skin, I have almost convinced myself that anything beyond the completion of my contract was just another strange dream that I must forget. And the only reality that matters is that I am one step closer to Astrid.

Back in the Cistern and in clean clothes, I take the empty glass bottle from the pocket of my stained trousers and hide it at the bottom of my chest beside the carving knife, not wanting to see either item or recall their memories but some strange reluctance to part with them preventing me from throwing them away. I close the chest sharply and ball up the bloody clothes into my arms before going above ground to dump them in an overgrown corner of the graveyard, preferring to bury them as surely as they buried Grelod rather than attempting to wash them clean.

The rain falls in a light shower as I walk through the city in the direction of the God's Tap. In my room at the tavern, I gather up my things quickly, stuffing the coin purse into my satchel along with the stolen book, wondering when Dinya will start to worry about her apprentice, whether she will notice the missing offerings before she notices the missing woman.

It's done, I remind myself as cold regret runs down my back. If I start imagining how different I wish things had been in the past, I'll pull at a thread I don't want to unravel.

I finish clearing out my room and pay my tab before I gladly leave the God's Tap and all the memories behind. As I step outside and retrace my steps back to the graveyard, the dusk sky darkens to a grim grey and the rain grows colder. I pull up my hood and decide to make the trip worthwhile; halfway back to the Guild, I take a detour through a residential area and find a house with the windows dark as the sky above before I slip around the back and pull out my lockpicks.

A short while later, with my coin purse a little heavier and my heart a little lighter, I return to the Guild. Rune is already in the training room when I go to find him, and thankfully he is alone. Eager to practise, I'm about to draw the Blade of Justice when Rune pushes a silver sheathed dagger into my hands.

'I've been meaning to give this to you,' he says as I look at him in confusion. 'You're better with two, you know.'

'You got this for me?' I turn the dagger over in my hands and pull it from its sheathe. Slightly larger and heavier than the Blade of Justice, the dagger is curved and a milky silver colour, like a crescent moon. I look up at Rune. 'This must have cost you a fortune,' I say, my heart warming at his generosity.

The familiar smile comes over his face, his deep blue eyes crinkling at the corners. 'I didn't buy it, Wren,' he says. 'But yes, I'm sure it cost someone a fortune.'

I find the gesture to be no less meaningful, knowing the dagger would've fetched a high price had the thief chosen to sell it rather than give it to me. 'Thank you,' I say haltingly, struggling again to find a way to tell him how much I appreciate it.

I look down at the curved silver blade, trying to imagine staining it red. What if Astrid named Rune as my next contract? I think suddenly, wondering how I would react if I read the thief's name on a slip of paper and was handed a bag of gold, but the thought makes my heart clench so uncomfortably that I force it from my mind.

'How about I try to kill you with it?' I say playfully, as I put aside the silver dagger's sheathe and draw the Blade of Justice.

Rune laughs. 'All right, then,' he says and draws his own daggers, a pair of long red steel blades. 'Give it your best shot.'

Not having held two blades since before Astrid kidnapped me, I'm surprised when wielding the pair of daggers feels just as natural as before. Rune's right, I'm better with two, I think as we spar and I find myself twice as fast. Does that mean I can kill twice as fast?

When I beat Rune for the fourth time and I'm certain he's not letting me win, satisfaction flickers through me and before I know it I think of last night and how much I enjoyed cutting the Argonian's throat as he knelt before me. I realise that killing him felt different than Nelia, than the Dunmer, than the woman in the shack. It was like Grelod, only this time the fear was different; I knew what to expect, I knew I could do it, and I knew I could get away with it. It was justice. And it felt good.

After an hour or so, we sheathe our weapons and take a breather. I hop up onto the straw bales as Rune tells me what's been happening in the Guild - or not happening, as the thief tells me that work is drying up and most guildmembers are having to resort to chance burglaries to keep their pockets full, and when there is work to be had, the heists fail more often than not. The good news, as Rune tells me, is that there was a note from Solitude: apparently Brynjolf and Sapphire's task was successful and they are on their way back to Riften. I'm about to change the subject and ask Rune where he found the silver dagger when the door to the training room opens - for a wild moment I think it's Brynjolf, my mind still on the redhead and the thought of seeing him again, and my heart skips in anticipation, more eagerly than I knew possible.

When I see that it is Mercer who walks into the room, my fluttering heart drops into my stomach.

The Guildmaster's dark gaze moves over me briefly before he looks at Rune. 'Out,' he orders the thief, his voice short and brooking no argument.

Rune is smart enough not to hesitate, although he catches my eye before he leaves. 'I'll see you later,' he says, and I nod in reply.

As the thief leaves the room and closes the door behind him, I slip down reluctantly from the straw bales, wanting to be on my feet. And to more easily draw my daggers if required, I think.

The Guildmaster inclines his head as he looks at me, his mouth curving into a small smile. 'Look who's returned to the nest,' he says softly, the low sound of his voice suddenly reminding me of the things he said to me the last time I was in his presence, when his hand was between my legs, when I was on my knees before him, when I swore he would never touch me again and he laughed quietly. We'll see, little bird.

My cheeks blush with the memory and I feel hot fury rise in me. 'What do you want?' I say shortly.

'Watch it,' Mercer says, his own voice just as abrupt as he leans back against the wall, exactly where Brynjolf leant when he too interrupted my daggerplay with Rune. 'I'm not in the mood for your backtalk.'

'Then what do you want?' I say, drawing my arms around my body, feeling ill at ease.

Mercer's eyes narrow as he looks at me, although I can scarcely decide if his expression is one of amusement or irritation. 'I want to know what you think this place is,' he says.

'What this place is?' I repeat, confused, wary, sensing a trap and having no desire to engage in conversation. No, my body desires something else, I think, suddenly feeling conscious of myself, feeling every part of my body on edge, just like when Brynjolf spoke to me in this room. Could he really make me moan louder than I did when Mercer fucked me?

The Guildmaster sighs, and this time his impatience is clear. 'This training room, the whole fucking Cistern, what is this place?'

'The Thieves Guild,' I answer slowly.

'Good. So there is still a shred of sense in your head.' He folds his arms. 'And remind me, who is the Guild's master?'

'I don't have time for this,' I snap, knowing where he is going with it. 'So why don't you just say what you're going to say and leave me alone?'

'Frustrated, are we?' His mouth curls into a smile. 'Poor little bird, I bet those small fingers of yours don't work as well as mine, do they?'

'I said I don't have time for this,' I say, my cheeks flushing as I remember just how well his fingers work.

'No? You seem to have forgotten how things are around here, so I'll remind you, shall I?' Mercer pushes away from the wall and starts walking towards me. 'You work for the Guild. You work for me. You don't leave whenever you choose and you don't leave without my permission.'

I back away to the wall, but thankfully Mercer stops in the middle of the room, and my relief at him keeping his distance allows me to properly hear his words. 'Your permission?' I repeat, incredulous. 'You expect me to ask for your permission to leave the Guild for less than a week?'

'Did I not just say that?' Mercer raises his eyebrows. 'Fucking hell, do you ever actually listen? You belong to the Guild. I'm the Guildmaster. What part of that don't you understand, Wren?'

'The part where you think that you being Guildmaster makes you my master too,' I say angrily.

He smirks. 'Your master?' he says. 'You'd like that, though, wouldn't you? You can call me master if that gets you off, little bird.'

'I'd rather leave the Guild forever than call you that,' I tell him, meaning it with all my heart.

'And where would you go, Wren? Are you planning to live in that room you've been renting at the God's Tap?' He laughs mockingly. 'You could barely stay away a week before you came running back.'

I feel fear claw down my spine at the realisation that he knows where I've been staying. He's been watching me, or at least had informants watching me.

'Leave me alone,' I say, my voice weaker and more afraid than I'd like it to be, but it makes no matter, for I realise then that Mercer is not like Brynjolf, and the Guildmaster will not obey my request to keep his distance.

'No,' Mercer says. 'I think you need to learn your place first.' His dark eyes flicker over my body slowly. 'And I suppose I've got time for a quick lesson.'

Before I can respond, Mercer turns away and walks to the door. For a moment I think he's leaving and my heart leaps, until he pulls something from his pocket and I hear the distinct click of the lock, despite the fact I didn't know there even was a lock on the training room door. The Guildmaster turns back to me and the dangerous glint in his eyes makes my heart skip a beat.

'Stay away from me,' I say, just as I did to the Argonian last night, but as Mercer walks towards me, I am suddenly aware that my hands are empty and the uneasy feeling inside me is not borne of terror but of expectant desire, my body knowing that its satisfaction can come at a cheaper price than cutting his throat.

And it's a price I want to pay, a distant voice whispers in my head as Mercer stands before me and I look up at him, my heart racing fast, not wanting to listen to the thought in my mind.

Mercer doesn't listen to me either; he takes my shoulders and turns me around roughly, shoving me front first up against the wall, my hands instinctively rising to take the brunt of the impact. 'Let's see how fast you learn,' he says as he moves up close behind me.

I clutch at the stone wall as Mercer's hands snake over my hips from behind and slip around to the fastenings of my trousers. Instinctively my body shudders back from his touch, remembering why I never wanted this to happen again, but Mercer's arms move up to trap me between his body and the wall.

'Be careful, Wren,' he says sharply, leaning in closer behind me. 'Unless you want me to teach you a different lesson, one that won't be nearly as enjoyable for you.'

He grabs my hips with both hands and pulls my lower body back to him, pressing his groin up against my ass. The unyielding pressure of his solid body against mine sends an abrupt and hot rush of anticipation through me, swiftly pushing away all thought of resisting when Mercer's hands slip back around my hips and unlace the ties of my trousers.

'That's better,' he says, his voice low in my ear, before his right hand dips beneath the material of my smallclothes and moves down to my core, the sudden sensation of his fingers between my legs making my breath hitch in my throat.

I dig my fingers into the wall and try to convince myself not to react, knowing that no matter what my body wants, I don't want to give Mercer that satisfaction - but it only takes the Guildmaster a few deliberate strokes between my legs to flood my body with heat and to make me wet for him.

Mercer laughs quietly as my cheeks flush at my body's weakness. 'It really doesn't take much, does it?' he says with amusement as his fingers start to work me slowly.

It doesn't, I think distantly in agreement, the purposed rhythm of his touch at my clit causing pleasure to mount in me faster than I knew possible. It's not long before a breathy moan escapes my lips as the feeling starts to intensify, my body eager to achieve its satisfaction, recalling vividly how it felt the last time.

'Gods, you're even easier than before,' Mercer mutters, but I hear the smug tone to his voice. 'Haven't you done this to yourself while you've been gone?'

I ignore him, barely able to think of anything except the pleasure, not wanting to think about anything except the pleasure. If I do, I'll start wondering what the fuck I'm doing.

'Wren,' he says, leaning down to murmur in my ear as his fingers suddenly stop moving, making me whimper quietly with longing. 'I asked you a question.'

'No,' I answer him, completely unable to recall what I have been doing this past week but knowing that I have not felt like this since he last touched me, knowing I would've remembered.

The Guildmaster makes a satisfied laugh in his throat. 'Such restraint, little bird.' His fingers resume their motion between my legs, quickly making the pleasure rise in me once more. 'I'm surprised. You usually can't help yourself, can you?'

As if my body hears him, my hips start to arch with his touch, my ass pushing back into his groin, and when I feel the hardness of his cock pressing against me through our trousers, I realise that his own desire is heightening. Not as fast as mine, I think, the combination of his fingers working expertly at my core and the pressure of his unyielding body behind me causing my breathing to quicken in my throat and my blood to race hot through my veins.

'So you want me to finish the lesson?' Mercer says in my ear, a few moments later.

I don't reply as I grip tight at the wall, the rough stone scratching my fingers.

His touch grows harder, as does his voice. 'Answer me.'

'Yes,' I whimper, wanting nothing else.

'Yes?' Mercer repeats. 'Yes, what?'

My instincts scream at me not to answer as I know he wants me to, but in that moment my instincts seem disconnected from every other part of me.

'Please.' My voice is a whisper, barely audible, but I know Mercer hears, for he makes a quiet laugh in my ear, the sound making me shiver with regret at the short pitiful word out of my mouth.

'Good girl.' I hear the smirk in his voice. 'Then walk your little ass over to my room and wait outside until I come back later.'

He takes his hand from between my legs and steps back from me. I'm just strong enough to stop myself from whining needily at the abrupt absence of his touch, but when I turn away from the wall to face him, trying to control my desire, trying to crush the need he has built so swiftly inside me, my frustration must show on my face, as Mercer snorts in laughter as he looks down at me.

'What? I've got other things to do beyond seeing to you.' His eyes flash with amusement. 'I'll be back in an hour, so try to show some more of that restraint and wait. Besides, is your memory that fucking bad? I told you you'd have to earn it next time. While I'm gone, think about how you can do that, little bird.'

Before I've even reconnected my mind to respond to him, the Guildmaster turns away and strides back across the room to unlock the door, and a second later I jump as it slams shut behind him.

For a while there is silence, save for the distant rushing of water and the blood thudding in my ears. In every part of me, I think, feeling my body's warmth, the simmering frustration and desire fighting with the fury that Mercer can so easily provoke those feelings inside me.

I refasten my trousers swiftly. I'm not waiting outside his room for him to finish what he has started, I think resolutely, even as my body begs for a release and the quick touch of my hands at my trouser ties sends a shiver of anticipation through my lower stomach. I'm not.

I don't leave the training room until my breathing is steady and I am certain my face is no longer flushed. When I walk out into the Cistern, I see Thrynn and Vipir drinking in the kitchen, while another couple of guildmembers are embroiled in an argument over on the other side of the pool; I keep my distance from all of them, suddenly conscious of myself and the ache of desire between my legs, as if my fellow guildmembers somehow know what just happened and how susceptible my body is to our Guildmaster. Thrynn knows, I remember suddenly, recalling how he overheard me that night in Mercer's room, and a blush stalks up my neck as I hurry over to my bed.

Still fully dressed, I curl up beneath the sheets with the vague idea of trying to sleep, but my mind races and the expectant tension in my body remains, every part of me resisting sleep and the visions it might bring. I don't want to go back there, I think, remembering my dream of last night and the feeling of being crushed, of falling into the void and being unable to defend myself. The memory douses me in a cold sweat. I'd sooner think about how stupid I am for wanting Mercer Frey to touch me rather than think about anything else, I realise with an uncomfortable flutter in my stomach, realising that I'd rather be with him than be alone with nothing but my memories and my fear. My humiliation at his hands hurts less than everything else.

My heart hardens and it's not long before I get up from my bed and cross the Cistern to the Guildmaster's room.

It's just this once, I console myself firmly as I wait outside his door, knowing that tonight my resolve is far weaker than my desire to distract myself from my memories - but I assure myself that once the events of last night are no longer so fresh in my mind, I will find it far easier to resist succumbing and playing right into his hands. Like my week away made me forget what it felt like to have him touch me, a sarcastic voice whispers in my ear, sounding more like the Guildmaster than I'd like.

He keeps me waiting longer than an hour. I'm half-tempted to pass the time - and regain a little control over the situation - by picking the lock on his door and waiting inside, but I remember his threat if I ever broke into his room again, which in turn reminds me of what he was doing to me when he made the threat, and once that's at the forefront of my mind, it's all I can do not to start pacing up and down in frustration.

I regret my decision to be here the moment I hear footsteps down the passageway and the Guildmaster steps out of the shadows. His jacket and hood is showered with a light rain and he carries a satchel slung over his shoulder, but I care little about where he's been; as his dark gaze moves languidly over my body and a smug smirk pulls at his mouth, I realise my terrible mistake in being here waiting for him so obediently.

'Aren't you eager,' Mercer says mockingly as he pulls the key from his pocket. 'I can tell you're going to make this a very quick lesson, little bird.'

I fold my arms and don't answer as he unlocks the door, wondering if I should leave now before I make any more mistakes that I will regret. Despite the quiet voice in my head begging that I should turn around and leave, my body has a different course of action in mind and before I know it my feet follow the Guildmaster into his room; the sound of lock clicking behind me silences the voice of warning in my head.

I stand in the middle of the room as Mercer drops the satchel on his desk with the unmistakeable sound clinking of coins. I watch as he removes the golden daggers from his hips and lays them beside the satchel before he turns back to me.

'Well?' The Guildmaster begins unfastening his jacket, his eyes never leaving mine. 'I told you to earn it. So get on your knees and earn it.'

I draw my arms tighter around me, feeling like I am already on my knees at his mercy and not wanting to make it a reality. 'I don't think so,' I say.

'No?' He smirks at my expression. 'Oh, you thought I was just going to finish you off? But I don't think you deserve it, do you? You were gone for almost a week, little bird, and that's a week you've made the Guild no money. A week you've been of no use to me.' He laughs as he finishes taking off his jacket and throws it down on his desk beside the satchel. 'Did you really think you'd walk back in here and I'd lick that little cunt of yours just because you want me to?'

I glare at him, my cheeks flushing. 'You want it too,' I say sharply, desperate to retain some semblance of dignity. 'You started it. I never asked you for this.'

'You're right, you didn't ask for it,' he says, his tone mocking. 'You begged for it.'

'Not at first,' I snap.

That only makes him laugh. 'Such a disobedient little slut today, aren't you?' Mercer says softly. 'Clearly you still haven't learnt that things go better for you when you co-operate.' He steps forward and closes the gap between us. 'I told you I'm not getting you started,' he reminds me as he reaches up and roughly pulls apart my crossed arms, allowing his hands to get to my chest, where his quick fingers start to unfasten my jacket. 'So if you want to get off, first you'll have to get on your knees and know your place.'

At his proximity and the touch of his hands on my body, a flicker of anticipation races through me and I don't resist as Mercer pulls off my jacket and drops it down to the floor. As he tugs my shirt up and over my head, his fingers brush against my bare skin and my desire heightens abruptly, my breath catching and the feeling intensifying when his fingers move up to unlace my binding and he swiftly pulls the material away from my breasts.

Mercer steps back and his dark eyes flicker slowly over my bare upper body, lingering over my breasts, looking at me for longer than I find comfortable, and I draw my arms across my body. He knows I want him to touch me, not look at me, I think, seeing a small satisfied smile curve his mouth.

'Earn it,' the Guildmaster orders me again, and under the weight of his gaze I find I cannot find the words to argue or the resolve to hold my ground.

I drop to my knees in front of him and unfasten his trousers with unsteady hands before I pull the material down to free his cock. He is already hard for me and the thought that I have at least that much power over him makes my submission easier to bear; I take him in hand and lean in to lick along his length, my tongue slow and hot over him. A moment later and before Mercer can demand it, I open my mouth wide and take him in.

I start to move my mouth back and forth, and over the wet sounds as I suck down on his cock, I hear Mercer pull off his shirt and toss it to the floor. A second later, I feel his hands on my head and his fingers knotting tight in my hair; I grip his hips and relax my neck, knowing what he intends and what he wants, but I still cannot help a faint whine of pain as he roughly jerks my head closer to his body until his cock presses hard at the back of my throat.

'Keep making those sounds, little bird,' he murmurs with a soft laugh, keeping himself deep in my mouth as he starts moving my head backwards and forwards, the head of his cock rubbing deliberately at the back of my throat. 'It's the only noise I actually like hearing coming out of your mouth.'

He gets what he wants when I moan quietly again, some part of me hoping that my discomfort will bring him to his satisfaction sooner rather than later - I'm proven wrong, as he keeps me on my knees with his cock in my mouth for longer than I think I can bear or he can last, and I realise the Guildmaster clearly isn't as desperate for a release as I am. By the time he finally stops moving my head, my knees ache painfully from the hard stone beneath me and my neck and jaw are sore from the unrelenting pressure of him in my throat.

When he takes himself from my mouth and steps back from me, I collapse down to all fours and gasp to take a breath through my overworked mouth. Mercer looks down at me in amusement as he starts to remove his boots.

'Come on, that was too much for you?' He snorts with laughter. 'Poor delicate little bird. Maybe I should stop before I hurt you?' He laughs again as he pulls off his trousers. 'But you don't want me to stop, do you? Stand up, bird. I want to see just how wet you are for me.'

Not wanting to be on my knees for him any longer, I struggle to my feet as Mercer steps back up to me. In moments he strips me of the rest of my clothes, and I barely have time to feel the nervous shiver at being exposed to him again before he shoves me flat down onto the bed and climbs on top of me. I find that my body is more than willing to obey the Guildmaster's demands even before he makes them, as my legs part wide to allow him to kneel between my thighs.

Mercer looks down at me, his eyes moving slowly over my breasts before his gaze moves down between my legs. 'Wet enough,' he says quietly, as he takes himself in hand and leans over me. 'Does that mean you've understood the lesson?'

'The lesson?' I repeat, clutching at his broad shoulders, my voice faint with my sudden anticipation as I feel his hard cock brush against my entrance and my desire for a release increases abruptly with the nearness of him.

Mercer grabs my hands from his shoulders, pinning them either side of my head. 'Gods, you're slow,' he mutters as he lets go of one of my hands and reaches down between our bodies, and without another word he thrusts his cock inside me.

I cry out sharply, the pain no less than the first time - yet as he pushes deeper, I feel my rising desire overtake the fading pain, my body still on edge and desperate for its satisfaction from his fingers an hour earlier. My breathing quickens as I try to get used to him and my free hand rises to his shoulder once more, but I don't have time to wonder if I intend to push him away or pull him closer, as again Mercer grasps my wrist and pins it against the sheets by my head.

'Do I always have to spell it out for you?' he says, looking down at me as he reaches my limits, his hips against my spread thighs. He leans down closer, his weight pressing down on my wrists as he holds himself within me. 'I'll make it as simple as I can. You leave the Guild again without my permission and I'll chain you naked to this fucking bed.'

I don't reply as Mercer starts to move back and forth inside me, slow and deep and deliberate like he was in my throat, except this time it is pleasure that aches fiercely through me rather than pain.

'Am I talking to a damn wall?' he says sharply. 'You don't go anywhere without my permission, is that understood?'

'I can do what I want,' I gasp through the pleasure, although I'm well aware every inch of my body currently has no desire to ever leave his bed, let alone the Guild.

Mercer laughs softly, seemingly knowing my thoughts. 'What you want is this.' Suddenly he thrusts hard and rough inside me, and the sound of his own breath catching is lost beneath my keen cry of pleasure.

As he holds himself there, I feel my muscles clench tight around his cock, the need for a release suddenly building uncontrollably inside me, although I do my best to hold it back and to steady my breathing.

'There's no point biting your lip, little bird,' Mercer says as he looks down at me beneath him, his dark gaze watching me in amusement. 'All you have to do is tell me you want me to fuck you and I'll do it as hard as you like.'

I clench my jaw tight, feeling it ache from his efforts earlier but caring about little else beyond the pleasure rising fast and desperately inside me.

'Tell me you want it,' Mercer repeats, before he quickly pulls back and thrusts deep into me again, and as I cry out loudly in pleasure, I know I cannot deny it anymore.

'I want it,' I moan, finally admitting it to myself. 'I want you to fuck me.'

I hear his quiet laugh of satisfaction before he does as promised and slams hard inside me once more. I tilt my head back and moan with the sensation, but it doesn't last for long, and I gasp in frustration as Mercer pulls out of me abruptly.

'You're a slow learner, Wren,' he says as he pushes back from me and gets up from the bed.

I struggle to an upright position just in time to see him retrieve the shackles from his desk drawer. Instinctively, already feeling completely helpless and not wanting him to have any more power over me, I scurry backwards on the bed, but Mercer is quicker than me - he catches my left leg and drags me back, his hand gripping my calf as he closes one of the metal cuffs around my ankle.

'You thought I was joking?' he says as he locks the adjoining cuff around the wooden frame at the foot of the bed. 'You shouldn't underestimate me. I expect you'll learn that before I'm done with you.'

I scramble to reach for the shackles, even though I know well enough that I'm not getting out of them without the key, but Mercer swiftly pushes me back flat on the bed and climbs on top of me again, pinning my hands above my head with one hand. I try to move out from underneath him, but the strength of his body and hard iron of the shackle at my ankle trap me in place, and all I can do is bring my right leg close to my left in the only form of protest I have remaining to me.

'Don't make me chain your legs apart,' Mercer says warningly, and his free hand slips down to my warm wet core.

With only a few hard and skilled strokes at my clit, my legs part for him eagerly once more, my body as weak as my resolve. The Guildmaster pulls my free leg up, hooking my calf into his shoulder before he leans down and enters me again. Before my cry of delight is even out of my mouth, he starts fucking me fast, his pace relentless as he drives his cock as deep as my body allows him - and soon, before I know it, my body succumbs to the feeling and the pleasure peaks in me violently.

I come fast and keenly, my hips arching desperately against him as I moan breathless and loud, until a moment later the tension disappears from every muscle in my body and leaves me limp and useless under him. As my leg slips from his shoulder, Mercer hooks his arm around my knee and pulls me back to where he wants me.

'Desperate little slut,' he mutters as he resumes his pace, his own breathing growing rougher with his effort. 'You're too fucking easy.'

I barely hear his words and care even less, focused only on trying to catch my breath and recover my senses from the height of the release as my body slumps exhausted into the sheets beneath me. Like sinking into the void, I think vaguely, although I'm conscious that oblivion does not offer the same kind of pleasure. And I want this pleasure more, a voice whispers in my head, louder and clearer now, and for once my resolve is too depleted to even try to deny the thought.

It's not long before the Guildmaster finishes too, with a groan and several brutal thrusts that make me gasp with the force against my body. After he's worked out the last of his pleasure, he looks down at me, his dark eyes glinting with a combination of satisfaction and derision.

'It seems you're going to need a few more lessons, aren't you?' he says. 'I don't think you really get what I'm trying to teach you.' He laughs quietly. 'And you come too easy, little bird.'

I gasp as he pulls out of me roughly and he gets up from the bed. I watch him go to his desk once more, and when he returns, I notice that he carries the key to the shackles in his hand.

'Sit up,' he commands, as he stands at the foot of the bed.

I obey, forcing my body to move despite its satisfied exhaustion, and I hear the clinking of the chain at my ankle as I manage to sit up and look at the Guildmaster.

'Here.' Mercer dangles the key in front of me by the chain. At my wary expression, he laughs. 'You can take it and go,' he says. He inclines his head, a smirk curling at his mouth. 'Or you can open your legs and I'll make you come again. And since you've behaved yourself reasonably well tonight, this time I'll allow you to decide which part of me I'll use on you.'

I look up at him, still wary and waiting for him to say something else, but Mercer only looks back at me silently and as he holds my gaze, I try to fathom his expression, not sure if there is impatience, laughter or something else in his dark eyes. As if he is daring me to leave, I think. Or daring me to stay.

My heart beats nervously in my chest as I reach up and hold my hand out. Mercer lets go of the chain and he drops the key into my hand.

I hold it in my palm for a few moments, the metal cold against my hot skin, until a second later there comes a quiet thud when I throw the key aside and let it fall to the floor out of my reach.

Chapter Text

I wake up alone and chained by my ankle to the bed. My mind is disoriented for a moment, not recognising the room in which I have awoken, feeling an unfamiliar mattress and a warm tangle of sheets beneath me, and I am conscious of my naked body aching in ways I did not know possible and my mouth tasting of a man's pleasure.

With a rush of comprehension, I remember exactly what happened last night. Although I can't remember how many times we fucked, I think, before my cheeks blush, even though I am alone and there is no one around to see my humiliation. And how many times I begged and got on my knees and did everything Mercer wanted until he let me come.

I sit up quickly, the sound of the clinking chain at my feet distracting me from my uncomfortable thoughts; when I shuffle to the end of the bed and look down at my bound ankle, I see the iron cuff has dug a faint violet groove into my skin. I look around, scanning the room for the key to the shackles as I try to remember in which direction I threw it, but either Mercer picked it up or I successfully threw it far enough out of my reach and vision that I have no idea where it is. That was what I wanted.

Now wanting nothing more than to get away from the Guildmaster's bed and all memory of everything that happened in it, I look around for my clothes, determined to retrieve my lockpicks from my pocket and break free of the shackles. I don't see them anywhere near the bed, despite remembering well enough how Mercer stripped me at the start of the night. My confusion quickly turns to anger when I eventually spot my clothes in a heap on Mercer's desk, and with a flush of irritation, I see the Guildmaster has left me a handful of lockpicks, similarly out of reach, laid tantalisingly on the desk on top of my trousers.

I get up from the bed and try to reach the desk, but with my ankle tethered to the bed frame, both my clothes and the way out of the shackles are just beyond the stretch of my fingers. Fury flashes through me as I sit back down on the edge of the bed and draw the sheets over my body as best I can, wondering what to do, having no desire to stay here naked and chained to the Guildmaster's bed and dreading the possibility of Mercer returning to find me still in this position. Not because of what he might do, but because I don't trust myself anymore.

The thought is too uncomfortable to dwell on, and I force myself to focus on the task at hand. It hits me suddenly that I have once before broken out of somewhere I did not want to be, and I did not have any lockpicks then either.

I reach up to my hair and find most of my pins loosened and lost beneath the rough grip of Mercer's hands. I pull out one of the remaining slivers of metal and quickly set to work on the cuff at my ankle, thinking how long it has been since I used hair pins instead of lockpicks. Those first few days at the Guild, I think, a curious flicker of longing inside me for a moment, though I cannot comprehend exactly what it is I long for.

The shackle soon gives way and with a flicker of triumph I free my ankle from its hold before getting up from the bed and crossing to the desk. I grab my clothes and dress myself hurriedly, resisting the urge to fill my pockets with the Guildmaster's gold and jewels that litter the desk's surface - though scattered seemingly without order, I've no doubt that he knows exactly how much is there. And I've no doubt that he'd think of some way to make me pay for the theft.

Dressed and resolved never to return to this room again, much less repeat any of what happened during the time I have spent here, I head to the door and am unsurprised to find it locked.

Breaking through is no easier the second time around. Knowing my hair pins won't stand a chance, I use all but one of the lockpicks Mercer left on the desk.

He said he'd kill me for breaking in, I think a long while later, as the sound of the lock finally clicking open sends sharp relief racing through me. He didn't say anything about breaking out.

I step out into the passageway and leave the door open behind me, hoping that one of the other guildmembers might walk in and make off with all of Mercer's gold. Just like I should've done the first time I broke in here, I think, until I remember what Brynjolf said the night I joined the Guild, when he assured me that the guildmembers don't steal from the Guild or from each other. And I expect no one else here is as stupid as I am to think about breaking into the Guildmaster's room anyway.

As I walk along the short passageway back to the Cistern, I try to tame my curls and make sure my hastily fastened clothes are not too crumpled from their night thrown on the floor. Is it even still night, or is it day time? I wonder as I step into the main cavern, but my concern over just how long I spent in Mercer's bed is overshadowed by my sudden irritation when I see that half a dozen guildmembers are around the table in the kitchen and it hits me that I will not be able to make the nightshade tea that I need without everyone noticing. And no one consumes a poisonous flower for fun, I think, fully aware that it would only take Thrynn making one casual comment about what he overheard last week to inform the entire Guild of what I was doing in the Guildmaster's room. The thought makes me flush with humiliation, having no desire for everyone to know how easily I submitted, not wanting the men of the Guild to think like Thrynn and assume I am willing to warm their beds or be chained to them, but I force myself to remember that none of them could possibly know exactly what occurred within the Guildmaster's room. For all Thrynn knows, Mercer was the one bound in shackles and begging me for it.

The thought makes me want to laugh and suddenly I feel my mood brighten a little, if only for the satisfaction that I would get from seeing Mercer Frey on his knees before me. I know I'll never cut his throat like I did the Argonian, I think, but I can at least try to imagine the Guildmaster begging me to touch him.

My mood improves even more when I realise the Guildmaster is nowhere to be seen, and none of my fellow guildmembers pay me any attention, much less seem to notice that I've come from the direction of Mercer's room. Preferring not to be here when he returns, I decide to spend what's left of the day above ground and scope out a few suitable houses to rob. And collect the necessary ingredients from the graveyard, I think as I cross over to my bed to gather my things, hoping that by the time I return the Cistern will be empty and I can brew the tea in peace.

When I get ready to leave and I lift my satchel onto my shoulder a short while later, the heaviness of the contents confuses me for a moment until I realise I'm still carrying around the book I stole from the Temple of Mara. Wanting to rid myself of the book and the memories it bears, I head to the Flagon and settle at a table near Tonilia's usual corner to wait for the Redguard to show up.

The tavern is deserted, save for a small cluster of hooded figures in one of the dark corners and the usual suspects at the bar, although I notice Delvin is in the middle of a transaction with an unfamiliar golden-haired female Bosmer - even from a distance, I realise that the wood elf's assortment of items are stained with what is unmistakably blood. The way Delvin grins and the pretty Bosmer laughs at whatever he is saying, they seem like old friends and that this is no out-of-the-ordinary exchange.

I decide the less I know about it the better. As I wait for Tonilia, I pull out my stolen book and flick idly through the pages. Soon I discover that it is a healing spell tome, and I'm about to throw it aside, having no skill much less any interest in the magickal arts, when suddenly I wonder if I shouldn't try to learn the spell after all. It might come in handy when I finally find myself facing Astrid, I think, feeling a flutter of fear in my stomach, well aware that the woman must have risen to the leadership of an assassins' guild by being an expert in the art of murder and pain, and that just managing to survive an encounter with her would be impressive enough.

There will be a time when she is vulnerable, I remind myself as the hollow feeling of dread inside me intensifies. And I just have to be close to her when that time comes.

As I read, I soon come to the conclusion that the spell tome is for novices, teaching little beyond the mending of surface wounds, to knit torn flesh and repair bruised skin, yet even the relative simplicity of the spell leaves me confused and it's not long before my frustration rises and I snap the book closed before shoving it back into my satchel, wondering just how I am ever going to defend myself against Astrid, much less succeed in killing her.

Frustrated, I look up to see the Bosmer seems to have left the Ragged Flagon and Delvin is drinking alone. At least thieving can give me a sense of accomplishment, and the shadows are more familiar than spells.

'Well, well,' the old thief says, when I approach him at the bar a few moments later. 'Nice of you to stop by, sweetheart.' He grins before he takes a drink from his tankard. 'Wondered if you might've abandoned us for good.'

'I could never abandon you, Delvin,' I say lightly, as I take the seat beside him and I throw down a few coins for Vekel. 'Have you missed me?'

'Aye, that I did, darlin',' he says. 'This place is always brighter with you around.' After Vekel has handed me my wine, Delvin holds out his tankard to him for a refill. 'You're back in one piece without a trail of guards behind you, so I take it your Brotherhood contract was a success?'

I don't ask how he knew I even had a contract to complete, let alone that being the reason I was away from the Guild. For all I know, Astrid is in regular contact with Delvin as well as Mercer, I realise, remembering what the old thief had told me about his relationship with the assassin.

'It was,' I answer briskly, not wanting to discuss it any further and feeling at a distinct disadvantage, realising that they all know far more than I do.

Delvin seems to get the hint and thankfully doesn't pursue the topic. 'Glad to hear it, sweetheart. And is it business or pleasure you want with me today?' He gives me a roguish grin. 'For once, give me the answer I want to hear, eh?'

'I'm too light in the pockets for pleasure, Delvin, I can barely afford this wine,' I say sweetly, meaning it, well aware that my week in the rented room at the God's Tap has drained far more of my gold than I'd like. 'I'm here for work, if you've got anything going.'

'Ah. Can't help you there, I'm afraid,' he says. 'Jobs have been drying up and our regular clients have been less forthcoming since that disaster at Goldenglow.' Delvin grimaces, and I don't have to ask why, knowing well enough the story of how the job ended in blood and with a guildmember on the gallows for murder. 'I've only had a few small-scale ventures come my way and they're already taken, sweetheart. Unless you fancy doing a little fishing for me, I'm all out of work for the minute.'

Disappointment cuts through me, knowing my skill in pickpocketing is poor and my success is entirely reliant on the drunkenness of the mark. I don't have Brynjolf's skilled fingers, I think, but that thought only turns my disappointment over not having any work into a sudden and desperate desire just to get above ground and away from the Cistern.

'Well, if you get anything, keep me in mind, would you?' I say to Delvin, finishing my wine in one go and standing up.

'Aye, love, you can count on that,' the old thief says with another grin.

I leave him to it and head back to the Cistern, feeling a strange and unexpected sense of uncertainty in my stomach as I start to wonder what I will do if the Guild no longer has a place for me. Where would I even go? I think, remembering how I was going to leave the city the night I escaped Honorhall but with no real idea where I was headed. I realise that I still have no idea, that I know no other city but Riften, that I have nothing else but this. I have the Dark Brotherhood now, I think, but that thought sends a chill through me, and the feeling of uncertainty lingers as I am forced to remember the fact that I don't even know where the Sanctuary is and that the only link I have with the Brotherhood is Astrid, who may or may not ever contact me again.

Reluctant to think on any of it further, I'm relieved when I run into Rune and Niruin back in the Cistern and the dark blond thief tells me they're heading to the Bee and Barb. When he suggests I join them, I agree wholeheartedly, more than tempted to drown my uncertainty in another few cups of wine. When I step out of the tomb with them a few minutes later and find the graveyard bathed in a dim dusk, I realise that the day is already over. And that I spent far longer in Mercer's bed than I imagined.

That thought, coupled with the familiar and overwhelming scent of nightshade, forces me to remember what I must do. I can drink wine afterwards, to get rid of the taste, I tell myself as I walk with Niruin and Rune through the city, and when we're within sight of the tavern a little while later, I tell the thieves I have business to take care of and I'll catch them up inside. I don't give them time to question me before I head across the marketplace in the direction of the western canals, where I know I'll find an alchemist's store in the street just before the lower walkways. Maven Black-Briar's daughter works there, I think, remembering my first few days of lessons from Delvin and Vex, when they taught me which places in Riften I could steal from and which were protected by the Guild. I learnt those lessons fast enough, at least.

To be so near the canals once more unnerves me, but I force myself to keep moving and focus on the reality. Would I rather be here right now or presenting the Guildmaster with his child in nine months? The terrifying thought spurs me on and I arrive at Elgrim's Elixirs just as a dark-haired young woman in robes is locking the door.

'I'm sorry,' I say as I rush up to her. 'I need to buy something.' Before she can open her mouth, I pull out my coin purse from my pocket. 'I've got money. Please, it's urgent.'

The woman's gaze flickers down quickly to the purse before she looks back at me. 'Urgent?' she says, her arched brows rising higher. 'Well, what is it you need?'

I falter, not sure how to ask for what I really need. 'I'm looking for a nightshade potion,' I say.

'Nightshade?' she repeats, curiosity brightening her pale eyes, and I realise she must think I mean to poison someone.

I suppose she's right. 'I don't want a child,' I blurt out awkwardly, not wanting to get into the details nor dwell on the thought.

Comprehension dawns on the woman's face and she turns back to the door. 'I can help you there,' she says softly as she unlocks the store. 'Come in. Just keep your voice down. Master Elgrim's asleep upstairs and he says he's had enough of me working through the night.'

I'm more than content to stay silent as I put my coin purse back in my pocket and follow her into the store, my head swimming a little as I take a breath of the air and taste dozens of scents fighting for precedence. Crystal jars and wooden boxes stuffed full of ingredients fill many of the shelves around the small room, while other cupboards and shelves are crowded with countless vials of varying shapes and sizes and contents.

The woman hums quietly under her breath as she quickly gathers a few ingredients before heading behind the counter to an alchemy work table. Her hands move too fast for me to study what she's doing as she grounds the ingredients into a paste before diluting it with some sweet-smelling liquid and tipping the contents into a small cup.

'Drink,' she says, putting it on the counter before me.

I take the cup and bring the potion to my lips. It is far more pleasant than the nightshade tea, the liquidy concoction flowery and vaguely honey-like, though at the back of my throat I taste the familiar bitter tang that by now I know well enough to be the deadly plant.

'It always amuses me,' the woman murmurs suddenly. 'Pluck the flower growing beside the nightshade and the poison turns into an antidote.' Her gaze meet mine, her pale eyes unblinking. 'The child would grow strong and healthy, and all because of a single petal chosen differently.' She laughs softly. 'Isn't the world ironic like that. Life and death growing next to each other... all it takes is our fingers stretching a few inches in the other direction and plucking the wrong flower.' Her thin lips curve into a smile. 'Or the right one.'

Her words unnerve me and I feel a shiver race down my spine, but before I can even think of a response, she takes the cup from my hands.

'I can make you up some extra,' she says. 'It retains its potency for several weeks, more if you keep it under moonlight.'

I hesitate, although I'm confident she isn't aware of how loaded her question is. Do I want this again?

The realisation that I'm even hesitating makes enough unease rise in me that I answer quickly and firmly. 'No,' I say, even as some part of me knows that I'll taste nightshade again. 'Thanks, though.' I reach into my pocket and bring out my coin purse. 'How much do I owe you?'

'What you've got there will suffice,' she says, eyeing my purse with a small sly smile at her mouth. 'For out of hours services, you understand.'

This is Maven's daughter, all right, I think as I reluctantly hand over my entire coin purse, knowing I am being overcharged but finding myself willing to pay the price.

'Pleased to be of assistance,' the dark-haired woman says, slipping my coin purse into a pocket of her robes swiftly. 'Do visit again if you have need of me.'

'Thank you,' I say, although I have no desire or intention to return. I'd rather keep my gold and just not make the same mistakes again.

Outside, the air is heavy and close with another storm, although a chill seems to follow me as I walk back to the Bee and Barb. I'm relieved when I enter the warm crowded tavern and find Rune and Niruin settled at a table in the corner with a bottle of wine already open for me. With no more money in my pockets, I promise to pay them back tomorrow, and soon the wine takes away the taste in my mouth and I soon forget all about the alchemist and my reason for visiting her.


*

 

The hours slip by in a comfortable haze, and as the drink takes its effect, I let myself get lost beneath the noise and warmth of the Bee and Barb. Niruin provides more than enough entertainment, as he tries to persuade Rune to support his business venture and help him start a brothel in the Cistern. I listen to their conversation, agreeing with Rune's point that such an enterprise would only draw more attention to the Guild, but also understanding Niruin's counter argument that considering the Guild's poor fortunes recently, at least we could rely on the whores to always bring in the coin.

Maybe that is my next calling after thief and assassin, I think, before somewhere in the back of my mind I remember that I have already had my body sold for coin. But that was not a calling, and I saw none of the profits from it. I drown the thought with half a cup of wine and try to ignore the rest of the thieves' conversation.

Some time later, the Bosmer spots a pretty woman on the other side of the room and declares he won't be returning to the Guild tonight. In his haste to get up from the table and engage the woman's services before another man reaches her, the Bosmer knocks over Rune's bottle of mead and the drink spills all over me. In my wine-induced haze, I barely notice, but Rune insists on giving me his jacket, which is when I realise I'm too drunk to remember exactly when I took off my own jacket and it hits me that I have had more than enough wine for the night.

With Niruin now occupied, I suggest to Rune that we head back to the Cistern. The dark blond thief is quick enough to get to his feet and oblige my request. In the small hours of the morning and with the rain still holding off, the streets are teeming with sellers, buyers and revellers of all variety, and I'm suddenly glad that I am not alone and that Rune can hold his drink better than I can. I keep close to him as we walk through the city to the graveyard, the cool night air clearing my head somewhat, but I only start to feel at ease once we are walking along the passageway and the familiar sound of water reaches my ears.

After Rune unlocks the door, we find the Cistern completely deserted - or so I think until I spy the Guildmaster at his desk, and I quickly understand why the other guildmembers have made themselves scarce.

Even without going near him, I can tell Mercer is in a vicious mood. His jacket is thrown messily at the edge of his desk beside two bottles, one empty and the other half-drunk. His dark brow is lowered and his eyes narrowed as he pores furiously over a map, trailing the tip of one of his golden daggers over the parchment, until suddenly he cuts the map in half, swearing under his breath as he tosses aside the dagger and reaches for the half-empty bottle.

'The Flagon?' Rune murmurs, clearly as aware as I am that being near the Guildmaster right now is a bad idea.

But so is comprising myself with any more wine, I think, not wanting to stumble out of the Flagon drunk and not in control of myself - and stumble right into the path of Mercer and his foul temper.

'I'm just going to go to bed,' I say, longing for a peaceful night in my own bed, finding myself unable to remember the last time I slept well and dreamlessly. 'And thanks to Niruin, I need to wash this mead off me,' I add to Rune, feeling my shirt sticking to my skin.

Not one to argue with my decisions, the thief leaves me at my bed and heads into the Ragged Flagon while I gather some clean clothes from my chest. I take the longer way back across the Cistern to the water room, staying as far from Mercer's desk as possible. For once, however, the Guildmaster seems uninterested in bothering me or even acknowledging my presence; he doesn't even look up from his desk as he screws up one torn half of his map and throws it to the floor.

More than content to be ignored, I lock myself securely in the water room and strip off my mead-sodden clothes before freeing my hair from its remaining pins. When I walk across the grates to stand under the open pipe and the warm water rushes over my body, I cannot help a sigh of pleasure from the sensation.

I'll miss this, if I ever leave the Guild, I think as I tilt my head back and close my eyes under the flow, remembering the icy baths in the rusty copper tub at the orphanage before my mind pushes the thought aside and instead I start to wonder how the Dark Brotherhood members clean their stained hands and bodies after a day's work. Maybe they don't bother, I think. Maybe they bathe in blood at the Sanctuary.

I splash water on my face to sober myself up faster, not liking my thoughts, not wanting to think where I have come from or where I might find myself one day. If I could stay in this moment forever, where there is no past or future, I would. I stand still beneath the water for a long time, listening to the familiar rushing noise, feeling my heart lose some of its pain.

The sound of the door closing startles me out of the fragile moment and my heart jolts as I open my eyes to find the Guildmaster inside the room. He locks the door and tucks what I presume to be lockpicks into his pocket before he turns around.

Without so much as a glance my way, Mercer leans down and starts to pull off his boots.

'There's a lock on that door for a reason,' I say angrily, stepping back and out from under the flow of the water, covering my wet naked body as best I can with my hands, not wanting to turn my back to him and knowing he is closer to my clothes than I am.

He ignores me as he kicks his boots aside and his hands rip loose the ties of his shirt.

'Get out, Mercer,' I say sharply, although by now I'm hardly surprised when he doesn't listen to my demand.

'I'm not in the mood to play,' he says as he lifts his shirt up and over his head. His voice is clipped and hard at the edges, the sound setting my body on edge - and I see the tension in his own body, the muscles of his bare shoulders taut as he throws his shirt to the ground next to his boots.

'Maybe I'm not in the mood for you,' I snap, tightening my arms around me, feeling cold as I stand naked and no longer under the warmth of the water, fury and fear striking through me at him breaking in here.

Not only fury and fear, I realise, conscious that the quickness of my heartbeat anticipates something other than danger, knowing what he wants and how little he cares for my protests. And how little I care to protest once he starts.

Mercer ignores me, and I find myself sober enough to remember how I woke up earlier and not wanting to repeat the experience of being at his mercy. 'Do you know what a locked door means?' I try again as he starts to unfasten his trousers and I do my best to ignore the tentative desire inside me.

'I said I'm not in the fucking mood for your games,' Mercer snarls. 'And you want to talk about locked doors, do you, little slut?'

He pulls off his trousers and finally looks at me properly; it's then that I notice the vicious fire burning in his dark eyes as he looks me up and down, and I realise he's angrier than I've ever seen him. What faint desire I had vanishes beneath the intense fear that I'm alone with him and I have nowhere to go, and I suddenly realise that he intends me to take the brunt of his anger.

'Now we're even,' he says quietly before he walks towards me.

'Fuck off,' I say, backing away to the wall too fast - my feet slip over the wet stone grates and I stumble, my ankle twisting painfully under me as I try to right myself.

Mercer is in front of me before I've found my footing and his strong hands grab my waist. 'Just shut the fuck up,' he says before he turns me around roughly and shoves me closer to the wall.

I struggle against his hold but he grips me easily at my waist while his other hand slides up my back and he pushes down hard, bending me over. I reach out and clutch at one of the pipes that run along the wall to keep my balance as Mercer presses up behind me, his cock already hard and jutting against my ass.

'Why don't women ever learn their fucking place?' he mutters as his knee goes between my legs to push them apart. 'Do you think you can cross me too, little bird? You think you can fucking outsmart me?'

Not understanding his words or his anger, I don't have time to think of an answer as Mercer pulls back my hips and in one swift motion he roughly thrusts his cock inside me.

Wet from the water but not from desire, the pain cuts through my body fiercer than before. I cry out loudly and struggle to straighten up from my prone position, but Mercer's arms are stronger than my whole body - his hold on my hip tightens while his other hand moves to press hard between my shoulder blades, forcing me to stay bent over as he withdraws himself.

'But you wouldn't be clever enough to think of outsmarting me, would you?' he says before he immediately slams deep into me again and I gasp with the pain, my arms buckling as they brace against the wall. 'You're not even clever enough to realise this is all you're good for.'

'You fucking-' My words get cut off beneath my cry as Mercer repeats his effort.

'Watch yourself, slut,' he says, his fingers digging painfully into my hips to hold me in place as I try to writhe away from him. 'You don't realise how easy it would be to just take you whenever and however I want.' I hear the Guildmaster make a quiet cold laugh as he pulls out of me. 'That night you stumbled out half asleep in your wet little shirt, remember that?' His hand slides down my back and he takes a rough hold of my hips with both his hands. 'I was going to bend you over your bed and fuck you so hard they'd hear you screaming in the Flagon.'

He demonstrates just how hard he would've fucked me, and I cry out loudly, bracing my arms against the force of his thrust.

'Louder than that, little bitch,' he says, and I hear his groan of effort as he slams hard into me again, and then again.

I scream louder with each of his thrusts as he sets a brutal pace, almost falling forwards into the wall with his force, but his grip on my body is unyielding as ever and he keeps a firm hold of me exactly where he wants me.

And I wanted this, I think desperately, remembering how I begged for it last night and the times before, my body now begging for my pleasure to overtake the pain.

I close my eyes and hear my keen cry echo in the damp wet corners of the room, the sound louder than the rushing water. A familiar sound, I think, the echo of my moan provoking some memory in my body - and then suddenly my body starts to react as it did last night, when it begged, when it wanted, when it submitted; my back arches of its own volition, my ass pushing back to meet the Guildmaster's thrusts, and my blood races hot through me, no longer afraid, already knowing the pain he can cause and aware that every inch of me would rather feel whatever pleasure it can.

I want it, I think, convincing myself better than anyone else ever could. I want this.

If at any point Mercer notices that my moans of discomfort are mixed with gasps of pleasure, his only reaction is to fuck me rougher and make me scream louder. My hands grip the pipe in front of me and I try to steel my arms, feeling his hips hitting against my ass faster and harder, knowing he is near to his satisfaction.

One of his hands slides up my spine to grip the back of my neck as he leans over me, and with several violent thrusts and a hitched groan, he comes swiftly and hard, driving his cock deep inside me as his fingers dig into my neck with his final thrust.

My own gratification is far from reached but the thought of satisfying my need disappears from my mind when a moment later Mercer pulls out of me abruptly, the sensation making me whimper with the soreness between my legs, the pain rushing back to exceed what pleasure I might have momentarily enjoyed.

I use the pipe to pull myself upright and steady my shaking legs as Mercer walks away and I hear him stand under the water. I turn around to face him, some small dull part of me begging mindlessly for a release until I shut the feeling down, having no desire to go near the Guildmaster, let alone get on my knees and plead. My body sore and shivering, I draw my arms close around me as I realise I have to walk past him to get out of the room. Although some of his anger is now noticeably worked out, the tension remains in his broad scarred shoulders and there is only ice in his dark eyes when he notices me watching him.

'Fuck off, Wren,' Mercer says as he turns sideways under the water, tilting his head beneath the flow before running his hands through his short dark hair. 'I'm done with you.'

The cold sarcastic tone of his voice makes fury flare in me, not only at him but also at myself for even feeling a flicker of enjoyment from what just happened. He can take me however and whenever he likes, I think with a bitter sense of despair. And I let him.

'I hope whoever outsmarted you cuts your throat,' I snap viciously as I stalk past him towards the heap of my clothes. I'd love to help them do it.

He snorts with laughter but fortunately doesn't reach out for me as I pass him. 'Settle down, little slut, you'll get yours later if you don't test my patience.' I feel his gaze lingering on my body as I hurriedly dry off and start to dress myself. 'And the bitch didn't outsmart me,' Mercer adds quietly. 'I'll find her. And I'm going to do far more to that fucking whore than cut her throat.'

With his words, I realise that the sarcasm in the Guildmaster's voice has vanished and there is only cold hard danger. A shiver passes through me, one that I know I cannot ignore or smother beneath desire and pleasure.

He said he'd think of a more inventive way of killing me than slitting my throat if I ever crossed him, I remember, although I desperately wish I didn't.

Feeling a chill set inside me, I don't speak or turn to look at him as I finish dressing, my fear silencing my anger. Fortunately, Mercer seems similarly disinclined to speak to me again as I bundle up my old clothes and unlock the door, although I feel his hard gaze on my back, even after I've stepped out into the Cistern.

I'm half tempted to leave the door wide open to make Mercer have to walk over and shut it himself, but I realise that keeping as many closed doors between myself and the Guildmaster is the wiser thing to do. Although he's already proven that locked doors won't stop him from taking what he wants, I think, before the uncomfortable thought hits me that I started this, that I broke into his room first and ended up begging him for it. I chose this, didn't I?

I slam the door behind me, wishing I could hit Mercer with as much force. Or myself, to knock some sense into me, I think, but I find I have no time to feel my regret or fear, as I look across the Cistern and realise Sapphire is sitting cross-legged on the end of my bed.

At the sound of the door slamming, the raven-haired thief looks up and her eyes meet mine.

I freeze, caught off-guard for a moment. Then my mind replays our awkward goodbye with keen regret and suddenly I realise how stupid I was to be jealous and how foolish I was to care. Can I be hurt that she wanted Brynjolf, and he wanted her? I think, knowing she deserves to feel safe and wanted, to feel pleasure after what she endured in her past. And maybe I don't, a quiet voice whispers in my ear, reminding me of the unjustified blood on my hands and the paths I have chosen to walk.

In that moment, however, I'm surprised when I find it easy to push aside everything except for the intense relief that Sapphire is back and safe. Nothing else matters, I think, as I walk across the Cistern and come to stand beside my bed, realising just how much I missed her.

'Rune said you were going to bed,' Sapphire says before I can even speak. 'I wanted to see you before you went to sleep, to make sure you were... all right.'

I recognise the familiar wariness in her eyes, as if she doesn't know I will react to her concern. Suddenly I cannot help but wonder whether she heard my screams from the water room. Feeling my cheeks start to flush, I force the possibility from my mind, convincing myself that the sound of the rushing water drowned out whatever she might have otherwise overheard.

I drop my bundle of clothes on the floor beside my bed and sit down beside her, trying to ignore the ache between my legs as I do so. 'You know you don't have to worry about me, Saph,' I say lightly, smiling. 'I was more concerned about you. I hear Solitude's a big place, I'm just glad you didn't get hopelessly lost up there.'

A smile pulls at her mouth and her hazel eyes crinkle up. 'It's nice to hear you had faith in me,' she says.

'Well, it sounds like you didn't need my faith anyway,' I point out. 'The job was a success, I hear.' I raise an eyebrow. 'Whatever the job actually was. Something about a double-crossing agent?'

Sapphire shrugs. 'I had to steal a few things to bribe him to talk, but I don't know much else or what he actually said. Brynjolf handled it.'

Bryn, yes, Bryn. I force the sound of her moaning his name out of my head and stop myself wondering how many more times she made those same sounds on their trip together. 'Where is he?' I ask casually. 'Or did he actually get lost in Solitude?'

'He's in his room.' Something flickers in her eyes, although I cannot read it. 'You should go see him,' she says. 'He'd like to know you're all right.'

I try to think of something to say, but suddenly faced with the prospect of seeing the auburn-haired thief again, of speaking with him and being near to him again, I feel nerves flutter in my stomach and my mind races too fast for me to come up with a reply.

Yet I barely have a chance to say anything anyway, as from the corner of my eye I see the water room door open and Mercer walks out, before he slams the door shut behind him and strides through the Cistern in the direction of his room.

My heart jumps painfully when Sapphire glances over to him at the sound of the slamming door. A moment later, her gaze flickers back to me, confusion in her hazel eyes for a few seconds until some comprehension seems to dawn on her and her expression turns to one of shock.

When I realise she has come to the most likely conclusion from the fact that the Guildmaster and I were alone in the water room together, I feel a blush stalk up my neck, not knowing what to say or how to deny it or explain it to her, knowing she would never understand. How could she understand the part of me that wants it despite the humiliation? I wonder, barely able to understand it myself and not wanting her to think less of me because of it, much less wanting to admit to anyone how easily and willingly I submit to a man like Mercer Frey.

I quickly draw my arms across my body and force my expression to remain carefree. 'So did you at least bring me back anything nice?' I say jokingly.

My question makes Sapphire jump and her surprised expression vanishes, seemingly realising that I have no intention to try to explain what the Guildmaster was doing in the water room with me.

'I did,' she answers, before she gets up and without another word crosses the Cistern to her own bed, where she retrieves something from the messy pile of clothes thrown there. When she returns to me, Sapphire stands in front of me and holds out a parcel. 'For you,' she says awkwardly, not sitting back down.

'I didn't actually expect you to get me something, Saph,' I tell her, but she only shrugs and waits for me to take the parcel.

I do, and I pull apart the parchment wrapping to find a mass of folded silk, the colour so deep a violet it seems almost black and the texture so soft it feels like water beneath my fingers. Gently I pull the silk free and the material falls into the shape of a dress, a slender simple style without trim or elaborate decoration, but the beauty and expense of the material is undeniable.

'Saph...' I start, my words faltering as my hands slip over the soft silk, almost too scared to touch it in case my clumsy fingers tear it. 'This must have cost you a fortune.'

She shrugs again. 'The materials were free. And as for the tailor's time, well, I... convinced him that making the dress would be in his best interests.'

I don't ask how she convinced the tailor, knowing Sapphire would've chosen physical violence and threats over any more persuasive methods. She'd never get on her knees and beg. 'Well, thank you,' I say awkwardly, wishing I was better with words and knew how to make someone understand my appreciation. As I did with Rune, I resort to an easy smile. 'But when am I ever going to wear it? We don't exactly have many grand masquerades or balls down here, you know.'

The thief laughs, the rare sound sweet to my ears. 'I know. But you said you always wanted to be a princess in a fancy silk dress. Now you're at least halfway there.' She smiles. 'I couldn't get you a tiara, though.'

Although I smile back, something catches painfully in my heart. A princess, like in the stories I used to tell Lily at Honorhall, when she was stuck in her nightmares. And then suddenly I think of my own nightmares, the first one in particular, the night a man promised a small girl as many tiaras as she liked and a woman forgot to tell her a bedtime story, before they left her forever to sleep bleeding in front of a dying fire.

'It's beautiful,' I say, looking down as I careful fold the dress back up, swallowing to soothe my inexplicably dry throat. 'Thank you.'

'Don't mention it,' Sapphire says carelessly, although when I finally look up, I see relief in her eyes. She hesitates, and for a moment I think she's going to say something else, but if she was, she changes her mind. 'Anyway, I'll let you sleep.' The thief gives me another smile. 'Catch me up on everything tomorrow?'

'Sure,' I say easily, not feeling guilty for the lie, knowing I could never find enough words to explain everything to her. The Guildmaster is one thing. I have murdered two people since Sapphire left and I've realised I have no idea how many more I will kill before this ends.

The raven-haired thief leaves and returns to her own bed while I safely store the silk dress in my chest. Quickly I take off my boots and jacket and curl up in my bed beneath the sheets, burying myself physically as I try to do the same to the thoughts in my mind.

I fail. My wet hair drips cold down my neck and back, making me shiver as I think about all the things I never wanted to think about again, my thoughts circling painfully unti I realise that sleep is unlikely as turning back time.

At some point, I hear the sound of the Flagon door opening and a few guildmembers enter the Cistern, their footsteps cautious until they discover that the Guildmaster is no longer around. It's not long before the sounds of their talking and laughter confirms what I already knew and I sit up in bed, knowing for certain that I will not sleep. I retrieve the spell book from under my bed and read as best I can by the dim light, but the words make even less sense to me in the middle of the night with my mind distracted and uneasy and my body still sore from Mercer's anger. I quickly throw the book aside, thinking how useful the spell would be if only I could learn it.

I look around the Cistern, half-tempted to get up, pack my satchel and leave again, but fully aware that it is not the place but my own thoughts that I want to run from. My gaze falls upon Sapphire asleep in her bed and I remember what she said.

Brynjolf is back, I think, realising with a jolt that I just could get up and knock on his door and ask him to make me feel as safe as he made Sapphire feel. I could ask him to try and make me moan louder than anyone else could.

I suddenly realise that that thought terrifies me more than if I knocked on Mercer's door and asked him to chain me to his bed again. At least I know what I will get on the other side of that door. The idea of standing vulnerable and exposed before Brynjolf sends fear racing through me – and yet in that moment, I find that I am more afraid of being alone with nothing but my memories and pain than I am of being vulnerable or at another's mercy.

Before I know what I am doing, I get up from my bed and walk through the Cistern, glancing towards the guildmembers over in the kitchen, but they are arguing over who would've won the last hand of cards if no one had cheated and they pay me no mind.

My bare feet hesitant and cold on the stone floor, I linger near to the first passageway that leads off the Cistern, suddenly unsure of where I am going, but before I can even question myself, I walk down to the door and knock once.

Chapter Text

When the door opens and the Guildmaster looks down at me, I feel a shiver down my spine and I quickly draw my arms around my body, part of me wishing desperately that I had been brave enough to knock on the other door. I don't think I ever will be, I think, realising that I am more inclined to sacrifice my dignity rather than my heart.

I look up at Mercer. Shirtless and looking as if he has run his hand through his dark hair more than once, he appears to have slept as little as I have, although I doubt I'm the one that's kept him awake. There is ink on his hands, as if he has been writing furiously, and while his eyes still simmer with a dangerous fire, I can tell he is nowhere near as angry as he was before.

His eyes move over me too, and I see the familiar smirk pull at his mouth, but he says nothing as he stands in the threshold with one hand still on the door, waiting for me to speak.

Waiting for me to admit why I am here.

'Can I come in?' I ask, barely believing the question out of my mouth.

Mercer raises an eyebrow. 'For what, Wren?'

'You know what,' I say shortly, reluctant to give him the satisfaction of admitting to him exactly what I want.

'No, I don't,' Mercer says. 'If you want something from me, little bird, you're going to have to be specific. There's a lot of things I could do to you and not all of them you'd enjoy.'

I look up at him for a few long moments before I realise I have to yield. This is why I'm here, after all, I remind myself, well aware that what I want comes at a price. 'Fuck me,' I say.

The Guildmaster laughs, no hint of surprise in his expression, although amusement glitters bright in his dark eyes. 'Oh, you want it now, do you?' His eyes flicker over me again, slowly, taking in the shape of my body beneath my clothes. 'Maybe I'm not in the mood for you,' he says, mimicking my voice as he echoes my words of a few hours earlier.

I don't shy away from the pointed weight of his gaze, nor the memory of how hard he took me in the water room. 'I know you are,' I say. 'And I'm asking you.' I tighten my arms around my body, digging my fingers into my sides, focusing on that feeling rather than the words out of my mouth. 'Please.'

'Was that please?' he says with a mocking laugh. 'Already? You know, as much as I enjoy the sound of you begging, it's more entertaining when you try to pretend not to want it.'

I do not reply, knowing how much he enjoys my submission in any form, whether I am on my knees begging or he has me bent over and screaming.

A few seconds of silence pass, my discomfort growing with every passing moment under his derisive gaze, but fortunately Mercer doesn't seem interested in toying with me for very long. 'At least you seem to have learnt you're prettier when you're not talking,' he says finally as he steps back from the doorway and turns away into his room.

I take that for an invitation to enter and I follow him inside, closing the door behind me. I wait near the foot of his bed, but Mercer returns to his desk, where he picks up a quill and makes a few quick notes on a slip of parchment. Under the dancing light of the candles burning there, I notice the desk is spread with maps and scribbled documents.

'Trying to track down the person who outsmarted you?' I say tauntingly, unable to resist, half-wanting to provoke him into anger to make him take me faster.

But his anger has already been sated at my expense tonight and he only scoffs, not even turning around as he continues to write. 'That's beyond your concern, Wren,' he says. 'Now do you want to stand here talking and wasting my time or is there something better you could be doing?'

I realise what he means and I start to undress quickly, not wanting to waste any time talking to him either. I've already made it clear what I'm here for. At the sound of my shirt falling to the floor a few moments later, I see Mercer smirk as he returns the quill to the inkpot before he turns around and leans back against the edge of his desk to watch me undress.

Realising that I now have his attention and not sure whether I want it, I don't look at him as I raise my hands to my chest. My fingers are clumsy with the laces of my binding, remembering the last and only time I have willingly unfastened it for a man. Astride the Dunmer, when I was imagining he was Brynjolf.

I ignore my thoughts as surely as I ignore the way the Guildmaster's gaze moves over my body as I strip myself of my clothes. My hands hesitate at the ties of my trousers until my mind disconnects and I quickly rid myself of my trousers and smallclothes. When I am completely naked, I force myself not to draw my arms around my body as I look across the room at Mercer, feeling a shiver run through me that has little to do with the exposure of my bare skin.

The Guildmaster makes a sound of quiet satisfaction in his throat. 'So eager to shed your feathers,' he says, folding his arms as he surveys me, his gaze moving languidly over my naked body, slower than ever before, somehow stripping me in a way beyond the removal of my clothes.

My arms instinctively long to cover my body from his penetrating gaze but I manage to resist, knowing I came here to let him do more than just look at me - and yet I have to take more than one deep breath to steady my uneasy heart when I'm sure at least a minute has passed and the weight of his gaze becomes almost too uncomfortable to bear. For a while, my sharp intakes of breath are the only sounds breaking the heavy silence.

'I wonder,' Mercer says finally, his voice soft as his eyes narrow in amusement. 'Just how badly does the little bird want to get off?'

I feel my heart skip faster with the danger in his words, but I don't have time to think of an answer as he points to the bed.

'Lie down,' he orders.

No longer feeling any desire to provoke him to anger, I obey and get onto the bed, the firm feather mattress now familiar beneath my body.

He opens a drawer of his desk and I hear the familiar clinking of chains. Just as he was in no mood to play earlier, I am in no mood to resist, and when he walks over and stands at the edge of the bed, I lift my hands above my head and let him bind my wrists to the bed frame behind me.

'Why do you even have these?' I cannot help asking as I hear the click of the shackle locks.

'For little sluts like you,' Mercer says as if it's obvious, looking down at me with amusement. 'Don't tell me you don't enjoy it.'

I choose not to reply, having little desire to talk with him or rise to his words as I know he hopes I will, just wanting him to hurry up and take off his trousers.

However, for once the Guildmaster seems to want to hear me speak.

'Since I have you here, I thought we could talk about your Dark Brotherhood contract,' he says, his tone easy and light as he walks away from the bed and leans back on the edge of his desk. 'You never told me who it was, did you?'

The abrupt change in topic startles me, as does his movement away from the bed, and I am confused for a moment until I manage to collect my thoughts.

'You read the last note Astrid sent me,' I say slowly, knowing he wouldn't have handed me the coin purse without opening the letter first. 'It was a woman at the Temple of Mara. Her name was Nelia.' I pause, remembering that night vividly, knowing I need more time before the memories will mercifully fade. 'And she's dead now.'

'Not that one, Wren,' Mercer says, one of his hands running idly over the edge of his desk. 'Your little secret contract. The one you broke in here to find information for, remember?'

I feel my heart flutter in warning. 'What secret contract?' I say, deciding to act like I have no recollection of what he is talking about, remembering that the last time I refused to give up the truth, he cut my clothes from my body. And this time I'm already naked.

Mercer laughs. 'I'd say don't play stupid with me, but you're not playing, are you?' His hand brushes over one of his golden daggers lying on the desk. 'Look, as much as I find your games entertaining, it's nearly dawn and I've got more important things to do. So why don't you tell me who you're planning to kill and we can get on with this before I lose my patience.'

'I can't tell you,' I say, trying not to look at his hand on his dagger. 'Astrid will kill me if I do.'

Mercer inclines his head, the corners of his mouth turning up. 'And what if I kill you if you don't?' he says lightly, his fingers curling about the handle of the golden blade.

Suddenly, I feel the vulnerability of my position, lying flat and naked on his bed with my hands tied uselessly behind my head.

'I can't tell you,' I say again, although my voice is not nearly as strong now. Instinctively I shuffle my body slightly onto my side and bring my knees a little closer to my torso.

'Wren,' Mercer says warningly, and his hand closes around the handle of the dagger. 'Stay still and answer the question. Unless you want me to think of some other way of getting the information out of you?'

'Please, Mercer,' I say in a rush, my voice higher than normal as unease settles cold inside me, already knowing tonight how vicious he can be. 'Please, just... just fuck me.'

Mercer laughs. 'Gods, you're amusing. Don't worry, I'm going to fuck you, little bird, you're at least that much use to me. But I want some answers first. And depending on those answers, you might enjoy yourself or you might wish you'd never stepped foot into my Guild.' He picks up the dagger, toying with it in his hands, his dark eyes catching the light dangerously. 'Now don't make me ask you again,' he says quietly.

Cold fear cuts through my body and in my moment of panic, I race to think of a name to give him, one that he might believe. An important person in Riften who someone else might want them killed, I think desperately, but only one name comes to my mind and I blurt it out before I can think whether it's the right lie or not.

'It's Maven,' I say quickly. 'I have to try to kill Maven Black-Briar, all right? That's why I was in here. I knew you'd have information on her, because you work for her.' At his silence, I hurry to continue, feeling a small flicker of relief that I managed to think of a vaguely reasonable lie. 'One of her business rivals wants her dead and Astrid told me to get information on her, to find out where she is vulnerable.'

I try to level my shallow breathing as Mercer surveys me, his expression closed and unreadable.

'I work for her, do I?' he repeats evenly after a few seconds, and I realise what I've said.

'I meant with her,' I correct myself fast, knowing how much the idea of working for a woman would offend the Guildmaster. 'You work with her.'

Mercer looks at me for several more seconds, my heart quickening at his silence, until he suddenly laughs a harsh laugh that makes me jump. 'You could've come up with a less stupid lie,' he says, laughter glinting in his eyes. 'If you were really going to try to kill Maven, did it not occur to you that I would kill you first?'

I stare at him. 'You'd kill me to protect Maven?' I ask slowly.

Mercer tosses his dagger back onto his desk with a snort of laughter. 'The fact you're even asking me that proves yet again just how empty that head of yours is. You think I'd choose a good fuck over a business partner with more money and influence than a little slut like you could ever have?' He laughs again as he stands up from his desk and his hands go to the fastenings of his trousers. 'Gods, you're stupid.'

'Oh, I get it now,' I say tauntingly before I can stop myself, irritation rising in me from the insults thrown so casually my way. 'Maybe you wish you had that old woman tied up in your bed instead of a stupid little slut like me. Maybe you like them sour and wrinkled.'

Fury flashes in his eyes and I know I've hit a nerve. Maybe he does have a thing for Maven, I think, feeling a flicker of triumph that I have succeeded in wounding him.

Then Mercer smiles a cold smile and my sense of triumph withers as quickly as it came. 'At least Maven would be a challenge to bed,' he says, leaving his trousers ties unfastened as he folds his arms and his gaze moves over my naked body in derision. 'You're the easiest lay I've ever had, little bird, I only have to look at you for you to spread your legs and gush wet for me. Even whores are harder work than you, and I haven't even had to pay for your cunt.'

It's my turn for anger to flash through me and suddenly whatever desire I had to be here with him disappears. 'Unchain me,' I say abruptly, wriggling backwards onto the pillows and twisting my arms to bring my bound wrists around to the front of my body.

Mercer laughs. 'Oh, have you had enough?' he says mockingly. 'We haven't even started, Wren.'

'Unchain me,' I demand again, kneeling on the pillows as I pull against the chain keeping my wrists at the bed frame. 'I'm not doing this.'

'Don't get pissed off with me because you can't take the truth,' Mercer says in irritation. 'If you're going to act like a little slut, that's how I'm going treat you. Now, you still owe me an answer. Are you going to play nice and tell me the name of your contract? Or I suppose you'd rather I fuck the information out of you?'

'Unchain me,' I say for the third time. 'Now, you fucking bastard,' I add sharply to make my point.

Mercer sighs, although I can tell his enjoyment of the situation surpasses his irritation. 'Little bird,' he says softly as he unfolds his arms, his gaze flickering over my body. 'Sometimes I wonder if you'll ever learn.'

He pulls open the drawer of his desk and for one foolish moment I think he's going to retrieve the shackle keys. When he pulls out a thick strip of black fabric, I feel my heart tighten in my chest.

'Don't put that on me,' I say quickly, knowing what he intends.

'You can have this, or you can have this and a gag,' Mercer says as he walks to the bed. 'And how will you answer me without that little mouth of yours?'

'Don't,' I say again, trying to move backwards on my knees, but Mercer leans over and grabs my shoulder to keep me still, his grip no less unyielding than the shackles.

'Wren, don't waste my time,' he says, his voice edged with impatience. 'Unless you want me to teach you the lesson about what happens to little whores that don't do what they're told.'

I stop struggling, knowing that between the binds and the Guildmaster, I am going nowhere. And I have had enough of his lessons, I think before Mercer releases my shoulder and all other thought gets pushed from my mind as he places the blindfold over my eyes.

The fabric is thick and prevents even the faintest candlelight getting through. As I feel Mercer knot the blindfold at the back of my head, my heart races at the sudden and utter darkness.

'That's better,' he says quietly, his hand lingering on my hair for a moment. 'Now lie down like a good girl.'

I obey, shuffling my body to lie flat on the bed and moving my hands above my head once more, hearing the chain clinking in the silence.

And it is silent, I think a few moments later, realising that I cannot hear anything except the faint hiss of the candles burning and the quick sharpness of my breath as I struggle to steady my pounding heart. I try to listen for the Guildmaster, waiting to hear his footsteps or the rustle of material as he removes his trousers or the sound of his quiet laugh at my expense. When the silence endures and I have no idea where he is, much less what he's doing, my sense of unease only increases.

The seconds crawl by into what feels like hours, the silence overwhelming, until I cannot bear it any longer.

'Mercer?' I say nervously, starting to panic, half wondering if he has gone and left me incapacitated here for good - until I remember that he is a master thief and more than capable of remaining undetected, and my fear grows abruptly when I realise I have no way of knowing where he is or what he is doing, let alone have any way of defending myself.

Suddenly, I feel the touch of cool metal on my bare stomach and I flinch violently as the flat of a dagger presses against my navel.

'I wouldn't move, little bird,' Mercer says softly from somewhere close to my left, the sound of his voice so near to me making me jump, not realising he was standing right beside the bed. 'Unless you want my hand to slip and accidentally cut your pretty skin to shreds.'

I freeze, although I can do nothing to slow the sharp rise and fall of my chest as my panicked breathing quickens, every sense in my body heightening as Mercer runs the flat of the blade over my stomach.

'So we were talking about your secret contract, weren't we?' he murmurs, and I feel his knuckles graze my skin as he moves the dagger towards my ribs. 'I know it's not Maven, and I know even you're not stupid enough to try to kill me. So let's try a sensible answer this time, shall we?'

I hear the chain scrape along the wooden bed frame behind my head and the shackles dig into my wrists as my hands strain instinctively against their binds. I do my best to remain still, not doubting his ability to kill me in an instant, although I cannot help shivering a little as the dagger leaves a trail of goosebumps in its wake as it moves further up my body.

'I didn't gag you for a reason, Wren. Give me an answer.' As he speaks, the Guildmaster runs the dagger over my breast, the chill of the blade making my nipple stiffen and I can only gasp with the sudden sensitivity. 'Come on, little bird,' Mercer says softly, and I hear the smirk in his voice. 'Answer me.'

'There isn't a contract,' I whimper, wanting him to stop, wanting to yield, unable to bear the fearful tension in my body and knowing of only one way to release the feeling. 'I lied, I only broke into your room because I wanted you to find me in here, I wanted you to fuck me.'

The Guildmaster laughs quietly at the shrillness of my voice. 'At least you're partly telling the truth now, but you're still not quite there, are you? And I know you want me to fuck you, Wren, it's all I've heard you say recently. Tilt your head back.'

I've barely time to obey his sudden demand before I feel him move the dagger up to my neck. I hold my breath, the blood pounding in my throat as the cold blade glides over my skin.

Mercer says nothing for a long while as he holds the dagger there. I feel my heart beating faster, unnerved by his silence and my inability to see him or his expression, knowing I cannot tell if he's deliberating pressing harder.

When the Guildmaster finally speaks, his voice is low. 'I think we've learnt how just badly the little bird wants to get off. Enough to lie, but not enough to tell the truth.' He pauses. 'So what do I do with you now?'

I remain perfectly still and don't answer, knowing whatever I say will make no difference to him, that he will have made up his mind how this will end long before I even first opened my mouth. And surely he won't kill me here, in the Guild, in his bed, I think, although the thought is lost beneath my awareness that I cannot put anything past him.

The sudden realisation that all of this is entirely beyond my control causes a strange sense of calmness to wash over me, and as the dagger presses against my throat, the metal slowly growing warmer through its contact with my skin, I exhale slowly and easily, no longer fighting my fear, no longer shivering, no longer caring.

A few moments later, I hear Mercer laugh softly and he takes the dagger from my neck. 'I think you're learning,' he says, and I feel a shiver go through my navel as he lays the dagger flat on my stomach. 'But I know the little slut comes faster than she learns, doesn't she?'

The mattress sinks beneath his weight as he climbs onto the bed near my legs. His hands take my knees and he pulls my legs wide apart before a fierce shiver of pleasure cuts through me a moment later when I feel Mercer's warm tongue at my core.

Still aching between my legs from the his harsh efforts in the water room earlier and with every sense heightened and alert from the naked dagger at my throat, my body reacts quicker than ever; I gasp loudly as he licks at my clit fast and skilfully, the sensation swiftly flooding my frozen body with heat. Beneath my blindfold I shut my eyes tight and I bite my lip hard, trying to focus on the dagger still balanced precariously on my stomach, trying to bring the fear back to quell my building satisfaction, but my body quivers with the pleasure that courses through me from the skill of Mercer's tongue and I can no sooner slow the feeling than I can care whether the dagger cuts me to pieces.

My fingers dig into my palms and I moan breathlessly as the motion of his tongue quickens and the pleasure rises in me just as quickly. One of my legs moves instinctively to curl tight around him, to hold him where my body wants him, but my thigh has barely brushed against his head when Mercer stops and pulls away, leaving me wet and violently desperate for him to finish me.

At my frantic cry of longing, I hear Mercer's laughter, and then somewhere in my frustration I hear him unfastening his trousers. A moment later I feel his body over mine and his cock pressing between my legs, before he grabs my thighs and spreads them wider apart, pushing my knees back to either side of my body.

The shackles dig sharp into my wrists when Mercer enters me and I cry out keenly, wet and wanting from his tongue but still hurting after how brutally he took me a few hours ago; for a moment, with my body incapacitated and my eyes blind, all I can comprehend is the fierce pain. Yet when Mercer pushes his cock to my limits and starts to work himself deep there, it takes only a few rough thrusts from the Guildmaster to bury my pain beneath the heat of my pleasure, and my breath catches painfully in my throat as I moan for him to continue.

He fucks me hard and fast - and in no time I come just as hard and fast, my pleasure already too far gone from his tongue. I tilt my head back and cry out at the feeling as it peaks in me, my hands struggling against the iron binds and my body shuddering violently, before an exhausted numbness overwhelms every inch of me and I slump uselessly into the mattress beneath me.

The Guildmaster's pleasure comes minutes later. By the time he's finished, I barely notice or care, my satisfaction diminished and my body aching sorely with its overuse. As I hear him catch his breath, I suddenly become aware that Mercer's efforts and my throes of pleasure have caused the dagger to slip off to the side of my body and that I can now feel the warm metal poised against my ribs.

Conscious that a single movement might make the sharp blade cut into my skin, I force myself to remain as still as I can, though I cannot help a whimper of discomfort when Mercer pulls his cock from me roughly and with as little regard for my sensitivity as ever. Without a word, he gets up from the bed and I hear the soft movement of material as he refastens his trousers, and I decide it's safe to let my legs unfold down onto the sheets slowly, careful not to disturb the dagger.

I wait in the silent darkness, and when I feel his hands at my wrists, I jump in surprise before I hear the click of the shackles unlocking. Mercer frees me from the cuffs and throws the shackles on the pillow beside my head.

I lower my arms tentatively, my wrists as sore as the rest of me, but I don't move the dagger away, knowing I would probably cut my own hands if I tried to reach down blindly for it - and although my hands are now free, I do not raise them to my eyes, knowing that if Mercer wanted my blindfold removed yet, he would've done it himself.

'You know, I've thought of a use for you,' the Guildmaster says quietly from somewhere above me, and I feel his hand stroking my hair. 'I was just wondering how to solve a little problem of mine, and then there you were, knocking on my door, begging to come inside.' He twirls a curl of my hair in his fingers. 'A willing solution to my problem.'

The danger in his voice puts me on edge. 'What do you mean?' I say nervously, wishing I could fool myself into thinking the solution I offer him goes no further than merely spreading my legs and letting him take me as he likes. It's more than that, I think, although I have the cold gnawing suspicion that I will not know what it is until it is too late.

'You'll find out soon enough, little bird.' I feel his hands move over my head and suddenly he pulls off my blindfold in one quick motion. 'Now fuck off,' he says as I blink desperately in the sudden light. 'I've got work to do.'

I turn my head to look at him, my vision blurring for a moment, but he is already walking away back to his desk. 'But I thought...' I start, confused, assuming that this would be been like last night and that he would he let me stay, that he would want me more than once, that he would fuck me for hours until I could finally fall asleep exhausted and spent on his bed.

Mercer doesn't look around as he settles back at his desk and reaches for his quill. 'What? You think I've got nothing better to do than fuck you?' He shakes his head as he starts to write. 'It's nearly dawn and I've wasted more than enough time indulging you, little bird. So get the fuck out.'

Realising he is serious, humiliation rushes through me. I sit up quickly and reach down to move the dagger away from my side. As I grasp the handle, feeling the golden dagger's weight, the unavoidable thought runs through my mind. Three seconds, I think, knowing how long it would take me to reach where Mercer sits with his naked back to me.

And that would be about three seconds too slow.

Knowing that it would be smarter to slit my own throat than it would be to attempt to kill Mercer Frey, I leave his dagger lying on the bed before I stand up and hurry over to my clothes on the floor where I stripped myself a short while ago.

'I didn't think you were stupid enough to even consider that,' Mercer comments as I start to dress quickly.

When I glance over at him, I find he isn't even looking up from what he is writing, although with his words I realise he knows exactly what passed through my mind as I held the dagger.

Furious that I am seemingly disadvantaged against him in every respect, I turn away and finish lacing up my binding before reaching down for my trousers.

'Not talking to me now?' Mercer snorts with laughter. 'Finally you're learning what you're good for. Open that mouth when I tell you to and you'll do far better at amusing me, little bird.'

'I'm not trying to amuse you,' I tell him sharply, even as I think of the time I have spent in his room, knowing that I serve as his entertainment yet painfully aware that the shackles he places around my wrists or my ankle might as well not even be there. I came to his room tonight prepared to do whatever he asked of me, just as I willingly pleased him in any way he demanded last night.

'Well, I don't even have to try to amuse you,' Mercer says mockingly, and I know he is thinking of how many times I have begged him, moaned for him, how many times I have come for him. Before I can think of an answer, he stops writing and turns his head, his gaze finally meeting mine, and the cold laughter in his eyes and the smirk at his mouth makes my stomach twist uncomfortably. 'Even when you don't want it, you can't help yourself from enjoying it, can you?' he says softly.

The memory of how he took me in the water room turns my blood cold and I suddenly think of the guests at Honorhall, the rough ones, the ones that weren't nervous or tentative with their twisted desires, the ones that asserted that I liked it, the ones that frightened me the most not because of their violence and laughter but because I could never understand how they believed I enjoyed it.

But with Mercer, I convinced some part of me to like it, despite everything.

'I'm done,' I say, my body numb and cold, but Mercer only laughs a harsh laugh.

'Come on, Wren, I could cut your throat and you'd still want me to fuck you while you were choking on your own blood,' he says as he turns back to his work, the derisive smile still at his mouth. 'And yet you get upset when I call you a little slut.'

'Fuck you,' I say before I grab my shirt and turn away to the door, my skin crawling and my mind desperate to leave behind memories I cannot bear to relive.

When I pull open the door, I realise that for the first time he didn't bother to lock it. Why would he? I remind myself as I shut the door behind me and pull on my shirt before I stalk down the passageway. I came here willingly, entirely of my own choice. He knew I didn't want to go anywhere.

Several guildmembers are awake in the Cistern and I quickly return to my bed, pulling on my jacket and slipping my boots back onto my feet. As I look at my bed, I remember what Mercer said about it nearly being dawn and I realise I have not slept soundly or at any normal hour since the night I murdered Nelia. Maybe I really did end up in oblivion and everything since has all just been an illusion.

The ache between my legs as I walk to the Ragged Flagon reminds me that this is not an illusion. There's no pain in oblivion, I think, before I realise that there must be no pleasure either. I'd give it up forever if I never was hurt again, I decide, although a small voice in my head questions me, reminding me that I have more than once climbed willingly into a bed where I know my satisfaction comes at a price.

I push open the door to the Flagon, exhausted but knowing sleep is the last thing I am capable of doing right now. I look quickly past the clusters of patrons and head to a table in a dark corner, swiping a couple of half-drunk bottles from one of the tables as I pass by, not desiring to wait at the bar or talk to anyone.

I sit cross-legged on my chair and swallow down my pilfered drinks fast; not used to mead, my stomach turns a little with the taste. I close my eyes and wait for the feeling to pass, deciding it is a welcome distraction from my thoughts.

When I open my eyes again, I curl my hands around the neck of the bottle and take a few slow breaths, imagining that a sharp golden dagger is pressed against my stomach once again, trying to keep my body as still as I can. Maybe if I don't move, I will stop feeling anything at all.

It seems to work, and I spend a few minutes listening to the noise of the tavern around me, deciding I am content to let the world move past me when I suddenly hear a voice to my right, startling me from my thoughts.

'You're drinking alone, lass?'

My breath catches to hear his voice, and when I turn to look around, something tightens abruptly in my chest at the sight of Brynjolf standing not five feet from me. His auburn hair is tied back loosely and an unkempt stubble shadows his jaw, and the familiar half-smile pulls at one corner of his mouth.

The thought of why I was so angry and hurt when he left the Guild crosses my mind and swiftly leaves it. I feel no jealousy over what I overheard between him and Sapphire, nor do I feel afraid of the reason behind my jealousy in the first place; for that fragile moment, I think about nothing except how glad I am to see him, how warm nerves flutter in my stomach once more at the closeness of him, how every part of me longs to stay in this moment when I can just look at him and be near to him without thinking about anything else. Familiar enough by now with my own desire, I know I feel that too; despite the fact that I am at last fully conscious of exactly how I care for the auburn-haired thief, in that moment the feeling is secondary, vague, and unimportant.

I don't even want pleasure, I just want him, I think, before I realise several long seconds have passed and I force the thought from my mind.

'You're back,' I manage to say eventually.

Brynjolf's smile makes my heart hurt a little more. 'And you're here,' he says. 'Strange how these things happen.' He inclines his head. 'Dare I even ask why you're awake and drinking alone at this hour?'

'I... I couldn't sleep,' I answer, as if that explains it. 'You?'

'Much the same, lass.' His green eyes hold mine. 'I feel like I'll be tempting fate by asking again, but want me to buy you another drink?'

I hesitate, part of me terrified to even acknowledge my reaction to seeing him again, having already decided that I would prefer humiliation at Mercer's hands over putting my heart into Brynjolf's. The stupid little bird will get that feeble heart of hers broken, I think, as the warm flutter in my stomach quickly turns to jealous knots as I remember how it felt to hear him and Sapphire together, and I know I cannot bear to feel that way again.

The thief notices my hesitation. 'Would you rather be left alone, lass?' he says easily, as if it doesn't matter either way.

And it doesn't, I think, knowing that the thief cares little about whether he buys me a drink or not. His interest in me goes no further than that of any of the other male guildmembers, I remind myself, aware that most of them would also buy me a drink if it meant I would end up in their bed for the night. Except maybe Rune and Mercer, I think, certain that Rune at least would not want to take advantage of me, and that Mercer has no need to get me drunk first. I give him the advantage willingly.

'No,' I say quickly to Brynjolf, having no desire to be alone with my thoughts. 'I'll pass on the drink, but you don't have to leave.'

The redhead's eyes crinkle up as he grins. 'Good, because I don't think I could've walked all the way across the Flagon, anyway,' he says as he drops down into the chair opposite me with an exhausted sigh. 'You do realise I've been to the other side of Skyrim and back, right? You're a cruel woman to keep me standing as long as you did.'

I laugh before I can help myself. 'Anyone would think you're getting old,' I say lightly.

'Older, aye, but unfortunately not wiser.' He sighs again. 'And I didn't come over here for your sharp tongue and the harsh truth, you know. Next you're going to tell me that I'm losing my good looks too.'

'You look fine to me,' I say before I feel my cheeks flush and I busy myself with bringing the mead bottle to my lips, although the contents are long gone and I have to only pretend to drink.

I feel his gaze on me, although I dare not look up at him until my awkward blush has faded. 'And what about you?' he says. 'You're still as beautiful as ever, so I assume you haven't been worked too hard in my absence, have you?'

Though my heart flutters at his compliment, the feeling quickly vanishes when I hear the rest of his words. 'No, it's been fine,' I say shortly, not wanting to describe just how hard I've been worked by the Guildmaster. I look up at him, wanting to change the subject. 'How was Solitude?' I ask. 'Aside from being really far away?'

'Solitude? Too many jewels but not enough pockets,' Brynjolf tells me. 'Nobles flaunt every damn piece of finery they own, which makes taking it from them a whole lot harder, unless you like ripping it from their body at knifepoint. Too many guards for that, as well.' He shakes his head. 'But for all the coin, the cells are miserable, lass. Promise me you won't ever get yourself into trouble in Haafingar, all right?'

The thought of him in a prison cell makes my heart tighten uncomfortably. 'You were in jail?' I say.

'Not this time,' he says. 'But I'm more acquainted with Castle Dour dungeons than I'd like. The name is fairly apt.' His green eyes hold mine. 'So what's been going on here?' he asks, although I'm sure the first thing he did upon returning was report back to Mercer and in return was updated with the goings on within the Guild.

What else will Mercer have told him? I wonder suddenly, the thought of the auburn-haired thief finding out about my encounters with the Guildmaster causing me to flush red and for a strange nauseous dread to hollow out my stomach. He wouldn't have told him, I reassure myself, convinced that Mercer has more important things on his mind than discussing me with his second-in-command, even though I know it would've entertained him no end to cause me more humiliation.

'Not much,' I answer quickly, not wanting to tell him that I was actually away from the Guild for a week, nor why I left in the first place, nor any of the things that have happened since he has been away. 'I've just been working above ground mostly.'

If Brynjolf wanted more of an answer, he doesn't push for it. 'It's probably wise you keep it that way for a while.' A frown knits his brow. 'Remember what I said about Mercer when you first joined the Guild? To bring him gold and don't piss him off? Well, no amount of gold could sweeten the news I gave him, so take my advice and keep your distance for a few days until he's calmed down, all right?'

Already well aware of the extent of Mercer's rage, I long to heed Brynjolf's words far more than he can know. 'I hear he's been outsmarted,' I say, trying to hide my small flicker of satisfaction at the thought before I realise my error. 'I spoke to Sapphire and she told me,' I add hurriedly, before Brynjolf can wonder how I even know that the Guildmaster has been outsmarted without him telling me so himself.

'At least you've been forewarned, then.' Something flickers in Brynjolf's eyes as he looks at me. 'So you've spoken to Sapphire,' he says easily, and I wonder why he's mentioning it. 'I bet you're glad she's back.'

'I am,' I say truthfully, although the sound of her name in his voice makes jealousy cut through me before I can stop it, and I hurry to move the conversation on. 'So what happened, exactly? What news did you bring Mercer?'

Brynjolf grimaces. 'Our agent gave up some information we weren't expecting. All this time we thought we've just had a run of bad luck... well, apparently Delvin's curse has a name, one we never thought we'd hear again.' He pauses. 'Anyone around here ever told you about Karliah?'

I shake my head, wondering just what the woman could've done to anger Mercer. 'Who is she?'

'She was one of us, once.' The thief's voice turns bitter. 'Until about five years ago when she murdered the former Guildmaster and tried to do the same to Mercer.'

'How?' I ask, before I realise that's the wrong question and that my curiosity and awe over how she almost killed Mercer is probably of secondary importance to Brynjolf. 'Why did she do that?'

'Greed? Self-preservation? Honestly, I don't fucking know why, all I know is she did it and got away with it.' Brynjolf's jaw is set as his gaze moves over the tavern, anger burning in his eyes. and I realise that the topic is not one he enjoys talking about. 'It turned out she'd emptied the Guild vault of all the goods we were waiting to fence to the right buyers. They were worth more than all the gold in Solitude, together they would've set every one of us up for life. Karliah stole them all and lured Mercer and Gallus to their deaths in an attempt to cover her tracks and buy enough time to sell off the goods herself.' A cold grim smile twists the thief's mouth. 'But Mercer escaped. Since then he's spent a fortune getting eyes and ears on every deal being made this side of Tamriel, but we never heard word of any of those items again, let alone the woman selling them. After she killed Gallus, Karliah vanished without a trace.' The redhead's bitter tone grows even colder. 'He was a good man and a fair Guildmaster. He didn't deserve to be stabbed in the back, and not by someone he loved.'

'Loved?' I repeat. 'He and Karliah were lovers?'

Despite his bitterness, a small smile pulls at Brynjolf's mouth as his gaze flickers back to me. 'What a sweet way of putting it,' he says. 'Well, they had a... connection. Whatever else might've been between them, they worked well together. They were the best at what they did, and the pair of them brought in more coin than the Guild has ever seen.' He shakes his head. 'And yes, he loved her, any fool could see that. His little nightingale, he'd call her, and the way she smiled back at him, you could almost believe she loved him too.' Brynjolf's voice hardens. 'But it was only a game to her, a ploy to get his guard down enough to sink a dagger into his heart.'

'I'm sorry, Brynjolf,' I say, not sure what I am sorry for but knowing that some part of the thief is still hurt by the events he is retelling and suddenly all I want to do is relieve his pain however I can, even if I can only be sorry that it happened.

At my words, Brynjolf's bitter expression vanishes. 'Lass, you don't need to apologise,' he says quickly, the ice gone from his voice. 'You're not the one who's been screwing with our plans and trying to bring us down for the last five years. Look, there's no use retreading old paths. We'll find her and make her pay, and that'll be the end of it.' His eyes hold mine. 'And nothing like this is going to happen again. I know things aren't going our way right now and jobs are thin on the ground for everyone, but the Guild will get back on its feet. Trust me.'

My heart warms a little at the insistence in his voice, knowing he means to reassure me of my place at the Guild, although I cannot admit to him the extent of my uncertainty over my future here, knowing it is only partly linked to the lack of work available. 'I hope so,' I say. 'I could use the coin.'

'Then I'll find work for you,' Brynjolf says immediately. A moment later, the charming smile appears at his mouth and I feel a rush of gladness that he is no longer angry or hurt. 'And I could always teach you to be a better pickpocket. You can never be short of coin if everyone else's pockets are yours too, you know.'

'I don't think I'll ever have your skill,' I say honestly with a smile.

'Oh, but I'm a very good teacher, Wren.' He grins. 'And if you really are that bad, feel free to just distract them while I pickpocket them instead.'

Before I can answer, a group of newcomers enter the Flagon from the direction of the Ratway. Their voices are vicious and loud as they argue over who killed the most men during their journey here. Highwaymen, looking for shelter from the autumn storms, I realise, their armour and weapons an odd assortment and their satchels heavy with loot to trade.

I quickly look away, knowing that a wrong stare in the Ragged Flagon might end in a brawl to the death, having witnessed it once or twice in my short time at the Guild.

Brynjolf glances over at them too before he turns back to me. 'You know, it's well past your bedtime, lass,' he says lightly.

'I'm more than used to the Flagon's clientele by now,' I tell him.

'Aye, but I've seen a few of them here before, and they aren't known for their kind treatment of beautiful women. One look at you and I'll have to fight them off by myself.' Brynjolf grins before he stands up. 'And I'm old and tired, remember? So save me the hassle and let me walk you back to the Cistern, all right?'

'You don't have to walk me back,' I say. 'It's only just through there.'

Brynjolf sighs in exasperation. 'Lass, I'm trying to be a gentleman, so just let me, will you?'

When I hear the group of men start an argument with some of the other patrons, I suddenly remember that I don't have my daggers strapped to my thighs and I see the sense in leaving the tavern before things get out of hand, knowing well enough what intoxicated men are capable of if they get the thought into their minds. The addicts in that skooma den would've taken their pleasure of both my unconscious body and Nelia's corpse, I think, before I feel a cold shiver of fear and remind myself never to think of that again.

'Fine,' I say as I stand up quickly.

Brynjolf stays close at my side as we walk across the Flagon in the direction of the Cistern. He walks between me and the highwaymen's table, effectively shielding me from their sight, and as we pass them by, I feel the thief's hand touch protectively at the small of my back.

Even the barest contact of his hand on my body sets my heart thudding fast and suddenly I feel like I am blindfolded and chained again, vulnerable, fearing the touch of his hand as if it is as dangerous as the dagger on my bare skin.

Although I try to stop it, my mind jumps to the night I murdered the Dunmer merchant, remembering it vividly, not for the blood or the dead man beneath me or the oath I made to Sithis, but for what happened in the alley with Brynjolf beforehand and how it felt to be pressed against him, to have him touch me, to kiss him - and suddenly, every step I take with the redhead at my side makes me think of how bitterly I wish that he had been the one touching me earlier, that I had stripped off my clothes for him, that he had taken his pleasure of me, that he had been the one who made me come.

Fortunately, Brynjolf is entirely unaware of my thoughts; seemingly with something on his own mind, he remains silent as we enter the Cistern. By the time we stop beside my bed, I've just about succeeded in controlling my racing heart, although my efforts are proven entirely futile when Brynjolf turns to face me.

The bright green in his eyes catch the dim light. 'I'll find you tomorrow when I've got work for you,' he says. He hesitates, before the half-smile pulls at his mouth. 'Then maybe afterwards you'll finally let me buy you that drink, Wren.'

I feel my heart flutter nervously in my chest, but I can no sooner control it than I can stop the words that suddenly spill out of my mouth. 'I'd like that,' I say, and my heart beats faster as Brynjolf's smile makes his eyes crinkle up.

'Then I'll see you later,' he says. 'Sleep well, lass.'

'You too,' I manage to say, and I stand uselessly beside my bed as I watch him walk back to the Flagon, feeling my nerves move down to my stomach in apprehension as I properly hear the words out of my mouth and realise what those words might mean.

Quickly I get into bed and curl up close to the wall, my mind desperately trying to process the events of the last few hours and soon finding that I am too exhausted to think of anything beyond the few minutes I spent with the auburn-haired thief and the thought of spending more time with him tomorrow.

This will hurt, a small voice in my head warns me, reminding me that although I can barely understand it, I know Brynjolf has far more power to hurt me than Mercer does. And yet I don't care, I think, remembering how it felt to see him again, and the rush of warm relief that he has come back safely somehow pushes all other thought from my mind.

I bury myself beneath the sheets and, not knowing whether it is my lack of sleep of the past few days or whether it is something else entirely, for a few precious hours and for the first time that I can remember, I sleep soundly and without dreams.

Chapter Text

It's late morning when I surface from my bed, with my body exhausted yet my mind starkly alert, for once not having been woken by bad dreams. I find the Cistern to be deserted except for several sleeping guildmembers, and relief flickers inside me when I realise that luck is on my side and I will have the privacy I need. And it's the last time I will taste nightshade, I think firmly, and for the first time, I actually believe it.

Above ground in the graveyard, I breathe deeply the fresh air and close my eyes for a short while, feeling the cool sunlight on my face. The scent of the poisonous flowers fills my nose, the bitterness as familiar as the memories it brings to my mind; when I open my eyes, my gaze is drawn to the far side of the graveyard, though there are now fresher mounds than the one covering the woman I murdered. I thought that was my beginning, I think, remembering the night I left Honorhall, believing that the bloody end of Grelod's life marked the start of mine.

The night Astrid kidnapped me was my real beginning, I realise as I reach down and pluck a few flowers from one of the graves, knowing that if she had never taken me, I would still be oblivious, with no notion of the blue-eyed slender woman by whose hands I found myself an orphan in Honorhall. Maybe it would be better never to have known, I think for a moment, some part of me longing for the unaware oblivion, before it hits me that if there is no pain or pleasure in the Void, then surely there is no justice either. And I must bring Astrid to justice, I think, wanting it more than any pleasure, fearing my failure more than any pain.

With my heart and mind strangely calm, when I am back in the underground cavern, I head to the kitchen and lay the nightshade on the table. As I set water to boil, I hear a door slam somewhere over the sound of rushing water and my sense of purpose soon slips away from me; when I turn around and catch sight of the Guildmaster walking through the Cistern towards his desk, I feel a shiver run down my back as I am forced to recall last night.

I enjoy it even when I don't want it, I think, remembering his words and the way he smirked when he said them - and then I remember what happened in the water room beforehand, and how I still went begging to him afterwards, and suddenly I feel so unsettled and nervous that even the taste of nightshade would be a welcome reprieve from the nauseous feeling in my stomach.

I watch Mercer warily, waiting for him to call me over or at least look at me. To my intense relief, he ignores me entirely, and I am more than content to do exactly the same, although as my hands reach for the nightshade I suddenly become conscious of what I am doing. Killing whatever he has left inside me, I think, wondering how Mercer would react and deciding I would rather not learn. As the water boils, I busy myself with finding something to eat and rinsing the stacks of cups left over from the night before, buying a little time in the hope that Mercer will leave the Cistern. Yet after several minutes have passed and he is still at his desk, I realise that unless I want to risk waiting until all the guildmembers are awake, I have no choice but to carry on with my task now.

And why shouldn't I? I think, certain that the Guildmaster would prefer that I remove any chance of me having his child. And even if he didn't, I don't give a fuck what he wants. This is what I want.

If Mercer notices what I am doing or tastes the scent of nightshade on the air as I let the tea brew, he doesn't seem to care; he makes no comment, although I start to feel the familiar weight of his gaze on my back as I finish my work and bring the bitter drink to my lips.

I do my best to swallow the poison down without choking. Sincerely regretting my decision not to purchase more of the sweeter tasting potion from Maven's daughter when I visited the alchemy store, I finish the tea quickly and decide I need fresh air. I glance over to Sapphire's bed and realise the raven-haired thief is still sleeping, and when my gaze moves across the Guild I see Rune's bed is empty and I assume he is out on a job. A flicker of frustration cuts through me and I decide to wait in the Flagon for either of the thieves to come find me, not desiring to be alone with my thoughts and having nothing else to do. At least Brynjolf said he'd get work for me, I think, before I remember what else I agreed to last night, and the thought of drinking with the redhead alone and away from the Guild sends a flutter of nerves through my stomach, not entirely unlike the unsettled nausea I felt a few minutes ago.

I'm crossing over the pool and halfway to the Flagon door when Mercer finally calls me over to his desk. I ignore him and carry on walking until he repeats himself, his voice turning sharper as he says my name louder. As I stop and turn to look at him, ready to snap at him to leave me alone, out of the corner of my eye I see Sapphire stirring in her bed and I realise that shouting across the Cistern at Mercer isn't the smartest idea.

'What?' I hiss at him, but he only looks at me, waiting for me to walk up to his desk.

Knowing I'd rather keep whatever he has to say between just us, I relent and go over to him, folding my arms and stopping short of his desk. I see dark shadows lingering under his eyes and his brow is furrowed, though his gaze is just as sharp as ever when he looks me up and down.

'Well?' I say bluntly, trying to keep my voice low. 'What do you want?'

He laughs a harsh laugh, clearly making no such similar effort to stay quiet. 'Already so frustrated. It's barely midday.' His gaze flickers over me briefly once more before he looks back down at the papers on his desk. 'Just be outside my room tonight,' he says. 'And lose the attitude, or I won't make it half as enjoyable for you.'

'Didn't you listen to me last night?' I say coldly, hating the sound of his voice, remembering all the things he has said to me and deciding I never want to hear any of it again, not even in exchange for my pleasure. 'I told you I was done with this.'

'Wren, you tell me that every time I fuck you,' he says, not looking up, his tone bored. 'I'm starting to get tired of it, especially when all I have to do is touch you and you change your mind.'

Anger flares in me hot and violent. 'If you ever try to touch me again, I'll cut off your hands,' I say.

Mercer doesn't react, although a small smile forms at his mouth. 'We'll find out later, won't we? Somehow I think you'd rather I keep my hands as long as I use them to touch you.'

'I'd rather touch myself than let you anywhere near me again, thanks,' I snap, but that only makes him laugh, his gaze flickering up to me in amusement.

'That could be entertaining,' he says, his eyes glinting. 'You can do that tonight and we'll see which one of us makes you come the fastest.'

'Fuck off,' I say viciously, having had more than enough, but I have barely turned away and made a few steps in the direction of the Flagon before Mercer catches up to me and grabs my arm.

'Did I say you could go?' His voice is sharp as I gasp in pain at the tightness of his hold at my forearm. 'Gods, you really don't learn, do you?'

'Mercer-' I start, my anger and the roughness of his grip making my voice louder than I'd like, but as I try to struggle out of his hold, he only jerks me closer to him, and my words catch in my throat as pain shoots up my arm.

'So you're done with me, are you?' the Guildmaster says mockingly. 'I wonder why.' He inclines his head, and a smirk pulls at his mouth. 'Could it be because Brynjolf is back? I almost forgot the little bird wants him in her bed, doesn't she?' He laughs softly as I feel my cheeks flush red with his words and his derisive tone. 'You're a fool if you think anything has changed since he left. Except the number of times he's fucked Sapphire. Or did you forget that he wants her and not you?'

'I don't care who Brynjolf wants,' I say, although I taste the lie on my tongue as clearly as Mercer hears it in my voice. As his eyes narrow with amusement, I stop struggling against his hold and stare up at him, fury spurring me on. 'And that's irrelevant. I don't want you, Mercer, whether Brynjolf or anyone else is here or not. I'm done. So leave me alone.'

The Guildmaster looks down at me for a few moments, his grip not lessening as his eyes move over my face.

'We'll see about that, little bird,' he says softly, my chest tightening at the danger in his voice. 'I think you'll beg me for it before the night is over. But let's play your game, if you want. I'll make you a deal. If you don't ask me to fuck you by dawn, I'll never so much as look at you again.' His grip tightens, and I gasp again with the pressure of his hand around my arm. 'But if you come to me willingly, you'll do what I say from now on. Everything from that empty little head of yours down to your cunt will belong to me to do with as I like, and I don't want to hear one more word about how you think this is over, Wren. I decide when I'm done with you. Fair enough deal?'

Mercer releases my arm and pushes me away before I can even form an answer.

'Off you go, then,' he says. 'Unless you want to skip the game and I'll just fuck you right now.'

My mind reconnects with the rest of me and I draw my arms tight around my body, my hands and legs shaking with anger, wishing I had the upper hand and the physical advantage enough to bury my dagger in Mercer's heart. 'You're never fucking me again,' I say viciously. 'Stay the hell away from me.'

I whirl around and the blush of humiliation already in my cheeks rises violently when I notice Sapphire is awake and sitting on the edge of her bed as she laces up her boots; clearly well within earshot of my words and Mercer's, I realise the raven-haired thief has overheard far more than I'd like.

I force myself to pretend otherwise as I stride over to her, trying my best to steady my breathing. 'Finally, you're awake,' I say brightly when I come to stand before her. 'Want to scope out some places for shopping later?' I force a smile on my face. 'Or are you too good for Riften now you're used to fancy Solitude stores?'

Sapphire is quick enough to realise my desire to leave. 'Hardly,' she says, finishing lacing her boots swiftly before standing up and strapping her dagger at her thigh. 'Let's go, then.'

I feel the Guildmaster's gaze follow me as I cross the Cistern with Sapphire, and it's not until we're above ground and I take a breath of air that I start to feel my furiously racing heart begin to settle. The scent of poison helps too, I think, tasting the nightshade of the graveyard for the second time today and feeling my fury burn twice as fiercely. Even if all I can do is destroy some small part of him inside me, I'll gladly do it.

Sapphire and I walk through the city in silence, the bright autumn sunlight flashing into our eyes as it breaks through the gaps between the high buildings. To her credit, Sapphire doesn't bring up what she overheard, but I know it is on her mind just as it is on mine, and it's not long before her guarded nature gives way beneath her evident curiosity.

'So...' Sapphire finally says as we near the city centre. 'Anything interesting been happening around here while I've been gone?'

Her casual tone doesn't distract me from what she's actually asking. 'Not really,' I say, determined to match her offhandedness.

'Oh.' She pauses. 'So what have you been doing?'

'I actually had a Brotherhood contract,' I tell her honestly, but not desiring to be any more truthful than that.

She would approve of what I did to the Argonian who wanted to hurt me, I think, although I know she would question how I could do that and yet climb willingly into Mercer's bed.

My assassination seems to interest her little. 'Well, what's been happening in the Guild, then?' she says as we come to the edge of the market. 'It feels like I've been away forever.'

I stop walking. 'I don't want to talk about it, Saph,' I said abruptly.

She puts on an innocently confused expression as she too stops and turns to look at me. 'What? You don't want to talk about work?'

'No, you know what I mean.' I look at her, suddenly wishing I had the courage to tell her everything, to tell her exactly how I feel, to admit I'm afraid.

If there's one thing I know, it's that I'm not strong enough for that.

'It's over, and I'm fine,' I tell her, even as some voice whispers in my head that at least one of those statements is a lie.

'I'm not asking anything,' Sapphire says quickly. She pauses again. 'As long as you're all right.'

'I am,' I say firmly. I hold her gaze, suddenly defensive even though I know she's only trying to look out for me and she is not so much curious as she is concerned. 'As long as you're all right too,' I add pointedly.

'Me?' Sapphire's confusion is genuine this time. 'Why wouldn't I be?'

'The night before you left for Solitude. You were in jail, weren't you?' I hesitate, not sure if I want to talk about what happened afterwards, but finding myself somehow wanting the torture, just as I did when I stood outside the door and listened to them. 'Before Brynjolf rescued you,' I say finally.

'He didn't rescue me,' she snaps, suddenly twice as defensive as I am. 'He paid a fine. I would've got out on my own if he hadn't shown up.'

'I know,' I say quickly, wishing I hadn't brought it up. 'I'm just saying, be careful. You think someone set you up, don't you?'

'I know they did,' she says. 'The guards knew exactly where I'd be. It was like they-' Sapphire stops, confusion in her eyes once again. 'I didn't tell anyone that I thought I'd been set up.'

I suddenly realise she is right and that I had overheard her sharing her fears with Brynjolf at the Overlook. Along with everything else I overheard.

'Just a guess,' I say, my tone light. 'It was a routine job, and you're hardly an amateur at this. If the guards knew exactly where to find you, it sounds like someone wanted you to get caught.'

With my words, I realise what I'm saying, and the thought of someone in the Guild purposefully trying to get Sapphire arrested sends an unsettled shiver down my back.

'Who gave you the job?' I ask.

'Delvin,' she answers, a small frown at her brow.

We look at each other for a moment, and I know she too is trying and failing to imagine Delvin turning her into the guards.

'Well, maybe it's a good thing there aren't many jobs going at the moment,' I say, trying to smile.

Sapphire's own small smile mirrors my own, though her pretty hazel eyes remain clouded with doubt. 'I suppose you're right.' Her frown lingers for a moment before she shakes her head a little. 'Want to go to the tavern instead of shopping?' she says abruptly, despite it barely being past midday.

'I'm low on coin,' I tell her honestly, before I realise I don't actually care. If it helps alleviate her fears or my own, I'll give up all the gold I have. I smile at her. 'But I always have enough for wine.'

Neither of us fancy the usual crowds of the Bee and Barb, so we head to a little tavern a few streets south of the marketplace and order food and drink. For a few hours, I let everything slip from my mind as the raven-haired thief and I spend the afternoon in the warm tavern, both of us eager to forget what was on our minds.

Sapphire tells me about Solitude and I quickly decide I would rather stay in Riften than ever visit the capital city. The thief's account of the sheer size and grandeur of the place first make me think that Solitude would put more far coin into my pockets than Riften ever could, but when Sapphire describes the number of guards and the tradition for daily executions for thieves and criminals, I realise I'd be better off never setting foot in Haafingar. I draw some comfort that the Guild apparently has little presence in Solitude and so I will likely never have a need to visit the place; Sapphire tells me about a number of long-standing Guild heists, including plans to rob the Blue Palace, that have never come to fruition thanks to the lack of resources in recent years.

That thought makes me think about what Brynjolf told me last night, that the curse plaguing the Guild is actually the work of one woman, and I ask Sapphire if she knows much about Karliah and the events of five years ago.

Sapphire shakes her head. 'Brynjolf recruited me about a month after it happened.' She makes a quiet snort of laughter. 'Everyone was so welcoming,' she adds sarcastically.

'I can imagine,' I say, knowing how it feels, aware that I am still considered the new blood within the Guild and have yet to really gain the trust of any of my fellow guildmembers beyond Sapphire and Rune.

And being associated with the Dark Brotherhood hasn't helped much, I think, knowing their suspicion only grew after that revelation, and I've no doubt that Sapphire's untimely arrival just after another female guildmember's unforgivable betrayal made her initiation into the Guild even harder.

'She's good, though,' Sapphire says after a little while, as she brings her cup of wine to her lips. 'If she's really been behind all the failed jobs over the last years.'

'Agreed,' I say, remembering my awe at how the woman came so close to killing Mercer and my satisfaction that she has been outsmarting him ever since. 'Maybe she's the one who set you up,' I point out, feeling a flicker of relief when the thought comes to me, preferring the idea of a traitor and murderer being the one who set up Sapphire than someone who sleeps in the same room as us.

'True,' Sapphire says. 'Although why she's even still bothering to screw with the Guild, I don't know. The way I heard it, what she stole from the vault would've set her up for life.'

'Maybe it's not about gold for her anymore,' I say, as I think about my own quest to take down Astrid, knowing that coin is of little importance. 'Maybe she just wants to destroy the Guild for her own reasons.'

'Well, whatever the reason, she's going to fail,' Sapphire says. 'She got away once but I doubt Mercer will let her do it a second time.'

'I doubt it,' I agree, knowing well enough the Guildmaster's intention to make Karliah pay.

I change the subject, not desiring to dwell further on the topic of Mercer Frey and risk Sapphire voicing her concern again, and as we talk about other things, soon I feel my nerves lose some of their tension, the comfortable combination of the wine, warm food and familiarity of being with Sapphire setting me at ease for the first time in a while.

We don't stay out too late; as dusk draws in and we finish up the last of our drinks, we hear the rain start to fall outside and the tavern soon grows crowded with people jostling for the best place by the fire. When I suggest we go to the Flagon instead, Sapphire agrees.

With our hoods pulled up to shield ourselves from the rain, we walk back to the graveyard in comfortable silence. By the time we reach the tomb, my good mood has dampened a little, my head cleared enough by the cool air to allow my nerves to return as I start to think about running into Mercer again.

The same must be on Sapphire's mind, as before we drop down the ladder, she takes my arm and stops me.

'I know you said you're fine,' she says. 'But as soon as you're not, swear that you'll tell me.' Her hazel eyes burn into mine. 'I'll cut his throat myself, all right?'

She doesn't have to tell me who she means, and suddenly my heart warms with her fierce words. 'It won't come to that,' I say firmly. I hesitate, needing to tell her how grateful I am for her concern and knowing I cannot find the words. 'But I appreciate it, Saph. Really.'

The raven-haired thief nods once and quickly begins climbing down the ladder, clearly having little desire to let me get too sentimental. More than happy to follow suit and stop the conversation before I flail awkwardly over my words any further, I follow her down the tomb and along the passageway. When we reach the end, Sapphire stands back to let me unlock the Cistern door, my skill with a lockpick stronger than hers.

Once inside, my gaze goes straight across to the Guildmaster's desk, fearing the worst - when I realise that not only is Mercer at his desk but that Brynjolf is with him, whatever warmth I felt in my heart from my time with Sapphire vanishes until all I am left with is a cold and inexplicable sense of dread.

'Wren,' Mercer calls to me before Sapphire and I have even closed the door behind us.

Wanting to ignore him yet afraid of what he will do if I refuse his command, I glance at Sapphire. 'I'll catch you up,' I say.

She only looks at me, her eyes narrowing. 'Fine,' she says, and I hear a shred of annoyance in her voice that bites at something inside me as we part ways and she walks to the Flagon door.

If it were her, she wouldn't run to his summons, I realise, suspecting that if Sapphire were me, she would cut off the Guildmaster's hands as I threatened earlier today. But I'm weaker than Sapphire, and more afraid.

As I approach Mercer's desk, he and the redhead watch me with equal attention and I desperately try not to feel the sickening sensation rising in my stomach.

'What is it?' I ask as I come to stand beside Brynjolf, doing my best not to sound nervous.

'What do you think?' Mercer scoffs before handing me a slip of paper. 'Work, of course. Brynjolf said he'd find you something to do, didn't he? We can't have the poor little bird empty in the pockets.'

I take the folded paper from him and look warily at Brynjolf, feeling disconcerted that he took my request for work directly to Mercer. 'What's the job?' I ask.

'It's nothing you can't handle,' Brynjolf says. His eyes seem cool as he looks at me, and I hear a bitter edge in his voice, almost as he sounded when he spoke of Karliah the night before. 'One of our clients hasn't paid us what we're owed in weeks. Since they're no longer paying, we're no longer protecting them. Just go to the address on that paper and take whatever you find in the safe. Feel free to strip the store of anything you like too.'

'All right,' I say, relieved that the job is simple enough but feeling strangely uneasy from the edge in the redhead's voice. 'I'll get it done.'

'Be a good girl and make it quick,' Mercer calls idly to me before I've taken two steps away from his desk. 'I've got another job for you later.' His gaze flickers over me as I turn around and I see a small smile forming at his mouth. 'Once you're done stripping the store you can walk your little ass back to my room and strip yourself.'

I blush scarlet as humiliation burns through me. Furious and horrified, I open and promptly close my mouth, unable to think of what to say.

Mercer's eyes gleam with amusement. 'Close your mouth, little bird, I'll need it rested for later,' he says with a laugh. 'Now fuck off and get to work, or you'll have to earn it twice as hard tonight.'

My face like fire yet feeling the chill of Brynjolf's gaze on me, I turn and stalk away, suddenly desiring nothing more than to call in Sapphire's favour now and watch her cut the Guildmaster's throat. Actually, the one thing I desire more than that is to cut his throat myself.

Not sure where to go but knowing I want to get as far from the Cistern as possible, I head back the way Sapphire and I came, trying to draw some comfort from the fact that Mercer didn't say what he did in front of the entire Guild - but my vague sense of consolation disappears when I spy Thrynn, Vipir and a couple of other guildmembers in the kitchen. From their expressions and the way their gaze follows me as I pass, I realise they overheard what Mercer said. Knowing that Thrynn will soon tell them how he once overheard me screaming in the Guildmaster's room, if he hasn't already, I realise that it won't be long before everyone is aware of what is between me and Mercer. And then they'll think I'm nothing more than a bedwarmer for the taking.

Feeling my skin crawling with humiliation and unease, I leave the Cistern and slam the door behind me, walking fast down the passageway. I'm barely halfway to the ladder when I hear the sound of the door swing shut once more before footsteps follow me.

I turn around reluctantly, knowing I can't outrun whoever it is, and find myself face to face with Brynjolf.

Even in the uneasy dim magelight, I see clearly enough his expression, and I draw my arms around me, feeling the chill of his look cut through me.

'So it's true what he said. You're really fucking him.' Disgust curls around Brynjolf's voice. 'Mercer, seriously? You think that's going to end well for you?'

'It's not like that,' I snap, my face hot, not wanting to explain, not knowing how to explain.

'So what is it like?' Brynjolf says, his own tone as sharp as mine. 'Do you think he cares about you? You think you're anything more than a good lay to him?'

'Thanks,' I say sarcastically, his words hurting more than I let on. 'It's nice to know that's all I'm worth.'

Suddenly afraid of continuing this conversation, I turn away, but Brynjolf grabs my shoulder and holds me in place.

'I'm not saying that,' he tells me, his eyes flashing with anger. 'I'm saying Mercer's going to hurt you, if he hasn't already. Fucking gods, Wren, are you so blind you can't see that?'

My own anger rises abruptly with his harsh words and the truth I know well enough, still feeling the dim ache in my body from Mercer's efforts last night. 'So what if he hurts me?' I say, pulling out of Brynjolf's hold. 'At least I know he's just using me. At least he doesn't pretend that this is anything more than a game to him.'

The thief doesn't miss the insinuation. 'Whereas I do?' His eyes narrow. 'What are you trying to say, that you're only a game to me?'

'I know I am,' I say coldly, and the words spill out of my mouth before I can stop them. 'You work your way around all the women down here, don't you? Vex, Tonilia, that Imperial before she got caught at Goldenglow and sent to the gallows. And wasn't there a golden-eyed Bosmer girl that left the Guild because you broke her heart?' I try to think of all the other rumours I've heard that link the redhead with the women of the Guild but I find my mind focuses on only one. 'And there's Sapphire, of course,' I add.

Brynjolf's expression fractures for a moment, though I can scarcely tell whether it is his anger or something else that causes the green of his eyes to seem darker. 'Who told you that?' he says.

'Which one?' I answer mockingly. 'What went on with you and Vex is common knowledge, and all you have to do is say your name in conjunction with Tonilia's and Vekel goes off on a rant about how you try to fuck anything that moves. To be honest, Brynjolf, I forget where I heard about the rest.' I pause, realising I am too on edge and upset from what happened with Mercer and the fact that Brynjolf now knows about it to bother hiding the truth any longer. 'As for Sapphire, I heard you fucking her at the Overlook the night you helped get her out of jail,' I add, remembering it vividly and feeling just as hollow as I did before. 'So I think it's pretty safe to say I'm the last woman down here you haven't had yet, despite your best efforts to convince me otherwise.'

For once, words seem to fail the redhead, and for a brief moment, he only looks at me, something burning in his eyes. He soon finds his tongue again. 'That's how you think I see you?' he says. 'Just as the last woman to get in my bed?'

'Well, if you've fucked everyone else down here, then that's basically what I am,' I say. I hold his gaze, wishing I had never brought it up but knowing I cannot let it go now. 'Why have you even bothered trying to charm me? Did you really think I would let you fuck me if I knew you were with Sapphire?' I smirk coldly. 'Or maybe you're not really interested in her and she's actually nothing more than just a good lay to you?'

'Don't twist this into something it's not,' Brynjolf snaps, rising to my taunt as anger flashes in his eyes again. 'Look, I care about her but there's nothing between us and hasn't been in a long time. She needed a friend that night. I wasn't going to leave her by herself. She was scared, Wren, she'd just been thrown into a cell.'

'For about five minutes before you rescued her and made sure she paid you back in kind,' I say scathingly before I can stop myself. 'It's true, isn't it? You really can't resist playing the hero in exchange for a pretty cunt.'

Whether Brynjolf is stunned or insulted by my words, I cannot tell, but he stares at me for several long seconds, a frown forming at his brow as some comprehension seems to dawn on him. 'Why were you at the Overlook that night?' he says slowly.

'Why?' I repeat, folding my arms. 'What does that even matter?'

He holds my gaze for a second longer before a grim smile pulls at his mouth and he shakes his head. 'Mercer,' he mutters under his breath. 'Son of a bitch.'

'Mercer's got nothing to do with you and Sapphire,' I say, not wanting to think about the Guildmaster or the night he sent me to the Overlook. He wanted this to happen, I realise with a jolt, and despite knowing this is down to Mercer's machinations, I cannot help but feel as hurt as he intended. 'Look, you're free to do whatever you want, and so is Sapphire,' I say before Brynjolf can speak. 'I just would've appreciated being told that there was something between you two. I never would've let myself fall for you if I'd known that you-'

'Let yourself fall for me?' Brynjolf interrupts, before I even realise I've said it. His green eyes hold mine, the anger suddenly vanishing to be replaced by something else I cannot read. 'What do you mean, fall for me?'

'Fall for your bullshit,' I say quickly, harshly, not wanting to admit how far I really fell, and suddenly I decide I would rather show my fury than expose any other feelings I might have. 'I almost started believing all your stupid lines and pathetic attempts at charming me into spreading my legs.'

His expression hardens. 'You really think everything I've said to you was just a line to get you into bed?'

'Wasn't it?' I retort. 'Tell me, just how many times have you fucked Sapphire since you said that you didn't want to hear me with another man?' I laugh, although it's the last thing I feel like doing. 'I never even fucked the Dunmer I killed or the Nord you had me pickpocket. I could've but I didn't, and yet I had to overhear you and her together, you have no idea-'

I stop myself, suddenly feeling tears choke in my throat and knowing the last thing I want is to cry over something so stupid, although I'm bitterly conscious of the broken feeling inside me, as if I have lost something I can never get back. Not Brynjolf, I think, knowing he was never mine nor ever would be. It's my pathetic hope that I've lost, I realise, wondering how I ever could've fooled myself into thinking I was capable of letting someone so close to me, of wanting someone so close to me, despite always knowing the pain of how such things can end. I have known it since I sat beside the corpses of the people I loved, and since that day I have learnt how badly a person can be hurt, I think, and it dawns on me that I am a fool not for wanting Brynjolf but for even considering tearing my heart open for anyone.

I force back the tears and I turn away, deciding I am more than done with the conversation and having no desire to cry in front of anyone, much less Brynjolf, but the thief reaches out and takes my arm, turning me back to face him.

'Wren, wait.' His eyes catch the dim light, the fury gone, but I realise then that I would rather he be angry than serious, knowing that I would rather be vicious than vulnerable.

'I don't want to hear it,' I say sharply, the tears threatening my eyes with my pathetic anger and frustration.

'I know you don't want to hear it,' Brynjolf says. 'And I know you don't believe me. Look, I get it, I know you-' Brynjolf stops suddenly, and whatever he was going to say never reaches my ears. His hold on my arm lessens, but he doesn't look away. 'You're not a game to me,' he says finally. 'Whatever else you might think, be sure of that much at least.'

I look up at him, wanting to believe him but knowing I cannot, feeling the painful racing of my heart and realising that I do not ever want a repeat of this conversation. If it hurts now, imagine what it'll be like after I admit how I feel and then one day having to hear him fucking another woman.

'Is that another line?' I say sarcastically. 'I know it must be exhausting so you can just stop charming me, all right?' I pull my arm roughly from his hold. 'I'm not interested so unfortunately you're just going to have to lose this game and accept there's going to be one less notch on your bedpost.'

Brynjolf's expression is inscrutable as he looks at me for a moment, although I see how hard his jaw is set. 'That's fine, Wren,' he says, his tone clipped. 'I didn't come after you to try charming you into my bed. I came to tell you to be careful. I know Mercer. Trust me, one way or another, he will hurt you.'

'Trust you?' I echo, trying to not laugh as an uncomfortable shiver passes through my already tense body. 'If you think I could ever trust you any more than I could trust him, you're fucking crazy.'

Part of me regrets my words the moment I say them, but the rest of me only wishes I had said them sooner, before I let it go this far.

The thief's expression doesn't change as he stands back and gestures down the passageway behind me. 'Well, don't be out too late,' he says, his tone cold. 'You don't want to keep Mercer waiting.'

I flush scarlet at the ice in his voice. 'And I don't want to keep you from trying to fuck every woman down here,' I snap before I turn around and stalk down the passageway, fury and hurt and regret making my legs unsteady and my heart pound desperately in my chest.

I knew this would hurt, I remind myself as I reach the ladder, but despite wanting nothing more than to climb it and get out into the air, I find my hands are shaking too much to be able to hold onto the rungs. I stand and wait until I hear the sound of the Cistern door slamming shut and then I exhale, not realising I had been holding my breath. I already knew this would hurt, I think again, well aware that it is my own fault for what just happened, knowing that I only have myself to blame for bringing up Sapphire and the other female guildmembers, and for showing him that I cared. That was the stupidest thing of all.

When I feel my hands stop shaking, I climb the ladder and step out of the tomb into the graveyard. The scent of nightshade chokes me not for the first time today and I think about all the times I have tasted the bitter scent on the air or have swallowed it down. Mercer, Astrid, Grelod and her guests, I think, feeling my stomach twist sickeningly, knowing that I have had my dignity, heart and body broken already and feeling starkly certain that entangling with Brynjolf would break all three at once.

I realise then that a light rain is falling and that I am still holding the paper from Mercer in my hand, except now I have balled it up into a tight knot. Deciding that doing a job would be a welcome distraction, I unfold the paper and look at the address written there before stuffing the note back into my pocket and pulling up my hood against the rain.

The store is on the other side of the city and I walk there slowly. As Brynjolf promised, the job poses little challenge to me, and as the owners sleep soundly upstairs I empty the contents of their safe into a satchel I find in the store. I also pocket a few trinkets for myself before I slip back out into the cool damp evening, not feeling the usual thrill of satisfaction at a job easily done.

I stay out in the streets for much of the night, walking with no purpose beyond avoiding any people I see in the alleys. The rain eases off a few hours before dawn, by which time I am soaked, with my shoulders aching from the weight of the satchel and my legs exhausted from walking for so long - and yet my mind continues to work as quickly as before, and I cannot stop myself from wondering again if I should even return to the Guild.

There's enough coin in this satchel to at least get me to Ivarstead or some other town nearby, I think, but quickly realise I have no idea where I would go or even where I should go; that thought only reminds me of the reason why I chose to stay at the Guild before, when I convinced myself that Delvin would one day give up something useful about where I can find Astrid. Even if he doesn't, she should send me another contract soon, I think, desperate to hold on to that tentative link with the assassin, regardless of what I must do to earn it. The thought of carrying out more contracts after the last one sends a chill through my numb body, but I know it is the only way I might one day be able to find Astrid without anyone's help. Though I suppose I could always wait at the shack where she took me and just hope that she returns with another kidnapped victim someday.

Without direction from my mind, my feet start to take me back towards the graveyard. As I walk, I steel myself for whatever and whoever I might encounter when I return to the Guild; by the time I reach the tomb and the first grey tendrils of dawn are working their way through the night sky, I am resolved to pretend as if the conversation with Brynjolf never happened and I will never let my feelings get the better of me again.

Fortunately, when I unlock the Cistern door and walk inside, the redhead is nowhere to be seen, nor are any other guildmembers; as I half-expected, the only person in the Cistern is Mercer, who has stayed up to wait for my return. Just like he did after he sent me to the Overlook, knowing what I would find there, I think, remembering the satisfaction in his eyes when I returned with my pathetic broken heart and seeing the same expression on his face now. It's all worked out exactly as he planned, I realise as I walk over to him, and suddenly I feel like I have become little more than a puppet whose strings the Guildmaster toys with in whatever way he pleases.

I throw down the satchel on his desk. 'That's everything that was in the safe,' I say shortly, turning away before I can look too long at the smug smile at his mouth.

'Not so fast. I need to check it before you go running off.' Mercer walks around his desk and opens the satchel. 'I'll be sending you back if it's not all here, you know.'

I fold my arms and glare at him as he begins emptying the satchel's contents onto his desk. 'It's all there,' I say briskly.

'Patience, Wren, it'll only take a minute.' Mercer glances over at me, his eyes taking in my rain-soaked appearance, before he looks back down. 'I thought I told you to make it quick. You've been hours.'

I ignore him, not wanting to linger and certainly not wanting to talk with him.

The Guildmaster only makes a quiet snort of laughter at my silence as he sifts through the papers and coins. A minute later, when the satchel is empty and I'm sure he's satisfied himself that I've retrieved everything that was in the safe, I turn away, but I've barely moved before Mercer grabs my arm.

He pulls me roughly back to him. 'I said to make it quick,' he repeats, his voice suddenly hard and his grip the same. 'Do you understand what that means? Do you understand that when I tell you to do something, you do it?'

'I did the job,' I say, trying to wriggle out of his hold. 'Sorry if I took a walk afterwards.'

'I'm not talking about the fucking job,' he snaps, not letting me go. 'I told you to be outside my room tonight, didn't I? Or did you think that was an invitation and not an order?'

'I work for you in the Guild,' I say. 'I don't obey you outside of that. I'm not your whore.'

That makes Mercer laugh quietly. His voice lowers as he pulls me closer and his other hand closes around my neck. 'Have I ever paid you, Wren?' he says softly, as I stop struggling against his hold, my anger disappearing beneath my fear at the feeling on his hand on my neck. 'So the little bird wants to be paid for it now, does she?' His thumb runs down my throat slowly as his dark eyes hold mine. 'Fine, if giving you a handful of coins will make you co-operate, why don't you name your price?'

'We're done with this,' I snap, my cheeks flushing with humiliation and fury that he would even ask me to put a price on my body.

Mercer's other hand releases my arm and grabs my hair at the back of my head. 'No, we're not,' he says shortly, before he leans down and pulls my head close, bringing his mouth to mine in a sudden hard kiss.

I realise that for all the time I have spent with him, for all the things he has done to me and I to him, it's the first time we have kissed. I can only stand in shock as his mouth presses against mine, my mind racing at the feeling of another's lips on mine, remembering how it felt to be kissed by the auburn-haired thief in the alley and how it felt to want it for the first time.

Mercer breaks away before I can even process my thoughts properly, and as I look up at him in bewilderment, his dark gaze flickers over me, and for once I don't see the mocking derision in his eyes. 'Brynjolf is a fucking idiot,' he says, before he lets go of me abruptly and walks away.

I stand numb as I watch him stride off in the direction of his room, my body in shock. Eventually, my mind reconnects with my body and I walk slowly over to my bed, unsure what to think. Or if that even just happened.

I sit on the edge of my bed and remove my daggers from my thighs, thinking momentarily about getting beneath the sheets but I know sleep is far beyond me tonight and I have little desire to be in the dark with nothing but my thoughts as a distraction. Instead, I retrieve the healing spell book from under my bed and pick up where I left off, not sure why I keep trying to learn the spell when it is clearly beyond my capabilities. It's not long before I come to the same conclusion as before and I throw the book back under my bed.

Besides, you can't heal everything, I think, before I stand up, not wanting to sit and let my mind wander. I consider going back above ground but quickly decide that I cannot bear the scent of nightshade again today, much less the memories it brings. When I think about getting drunk in the Flagon, I realise Sapphire must be in there, and maybe Brynjolf too, and the thought of speaking with either of them makes my stomach twist uncomfortably. They both know how weak I am now.

I pick up and toy with the Blade of Justice, thinking I could go to to the training room and take out some of my anger on the training dummy, but I realise it is not anger that I feel clawing at my stomach, and a few moments later I tuck the dagger back under my pillow and leave my bed, knowing there is only place left for me.

The entire Guild will know soon enough, I think as I walk to Mercer's room and come to stand before the closed door. Sapphire knows. Brynjolf knows. What else have I got to lose now?

I knock once on the Guildmaster's door.

He leaves me waiting for what feels like hours. When he finally opens the door, his gaze flickers over me, although I scarcely feel the effects of his gaze now.

'Look who won the game,' Mercer says. 'And it's not even dawn yet.'

I see no triumph in his eyes at his victory. He always knew he would win, I think, well aware that the Guildmaster's plan tonight gave him the result he wanted, with me broken and willing at his door.

'I didn't agree to your deal,' I say coldly, deciding I need to retain at least a shred of my pride. 'I don't belong to you. You can't use me however you like.'

'No?' He quiet laugh makes me realise how little he believes that. 'Maybe then you'll at least now agree to stop declaring that this is over. The minute you start saying I'm done with this again, I'll remind you exactly how unenjoyable this can be for you. Agreed?'

I draw my arms around my body. 'Fine,' I say, hating the word and the submission behind it, but knowing that if tonight is anything to go by, I do not have the power to end whatever this is, anyway.

'Maybe you are finally learning.' Mercer holds the door open wider, but before I've stepped up to the threshold he blocks the way again. 'Oh, but first.' He reaches into one of his pockets and retrieves a coin purse, holding it out to me with a small smile at his mouth.

I glare at him, feeling a shiver pass down my back, but before I can repeat myself that I am not his whore, Mercer laughs softly.

'It's for the job, Wren,' he tells me, although the way he looks over my body and the fact that I must take this gold at the doorway of his room sends another uneasy chill down my spine and I realise that I feel like he's not paying me just for thieving.

It is gold for the job, that's all, I think firmly, desperate to convince myself, but I scarcely believe it, even after I have reached out for the purse and tucked it into my pocket.

'Good girl.' Mercer steps back from the door. 'Now, I think we were going to see which one of us can make you come the fastest, weren't we?' He inclines his head, looking me up and down. 'Although the little bird seems rather worn out tonight. Maybe she'd rather we don't play any more games and I just fuck her instead?'

'I don't care,' I say, knowing I don't have a choice anyway.

The smirk at Mercer's mouth tells me he knows it too. 'Then get inside, Wren,' he says, standing back from the door, and I obey without another word.

Chapter Text

I shut the door behind me with a sharp snap. The moment I turn around, Mercer takes my shoulders and pushes me up hard against the door; I gasp at the impact but I soon forget the pain and surprise as he steps up close to me and one of his hands goes to my neck. I freeze in fear, my heart pounding faster with every second as his thumb traces slowly over my throat, knowing that with one hand he could choke the shallow breath out of me. Afraid that he intends to do it, I try to discern the look in the Guildmaster's eyes, my fear rising with every passing second until he tilts my head up sharply and leans down to meet my mouth.

His kiss is rough, his mouth forcing mine open wide to let his tongue push inside. I whimper as I try to draw breath, my body suddenly desperate for air but hindered by the pressure of his mouth and tongue. Mercer's other hand grabs my hair and pulls roughly, jerking my head to the side to allow him better access to my gasping mouth.

I clutch at his arms, the angle of my neck hurting and my breath compromised by his kiss, but suddenly I fail to notice either discomfort as warmth cuts through me, my mouth wet as it responds to Mercer's harsh kiss with more eagerness than I intended. My hands reach up between our bodies and I cling to whatever pockets and buckles my fingers can find on the chest of his jacket, pulling him closer as I open my mouth wider for him, my tongue begging him to kiss me harder.

The moment my tongue becomes fiercer than his, the Guildmaster breaks apart, leaving me gasping again both for breath and for his mouth to return. Before I can try to reach up and pull his head back down, he grabs my hands and pins them against the door above my head, my wrists hitting the wood hard.

He holds me there for a few seconds, looking down at me with derision. 'You like being kissed, don't you?' he says mockingly, his lips curling into a smile as his eyes flicker over my flushed face. 'Do you want me to tell you that you're beautiful and give you pretty flowers too, sweet little girl?'

Despite my efforts, even the cold sarcasm in his voice doesn't seem to douse the heat rising in me fast from his kiss. 'I don't want that from you,' I say honestly, trying to steady my breathing. 'I'm not stupid enough to think you actually care for me.'

'Care for you?' Mercer repeats with a snort of laughter, and a moment later he lets go of my wrists. 'Gods, I didn't think you were that pathetic.' He steps back and reaches down to start unfastening his trousers. 'Fine, if you don't want me to give you flowers, get on your knees and I'll give you something else instead.'

'I'd rather have the flowers,' I say icily, even as I feel the wetness in my mouth from our kiss and I instinctively swallow, my throat seemingly preparing itself for what I know the Guildmaster wants.

He notices my uncontrollable reaction, and I see the smug gleam in his eyes. 'I don't think that's true, is it?' he murmurs as he pushes down his trousers, his cock already hard for me. 'I know what the little slut really wants. Now kneel and take it,' he commands, and the low harshness of his voice makes my legs quiver and a second later I drop to my knees.

As I reach for his hips to support myself, Mercer grabs my wrists again and pulls my arms up above my head, pinning my hands against the door behind me as he leans his body into me, positioning himself in front of my face.

Knowing I am going nowhere and suddenly realising that I have no desire to fight, I lean my head forward and open my mouth for him, taking him in, relieved that his hands are gripping my wrists and he cannot jerk my head as brutally as he likes. My relief vanishes a second later when Mercer leans closer and pushes his hips against me roughly, forcing his cock to the back of my throat.

I whimper as Mercer starts thrusting rough and fast, driving his cock back and forth in my mouth, working against the back of my throat as I try to keep my muscles relaxed. Pinned helpless up against the door, my arms begin to ache under his tightening grip on my wrists; as he finds his pace, I focus on those discomforts, barely noticing the feeling in my throat, by now more than familiar with the forcible manner the Guildmaster likes to take his satisfaction in my mouth.

He obviously enjoys it more than usual tonight, and he comes quicker than I am expecting; after a few last fierce thrusts and with a satisfied groan, he pulls back from my throat to finish on my tongue - unprepared, I cannot swallow fast enough and I end up choking, his pleasure spilling from my mouth and trickling warm over my chin.

His breathing levelling in the wake of his release, Mercer releases my hands and takes a step backwards. His cock slides wet from between my lips and I exhale in relief as my arms fall limp to my sides, but my relief is once again short-lived as Mercer takes my chin in one hand and he tilts my head upwards to look at him.

His gaze moves over my face, a bright fire of satisfaction and derisive amusement in his dark eyes. 'Look at the state of you,' he says softly, as he runs his thumb over my chin and mouth, wiping his spilled seed from my skin. 'Finish up, ungrateful little bird.'

I hold his gaze for a moment before I open my mouth and lick his pleasure off his thumb.

Mercer makes a sound of satisfaction in his throat before he moves his hand to my cheek and brushes my hair back from my face. 'You can have another taste later,' he promises, the familiar smirk at his mouth. 'Since you're behaving so well tonight.'

He moves away and refastens his trousers, and I take that as permission for to get up from my knees. I use the door to pull myself to standing as Mercer walks over to his desk. I feel a flicker of anticipation, both apprehensive and strangely curious about what he will retrieve from the drawer, but the Guildmaster only pulls out a stack of letters. He settles in his chair before starting to flick through the papers.

I stand where I am by the door, waiting, but after a minute when I realise he intends to ignore me and simply read his letters, I feel frustration start to rise in me.

'Mercer,' I say pointedly, not in the mood to stand here waiting for him.

He glances over at me briefly before turning back to his work. 'Get undressed and lie down, Wren,' he says. 'I'll see to you in a minute.'

My frustration in no way quelled by his words, I walk over to his bed and start to undress, my fingers swift and angry over the fastenings of my jacket, preferring that he rip it from me and take me fast before I have time to question myself or what I am doing here.

I throw my clothes to the floor loudly, wanting him to hear and know that I am naked, but he doesn't pay me any more attention. I settle myself on the bed and draw the sheets over me, growing increasingly irritated with every second I have to wait.

Am I really getting frustrated because I want the Guildmaster to fuck me that badly? I think, but the thought is too uncomfortable that I push it aside and try to think of nothing, although it proves difficult when I lick my lips and taste the remnants of him.

A few minutes pass in silence until I hear Mercer curse under his breath. 'Fucking elf bitch,' he mutters as he throws aside one of the letters and picks up another, and I decide I've had enough of waiting.

'Haven't you found Karliah yet?' I say cuttingly, my impatience getting the better of me. 'Surely you should've figured it out by now.'

Mercer doesn't even turn around, much less rise to my taunt. 'If the little slut is so smart, why doesn't she figure it out for me?' he says mockingly. 'There must be something in that head of yours beyond thinking about me fucking you.'

I flush red that he seems able to read exactly what is running through my mind, but I quickly realise that it's pretty obvious what I want, considering I am sitting naked on his bed waiting for him.

'Well, she must be somewhere close,' I point out, determined to prove my head is not as empty as he thinks. 'If she's interfering with the Guild as much as she has been, she must be nearby to know what's going on.'

Mercer laughs softly. 'Maybe,' he says. 'Or maybe she's got someone on the inside.'

I look at him in shock. 'You think someone in the Guild is working with her?' I say.

He turns his head to look at me, his smirk pulling at his mouth as his gaze flickers over my body, even though I am covered by a sheet and he can see little of me. 'Oh, I wouldn't be surprised,' he says idly before he returns his attention to the letters on his desk.

I blink, thoroughly confused that he thinks a guildmember is sabotaging the Guild and yet seems not to care. 'You're not even doing anything about it?' I say incredulously.

'Who says I'm not?' Mercer says. 'Maybe in the future, Wren, just shut the fuck up about things beyond your intelligence and put your mouth to better use.'

'Maybe you should put your mouth to better use,' I retort viciously.

He laughs a harsh laugh. 'Oh, you haven't earned that yet, little bird,' he says as he tosses aside the scrap of parchment in his hand before finally rising from his desk and turning around to face me. His gaze flickers over my body. 'Drop the sheet,' he commands.

I glare at him, not moving, but my furious silence only makes him laugh again.

'Wren, do we need to go back over the basics?' Mercer starts to remove his jacket. 'I think we already established tonight that when I tell you to do something, you do it.'

'I think all we established is that I'm not your whore,' I say coldly, although I am painfully aware that is the least of the lessons I have learnt tonight. And I don't want to think about the rest.

The Guildmaster lays his jacket on the back of his chair. 'Whore or not, if you want me to fuck you, Wren, you're going to have to drop the sheet at some point,' he says as he pulls off his shirt.

I hesitate for a few seconds, but when his hands go to his trousers once more, I obey and let the sheet fall away.

Mercer's gaze sweeps over my naked body, but he says nothing as he rids himself fully of his clothes and he finally walks over to me. He takes my shoulders and pushes me down flat before climbing onto the bed, parting my legs and moving his body over mine before he grabs my thigh and hooks one of my legs about his hip.

'Now, how best to get the little bird wet tonight?' he says as his hand moves down between our bodies. 'Maybe you want me to kiss you again, hm?'

I don't reply, focused on his hand nearing its destination and knowing he has his own answer and won't care for mine. And it doesn't take much, anyway, I think, feeling my body's heat start to rise in anticipation.

Amusement gleams in Mercer's eyes as he looks down at me. 'Oh, I know what'll work,' he murmurs, as his hand slips between my legs to where I am most sensitive. 'Want me to call you lass?'

My breath catches as he presses his fingertip hard against my clit, but my pleasure is cut with a bitter feeling in my stomach when I register his words. 'Don't call me that,' I say sharply, not wanting to think about Brynjolf or our conversation earlier tonight.

Mercer laughs at my reaction. 'Easy, lass,' he says in a painfully accurate impression. 'Figured you'd like it.'

'Well, I don't,' I snap, which only makes him laugh again.

'Fucking gods, you're too easy to play with,' he says, before his fingers start working me fast, and before I know it, the bitter feeling in my stomach swiftly turns to a warm pleasurable tightness.

My body seems intent on proving just how easy it is, reacting as fast as his touch, my heart quickening and my thigh muscles tightening against his hand to make the feeling mount faster. I soon feel his fingers slide in my wetness, slipping further down between my legs, and when two of his fingers dip inside me, I gasp with the sudden intrusion, just as unprepared as I was when he came before.

'You know, if you want him that bad, we could both fuck you,' Mercer says as he begins moving his fingers in and out of me, making me gasp again at the roughness of his efforts. 'I'll have this wet cunt of yours while Brynjolf can fuck your mouth. I bet you'd come before we even got started, wouldn't you?'

Anger flashes through me at his words, but I find myself incapable of responding; as my body quickly gets used to him, the ache from the unyielding motion of his fingers inside me grows more pleasurable than painful and I can no sooner reply than I can try to stop the Guildmaster from touching me.

'Want me to tell him to do it?' Mercer says, looking down at me with laughter in his eyes. 'You might as well be of use to both of us, after all.'

'Just stop talking,' I manage to say, my voice faint as my breathing grows shallower.

The Guildmaster laughs. 'Ungrateful slut indeed,' he says. 'And did you just tell me to stop talking?' With another laugh, he abruptly he pulls his fingers from me and pushes back up from my body. 'Get on your hands and knees where you belong, little bird, and I'll remind you who's in charge.'

I'm only too happy to obey, not wanting to talk further or see the laughter in his eyes, and I turn over and position myself onto all fours. Mercer grips my hip with one hand as he reaches down with the other for his cock, quickly making himself harder for me again.

A moment later, my arms buckle and a pitched moan escapes my lips when he thrusts inside me and drives his cock to my limits in one rough motion. I reach out and grip the bed frame with one hand, managing to steady myself in time as Mercer pulls himself out and slams back into me, his strength making me almost fall forward into the wall behind his bed and I cry out, half in delight, half in pain.

'Does the little bitch want it harder?' he says but doesn't wait for me to reply, and I doubt he would've cared what I have to say anyway, as he proceeds to give it to me as hard as ever, his breath catching with his satisfaction and effort while my keen cry fills the room. 'I'll take that as a yes.'

I ignore him, my pleasure rising just as mercilessly as he fucks me, everything vanishing from my mind as I feel heat tear through my body and I know I do not want to wait. I arch my back deeper, wanting him deeper, and the Guildmaster is good enough to oblige. His fingers bury in my hips, jerking my lower body back against him as he works himself deep inside me.

He takes me hard, although I know no other way from him - and my own part in it is no different from normal either; I feel my pleasure building with every rough thrust he gives me, and ignited by my anger and my vicious humiliation of earlier, I come faster and more desperately than ever before. I brace my arms and push my ass back against him as the pleasure pulses through me, my muscles tensing and my hips shuddering as I scream out loudly, wanting to make the most of it, not wanting it to end.

Regardless of what I want, the feeling leaves me as fast as it overtook me, and I can only moan one last time as what strength I had remaining leaves my body along with my pleasure. Weak and breathless, I grip the bed frame with both hands to hold myself steady as Mercer maintains his pace, seemingly neither noticing nor caring that I can barely keep myself upright.

Where my release proved easy to achieve, Mercer takes far longer, his satisfaction already spent a short while earlier. By the time he nears his release, my breathing is levelled and I listen to his own breathing growing rougher along with with his movements, his fingers and nails digging hard enough into my hips to make me gasp in pain when he comes at last.

After he has finished, the Guildmaster takes himself from me and gets up from the bed without another word. My body weak and unsteady, I quickly turn over and watch as he pulls on his trousers and returns to his desk.

As I wait silently for him to speak, I realise how tired I am, my body exhausted beyond the overworked limpness following my release. It's been another night without enough sleep, I think, but I find myself reluctant to return to my own bed in the Cistern to remedy my tiredness, not wanting to risk running into Brynjolf or anyone else. At least when I'm here, there is only Mercer and my pleasure.

The Guildmaster seems inclined to allow me to stay, or at least he appears uninterested in whether or not I leave; he begins reading through the stack of letters again without paying me any more attention, and after a few minutes have passed, I realise that if he was done with me for the night, he would've dismissed me by now.

Strangely relieved, I pull the warm sheets over my body and curl up in his bed. Lying on my side, I feel a soreness in my hip as it presses against the mattress, and when I reach down beneath the covers I feel painful grooves in my flesh from the sharp pressure of Mercer's fingers and nails.

I turn over to lie on my back and I close my eyes. For a while I listen to the occasional rustling of paper and muttered curse from the Guildmaster at his desk, the sounds slowly lulling my tired body even drowsier, and before I know it, I drift off to sleep.

It feels like only moments later when I jerk awake abruptly, a rush of coldness sending a violent shiver through me as the sheets are ripped back from my naked body. Instinctively I flinch upright and my eyes snap open, but the room is darker and my vision blurry.

I look over to the desk and notice the candles are burned down low, but I have no time to consider how long I have slept, as I feel the mattress sink beneath another's weight and strong hands take my waist.

'I think I made you a promise,' Mercer says, as he moves to kneel beside me. 'Wake up, sleepy little bird.'

Too disoriented to resist and with no idea what he's talking about, I let him position my body where he wants me, half-lying on my side with my head near his lap. Then I realise he is naked, and hard, and I understand why he has woken me.

I do my best to prop myself up on my arms and support myself as Mercer's hand slides up my neck to take a handful of my hair, jerking my head closer to him. I open my mouth for his cock before he has time to demand it; too tired to struggle or to attempt to wake myself up, I close my eyes and do my best to suck down on him as he swiftly starts to move my head back and forward, the painful angle of my neck registering only vaguely in my half-consciousness.

The Guildmaster seems to prefer my resistance than my silent obedience, as his fingers knot tighter in my hair, pulling at my scalp as he forces my head to move faster and his cock deeper. Knowing he wants a reaction, I give it to him, whimpering with each rough motion, not entirely having to pretend - and with my efforts, it's not long before I have my second taste of him, just as he promised earlier. This time, and despite my sleepiness, I am quick enough to swallow every part of him.

After he is spent, Mercer lets my head rest on his lap, one of his hands stroking my hair. I am more than content to lie there closed-eyed for a while, my neck sore and my body begging to rest uninterrupted.

'You're far more agreeable when I've worn you out,' the Guildmaster says softly above me. 'But nowhere near as amusing. Go back to sleep, little bird. You can try to entertain me better tomorrow.'

He lifts my head from his lap and gets up from the bed. I curl up where he leaves me, wrapping myself in the sheets as I hear Mercer return to the desk and pull out a fresh candle from his drawer.

Vaguely I wonder if the Guildmaster ever sleeps. The thought unnerves me, uncertain which is worse, the thought of Mercer always being awake or the thought of him joining me in the bed while I am sleeping oblivious and defenceless, but I have barely a moment to consider it before my eyes close and without another thought, I slip into unconsciousness once again.

 

Blue-grey hands grip my hips, red eyes watching the movement of my breasts as I ride him.

'Lynna,' he murmurs. 'I don't want to pay. Don't make me pay.'

Although I try to convince myself I don't want to do this, I know I cannot help myself. 'The price must be paid,' I whisper, and suddenly his throat opens wide to me, exposing itself without provocation from my bladeless hands, blood flooding our bodies, covering me hot and wet.

I look down at the dead man and still my movements, wondering what to do, feeling him inside me. When I am about to climb off him, hands take my hips again, but when I look down, I realise it is Brynjolf beneath me and I feel such a rush of longing that I lean down and bury my mouth against his, my hips quickly rocking once more, wanting the feeling to rise again.

Brynjolf laughs against my lips. 'Little bird, you're too easy,' he says, but it is Mercer's voice I hear, and from behind I feel fingers knot in my hair, pulling me upright and away from the thief beneath me.

Mercer stands beside me and the thief, his hand twisting my head to the side to face him. 'You want to pay the price?' he says, and as he leans in, I tilt my head and open my mouth for his cock eagerly, gripping his hip with one hand as the other rests on the thief's chest beneath me, feeling both of them inside me.

As I please the Guildmaster with my mouth, Brynjolf's hands snake up to my breasts and I grind against him faster, desperately, hearing his groan of pleasure and wanting to hear it louder - but it is Mercer's satisfaction I cause first, and he grips my head in both hands as he finishes.

It spills from my lips as I gasp out in pleasure, moaning not choking, wanting the taste, to drink it down and let it wash my body clean. But when I look down, the warmth gushing over my neck and breasts is bright crimson.

'Lass,' Mercer says, keeping my neck twisted to face him, and instead of his cock he holds a dagger, my dagger, the Blade of Justice pointing at my throat. 'I've a contract for you. Come and get it.'

'No,' I start to say, but the torrent from my mouth continues, gushing warm over my entire body, hot blood coursing over me and through me, and I feel myself drowning, choking-

 

I wake with a jolt, entirely disoriented, blind in the pitch dark and with my body covered in a sheen of sweat. My head is at a funny angle and I find that I am curled awkwardly halfway down the bed.

Then I realise I am not alone, and remember whose bed I am lying in, and I writhe up from under the sheets to find Mercer lying beside me, little more than a shadowy figure on the bed in the darkness - but when he speaks, I don't have to see him to picture the smirk at his mouth.

'Sounds like you were enjoying your dream,' he comments before he rolls over and turns his back to me. 'You can take care of yourself if you want to get off. Just keep it down. I'm trying to fucking sleep, bird.'

I don't move, trying to master my breathing, my pulse still quickened from my dream. And it was just a dream, I tell myself, although I find myself bringing it to mind all too vividly, and I feel my body burning viciously hot as if I really was in the throes of pleasure at the hands of both the redhead and the Guildmaster.

Knowing I could never find my clothes in the darkness and not wanting to ask Mercer to light a candle for me, I settle back onto his bed, curling up as far from him as I can without falling off the edge of the mattress. Suspecting that sleep is beyond me and my uncomfortably warm body, and not feeling entirely at ease with the Guildmaster lying beside me anyway, I intend to keep my eyes open and stay awake - but as the minutes pass, I feel my eyelids growing heavy and the exhaustion starting to weigh down my tired limbs. Eventually, as I lie in the dark, the heat of my body cools and the memory of my dream fades, and soon too does my nervousness of having the Guildmaster lying beside me.

At least I now know that Mercer does sleep, I think before my consciousness slips from me once more, and this time, I sleep with no dreams.

 

*

 

I fall into a new routine quickly. My days I spend training with Rune or above ground trying to make what gold I can. Jobs grow scarcer still, with Vex outright refusing to give me what work she does have and Delvin apologetically admitting that he too has given the jobs to longer-standing guildmembers. And I won't be getting any work from Brynjolf again, I think, but I don't let my mind dwell on him for long, content to avoid the auburn-haired thief and pretend that our conversation in the Cistern passageway never happened. He seems to share the sentiment, as I see no sign of him for almost a week.

I have no desire to avoid Sapphire, but I soon become painfully aware that although I have not lost her friendship or company, I have lost some of her respect. The raven-haired thief does not bring up the subject of my involvement with Mercer again, but she cannot disguise the look in her eyes in the early hours of the morning when I leave her and Rune in the Flagon, claiming tiredness and announcing that I am going to bed. I do go to bed, I think, but it is the Guildmaster's bed I find myself in every night for a week, and sleep is the last thing I get there.

I become used to nightshade. One quiet morning, I make enough of the bitter tea to keep in a bottle beneath my bed. Despite getting used to the foul taste, the memories it brings are just as potent as always, as if the wounds are fresh made, and as the days pass, I grow more and more frustrated that I receive no letters from Astrid. Although Mercer is good enough to let me vent my frustration, I cannot completely ignore the simmering fear and anger inside me, my heart hardening with the painful knowledge that I am still no closer to the assassin. One day, I consider briefly that Mercer might have withheld Astrid's next contract from me, that maybe she has requested I kill someone of importance to him. Or even Mercer himself, I think, wondering how I would do it, whether I would kill Mercer Frey the way I killed the Dunmer; I imagine riding the Guildmaster as I drive a dagger through his throat, and the thought gives me more pleasure than I expected. He's not the type to want a woman on top, I remind myself, quickly pushing the thought from my mind, knowing I have more chance of becoming the High Queen of Skyrim than I have of killing the Guildmaster in his bed. When I ask Mercer whether Astrid has sent me any letters, he tells me he has better things to do than withhold my contracts and directs me to the Ratway if I'm so keen to get my blades wet.

I readily believe him when he says that he has other things on his mind, seeing first-hand that the Guildmaster's own frustration is growing over his lack of progress in hunting down Karliah and knowing that he has little concern for my own affairs. I'm the last thing on his mind, I think, knowing I am little more than a willing body in his bed. I try not to acknowledge the fact that I don't seem to mind that that is all I am.

It's a week after my confrontation with Brynjolf that Rune and I return to the Cistern in the late evening to find it more crowded than I've ever seen the place, with a throng of people over in the kitchen alcove, excited voices echoing in the cavern louder than the water.

Were there always this many guildmembers? I think, counting at least twenty and not recognising over half of them, their faces as unfamiliar as strangers although I assume some of them must sleep in the Cistern in beds just along from my own.

'What's going on?' I ask Rune, although he has spent the day with me watching the streets while I rob houses.

Before Rune can reply, I hear a loud burst of laughter, and when I look, I realise Brynjolf and Vex are in the middle of the group and the redhead is regaling them all with some dramatic tale. I catch only a few words, but from what I do hear, it sounds like they've made a successful robbery.

'I guess their heist paid off, then,' Rune says, clearly listening in just as I am, and when I look at him quizzically, the dark blond thief glances back at me. 'Brynjolf and Vex were planning to rob Mistveil to get hold of the Jarl's signet ring. Didn't you know?'

I shake my head, suddenly feeling twice as disconnected from the Guild and their celebration. 'Well, that's good,' I say, but I have no more time to come up with anything more eloquent to say, as suddenly Brynjolf's gaze flickers over to where Rune and I stand by the door, and my eyes meet the redhead's as if drawn to them.

In that moment, I recall not only our argument but my dream of a week ago, remembering what cold words we exchanged and imagining how it felt to kiss him, and I am filled with such a desperate sense of regret and longing that I look away quickly, realising I do not want to be near anyone right now, much less Brynjolf.

'Let's go see the spoils,' Rune says, oblivious to my thoughts, and he starts to walk towards the group, who are opening bottles and pouring mead.

I hold back. 'I'm going to trade a few things with Tonilia first,' I lie. 'I'll come back in a minute.'

The dark blond thief seems caught up in the excitement enough that he only nods in acknowledgement of my departure, for which I am glad, preferring to be unquestioned and ignored - although I am distinctly conscious of the feeling of being watched by someone as I go the long way around the Cistern towards my bed. That's not so unusual now, I think, knowing that most of the Guild is aware of my association with Mercer and having felt the male guildmembers' gazes more and more frequently as they try to decide whether I am up for the taking or if the Guildmaster has claimed me for his own personal use. Another reason to stay away from all of them, I think, knowing I am not in the mood for banter, harmless or otherwise.

I open my chest and deposit the scant few items I stole today and retrieve instead the healing spell book. Tucking it beneath my arm, I stand up and go to the only place where I know no one else goes.

Sitting on the hard stone floor outside Mercer's door, I open the tome on my lap, nearly at the last few pages now, having needed its distraction more than once in the past week.

As I listen to the echoes of the noise and laughter, I read the last few pages of the spell tome, although it takes me what must be an hour to get to the end. When I finally finish reading the final page, I close the book and put it down beside me, wondering if I have absorbed any of the knowledge and instruction I have read. Mercer says I am a slow learner, I think, before I push aside the thought, not wanting to cloud my mind with thoughts of the Guildmaster or our lessons.

I lift my right hand and spread my fingers, focusing myself. Doing my best to ignore the sounds of celebration from the Cistern, I close my eyes tight and try to cast the healing spell.

Nothing seems to happen. I clench my fist and open it again, channelling what strength I have in me down to my hand. I can do this, I think, convincing myself. I need to do this.

When I feel warmth fill my hand, my eyes snap open eagerly, but in my surprise I only catch a flicker of soft white light in my palm before it vanishes. I quickly try again, feeling my heart beating faster as I attempt to cast the spell once more - and when a bright light glows from my hand a moment later, I stare at it in shock, barely able to believe that I have managed to create it.

The pleasant warmth in my palm sets excitement running through me and I find myself eager to test the spell's power. I let the glow fade and quickly reach down to my thigh, unsheathing the Blade of Justice, its weight more comforting and familiar in my hand than the magic.

Without hesitation, I draw the dagger across my little finger on my left hand, lightly and carefully, but even the faintest graze from the Blade tears my skin and I gasp in pain as blood spills forth. I drop the dagger to the ground and cast the spell, feeling a thrill chase through me when I hold my warm glowing hand close to my cut finger and I watch in amazement as the blood cease to flow and the wound closes.

Before I can marvel further, the glowing light vanishes, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot summon it again.

It'll take time to master it, I tell myself as I bring my finger to my mouth, sucking away the blood and examining my untarnished finger with satisfaction. And when I do, I will be able to protect myself far better.

My sense of triumph disappears as abruptly as the healing glow. Now if only Astrid would inflict no other damage beyond pricking my finger, I think, trying not to feel the cut of pain in my heart when I think of how much damage I have seen the assassin cause and knowing that a minor restoration spell is going to help me little against her.

I throw the book to the floor and sheathe the Blade of Justice at my thigh once more, suddenly feeling twice as frustrated as I was before I cast the spell. I draw my legs up to my chest and listen to the echoes of laughter, trying not to think or feel the despair rising in me.

Fortunately, I don't have to wait very long for my night's distraction. When Mercer appears suddenly from the darkness a short while later, I jump in surprise, not having heard his footsteps or caught sight of him until he stands right beside me.

He is in a noticeably foul mood to match my own. I cannot ignore the tension in his shoulders and the scowl on his face, and as I scramble to my feet, his eyes flash dangerously and something flutters fast in my stomach, telling me to keep my distance tonight, warning me against spending any time with him - but I know it's too late and I have no desire to be alone with nothing but my thoughts of Astrid and my fear that I will never enact my justice. The thought makes me want to scream, and I know Mercer can give me a reason to do that.

The Guildmaster says nothing as he unlocks his door and walks inside. I follow him silently, closing the door behind me and standing just inside the room, watching as Mercer pulls off his jacket and shirt and throws the garments onto the foot of his bed with more violence than necessary. I linger near the door, keeping my own clothes on, suddenly cautious to be naked around him just yet.

He seems to have little interest in making use of me, as he leaves his trousers on and goes to his desk, settling in his normal place there and opening a new stack of letters, ripping one to shreds after a moment's glance and picking up the next with a muttered curse.

I sit down on his bed and wait a while for him to finish, but the minutes crawl by slowly and I feel my irritation soon start to rise, impatient for him to take me and make me work out my growing frustration.

'Want me to help?' I say eventually, knowing he is still looking for word on Karliah and thinking he would get through the letters twice as fast if I read them too.

It's the wrong thing to say. 'Do I want your help?' Mercer repeats, pausing with his hand on the next slip of paper. I hear the derision in his voice. 'Did you really just ask me if I want your help?'

'Clearly you need some help,' I say sharply, his words provoking my irritation far quicker than usual. 'It's been over a week since you found out Karliah was messing with you and yet you're still no closer to finding her.'

'Shut the fuck up,' the Guildmaster snaps, his temper sparked by the subject as easily as ever. 'You're testing my patience and I'm starting to think having you thrown out on the streets or spending the night in jail might be the only way I could get some fucking peace around here.'

'What, you're going to march me to prison yourself?' I say sarcastically before I can stop myself. 'Sure, Mercer.'

My tone doesn't do anything to help his own anger. 'You think I'd have to walk you there myself? With just a few words, I can arrange for your little ass to spend a night or a year in jail,' he tells me. 'Maybe after a couple of turns on the rack or at the hands of the guards, you'd learn your fucking place.'

'If you did that, I'd turn you in,' I retort. 'Leader of the Thieves Guild? I bet the Jarl would love to hear all about where to find you.'

Mercer laughs coldly. 'You could. You might even manage to get me in a cell for a few hours. But when I got out, I would hunt you, little bird. And no amount of begging would save you then.'

'Well, while you're in jail, at least you could ask the guards for their help,' I suggest mockingly, deciding to ignore his threat, fearing his vengeance far more than the thought of spending a night in jail. 'They'd probably do better at tracking down Karliah than you.'

'You think so, do you?' Mercer's voice suddenly becomes quiet, more dangerous than the vicious fury of before, and when he turns around to look at me, I immediately regret provoking him as much as I have, wishing I had just kept my mouth shut.

A cold smile pulls at his mouth and his eyes narrow as they search mine, his gaze hard and icy, steadily turning my own fury to uneasy nerves, my body tensing as the seconds pass.

Finally Mercer breaks the heavy silence. 'Did you really think Brynjolf would go near you?' he says. 'Beyond maybe a quick fuck, I mean.'

Caught off-guard by the change in topic, I fold my arms. 'We're not talking about this,' I say.

'I think we are.' He inclines his head. 'You think he would've wanted a little whore like you? He knows what you are, you really shouldn't be surprised he'd rather fuck every other woman down here.' Mercer pauses. 'He knows how many men have had you.'

I stare at him, an inexplicable chill going down my back. 'You don't fucking know how many men I've been with,' I say coldly. 'Neither does Brynjolf.'

His eyes glitter with amusement. 'You were in Honorhall for ten years,' he says. 'It's not hard to guess.'

I freeze. Cold shock overtakes both my anger and my unease, leaving me strangely breathless, but before I even think about speaking, the Guildmaster gets there first.

'You know, I'm surprised you're still so tight,' Mercer says casually. 'But I suppose they didn't all fuck you, did they? Some probably just looked at you and touched you. And you touched them. Your little mouth has probably tasted more cock than half the whores in Riften.'

I feel the air taken out of my lungs. I try to speak but fail, unable to process the realisation that Mercer knows about what happened to me at Honorhall and feeling my memories pushing at the edge of my mind, desperate not to let them form fully.

Mercer laughs at my struggle to find words. 'You think I didn't know where you came from? You think I don't know everything that happens in this city?' Mercer stands up from his desk, his amused gaze flickering over my body as I sit numb and frozen on his bed. 'Poor stupid little bird. You still underestimate me, don't you?'

Suddenly I cannot stop my mind from racing to the memories of Honorhall, as if drawn to them like a moth wanting to be burned. I imagine those men, cold and faceless in my memories, doing to me what Mercer does, fucking me, bending me over, pinning me down, taking me however they could. And women, I think, remembering that twisted desires are not the province of men alone, remembering hands, remembering laughter, remembering hard gazes, all of it leaving me with nothing but a child's frightened dread deep in my stomach.

It wasn't like that, I force myself to think, reminding myself that the guests were infrequent occurrences, that Honorhall was no brothel or back-alley business selling bodies like meat. What happened was infrequent enough not to matter or to think about ever again.

Despite some part of me knowing it to be true, and wanting nothing more than to forget, I find I can still only sit there in numb silence, pitiful terror rushing through me to think that a man like Mercer knows my vulnerability, that I am capable of being hurt so easily.

Mercer continues to watch me, clearly enjoying my pain. 'And then you went and killed an innocent old woman, didn't you?' he says tauntingly.

'Innocent?' Violent fury flares in me, hot and painful and making me forget everything else. 'Grelod was a twisted bitch who exchanged children for coin,' I say viciously. 'The fucking cunt got what she deserved.'

He only smirks at the words coming out of my mouth, hardly offended by my language. 'Poor little bird.' His voice is mocking. 'Did the nasty men touch you in bad places without your permission?' He laughs. 'You probably secretly liked it though, didn't you?'

Fury and cold nausea turn my stomach. 'And you were probably one of Grelod's guests, weren't you?' I spit. 'You're the sort of man who'd enjoy that.'

'Don't fucking insult me,' Mercer says, anger flashing dangerously in his eyes. 'What would I want with forcing myself on a frigid little child? All I have to do is snap my fingers and you get wet for me.'

'Fuck you,' I snap as I stand up and cross over to the door, barely feeling the pain inside me, knowing that I just want to get out and get away. Even though I know there is nowhere I can run from myself.

'Hold it there,' Mercer says sharply from his desk before I can reach for the door handle. 'Turn around, Wren.'

Afraid of his tone, I turn my head to look at him, my hand hovering by the handle, longing to scream a vicious torrent of insults at him, longing to reach not for the door but for the daggers at my thighs, to walk across the room and drive them into his heart.

Mercer's smile twists his mouth, his eyes cold and bright with his amusement, and I am sure he knows what I am thinking. 'Go on, tell me you're done with this,' he says jeeringly. 'You know you want to. And then I'll keep my end of the bargain, and trust me, you'll realise how easy I've been going on you this whole time.'

I stare at him, suddenly unable to ignore what I have always known, that the Guildmaster is just as capable of hurting me as the guests at Honorhall. And more, I think, no longer underestimating him, realising he knows far more than I could ever expect and is capable of even more.

'I'm not saying that I'm done,' I say quietly, as my skin crawls with my stupidity for ever agreeing to the deal he offered. 'I'm saying I'm going to bed. You wanted me to give you some peace. I'm doing what you told me, all right?'

He laughs. 'Easy, lass,' he says tauntingly, though that pain barely grazes my heart now. 'You seem upset. Don't you want me to kiss it better for you?'

'I'm going to bed,' I repeat, wondering how I ever enjoyed kissing him, much less doing anything else with him. Before I can give him any more opportunity to toy with me, I pull the door open and stride out, praying that he doesn't try to stop me.

I feel a flicker of relief when he lets me go and only the echoes of his laughter follow me as I stalk down the passageway, but the feeling of relief is only vague and quickly gets lost in the bitter hollowness inside me. As I leave the Guildmaster's room, through the darkness I catch sight of the healing spell tome on the ground and quickly look away as I continue towards the Cistern.

I'm a fool for even thinking I could protect myself with a stupid fucking spell, I think bitterly, feeling my fury and pain for a sharp moment before I decide not to think anymore. About anything.

The celebrations in the Cistern are still ongoing, but I keep my head down and walk over to my bed, wanting to stay away from everyone but having no desire to go to the Flagon and spend the last of my coin on wine, knowing the risk of relaxing the walls I have built tentatively around my mind.

For the first night in a week, I curl up in my own bed, still fully clothed. I remove my daggers from my thighs, tucking the silver blade beneath my pillow for safe keeping but I find myself unable to let go of the Blade of Justice. I huddle against the wall, holding the sheathed dagger to my chest, trying to make my heart as hard and sharp as the Blade itself.

By the time the guildmembers take their drinking and noise to the Ragged Flagon and the sound of rushing water becomes the only sound I can hear, I have succeeded in closing my mind, at least partly; instead of Honorhall and Grelod, I think of my parents, and I think of Astrid, and I think of what justice I can enact in this world.

And the justice I will enact, I think, clutching the Blade of Justice to my heart. No matter the price.

Chapter Text

Riften swarms with guard patrols following the Guild's most profitable heist in months. In the two days that follow, I learn that along with the Jarl's signet ring, Brynjolf and Vex managed to lift several jewels the size of chicken eggs and a glass ceremonial dagger, the blade crystal clear and the hilt inlaid with diamonds.

Or so I hear. The goods get stashed in the vault for fencing later once the heat is down, and I never actually get to see any part of the unexpected fortune that has the Guild in high spirits.

My own spirits are not helped by the recent bounty; with the city overrun by guards hunting for the Jarl's stolen goods, Delvin temporarily puts what few jobs there are on hold, entrusting only Vex and Brynjolf to carry out a couple of client requests that cannot be postponed. While the streets fill with guards, below ground the Cistern fills with underworked guildmembers, and an empty table becomes a thing of the past in the Ragged Flagon; the place heaves with what seems like all the lawbreakers of Riften, who, like the Guild, are intent on keeping out of sight until the guards ease off their patrols and business can go back to normal.

Feeling decidedly reluctant to risk a night in jail by robbing any houses, and with the Cistern and the tavern crowded and raucous at every hour, I immediately find the new arrangements unbearable. Without any means of distraction beyond taking up the hobbies of my fellow bored guildmembers - drinking, gambling, and other less savoury pursuits conducted in the Flagon and the adjoining Ratway - my mind wanders to Astrid and her continued silence, and my temper becomes so edged that I try to keep my distance from even Rune and Sapphire, not wanting to snap at them but unable to quell my growing furious impatience.

It's two days after the successful heist that I leave Rune and Sapphire to continue drinking in the Flagon and instead fight my way through the crowds back to the Cistern, deciding to lock myself alone in the water room and let the rushing water drown out my screams of frustration that I can no longer bear to keep inside

The Cistern is noisier than ever; I barely hear the rushing water over the sounds of a heated game of dice taking place in the kitchen, where guildmembers are betting clothes as well as coin, and the men appear to be cheating more than the women. I ignore them and head to the water room, but as I try the door and find it locked, I catch the sound of faint moaning from within, and it's clear that a couple of guildmembers are finding other ways to entertain themselves and pass the time.

Maybe that's what I need to do, I think flippantly, before I remember the last time I saw the Guildmaster and suddenly my skin crawls and my stomach turns hollow and I realise the last thing I ever want is to be touched by anyone, much less by Mercer Frey. No, I'd rather hit something, and hard, I think, and decide to vent my frustration with my daggers instead.

As I walk to the training room, I remind myself of the one good thing from the last few days - apparently the Guildmaster is as opposed to the overcrowding of the Cistern as I am. Having seen no sign of him around the Guild since I stormed out of his room two days ago, I find myself more than willing to keep my distance permanently. And for the first time, there is no part of me that wants it any other way.

When I reach the training room and push open the door, I find the room occupied with a group of male guildmembers, most of whom I barely recognise, all armed with daggers and swords. They turn to look at me as I stand in the doorway, and I realise Thrynn and Vipir are with them.

'You here to join us, little bird?' the ex-bandit says, grinning. 'I hear you like a bit of swordplay.'

'Yeah, don't you keep the Guildmaster's dagger nice and sharp for him these days?' Vipir says with a snicker as I feel a blush stalk up my cheeks.

'Want to see how sharp I keep mine?' I say cuttingly, gesturing to the blades at my thighs, almost hoping that they give me a reason to draw them.

The men laugh loudly, clearly not threatened in the slightest.

'Come on, we're only playing with you,' Vipir says. 'What's the problem?'

'She doesn't want us to play nice with her,' the ex-bandit tells him, his eyes flicking back to me, bright with laughter. 'From what I hear, the bird likes it rough, don't you?'

I flush red, humiliation burning through me. 'Talk to me again and I'll cut your fucking throat,' I snap viciously before I turn away and slam the door behind me.

I hear their laughter even from outside the room and suddenly I feel as I did that night long ago, in my too-small clothing, with a blunt carving knife in my satchel and blood still on my shoes, finding myself cornered by the three drunk men.

At least I know I could actually do what I threatened this time, I think, and for a wild moment I imagine kissing Thrynn as I did the Dunmer, having him under me, enjoying the touch of his hands before burying the Blade of Justice deep in his neck and making him pay the price. Gods, am I actually that blood hungry? I scold myself, before I realise that is not a question I want to dwell upon, when I have killed so willingly in pursuit of one woman's blood.

My mind distracted, I don't notice I am walking right into the path of the Guildmaster until it is too late. With my head down, I hurry around the edge of the Cistern back towards the Flagon, passing by the passageway leading to Mercer's room just as he strides out of the shadows. As I catch sight of him out of the corner of my eye, I start walking faster, not in any sort of mood to talk with him or indulge any of his other commands, but a second later he grabs my waist from behind and stops me in my tracks.

'Slow down, little bird,' Mercer says, pulling me back to his body as he presses up behind me. 'Why the hurry to fly away?'

I struggle to free myself, conscious of the guildmembers nearby in the kitchen and in no mood to let Mercer toy with me at all, let alone in front of other people. 'Let me-' I start, but before I can finish my demand for him to release me, Mercer's hands go to my shoulders and he turns me around roughly to face him.

The dim warm light of the Cistern falls upon the scowl on the Guildmaster's face, the furrowing of his brow and the fire in his dark eyes, which I soon notice is no less vicious than it was two days again when I provoked him; if anything, the dangerous glint in his eyes is even brighter. He still hasn't found Karliah, then. As I look up at him, I suddenly feel half my size, just as I did the first time I ever laid eyes on him.

I should've turned around and left this place back then when I had the chance.

My own bad temper must be written on my face too, as Mercer's eyes flash with cold laughter.

'Oh, come on, are your feathers still ruffled?' he says mockingly, and I don't have to think very hard to know what he is referring to.

'No,' I answer, my voice like ice, not wanting to discuss the topic ever again or give him the satisfaction of knowing how badly he hurt me with just a few words and the memories they forced into my mind. 'Look, I'm busy, so just-'

'Busy?' Mercer laughs a quick cold laugh as he grabs my arm, holding me in place before I can even begin to turn away. 'Like hell you are. You know you don't have much use around here unless I put you to work. Talking of which, go wait outside my room. When I come back, I'll think of some way to keep you occupied.'

I look at him stonily. 'I've got things to do,' I tell him, trying to pull my arm from his hold, no part of me wanting to go to his room ever again or repeat any of the experiences I have had in there.

A smirk twists his mouth, though I can see the impatience in his eyes and I know he has little interest in playing. 'Come on, Wren, don't make me put a collar on you and drag you there like a dog.' He makes a quick hard laugh. 'But you'd probably get off on that, wouldn't you?'

I glare at him, about to tell him exactly what I think of that idea, before I realise that I wouldn't put such a thing past him. And even if he didn't go as far as that, I know he'd find some way of getting me where he wants me, I think, and with the thought of the nearby guildmembers witnessing Mercer forcibly marching me to his room with or without chains, it hits me that I have no choice but to obey. At least, I'll agree to obey, until he leaves the Cistern and then I can hide in the Flagon or somewhere above ground.

'Fine,' I say shortly. 'I'll wait outside your room, if you insist.'

Whether or not he realises I have no intention of doing what I say, I cannot tell, as he only smirks coldly and lets go of my arm. 'You know, I've got more important things to deal with without another fucking woman giving me grief,' he tells me. 'So watch your fucking attitude, Wren, because I've got no patience for it right now.'

He doesn't need to tell me which other woman he means. With little to do besides sit around the Cistern and the Flagon for the past two days, I have heard the gossip about Maven Black-Briar, who is supposedly furious after learning that the Guild's run of bad luck has been because of one vengeful ex-guildmember - whom Mercer has yet to find and punish appropriately. And so Maven must want to punish someone, and maybe Mercer is now at the receiving end of her wrath.

The idea of Mercer being reprimanded by Maven Black-Briar makes me feel considerably brighter, and bolder, and the words tumble from my mouth before I can stop them.

'I take it Maven isn't pleased that you still haven't found Karliah,' I say sweetly.

Mercer's eyes narrow with my tone of voice. 'So smart, aren't you?' he says sarcastically. 'But not quite smart enough to know when to open your mouth and when to shut it.'

'Sorry,' I say, matching his sarcasm. 'I shouldn't have mentioned it. I forgot you're terrified of getting on Maven's bad side.' I force a laugh, knowing I shouldn't but finding myself unable to resist. 'The great Mercer Frey, scared of an old woman.'

'Watch your tongue,' the Guildmaster snaps, rising to my taunt far easier than I expected, anger glinting in his eyes and the cold smirk long gone from his lips. 'Unless you want it ripped from your mouth.'

'Do you watch your tongue when you kiss Maven's ass?' I retort, unable to help myself, wanting to ridicule him and make him feel as humiliated as I felt when I was last in his room and every time before. 'When you lap like a little dog at her old wrinkled cunt, I bet you actually enjoy it, don't you?'

I see the fury flash in Mercer's eyes, but I only get to enjoy it for a second before he suddenly brings the back of his hand across my face hard. I stumble sideways and cry out with the pain but I barely have time to register how fiercely it hurts before his hand closes around my throat and he shoves me up against the wall.

'Aren't you the little firesprite now?' Mercer says as I yelp at the impact against the hard stone. 'Go on. You were saying...?'

I open my mouth to speak but his grip on my neck tightens and I can only gasp as I start to struggle to draw breath, the side of my face stinging from his hand and my heart thudding furiously with fear.

'Come on,' Mercer says mockingly, his eyes like ice as he keeps me pinned to the wall by my throat. 'You had so much to say a moment ago.' He tilts his head to the side as his hand squeezes harder and the tips of his fingers dig into my skin. 'Now you've gone quiet?'

'Please-' I manage to get out hoarsely, although it sounds more like a raspy intake of breath as I struggle desperately for air, let alone words.

'Was that please?' Mercer laughs coldly. 'Begging doesn't always work, bitch. And I've a mind to kill you rather than fuck you.'

I feel a deep thudding in my head and my eyes start to water. I stare up at him, my hands clutching uselessly at his arm as he holds me easily by the neck. His smile is cruel and I realise in that moment that he is not only capable of doing it but entirely willing to choke the life out of me here and now.

Terror courses through me and I try to beg again, to wrench his arm away, but the pressure against my throat means I can do nothing but splutter as my hands clutch feebly at his arm.

Distantly through the pounding in my head, I hear familiar voice from somewhere across the Cistern.

'Mercer! Let her go.'

'Stay the fuck out of this, Brynjolf,' Mercer spits viciously, turning his head as out of the corner of my eye, I see the auburn-haired thief striding across the Cistern in our direction. 'This has nothing to do with you.'

'Yeah, it does, if you're about to strangle a guildmember in our damn headquarters.' Brynjolf appears beside us, but he barely glances at me; his green eyes stay fixed on the Guildmaster, but his expression is only vaguely exasperated, as if Mercer is considering making a poor choice of mead rather than considering choking me to death. 'You really think now's the best time? Look, I've got enough to deal with without having to clean this up too.'

'Do you think I give a shit?' Mercer's hand tightens about my throat as he looks back at me, his eyes searingly cold. 'Disposing of one little slut is hardly going to put your fucking back out.'

'Mercer,' Brynjolf says, his voice shorter. 'Let her go. I'm not asking.'

Mercer's gaze flickers back to the redhead and he laughs. 'Fuck's sake, Brynjolf, you just didn't listen, did you? A whore with half a mind can do what she does and would know her fucking place too.'

His hand still around my throat, Mercer pulls me back from the wall before he suddenly shoves me down to the ground. I am just quick enough to get my hands out in front of me to stop myself going head-first into the hard stone; a gasping cry of pain escapes my raw throat as my hands and knees hit the floor hard and I desperately try to draw breath.

'There,' the Guildmaster says, though I barely hear him over the blood thudding loud in my ears. 'Maybe you'll finally start learning where you belong, bitch.'

I struggle to my knees, heaving deep breaths as I clutch gingerly at my neck, but Mercer's sudden hard kick to the side of my stomach sends me down flat to the ground.

'Do you think you can speak to me however you want just because I like fucking you?' Mercer says over my cry of pain, my body instinctively curling in on itself. 'Talk like that again and I'll cut your tongue out.' He steps back from me and turns to Brynjolf. 'And if you interfere again you'll regret it,' he snaps.

'I'm looking out for you,' the thief replies mildly. 'I'm too old to be hiding dead bodies, Mercer, all right?'

'Like hell you are. Well, you can have the bitch. See if you can train her to use that fucking mouth of hers as she should.'

Through the shocked numbness of my body, I suddenly feel hands at my hips and legs, and I recoil from the touch, trying to push myself up and move away from the groping hands, but the Guildmaster is both stronger and quicker than I am, and before I can stop him, he rips the Blade of Justice and my silver dagger from my thighs.

'Let's see how brave you are without your little knives,' he says as I scramble desperately to try to grab my daggers from his hands, even as I know it is a useless endeavour; Mercer steps easily out of my reach, laughing a cold laugh as he glances down at me with such threatening ice in his eyes that I immediately shrink back to the ground, terrified.

Without another word, the Guildmaster turns and disappears down the passageway leading back to his room, and a few moments later, I hear his door slam.

In the seconds that follow, I suddenly become aware of the silence in the Cistern; even the rushing water seems distant to my ears, as I realise that all the guildmembers in the room are looking over and have witnessed my humiliation.

And I am still here cowering on the floor.

I force myself to my feet, stumbling on my weak legs and nearly falling back to the ground before I feel strong hands take my arm and help keep me upright.

With Brynjolf's touch, I suddenly remember with a rush all the times he has touched me, from when he pulled me back from the men outside the Bee and Barb and when he helped me climb down the ladder to the Guild for the first time, to the night he pinned me to the wall in the alley and kissed me, to the last time we spoke, when he stopped me from leaving, when he held my arm in the passageway and told me I wasn't a game to him. And I said far more than I ever should have.

'Don't,' I say viciously, pulling away from Brynjolf just as viciously as I push away the memories. 'I'm fine, all right?'

'You think I'm going to fucking believe that?' the thief says sharply, the mildness of his voice now gone and his expression like thunder; when he looks at me, his eyes flash with fury, although I cannot tell who it is directed at or why, whether he is angry at Mercer or at me for letting it happen.

He knows everything I've let happen, I think with an uncomfortable jolt, suddenly remembering what Mercer had said the last time I was in his room, that Brynjolf was aware of where I had come from before I joined the Guild and that he knew all about the guests at Honorhall. Is that why he tried charming me? I think, wondering if the redhead saw me as easy prey, already broken in. Or worse, he pitied me.

The thought sends nausea through my stomach and I take a quick step back from the thief. 'I am fine,' I insist, even as my body still trembles with shock and the impact against the ground. And that's least of all. As I draw my arms around my body, I feel the sharp soreness under my rib from where Mercer kicked me, and the side of my face still stings fiercely from the back of his hand. I swallow, trying to soothe my throat, and force the words to come. 'Really, you don't have to act like you're concerned anymore.'

'Act?' Brynjolf repeats. 'Of course I'm fucking concerned. I told you, Wren, involving yourself with Mercer was going to be bad for you. Maybe you should've listened?'

'You think this was all my choice?' I snap back, fear still twisting in my stomach. 'Like I wanted any of this to happen? Like I-' I stop myself, realising how pointless it would be to explain any of this to him, when I cannot explain it to myself. 'Look, thanks for your help,' I say quickly, aware that if Brynjolf hadn't intervened I could be unconscious on the ground at Mercer's feet right now. 'I appreciate it. But I just need a drink. Alone,' I add, and before he can argue or tell me again how right he was and how wrong I was, I turn and hurry across the Cistern in the direction of the Ragged Flagon.

Feeling the gazes of the watching guildmembers on me, I keep my head down and walk fast, not wanting to look at the expressions and find out if they are shocked or uninterested or entertained. It's not until I wrench open the Flagon door and slam it shut behind me that I stop and let myself breathe properly, though the air is stale and heavy - and rather than sitting in the tavern and trying to drink away what just happened, I long desperately for the clean and fresh autumn air that tastes of rain.

More than that, I just want to get out of here, for good.

The sudden thought hits me less painfully than I expected, some part of me already having known for a while that I cannot stay at the Guild for much longer. As I stand in the passageway leading to the Flagon, trying to still my shaking hands and breathing deeply to fill my fragile lungs, I realise I have only one other place in the world I can go. Where I need to go, at long last.

I steel myself and enter the Ragged Flagon, the noise and clamour overwhelming me the second I cross the threshold. The air hangs thick with the scent of mead and wine and skooma, and for a moment my head swims and I feel as if Mercer's hand is about my throat again. I force myself to breathe and look around, but the mass of bodies prevents me from seeing anything beyond the people right next to me, and a shiver of unease passes down my back when I realise I do not have my daggers or any form of defence.

More cautious than normal and with the tavern twice as crowded, it takes me a long time to track down Delvin. When I finally push my way to the bar, having successfully avoided two brawls and a particularly violent game of cards, I find Delvin's usual seat occupied by a Redguard, drinking his way down a line of small glasses of green liquid, and when I look around I see no sign of the old thief nearby. Remembering I left Sapphire and Rune a little earlier at a table over on the far left, I stay away from that side of the tavern as I start to search the place for Delvin, my frustration and eagerness to get out of the crowds rising fast with every minute that passes.

When I finally catch sight of him some time later, sitting at a table with a pretty black-haired Bosmer woman at his side and an array of bottles before him, I hurry over, forcing my way through another group of patrons, ignoring one man's irritated remark as I push past him and nearly make him spill his drink.

'Lovely bird.' Delvin greets me with a grin as I come to stand before his table. His jacket is slung over the back of his chair and he has his customary tankard in one hand, while his other arm is thrown lazily around the shoulder of the wood elf. 'Come to join us, eh? Since you know I've no work for you, you can't tell me this is business and not plea-'

'Tell me where the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary is,' I demand before he has even finished speaking, done with trying to dance around the issue or subtly persuade him to talk.

The old thief looks at me carefully over the top of his tankard. 'The Sanctuary, eh?' His gaze flickers over my face, a small frown weighing down his brow as his eyes linger on the side of my face, and I realise my cheek must still be red from Mercer's hand.

'Yes, where is it?' I say sharply, folding my arms, wishing I could cover my face. 'I know you know, so just tell me.'

Delvin's eyes slide back to mine and he takes his arm from around the Bosmer. 'Whatever you're thinking of doing, sweetheart, the Sanctuary isn't a place you should go in blind,' he says as he sits up straighter and rests his tankard on the table, not taking his eyes off me.

'Tell me where it is and what I'll find inside and then I won't be going in blind, will I?' I counter, feeling my irritation rising fast.

'Not blind like that, love,' Delvin says. 'You go there in the rage you're in right now and walking into a damn pine tree will be the least of your troubles. Look, you don't go entering the Sanctuary unless you've got your wits about you, and anger makes a man blind in more than just his eyes.'

'Well, I'm not a man, and I'm not in a fucking rage,' I snap, although I know at least one of those statements is a lie.

Delvin clearly doesn't believe me either, and his gaze flickers over my face again for a moment. 'Maybe you and I need to talk away from here, hm?' he says, his voice gentler than I've ever heard it before, but in my shaking fury I barely register his concern.

'Forget it,' I say coldly, realising at last that Delvin is never going to help me find Astrid or her Sanctuary. And that means there's no point staying here any longer.

I turn around and stalk away without another word, my heart pounding with the realisation that there is nothing keeping me here. I make my slow way back to the Cistern through the crowded tavern, my mind racing and my head feeling dizzy. I've enough gold to get me to Ivarstead, I think, deciding that my fanciful plan of waiting for Astrid at the shack where she held me prisoner is the only lead I have to finding the assassin on my own. And anything is better than waiting around here for nothing.

Briefly I wonder if I should go to Rune and Sapphire and tell them my plans, before I feel a sickening wave of nerves over saying goodbye and I quickly decide that leaving them a note will suffice. Like Brynjolf, they'd probably think this was all my fault anyway, I realise, preferring that they hate me for my abrupt and unexplained departure rather than pity me for my utter stupidity.

When I enter the Cistern, the place is strangely deserted, although I find I hardly care why, deciding that it means I can leave in peace and unseen. I hurry to my bed and drop to my knees beside my chest, but when I lift the lid, my heart seems to stop, yet I feel the blood pounding in my head just as furiously as when Mercer's grip around my neck tightened.

The chest is empty, my stash of gold gone along with the few stolen trinkets I had yet to trade. All that is left are my clothes, the empty vial from my night in the skooma den, and the carving knife that cut Grelod's throat.

I stare down at the items, my breathing feeling trapped in my chest, my heart hardening with the unavoidable knowledge of who took every piece of gold and anything of value from my chest while I was in the Flagon.

And he has my daggers too, I remember suddenly with a sickening jolt, wondering just how the hell I am going to get beyond the graveyard let alone outside Riften's walls without at least some means of defending myself.

I slam the lid of the chest shut, fighting the desire to take the carving knife and go to Mercer's room right now to demand he return my belongings. I might as well bury the blunt blade in my own neck, I think, knowing there is only one way the Guildmaster will let me into his room, and that carrying a carving knife with the clear intention of cutting his throat will not help persuade him to return my coins or weapons.

Despair courses through me as I stand hopelessly beside my bed, not knowing what to do, my determination to leave the Guild suddenly thwarted and leaving me trapped at the Guildmaster's mercy once again.

I can just steal more gold, I remind myself. And new daggers. Despite knowing it to be true, the thought does little to reassure me, when I consider the number of guards on alert in the Riften at the moment and the fact that simply walking from the Guild to find any suitable houses for robbing is dangerous enough. More than my fear of being caught, the thought leaving the Blade of Justice and Rune's silver dagger in Mercer's hands sends bitter anger cutting through my stomach. The Blade belongs in my hands, and the silver dagger is too precious to let Mercer sell it for coin.

Before I consider what I am doing, I leave my bed and stride through the Cistern in the direction of the Guildmaster's room. Though my body hurts in more places than one and is still on edge from what he did earlier, a curious numbness overtakes me and I find I am strangely unafraid. He thinks I am predictable, but he is too, I think, knowing that all Mercer wants is my submission, and that if I give it to him, he may indulge my request, or at least give me an opportunity to steal back what belongs to me. At least I know by now that he sleeps like any other man, I remind myself, and I consider the slim chance I might be able to rob him as he sleeps once I have satisfied his pleasure.

At his door, I do not hesitate before I knock sharply, knowing I have no choice, only wanting to get it over with and get back what is mine. Once I have my daggers and my gold, I'll never have to see him again.

When the Guildmaster opens the door a few seconds later, I realise that the violent anger I provoked in him earlier has noticeably diminished. Probably in satisfaction at stealing my gold and successfully stopping me from running away, as he knew I would want to do, I think as I look up at him, trying to dampen my own simmering fury at what he has done, knowing he can do far worse if I push him far enough.

'Wren.' Shirtless and with a small smirk at his mouth, Mercer crosses his arms over his bare scarred torso as his gaze flickers up and down my body, seeming unsurprised to find me at his door. I see a glimmer of satisfaction in his eyes as they linger on the growing bruise on my cheek, clearly appraising his handiwork of before. 'What do you want?'

To get my daggers and my gold back, you fucking bastard. I see the door being slammed in my face before I even consider speaking the truth.

I look up at him, trying to shrink down, trying to seem as small and weak as he likes me to feel. 'To apologise,' I say. 'I was out of line when I spoke to you earlier. I'm sorry.'

Mercer inclines his head as he looks down at me in silence, clearly weighing up his choices. And deciding which will be more amusing to him.

I wait, suddenly wondering if I shouldn't have brought the carving knife with me after all, in case Mercer decides to make me pay by choking me again rather than allowing me to please him however he likes. Or maybe he plans to do both, I think, and beneath my anger I feel a flicker of doubt over my decision to knock on his door.

'I think you can apologise to me better than that, can't you?' Mercer says finally, and steps back from the door.

I nod, knowing that I can, and I follow him inside.

 

*

 

The click of the lock as Mercer secures the door sends a shiver down my back, but I barely have time to think about the fact that I am now trapped in here. Carelessly and quickly, the Guildmaster strips me bare and throws my clothes to the corner of the room before he walks over to his desk. As I watch him, my gaze falls upon the items on the desk's surface and I catch sight of my daggers lying there, along with stacks of gold and coin purses, only some of which are mine. I'll take as much as I can, if I get the chance, I think boldly, imagining robbing the Guildmaster blind and relishing the satisfaction that would give me.

The clink of chains as Mercer retrieves the shackles from his desk drawer distracts me from my thoughts, and I remember that my satisfaction is not the reason I am here.

Mercer turns to face me. 'Kneel,' he says, pointing to near the bed. 'There.'

I obey, dropping to my knees on the floor before the foot of the bed, exactly where he knelt when I was first in his room, when he pulled my legs apart and tasted me for the first time. Despite my anger and my unease, the memory sends a tentative flicker of desire through my stomach, yet I barely notice, finding myself more conscious of Mercer's ominous silence as he leans down to close one of the metal cuffs around my left wrist. He loops the adjoining chain around the bed frame in front of me before shackling my right wrist. When Mercer straightens up and walks away, I clutch at the edge of the bed, trying to resist the urge to turn my head to see what he is doing behind me.

After a few long seconds, I hear Mercer kicking off his boots. 'You can stand up, Wren,' he says softly.

My wrists shackled to the bed frame, the shortness of the chain prevents me from standing fully upright. I assume that he wants me bent over anyway, and so that is how I stand, my hands holding on to the rough wood of the bed frame, my heart racing as I stare down at the bed sheets in apprehension, trying to quell my growing sense of unease. I chose this more than once in the past, I remind myself, only hoping that I will get some enjoyment from whatever he intends to do with me.

I hear the Guildmaster come up behind me and I ready myself, arching my back a little and gripping tight to the bed frame, but when I feel his hands grasp at my hips and he leans his groin against my ass, I realise he is still clothed.

'We're going to talk about how you spoke to me earlier.' Mercer's voice is low and sends a shiver of danger rather than desire through me.

'I won't speak to you like that again,' I say quickly. 'I swear. I'm sorry.'

'Are you?' His hands caress my hips for a moment before he steps back and lets go of my body. 'I don't think you are, little bird.'

I'm about to insist that I am when Mercer suddenly hits me, his right hand slapping the side of my ass with full force.

I cry out, half in shock and half at the sharp pain. Instinctively I try to move away, but Mercer's hands grab my hips again, holding me in place.

'Oh, settle down,' he says irritably, although I can hear the smirk in his voice. 'It didn't hurt that bad.'

'Let me fucking hit you, then,' I snap, trying to twist my body to face him or get away, but the binds hold me fast and his grip on my hips is just as unyielding.

The idea clearly amuses the Guildmaster. 'You'd like that, wouldn't you?' he says mockingly. 'Seeing as you're such a powerful, intelligent woman.' He moves away again and I feel another sharp slap across my ass. 'I'm sure you could hurt me just like that, couldn't you?'

I gasp with the hard impact of his hand, my breath catching painfully in my sore throat. 'Don't,' I say. 'It hurts.'

His laugh is cold. 'It hurts?' he mimics before he hits me again and I cry out, feeling my skin sting with the strength of his arm. 'Come on, you like it, little bird.'

'I'd fucking say if I liked it,' I say viciously, struggling against the shackles, feeling the iron cutting into my wrists as my anger rises at his words and I instinctively try to free myself from my binds.

Mercer laughs and grabs my hips again, preventing me from moving as he presses up against my ass. Through the material of his trousers, I feel the hard shape of his cock and I realise how much he is enjoying this. 'How many times have you said no and ended up begging me for it?' he says. 'Give me a few minutes and I'll make you like it. You give me a few minutes and I could make you like anything, we both know that.'

'You-' I start, but my words get lost beneath my cry of pain as he moves back to lay another hard smack against my skin, this time at the side of my thigh.

'Now I know you can cry out louder than that,' Mercer says. His fingers dig into my hips sharply, making me gasp. 'And after your little disobedience earlier, I'm in the mood to hear you scream.'

As he releases my hips, I decide to withhold from him exactly what he wants and not give him the satisfaction of hearing my pain; when he slaps me hard again, I bite my lip to stop myself from making so much as a whimper, and instead I hear the Guildmaster's sigh of irritation.

'I said I wanted you to scream,' he reminds me, leaning his groin against my ass once again, the material of his trousers scratching my skin. 'Does the little bird need some help getting started?'

One of his hands snakes around my hip and dips down between my legs, his fingers not delaying in their intent, laying rough and unforgiving strokes over my clit before I can even draw a breath and register what he is doing. Despite my determination to remain silent, I gasp sharply, both at his ungentle touch between my legs and in sheer surprise at my body's reaction - expectant of further pain and my senses heightened from the brutal strength of Mercer's hands, I feel a fierce wave of pleasure suddenly rush hot through me and I grip the bed frame hard, my legs quivering and my hips starting to rock with the relentless motion of Mercer's fingers, my core growing warmer and wetter with both the rough touch of his fingers and the feeling of him pressing hard up behind me.

Finding myself entirely unable to stop the feeling rising inside me and forgetting my fury and pain of only a few moments ago, I push my ass back against him and move deliberately against his hard cock, half-consciously wanting to encourage him to fuck me rather than hit me, but mostly with the base need to heighten my own pleasure.

Mercer seems to realise what I want. When he takes his slick fingers from between my legs and moves away, I whine in desperation, doing my best to fight my impatience as I wait to hear the sounds of him removing his trousers.

I hear the sharp slap of his hand against my ass before I feel it, my skin still stinging from the last time and my body distracted by his touch at my core, and I only gasp at the strange and unfamiliar combination of heightened pleasure and sudden pain as Mercer hits the side of my ass hard again.

'You didn't listen to me, Wren,' the Guildmaster says warningly as I try to catch my breath. 'I said to scream louder.'

'And I said it hurt,' I snap before I can stop myself, my backside sore from his hand and my frustration piqued by his touch between my legs. 'Maybe you should listen to me for once.'

To my surprise, Mercer only laughs softly as his hands glide over my hips. 'Little bird, you just ask for this sometimes, don't you?' he says quietly, before he lets go of my body and moves away.

When I hear him go to desk and pull open a drawer, panic mounts uncontrollably in me faster than the pain and the pleasure. Fearing his quiet words and wondering just what I have supposedly asked for, I strain my ears to listen to what he is doing, but I do not hear the slither of chains. Instead, I hear the soft clean scrape of leather, like a strip or a belt.

'Mercer-' I start nervously as I hear him walk back to where I stand bent over at his bed, but I don't have enough time to say anything more, as I hear the swift whip of leather in the air and the sharp slap as it makes contact with my skin.

I scream as the right side of my ass sears with the kiss of the leather, the pain fierce enough to buckle my knees and send me down to the floor.

'Get the fuck up,' Mercer snaps, grabbing my waist and dragging me onto an all fours position, though my shackled hands can't reach the floor and I can only clutch uselessly at the bed frame. 'Hold on to that and don't fucking move.'

I cling to the bed, trying to pull myself up from my prone position, but before I can even move I feel the lash of the leather once more, this time across the back of my thighs.

I cry out loudly, my skin burning, and curses spill from my mouth. 'You fucking bastard!' I scream. 'You gods damned son of a-'

Another lash across my hip silences my torrent of insults and somewhere over my pitched moan of pain I hear Mercer's voice. 'I thought you said you weren't going to talk to me like that again?' he says.

I ignore him, the stinging of my skin making me wild. 'So is this what you do with Maven?' I say manically, the pain making me almost laugh with its intensity. 'Except you're probably where I am, right? That old bitch chains you up and whips you and you sing like a-'

When he brings the leather hard across my ass, I shriek with the pain.

'You just don't learn, do you?' The Guildmaster grabs my hips as I try to scramble off to the side. He pulls me back onto all fours and holds me there with one arm. Another fierce lash of the leather licks across my backside. 'Stubborn little slut, you need to learn some fucking respect.'

Tears suddenly prick at my eyes with the pain, the sensation burning through me white-hot. I grip the bed frame and force the tears back, not wanting him to see me weak, not wanting to show him a reaction, not wanting to give him the pleasure of my suffering.

But it is too late and Mercer hears my sobbing gasp of pain as he smacks the leather down on the back of my thighs once more.

He laughs harshly. 'Oh, come on, it's not that fucking bad. I'm barely leaving a mark.' I hear him drop the leather to the floor and his hands grab my waist. 'Did I play too rough with the little bird?'

I struggle to move away but his hands grasp me tightly, holding me in place.

'No, stay where you are. You move and I won't be gentle next time I hit you.' He releases my waist and his hands run over my back as he leans down over me. 'You disobey me and you get punished. Haven't I made that clear by now, Wren?'

I clench my jaw and refuse to answer, although when his fingers move down to trace over the sore skin on my ass, I have to fight to hold back my whimper of pain.

Mercer exhales a quiet laugh. 'I forget you're just a delicate soft thing,' he murmurs, moving his hands down to my thighs, touching the sensitive skin there. 'The fragile little bird would break all her bones with one tiny fall, wouldn't she?' His hands suddenly grip my thighs and he parts my legs a little before moving to kneel down on the floor close behind me. 'You'd think that means she would've learnt to be careful by now.'

A moment later, I feel his breath on my skin and he starts running his mouth along the curve of my ass, his lips light against my sensitive skin.

'You know I can hurt you but I can also make you feel so good,' the Guildmaster murmurs against my skin. 'It's always been up to you, little bird.'

I stay very still, knowing he is lying, knowing that even when I have walked to his room or asked him to fuck me, what has happened between us has never been truly up to me. He knows exactly how to play me, I realise somewhere in my mind. I came here prepared to submit, willingly, and yet he still has me at his mercy.

'Which do you want now?' Mercer asks, before I feel his tongue lick wide along the raw leather stings on the left side of my ass, making me jerk back in pain. His hands take a hold of my hips once again, keeping me in place. 'Shh. Don't move. Would you rather I hurt you or make you feel good?'

I hesitate, uncertain if it is a question he wants me to answer.

'Don't go silent on me,' Mercer says, his fingers on his left hand digging into the sore flesh of my hip, exactly where he let the leather strike my skin. 'I told you, I want to hear you scream and that can happen one of two ways. Now answer me. Do you want me to hurt you or make you feel good?'

'Make me feel good,' I whimper, seeing no other answer, if one is pain at his hands and the other is pleasure.

He makes a sound of satisfaction in his throat as he lessens his grip on my hips and leans down to lick over the crease where my thigh meets my ass. Even in my pain and fear and anger, I feel a tentative ache of desire between my legs, my body reacting instinctively to having his tongue so close to where I know it works so skilfully and where I know it will make my pain disappear.

'Have you earned it?' Mercer says quietly.

The question throws me and for a moment, I do not know what answer to give, or what answer he expects.

'I want it,' I say instead.

'Of course you do.' Although I cannot see him, I hear the satisfied smirk in his voice clearly enough. 'Stand up, little bird.'

The Guildmaster gets me back on my feet and bent prone over the edge of the bed once more. I grip the bed frame, trying to steady myself and ignore the searing pain in my lower body as I hear Mercer finally remove his trousers. When he presses up behind me a few seconds later, he parts my legs to let his hard length fit between my thighs, and the feeling of his cock against my sex makes my stomach flutter with anticipation and for warmth to flood my body, every inch of me desperate to grasp whatever pleasure I can get.

'Now, what have you learnt?' Mercer says as he starts working himself slowly between my thighs, grinding his cock over my core. 'If you talk to me like you did earlier or you choose to disobey me, what happens?'

I can only gasp in both pleasure and pain, his hands gripping the sore skin of my hips while his motion between my legs causes a warm ache to start rising in me. Before I realise it, my thighs tighten and clench about his cock uncontrollably, suddenly wanting to keep him there.

'Wren,' the Guildmaster says warningly at my silence, and I hurry to reply, not wanting him to use the leather again to remind me.

'I get punished,' I answer quickly. 'I won't do it again, I swear.'

'Somehow I doubt it.' Mercer starts thrusting a little faster, his hands purposefully gripping the sore flesh of my hips roughly, making me gasp with the pain again. 'The little bird seems to forget all her lessons once I make her come. Maybe that's the problem, Wren. Maybe I should stop indulging you until you learn your place for good, whether I fuck you or not. What do you think?'

'Please,' I beg, my voice more desperate than I intend as my thigh muscles clench tighter around his cock, suddenly feeling how slick he is with my desire. 'I know my place. Please, Mercer, don't stop.'

The Guildmaster only laughs quietly behind me. As he continues to work himself against my core and between the tight grip of my thighs, I find I can no sooner remember why I came to his room in the first place than I can stop myself from whimpering with pleasure as my hips arch back and I start to grind myself against his cock, trying to make the feeling come faster.

When Mercer pulls back a few seconds later, I cannot help but moan in frustration, feeling the dull expectant ache between my legs and finding it more unbearable than any of the other pains Mercer has inflicted upon me tonight.

In my desperation, I don't register the sound of the Guildmaster picking up the leather or the quick sigh as it cuts through the air before I feel the leather's hard kiss across my ass once again.

I scream loudly, with the pain and the knowledge that it is what Mercer wants.

'Please!' I cry out, clinging to the bed frame and forcing my legs to keep me upright. 'Mercer, please don't punish me anymore!'

'No?' The Guildmaster laughs. 'But you deserve it, you know that.'

'I know, I know I deserve it,' I say quickly, unable to bear the feeling of my pain and pleasure fighting for precedence, wanting only the latter. 'But please-'

He smacks the leather over my ass again, but I barely have time to feel the sharp pain or register my piercing cry before Mercer throws aside the leather and grabs my hips, digging his nails into my lashed skin as he positions himself behind me and in one rough motion thrusts his cock inside me.

I gasp and cling tight to the bed frame, bracing myself against Mercer's force. He wastes little time, quickly pushing deep into me and starting to work himself inside the tight wetness of my core, his thrusts fast and uneven, clearly chasing his pleasure as determinedly as I long for my own. When I cry out, I realise I have absolutely no idea whether it is in agony or ecstasy; the raw pain in my lower body from the leather's kiss is as fierce as the hot pleasure I get from Mercer's relentless pace as he fucks me, and I have no way of stopping my body from succumbing to either feeling.

'Who decides what you deserve?' Mercer demands over my moans a few moments later, his breath shortening with his rising pleasure.

'You do,' I gasp, my own breath feeling trapped in my lungs.

I hear him make a sound of satisfaction in his throat and his movements grow rougher, his nails digging into my sore hips to make me moan keenly with the pain again. The sound of my discomfort only makes his efforts even rougher as he works towards his satisfaction all the more fiercely, gripping my body tighter and fucking me faster until I am all but screaming and he is at his peak; finally Mercer gives a few sharp thrusts that nearly make me topple over before he comes hard with a hitched groan. He quickly pulls himself out of me to finish over my ass, his seed raining over my raw lashed skin and down my thighs, warm yet feeling like cool water on my overworked inflamed skin.

I grip the bed frame, trying to stop my legs from shaking or giving way beneath me entirely. In the seconds that follow, I listen to the Guildmaster's shallow breathing start to even out in the wake of his release. I attempt to level my own breath, wanting to settle my agitated body, knowing that the intends to leave my pleasure unsatisfied. The thought sends a desperate sense of frustration coursing through me and I have to force myself not to beg the Guildmaster to finish me off right now.

I did not come here for my satisfaction anyway, did I? I think suddenly, remembering my daggers and my gold on his desk, forcing myself to remember why I am here, and why he took my daggers in the first place, and abruptly I am hit with the realisation that I am chained and bent over the bed of a man who has made it perfectly clear that he can and will kill me if he feels so inclined.

The realisation hitting me as keenly as the leather, my wild and sudden sense of desire disappears, leaving only my heightened fear. I stay still as I hear Mercer move back from my prone body, and when I hear him pick up the leather from the floor, my body tenses in apprehension, but Mercer only walks over to his desk and I hear the drawer opening and closing.

He leaves me where I am for what feels like minutes. My unease rises with every passing second, uncertain what he intends next, until finally Mercer returns to me and unlocks my shackles.

'Get dressed and fly away,' he tells me, moving away before I can even look properly at him.

I straighten up slowly, my back sore from being bent over. The areas of my skin touched by the leather sting with my movement as I walk towards where Mercer threw my clothes. I glance over at the Guildmaster, finding that he has pulled on his trousers and now leans back against the edge of his desk, watching me with a satisfied smirk at his mouth as his gaze flickers over my body, lingering on the parts of me where he has made his marks.

I dress quickly, ignoring the searing pain in my lower body as my clothes scratch my sore skin and the steadily forming bruise below my ribs from his kick earlier, and trying not to feel the residual wetness of my desire between my legs and Mercer's spent pleasure on my ass. I hesitate as I finish dressing and slip on my boots, wondering how to ask for what I came here for, wondering if I should beg or persuade or demand the return of my belongings.

When I look at him again, I realise he has picked up the Blade of Justice. The small dagger looks little more than a knife in the Guilmaster's hands as he toys with it, and he watches me with amusement in his eyes.

The sight of him holding my dagger sends irritation cutting through me fiercer than the lick of the leather, and I open my mouth to demand that he return the Blade to me, but before I can speak, Mercer gets there first.

'No, you're not having your daggers back.' He laughs a quick laugh at the expression on my face. 'What, you really thought you could suck my cock or something and I'd just hand them over to you? Gods, you're fucking stupid.'

I flush red that my intentions were so obvious from the start. 'When can I have them back, then?' I say.

'When I decide you've earned it,' he says briskly. 'Now fuck off.'

I draw my arms around my body, wondering if I should push it. That might count as disobedience, and I don't want to receive his punishment again. 'At least give me my gold,' I say.

The Guildmaster inclines his head, a frown at his brow. 'What gold?'

'The gold you took from my chest,' I say, trying not to let my impatience cut into my voice.

'Your chest?' he repeats. 'What the fuck are you talking about?'

'My chest under my bed,' I say sharply, unable to keep my irritation under control. 'I know you took my gold. It's mine, I earned it, so give it back.'

A small smile curls at his mouth. 'I think I took my gold from my chest, which was under my bed,' he says. At my perplexed expression, he sighs and holds up the Blade of Justice. 'The Guild...' he says slowly, gesturing around the room with my dagger before pointing it at himself. 'Guildmaster. Are you really so fucking dense you don't get that I own this place, from all the damn chests to your own damn self? Whatever gold you make is mine. Whatever loot comes through the Guild is mine.' He inclines his head, looking across the room at me with ice in his eyes, as if daring me to argue. 'You are mine. Now tell me again, stupid little bird, who decides what you deserve and what you've earned? I didn't let you come, so the lesson should've stuck in that empty head of yours.'

I stare at him, my fury turning cold with his words, and the words I know I must say. 'You decide what I deserve,' I answer finally.

'Let's see how long you remember that before you need to be told again.' Mercer tosses aside the Blade of Justice and picks up a small handful of coins from his desk before striding over to me.

When he drops the gold in my hand, I don't have to count it to know that it is enough for a few bottles of wine but not enough to leave the city. I ignore the small smirk at his mouth, again feeling as if he is daring me to challenge him, and I shove the coins into my pocket in silence, wishing I could throw the gold back in his face and demand he return everything that belongs to me. More than anything, I wish I could do something to stop myself from feeling like a whore being paid for her time.

'Now fuck off before I make you work harder for it,' Mercer says, and I am about to turn away when he catches my arm. 'By the way, you've been playing around with your little healing spell, right?' he adds, amusement flickering in his eyes as I blink in surprise and I wonder when he has been watching me to know that. 'So go heal your face, Wren. As much as I enjoy reminding you of your place, you're supposed to give me something pretty to look at.'

He releases my arm and walks around me to unlock the door, and I waste no time in leaving without another word, knowing he doesn't expect a reply. Only my obedience.

When I return, I find the Cistern is still deserted. He probably ordered everyone out before he stole my gold, I realise as I head into the water room and lock the door behind me, confident that at least Mercer will not follow me here tonight. I strip off my clothes and stand beneath the water, but it's only a minute before the impact of the rushing water on my sore skin becomes too much to bear, and I quickly wash the remnants of Mercer's pleasure from me before stepping out from under the water's flow.

It takes me a long time to heal the bruise on my face. My hands shake and I find my mind too distracted with my pain to even comprehend what I am trying to do with the spell. After a long while, when I finally feel the warmth in my hands, I direct it quickly at the soreness at the side of my face, not because of Mercer's order but so that none of the other guildmembers will see and question it. Although gossip will spread anyway from those that witnessed him choke and hit me, I think, keenly relieved that at least the rest of the Guildmaster's handiwork is hidden beneath my clothes and I can pretend to everyone else that it never happened.

The warmth floods my cheek as the spell soothes the bruise, and when I let the glow fade from my hand and I touch the side of my face, I feel no pain as my fingertips trace where Mercer hit me, and I can only hope that there is no physical mark left there.

The red lashed skin of my ass, thighs and hips is another matter, and although I intend to heal the pains there, I find my strength entirely depleted after healing my face and no matter how hard I try, no more of the warm white light rises to my hands, and I soon give up the attempt, resolving myself to simply try to ignore the pain until I can try to heal myself again tomorrow.

My legs weak, I long to lie down, yet I find myself reluctant and too exhausted to leave and make the journey across the Cistern between the water room and my bed. Shivering, I pull my clothes on over my wet body, preferring the discomfort of my trousers against my sore skin rather than the thought of standing naked any longer. I walk to the wall and clutch at one of the pipes, leaning myself there and closing my eyes as I listen to the pouring water.

I stand there for a long time, not bothering to empty my mind or forget what happened earlier, only trying to decide what to do next. I could break into his room again when he's not there, I think, before also considering the possibility of robbing the chests of every other guildmember, which would surely yield me enough gold to get far away from here. Both ideas I discard, knowing one is as good as death and the other is a betrayal I would never consider.

Then I'll just leave tomorrow without my daggers and simply pray for the best, I think distantly, listening to the water, although it does little to soothe me tonight; the thought of tomorrow frightens me more than I care to admit to myself, and I linger in the water room for hours, afraid of what might happen in the morning, before my exhaustion gets the better of me and I finally make my way to bed.

Chapter Text

I drift between consciousness and oblivion, feeling as though I am never fully sleeping nor fully awake. If I dream, the images filter through my mind too fast and distorted to make much sense to me, leaving me only with a lasting and keen feeling of dread. When I hear voices somewhere in the far distance, I don't try to listen, not sure if they are real or in my mind. Whether it is seconds or minutes or hours later, I become aware of the smell of warm wine and mead, and I hear faint laughter interspersed with a rushing sound, as familiar to me as my heart beat. The Cistern, I think, feeling a strange flutter of relief pass through me to know that I am here and nowhere else.

I open my eyes to find myself lying flat on my stomach with my face buried sideways in my pillow. As I move my arms to try to push myself up, I become aware of a dull ache below my ribs, and I curse myself for sleeping in such an awkward position and somehow managing to hurt myself.

Yet when I go to roll over, I flinch as the bare skin of my thighs rubs against the sheets, and the friction of my thin nightshirt over my ass and hips sends fierce pain burning through my lower body like fire.

My breath catching with the severity of the feeling, I scramble to sit upright, which only makes the pain and my resulting panic heighten, and I am just about to kick back the covers and free my legs from the tangle of sheets when I suddenly catch sight of Sapphire sitting at the end of my bed and my heart jumps in surprise that I did not notice she was there.

'I heard the news,' the raven-haired thief says before I can even open my mouth or gather my thoughts. 'You could've told me you were leaving.'

'Leaving?' I repeat, confused, my mind still half-asleep and distracted by the soreness of my lower body as I try to settle into a semi-comfortable position.

'Mercer just told me,' Sapphire says, and with her words, my memory of my last encounter with the Guildmaster returns to me in far greater detail than I'd like.

And now I remember why my ass and thighs and hips are so fucking sore, I think, my body suddenly hot with a rush of furious humiliation as I recall my punishment at the Guildmaster's hands, although I know perfectly well that at least part of my anger is directed at myself. Even as he whipped me, he made me wet for him, I think, an uncomfortable shiver going down my back as I recall the curious combination of pleasure and pain I experienced at Mercer's hands and how I begged for him not to stop giving me the former while I willingly let him cause me the latter. He nearly killed me not a few hours earlier and I still would've come for him if only he'd let me.

I imagine what Sapphire would say if she could hear my thoughts and I quickly blush red, wishing never to think of it again, much less have anyone else know about it. I am trying to think of something to say when I properly register Sapphire's words.

'What exactly did Mercer tell you?' I say uneasily, hoping perhaps naively that Mercer has some boundaries and would not have told her the intricacies of our lesson last night. And why would he tell her I'm leaving when he knows full well that I don't have enough coin to get out of Riften?

'He said you had a Dark Brotherhood contract and that you'd be gone from the Guild for a while.' Sapphire's hazel eyes flicker over me uncertainly. 'He told me to say goodbye.'

My heart skips a beat as excitement flickers keen in my stomach and everything else falls from my mind with the realisation that Astrid has contacted me again. At last, I think, eagerly wondering if she might have sent an invitation to the Sanctuary along with the contract and I might finally get the chance I have waited for.

Then the rest of Sapphire's words hit me. 'Goodbye?' I echo, the word frightening me inexplicably, my excitement fading as I feel cold claws start to work at my stomach. Suddenly uneasy, instinctively I start to draw my legs up to my chest beneath the covers, but the movement sends pain searing through my lower body from where the leather smacked my skin and I gasp aloud before I can stop myself.

Sapphire's concern widens her eyes. 'Wren,' she starts hesitantly, but I quickly cut over her.

'I'm fine, I just slept uncomfortably,' I tell her, eager to change the subject. 'What time is it, anyway?'

'Dusk,' she answers, and I realise I have been asleep for the entire day, despite the noise of the other guildmembers and various comings and goings of the Cistern.

And I thought I could be the one to wear Mercer out and steal back my daggers while he slept, I recall, and with that thought, I realise I need to speak with him sooner rather than later. When I glance in the direction of his desk, I see no sign of the Guildmaster there.

'Where is Mercer?' I ask Sapphire, seeing her expression harden suddenly with my words.

She doesn't answer my question. 'I heard what happened,' she says instead, her voice clipped and her eyes holding mine fiercely. 'Niruin told me Mercer had you by the throat. He hit you and kicked you, didn't he? Told you he'd cut your tongue out? And yet you want to go talk to him?'

I look back at her, not wanting to think about it, not wanting to admit that after he had done those things to me, I willingly went to his room and did more than just talk to him. 'He has my contract,' I say. 'I have to talk to him. I-'

'Fine, you clearly know best.' Sapphire stands up from my bed abruptly, her jaw set and her voice hard. 'Just don't come crying to me when you need someone to do your fucking stupid assassinations for you because he's broken both your arms, all right?'

'Saph-' I start, half hurt and half furious, but as she storms off in the direction of the Flagon, I know I can no sooner force my sore body up from my bed to go after her than I can convince her that I know what I am doing.

Besides, I can hardly convince myself, I think, before I push the thought from my mind and remind myself of my immediate concern, realising that this new contract may be the one that deems me worthy enough to meet Astrid again. Or maybe I have already proven myself worthy and she wants to meet me now, I think, and with another flicker of excitement mingled with nerves, I know I cannot delay or let myself think about Sapphire's words.

I dress myself awkwardly and painfully under the covers of my bed, not wanting to risk any of the other guildmembers looking over and seeing me naked, much less catching sight of the state of my lower body following the efforts of Mercer's hands and the leather. Not only does the little bird sharpen daggers, she makes a great tanning rack too, I think flippantly, trying to distract myself from the fiercely aggravating pain as I pull my smallclothes and trousers up my legs. Once I get some privacy, I'll try to heal myself, I think, deciding that I cannot waste any time just yet, not when the Guildmaster has word from Astrid.

With his desk vacant, I try the only other place I assume he can be. When I knock on the door to his room, the Guildmaster answers after only a few moments, and at the sight of him, I suddenly feel twice as uneasy as I did at any point during our encounters yesterday.

Mercer is in a starkly different mood than when I last saw him and now I can scarcely imagine him moments from strangling me into unconsciousness; gone is the rage and the threatening glint in his eye, and I notice that the tension in his shoulders has relaxed and there is no suggestion of a scowl in his expression.

'Ah, little bird,' the Guildmaster says lightly, the corners of his mouth turning up, although his smirk is decidedly less mocking than usual. It's almost a genuine smile. 'I was just thinking about you.'

'Sapphire said you had a contract for me,' I say, trying not to sound too nervous at the easy tone of his voice.

He doesn't answer, instead only jerking his head in an invitation to enter, and I follow him into his room, doing my best not to pay any attention to the strangely ominous feeling in my stomach.

I stay near to the door as Mercer walks over to his desk. I catch sight of my daggers still lying there, but I barely have time to feel the flicker of fury over how he took them from me before the Guildmaster picks up a slip of paper and turns around.

'Here's your contract,' he says, holding out the parchment to me.

As I quickly close the gap between us and come to stand before him to take the scrap of paper, I realise that he is not holding out any gold or a coin purse to go with the contract, but I think better of questioning him just yet. And maybe Astrid doesn't even want me to kill anyone, maybe she just wants me to meet her.

Hands shaking a little with the thought, I unfold the paper and quickly read the name and words written in the tight scrawl there.

My heart tightens and my eyes flicker up to the Guildmaster. 'Karliah,' I say slowly. 'Windhelm, Grey Quarter.'

'Well, at least you can still read,' Mercer says mildly.

'This is your writing,' I say, not understanding, my confusion fighting against a crushing sense of disappointment as I realise that this letter has not come from Astrid. 'It's from you. You're asking me to kill Karliah?'

'Gods, have you never had a contract before?' Mercer says, impatience edging his voice, although I still hear the familiar smugness over having me even slightly at his mercy. 'You go to the place and kill the person, Wren. I didn't think it was that hard to grasp.'

I resist the urge to rise to his taunt, still struggling with my keen disappointment. I look back down at the parchment. 'Windhelm,' I read aloud, having heard of the place but knowing little about it. Except that it's twice the size of Riften and far away from here. 'Karliah's there? You found her?'

'Obviously.' Mercer leans back against the edge of his desk, clearly enjoying my confusion.

And clearly enjoying his victory at finally tracking down Karliah, I think, understanding the reason for his good mood now, although I suddenly wonder why he is considering it such a victory if the dark elf still lives.

'There's a carriage leaving Riften at first light,' he tells me, before I can question him. 'You'll be there in a few days.'

The reality of what he is saying hits me and nerves tighten abruptly in my stomach. 'But I've never been to Windhelm,' I say, struggling to imagine where it is on a map, let alone imagine what the city itself is like. 'And I don't know what the Grey Quarter is.'

Mercer snorts with laughter. 'It's like you still have your downy feathers,' he says sarcastically. 'Fine, I'll make it all very simple for the stupid little bird. The Grey Quarter is a Windhelm slum. Karliah is hiding there. You're going to get onto a carriage that will take you to Windhelm, where you will find Karliah and kill her. Now, is there anything else you need me to explain to you? Or maybe you'd like me to hold your hand while you cut the elf bitch's throat?'

'Just how am I supposed to cut Karliah's throat when I've never even seen her before or have any idea what she looks like?' I say sharply, his sarcasm aggravating me just as he intends. 'So unless you expect me to ask every elf bitch I come across if her name is Karliah and did she murder the last Guildmaster, how am I meant to know I'm even killing the right person?'

Mercer laughs a quick harsh laugh, clearly more entertained than annoyed by my angry outburst. 'So frustrated today,' he comments. 'I know I didn't let you come last night, but you could've touched yourself after I was done with you, if you were that desperate to get off.'

I glare at him as my cheeks flush, suddenly twice as conscious of the soreness in my lower body. 'I'm not frustrated,' I snap, although feeling anew the pain in my ass, hips and thighs only forces me to remember the pleasure that came with it, and I feel a keen flicker of annoyance cut through me with the thought that the Guildmaster took whatever satisfaction he wanted of me and yet left me with only lingering pain.

Mercer smirks, and I suspect he knows exactly what is running through my mind - yet for once, he seems uninterested in toying with me further. 'Look, even you'll be able to recognise Karliah,' he tells me. 'Windhelm is full of grey-skinned whores, but I've never met another Dunmer that has her violet eyes.' He shrugs casually. 'But if you come across any, it can't hurt to kill them too. Better safe than sorry, wouldn't you agree? As long as she gets what's coming to her one way or another, I don't care if it takes you a while or you happen to kill a few wrong people in the process.'

I feel a strange and discomforting chill down my back, Mercer's easy tone suddenly unnerving me more than anything else he has ever said or done to me in this room. My mind relives his sharp impatience of the past week and his vicious fury of last night, remembering the way his hand felt around my throat and how the leather kissed my skin red and raw, and I find myself utterly unable to reconcile any part of it with the nonchalant and careless Guildmaster leaning back against his desk in front of me now.

But the flicker of satisfaction in his eyes is familiar enough. Like he has won another game.

'I thought you'd want to kill her yourself,' I say, thinking of his promise to do worse than cut the treacherous Dunmer's throat. 'Karliah betrayed the Guild. She stole from you and killed the last Guildmaster. You've wanted to make her pay for a long time. Now you'd rather I did it instead?'

Mercer inclines his head, a small smile creeping in at his mouth. 'Of course I'd like to cut the whore's throat myself,' he says. 'But do you think this Guild runs itself? I've got enough to do here without going all the way to Windhelm to chase after a Dunmer bitch who should've died a long time ago. So just consider this... outsourcing.'

'That doesn't explain why you'd send me,' I say, not feeling any more reassured. 'Why not Brynjolf? Or someone else, someone who knows exactly who they're looking for and wants to kill her just as much as you do?'

'You're the little assassin, aren't you?' Mercer says, impatience stating to cut into his voice once more. 'I thought this sort of work would be within your area of expertise.' He folds his arms, looking at me expectantly. 'Now, do you need me to explain anything else to you? Like I said, I've got things to do myself, so unless you're going to remove your clothes and make yourself useful, you can fuck off to Windhelm and get to work.'

I fold my own arms, suddenly feeling like it would be a mistake to accept his contract, much less take off my clothes for him ever again. 'I don't think so,' I say, fearing how he will react and yet realising I am more afraid of his strange nonchalance, as if what I say does not matter either way to him.

'No?' the Guildmaster says lightly, as I suspected, seemingly unconcerned by my refusal. 'Do you want to rethink that answer, Wren?'

'I'm not doing it,' I say firmly.

Mercer unfolds his arms and reaches behind him to his desk with one hand, not taking his eyes from me. 'But I think you will,' he says, and I look down to realise he has picked up the Blade of Justice. 'Kill Karliah and I'll give you what you want, little bird. The thing you seem to want so very badly.'

I glare him, my irritation over his words only exacerbated by the sight of him holding my dagger. 'If you think fucking me will convince me to do your dirty work-' I start sharply, but Mercer cuts over me.

'Kill Karliah and I'll tell you where the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary is,' he says. 'I'll even draw you a map and give you all the gold you need to get there.' His dark eyes hold mine, clearly relishing the shock on my face. 'So now will the stubborn little bird do as she's told?'

I stare at him, my mind racing and my heart suddenly skipping with excitement before I can stop it. 'You'd tell me where the Sanctuary is?' I say, trying to rearrange my expression into one as nonchalant as his own. 'Why?'

'For Delvin's benefit and mine. Every time you flutter your eyelashes and try to wheedle the information out of him, he comes to me with his concerns, and frankly, I'm getting sick of hearing it.' Mercer toys with my dagger in his hands, the smug glint in his eyes brighter now, seemingly knowing that he has me where he wants me. 'He's worried, Wren. He seems to think that you're set on getting yourself killed by wandering into the Sanctuary and thinking you have any idea what awaits you there.' He tilts his head, the smirk back at his mouth once more. 'Well, I'm inclined to let you find out, if you're so desperate for it. After all, I'm nothing if not obliging to you and your little desires, am I?'

I barely hear him, only feeling my heart fluttering and my stomach knotting tight with the sudden realisation that if the Guildmaster is serious in his offer, I need no further persuasion to take his contract. I was prepared to kill whoever Astrid demanded in exchange for even a chance of meeting with her, I think, well aware that at least killing Karliah would be an act of justice that I do not have to question, finding myself more than willing to make her pay for what she did to the Guild - and I realise that if Mercer is good to his word, I will be able to go directly to Astrid and enact my own justice without waiting helplessly for any more contracts or an invitation that may never come.

If Mercer is indeed good to his word.

'If I do it, how do I know you'll actually keep your part of the bargain?' I say cautiously.

Mercer's dark eyes narrow and he looks at me in silence, as if daring me to ask that question again.

When has he made idle threats or promises before? I think suddenly, feeling dry-mouthed and conscious of a soreness in my throat, recalling how it felt when the Guildmaster tightened his grip at my neck. I don't doubt anything he says anymore, I realise, both afraid of that truth and resigned to it.

'Fine, I'll do it,' I say, scarcely believing it but knowing I cannot refuse this opportunity. And it will mean I'll be far away from this place and everything I'd rather forget ever happened.

The Guildmaster seems not to react to my acquiescence, his expression remaining almost bored, although I know him well enough by now to recognise the bright flicker of satisfaction in his eyes. He has won.

'I'm curious, though,' he says idly after a few moments, and he pulls the Blade free of its sheathe, the sound sending a shiver my back. 'Just why do you want to find the Sanctuary so badly? What has the little bird got in her mind, hm?'

'The contracts bring me gold,' I say bluntly, having no inclination to ever tell him the truth of why I want to find the Sanctuary, deciding Mercer already knows too much about my past. It's not the Sanctuary I want. It's Astrid. It's justice. 'And it's a lot more gold than what I see from the Guild,' I add for good measure.

Mercer makes a quiet snort of laughter. 'You think the life of an assassin is better than what you've got here?' he says. 'Well, soon you can find out, can't you? Somehow I suspect you'll trip over a rock and break that delicate neck of yours before you've even made it within a hundred miles of the Sanctuary, but if the little bird wants to go adventuring in the big scary world, that's the bird's choice. To be honest, Wren, as long as you kill Karliah, I don't much care what you do afterwards.'

He sheathes my dagger with a sharp snap and holds it out to me. Without hesitation, I step forward to him and reach for the Blade eagerly, thrilled at the prospect of having it back, but before I can take it, Mercer grabs my wrist with his other hand.

'You take this and we have a deal,' he says. 'You disappear off to Windhelm and kill Karliah, and I'll tell you whatever you want to know after then. Agreed?'

I suddenly recall the last time I agreed to a deal over the Blade of Justice. Although the dagger was dripping with blood then, I think, recalling the night Astrid gave it to me and I agreed to kill in her name as she demanded it. And I made my own oath, that Astrid would die by the Blade. My heart beats a little faster with the thought that I am now one step closer to fulfilling my oath.

'Yes,' I say, and the moment Mercer releases my wrist, I snatch the Blade of Justice from him, its weight familiar and comforting in my hand. 'Now give me my other dagger back too,' I add as I quickly fasten the Blade at my thigh once more, my heart cold and determined.

Mercer surprises me when he not only retrieves Rune's silver dagger from his desk and hands it to me without another word, but he also gives me a coin purse, the weight of which is considerably more substantial than I expected. I'm not foolish enough to question him, and I hurry to stuff it into my pocket and fasten the silver dagger to my other thigh, feeling nerves flutter in my stomach as I think of what we have agreed.

When I look back up at the Guildmaster a few moments later, he is holding a large silver key.

'Silver Quarter, third left on the first street,' he says, as he drops the key into my hand, the heavy metal cold and slightly rusted. 'Think you can remember that?'

'What?' I say, not following.

Mercer sighs. 'My house in Windhelm,' he says slowly, as if it should be obvious. 'You can stay there while you're hunting down Karliah. We can't have you sleeping on the streets, can we?' He makes a quick laugh. 'I can only imagine the trouble the little bird might get herself into out there without me to keep an eye on her.'

'I'm sure I'll be fine,' I say shortly, even as the prospect of wandering around a city alone fills me with nerves and suddenly I feel just as I did the night I escaped from Honorhall, afraid, without any sort of bearings and my thoughts permeated with blood. Except then I had been running from a murder, not running towards committing another.

'Well, we'll find out soon enough.' Mercer nods towards the door. 'Fly away then. Just remember to keep this to yourself. I'll never hear the end of it if the entire Guild learns I've given you the honour of killing Karliah instead of one of them.'

Only too eager to heed his dismissal and not question him further, I nod once and turn away, tucking his key into my pocket, although I find myself disinclined to go even anywhere near his house. I'd rather sleep on the street than lie alone in Mercer Frey's bed with his coin in my pocket, like a paid unused whore.

I've barely taken a step towards the door when I feel Mercer's hand close tight about my elbow, stopping me from walking any further and pulling me back to him as he moves to stand close to me.

'Try not to fuck up the job, if you can,' he says mockingly as he turns me around to face him, the candlelight catching the amusement in his eyes, the expression on his face unguarded and openly smug now. And eager to provoke me however he can for the last time.

'Try to do your job yourself next time,' I retort cuttingly, more than capable of biting back just as he intends for me to do. I pull out of his hold sharply and stride over to the door, but I've only opened it a few inches before Mercer catches up with me.

He puts his hand on the door and slams it shut, his other hand taking my shoulder and turning me around again. 'Little bird, you don't half fucking test my patience sometimes,' he says before he grabs a handful of hair at the back of my neck, jerking my head backwards as he brings his mouth down hard onto mine.

Surprised, on reflex my hands reach out to his chest to shove him away, but my attempt proves futile as Mercer's fingers twist in my hair tight enough to make me gasp against his mouth with the pain, giving him the opportunity he needs for his tongue to find its way into my open mouth.

I feel his other hand slide up my neck to keep me in place, although we both know I am going nowhere; my hands only clutch helplessly at his chest as he kisses me fast and deep, his tongue lapping against mine relentlessly until our mouths are slippery wet and I cannot contain my quiet whimper as I feel a flicker of desire go straight between my legs, quicker than I can even register the warmth rising in my body. Maybe he's right and I am as frustrated from my lack of attention last night as he said I was, I think vaguely as my fingers grip at the pockets at his chest and try to pull the hard pressure of his body closer, meeting his kiss with my lips and tongue's own eager response.

Mercer indulges me for only a few seconds longer before he breaks apart our mouths with a quiet laugh.

'What's the poor little bird going to do without me?' he murmurs. 'When she's lonely and wet and there's no one to touch her at night?' He laughs softly again and pulls tighter at my hair, his mouth twisting into a smile at my gasp of pain. 'Will she have to whore herself out to half the Stormcloak army just to get off?'

'Any one of them would be better than you,' I say viciously, although when he laughs again and brings his mouth back to mine, I leave my mouth open and let his tongue inside once more, meeting its insistence with my own. Realising that I will soon be nowhere near the Guildmaster, I find my relief to be mingled with a keen sense of desire, my weak body seemingly eager to take its last pleasure at Mercer's hands. Or tongue, or cock, or whatever he wants, I think distractedly, kissing him harder, relishing the thought of leaving him and all our encounters in the past and yet feeling the needy ache between my legs, my body longing one last time for something I know he can give me.

When Mercer breaks away and his hand suddenly tightens about my throat, my quickened breath catches in fear and the painful memory of his grip on my neck last night immediately douses my body's the heat as I feel my heart start thudding fast.

'If anyone else touches you, I'll know,' Mercer says softly, and I realise he is no longer laughing. As he looks at me, his dark eyes flash with danger, not desire, and his voice is low. 'And I'll make you regret it, you fucking little slut.'

He leans down and gives me one last rough kiss against my lips before he releases my throat and steps back, leaving me strangely numb and on edge from both his kiss and his words.

'Remember her violet eyes,' the Guildmaster says easily as he walks back to his desk. 'Cut them out and bring them back to me, and I'll give you more gold than you can carry to the Sanctuary.' He turns to look at me, leaning back against his desk with a smirk at his mouth. 'But don't forget, I went easy on your little ass last night. You screw this up and you'll be lucky if you can walk again. Now fuck off. The carriage is leaving at dawn.'

I don't need to be told twice. I leave the Guildmaster's room without another word, slamming the door shut behind me with the intention of it being the very last time I do so. Maybe Karliah's eyes will be enough proof that I won't need to ever come back here, I think, realising that I could send her eyes to Mercer as proof of her death and in exchange he could send me the gold and the information he promised, all without me having to be anywhere near him. The possibility of never seeing Mercer Frey again reassures me immensely, before my mind registers exactly what I am thinking. I never thought I would comforted by the thought of cutting out a woman's eyes.

My stomach is in tight nauseous knots when I return to the Cistern to pack my things. Ignoring everyone else in the Cistern, I waste little time, and with few belongings, it doesn't take me long to clear out the chest beneath my bed of what I need and ready myself for my journey. Mercer took almost everything of value anyway, I think, my fingers brushing over the carving knife, some part of me longing to take it with me, tempted by the notion of using the blunt blade that ended Grelod's life to one day kill Astrid in some form of poetic justice. It doesn't matter how she dies, I remind myself. As long as she dies. And now I am one step closer to achieving that.

I leave the knife in my chest, along with the empty glass vial, not particularly wishing to bring the memories of either item with me. As I kneel beside my almost-empty chest, my hands linger over the parchment wrappings that protect the silk dress Sapphire gave to me, knowing I have little need for such a garment but suddenly unable to bear the thought of parting with the gift. If there's even a chance I'm not going to come back, I can't just leave it here and risk losing it, I think, before the thought of actually never returning causes a discomforting sense of fear to run down my spine. For a long while, I stay on my knees by my bed, trying not to feel the nervous tightening of my heart, strangely feeling as if I am being choked once more.

What if I really never come back here?

I shake my head and force my mind clear before I can contemplate it for long, remembering my furious determination of last night to leave the Guild and yet unable to face the reality now it is actually upon me.

All this over a dress, I scold myself quickly, busying myself with ensuring that the garment is secure in its wrappings before folding it carefully into my satchel.

'You're taking it with you?'

I jump and turn my head to see Sapphire standing just behind me. I still see the tension in her slender jaw and the doubt lingering in her eyes from before, yet I hear her voice is purposefully softer and I know she is not here to fight or discuss the Guildmaster.

'Of course I am,' I say, looking back down as I finish tucking the dress safely into my satchel. 'It's the nicest gift anyone has ever given me.' I throw her a sideways smile. 'And if I leave it here, I'm just asking for one of you damn thieves to steal it.'

'You know we don't steal from each other here,' she says as she sits down on the edge of my bed in her usual place.

'I might, if it was as worth as much as this,' I joke. 'It's too precious.'

For a few moments, Sapphire only watches silently as I store the last of my things into my satchel. 'I know you'd have got more use out of a dagger or a purse of coins than a dress,' she says after a while. 'But I figured you can always sell it.'

I look up at her, frowning. 'I'm not selling it,' I say firmly, not sure how to put into words what her gift meant to me and that the thought of selling it for coin is almost as unimaginable as the idea of my leaving the Guild for good.

The raven-haired thief holds my gaze. 'Well, then I hope you find someplace to wear it one day,' she says finally, and her words hit me hard.

One day. Suddenly I feel as if this really is goodbye and that I will never see her again. I'll be coming back, I remind myself quickly, knowing that even if I sent Karliah's perfectly preserved corpse to him, Mercer would want me to report back in person. And most likely to toy with me before allowing me to have the location of the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary. But that thought only reminds me of my desire for revenge, and the very real fact that after I kill Karliah and Mercer tells me where I can find the Sanctuary, there will be nothing left to keep me here any longer and stop me from hunting down Astrid.

Except Sapphire, and Rune, and the fact that I do not want to leave at all.

Something catches in my throat. 'Saph,' I start, the words begging to leave my mouth, even though I know I cannot ask it of her. Come with me. I don't want to do this alone. I can't do this alone.

I steel my heart, knowing that although some part of me is terrified to face this by myself, to hunt down and kill a dangerous traitor by myself, and to eventually hunt down and kill Astrid by myself, I realise that I can bear all of those fears far easier than the thought of getting Sapphire killed because of me. If I'm going to die to either Karliah or Astrid, I'm not risking Sapphire being hurt too.

'Take care of yourself while I'm gone,' I say lightly with a smile. 'No more stints in jail or getting lost in cities too big for you, all right?'

The thief doesn't smile back; instead, she stares at me in silence for several long seconds. 'You could just stay,' she says eventually, her voice hesitant. 'You can make enough coin with the Guild, you know. You don't need the Brotherhood.'

For a fleeting moment, I consider telling her my real purpose - not just the contract Mercer gave me, but the contract for Astrid's death that I have set myself, and why. I told her briefly about the guests at the orphanage, but never how I was even made an orphan in the first place, nor that I have the woman responsible almost within my grasp. Despite suspecting that Sapphire would get as much pleasure from helping me to kill Astrid as she did from killing the bandits that hurt her and took away her own family, I realise that it changes little in my decision to keep the truth from her. I've lost enough of the people I care about to Astrid.

'It's only one contract, Saph,' I say, making my tone casual and easy, as if my words are true. 'You know there aren't any jobs going for me here at the moment, and I need the gold. But I'll be coming back soon enough, all right?'

I know Sapphire doesn't believe a word. 'Where are you even going?' she asks, her voice a little clipped.

I hesitate, suddenly feeling the ghost of a hand around my throat and I remember Mercer's order to keep my task to myself. 'Not far,' I say, hating not telling her the truth and yet knowing there is no other way.

The thief only nods once and says nothing, but I see her instinctive guard darken her hazel eyes and turn her lips into a thin line, and I can only imagine the thoughts in her head.

Better that she hate me than demand to come with me and get herself killed.

My heart cold, I shove my packed satchel in my chest and shut the lid tight before rising to my feet. 'Drinks before I go?' I say, deciding that I have a few hours before my leaving becomes real and feeling determined not to think about it until that point. I tap my pocket, where the coin purse from Mercer still resides. 'This gold is a little too heavy. Help me lighten it?'

The corners of Sapphire's mouth curve slightly into a smile, the sight a relief to my eyes. 'I suppose I could help with that,' she says, and she stands up. 'Come on, then.'

 

 *

 

I spend my last hours in the Flagon with Sapphire, neither of us talking about my contract or the fact that I will soon be leaving for an indeterminate amount of time. Rune and Niruin join us after a while, and I tell them that I am leaving for a contract but that I will return soon; Rune doesn't question me, instead simply telling me to be careful and offering to accompany me. He would want to help me just as much as Sapphire, I think, as I thank him but decline, wanting Rune to come to harm as little as I wish it for Sapphire. Niruin only tells me to watch my back, before slyly adding that at least I've been practising with a dagger hard enough recently that I'll surely be able to handle whatever comes my way. Sapphire throws him a cold look and abruptly changes the subject before I've even felt the awkward blush stalk up my cheeks.

I drink a little, enough to take away some of the residual pain in my lower body but not enough to cloud my mind. It's the early hours of the morning when the three thieves with me seem inclined to turn in for the night; not wanting to draw out our goodbyes, or even say goodbye at all, I lie and tell them I'll be right behind them once I've had a quick chat with Delvin about business. I watch them head towards the Cistern, soon disappearing into the crowds, and I do my best not to feel the strange hollowness in my stomach.

I linger in the tavern far longer than I should, my eyes flickering over towards the Cistern door and scanning the tavern more times than I care to count, for a reason I do not let myself think about, until I realise that the night is slipping by and I'll miss the dawn carriage if I delay any longer. It's easier this way, I tell myself as I stand up, ignoring the soreness in my thighs as I start to walk back to the Cistern to collect my satchel.

Something catches in my heart a short while later as I shut the Cistern door behind me and make my way through the passageway to the ladder, but I do not allow myself dwell on it, and soon enough the scent of nightshade pushes everything from my mind. In the graveyard, my feet take me over to Grelod's heap of earth before I even realise that is where I am headed. The deadly flowers have grown fast around the grave, already snaking up the carved stone that describes the woman buried beneath. Does the nightshade die off in winter? I wonder as I breathe the scent deeply and willingly, the bitter smell strangely comforting to me in that moment, although it chills my heart no less than normal. The bitch got what she deserved. As will Astrid.

I turn around and walk through the graveyard, my mind wandering before I can stop it to the very first time I walked through this place, in the dead of night, with nerves fluttering in my stomach. It's easier this way, I remind myself again, and I almost manage to believe it.

The dull darkness of pre-dawn lingers in Riften's streets. With my daggers at my thighs and the surplus of guards still scouring the alleys and hovels, I do not run into any trouble, save for being followed by a few suspicious guards who make too much noise to be inconspicuous; I lose them quickly in the shadows of an alley and continue on my way to the city main gates.

The way out of Riften is far busier than I expected, and I hear the clamour of voices before I even turn the last corner onto the wide main street that leads to the city's northern entrance. It seems all the traders and travellers of the city are either coming or going at this time before dawn, and a large crowd clusters in the street before the towering wooden gates, where guards appear to be checking the goods and purposes of everyone passing through. Probably looking for the Jarl's stolen trinkets, I think, although I suspect that some of the guards have their own agenda; as I approach, I catch sight of one traveller handing over a coin purse rather than opening his bag to the guards, and I start to wonder if I will have to pay them off to get out of the city unharassed. Maybe that's why Mercer gave me more gold, I think, realising that perhaps I shouldn't have spent any of the coin in the Flagon earlier.

I join the back of the slowly moving crowd; unable to peer over the heads of most people around me, I find myself glancing up at the sky, starting to worry that by the time I make it outside the city, the carriage for Windhelm will probably have left. And I don't want to think about what Mercer would do if he finds out I've been delayed.

I draw my arms around me, my nerves growing with every passing moment, until I suddenly feel a hand touch my shoulder.

My heart jumps and I reach instinctively for my dagger, but my fingers have barely brushed the Blade of Justice before I look around to find that Brynjolf is standing right beside me, my heart skipping another beat with the realisation.

Even through the dim gloom before the dawn, the sight of him makes the nerves in my stomach flutter twice as keenly. My eyes take him in more eagerly than ever before, lingering over the messily pulled back state of his hair and the shadows beneath his eyes, leaving me wondering when he last slept or whether he has spent the night hours in someone else's arms or between their legs. Unbidden, the words exchanged in our last encounter rush painfully through my mind and I feel an uncomfortable knot of regret form in my stomach.

'You'll be here for hours,' Brynjolf says before I even have time to try and still the nervous racing of my heart. 'Come this way.'

Without another word, he turns around and starts to cut through the crowds. I do not hesitate before I hurry to follow him as he heads away from the gates and down a narrow alley to the left of the main street.

Soon leaving the noise and crowds behind, I keep close behind Brynjolf, just as I did the night he led me from the Bee and Barb to the Guild for the first time. Despite being familiar enough with Riften's streets by now, I feel exactly as I did that night, uncertain and cautious and yet strangely compelled to follow the auburn-haired thief wherever he is taking me.

Brynjolf pulls up his hood as we walk, not speaking to me again, although he turns his head more than once to check I am still behind him as he leads me down a short series of winding alleys close to the high city walls. After a few minutes, he ducks inside a run-down building, the door hanging precariously off one hinge, and I follow without question; within, I find Brynjolf on the other side of small room littered with rubbish, on his knees and lifting open a trapdoor concealed beneath the stained and splintered floorboards.

A minute later, we drop down a ladder into a damp stone-walled passageway, lit by a few lanterns of hazy magelight and filled with the faint noise of running water. It sounds like the Cistern, I think, hoping for a wild moment that Brynjolf has somehow led me back there and that everything that has happened since I woke up has been a dream. Or everything that has happened since I first set foot in the Guild, I think suddenly, imagining for a moment that Brynjolf is leading me into the Cistern for the very first time, that I have never heard Astrid's name nor killed for it, that I have never been anywhere near Mercer Frey.

My fantasies are proven insubstantial when we reach the end of the passageway and climb another ladder. The trapdoor here opens up not into a house or the Guild but a grassy thicket. The fresh air hits me and as I pull myself up and come to stand on soft soil, I realise we are on the other side of the city walls, in the open land with the shadowy expanse of the aspen forest pressing in close around us, the vivid red and orange leaves visible even through the darkness.

Though still well-within earshot of the city's noise and with the walls only a stone's throw behind me, I feel my heart flutter fast and I breathe in the autumn dawn air, remembering the last and only time I have stepped foot outside of the city in the past decade. And the journey out to the shack I was unconscious, whilst during my return to Riften, my mind was full of blood, I recall, realising that I had barely noticed the ground beneath my feet after Astrid kidnapped me, much less the sight of the world passing by as the carriage took me from Ivarstead back to Riften.

I look around, eagerly yet strangely afraid, my heart on edge as without warning I remember the sight of the Rift's forests from my childhood and suddenly it is like I am back there, feeling the damp touch of the fallen leaves after a storm, shielding my child's eyes against the fiery sunsets that set over the forests, hearing the waterfall beyond, smelling the rain in the soil and the air.

My stomach hollow, I crush the memories down and force myself back into the present as I look around to gather my bearings. To the left, just before the city walls curve into the distance, I see the shadowy shape of a low wooden building and I hear faintly the sound of horses. When I look to the right, I notice a small encampment and a few figures of people standing around a fire that sends thick plumes of smoke up to the grey sky.

The steadily lightening grey sky, I think, noticing that the blank expanse above my head seems brighter than it was when I was on the other side of the city walls, conscious that the shapes of the trees and thickets around me seem clearer, and before I know it, I am hit with the unavoidable realisation that it is nearly dawn. And I have to leave.

With that thought, I remember how I got here, and my breath catches in my throat when I remember I am not alone.

I turn around quickly to face Brynjolf where he stands a few feet away, my heart slipping a beat when I realise he is watching me, his green eyes bright beneath the shadow of his hood and his gaze trained on my face - and with the sight of him, I suddenly have no idea how to say goodbye to him, much less tell him how much I regret the words I spoke when last we talked. And all the words I never spoke but have wanted to say ever since I first met him.

'Thank you for showing me the way,' I say finally, awkwardly, after a few silent moments.

'Don't mention it,' Brynjolf says, his tone easy. He nods over to the building to the left. 'The stables are just over there. You should make your carriage in time.'

I don't ask how he knows what time I am due to leave, not wanting to imagine what conversations Mercer has had with him. 'Thanks,' I say again, before I realise I should probably say something else. 'I just hope there's someone to show me all the secret ways in and out Windhelm too,' I say jokingly, cursing myself for my awkwardness.

'You'll find your way. I've no doubt about that.' Brynjolf pauses, not taking his eyes from me. 'So you're going to Windhelm?' The corner of his mouth lifts in a half-smile. 'You planning to assassinate the Jarl, lass?'

'Well, since you had such success robbing one, I figured I should try killing one too,' I say lightly, my heart fluttering at the sound when he makes a quick quiet laugh.

'Aye, well, their coin makes them slow and easy prey for assassins and thieves alike,' he says. 'Just watch yourself, all right? Their gold can see to it that you're locked in a dungeon or on the gallows far quicker than you can cut their throat.'

'I'll be careful,' I say, meaning it, before I suddenly realise what I have admitted to him. 'But don't tell anyone where I am,' I add quickly. 'I... I don't want anyone to find out and complicate things.'

'I'll keep it to myself, lass.' Brynjolf holds my gaze, the dawn light brightening his face and our surroundings far quicker than I think I can bear. 'Take care of yourself, then,' the thief says finally.

My words catch in my throat and I find I can only nod in response, my heart racing uncomfortably fast in my chest. It's not until Brynjolf has given me a last smile and turned away that I force myself to speak, unable to leave without saying something, anything.

'Brynjolf,' I start, although when he turns to face me again, I still have no idea what to say, and I meet his gaze wordlessly for several long seconds, nerves twisting my stomach. 'I hope things get better for the Guild while I'm gone,' I say eventually, wishing I was strong enough to say what I mean.

Something flickers in the thief's eyes, irrefutably beyond my comprehension and seemingly at odds with the easy smile still at his mouth. 'So do I,' he says. 'Maybe if the place wasn't so broke, we wouldn't lose our guildmembers to more profitable professions like murder.'

'You haven't lost me,' I blurt out before I can stop myself, feeling my cheeks blush the moment the words leave my mouth.

Brynjolf's expression does not seem to change as he looks at me, and I find my heart beating faster and more painfully with every moment that passes before he finally speaks. 'And the Guild will be here for you when you come back, lass,' he says evenly. 'Don't doubt that.' The thief nods in the direction of the stables. 'You'll be late if leave it any longer, Wren.'

I nod, knowing it well enough myself, and I turn away quickly before he can see the expression on my face and before I can let my gaze linger on him a moment longer.

My heart does not slow its pace as I walk quickly to the stables, every inch of me wanting to look back. Gods, I want to do more than look back. Even after I have paid for my seat on the carriage, I want to turn my head and look behind me; even after we are well away from the city and a cool sun starts to rise over the aspens, I want to turn around.

Regardless, I stay looking straight ahead and I breathe slow and deep breaths to calm my unsteady heart, not wanting to know whether Brynjolf lingered to watch me leave or whether he left the moment I walked away.

Chapter Text

Clouds form in the sky and a chilly rain begins to fall, and as we take the northern road and leave Riften far behind, it's not long before I start to think I could run faster than the carriage. It might hurt less too, I think, feeling every jolt and judder of the carriage in my ass and thighs as I sit on the hard wood seat, mentally cursing myself for not trying to heal my skin earlier and cursing the Guildmaster for lashing me red and sore in the first place. Determined not to think about that or any other memories I have left behind in Riften, I pull up my hood and bite my lip against the pain, staring at the passing trees to distract my mind, although the cool misty rain blankets much of the forest in a damp fog and I can see little of my surroundings as we travel along a winding path through the trees.

It's late morning when the forest gives way to a wide clearing and we mercifully pull to a stop at a small settlement built around a dark rocky outcrop. As a couple of burly men with pickaxes disembark from the carriage and the driver attends to the horses, I hop down from the carriage too and slip off into the trees. Cautious of being interrupted with my trousers and smallclothes around my knees, I work as quickly as I can, revelling in the warm healing glow that emanates from my palms as I run my hands close to my thighs and backside. My expertise still severely lacking in the magickal arts, the spell fades away after only a few seconds and a prickling discomfort still lingers, and when I twist my body around, I find the red marks still remain faintly on my lashed skin. But it's better than it was, I think, quickly pulling up my trousers before making my way back to the carriage, satisfied that at least the ride will be slightly more comfortable now and deciding that the remaining pain along with the marks and the aching bruise beneath my ribs can wait for my attention later.

My hopes for a comfortable journey are soon proven to be mere fantasy the further north we travel. After a wet and foggy day, we spend the night in a small mining town built within the spray of a colossal waterfall; the sound of the crashing water lulls me to sleep in moments, tricking my tired mind into thinking that I am back in the Cistern and not lying in a rented bed in an unfamiliar town as I travel to conduct an assassination. I wake groggy and bitterly disappointed to find myself where I am, and my foul mood improves little the next day; as we continue north, the aspens give way to barren reaches of craggy terrain, the chilly rain turns to an icy wet snow, and the biting cold forces all other thought from my mind.

I draw my knees to my chest as I huddle in the corner of the carriage, shivering violently as the temperature drops with every passing hour, sorely wishing I had asked someone what Eastmarch was like and whether my Guild cloth and leathers would be warm enough. Or whether the fucking cold will kill me before I can even find Karliah. By the time night draws in and the moonlight falls bright and clear on the snowy road, I am sodden and freezing and exhausted, my mind worked into knots of both regret and impatience as I find myself torn between wanting to turn back and wanting to get to my destination quicker. I don't even care where I have to go or what I have to do, as long as it's warm and there's no more gods damned snow.

When we stop that night in another mining town and I hurry into the inn, I can barely feel my hands or feet, and the roaring fire is more painful than pleasant as the sudden warmth cuts fiercely through my numb skin. The small smoky inn is crowded with patrons, most strong-armed and loud of voice, as if their ears are adjusted to the deafening noise of hammering metal on stone. Feeling the locals' curious gazes on my back, I keep my head down and my hood up as I make my way to the bar, where I spend Mercer's coin on hot food, wine, and a bed for the night in a private room with a fire. The luxury costs more gold than I was expecting, but I don't try to haggle, at that moment willing to pay whatever the price to sleep behind a locked door with warm food in my stomach and wine to blur the edges of my mind. At least the cold has numbed the other pains in my body, I think, before I wrap myself tight in the furs on the bed and force myself to remember why I am here. The cold can't numb memories or my desire to one day have Astrid begging at my feet.

After a night spent shivering more than sleeping, I dress myself in as many layers of my clothing as will fit on my body, and come the dawn, I climb resignedly back into the carriage. Curled up beneath a fox fur hastily stolen from the inn, I keep my gaze to the north in anticipation, my eyes narrowed against the bitter winds and the dazzling snow. As the afternoon draws on and we make excruciatingly slow progress along the icy road, I start to taste salt on the cold air as it whips at my face and tangles in the curls of my hair that escape from beneath my hood.

The carriage crests a final snowy hill and I get not only my first sight of Windhelm but my first sight of the sea. Protected by towering walls of grey stone and set beyond an estuary of dark writhing waters, the city sprawls in the shadow of white-capped mountains and nestles around a shipping port to the east; when I look at the expanse of sea lapping against the icy cliffs and stretching far into the distance to meet the horizon, I feel a jolt of fear in my stomach. If I'm cold now, imagine falling from that cliff into the sea, I think before I look away quickly and instead turn my gaze to the city. The size of it is just as daunting as the deep writhing sea, and I start to wonder how the hell I am going to find my way around, much less find one Dunmer who will surely be doing her best to avoid detection.

My nerves heightening, we make a slow descent towards the cluster of stone buildings near the bridge that leads to the city gates. The fallen snow is little more than slush and mud here, and the thoroughfare to Windhelm teems with people, horses, carts and livestock; my senses attuned to the winds and the crunch of snow under the carriage wheels, the noise and movement startles me more than I expected; as the carriage pulls up at the stables and the other passengers gather their belongings, I do not move to stand up and climb down from the carriage, well aware that the icy temperature and numbness of my body are the least of the reasons why I find myself frozen in place.

I could just stay sitting here, I think, wondering where the driver is bound next, whether he will return to the misty autumn forests of the Rift or whether he is destined for elsewhere in Skyrim. Maybe somewhere warm, somewhere dry, somewhere I will not have to think about murder. Before I can stop myself, my mind wanders to hot fires and wine, to the Bee and Barb and nights spent there drinking, to Sapphire and Rune and Brynjolf and what they are doing now, and my thoughts fill me with such a keen sense of longing that I find myself utterly unconvinced to leave the carriage and step foot into Windhelm. Fuck what Mercer wants me to do, right now I just want to be somewhere safe and familiar and warm.

The sound of the driver's voice makes me jump. 'Looking to catch frostbite tonight, girl?' he says, turning back to look at me, and I realise the other passengers have already left the carriage. 'It'll be dark soon. If you need a place to stay, there's a roadside inn right over there, or you can ask the stablehand for a place in the hay.' The man's mouth curls into a smile as his gaze flickers over me. 'He might even give it you free. Though I can't say you won't catch something other than frostbite.'

The look in his eyes forces me back into reality. At least Windhelm will surely be safer than out here on the road. 'I've got somewhere to stay in the city,' I say shortly, slinging my satchel over my shoulder and clutching the stolen fur tight in my arms as I rise from the hard seat. 'Thanks.'

If the man replies, I don't hear him, as I clamber down quickly and ungracefully from the carriage, suddenly feeling conscious of my stiff cold body. If some stablehand tried to get the better of me right now, I'd probably just fall over, I realise as I make my way to join the crowds on the bridge, deciding that I need to get some sleep and settle my nervous mind before I can start to safely explore the city, let alone begin to undertake my contract. And I have to remember that the sooner I do that, the sooner I can leave and never come back here or anywhere else so damn cold.

I use my size to my advantage and manage to slip my way through the mass of people, reaching the gates just as darkness starts to fall. One of the Nord guards waves me inside with little more than a cursory glance and an unimpressed shake of his head at my shivering, clearly out-of-town appearance. The elves behind me fare worse, and as I walk into the city, I catch a few choice words from the Nords that make my stomach turn. I pull my hood lower over my head and hurry onward to a wide snowy square thronging with people. As I try to get my bearings and determine where I might find somewhere to sleep for the night, through the crowds I catch sight of a young Dunmer woman nearby, cornered between two Nord men, one holding the slender dark elf by the arm and the other counting out coins from a small purse.

'Thieving bitch,' the Nord says as he ties the purse and shoves it into his pocket. 'How'd you get this coin, huh?'

'I didn't steal it,' the woman says, and even from across the square I hear the mix of fear and anger cut into her deep voice.

'Probably spread them grey legs,' his companion says with a hacking laugh.

'For a dog or a skeever, maybe.' The stocky dark-haired Nord spits on the feet of the woman. 'What man would go near such a filthy cunt, let alone pay for it?'

I look around, feeling an uncomfortable chill down my back that has little to do with the temperature when I realise that none of the other people in the square seem concerned by the Nords' display. The sound of flesh on flesh and a cry of pain makes my gaze whip back to the Dunmer, who stumbles down to the ground under the force of the dark-haired man's fist against her cheek. As the crowds part a little, I notice that a guard stands only a few feet away from the Nords, seemingly mediating the confrontation, although his arms are folded and his hand does not once move to his sheathed sword.

But I bet he would reach for his blade quick enough if I tried to intervene on the Dunmer's behalf, I think, feeling a fluttering of fear in my stomach, for the dark elf, and selfishly for myself. Knowing I can hardly take on two Nords and a guard by myself in the middle of a crowded area, I harden my heart and start walking towards the north of the square, where, judging by the cluster of people and the drunken singing, I assume I can find a tavern.

'Dirty grey-skin whore,' I hear the dark Nord say as I walk past, and I see him spit once more on the Dunmer as she struggles to get up from the ground before he lays a hard kick to her stomach.

'All right,' the guard says lazily over the woman's cry, but he still does not move forward. 'She's had enough for now.'

When I look back a few seconds later, the men have backed off, and I catch sight of the small smirk at the guard's mouth and the respectful nod of his head as he watches the men turn away, leaving the dark elf on the ground.

Maybe I won't even need to kill Karliah myself, I think, wondering if I could just let the Nords here do my job for me, before I feel a rush of anger and I decide that at least if I kill Karliah, it will be justice, and the sharpness of the Blade will make it clean.

My mind is on edge when I push through the drunken revellers to the north of the square and find myself in a large and brightly lit tavern. My keen relief at being out of the icy evening air is soon dashed when I head to the bar to ask for a room for the night and promptly learn that I do not have enough coin to afford even a bed in a shared room.

Mercer is a son of a bitch, I think, settling for a cup of wine and a bowl of broth, knowing that the Guildmaster probably measured the coins he gave me carefully to allow for the journey to Windhelm and nothing more. I sit in a corner of the busy tavern, trying to ignore the loud talk of the Nords around me and similarly trying to ignore my growing feeling of panic as I wonder what to do now that I have no coin for a room. With my hands still too cold and clumsy for lockpicking and my knowledge of the city's streets non-existent, I realise that trying to steal any gold tonight would be unwise, while the thought of spending the night out in the cold streets makes my body shiver just thinking about it.

Grimly I realise I have little choice in where I will be sleeping tonight, but I linger in the tavern for as long as I can, savouring every moment of the food and wine and warmth, until the raucous talk of the nearby Nords aggravates me enough into preferring to wander the freezing cold streets rather than listen to them a moment longer. I once let a man like that touch me, I remember suddenly, thinking of the night I joined the Guild and the fair Nord who I kissed in order to pickpocket Brynjolf's papers, and I wonder how I could have even briefly enjoyed the touch of the man's hands after overhearing his degrading conversation with his friend not a few minutes before. But I might as well ask myself why I've ever gone near Mercer Frey.

Not liking the thoughts in my mind, I quickly down the last of my wine and ask at the bar for directions to the Silver Quarter. Bracing myself against the cold, I keep my hands out of my pockets and near my daggers as I walk the unfamiliar streets, my haste at least warming my body a little in my urgency to not linger in the city too long at night, having already witnessed the guards' apparent lack of concern over the welfare of some of their citizens and suspecting that their care for visiting outsiders is similarly non-existent. Fortunately, unlike Riften's maze of alleys and streets, Windhelm's roads are mostly straight, wide and direct, and I find my way to the quiet well-lit Silver Quarter in only a short time. Set back from the paved streets, the houses are imposing structures of dark grey stone, weathered by harsh winds and ice. On the first street, I look to the left and count my way past two houses before coming to a stop outside the third. Unlike the others around it, the house is dark, with the windows shuttered and tough weeds growing in the cracks of the stone path that leads to the door. He clearly doesn't come here often, or ever, I think, before I step up to the door and retrieve the key from my satchel, eager to get inside and out of the cold evening winds. Some part of me is surprised when the lock clicks open. I wouldn't have put it past him to leave me out in the freezing cold, I think, relieved to discover that Mercer's cruelty does not extend that far.

Inside the house, the shadows hang as heavy as the dust in the air, and it takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. As I look around, I find Mercer's house to be exquisitely decorated, and yet the expensive furnishings are layered with cobwebs and the place is almost as cold as outside. Cautiously, I check every room, each quiet creak of a door unnerving me and my hand resting unashamedly on my dagger, still some part of me fearing that this is just some game of the Guildmaster's and half-expecting to find someone waiting in the shadows.

After a few minutes, I ascertain that the house is deserted. Grateful for a sturdy roof, solid walls and a secure door, I decide it is a safe enough place to sleep for tonight. Upstairs in the main bedroom, I find a stack of aged wood beside the fireplace and as I set about starting a fire, I wonder if the hearth had ever been lit. Why the hell would he ever want to live here, anyway? I think, certain that surely even Mercer is not so cold-hearted as to enjoy living in a place like this. As the fire soon starts to warm the room, I ease my satchel from shoulder and remove my daggers from my thighs, deciding to curl up on the floor before the fire, although the cold floorboards suddenly seem less appealing than the large bed behind me. I'm not sleeping in his bed, I remind myself firmly, but it's not long before the mass of furs and soft sheets call to me, as does the thought of resting my tired and cold body on a feather mattress rather than the wooden floor, and I soon strip off my damp chilly clothes and climb into Mercer's bed, burying myself in the covers and falling into a heavy, exhausted sleep before my mind can even contemplate the reason why I am here in the first place.

 

*

 

After four days, I come to the realisation that finding Karliah will be a near impossible task. The area known as the Grey Quarter is small but a veritable warren of crumbling stone buildings and shacks, and unlike the other parts of the Windhelm, the streets are narrow and winding and often treacherous with uncleared snow drifts or unsalted stretches of ice over the walkways. By now used to Riften's alleys, I learn to find my way around the Grey Quarter soon enough, and although I never get used to the cold, I draw comfort in the shadowy alleys and winding streets, at times feeling almost as if I am back in Riften. The lack of guard patrols here is nice, too, I think at first, but I soon discover that the guards are often the ones stumbling drunk from the taverns in the early hours with the other Nords, to shout obscenities in the Grey Quarter streets and to harass anyone they can find. At least Riften's crooked guards whore and drink and conduct their business mostly discreetly, I think, realising that the guards in Windhelm act with impunity and fear no reprisal for their actions.

It doesn't surprise me to find that the people living in the Grey Quarter are not overly forthcoming with strangers, particularly with those that have questions. When I ask around whether anyone has seen a dark elf woman with violet eyes, I am met with stony silences or questions of their own as to why I am looking for her. Although I invent what I believe to be a convincing story, that the Dunmer is a travelling companion of mine and we were separated in a blizzard just outside of Windhelm, either I am too poor a liar or they have been told similar stories before and know the true purpose behind such questions.

Despite quickly realising the hopelessness of my task, I persevere in my search, and my hopes rise abruptly on my fifth day in Windhelm when I enter a second-hand store and the rather talkative dark elf behind the counter complains to me about a recent break-in that, like most crimes in the Grey Quarter, has not been investigated by the guards. As he lists all his customers who acted even slightly suspiciously, the man lets slip that there was a purple-eyed woman browsing books in his shop not a week ago. I do my best to keep my sudden interest off my face as I subtly work the Dunmer for further information, but my desperate excitement must show in my expression and he soon reacts to my questioning like all the others, narrowing his eyes and asking me stiffly if he can help me with any purchases.

When I realise my harassment is getting me nowhere, I start to visit the Grey Quarter at night instead, keeping to the shadows and hoping to overhear any whispers of a woman in hiding, or perhaps even see a purple-eyed fellow thief breaking into a house or store. Or maybe she'll walk right into me, I think flippantly, starting to think such an occurrence as likely as ever finding her myself. My night-time efforts prove equally fruitless, overhearing the catcalls and shouts of the drunken Nords rather than anything useful, and I soon resort to breaking into the houses and shacks myself in the desperate hopes of finding any trace of Karliah. I make a point of not stealing from any of the places I enter, choosing to do my shopping in the far richer Silver Quarter, but I search each place thoroughly, desperate to find a lead. The break-ins are just as unsuccessful as my questioning, and after every failed excursion to the Grey Quarter I return to Mercer's house in a bitter temper, half-wanting Windhelm's cold and unfriendly citizens to turn their attentions from the Dunmer onto me, just so I have an excuse to draw my daggers and put them to use.

Almost a week has passed when I start to grow conscious of the strange shiver that moves down my spine as I walk around the Grey Quarter, and I soon realise that it has little to do with the cold. It's a big city, there's always going to be someone going in the same direction as me, I remind myself firmly, although the undeniable feeling of being followed and the resulting chill down my back lingers even when I check behind me and find no one there.

Maybe it's one of the Dunmers who have had enough of seeing me around here, I think one night as I walk the Grey Quarter, drawing my stolen cloak tight around me against the bitter air. Or a guard wanting some amusement. Trying to ignore the unease crawling down my back, my gaze suddenly falls upon a tumble-down house that I have yet to explore, and with another quick glance behind me, I hurry forward down the alley and set to work.

'Fuck,' I curse quietly a short while later as my last lockpick breaks under the clumsiness of my cold hands. I reach beneath my hood for my hair pins, but those too prove useless and I realise that the lock on the door is far more complex than both my expectations and capabilities. My bitter temper suddenly sparked with yet another failure, I step away from the door and stuff my hands back into my pockets, deciding to come back in daylight when at least the bite in the air will not be so debilitating to the skill of my hands.

Or maybe I won't come back at all, I think, wondering if I have wasted not only my lockpicks but my time too. I've been in Windhelm for nearly a week and I'm nowhere close to finding Karliah. The frustrating thought burns fiercely through me, and not for the first time since my arrival in the city, I realise my own stupidity in thinking that this would be an easy task. I start walking quickly back through the alleys, intending to return to the Silver Quarter and drink my way through some of the wine I found in the cellar of Mercer's house, trying desperately not to let my frustration turn to despair. If I can't find one fucking Dunmer thief, how the hell am I ever going to find and kill Astrid?

My mind is distracted and I do not hear the footsteps in the lightly falling snow until it is too late. I am halfway down a winding and unlit alley when someone grabs me from behind, a hand smothering the instinctive scream from my mouth as I feel the touch of icy cold metal against my throat.

Fear stops my heart and I'm about to reach down for my own daggers when I hear a quiet familiar laugh in my ear and the blade presses harder to my neck, and my hands freeze in shock before I can draw my weapons.

'Fucking gods, little bird.' The hand uncovers my mouth and drops down to my stomach, pulling me back against a solid, familiar body. 'You really have no hope out here, do you?'

'Mercer?' I say, immobilised by both my shock at his sudden appearance and the chill of his dagger still pressed to my throat. 'What the hell are you doing here?'

'Clearly catching you off-guard,' Mercer says, his hand at my navel slipping down to my trousers, his fingers quickly ripping apart the fastenings before I even register what he is doing. 'What would you have done if I was after your virtue?' He laughs another quick laugh as he loosens the material of my trousers and I gasp at the cold air cutting my bare skin sharp as a knife. 'Not that the slut has much virtue for me to take.'

'What the fuck are you doing here, Mercer?' I repeat, although I hardly need an explanation as to his current intentions, suddenly conscious of his body behind me and the way his cock presses already hard against my ass through his clothing and mine, and he does not seem inclined to answer my question.

'Has the little bird kept it warm and wet for me?' he murmurs in my ear, and his fingers dip beneath my smallclothes.

I gasp, his hand ice-cold from the night air, and I hear his own breath hitch as his fingers explore me, quicker and more eager than ever before, as if our days apart have caused him to forget all the times he has put his fingers or tongue or cock between my legs. When his fingers find their way to the source of my sensitivity, brushing light and quick and cold over my clit, the chill of his fingers sends a sharp shiver through me that I realise has little to do with the icy night air.

'Stop it,' I say, my body tingling, certainly with the cold and yet I know it is more than that. I reach up and clutch at his arm, trying to pull his arm away where he still holds the dagger to my neck, desperate not to give him the satisfaction of knowing how easily my body responds to his touch even with a blade against my throat. 'Mercer, stop.'

No part of me expects him to heed my demand, and soon only a small feeble part of me even wants him to heed it. My fingers curl around his arm as he holds the dagger to my throat, the blade quickly warming with the sudden heat that spreads through every inch of my body from between my legs, his touch there making me warmer than I have been since I set foot into this freezing unfriendly city, and soon I stop wondering why he is here or what I am even doing letting him touch me like this in the middle of an alley.

'Even in a snow storm, hm?' the Guildmaster says in my ear, his fingers no longer cold but warm and wet at my core. 'You fucking slut. You just can't help yourself.'

Suddenly I feel anew all of my frustration from the past few days, hot and violent and begging for some form of release after my week of being sorely let down, and before I can stop myself, I push my ass back against Mercer, rubbing up on his hardness, mostly to aggravate him but also to exacerbate the warmth flooding between my legs when I feel his cock pressing at my ass. 'Neither can you,' I say pointedly. 'You're so hard, it's like you've never touched a woman before.'

My words clearly infuriate him just as I intend, and with a harsh laugh Mercer pulls his wet fingers from between my legs at the same time he takes the dagger away from my neck. I hear him sheathe the blade but before I can even move, he grabs me and turns me around to face him.

The sight of Mercer standing before me, hooded and in the familiar black leather and cloth Guild armour, is far more comforting than I expected – but my desire for him is suddenly overtaken by my longing for the Guild, for Riften, to be back in the Cistern, to sleep in the bed that became mine in the place that became my home before I even realised it. The Guildmaster looks me up and down too, briefly, his eyes bright with a fierce desire that burns even through the darkness, before he steps forward and abruptly shoves me backwards until I hit the nearby alley wall with a yelp of pain.

'Woman, was that?' Mercer growls, his hands wrenching down my trousers and smallclothes, leaving me gasping at the freezing air on my inexplicably hot legs. 'You're nothing more than a fucking whore.' He grabs my thigh and rips one of my legs completely free of my trousers, tearing the material of my smallclothes when it catches on my boot. His hands go to his own trousers, freeing himself in moments. 'A wet needy cunt and a mouth that talks too much.'

'And you're a-' I start furiously, but I never get to tell Mercer what he is, as he hooks his arm behind my knee and pulls my bare leg up and apart before he steps close and I feel the hard head of his cock between my legs.

His groan of satisfaction is louder than my own moan when he thrusts himself inside me without a moment's hesitation. Having almost forgotten the feeling and with my body accustomed to being tense in the cold, I whimper with the sensation as he pushes his length to my limits; his breathing shallow, he holds himself there for several long seconds as he looks down at me, his dark eyes like fire when they meet mine again – although now I can scarcely read the expression in them, distracted and surprised as I am to find that he is even giving me time to get used to him.

My surprise doesn't last long, as Mercer pulls out of me long enough to adjust his arm beneath my knee and jerk my leg higher before he slams his cock back into me, the force crushing me beneath his body up against the snowy stone wall and we both gasp with the feeling, the Guildmaster seemingly taking as much pleasure from being inside me as I suddenly get from having him there.

He wastes no more time, and I cling to his shoulders as he sets about satisfying himself as fast and hard as he can, my own satisfaction inexplicably rising as fast and hard too. I bury my mouth in his shoulder, biting down against my moans of pleasure, although Mercer must hear them well enough.

'Have you been thinking about this since you left, slut?' he says.

'You clearly have,' I gasp, which only causes him to take me harder, and I hear him make a harsh laugh at my resulting cry.

'Forget half the Stormcloak army,' he says. 'If I hadn't turned up, I bet you would've fucked every man in this city, and their dogs too.' He readjusts his arm under my knee and his other hand grabs my waist, lifting me off the ground and keeping me pinned up against the wall as his thrusts grow rougher and faster. 'The little bitch would take any cock inside her and still come screaming, wouldn't she?'

'Yes,' I moan, not listening to him properly or caring what I am agreeing with, only feeling my body's eager reaction at his increased efforts and wanting more, wanting to stay warm, just wanting.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see a shadowy shape of a person further down the alley, and my already quickened breath catches in surprise – and yet I find myself hardly caring that someone might walk past to see me naked from the waist down and hear my moans as I get fucked against the wall in an alley. I should care about that, I think vaguely, but I quickly realise that the thought of what I should do and should want is too hard to consider when I know the truth well enough. If I even think about it for a second, I don't want this, or him, I realise, and in that moment I think of how Mercer laughed over what happened to me at Honorhall, how his hand felt as it closed around my throat, how he has taken so much pleasure from my pain, but I close my eyes tight and dig my fingers in harder at his shoulders, my mind refusing to acknowledge the truth, forcing myself to moan louder to drown out the thoughts.

Distracted as he is, Mercer must sense that someone is near, and I open my eyes to see him turn his head to the side, not breaking the pace of his thrusts inside me. 'Fuck off or I'll slit your throat,' he snarls, and I catch sight of the figure far down the alley turn away after a few moments and disappear.

I clutch at him tighter, thinking to bite down on his shoulder again, but when Mercer turns his head back to me, he finds my mouth with his own, his teeth and tongue feral against mine in a harsh kiss that makes the pleasure mount in me twice as fast. Suddenly more eager for my satisfaction than I have ever been before, I pull Mercer's head closer as my hips push forward to meet his quickening thrusts, his pace growing rougher and faster, until a few moments later, I scream out into his mouth and Mercer groans against my lips and for the first time we come together.

As he works out the throes, my body shudders with its release and I gasp for breath, the cold air burning my throat painfully. By the time Mercer finishes, I am limp against the wall, held up only by his arm under my leg and his hand on my waist. For a few seconds, all I can hear is our ragged breathing.

Then, distantly, I feel his hand reach up to my hood and push it back from my head before he leans close and I hear his intake of breath, his mouth burying in my curls as he kisses my hair and breathes in the scent.

The gesture is as disconcerting as his unexpected arrival, and abruptly I feel a shiver move down my back, but whether it is due to the cold or my disquiet or the last remnants of my pleasure, I cannot tell, although I register well enough my desire to meet his strange action with ridicule rather than show my unease.

'Did you actually miss me?' I manage to say mockingly, my question both incredulous and genuine, not expecting any part of his reaction to seeing me again.

Mercer pulls back and looks down at me, although I can hardly read his expression. 'My poor little bird,' he says softly, brushing my hair back from my face, a small smile at his mouth. 'You have no idea, do you?'

I try to understand what he means, uncertain if I really want to have any idea of how he has missed me, or if he means something entirely different - but I have little time to wonder, as Mercer finally pulls out of me and releases my body, and I have to focus only on keeping my balance on my limp legs as the Guildmaster steps back to refasten his trousers.

'Come on,' he says, nodding at my own trousers still tangled around one leg. 'You'll freeze.'

Needing no further instruction and feeling the cold bitterly as the heat dies quickly from my bare skin, I hurry to redress my lower body. I'm just finishing fastening my trousers when Mercer turns around and starts to walk away. Still dazed from my pleasure and utterly confused by his sudden appearance, I follow without a word, trying to keep up with his long strides as he leads the way to the Silver Quarter, the cold air soon clearing my head and allowing me to start to think properly.

He didn't think I could do it myself, I realise, understanding with a rush of irritation why he is here now. Despite my undeniable lack of progress with tracking down Karliah, I find myself furious that Mercer clearly felt the need to follow me to Windhelm, without first sending me a message to ask how I was getting on. For all he knew, I could've killed her already, I think, although I have to admit to myself that Mercer likely has other ways of knowing what is happening without needing me to write him a letter to tell him. But if he knows exactly what's happening, or not happening, why did he even bother sending me to find her in the first place?

By the time we reach his house and Mercer unlocks the door, my confusion and irritation have turned my mood bitter and put my body on edge, uncertain as to what he intends to do now that he is here.

Mercer stops abruptly just inside the hallway, and it doesn't take me long after closing the door behind me to realise the reason for his pause. He's probably never seen his house looking like this, I realise, having spent what time I had free when not scouring the Grey Quarter on instead trying to make Mercer's house more habitable, stealing what food and supplies I could from the neighbouring houses and keeping the fires lit and the place clean. I suddenly regret my efforts as they are clearly a surprise to the Guildmaster, and he turns to me with one eyebrow raised.

'At least you have some uses,' he says. 'You like playing the little wife, then, do you?'

'Wife?' I repeat, the word tasting sour on my tongue with the thought of being bound to him in that way. 'I was trying to keep warm and survive, not playing at being your wife.'

He only laughs a quick laugh at that. 'And clearing out the cobwebs and lighting candles helps your survival, does it?' he says with a sarcastic smirk. 'All right, be a good wife then and get into bed.'

'I'm not your wife,' I snap, feeling my cheeks flush red.

'Then be a good whore and get into bed,' Mercer says. He points up the stairs. 'I'll be there in a minute, and maybe I'll treat the little bird to what she likes best.'

I fold my arms and glare at him. 'I didn't need you to come here, you know,' I say sharply, wanting to make it clear to him, even as some part of me wonders just what it is that he thinks I like best. 'I was managing fine. I haven't found Karliah yet, but I'm just... I'm following up on some leads.'

The amused smirk lingers at his mouth. 'Aren't you resourceful,' he says lightly. 'But I'm not interested in talking about Karliah. Now go upstairs.'

'So why are you here?' I demand, even though I know the question is pointless and if he wanted me to know his intentions, he would have told me.

'Because I missed my little bird, of course.' He tilts his head, his smile almost genuine, and I suddenly wonder if he is going to try to kiss my hair again just to unnerve me even more. 'Upstairs, Wren. Don't make me say it another time, unless you'd prefer to spend the rest of the night out in the snow.'

Well aware that he is not going to tell me any more and having little desire to provoke him into acting on his threat, I realise I have little choice in obeying. And I can't deny the part of me that wants to feel warm again, even if it has to be at his hands. 'Fine,' I snap, starting to climb the stairs. 'Just know that I will find Karliah soon and I don't need your help to do it.'

I hear his quiet laugh as I near the top of the stairs. 'Oh, no, I don't think you'll need my help at all,' he says idly, although I scarcely hear the sarcasm in his voice, and as I reach the top of the stairs and walk across the hallway to his bedroom, I start to wonder if I imagined it.

 

*

 

Mercer keeps me locked in his house for two days, and I find myself only too willing to heed the imprisonment voluntarily, glad for any reason to be out of the cold harsh city streets. And he keeps me warm enough, even when I am naked, I think, enjoying the heat of my blood and the overworked ache in my body when the Guildmaster takes his pleasure of me. Yet I find it difficult to ignore my unease at his continued disinterest in talking about Karliah and my lack of progress in finding her, and I cannot help wondering why he is suddenly more interested in spending time with me than hunting her down and making her pay. When I tell him I will happily return to the Grey Quarter and resume my search for the Dunmer thief, he only sighs and directs me to his bed, before proceeding quite effectively to make me forget all about the name Karliah for a few hours.

The third night after his unexpected arrival in Windhelm, Mercer has me stripped and standing in his bedroom. He seems inclined to leave the shutters open night and day, and though the clear glass windowpanes are sturdy enough, the cold air nips at my naked body and I stay standing close to the fire as Mercer walks over to the bed, still fully clothed. When he draws one of his golden daggers, I feel my heart flutter in fear, but a moment later the sound of the sheet tearing as he cuts a strip from it sends a keen shiver down my spine. Just like the time he cut my shirt apart, I think, remembering it vividly, and as Mercer crosses the room with his blade now sheathed and carrying the strip of torn material, I realise he intends for this to begin like it did the first time I was in his bed. He clearly just doesn't have shackles in his house here.

Unnerving me with another kiss to my hair, Mercer binds my hands behind me with the strip of fabric, winding it loosely about my wrists. 'Lie down, little bird,' he murmurs when he has finished the task and steps away from me.

I obey and walk over to the bed, dropping down onto the furs as my heart starts skipping a little faster in expectation, feeling the soft binds against my wrists and shivering at the now all-too-familiar sense of being at his mercy. And the light kisses only make me more nervous, I think, but I have barely any time to wonder at Mercer's curiously uncharacteristic gestures, as he climbs onto the bed after me and gently pushes me down flat.

He takes my knees in his hands and parts my legs before settling himself between them, leaning down low to lick slowly over the inside of my thighs and wet my cool skin with his warm tongue. My body more responsive to his touch than I would like, I feel a keen tension suddenly rise in my lower stomach in anticipation and my breath catches loudly in my throat before his mouth even moves to my core a few seconds later.

I close my eyes and bury my bound hands into my furs beneath my body, feeling the softness and the steadily growing warmth of the covers under me. This hurts my arms and hands, I think vaguely, feeling my tied wrists squashed beneath my body and knowing it will start to become uncomfortable, but such thoughts are quiet and insignificant in my mind, and all I can think of is my quickened breathing punctuated with whimpers of pleasure, louder than both the gently crackling fire and the wet sound of Mercer's mouth between my legs. I soon give myself over to the heat flooding through me and I drown in the feeling as he draws it out in me, slowly and deliberately, for what feels like hours, although I know my needy body could never last so long. Or much longer at all, I realise, as a fractured moan escapes me and my muscles tighten, my legs pressing eagerly around his head to hold him in place, his hair tickling my thighs still slick from his tongue.

I am only a few pleasurable seconds away from my satisfaction when Mercer pulls away and pushes himself upright. My mind does not register the loss at first, dazed and still half-expecting a release to be moments away, but as I feel Mercer's weight leave the bed and I hear his footsteps across the room, I cannot stop my pitiful moan of longing as the feeling he has built up inside me starts to fade. I force myself to recover my senses and open my eyes, thinking that perhaps he intends to return with some device to use on me - and in that moment, I decide that even the leather or another tool would at least provide some sort of release for me from the keen tension he has built up inside me - but when I turn my head and notice that Mercer has moved to stand in front of the window with his arms folded and his back to me, I realise after a few long seconds that he has no further intention to finish what he started.

I make a frustrated whimper, feeling the wetness between my thighs as I bring my legs together and struggle to sit upright, my body weak and my arms useless in their binds. 'What are you doing?' I say, my voice breathless.

He turns around to face me, his eyes glittering in the firelight with his amusement as he looks over my naked body. 'Did you want me for something?' he says lightly. 'You seem a little worked up, Wren.'

'Please,' I beg wildly, needing a release from the feeling and thinking of nothing else. 'Please touch me.'

'Touch yourself,' he says with a smirk. 'I've got things to do, you know, beyond seeing to you.'

I move my arms against their binds pointedly at his suggestion, hoping my incapacitation will convince him to take pity on me when he knows I cannot physically do what he suggests.

'That doesn't stop you,' Mercer says, laughter in his eyes. 'Get creative. Go rub up against the bed post if you're that desperate to get off.'

He turns to the look out through the window at the snowy street once more. After a few seconds, it dawns on me through my desperation that he really intends to leave me as I am, and with that, my unsatisfied pleasure turns to frustration that burns hotter and hotter with every second he stands there doing nothing.

'I thought you said you had things to do,' I say eventually, trying to keep the edge out of my tone, but when Mercer only continues to ignore me, I give up trying to restrain my annoyance. 'Just fucking finish me,' I demand.

'Frustrating, isn't it?' the Guildmaster muses, his voice quiet and low where mine is sharpened with my irritation. 'When people don't do what you tell them.'

I glare at his back, annoyed by his comment, when for the past two days I have done exactly as he told me to, however he liked it done. 'Mercer,' I say, hearing the pleading tone in my voice and hating the sound of it, but aware enough by now that begging is one of the few ways to get him to please me.

'Wren,' he replies mockingly, not even turning around to look at me, and I realise that pleading with him is not going to help me this time.

But I fucking need him to help me right now, I think, my body not only hot and craving its release but now burning with fury that I should even be so susceptible and powerless to his touch, that I am so subject to him and his inclinations. 'You're a son of a bitch,' I tell him viciously, preferring to insult him rather than think of my own weaknesses.

He laughs quietly, his gaze still on the street outside the window. 'And you're a poor little slut who wants to get off but can't. We all have problems, don't we?'

Despite knowing he has no intention to finish what he started, I stay sitting where I am for a minute, waiting in the hope that he will change his mind. I even go as far as making a small pained whimper just as I know he likes it, but when I get no reaction, irritation cuts swiftly through me, keener as any pleasure he gave me.

'Fine, I don't need you anyway,' I say coolly.

Mercer glances back at me, a smirk at his mouth. 'Right, you only needed me for the past ten minutes I've been licking your cunt,' he says, sarcasm dripping in his voice.

I feel my cheeks flush angrily, with my heightened frustration as much as his words, and suddenly I feel the determination to prove him wrong, to prove that I am not as useless and in need of his presence here as he clearly assumes I am.

I throw him a final cold scowl before I lie back down on the bed, shuffling onto my side and facing away from Mercer, wanting to neither look at him or be looked at by him. As I bring my legs together and adjust my body to lie more comfortably on my side, my breath catches at the sensitivity between my legs, suddenly conscious of the wet warmth there and the way my movement sends a jolt of pleasure through me, nothing like the feeling Mercer drew out in me but enough to make me wonder if I do really need him at all. I adjust my hips again, in a small rocking motion that makes me gasp quietly with the sensation. I draw my leg closer across the other, feeling the pleasurable tension in my muscles as I grind my hips, trying to work myself against my slick thigh, but all too soon I arrive at the bitter realisation that it's not the same as Mercer's tongue and the feeling he built up only persists, aching harder now with my feeble efforts, and a keen whine of frustration escapes me before I can stop myself.

'Having trouble, little bird?' Mercer's smug tone lets me know just how much he is enjoying my pitiful performance.

'Fuck off,' I snap, his amusement grating on my already frustrated senses, before I start wondering if I should do as he previously suggested and try to use the bed post to my advantage. He'd love that, I think, and promptly decide that giving him any further enjoyment of watching me bound and struggling is the last thing I want to do.

Deciding to try to tackle at least one of those problems, I gently pull my hands against my binds behind my back, working at the knot Mercer tied there and soon finding myself caught off-guard when the fabric loosens in barely a minute, quickly falling free from my wrists. Not caring to even wonder at his surprisingly poor efforts in binding me and whether letting me break free was his intention all along, I sigh with the pleasure as I move my arms to get the feeling back into them before my mind quickly returns to the other pleasure it so desperately seeks.

I tentatively reach my hand down, my breath catching sharply in my throat when my fingers slip wet between my legs. He's good and he fucking knows it, I think, despising my body for how it reacts so willingly to the efforts of a man such as Mercer, but the thought soon falls away from my mind when even the barest awkward brush of my fingertips between my legs sends a flutter of eager pleasure through me, keener than I expected and with an unmistakable flicker of triumph that it is not Mercer but myself who is responsible. I don't need him.

I close my eyes, snuggling my body into the warm furs beneath me and feeling their heat work through my body as my fingers start to move, quick and uncertain, not entirely sure how to do it to myself. Despite my hesitation and the unfamiliarity of my touch, it is not long before I find the place where Mercer works so well and my thighs tighten abruptly around my hand with the discovery. My breath catches with the pleasure swiftly rising in me, my hips rocking and my fingers slipping faster in my wetness, unskilled and desperate to chase the feeling however I can.

Before I even expect it, the pleasure peaks in me suddenly, my back arching a little as my hips rise against my fingers, and I come with hitched cry of frustration as much as of pleasure, as the feeling cuts through me fast and brief and over before I can even truly comprehend it.

Regaining my breath and my senses far too easily, I lie still in the furs for a minute as the feeling fades as quickly as it came, leaving me bereft rather than satisfied.

I take my hand from between my legs as frustration suddenly rises twice as strong as the pleasure, longing for the helpless daze that usually overtakes me following the Guildmaster's efforts and instead now finding my mind is far too clear.

What the fuck am I even doing, touching myself because Mercer Frey wouldn't touch me? The reality of the present situation hits me and I scramble to sit upright, gathering the furs about my naked warm body and flushing red with humiliation as I turn my head to look at Mercer, only then remembering that he is there.

And watching me. Mercer remains standing at the window but his attention is firmly on me now, and the dancing firelight catches the desire in his eyes at my display. 'Poor little bird,' he says in a low voice, a small satisfied smile at his mouth yet his expression devoid of sarcasm, and I know he enjoyed watching me. 'Shall I make it better for you? Give me your wet little hand and I'll show you how to please that cunt of yours.'

'No, thanks,' I say coldly, although some part of me is tempted by the idea of having him finish properly what I clearly could not. Suddenly furious with myself for the thought and finding my desire now completely doused in the least satisfying way possible, I throw aside the furs and get up from the bed, looking around in search for my clothes.

'And where are you going?' Mercer says idly, as I locate my smallclothes and trousers by the fire.

'Out,' I answer, thinking to spend some of my stolen coin in a tavern as far away from the Guildmaster's house as possible.

Mercer doesn't respond right away, and when I glance at him, I realise he is looking out the window again. 'I suppose that's best,' he says eventually as I quickly fasten my trousers and try to locate my binding. 'You probably should start looking for Karliah like I told you to.'

'Start?' I repeat, the word aggravating my already frustrated temper. 'I was looking for her for a week before you interrupted me.'

He smirks as he turns to face me, his arms folded and his gaze flickering over my still-naked breasts. 'And you were doing so well before I interrupted you,' he says, the sarcasm back in his voice.

'I've tried,' I say sharply, as I spot my binding on the floor near Mercer and decide I'd rather go without it than close the gap between us. 'I've looked for her night and day, and I've asked everyone I can ask without it becoming suspicious. The Dunmer aren't fond of being questioned, you know.'

As I catch sight of my shirt lying on the floor near the dresser, I hear the Guildmaster's harsh laugh. 'Are you a thief or a fucking guard?' he says, and I hear the familiar impatient edge return to his voice. 'Questioned? Gods, do you ask people where they keep their gold when you're robbing their house too? You shouldn't have to question people, you fucking idiot. Of course they're not going to tell you anything.'

'Actually, someone did say they'd seen her,' I retort, feeling my face flush with anger as I snatch up my shirt and pull it on, thinking of the shopkeeper's brief word about the violet-eyed woman.

'And I've seen a little bird with a shred of intelligence in her head,' Mercer says sarcastically. 'That doesn't mean I'm telling the truth.'

I ignore him, well aware that he is trying to provoke me, just as he wanted to provoke my frustration only a few minutes ago. For once, I'd love to not fall prey to his games, I think, before I realise that it is more likely for me to walk right into Karliah in the street than it is for my temper and my body to withstand the manipulations of Mercer Frey.

'Gods, why did I even let you join my Guild?' he says with a sigh as I finish fastening my shirt. 'When you tripped up to my desk behind Brynjolf in your tight clothes, I though you were just a frigid little girl begging for a good hard fuck. Now I'm starting to think you're actually stupid.' He laughs at my continued furious silence. 'Somehow I suspect you spent the week touching yourself instead of searching for Karliah as I told you to.'

I give up my search for my jacket and glare viciously at him, still weak to my desire - except now my desire is only to bite back at him rather than be touched by him.

'You know, maybe Karliah isn't even here anymore,' I point out. 'Or maybe she never was. Maybe you should face the possibility that you've been outsmarted.' I pause, enjoying my words too much. 'Again.'

'Have I?' Mercer inclines his head, eyes narrowing, a small smile at his mouth. 'We'll see. You know, you little whores are more predicable than you think you are. You and Karliah might both realise that some day.'

Suddenly, he strides forward to close the gap between us, and before I can back away he grabs hold of my arm roughly and pulls me along behind him as he crosses the room and wrenches open the door.

'What the fuck-' I start, tripping as I try to keep up with him, his grip on my arm unyielding as he marches me along the hallway and to the stairs.

'You said you were going out,' he says mildly. 'I'm helping you.'

'But I'm not-' I gasp as he tugs sharply on my arm to keep my moving and I nearly tumble down the stairs. 'I'm not properly dressed-'

'I've told you before, the less clothing you wear, the more agreeable you are,' Mercer says lightly, before we reach the front door a few seconds later and draws back the lock. 'And I think the more agreeable you are, the more likely you'll survive out there in the big scary world, Wren. But why don't we find out?'

He pulls open the door and a rush of cold air hits me harder than the strength of his hand. Before I can even try to speak, Mercer pushes me over the threshold and out into the street.

I gasp as my bare feet touch the icy stone, quickly realising that a light snow is falling and a sharp breeze cuts through the bitterly cold night air.

'Have fun,' Mercer says as I whirl around and step forward with the intention of getting back inside the house. 'Maybe the cold will freeze that fucking tongue of yours quiet.'

'Mercer-' I start, the falling snow wetting my shirt in moments, but he slams the door in my face and I hear him draw the bolt across.

Anger flares red-hot inside me and I raise my fist to pound on the door. 'You bastard!' I shout. 'Let me in!'

The only answer I get is silence, and as I continue to hit the door with no response for at least a minute, I soon realise that he is just as serious about leaving me out here under-dressed as he was about leaving me unfulfilled in his bed.

I clutch at the door handle, my body shivering violently and the night air chilling me to the bone through my shirt and trousers. 'Mercer,' I say, trying to make my voice softer even as my teeth start to chatter. 'Please let me in.'

It's several more painfully long seconds later when the door opens and relief courses through me, but the Guildmaster only shoves my jacket into my arms and drops my boots at my feet before stepping back into the house and putting his hand on the door to slam it shut again.

'Please, at least give me some money,' I beg, realising my coin purse is in my satchel and knowing that the taverns won't let me stay without paying for at least one drink. And picking any locks is the last thing I can do right now.

Mercer only laughs, and I see the amusement in his dark eyes as he looks over my shivering body. 'You've got a mouth and a cunt, haven't you? Go make some money the only way you're worth anything,' he tells me, before he suddenly pushes the Blade of Justice into my hands and I almost drop my jacket into the snow as I clutch at the dagger. 'Better yet, go fucking do what I told you to do.'

Before I can argue or plead, he slams the door in my face and I hear it lock once again, and it hits me in a rush of fury that he really is going to leave me out here.

'Fuck you!' I shout through the door, wishing I had drawn the Blade of Justice and buried it in his chest when I had the chance. I was wrong, he is cold-hearted enough to live in this fucking place, I think as I turn away, shaking with both the cold and my rage, before I notice a couple of people walking down the street past Mercer's house, and through the lightly falling snow, I realise that their gazes are firmly on the screaming young woman on the doorstep, barefoot and shivering. 'What?' I snap viciously at them, trembling with the cold and yet burning hot with humiliation.

The couple quickly keep walking, and I'm suddenly glad for the snow and darkness that obscures the expression on their faces as they pass by Mercer's house. Fuck them, and fuck him.

My hands numb and clumsier than ever, I manage to strap my dagger to my thigh before pulling on my jacket and boots, although they do little to warm my already ice-cold body and I wonder what the hell I am supposed to do. A brief moment passes while I consider trying to beg again, to promise Mercer whatever he likes in exchange for letting me back inside. The thought turns my stomach and chills me colder than the snow. I'd rather die out here than give him the satisfaction of my submission even one more time.

The realisation hits me hard. Fuck Mercer, fuck Karliah... and fuck Astrid, I think, not caring if I never fulfil my end of Mercer's deal and he subsequently never tells me where I can find Astrid. I'm done being his plaything. I don't care if I never get my revenge. I'm done.

I stuff my hands into the pockets of my jacket and walk away from Mercer's house, barely feeling the cold for those few fragile moments as I realise I am, finally, finished.

And that feeling is more satisfying than anything I have ever felt at his hands.

The breeze bites at my flushed cheeks, reminding me of my pressing concern, but my mind is suddenly sharper than before and I barely think as I start to make my way to the Grey Quarter, remembering more than one abandoned house from my search for Karliah and feeling confident that I will at least have shelter for the night. And I also remember more than one unlocked house, with enough coin hidden under the mattresses to get me on a carriage out of Windhelm, I think, finding it easy to forget my reluctance to steal from the Grey Quarter's inhabitants, deciding that I am in just as much need right now. And what I need is to get out of this city and never go near Mercer Frey again.

I can see little beyond the falling snow and my own white breath clouding the night air in front of me as I enter the Grey Quarter a short while later, my boots slipping on the ice as I near enough run through the walkways in an attempt to keep my body warm. Despite my best efforts, bitter icy knives of cold air work at my skin through my damp clothing and I can only try to ignore the way my body trembles with the freezing temperature. I'll be inside soon, I tell myself, although I suddenly struggle to remember exactly where I could find even one of the abandoned hovels I previously discovered, and I feel panic start to edge in on my mind as I realise I have no idea where I am going. I can't even remember where the taverns are. When I hear raised voices in the alley ahead, my heart skips a beat and I quickly backtrack to take a different alley, not wanting to cross paths with any of the drunk Nords as they make one of their rounds. Running into them would be risky enough. If they realised how debilitated and weak I am from the cold, it would be even worse.

When I turn a corner a minute later, I look ahead through the shadows and falling snow to see a couple embracing against the wall at the far end of the alley, a tall dark-haired man with his hands on a woman as he leans down to whisper in her ear. Having little desire to interrupt them, I am about to turn away and find an alternative way when I hear a muffled cry, and as I narrow my eyes against the snow and look again, I suddenly realise that it is not a willing entanglement but a struggle, and the woman against the wall isn't a woman at all but a skinny Dunmer girl of little more than ten. And the man's a Nord, and strong, and clearly has no intention of letting her go.

Something cuts sharply inside my stomach, fiercer than the cold and far harder to ignore.

'What the fuck are you doing?' I say sharply, but the distance and the blankets of snow muffle my words and the Nord does not hear me, and it's then that I see his bare hard cock in his hand while his other hand takes a fistful of the Dunmer girl's hair, and I watch as he forces her down to her knees.

The snow silences my footsteps too, and he does not realise I am there until I am ten feet away from him. 'Let her go,' I say sharper, pulling my cold hands from pockets.

His head whips around, but when he sees I am not a guard but a small and young woman alone, he only sneers, and it's then that I recognise him. He's the man I saw harassing the dark elf when I first came to the city, I realise. He spat on her and punched her and kicked her.

'Fuck off, bitch,' he says to me. 'I'm teaching this slut a lesson. You can have yours after, if you want it.'

His words spark something inside me, vicious and hot, and suddenly I no longer feel the chill in the air or the bitter wet kiss of the snow. 'I said let her go,' I repeat, closing the gap between us but doing it one step at a time, aware that I am barely taller than the girl and that neither of us reach the man's shoulders. And if he smashes her head against the wall behind her because I moved too fast, it will be my fault.

'And I said fuck off or you'll be next,' he snarls, as vicious as Mercer when someone interrupted us in the alley.

Except some part of me wanted what Mercer did, whereas this girl doesn't want any of it.

Before I can question what I am doing, my numb hand drops to the Blade of Justice at my thigh. 'Did you fucking hear me?' I say. 'Let her go or I'll cut your throat.'

The Nord hears clearly enough the soft singing of my dagger as I draw it from its sheathe, but his hand stays wound in the girl's hair, keeping her on her knees in the snow as he turns his head back to me. 'You want to die for a fucking grey-skinned bitch?' he says, and I realise his other hand has drawn a dagger of his own from his hip.

'No, I think I want to kill you,' I say.

His coarse laugh is barely out of his mouth and my mind has barely processed what I am doing when I leap forward and strike out with the Blade of Justice at the man's neck. The Nord is far quicker than I expected and he moves backwards out of the swipe of my dagger a fraction of a moment before the razor-sharp blade grazes his skin. He hesitates only long enough to wrench his hand free of the girl's hair before he steps forward and lashes out wide at me with his own blade; I dart to the side as he lunges towards me, my numb clumsy feet slipping on the snowy ground as I struggle both to keep my balance and to keep away from the broad cut of his blade, suddenly panicked at the sheer size of him and my ungainly cold body.

When he lunges at me again, angling the blade to plunge into my chest, I find myself paralysed in the path of the Nord's dagger for one brief moment, until I catch sight of the girl, on her knees only a few feet behind him, and suddenly I realise what will happen if I stay frozen in fear where I am. At the last moment, I dance backwards, letting the Nord stumble forward with his force, and before he can regain his balance, I dart to the side again and lash out fast at his ribs, barely grazing him in my unmeasured swipe but the sharpness of the Blade cutting clean through his thick woollen clothing and the flesh beneath.

The Nord howls and staggers to the side, the sound of his cry more pleasing to me than anything I have ever heard, and I do not hesitate or think about what I am doing before I reach up and bury the Blade of Justice into the side of the man's neck.

He chokes loud and wet, blood spluttering from his mouth as I rip the Blade free and the wound on his neck opens wide, spilling his life over himself and me.

I stand still as the Nord collapses down to his knees before me, blood gargling from the wound, his eyes wide and terrified with the realisation that this is the end. My cold fingers tighten about my dagger, already knowing how easy it is to cut a kneeling injured man's throat.

I lower my dagger without bringing it to his neck. Instead, I kick him hard in the chest and he collapses onto his side with an agonised groan, spluttering again as his blood flows over the ground, the scarlet warmth melting the cold snow into a slush.

I stand watching until I see movement out of the corner of my eye and I realise the Dunmer girl has got to her feet, terror on her face.

'It's all right,' I say gently as I start towards the elf, quickly sheathing my bloody dagger so as not to frighten her. But it's a little too late for that, I realise, as before I can open my mouth to reassure her further, the girl shrieks and runs away, slipping in the red wet snow in her haste to get away from me. She disappears down an adjoining alley, and I do not try to chase her, knowing it would be far unwiser than anything else I have done tonight. A woman with a dagger and bloody hands, chasing a frightened child.

My breathing shallow, I bury my hands in a mound of fresh snow nearby, biting my lip against the bitter cold as I wash the blood away quickly. My skin stays a raw numb red when I pull out my hands a few seconds later, but I find neither the pain nor the cold truly registers in my mind.

Even if I never get to Astrid, at least I've killed one person who deserved it.

I look down at him. The dark-haired Nord is working through his last painful ragged breaths as the blood stains the ground around him. I realise he still has his cock hanging out of his trousers, and his dagger lies nearby. For a moment, I wonder what they will think happened to him, when someone finds him.

Justice, I think, before I hear the sound of voices, faint but somewhere too close for my liking, and I know I cannot linger here any longer.

I leave the dying man in the alley behind me as I follow in the footsteps of the Dunmer girl, rounding a corner before slipping down into the shadows of another alley that I am sure leads to one of the main streets of the Grey Quarter, knowing that from there I can get my bearings and start to find my way to one of the abandoned hovels I previously discovered.

But the main streets might not be the wisest idea, I think, suddenly remembering that I am covered in blood. Panic rises inside me, freezing whatever hot satisfaction I felt at the sight of the Nord bleeding out on the ground. If I haven't cleaned myself up by dawn and someone sees me... I start to think, before I quickly end the thought, not wanting to wonder what might happen should I stumble into the path of a guard in bright daylight.

My heart suddenly beating uneasily, I start to walk faster, until I feel a familiar shiver down my back that I somehow know has nothing to do with the cold or the thought of the dying Nord I have left behind me.

I reach down for the Blade too late. Before I can act, a hand covers my mouth from behind and for the second time in three days I feel the chill of a dagger against my neck, stopping me in my tracks as I feel someone's body pressing close behind me and I know I'd get my throat cut quicker than I could draw my dagger.

Fury cuts through me and I'm about to reach up and rip the hand away from my mouth, to curse at Mercer and tell him that he is sorely mistaken if he thinks this will go like the last time he held a knife to my throat, but I have barely moved when I realise the gloved hand over my mouth is smaller than Mercer's and the arms around my body are slender, and I realise with a jolt of fear that this is not one of Mercer's games. This isn't Mercer.

'Aren't you the hero?' a soft voice murmurs in my ear, female and low and quieter than my footsteps beneath the sound of falling snow. 'Or should that be the villain?' The woman adjusts her hold on her dagger and I feel a shiver cut through me at its chill. 'But perspective doesn't change the fact that you're a murderer.'

My terrified heart skips a beat as I realise she must have seen me kill the Nord, and yet I suddenly find myself hardly caring that I have been caught for the crime, deciding that if this woman is going to hand me over to the guards, I will at least have justice as my defence.

'He deserved it,' I try to say against her hand, although it comes out as a garbled mumble. The woman uncovers my mouth a second later and I take a breath, trying to steady the racing of my heart. 'He was trying to hurt that little girl,' I tell her sharply. 'He had-'

The words die in my throat as I feel the blade press harder against my neck and I hear the woman make a quiet laugh.

'So you're the hero then,' she says. 'Thief turned assassin... and now lawkeeper.'

Her words freeze me far more than the ice-cold blade against my throat, and I can only stand in shock. She knows me.

'Well, come on, Wren,' the woman says softly, my blood turning colder at her words. 'You better do what your Guildmaster told you. Why don't you reach for your dagger and cut my throat like you did the Nord back there? I surely deserve it too. And that's why you're here anyway, isn't it?'

My hand flutters down to the Blade of Justice on instinct, my heart thudding fiercely with my fear and my realisation of who it is holding me here at her mercy when our roles should be reversed, but before I can even reach for the Blade, the woman's free hand snakes around my body and she pulls my dagger from my thigh with ease.

'Too slow,' she murmurs. 'If you really planned to kill me, you should've known you'd have to be quicker than that.' I hear her drop my dagger to the snowy ground. 'So just how badly does Mercer care about his stupid pretty whore?'

'I'm not-' I start, but she presses her dagger harder against my throat and I suddenly fear to speak further.

'You know, I can't decide if I'm as stupid as you are,' she says softly, almost to herself rather than to me. 'When I saw you had followed me here, away from the Guild, away from Mercer... when I realised that out of everyone, he'd sent you, the new blood... I actually thought I could reason with you. I thought you might see him for what he is, that you might want to save the Guild from its destruction.' She makes another harsh laugh. 'But you're just a deluded whore, aren't you? You probably make more coin by spreading your legs for him than you do by stealing. I was a fool to even think you might help me.' Her free hand suddenly grabs a handful of my hair and jerks my head back, exposing my throat more fully to the bitter night air as she tightens her grip on the handle of her dagger. 'But that's all right,' she murmurs, barely audible over the panicked racing of my heart, her voice almost as quiet as the steadily falling snow. 'I can still use you, Wren.'

She moves quicker than my mind even processes her words, and before I can beg for my life, she takes the dagger from my neck and I hear it slip into a sheathe. My relief is short-lived, however, and after she releases my hair, I have barely a second to catch my breath or consider trying to run before she grabs both my arms - and a moment later, I find my hands bound behind my back for the second time tonight.

'Please,' I beg, as I feel coarse rope cut into my wrists and a painful shiver of fear wracks my body, barely believing what is happening, not wanting to acknowledge the fact that I am trapped and completely at her mercy. 'Let me go, and we'll talk-'

'I've been running for five years, do you think I have the time or patience to talk?' My plea only makes her tie the rope binds tighter, her voice now sharp and vicious. 'And I don't have the patience for a heroic escape. Try to run or make any noise, I'll cut your throat. Is that clear? You're coming with me. Whether you are dead or alive is your choice.'

I feel the hard thudding of my heart as she finishes tying my wrists securely and I suddenly realise how the Nord felt after I plunged the Blade of Justice into his neck. He knew he was going to die, but he could only wait helpless for death to come.

'But where are you taking me?' I manage to say, not sure if I want to know.

'Where the end began,' Karliah tells me, as she turns me around roughly and I see a flash of violet eyes before she pulls a hood down over my head and everything turns to darkness.

Chapter Text

Astrid paces the length of the room slowly behind me, the soft sound of a strip of leather whipping every time she turns and retraces her steps.

'Come on, sweet thing,' she murmurs, a strange whispering sound echoing with each word, like rushing water or a fierce wind. 'You know that if you don't hurt me, I will have to hurt you. But you know that you deserve it more than I do. And who decides what you deserve?'

I try to turn around to face her, to hurt her as I long to, to prove she deserves pain more than I do, but with a panicked racing of my heart I realise that I am bound, my hands chained to the bed frame in front of me as I stand bent over and naked. Abruptly aware of the vulnerability of my position, I struggle viciously against the binds, feeling my wrists chafe and burn with the friction against the rough rope, and I see blood bubbling forth from the wounds, frothing over my skin and staining it like a rush of scarlet over snow.

I hear a quiet laugh behind me. 'Sweet child, you are only hurting yourself. Does that mean I have to hurt myself instead, or do I have to hurt you even more?'

Before I can find out which she intends to do, my vision swirls and a wave of nauseous dizziness comes over me, and I know I am not going to ever hurt her, I know it is hopeless, I know I am going to bleed out on the ground until there is nothing left but the crushing weight I feel dragging my body down. I collapse forward and slump against the bed, my binds keeping me held there, the blood trickling slower from my wrists as I become drowsier and every inch of my body grows heavier.

Behind my closed eyelids, I suddenly see the flash of a dagger and I hear the sound of some distant part of me tearing, being hacked at and sawn apart; my eyes do not open at my desperate command and my lips refuse to part to beg for my life, and I can only lie motionless and senseless, feeling nothing except the exhausting pressure drawing me deeper into the ground.

'You're coming with me,' a voice whispers as I sink further, knowing it is hopeless to fight. 'Dead or alive.'

Astrid laughs softly, still standing behind me even as I slip into the void. 'Dead,' she replies to the voice for me, and I hear the whip of the leather, again and again, echoing in my mind but not touching my skin. 'Dead,' she says again, and she repeats the word with each slap of the leather, the rhythm like steady footsteps, like thundering rain, as sure as my own slowing heart beat, the sound and her voice becoming a part of me until I am certain that each quietening thud of my heart is pronouncing the same word.

 

I come to consciousness slowly, the echo of Astrid's words in both my head and my heartbeat. Bright light sears through my eyelids and a foul taste lingers in my mouth as I listen to the sound of the leather whipping through the air, before I start to comprehend that the sound is not one of leather but of hooves crunching in snow. It is a few minutes later that my groggy senses sharpen a little further and I realise I am not in a bed nor chained to one, but rather I am astride a horse, perched before the saddle with my hands bound behind my back - and it is the uncomfortable combination of the unfamiliar movement beneath me and the rough rope chafing at my wrists that jolts me firmly back into reality.

I sit quietly for a minute, my eyes still closed against the harsh light, feeling Karliah's slim arms around me as she holds the reins and guides the horse onward. But onward where? I think, listening to the crunching snow as I try to make sense of my decidedly hazy recollection of the past few hours. Astrid wasn't real, but the dagger was, I think, remembering well enough the feeling of slender hands grabbing my hair and the sound of the blade sawing through a hank of curls. And violet eyes, I remember those, and the foul taste of some liquid tipped down my throat, before the hood was back over my head and everything went black.

Tentatively, I open my eyes, but one glance at the blinding white expanse of endless snow and empty pale sky leaves my head spinning and my eyes searing at the brightness. I squeeze my eyes tight shut again, seeing stars and fire behind my lids as nausea rises inside me. I swallow quickly, but the lingering sour taste from the unknown concoction Karliah gave me is enough to make my stomach turn; coupled with the unfamiliar motion of the horse underneath me and the abrupt realisation that I am trapped seemingly in the middle of nowhere with a woman who no doubt means to kill me, I feel a wave of dizzying panic come over me. As sickness rises suddenly up my throat and my mouth fills with bile, I draw a desperate breath, gasping at the vicious coldness of the air that I draw into my lungs, the shock quickly freezing whatever inclination my body had to expel the foul taste from itself.

Over my desperate steadying breaths, I feel the arms around me slip away, only to return a second later.

'Drink,' a soft voice behind me says, and I feel the lip of a waterskin against my mouth.

I turn my head away instinctively, frightened of being subjected to more of the terrible taste already in my mouth and whatever poison she must have used on me.

'It's water, Wren,' Karliah says with a quiet sigh. 'And you should be thanking me. Now drink.'

When she holds the waterskin to my mouth once more, it's only a few moments later that I open my mouth, seeing no other option. If I'm going to die anyway, I might as well try and wash this taste from my mouth first, even if it is with more poison.

Relief courses through me as crisp and pleasant as the liquid that slips down my throat as I drink from the skin. Realising that it is indeed water and nothing else, I drink eagerly - or as eagerly as the Dunmer holding the skin lets me, her hand taking it away before I've even swallowed enough to fully take the taste from my mouth and soothe my throat.

Although part of me longs to beg for more water, I refuse the desire as Karliah tucks away the waterskin somewhere behind me. I decided I was done with being Mercer's plaything, and I'm not going to start being someone else's, I think, although I wonder if it would be smarter to play into her hands, if it might mean staying alive a little longer.

'What did you give me earlier?' I ask her, my voice faint and hoarse with its underuse and the sour bile still in my throat.

Karliah still hears me well enough. 'A sleeping potion,' she tells me. 'And something for the cold. Turns out the two shouldn't be mixed. I thought for a minute you might've caught a fever while you slept.'

Her careless tone over the potential poisoning of her captive only confirms my suspicion that she means to kill me, before I suddenly register the rest of her words. Something for the cold? I think, wondering why she should even care if I froze alive, and that's when I realise I am wrapped in a heavy cloak, the thick furs protecting my body from the bitter icy wind that whips at my face. I can hardly feel the cold, even though we are surrounded by enough snow to damn near blind me.

Before I can speak to question her, the Dunmer murmurs a word to the horse and the movement beneath my body quickens its pace. 'We'll be there soon enough,' Karliah says. 'Now be quiet.'

With the discomforting motion beneath me, I find myself more than willing to obey, suspecting that the sour remnants of her potion would rise up my throat again if I opened my mouth and knowing full well that speaking would be a waste of my considerably compromised energy anyway. She's not going to tell me anything, but nor has she cut my throat yet, I think, and I resign myself to remaining as cooperative as I can with the violet-eyed thief at least until my strength is recovered and I can make sense of what she intends to do. I can only hope that I find out before it's too late.

It's not long before I come to the conclusion that despite Karliah's unexpected measures to keep me warm, her intention must be to freeze me to death. If I thought I knew the meaning of cold from my time in Windhelm, I am soon taught a harsher lesson than any I have received at Mercer's hands. We ride for what must be hours, although time soon has little meaning, nor does my sense of location; as my tired eyes slowly adjust to the light and my dizzy nausea settles down, I take small peeks from beneath my lashes, finding the wide colourless sky and the barren landscape blanketed in white to be little changed each time I brave a look. All I wanted was to be away from the fucking snow, I think, entirely uncertain whether we are heading north or south or whether we have slipped from Skyrim into some frozen plane of oblivion, but wherever we are, it's only a short while before the warming potion Karliah gave me starts to wear off and shivers begin to wrack my body. By the time the light is dimming and I see the shadowy shape of some crumbling ruin built into a small hilly mound far ahead, the snow is falling thicker and I am trembling violently with the cold, barely caring that I am prisoner to the woman who has sought to destroy Mercer and the Guild and will no doubt destroy me too in the process. I just wish she had chosen to kill me somewhere warmer, I think, my exhausted body slumping back against Karliah of its own volition, every inch of me tired and desperate to retain whatever heat it can, even if it means leaning close against the woman who means to kill me.

Karliah's arms around me are as cold as I am, however, and she provides little in the way of warmth. By the time she reins in her horse in the dusky shadows of the ruin, the icy wind has numbed my face and left a heavy coating of snow over my freezing body. And this place is little more than a scattering of broken stone, I realise, seeing little in the way of shelter, wondering just where we are going.

Karliah slips down easily from the horse and a moment later I feel her hands take my waist. I let her help me down to stand on the ground, my binds the least of the reasons for my immobility. Determined not to collapse at Karliah's feet, I use the last of my strength to keep myself standing upright, my legs sore and shaking from the ride, but I barely have time to gather my senses and look around at my captor before I feel a hand grab my shoulder and push me forward towards the ruin.

'Move,' the quiet voice says from behind me, almost lost beneath the fierce winds. 'If you try to run, I'll feather your back with arrows.'

I do not reply, partly to retain some dignity and partly because I am too cold to open my mouth. And where am I going to run? I think, seeing nothing but the darkening blank sky and the vast frozen landscape, hearing nothing but snowfall and wind, knowing well enough that we are miles from the city or any kind of civilisation. And I am weaponless, and weak, and suddenly more afraid than I ever have been.

I force the thought from my mind and command my legs to work, stumbling forward through the thick snow towards the ruin and hearing the soft crunch behind me as Karliah follows, leading the horse in my wake. Almost hidden amidst a tumble of weathered stones, the base of the snowy mound appears to open up into a dark cavern dug beneath the hill.

The hand on my shoulder pushes me forward before my feet even hesitate in fear. Knowing that I have little choice and deciding that whatever is beneath the hill must surely be warmer than standing out in the bitter winds, I stumble forward to the entrance and walk beneath a crumbling archway, slipping on the icy stone beneath my cold feet as I step into the cavern and find myself standing in a small, low-ceilinged antechamber.

Shadows linger in every corner, and my tired eyes seem unable to adjust to the lack of light properly, seeing little in the chamber beyond the dark shapes of more collapsed stonework. I stop after only a few steps, and although I stand only a few feet from the entrance, I suddenly realise that I can no longer hear the fierce winds over the deathly silence that fills the antechamber. Despite being out of the bitter cold snow, a different chill hangs in the air, one that penetrates my bones and raises goosebumps on every inch of my skin.

I'm not leaving here alive, I think, the thought sudden and true, my heart clenching tightly with the unbidden realisation.

I turn back to the entrance, in that moment preferring to freeze alive or have my body pierced by a hundred arrows in an attempt to get away rather than walk willingly to whatever fate awaits me here, but before I can start towards the crumbling archway, I hear the sound of hooves on stone and through the shadows I catch sight of Karliah leading her horse into the antechamber after me, and with a grim dropping of my heart, I realise that I am going nowhere. I'm bound and exhausted, I think, my hands straining once against their ropes as I instinctively try to draw my arms around my body. But if I can get the horse, I might be able to get out of here.

I stand still, begging my eyes to adjust to the darkness faster, hearing the jingle of a bridle and the soft murmur of the Dunmer's voice as she whispers to the creature a few words that I cannot understand. As my vision starts to grow accustomed to the shadows, my gaze falls upon a dark empty doorway on the far side of the antechamber that leads deeper into the cavern. With a flicker of fear at what might be beyond there, I look back to Karliah as she loops the reins around a jutting fragment of stone, although I can see little of my captor beyond a tall slender shadow, with a dark bow on her back and a hood pulled low over her head. I watch as she pulls a satchel from the saddlebags and murmurs one last word to the horse before turning back to me, and when I realise that she intends for us to go through that shadowy doorway deeper into the cavern, it hits me that this may be the last chance I have to speak.

'Please,' I say quickly, my voice echoing in the small chamber, my frightened tone reverberating back into my ears louder than I expected. 'You don't have to kill me, there has to be something-'

Karliah's hand on my arm silences my pleas as she comes to stand before me, although I can see little of her face through the shadows. 'If you co-operate, I will not kill you, Wren,' she says softly, yet my brief flicker of hope dies in my stomach when I see the small careless shrug of her shoulders. 'But beyond that, whether you die here is not up to you or me. It's up to Mercer, and how much he values your life.' I hear the distaste sour her voice. 'Or how much he values any other part of you. Now keep your mouth closed and follow me.'

She releases my arm and walks towards the doorway leading further into the ruin. I hesitate, wondering how quickly I could move, whether I could mount the horse and reach the arch at the entranceway before Karliah drew her bow. And whether I could fucking fly out of here on my bound wings, I think bitterly, knowing it would be just as likely as my notion of escape, and a second later I step forward resignedly to follow the Dunmer.

She leads the way along a dank passageway that winds far deeper into the hill than I expected, turning countless corners and dropping down several steep sets of steps. Clumsily I hurry after Karliah, stumbling in the dark as I follow the vague shadowy shape of her, my vision evidently nowhere near as good as hers. When the passageway opens up into a wide cavernous chamber, a wave of bitterly cold air hits my face and I slow my step, looking around blindly through the darkness. The silence is absolute here, and the air is thick with the stench of decay. With unease crawling down my back, I try to make sense of the shadows, finding myself unable to see anything in the cavern beyond what appear to be rows of low tables lining the walls on either side and one large table at the far end of the chamber - but as I strain my eyes and look harder, the shadowy shapes become all too clear.

Coffins, not tables, I realise with a jolt, and then I stop walking completely, fear coursing through me when I understand that I am standing in a tomb.

A few paces in front of me, Karliah suddenly stops too, her gaze fixed on one point through the shadows ahead, although I am certain it is not the fear of ending up in one of the coffins that has frozen her in place.

For several long seconds, we both stand completely still, my heart quickening in fear with every moment that passes in silence.

Karliah exhales, her breath a faint white plume that disappears quickly into the cold darkness. 'Shadows protect you,' she murmurs, so quiet I can barely hear, and yet somehow even her soft modulated voice seems deafening in this empty, dead chamber.

With her words, I feel a whispering shiver pass down my back, as if the cold air is answering her quiet prayer.

'What is this place?' I murmur, not feeling like I can raise my voice, as if doing so will also raise whatever long-dead beings that rest trapped in the coffins. Gods, am I afraid of the dead and spirits? I scold myself, remembering that I am in greater danger from the one living person here than I am from any long-decayed corpse.

Karliah seems startled by the sound of my voice and she turns back to look at me sharply, almost as if she forgot I am here. If any expression remains on her face from her sudden hesitation and strange whispered words, I do not see it through the darkness. 'This is Snow Veil Sanctum,' she tells me, before she turns around abruptly and continues walking through the cavern, her pace quickened to long strides now. 'An ancient sanctuary. Or it was.'

Her words catch something in my heart, and I suddenly remember the deal I struck with Mercer and why I even came to Windhelm in the first place. Now I'll never need to find the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary, I think, my stomach hollow with regret over the realisation that I have failed my task, even as some frightened little part of me is relieved I will never have to come face to face with Astrid, glad that at least she will not be the one to take my life as she did to my parents. No, I'll just die at the hands of another murderer, and everything I have done to get close to Astrid will have all been for nothing, I realise, not wanting to think about the lives I have taken to bring me closer to the assassin, when now I know that I will likely never even see her again, let alone give her the justice she deserves.

But I don't get to decide that, I think bitterly as I stand in the cold dark tomb, remembering how Astrid spoke to me in my dream, remembering Mercer's words when he punished me, now reminded yet again that I do not have the power to decide anything, much less who lives and who dies. If things were as they should be, I would be the one leading Karliah in binds to her death, I think, before I wonder if I deserve this fate as much as she does, if not more. She just killed the previous Guildmaster for gold, whereas I have killed many for the mere chance of revenge.

Light suddenly flares at the far end of the chamber, startling me from my thoughts as the shadows around me scatter and dance, making it seem like the stone slab lids of the coffins are rising. My heart beating fast, I look around quickly for the source of the light, noticing that Karliah is kneeling in front of the larger coffin at the end of the chamber. Gloveless, her sea-grey hands hover over the fire that burns bright in a brazier on the ground there, deep red flames dancing beneath her palms.

From her palms, I correct myself, an uncomfortable sense of unease passing through me when I realise that Karliah is feeding the fire through magic. And somehow I suspect she can inflict wounds far more quickly and effectively than I can heal them.

Despite my trepidation, my feet start to take me towards the blaze before I can think twice, my cold exhausted body drawn desperately to the promise of light and warmth, hardly caring if I am also walking towards my death. As I approach, I watch my footing as best I can, clumsy and cold and not wanting to trip over any of the broken stone debris. Or walk over the blood, I think, noticing the discolouration on the ground not far from the fire at the end of the chamber, the dark stains pooled largely in one place and splattered over the nearby coffin, undeniably marking the spot where some creature lost its life.

Not wanting to consider where my own such marking will be nor whether one of these stone caskets will soon be mine, I hurry forward to the larger coffin, the surface of which is littered with a few smashed bronze urns, several rusted pieces of jewellery and a scattering of other trinkets, all covered in a heavy layer of dust and grime. Relieved at least that I see no gruesome devices for torture or sacrifice in amongst the items there, I stand away from the fire at a cautious distance and watch as Karliah clears a space on the coffin before setting down her satchel. Now in the light and seeing her properly for the first time, I realise that the Dunmer's armour might once have been Guild issue, but the dark leather and cloth pieces are more patched than not, the colour faded to a murky grey and the seams restitched more than once. The curved black glass bow on her back, however, is more noticeably cared for; illuminated by the fire, the bow's polished surface is smooth and like starlight on water, and the quiver affixed her back hip is full, the arrows feathered in a mix of grey and black. My gaze then falls upon the silver and black handled sword sheathed at her other hip, and the two glass daggers strapped to her slender thighs, but I barely have time to register my fear at her extensive weaponry before Karliah turns away from the coffin to look at me.

Her face still half-obscured by the shadow of her hood, the warm light from the fire does little to show her features, catching only the angle of her pointed jaw and the plum colour of her lips. 'You can sit down, Wren,' Karliah says, turning to the coffin once more and beginning to remove her bow and quiver from her back. 'He's not going to be here for a while.'

My legs seem far more willing to obey her commands than the rest of me, and before I can stop myself I drop down ungainly but obediently, my knees stiff and sore and my hands awkward behind my back as I settle on the freezing cold ground beside the small fire. The chill from the stone seeps through my trousers to my skin, but the fire in the brazier flares bright and soon its heat starts to reach me.

And it hurts, I think, feeling the painful tingling in my body as the warmth cuts its way through the cold numbness settled deep inside me. Yet I've known other things to hurt more, I remind myself, and that is when I suddenly hear the rest of Karliah's words.

'He?' I echo, looking up at her over the flames. 'Who do you mean? Mercer?' At the dark elf's silence as she carefully places her quiver on the coffin, I realise I do not need her to answer. 'But what do you mean to do?' I ask, although I am not sure I want to know. 'Why are we here?'

Karliah does not answer me immediately, her attention on her bow as she lays it on the coffin. Her fingers run over the length of the curved glass briefly, and several seconds pass before she speaks again.

'This is where Gallus died,' she says, her soft voice edged. 'I expect you have been told about him.'

'I know what happened,' I say, my fears in no way alleviated when I realise she has brought me to the place where she murdered another member of the Guild.

Karliah turns her head to look at me, and the light catches the brief cold smile that twists her deep violet lips. 'And what did happen?' she asks, the smile vanishing but the sarcasm lingering in her words. 'Let's hear the story one more time.'

At her tone, I suddenly recall the ice in Brynjolf's voice when he told me what Karliah had done, his bitter pain at losing the man who must have been his friend, and my fear diminishes abruptly beneath my own unexpected anger. 'You killed Gallus,' I say sharply. 'After you betrayed him and stole from the Guild. And you would've killed Mercer if he hadn't managed to escape.'

Karliah's pretty mouth twists coldly once more, but I know it is nothing like a smile this time. 'One of those statements is true, at least,' she murmurs, before she turns abruptly back to the coffin and starts searching through her satchel. 'I know where your loyalties lie, so telling you what actually happened here would be a waste of my breath. And I suppose it doesn't matter now. This is where it ends, no matter what you believe.'

I try to ignore the ominous flutter of fear in my stomach from her words. 'You still haven't told me why I'm here,' I say, although I hardly need to ask anymore. Destroying whatever parts of the Guild she can, whether it's me or Mercer, I think, and realising that I am dead already no matter what I say seems to make my voice stronger of its own accord. 'Tell me why you've brought me here and what you plan to do with me.'

The violet-eyed thief does not look up from her satchel. 'I plan to do very little with you, Wren,' she tells me as she retrieves her waterskin along with a small crystal potion vial. 'Whatever value you hold for Mercer, you're nothing to me. You're here because Mercer will come for you, and when he does, I will finish what I started five years ago.'

For a moment, the only sound I can hear is the quiet humming of the magical flames as I stare over them at Karliah, more than one question in my mind and each fighting to be asked first. 'So that's really your plan?' I say finally. 'To use me to lure Mercer here so you can kill him?'

Her silence is answer enough, but the multitude of other questions still remain in my mind, and I realise that if I am going to die, there is nothing stopping me from asking them.

'If you've wanted him dead so badly all this time, why haven't you tried to kill him before now?' I ask slowly.

I notice the sudden tension in the Dunmer's jaw as she brings the waterskin to her lips, but she still refuses to answer. As her silence continues, it only serves to cause my own tension to heighten faster as I realise my utter helplessness. I don't have the ability to even warm my hands at the fire, let alone make her speak.

'You know, if you think Mercer's going to fall into your trap, you're a fucking idiot,' I say sharply, suddenly not caring if I antagonise her. 'He doesn't know where we are, or that you've even kidnapped me. For all he knows, I'm still wandering around in the Grey Quarter.'

Karliah turns to look at me then, irritation flashing in her violet eyes. 'I left him a message,' she says, her gaze flickering to my hair, and suddenly into my mind comes the hazy memory of the Dunmer cutting my hair in the dark corner of an alley before her quick hands tied the curl to the Blade of Justice with a strip of black cloth – but before I grasp the memory fully, the sour taste of the sleeping potion she gave me fills my mouth once more and the blurred images slip through my mind as quickly as they came.

'He still doesn't know where we are,' I say, not sure whether to trust my insubstantial memories of the last few hours and wanting to trust Karliah even less.

She shoves the waterskin back into her satchel, along with the crystal vial, seemingly having thought better of using whatever potion is within, whether on herself or me. 'If he's half as clever as he thinks he is, he'll know,' she says shortly. 'Where else would I want to end this but here?' Her voice hardens, and I realise her patience is wearing thin. 'Now be quiet. He's going to be at least a few hours behind us and I suspect you'd rather not have to wear a gag until he gets here.'

'You're still a fucking idiot,' I tell her, deciding that if she is going to gag me, I might as well tell her the truth while I can. 'Even if he knows you have me and he knows where we are, he's not going to come to rescue me. I'm nothing to him.'

'Nothing?' Karliah says with a quiet snort of derision. 'That wasn't what I saw.'

I falter, not sure what she means. 'Saw?' I repeat.

Her violet eyes turn onto me, her mouth curled into a mocking smile. 'If you want to retain your privacy, Wren, don't conduct your business in an alley,' she says icily. 'And maybe close the shutters.'

I flush scarlet at her words, humiliation burning through me at the thought of what she might have seen at any point during those two days I spent with Mercer in his bed. 'You were watching?' I say, cursing the Guildmaster for leaving the shutters open and wondering why he even did it anyway.

Karliah inclines her head, again not needing to answer my question for me. Of course she would've been watching Mercer's house, I think, suspecting that she would have kept eyes on the place from the moment she first came to Windhelm, let alone when I arrived there. But surely Mercer would've known that?

'Maybe you're not his whore,' Karliah says before I can say anything or even try to fight the blush warming my cold cheeks. 'Maybe you're more to him that that. The kisses, the way he touches your hair, how he followed you to Windhelm to check up on you...' Her voice tails off, and for the first time, I hear her laugh, but it is a bitter, mocking sound that sends a chill through me. 'To think, before he turned up, I was actually considering asking for your help. Then I saw the pair of you in the alley, and you haven't left his house since he arrived.' Her distaste curls over her voice. 'You even gave up looking for me just so you could give Mercer your full attention. That told me everything I needed to know about who you were, and what you were to him.'

'You don't fucking know anything,' I snap, still burning with furious humiliation, and yet I suddenly feel a strange chilling despair wash over me, the Dunmer's words cutting something deep inside me when I think of what I really am to the Guildmaster, and how little I want to be anything to him, whore or otherwise. I'm his amusement, his toy to play with as he pleases, and she thinks I actually like it.

Karliah turns away. 'I know enough. And I know it won't be long before your Guildmaster follows us here.'

'He's not my Guildmaster,' I say angrily, not knowing how to convince her that I'm not what she thinks I am, that even if I do not exactly share her murderous vendetta against Mercer Frey, I have no desire to protect his life from her, particularly if it meant my own life was safe in exchange. 'I'm not his whore or anything else. Look, whatever you plan to do, whether you want to kill him like you did Gallus, I'm not going to try to stop you. I know what he's like, and he's-'

'Be silent,' Karliah hisses, and the whispering sound of her unsheathing one of the daggers from her thighs causes the words to die on my tongue. 'I said that I plan to do very little with you, not that I won't,' she tells me, stepping forward until she is standing close on the other side of the fire, pointing the sharp glass tip of her dagger towards me over the flames. 'You best hope Mercer cares more about you than you think. I left your dagger and your hair for him this time, little bird. If he doesn't come, I will leave other parts of you on his doorstep until he realises that there will be nothing remaining of his whore unless he gives me what I want.'

I shrink back from her blade and her words, my fear well and truly returned now, no part of me wishing to antagonise her further. She is armed and I am bound, I think, needing no other reminder as to the danger of my position and quickly realising just how stupid I was to risk speaking to her as I did. And no matter I say, she'll never believe me, even if I told her what Mercer has done to me and how little I care for him.

Suddenly twice as frightened as I was before, I shuffle back away from the brazier and huddle against the edge of the coffin as Karliah sheathes her dagger and returns to search through her satchel. Despite still sitting within the reach of the fire's heat, I no longer feel its warmth, and the deathly chill that lingers in the air seems to settle down my spine.

At least I know what's going to happen now, I think, my hands struggling against their rope binds as I instinctively try to draw my arms around my body again, desperately needing some form of comfort and yet finding none, knowing that I can only wait in cold silence until whatever end comes for me. And whoever comes for me.

 

*

 

Time drags by slower than I ever knew possible. Despite Karliah's assertion, Mercer seems to be more than a couple of hours behind us. The violet-eyed thief keeps the fire in the brazier going with the skill of her hands, though she spends little enough time near it herself. She paces the length and breadth of the chamber, vanishing into the shadows that hang heavy beyond the reach of the small fire before reappearing a moment later and retracing her path again, and again, repeatedly until I decide I would rather shut my eyes than watch her. When I close my eyes, I realise Karliah's footsteps are strangely silent on the stone ground.

Exhausted from the ordeal and still feeling both the remnants of the potion that Karliah gave me and the effects of the long cold journey through the snow, I curl up on the hard dusty stone beside the fire, trying and failing to get comfortable as I wonder what the hell I should do.

Escaping really isn't an option, I realise after only the first hour or so, when I tell the Dunmer that I need to relieve myself and I beg for some fresh air, thinking to somehow steal the horse and get away from the ruin when her back is turned - and for a few foolish moments I let myself believe that the fanciful idea is indeed possible, as Karliah hesitates for only a moment before she pulls off my cloak and leaves it by the fire before cutting my binds away from my wrists and accompanying me to ground level.

Immediately thwarting what plans I had to take the horse, Karliah stands beside the creature in the antechamber, murmuring quiet words into the horse's ears while I linger at the entrance to the ruin, realising that not only is it the deep of night but also that I utterly regret my request for fresh air. When I step out into the pitch black expanse of snow, the wind howls and hail lashes at my face, and it's only a few seconds before I accept the futility of my plan. Getting the horse is one thing, getting five feet away in this storm is another.

When I return to the ruin and I follow Karliah back down to the main chamber, I put my hands behind my back at her quiet request and I let her rebind me with fresh rope. She lets me drink from the waterskin before she resumes her pacing, and I lie down on the cloak near the fire, shivering and sodden from the brief exposure to the storm. I close my eyes, not wanting to think about what might happen when I next open them, not wanting to think at all.

As the hours pass, I sleep fitfully, slipping only into semi-consciousness for brief moments, my body on edge and tense with the knowledge it cannot rest so near to the woman who intends to kill me. And it's fucking cold, I think, shivering no matter how close to the magical fire I lie; despite having been more than reasonably acquainted with the cold since leaving Riften, my body still refuses to adjust to the viciously low temperature, and I pass the hours desperately trying not to think about the Rift, the air that smells of wood and water, the sunrises and the sunsets over the city, the taste of wine I will never drink again and the half-smiles I will never see again.

When I open my eyes some time later, my heart hurting pathetically, I find that Karliah is no longer pacing. The Dunmer sits on the other side of the fire, with her hood pushed back to reveal a head of dark hair cropped to her shoulders and with her black bow laid on her lap as she adjusts the string. The flickering light from the fire leaves dark shadows under her high cut cheekbones, although the shadows that linger beneath her strange bright violet eyes are darker still and I start to wonder when she last slept. She does not notice me watching her, and I realise that her gaze is not on what her hands are doing; instead, she stares straight ahead down the chamber, a blank expression on her starkly beautiful face that I cannot properly read, and when I follow her line of sight, I realise her eyes are fixed hard and unblinking on the blood stain on the ground, the dark black-red marking just within the fire's light.

I close my eyes and stay very still, not wanting to try to understand the look on her face, finding myself strangely unnerved by the expression in her violet eyes. Like she wasn't seeing at all, I think. When I open my eyes to chance another look a short while later, I find that Karliah has disappeared.

Knowing she will not have left for good and that any thought of escape will be as futile as the last, I close my eyes again, and at some point I must drift off into another exhausted half-sleep, for what feels like only moments later I jerk awake abruptly as a violent cold shiver wracks my body.

As I open my eyes, I notice that the fire has died down to a small flicker, the flames licking weakly at the edges of the brazier, and I realise just how cold I feel. And how much darker it is now, I think, feeling distinctly conscious of my vulnerable position on the floor and my inability to see where Karliah is now. Sore from lying on the hard stone ground and my arms aching fiercely from being bound behind my back for so long, I struggle to my knees and then onto my feet, the effort harder than I expected and making me gasp with the pain as I finally make it to standing.

'Be quiet and don't move,' I hear a quiet voice hiss before I have even gathered my senses, and I quickly turn away from the fire to find Karliah standing only a few feet from me. Hooded once more, with her bow in her hands and her quiver fastened to her back, she takes a step closer to me, and before I can even blink, she nocks a black feathered arrow and draws her bow, her eyes trained on one point in the shadows at the far end of the chamber.

My fear rising abruptly, I look over in the direction of her gaze, although I see nothing through the heavy darkness. For a few long seconds, the only sound I hear is the quiet humming of the fire and the uneasy beating of my heart.

'Stay where you, Mercer,' Karliah says sharply, her sudden words startling me. 'You take one more step and I'll kill you right now.'

A familiar mocking laugh echoes throughout the chamber. I look around desperately for the source, my heart fluttering faster in my chest at the realisation that he is here, but I see nothing but darkness beyond the small glow of the fire.

'Come on, you're surely smarter than that,' Mercer's low voice comes from somewhere in the shadows. 'Do you really think one of your arrows would pierce my heart before my blades cut that little neck of yours?

Karliah doesn't move, her gaze still fixed near the entrance to the chamber. 'Just as arrogant as you always were,' she murmurs. 'I could kill you where you stand, Guildmaster.'

Mercer laughs again, the sound close enough to send a shiver of unease down my back. 'Why don't you, then?'

Suddenly from the corner of my eye I see movement in the darkness, and from between two coffins Mercer steps out of the shadows, halfway down the chamber and far closer than where both Karliah and I were looking.

Unexpected relief races through me at the sight of him, far keener than I anticipated, and despite my inclination never to see the Guildmaster again, the sight of a familiar face lifts my hopes sharply after countless long and cold hours of waiting for death in the company of a treacherous murderer.

'Mercer!' I call out desperately, my voice faint with its lack of use and my exhaustion, not wanting to imagine how the Guildmaster will make me repay him for my rescue but quickly deciding that I will pay whatever price to be saved from my fate at Karliah's hands.

However, Mercer's gaze remains fixed hard on Karliah as she swiftly aims her arrow at his heart, and the sound of his name called from my mouth dies as an echo unanswered in the cold chamber as the two stare at each other in silence.

The seconds pass with nothing but the faint sound of the fire to be heard, until Mercer suddenly laughs.

'Kill me where I stand, was that?' he says, the familiar sarcasm dripping in his voice. 'Come on, we both know you can't do it. Getting me all the way here was a waste of time, Karliah.' He steps further out of the shadows, and I see the dim firelight glinting on the pair of golden daggers in his hands. 'Although I admit I like the idea of leaving your corpse in this frozen ruin for sentimental reasons.'

Karliah's arms do not tremble, and her arrow remains trained on Mercer's chest as he takes a few steps towards the fire, slowly closing the gap between him and us. 'It is your corpse that I will leave to rot here,' she says viciously. 'As I should have done five years ago.'

'But you didn't, and you won't this time either.' Mercer's voice is bored, and he stops walking to stand close to the blood stain on the ground. 'We both know that, don't we? So just get on with whatever you've got to say and maybe I'll make your death quick.'

Karliah's face is like stone, and that's when I realise that despite having a clear shot at Mercer, she has yet to let her arrow fly. She's got him here, with her arrow trained on his heart, I think, confused as to why the violet-eyed thief is hesitating to do what she has clearly wanted to do for a long time.

The seconds crawl by until finally the Dunmer speaks, her mouth a hard line and seemingly unwilling to make the words. 'What you do you want for it?' she says quietly.

My confusion only heightens with her question, but Mercer at least seems to know what she is talking about, as he laughs a quick harsh laugh.

'Want for it?' he repeats. 'You think I'm going to just hand it over, do you?'

'If you value your life and the future of the Guild at all, you will,' Karliah says sharply. She tilts her head in my direction. 'If you value her life, you'll hand it over and end this now.'

Mercer's gaze flickers over to me briefly, as if noticing me for the first time – yet he seems unconcerned by Karliah's threat, giving me only a cursory glance before a small smile pulls at his mouth and he looks back at the Dunmer. 'You know, I'm curious why you've let Wren live this long to begin with,' he says, twirling his golden daggers idly in his hands. 'I sent her to cut your throat, after all. Don't tell me you've grown fond of the girl?'

'Not as fond as you,' Karliah says, her voice mocking. 'You know, I never thought I'd see you so attached to a woman that you'd follow her halfway across Skyrim like a dog at heel, Mercer.'

Mercer does not seem to mind her comment, and his smile remains at his mouth as amusement flashes in his eyes. 'I actually followed her like a dog at heel because I had Guild business to deal with,' he says, his tone unusually light. 'Which I was expecting you to have handled for me by now, but it seems I'll have to do it myself.'

Already half-lost with their conversation, I don't have time to determine what Mercer means, as Karliah makes a cold hissing laugh at his words.

'You're a damn fool,' she says. 'The only Guild business you should be concerned with now is saving us all from your sacrilege.'

'Us?' Mercer repeats. 'Karliah, you left the Guild the day you started believing daedra and children's stories were more important than gold.' He inclines his head as he looks across at the Dunmer, the smirk widening at his mouth. 'It's just a shame Gallus thought with his cock rather than his head. The stupid fucking bastard should've put you in your place a long time ago instead of letting you have free rein.'

'Don't speak his name!' Karliah spits viciously, her arms trembling now as she takes a step forward, and I see the fury flashing bright in her violet eyes. 'You son of a bitch, you'll fucking pay for what you did to him.'

'Will I?' Mercer sighs, seemingly unfazed by her ferocity. 'In five years, you've never even got close, have you? All this time, I assumed you'd learnt your lesson and ran as far away from me as you could, but clearly you're not even that smart.' His eyes glimmer and he walks forward to stand on the dark discolouration on the ground, his boots treading over the pool of blood staining the stone. 'Remember when I stabbed him the back?' he says softly, not taking his eyes from Karliah. 'My blade got stuck in his shoulder blades, do you remember? I had to use my other dagger and bury it in his neck three times just to finish him. And you... well, you just stood there and did nothing at all, like you're doing now.' A small smirk pulls at Mercer's mouth. 'His little nightingale was too slow and stupid to save him when he needed her most, wasn't she?'

Only silence meets his words, and icy fingers of unease start to crawl down my back as those same words work their way through me. Another of his games, I think, trying to convince myself, but the fearful fluttering of my heart stops me from believing the thought fully, and I suddenly cannot tell whether I am standing on the safer side of the chamber, or whether there even is such a side.

'Mercer,' I start faintly, some part of me intending to demand the truth from him, but my voice is weak and frightened and neither the Dunmer nor the Guildmaster even seem to hear me speak.

'You will pay,' Karliah whispers, and I realise that her arms are steady once more and she now wears the same expression that she wore when I saw her staring silently at the blood stain. It's Gallus' blood, I realise, although I have no idea who spilled it. 'One day, I will stand over your broken body and make you beg for death.' Karliah takes another step forward, aiming her arrow at his shoulder. 'You're right, though, I need to return the Skeleton Key, and only you can give it to me. But I don't need to kill you for that. Pain is enough to persuade even the most arrogant of men to talk eventually.'

Mercer makes a quiet snort of laughter. 'True, but you know I'm not like most men. You want me to talk? You're going to have to give me something I want in return.' Despite the arrow trained on him, Mercer suddenly sheathes his daggers at his hips, and as he looks at Karliah, the firelight catches the glint in his eyes instead. 'And there is something you can give me.'

'And that is?' the dark elf says immediately, her own eyes unblinking as she stares at the Guildmaster, and I can hear the sudden hope in her voice.

'My little bird, of course,' Mercer says as if it is obvious, and despite my confusion and the uneasy shiver lingering down my spine, my heart flutters in relief that Mercer will free me. 'Let Wren go and I'll tell you where the Key is.'

Karliah seems as surprised as I am. She does not lower her bow, presumably expecting a trap. 'You'll trade the Key for her?'

'I'll trade its location,' Mercer says, and at the Dunmer's still-suspicious silence, he makes a small sigh. 'Look, you were right. I've grown fond of the girl, and besides, the Key's made me enough coin already. Release her and I'll tell you where I keep it hidden. Feel free to do whatever you want with the damn thing.'

Karliah's violet eyes narrow. 'You keep to no oaths,' she says scathingly. 'How can I trust you?'

'You can't,' he answers, folding his arms and looking at her with a flicker of impatience in his eyes. 'But trust that I have far better things to be doing than standing in a fucking cold ruin talking with a Dunmer bitch who prefers to believe in gods rather than gold. If giving you the Key's location makes you shut the fuck up and I can take Wren back to my bed with her body intact, I'll consider it a fair enough deal. So? Do you agree to the terms?'

Karliah hesitates for only a moment longer, before she lowers her bow at last. She'll do anything for this Key, whatever it is, I realise, well aware that if Mercer requested she cut my throat, she would do it in an instant.

'Go,' the Dunmer tells me. 'Return to your Guildmaster.'

I stand still, not taking a step forward, suddenly cautious not only that Karliah may yet shoot me if I move but also that walking to Mercer may not be the smartest decision. I don't know whether I would be walking to or from danger, I think, my nerves freezing me in place and a wave of utter helplessness coming over me in that brief moment as the Guildmaster and the violet-eyed thief look at me, both waiting for me to move.

'Wren,' Mercer says finally, a small smile at his mouth. 'Come here, little bird, and I'll cut you free.'

The promise of having my arms freed from their binds makes my decision for me, and my feet take me clumsily away from the fire and towards Mercer; a strange trepidation rises in my stomach with each step, but I barely have time to consider whether I am walking in the right direction, as when I am still a few paces from him, Mercer moves forward and closes the gap between us.

Without a word, he takes my shoulders and turns me around to face Karliah as he moves up behind me. I feel one of his hands take a hold of the rope around my wrists, but I do not hear the sound of his dagger being drawn to cut my binds.

As he leans in close behind my body, holding me against him, I hear him make a quiet sigh. 'Oh, little bird,' Mercer says softly, and I feel his breath on my skin as his mouth finds my ear. 'Did you actually miss me?'

I feel another shiver crawl down my spine, remembering when I spoke those words to him in the alley and his quiet reply. My poor little bird. You have no idea, do you?

'Cut me free,' I say, but my demand comes out of my mouth as little more than a faint plea, and Mercer either does not hear or he chooses to ignore me, and he straightens up to look over my head at the Dunmer.

'After all this time, I wanted to get the measure of you, Karliah,' he says, one hand still holding my bound wrists while the other grips my shoulder, keeping me in place against his body. 'But clearly you're just as much of a fool as you always were. I sent you the only person in the Guild who might've been your ally, and instead of trying to befriend her, you put her in binds.' Mercer laughs a quick harsh laugh. 'I should tell you, though, she rather enjoys that. You would've had to deal with a very wet and frustrated bird if you'd kept her tied up like this for much longer.' His hand moves from my shoulder and runs across my collarbone towards my throat, his fingers running over the collar of my jacket. 'And such a cruel way to treat your loyal accomplice too, after all she's done for you.'

At his words, the unease in my stomach knots tighter, but my sudden instinct to get away from him is dashed before I can even fully consider it, as Mercer's fingers suddenly pull apart the top fastenings of my jacket to expose my throat, and as his fingers trace over my bare neck, I can only stand frozen in fear.

I see a small frown form at Karliah's brow, but the Dunmer apparently does not care to wonder what Mercer means. 'Where is the Key?' she demands, her voice hard as she raises her bow once more. 'I released her, as agreed. Now tell me where it is.'

'Oh, I don't think so,' Mercer says carelessly. 'You've been a nuisance for far too long, Karliah. A useful one, though, I admit. Thanks to you, I was able to blame every lost shipment or screwed up job on this supposed curse that's been plaguing the Guild for five years, and when I learnt you were still alive, well, it made it even easier to cover my tracks. I'll almost be sorry to kill you.'

'Supposed curse?' Karliah repeats before I can even register what Mercer is saying. 'You think this isn't real? Nocturnal will destroy the Guild because of what you have done. Tell me where the Key is and we can stop this before it's too late.'

'But it is already too late, at least for the both of you,' Mercer says, and I feel him release his hold on my binds, although his other hand stays at my throat. 'You were far too easy to play, Karliah. I expect Wren would've been only too willing to hear your sad little tale, and I know the stupid bird would've helped you too, if only you'd thought her worthy enough to trust. If only she wasn't my precious whore.' He laughs again, and suddenly I hear the sound of his dagger slipping from its sheathe behind me, the crisp sound making my nervously beating heart skip even faster as I desperately try to convince myself that he is intending only to cut my binds. 'To be honest, all you really needed to do was lick her cunt a few times and the stupid bitch would've believed anything you told her. Trust me. Now, would you like to kill her for me as I hoped you would, or do I have to do it?'

Before I can even open my mouth, Mercer's hand moves from my neck and he takes a rough handful of my hair, jerking my head backwards as I see a flash of gold in front of my face and I can only gasp in fear as the ice cold blade presses flat against my throat.

My heart thuds vicious and fast, sending fear coursing through my exhausted body, and I can only stand in shock as the Guildmaster holds his dagger to my neck, not comprehending what is happening. He's done this before, I remember, having felt his blade at my throat and lived, and yet I find that thought insubstantial and utterly foolish, suddenly remembering only the pain I have felt at his hands, the threats and cruel words I have received from his mouth, and it dawns on me that Mercer's dagger against my throat is the end of it all. The end of me.

Karliah does not move an inch, her violet eyes holding Mercer's as I remain helpless in his hold. 'Kill her?' she echoes, her quiet voice distant to my ears beneath the panicked racing of my pulse. 'We had a deal. I returned her, so tell me where the Key is.'

'A deal? Come on, did you really think I'd trade it for a damn woman?' Mercer says with a cold laugh. 'You stupid fucking girl. With the Key, I could buy a thousand little sluts just as pretty and good with their mouths. She means nothing to me, despite what I made you think otherwise.' He adjusts his hold on my hair, his grip tightening enough to make me whimper in pain. 'Look, she has to die here, whether you do it or not,' he tells Karliah. 'If she returns to the Guild, it's going to make things a bit awkward for me, seeing as I told them I'd cut the treacherous whore's throat for what she did.'

'Mercer-' I start, not knowing whether I intend to beg for my life or to demand he release me, but Mercer talks over my feeble voice before I can speak further.

'Such a bad little bird,' he says mockingly to me. 'Conspiring with Karliah to take down the Guild and robbing us blind?' He makes a tsk sound. 'You should've known I'd have to punish you for that. When I opened the vault the day after you ran away to Windhelm and everyone saw it had been cleared out, I was as shocked and furious as they were. I took it on myself to hunt you down and bring you to justice.' He makes a quiet laugh, and I feel him adjust the dagger at my throat so that the sharp blade grazes my skin. 'And you like justice, don't you?'

Comprehension dawning on me painfully, I try to get away, but his fingers knotted in my hair jerk my head back sharply, keeping me in place as I whimper in pain, and I feel my heart skitter in the fear and knowledge that he does not intend to end this as he did the last time he held a blade to my throat. He's going to kill me, not fuck me, I realise, terror paralysing me where I stand, and in that moment my mind races through every second I have spent in Mercer's company and I wonder how I was so stupid not to see how it would end. I saw, I think desperately, recalling every way I have been hurt since I met him. But I was powerless to do anything, just as I have been powerless all my life.

Desperate instinct suddenly makes me fight against the inevitable one last time, and despite my bound arms, the dagger held to my throat and his rough hold of my hair, I struggle violently to free myself from him, but after a few seconds of my panicked futile efforts, I feel a strange warm trickling down my neck. It is a moment later when suddenly the sharp biting pain registers in me, and I gasp in agony as I realise the pressure of his blade against my throat has already grazed my skin. It's blood, I realise, and the thought shocks every sense in my body, and suddenly I can hear little but the thudding of my heart. It's my blood.

'Just as eager for death as you were for everything else I gave you,' Mercer says with a quiet laugh, moving a little to the side and leaning his head down to mine, his mouth against my ear once more, although I still barely hear him over the panicking thudding of my blood in my ears. 'All right, little bird, you know I always oblige you. Let me open it up wider.'

Dimly, I hear Karliah's voice, and then the sound of an arrow cutting through the cold air towards us, but I only close my eyes and think of home, of my mother and father, of the waterfall and the warm autumn forests, and all my senses seem to diminish to nothing in that brief fragile moment. Astrid told me they were better dead, and so will I be.

The moment ends Mercer pulls me sharply in front of the arrow's path instead of cutting my throat. The arrow pierces my shoulder, jolting me from whatever brief peace my mind had found, and I hear Karliah's curse echo throughout the chamber, although in my shock I cannot understand why. When I look down and register the arrow sticking out of my shoulder, all my senses return to me in a fierce rush and I scream in agony as pain flares white-hot through my body.

My legs give way beneath me at the same time as Mercer releases me and shoves me aside. I collapse down to the ground, landing painfully on my knees before falling sideways, my injured shoulder hitting the stone ground hard enough to make me shriek in pain again. My bound arms useless to protect my body or help move myself at all, I lie immobile and gasping with pain as I hear the sounds of Mercer's laughter and another arrow cutting through the air.

'Try again,' Mercer calls out to Karliah, although from where I lie on the ground I can see neither of them, my vision limited to the nearby coffin and the pool of Gallus' blood that I suddenly realise I am lying beside. 'Maybe in another five years you'll hit your target.'

Distantly, the searing pain in my shoulder distracting my other senses, I hear another arrow fly over my head, but it only clatters to the ground somewhere in the chamber a moment later. Karliah's hissed words, unintelligible to my ears, seem to make the shadows dance around me, and as I hear another echo of Mercer's harsh laugh, I try to move my body to get out of further harm's way. Hindered by both my binds and my injuries, I find it difficult to move even an inch, and as I struggle, I realise that the agony in my shoulder seems to be diminishing, as is the soreness in my knees and side from my fall to the ground.

But the feeling in my fingers is also disappearing, I think, and whatever relief I felt at the fading pain vanishes when I realise I cannot move my hands behind my back, and the binds are the least of the reason why. When I try to move my toes, I find that my feet do not respond to my command, and as I try to stretch out my legs, I feel a strange tingling pain wash through my limbs before they too refuse to co-operate – and with a jolt of understanding, I realise that it is not the cold or fear or pain that has numbed me to the point of immobility.

'Karliah!' I cry out in fear and anger and desperate pleading, afraid of the poison she must have used on her arrow, but as I open my mouth to call out again, I can only moan as another wave of needling pain courses through me and I realise that every inch of my body is suddenly freezing cold.

Desperately I try to shuffle forward or roll to the side but I find my numb body completely unresponsive. Before I can even think what to do, the fire suddenly extinguishes and the whole chamber falls into utter darkness.

Fear jolts through me, and as I try to adjust to the lack of light, somewhere in the cavern I hear a quiet whispering sound and a strange noise I cannot place, almost like a fluttering of wings, or the desperate beating of a heart.

'Your Nightingale tricks won't hide you forever,' Mercer says suddenly, his voice echoing loudly in the chamber from somewhere behind me, making my own heart jump. 'When you remove that cloak, I'll be waiting, you little bitch.'

The whispering noise seems to retreat into the darkness, and a moment later, the silence falls heavy and cold.

I lie frozen and senseless on the ground, waiting in the utter darkness, but what must be minutes pass and I hear no sound of either Mercer or Karliah. I am alone, I realise, a strange feeling of unease and relief settling in my immobile bodyThey're gone, but I'm no less at their mercy. I try one last time to move my body, but my efforts are as futile as I feared, and I realise I am going nowhere without someone's help. And there's no one here to help me, even if I could part my lips to beg.

I lie and wait in the pitch darkness, hearing nothing but my heart beating. It has to wear off eventually, I think, although it dawns on me that I have no reason to presume that this paralysis is only temporary. And if the rest of me stops working, won't my heart soon stop too?

My mind is still trying to process the reality of what is happening when suddenly I find myself rolled over and laid flat on my back on the ground, my heart jolting hard with fear, my dull senses having heard or felt nothing to suggest someone was near. And my sight isn't much better than the rest of me. Through the darkness, I can see little beyond a shadowy figure leaning over me, but it is only a moment later that I discover who has come to me.

'We don't have long left, little bird,' Mercer says softly, his voice making my heart clench in terror. 'Karliah's fled, but she won't have gone far. And not far enough to escape me.'

My pulse thuds desperately when I see the shadowy shape of his hand moving towards my head, but I hear only the soft sound of my hair moving, as he gently brushes a few curls back from my face.

'I'll catch her and I will kill her, just as I killed Gallus,' he tells me softly. 'Just as I am going to kill you. My little bird and his little nightingale, I thought it would be fitting for the pair of you to die together. What is it they say about two birds and one stone?'

I stare up at him unblinkingly, desperately trying to adjust my sight to the darkness, although part of me is glad for the shadows. I will not have to see his face one last time before I die.

'I'm glad we got to spend these few days together,' Mercer says, and though I cannot see it, I hear the smirk in his voice. 'I'll remember them, little bird. I really will. But you've served your purpose now.' He pauses, and through the shadows I see him incline his head as he looks over my prone body. 'Although maybe you want to serve it one last time before you die?'

Unable to protest, let alone physically defend myself, I can only lie numb and senseless as through the shadows I watch Mercer pull my unresponsive legs apart and climb on top of me. I try my hardest to make my body move, willing every inch of me to obey my command to get away and to stop him, but no part of me responds and I can only listen to the sound of his fingers ripping apart the fastenings of my trousers and pulling the material away from my skin.

Seconds pass as I lie there, unseeing and unfeeling, wishing the paralysis had spread to my heart already so that I would also be unknowing.

It is a few moments later that I hear a quiet laugh. 'No, you're right,' the Guildmaster murmurs. 'I prefer it when you can at least pretend to struggle and not want it. That little game is amusing, whereas this...' His words tail off, and I do not need to see him through the darkness to recognise the smile in his voice. 'Well, you're almost dead now, aren't you? At least, you will be soon. Besides, where's the fun in playing with you if you can't even feel what I'm doing?'

I can only stare up at him silently, my eyes starting to water from being unable to blink and my vision beginning to blur. When I hear the familiar sound of a dagger being drawn from a sheathe, something catches painfully in my heart, but it is not only my fear that makes my chest suddenly feel tight. I know that sound.

'Don't you like the irony?' Mercer says, leaning down closer to hold the Blade of Justice before my eyes, making sure that I can see it through the darkness. 'Astrid gave you this dagger and she has no idea who you even are. The Brotherhood kill so many, they don't care about the families of their victims. Where they only value blood, I know the value of information.' He pauses as shock races through me with his words, my heart thudding unevenly, the only part of me that can still react. 'The Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary is in Falkreath, by the way. Just south of the city, below the road in the grey pine forest. I want you to die with that knowledge, Wren, knowing that you failed in your little quest to avenge your parents.'

Despite my paralysed expression, some shock must show in my eyes that Mercer notices through the darkness, and I hear him make a quiet snort of laughter.

'You thought I didn't know?' he says. 'Even now, do you think I have the title Guildmaster for nothing? I wasn't about to let some fucking slut into my Guild without knowing everything about her first. Planning to kill the Dark Brotherhood leader for orphaning you all those years ago was ambitious. Far too ambitious for a stupid little whore like you.' He laughs a cold laugh. 'And you've failed, just like Karliah. You failed. I want that to be your last thought, little bird. Your very last thought.'

He leans down and brings the Blade of Justice to my neck, looking down at me for a moment through the darkness, and I realise how relieved I am for my weak eyes and the shadows that hide his expression from me. I don't want to see his satisfaction in what he is about to do.

A few moments pass in silence before Mercer runs the dagger across my throat in a smooth clean cut.

I do not feel the edge of the Blade as it slices my skin, nor do I feel my skin parting beneath the metal; I see nothing of the wound itself, only Mercer's shadowy figure as he looks down at me, watching. I heard something though, I think, panic starting to rise in me, wondering if the soft tearing sound was only a whisper in my imagination. For a few moments, I convince myself that this is only one of his games, that he has not really cut my throat and that he is only trying to frighten me, but a moment later I hear the wetness of the dagger as Mercer slips the Blade of Justice back into its sheathe.

'It'll take time,' Mercer tells me lightly as he climbs off my prone body. 'Maybe Karliah's poison will stop your heart before you bleed out. Maybe you'll bleed out first. I'd stay and watch you die but I need to find the Dunmer bitch and get back to the Guild.' I hear one last quiet laugh from the Guildmaster. 'But maybe you want to watch, though.'

Mercer easily hauls my body into a sitting position and leans me up against the nearby coffin before tilting my head down, ensuring that my unblinking gaze is on my own body. Through the darkness and my blurred vision, I can only see the vague form of my chest and legs, but it's only a few seconds later that I notice a darker shadow spreading downwards over my jacket, like tendrils snaking from somewhere beneath my chin. A trick of my mind, I think, until suddenly my sense of smell heightens, and my nose fills with the raw scent of open flesh and the metallic tang of blood.

It's my blood. It's my flesh.

My mind has barely processed that terrible realisation when I hear Mercer's voice in my ear.

'Remember what I said, little bird,' he says softly, the familiar satisfaction lingering in his quiet words. 'You failed.'

Silence meets my ears then, and although I cannot feel or see him, I assume that he has left me to die. But for all I know, he could be kissing my hair right now, as he did when I was stupid enough to let him.

'And don't worry,' Mercer murmurs a second later, making my fragile heart skip a beat with his closeness. 'I'll be sure to give Brynjolf your regards.'

Silence falls again, deafening this time, until I suddenly grow conscious of the quiet dripping of my blood on the stone beside me. As the seconds pass with nothing but the faint dripping sound, I realise that Mercer has gone for good. And left me to die.

In the heavy darkness and propped up against the coffin, I can only sit and watch the shadow spreading down my front, my eyes unblinking and unable to turn away from the blurred sight of my blood dripping down my chest as it flows lazily from my neck, seemingly slowed by the poison inside me.

My heart's slowed too, I realise, feeling my pulse growing lethargic and knowing that it will not be very long before this ends. Although I know it should frighten me, the realisation seems dull and distant to my mind, as if it can scarcely comprehend what it is going to happen. At least I am not going to feel any pain.

Despite that truth, the bitter hollowness inside my stomach is keen enough to make me wish for physical agony. He's right, I did fail, I think, the thought cutting me in a way the Blade of Justice did not, bleeding some fragile thing inside my heart when I think of how I have never repaid Astrid in kind for the lives she stole from me. Not wanting to succumb to Mercer Frey's wish for my last thought to be of my failure, I try to remind myself that at least Astrid never claimed my life too, but my desperate attempts to console my troubled mind for these last fragile moments fail just as surely as I did in my doomed quest. I failed.

I try to force myself to think of home once again, as I did when Mercer held the dagger to my throat and spilled the first drops of my blood, but the memory of the waterfall and the forests slip through my mind, and I can no sooner conjure the image of my parents' faces than I can recall the feeling of warm sunlight on my cold numb skin.

Then nothing, I think, forcing my mind to empty and willingly letting my vision blur, finding some comfort in knowledge that at least there will be no pain, that nothing will ever hurt again. Oblivion. This is what I wanted.

Soon, the darkness seems to press in closer, clouding my vision in shadow until the vague sight of my body and my blood fades into nothing, and whatever my last thoughts are, they simply disappear from my mind, lost, like water falling through grasping hands.

Chapter Text

'I want an excuse to buy you a castle.'

Her smiling eyes are bright in the warm firelight as she laughs. 'What are we ever going to do with a castle?' she says. 'We have what we need, besides a sturdy roof.'

Father leans in close to lay a light kiss on her cheek. 'Then the castle will have the sturdiest of roofs, my love.'

My mind wanders from their conversation as I play by the fire, imagining the jewels I will have and dreaming of a silver tiara and a dress made of the finest silks.

A sudden knock at the door startles me from my thoughts of emeralds and sapphires. When I turn my head, I realise that the fire is dying low.

'Don't answer it,' I say, knowing who is knocking and what they want, but the words leave my cold frozen lips as little more than a whisper, and my parents do not hear me. 'Please, don't answer it,' I try again, watching helpless as my father gives his wife another kiss before he stands and walks to the door.

I try to stand up too, wanting to stop him, wanting to lock it tightly or to answer the door myself if it must be opened, but my body seems to refuse my commands and I can only sit paralysed and numb as Father pulls open the door.

The sound of the howling wind almost deafens me, rain splattering the doorstep heavy and wet while thunder crashes louder than the waterfall in the distance. There is no one standing in the threshold, and I realise the knocking was only the sound of the storm hammering the door.

Relief warms my numb body and the world seems quieter for a moment, the rain receding to only a faint rushing sound.

'We won't hear half this damn noise when we're tucked away deep inside a castle,' Father says lightly, closing the door and drawing the lock across before turning back to Mother. 'Thick stone walls, windows made of the finest glass. Am I not winning you around to the idea, my love?'

'Castles are cold,' she points out, a sparkle in her eyes that even the dying firelight seems to catch. 'How do you intend to keep me warm?'

My father laughs as he closes the gap between them, taking her hands and gently pulling her up from her chair. 'Oh, I have some ideas,' he murmurs before his mouth presses against hers.

I hear a sharp snap behind me and I jump in fright, thinking the illusion has ended, that I have to go back to the void now, but when I turn my head, I realise it is only the crackle of the fire, still dying, the embers smoking as the blackened logs start to crumble.

A chill passes through me and I look away. My parents are entwined, holding each other close. She pulls off his shirt and runs her hands down his chest, kissing his neck as he loosens her hair from its pins, his fingers teasing the light brown curls gently.

He murmurs something in her ear, his mouth smiling, but the sudden rushing in my ears drowns out the words.

A shadow moves in the corner of my vision, near the window, and the hiss of a dagger being drawn sends a shiver down my back.

It happens quickly. He tries to get in front of her, the husband moving between the blade and his wife, but the shadow tears him once across the stomach, and as he stumbles in agony with howl that echoes in my heart, a gloved hand grabs his hair and wrenches back his head, exposing his neck to the dagger.

Mother screams as his blood sprays, but she does not scream for long. Her blood splatters the floor harder than the rain on the doorstep.

I watch in silence. The shadow tosses a flower down on my mother and my father before stepping over the two bodies and moving to stand before the third, me, the last corpse in the room.

'They're dead, little girl,' he says. 'They're better that way.' He toys with the small dagger in his hand, the dark metal catching the dying light, the blade dripping with blood. 'And so are you.'

The shadow laughs a soft laugh and the fire crackles one last time before it dies, throwing the room into darkness. Silence falls deathly and absolute, until I hear once again the shadow's quiet laugh.

'Back to the void, then. Sithis is waiting.' Blind by the darkness, I do not have to see the shadow to hear the smirk in his voice. 'As am I.'

The darkness presses in hard and opens wide, swallowing everything until I too am naught but shadow and blood, a ghost with sight but nothing else, a shadow with bitter memory and nothing else.

The illusion ends a moment later, and the darkness retreats and the fire comes back to life, filling the room with light.

'I want an excuse to buy you a castle,' Father says, clothed and smiling, where he was before, in his chair beside his wife.

She laughs brightly, her eyes sparkling. 'What are we ever going to do with a castle? We have what we need, besides a sturdy roof.'

As my father leans in to kiss her cheek, I close my eyes tightly and beg my senses into numbness, not wanting to hear or feel or see it again, even as I know that I cannot escape it and that I am as bound to my fate as they are, as dead as they are, as lost in the shadows as they are.

 

As I close my eyes in the void, I feel the warmth of the fire emanating over my cold stiff body and I squeeze my eyes tighter, not wanting to hear their voices or their screams. When I open my eyes, I will have to relive it again, and again, I think with despair, wishing that death had been what I thought it would be, that I would slip into a mindless oblivion where there truly would be nothing. The void is cruel, and it hurts just as much as being alive.

I catch the lingering scent of blood and opened flesh in the air, forcing me to remember that I am one of three corpses. But I haven't heard their screams yet, I realise suddenly, and with a flicker of hope, I wonder if perhaps the memory will be kinder this time. Maybe they will not die. Maybe this time it does not have to end in blood.

Tentatively, almost reluctantly, as if I already know what I will find, I open my eyes to discover that I am lying on the stone ground in a dark chamber, with a soft fur cloak beneath me and a deep red fire burning bright in a brazier in front of me. Another vision, I think, wondering what twisted lesson I am to learn from the void this time, what other memory I will have to relive over and over again. And I am sure that this one ends in death too.

I notice a shadowy figure kneeling just within the reach of the firelight, turned away from both the light and me. My heart skips a beat in surprise before I realise the impossibility of that very notion. I shouldn't have a working heart.

'I'm sorry,' a woman's voice says, not to me, not to anyone, soft and sad and fragile. 'Gods, I wish you were here.'

Even at a whisper that fades quickly into the shadows, the voice is familiar to me.

'Mother?' I whimper, suddenly more afraid than I ever have been, some part of me already knowing that it is not her, some broken terrible part of me already knowing exactly what this is and where I am.

The figure turns its head to look at me, and I stare back at a woman with sea-grey skin, her violet eyes neither sparkling or laughing like my mother's.

'Wren,' she says, rising to her feet abruptly, standing taller than my mother and dressed in worn patched armour. Her voice is clearer now, evidently meant for me this time. 'It's all right. Stay still.'

This isn't a vision, I realise as the woman approaches. In the void, in death, no one can hear me. And they don't call me Wren.

I stay frozen lying on the furs, paralysed by my own uncertainty, as the woman drops to her knees beside me and I catch sight of her face, angular and anguished and beautiful even in the dancing firelight. Her purple eyes scan my face and my neck quickly, a flicker of relief cutting through her concerned expression and lightening her strange violet irises.

Karliah. The name whispers in my mind, truer than the name she spoke to me. But if it's Karliah, I really am dead. Or I soon will be.

'Are you... real?' I say haltingly, uncertain which answer I would prefer to hear.

Karliah looks at me steadily, her gaze not leaving mine. 'Yes,' she says. 'You're safe. Mercer's gone.'

With her words, a sickening ripple of fear cuts through my stomach and suddenly my mind is painfully clear. And I remember exactly what he did and what I should be.

Panic jolts into my heart as I scramble to sit upright and look around the chamber, scouring the shadows for any sight of Mercer with my dagger ready to cut my throat again - but as I turn my head, a searing pain flares violently in my neck, making me gasp loudly in both agony and shock. It hurts, and it's real, I think, knowing I cannot fool myself that this is some trick of my mind.

'Easy,' Karliah says as my hands fly up towards my throat, her own hands going to my shoulders and holding my arms down before I can reach up to clutch at my neck. 'You'll open it up again.'

Let me open it up wider, Mercer's voice murmurs in my ear and my heart clenches painfully in terror.

'Please-' I start, struggling against Karliah's hold despite the burning pain coursing from my neck and the feebleness of my body, my instinct to get away stronger and more desperate than any inclination I might have to hear her explain or try to reassure me.

'I said take it easy,' Karliah says, her voice harder, gripping my shoulders with more strength than I expected from her slender form, before I remember that this is the woman who smuggled me unconscious out of Windhelm and is more than capable of physically overcoming me. 'I won't keep healing you if you rip open the wound every time you move, so just stay still for a few minutes.' Her violet eyes hold mine as her fingers dig tight into my shoulders. 'Please,' she murmurs.

The short quiet word stuns me as surely as her arrow did when last I saw her, and as I meet her eyes, something whispers in my mind that it is not Karliah who I should be fearing. And I realised that truth too late, I think, before my mind races ahead to what other truths I learnt from Mercer. And all too late.

A bitter knot forms in my stomach and I stop struggling against the Dunmer's hold, well aware that I am too weak to fight against her. And she's the only one who can tell me what's real.

'He cut my throat,' I whisper, feeling the pain still throbbing in my neck, remembering the sound of the dripping blood and the smell of exposed flesh.

'Not well enough,' Karliah answers bluntly. 'The wound was severe but the poison slowed your blood, enough that I could still heal you by the time I could get to you.' Her gaze flickers down my body. 'Had Mercer stayed a few minutes more, maybe we wouldn't be having this conversation.'

I follow her gaze, and the sight of the dark red stain over my jacket and trousers makes my heart falter for a moment before I look back up at Karliah quickly, not wanting to see it, my mind glossing over what might have happened had Mercer made me serve my purpose one last time.

'Why?' I ask faintly, not sure which question I am asking, only wanting her to give me some answer that I can cling to and some way of putting my mind to rest.

Karliah seems to understand. 'I ask myself why more times than I can count,' she murmurs as she releases my shoulders. 'But in the end, it matters little why. It only matters what can be done about it, and what must be done.' She surveys my face for several seconds, a frown pulling at her brow as she deliberates some thought in her mind. 'Are you loyal to the Guild?'

The sudden question catches me off-guard. 'The Guild?' I echo, barely remembering the place, recalling only the times I spent there in Mercer's company and feeling the cold fingers of fear crawl down my back at my memories. Fear, and fury, I think, conscious of a feeble flicker of anger somewhere beneath my fear, but I know that the feeling is directed towards myself and my own stupidity more than at Mercer. Some part of me actually thought that the Guild was home, that I might be safe there, I realise, wondering how I could have been so fooled to think that I might be safe anywhere. And I should've remembered that whatever childlike fantasies I had of home were destroyed the day I found my family dead on the floor.

'Mercer's corruption will destroy everything,' Karliah says as my heart hardens. 'The Guild and everyone in it will suffer at his hands if he isn't stopped. So answer me, Wren. Are you loyal to the Guild? Will you do what it takes to make it right?'

I open my mouth and close it, my mind barely capable of processing what has happened and what Mercer revealed, let alone capable of finding an answer to what Karliah is asking. Am I even part of the Guild anymore? The thought hurts almost as much as the dull throbbing ache in my neck, and with the Guild in my mind, I suddenly think of Sapphire and Rune, whether they will believe the lies Mercer will have told them, whether they accepted my betrayal and supported Mercer's decision to hunt me down and kill me. I joked to Sapphire that I'd steal from the Guild if the prize was valuable enough, I remember with an uncomfortable lurch in my stomach, wondering just how far she would truly believe it of me, knowing well enough that Mercer would make his lies convincing even to the most untrusting of people. I know some part of her will doubt me. She trusts people as little as I do.

The knot in my stomach suddenly twists tighter. Will Brynjolf believe I am a traitor? I wonder for a brief moment until I force myself to remember what it was like in the void, where I had to relive all the things that hurt me, and I realise just how badly I will hurt if I ever have to face the thought of the auburn-haired thief believing in my betrayal. And if I ever go back to Riften, I'll be hurt again, one way or another.

'You heard what Mercer said,' I answer finally, my voice as hard as my heart. 'They think I'm a traitor. Why should I even care what happens to the Guild or any of the-'

'They've thought me a traitor for five years,' Karliah cuts over me, her voice as blunt as mine. 'Either you want to make it right or you don't. It doesn't matter what they've been led to believe.' She grabs my shoulders again, holding me in place and stopping me from looking away. 'Don't you want to make Mercer pay?' she says. 'Don't you want to see justice done?'

I stare back at her, knowing the answer I want to give, the answer I wish I was strong enough to give. Justice is all I want, but I barely believe in it anymore. 'He tried to kill me,' I say, hating how weak my voice sounds. 'He'll do it again.'

'Not if I have anything to say about it.' The violet-eyed thief looks at me unblinkingly, her expression fierce. 'I'll protect you, Wren. As I should have done from the start.' Her voice turns bitter. 'He was right. You could've helped me but I let him fool me into thinking you were his whore and worth little more than bait to lure him here. I didn't even-' She stops herself, her obvious regret edging her words before she takes a breath and her voice returns to its usual pitch. 'Look, I'm not asking you to get your throat cut again. I will deal with Mercer myself, but I need your help to get the Guild on my side. If I go there alone, they'll kill me on sight.'

'And they won't kill me?' I say coldly. 'Mercer's told them we've been working together to destroy the Guild.'

'I know what he will have told them,' Karliah says, her jaw set. 'But we have to convince them of the truth, and your word with mine might make all the difference.' She hesitates over her words. 'Help me make this right, Wren.'

I draw my arms around my body instinctively, but it brings me little comfort, and I feel only a frightened fluttering of my heart as my hands brush over the stiff dried blood on my clothes. My Guild armour, I correct myself bitterly, knowing that I no longer belong in either the Guild or its armour, and as I look at Karliah, I realise that she still wears the same armour too. She's kept it after all this time, I think, the Dunmer's jacket and trousers frayed and patched yet unmistakeably the same as mine. But hers hasn't been drenched with her own blood, I remind myself, before I realise that the only difference between us is that I was the one stupid enough to offer my throat and every other part of me to Mercer Frey.

'Help you?' I repeat, my sudden fear making my words colder than I intend. 'The last time I saw you, you had me in binds and shot an arrow at me.'

Karliah's eyes darken with some bitter emotion, but whether it is regret or anger or guilt I cannot tell. Or humiliation, for missing her mark. 'That was a mistake,' she says through tightly pressed lips. 'But that mistake saved your life.'

'My life wouldn't have needed saving if you hadn't taken me prisoner in the first place,' I snap, wanting to blame her rather than myself.

'If you really believe that, you're as much of a fool as I am,' she replies just as shortly. 'I might have played into his hands, but you were already there. It was only a matter of time.'

Her words bite at me, reminding me of the painful truth, and then everything else Karliah has said suddenly becomes all too clear. My word with hers might make all the difference, or it might get my throat slit open again. 'You were going to kill me,' I say icily. 'Mercer tried to kill me. I may be a fool now, but I would be twice as stupid to even consider having anything to do with the Guild or you ever again.'

At my words, a flurry of expressions passes over Karliah's face too quickly for me to comprehend each one, but I recognise the disappointment clearly enough.

She releases my shoulders. 'I suppose I've no right to ask it of you,' she says. 'You don't trust me, just as I didn't trust you. I can't blame you for that.' Her mouth becomes a hard line. 'And I don't blame you for that. This is Mercer's doing. Why should anyone else have to suffer for what he has done?' Before I can even think to offer an answer, Karliah makes a soft laugh, and the bitter sadness in the sound catches something in my heart, stopping me from finding any words to answer her. 'There's another senseless question asking why,' she murmurs, turning her head away from me, her gaze landing on the dark stain which I know to be Gallus' blood.

And mine, I realise with a jolt, noticing the fresh scarlet colouring on the stone near the coffin Mercer propped me up against, my blood a small bright pool and smeared in a few places where the violet-eyed thief presumably dragged me over to the fire. But despite the blood stains, I'm still alive, and I know that regardless of what she says, Karliah is asking herself why I survived Mercer and Gallus did not.

I hold my breath, until the weight of Karliah's silence becomes too much to bear. 'So what now?' I ask eventually.

The Dunmer turns back to me, her expression rearranged into an impassive mask, as if she no longer sees the point in showing the truth of her emotions to me. 'There's another storm coming. We need to be south of Windhelm when it hits.' She stands up abruptly. 'After then, I guess we're both on our own.'

She holds out her hand, and I surprise myself when I do not hesitate to take it. Karliah helps me to my feet as gently as she can, but I still gasp as pain twinges in my neck from the movement and I have to clutch tight at the Dunmer as the chamber seems to spin around me, my body weakened from being paralysed on the ground and unconscious for so long. How long exactly? I wonder, forcing myself to find my balance and stay standing upright, my blurring vision settling as Karliah releases me and reaches into a pocket of her jacket.

'I don't have anything for the pain,' she says as she pulls out a small crystal vial. 'He took the supplies I had in my satchel. But this will help with the cold at least.' At my hesitation, my mouth and stomach recalling well enough the sour taste of the last potion she gave me, Karliah unscrews the lid and holds out the vial. 'I promise I haven't mixed it with anything else. It won't taste like the last one.'

Surprising myself for the second time, I take the small glass bottle from Karliah and cautiously bring it to my mouth, relieved to find that the potion within is at least odourless. When I tip the cold liquid into my mouth, the taste is indeed not as unpleasant as the potion she gave me when she first captured me, but a faint sourness lingers on my tongue, as if the concoction has curdled - and yet I have little time to even care about the taste, for as I swallow it, the pain in my neck returns sharply with the effort and I choke, almost bringing the potion back up all over Karliah.

'It'll get easier,' she says as I splutter and force myself to swallow. 'I did what I could with the wound, but I'm no healer and it'll take time to mend fully. Just relax and try ignore the pain.'

It's no worse than when Mercer would make use of my throat, I think, remembering how it felt, before I decide I'd rather never think of how willingly I opened my mouth and legs for him. I'm never going to see him again, let alone do any of those things again.

'Whatever you are, you're no alchemist,' I mutter, holding the empty vial back out to Karliah, a strange ashy after-taste lingering in my mouth from the potion.

Her expression seems to lighten for one strange brief moment when I think she might be about to smile, but the look is gone before I can even believe I almost saw it. 'You're not the first person to tell me that,' she murmurs, returning the vial to her pocket before reaching down to pick up the fur cloak from the ground. 'But you'll thank me when you get outside. Put this on, Wren.'

I need no encouragement to do as she says, and I wrap myself snugly in the cloak, pulling the hood of my jacket over my head as Karliah turns away and picks up her bow and quiver from the nearby coffin. As she readies herself, my hands slip down to my thighs briefly, feeling the empty space where my daggers should be and remembering who has them - and why I should feel so bitterly hollow by their absence. They're just daggers and I'll steal others to replace them, I remind myself, but I know my heart will regret the loss of Rune's gift and the Blade of Justice for a long time yet. Now I'll never see Rune again, and despite knowing at last where I can find Astrid, the Blade only tore open my throat instead of hers.

I draw my arms around my body beneath the cloak, my mind reeling as I try to focus on the present, knowing I can do little about the troubles of my mind at this moment. I watch as Karliah swallows the potion from another small vial before she sets off back through the chamber. I follow, slowing my own step as the dark elf's feet hesitate momentarily beside the stain on the ground where Gallus died. Her back to me, I do not see the expression on Karliah's face, and she does not say a word as she swiftly steps around the blood and continues walking a moment later, although I start to wonder if her mind is filled with the same questions as mine. Did Mercer leave Gallus' body in one of these coffins, or did he drag him out into the snow? I wonder, not wanting to ask her, not knowing if she ever came back here after it happened or if she was too afraid of what she might find.

The scent of death hangs heavier in the air when we reach the antechamber, my legs shaking a little from the effort of climbing the steep steps. My eyes adjust all too quickly to the shadows here, and I cannot ignore how the faint light filtering in from outside lands upon the shadowy hulking corpse of Karliah's horse. My feet falter at the sight the creature's dead body and the vast pool of blood frozen in the entranceway of the ruin, but Karliah pointedly looks away, seemingly unaffected, before I realise she must have already been up here to discover Mercer's handiwork while I was unconscious. As I follow her to the archway, trying to keep my footing on the wide wash of icy blood, I am hit by the reality of the situation. We're walking, then.

'This won't be easy,' Karliah tells me, despite having already arrived at that conclusion myself. 'It's a long way. Is that potion working yet?'

'I don't feel much of the cold,' I answer, although the discomforting shiver of unease just from being in this place still seems to linger down my spine and I decide I'd rather be out in the freezing snow than spend another minute in the ruin.

'Best hope it stays that way,' Karliah says shortly, as she steps out into the bright expanse of snow.

I follow her, pulling my hood lower over my head to shield me from the light as well as the steadily falling snow. My heart drops as I look around, the sight of the empty endless landscape reminding me just how far we have to go. And then where will I have to go? I wonder, before I remind myself that simply leaving this place alive is a feat, and that any thoughts about what comes next will have to wait.

Karliah turns back to look at me. 'Stay close, and don't stop walking. Maybe we'll get to Windhelm before nightfall.' She glances over my head to the horizon behind me. 'And before the storm.'

She sets off into the snow; before I follow her, I dare a glance back, finding the sky inked with dark clouds at the far horizon. I turn away from the undeniable threat of a mounting storm and walk forward, following in the Dunmer's path, trying not to wonder how long the effects of her warming potion will last and whether my legs are strong enough to outrun the storm.

Although I mercifully feel little of the cold and the way is largely downhill, the journey back to Windhelm is long and brutally exhausting, and after only a short while my weary and weak body begins to struggle. Time loses meaning quicker than it did when we made the journey here, and as I follow in Karliah's wake through the snow for what must be hours, I soon focus simply on putting one foot in front of the other. Walk, and breathe, I think, as my exhaustion drags my limbs to the ground and my hunger gnaws at my insides. When did I even last eat? I wonder, before the thought only makes me feel worse and I do my best not to imagine the taste of warm bread or wine. Resigned to fill my empty stomach with what I can, I pause frequently to catch my breath and to gather a handful of snow into my palms, but the snow melts through my fingers quicker than I can truly satisfy my thirst.

Karliah seems to move far easier through the treacherous terrain, her feet light and quick over the snowdrifts whereas I stumble into their wet depths more than once. Despite not feeling the cold, I seem to feel everything else twice as keenly, as the wetness of the snow seeps through my clothing and the bitter winds that race ahead of the storm whip at my body. Although each passing hour seems to bring little change to the bleak and vacant landscape, I grow conscious of the sky steadily darkening, and the heavy clouds seem closer every time I glance behind me.

At least the ruin is far out of sight now, I think as we continue on in silence, although I find that the memory of what happened at Snow Veil Sanctum does not disappear from my mind quite so easily, and as I force myself to just keep walking forward, my thoughts circle endlessly around what happened in that dark cold chamber. And the lessons I have learnt, I think, unable to stop my mind from relieving each word Mercer spoke to me through the shadows before I slipped into oblivion.

Mercer might have taken the Blade of Justice, but he gave me Astrid, I think, the knot in my stomach tightening once again with the thought of that last lesson from the Guildmaster - but this time, the bitter pain seems to fade as a curious calmness settles inside me and my heart almost slows its pace despite the physical exertion of my weary body. I'm alive. And that means I have not failed yet.

The realisation of what I must do hits me then and suddenly my way forward becomes clearer to me than the path through the snow. It's just ironic that my way forward is only accessible to me now, when I have no weapons or coin or anything beyond the blood-stained clothes on my back. By the time I spy the towering grey walls of Windhelm looming far in the distance, my heart and mind are set hard on the task ahead of me and I barely feel my exhausted relief at the sight of the city, thinking only of what must be done. I've known death. As terrible as it was, nothing will be as painful as returning to the void without at least attempting to bring Astrid with me too.

Darkness draws in and I hear the distant roll of thunder as the snow seems to fall colder and heavier, and I realise that the potion Karliah gave me starts to wear off as we approach the city docks, the wind howling viciously, whipping a freezing salt spray off the writhing water that hits my face and chills me to the bone in seconds. I quickly acknowledge to myself just how grateful I am that Karliah's warming potion lasted as long as it did, shivering violently as I pull my cloak tighter around my body not only to protect against the cold but also to hide the blood stains on my clothing. I keep my head down and follow close behind Karliah as she leads the way through the docks; clearly as reluctant as I am to venture into the city itself, the Dunmer heads to a large stone building lashed by the spray of the water, pointedly ignoring the sailors drinking outside as she walks past them and pushes open the door.

Inside, the damp warmth and the humming noise of voices and laughter and clinking glasses stuns me for a moment, my ears attuned to either howling winds or deathly silence. The inn is large and crowded, and for a moment I remember the last time I was in a Windhelm tavern and the crude conversations I had to overhear from the Nords. At least Karliah is more than capable of defending herself from them, I think, before I wonder why I should even care whether the dark elf can protect herself from any harassment. I should worry about myself, seeing as I'm the one penniless, weaponless and altogether defenceless.

My exhaustion hits me then, and without waiting for Karliah's orders or even caring what she intends to do next, I locate the nearest empty table and stumble eagerly towards it, my legs giving way beneath me just as I drop down onto the chair.

I sigh with the relief, my entire body slumping down against the back of the hard wooden chair as if it were a feather mattress. I breathe deeply the warm air of the inn, the scent of salt and ale and damp not entirely pleasant but keenly pleasurable compared with either the fresh blood and death of the ruin or the cold wet smell of snow. Once I leave this place, I'll never go anywhere near the fucking snow again, I decide, brushing the flakes from my cloak and pushing back my hood, feeling my cheeks start to flush from the heat of the inn and soon realising that I could fall asleep right now if I only closed my eyes. But even I'm not stupid enough to do that, I think, although as I feel the cold tension start to leave my body, the noise of the dockside inn's patrons becomes little more than a blurred hum that almost lulls me to sleep.

Minutes have passed before it dawns on me through my comfortable haze that I am still alone and Karliah has not followed me to the table. When I look around the crowded inn, I see no sign of her. Was that it, then? I think, wondering if the violet-eyed thief and I have already parted ways without me even knowing and finding myself surprised when I feel a curious flicker of panic at the thought. I'm going to the Brotherhood and she's going gods only know where, I think, reminding myself that I should only feel relief that her path and mine are separate. It wasn't so long ago she would've seen me dead if it served her purpose.

Before I can decide whether Karliah would still exchange my life for her own gain if it came to it, I jump when a bowl of stew and a bottle of ale appear on the table in front of me. Startled, I look up to find Karliah standing next to the table.

'Eat,' she says shortly, and I need no further instruction to do as she commands, reaching eagerly for the bowl.

The hot stew burns my lips and tongue and my throat twinges uncomfortably as I swallow fast but I barely feel any of the pains, unable to contain my quiet sound of satisfaction at the taste of the food and the warmth spreading in my stomach as I eat. This feels better than anything Mercer ever did to me, I think distantly, pausing to take a deep gulp from the bottle, the pungent taste of the ale turning my tongue but finding myself caring little what it tastes like, deciding that I am simply glad for something that isn't snow.

It's minutes later when I am about halfway through my meal when my mind reconnects and I realise that Karliah has gone, and with a look around the room and towards the bar on the far side, I come to the conclusion that she has left the inn altogether. And that's it. With my body now at least somewhat relaxed and satiated, my mind starts to process exactly what being on my own means and I have to force back the uncertainty that suddenly gnaws at me with the thought. First, I need to make this last, I think, taking a tiny sip of my drink, conscious that I have no coin to buy more food, let alone a room to spend the night. And I have no lockpicks, or daggers, or anything at all, actually, I think, before I remember that I am alive and my life is more than what I expected to have when I left Snow Veil Sanctum. I'll somehow just have to think of a way of getting to the other side of Skyrim and maybe consider the possibility of trying to kill Astrid with my bare hands.

I make the remainder of my meal last for what must be at least an hour, the stew cold and the ale warm by the time I finish them as I try to decide what to do. Remembering what I was told when I first arrived in Windhelm, I am considering precisely what the stablehand will accept in exchange for a place in the hay when my gaze is drawn towards the door of the inn and my heart catches in surprise when I notice a familiar hooded figure cutting across the room towards me.

Before I've truly registered her return, Karliah appears beside the table and drops my satchel down onto the empty chair next to me. 'This is yours, I believe,' she says, before she starts to remove the bow from her back.

It takes me a moment to understand, still surprised by her appearance. 'You went to his house?' I say slowly.

She nods before pulling out the chair opposite me and sitting down on the edge, clasping her bow on her lap and dropping a satchel of her own on the ground at her feet. 'He's long gone,' she says, and where I feel only relief from that discovery, she sounds sorely disappointed by Mercer's absence. 'But his house had a few supplies. And I thought you might want your things back.'

I blink in surprise. 'Thank you,' I say, and although I know I have little in the way of belongings or gold, I find myself more grateful than I anticipated at the familiar sight of the leather bag.

I pull my satchel onto my lap and look through it, hoping by some chance that I might find my silver dagger tucked inside where I left it the night Mercer threw me out into the snow. He's probably sold it for coin, I think when I realise the blade is gone, before the unavoidable truth comes to me. No, he'll have taken it back to the Guild, as proof that I am dead. He'll show it to Rune and tell him justice has been done.

Not wanting to dwell on that thought when the Thieves Guild and everyone in it is now behind me, I search through the rest of my satchel, glad at least to discover some clean clothes. When my hands touch upon a crumple of parchment at the bottom of the bag, I frown in confusion, not registering what it is until I peel apart the wrappings to find folds of dark violet silk, the material softer than the feathers of a young bird.

Before I can stop myself, my mind replays the night Sapphire returned from Solitude and gave me the dress. I was more preoccupied with wondering how many times she and Brynjolf had fucked, I think bitterly, before the actual truth of my preoccupation hits me and I remember what the Guildmaster had done to me earlier that night, when he had learnt of Karliah's interference with the Guild and he had cornered me in the water room. And I remember the look in Sapphire's eyes when she found out the Guildmaster was fucking me, and how she had tried to warn me away ever since.

The thought of the raven-haired thief makes my heart clench tight in my chest and I suddenly think of the Cistern, of Mercer at his desk and the other guildmembers going about their business, of Sapphire sitting on her bed within the Guildmaster's line of sight. What would I do if our places were reversed? If I was there at the Cistern and Mercer was telling me that Sapphire was a treacherous whore who had stolen from the Guild? Then I think what I would do if Sapphire was the one Mercer took into his room and punished, and suddenly what fear and unease I felt over the uncertainty of my future vanishes beneath the vicious fury at the thought of Sapphire being left alone anywhere near Mercer Frey. And if he decides he needs to pin his next crimes on someone else and chooses Sapphire for that role, there's nothing I can do about it.

Unable to bear neither my thoughts nor the sight of Sapphire's gift any longer, I look up and realise that Karliah is watching me. I quickly swallow the strange dryness in my throat, the wound on my neck hurting twice as much with the effort, and I shove the parchment wrappings back over the dress.

'I thought you'd gone,' I say, my voice hoarser than I expected and wishing I had something more to drink.

'Not yet,' Karliah says. 'I wanted to check Mercer's house one last time before I head to the Guild.'

I look at her in surprise. 'You're really going to the Guild?' I repeat, more than a touch of incredulity in my voice.

She nods once, her expression resigned. 'All these years, I've been trying to take Mercer down from the shadows, but it's been a long time since the shadows...' Karliah tails off, her eyes darkening, and she seems to change her mind about whatever she was going to say. 'I'm alone, and trying to take him down by myself isn't working. I thought confronting him with the truth and making a deal with him might work, but he is no different from the man I once knew.' Her mouth twists bitterly. 'I can't reason with him, and I can't kill him. I need the support of the Guild if I'm to make this right. So yes, Wren, I am going to the Guild.'

I stare at her, more than one question rising to my mind and leaving me wondering if she does not see the flaw in her plan. 'The Guild believes you're a murderous traitor,' I point out, seeing no reason to word it gently. 'As far as they're concerned, you're the one who killed Gallus and has been stealing from the Guild all this time.'

She inclines her head, not taking her violet eyes away from mine. 'Not all of them believe that,' she says.

I don't miss her meaning. 'I think I was officially kicked out of the Guild the moment Mercer cut my throat,' I say. 'I can't go back there to help you get their support. They all think I'm a traitor too, remember?'

'Somehow I suspect not all of them will think that of you,' she says softly.

I clutch at my satchel on my lap and choose to ignore her, not wanting to risk my heart by hoping that any of the guildmembers will disbelieve Mercer's lies. 'Why can't you kill him?' I say instead, still confused about the events that occurred in the ruin and no less confused about Karliah either, when she has given me so little in the way of information about herself. 'You had a clear shot on him before. You could've ended all of this right then and there.'

A brief pained look of frustration cuts across her face. 'It's more complicated than that,' she says shortly. 'His death is all I have thought about for five years, but I know it would not end this. He has the Key, and if he dies, he'll have made sure I could never find it.' Before I can open my mouth to question her and find out just what this mysterious Key is, Karliah continues speaking, her words successfully silencing me. 'Look, I need help, Wren,' she says, the confession seeming to come to her with great difficulty, her plum-toned lips pursed tight and reluctant to make the words. 'I have been trying to do this on my own but I know now that I can't.' She hesitates, closing her eyes for a moment before she speaks again. 'I need the Guild. I need you.'

'You don't need me,' I say, quickly recovering from my surprise and finding myself unable to fully trust what she is saying. She might need me to die again, if it comes to that. 'You've managed to outsmart Mercer for years,' I remind her, unable to keep the touch of jealous admiration out of my voice. 'I know I could never do that.'

At my words and the tone of my voice, I see the faintest flicker of satisfaction in the Dunmer's violet eyes before the look vanishes so quickly I am sure I imagined it. 'I've done what I can,' she says simply. 'But do you really think all the failed jobs and bad luck the Guild has had over the years was purely because of me?'

'Delvin said it was a curse,' I say. 'I think it's more likely you've been doing everything you can to take down Mercer.'

'I have, but that doesn't mean Delvin wasn't right too.' Karliah seems to expect my sceptical expression, and her determined expression does not change. 'Look, I told you it doesn't matter what any of us believe. Mercer has to be stopped. And I need your help, if you will give it.'

I can only look at her, uncertainty rendering me wordless. I want to help, I realise suddenly, surprising myself with the thought and yet well aware of the quietly burning fury inside me that desires nothing more than to pay Mercer back in kind for what he has done. And yet I know it would be smarter to run as far away as I could and take my chances with Astrid instead.

At my silence, a flicker of frustration flashes into Karliah's eyes once again. 'I saved your life,' she reminds me, her voice hard. 'I could've let you die in that ruin. I didn't. Ignore everything else if you like, but you owe me for that.'

She's right. I would've died if it wasn't for her. However, that truth slips from my mind as instead I remember what would have been my last thoughts had Karliah indeed let me die. 'I have another life owed to me,' I tell her. 'A life more important than my own.'

A small frown pulls at Karliah's brow as she looks at me in silence for several seconds, but her expression is one of contemplation rather than irritation at my refusal. 'I heard what Mercer said,' she says eventually. 'You want to kill the leader of the Dark Brotherhood.'

'I am going to kill her,' I answer sharply, trying to convince myself as much as the Dunmer, conscious that her voice is faintly amused, as if she can hardly believe the weak young woman across the table from her could even hope to kill Astrid. 'Even if it takes the rest of my life, I will see her bleeding on the ground at my feet.'

Seemingly unfazed by the ferocity of my words, Karliah falls silent again for almost a minute, her purple eyes studying me carefully from beneath the shadows of her hood.

'Help me,' she says quietly. 'And I'll help you.'

I stare at her, not needing her to explain what she means and feeling my heart suddenly race faster at the prospect of what she is suggesting.

If she was skilled enough to outsmart Mercer all these years and get us both out of that ruin alive, maybe she can help me take down Astrid.

'I just need you to help me get the Guild on my side,' Karliah says quickly, evidently knowing what is passing through my mind and knowing she almost has me convinced already. 'I'm not asking you to go near Mercer again. I said I'd protect you, and I meant it, Wren. I swear by Nocturnal that you will never feel pain at his hands again. We'll do this together, and once Mercer is shown for what he truly is, I will do whatever I can to help you in return. But I need to know if you are with me now.'

The name she invokes means as little to me now as it did in Snow Veil Sanctum. Yet I trust her anyway, despite what she did, and what she still might do. The realisation shocks me, as does the realisation that my mind is already decided, well aware that if I can make Mercer pay and deal with Astrid from a stronger position, I do not need to deliberate further.

Besides, what better option do I have now, with no coin and no weapons?

'All right,' I say, hoping I do not regret my words, although some part of me already suspects that I will. 'I'm with you.'

Karliah's mouth pulls into the first true smile I have seen and I realise how well it suits the sharp angles of her pretty face, her eyes curving into half-moons and the curious violet of her irises seeming all the brighter as keen relief flashes across her face. 'Good,' she says, before the smile promptly vanishes behind her more customary reserved look. 'Who do you trust the most in the Guild? Sapphire? You spent a lot of time with her, didn't you? If we contact her, will she come to us?'

I hesitate, taken aback at her abrupt questions. She's had five years, I expect she doesn't want to wait any longer. 'I trust Sapphire,' I say slowly, trying not to wonder just how often Karliah watched from the shadows. 'But whether she trusts me now after what Mercer's told her, I can't say.'

'When we get back to the Rift, we'll send word to her and ask her to meet you.' Karliah stands up and attaches her bow to her back once again, forcing me to realise just how little time she intends to waste. So much for sleeping then. 'We'll just have to hope she doesn't think it's a trap.'

'I have something we can send her,' I say, my fingers brushing over the parchment wrappings of the dress as I close my satchel. 'If I was really who Mercer claims, I would've sold it long ago for the gold.'

'Then let's go. The sooner we get to the Rift, the better.' Karliah holds out her hand to me. 'I'd rather never come anywhere near this damned city again.'

'And here I'd almost grown fond of the cold,' I say sarcastically, and as I take her hand and let her help me to my weary feet, I almost catch sight of the Dunmer's small smile again.

 

 *

 

I soon discover that aiding Karliah means that I will likely never have a full night's sleep again until Mercer lies broken and begging at her feet. After Karliah liberates a horse from a nearby farm and I change my blood-stained clothes in the freezing cold barn, we take the snowy road south, and the journey back to Riften passes far quicker than when I travelled north not so long ago. I try to get what sleep I can from my uncomfortable position behind the saddle with my arms wrapped around Karliah's waist, but without any further potions to warm my body, I feel every chill of the wind and I do not sleep at all that first night. As we travel further south, Karliah stops only infrequently and briefly to rest the horse's legs and to steal food and supplies from a nearby settlement or farm, at which point I collapse beside her magical fire in whatever cave she chooses and promptly fall into an exhausted sleep, only to be shaken awake what seems like seconds later. I curse my decision and the Dunmer more than once, but Karliah's relentless haste proves worthwhile, as the landscape changes from winter to autumn swifter than I expected, and the sight of the Rift's fiery trees makes my heart flutter with a faint shred of hope. I thought I'd only see the forests again in the void.

Karliah leaves me with one of her glass daggers at a small cave in the forest not far from Riften and rides to the city alone, with my hastily written letter and my dress wrapped tightly in its parchment. I don't ask how she intends to deliver the items to Sapphire without Mercer knowing, simply hoping that she does not plan on holding the raven-haired thief at knifepoint to get the message to her.

Alone in the wilderness and yet so near to the Guild and its Guildmaster, my mind is hardly at ease but I am too exhausted to do anything besides curl up on the earthy ground next to the fire Karliah lit before she left. At least she seems to hate the cold as much as I do, I think vaguely before I close my eyes and fall asleep in mere moments.

I sleep fitfully but my dreams are mercifully devoid of anything tangible. I wake too soon and to the sound of spitting meat on a fire, the scent mingling with the damp dankness of the cave.

'There's water from the stream in that skin,' Karliah's voice says from somewhere behind me as I open my eyes, leaving me wondering how she even knows I am awake when I am faced away from her and the fire. 'The rabbit will be cooked soon.'

I notice the waterskin placed in front of me. 'Thanks,' I say, sitting up and reaching out for the water, still feeling half-asleep and groggy as I turn around to face her. 'How long was I asleep?'

'A couple of hours.' Karliah watches me from the other side of the fire, the shadows dancing in her eyes and beneath her sharp high cheekbones. Though the ones under her eyes are always there.

'Do you ever sleep?' I ask her as I sip at the water.

Karliah raises an eyebrow but as she opens her mouth to reply, something flashes in her eyes and she grabs her bow from beside her, rising to her feet and nocking an arrow in one fluid motion before I've even comprehended what she's doing.

Startled but knowing by now to trust Karliah's awareness of her surroundings, I struggle to my feet and turn around to follow Karliah's gaze in the direction of the cave entrance, where a warm glow from the setting sun presses in to the stony hollow. I hold my breath, listening, and a moment later when I hear a twig snap and the soft whinny of our stolen horse outside, I draw Karliah's glass dagger from my thigh with a shaking hand, not entirely confident that I can use the weapon effectively.

But I don't need to, I realise with a jolt in my heart, as a figure steps into the cave, and although they are at first little more than a slender silhouette against the warm red light of the sunset, I do not need to see them to know who it is.

I sheathe my dagger as Sapphire walks forward, my heart fluttering fast and barely believing that she came – and when I realise she is not alone. my fragile heart stops for a moment, although my eyes soon discern that the man is younger, the shoulders are slimmer, and the short hair is a dark blond not red, and I find I am keenly relieved to see that it is Rune and not who I thought. If it were, this would be all the harder.

As Sapphire and Rune walk towards us and come into the firelight, I stand paralysed as surely as I was in the ruin, although this time I am numb from something other than any poison. It's surprise. It's relief. When the two thieves stop a few paces away, I can only stand and look at them in awkward silence, still not quite believing that they have come. Unless they are only here to drag me back to the Guild for justice.

Rune closes the gap between us first, striding forward and pulling me into a fierce hug before I've even had a chance to say a word. As his arms close around my waist, my arms instinctively wind around his neck and I bury my face in his shoulder, feeling the warmth of his body.

'You're all right?' the thief murmurs in my ear, his words half a question, half a statement, as if he is trying to convince both himself and me.

At his quiet words and the way he holds me gently against his body, my arms tighten around him and I cling to him more desperately than I ever clutched at Mercer when he fucked me, more fiercely than I clutched at Brynjolf when he kissed me. I'd stay in his arms forever, in this moment forever, I think as I close my eyes and hold on to his warm solid body, no part of me wanting to let Rune go, treasuring the precious few seconds where I can pretend that I deserve his loyalty. And the illusion that I will never be hurt again.

'I'm all right,' I answer faintly, and it's a few seconds longer before I reluctantly let my arms slip away from his neck and we break apart. I feel the weight of his concerned gaze but my eyes are drawn to the other thief, feeling her hazel gaze is distinctly cooler, her expression guarded as if she is hesitant to show any reaction to seeing me again.

Sapphire and I look at each other for a moment, before I see her eyes wandering over the scar at my neck, and I suddenly realise that I have no idea how bad it looks. With no time to try to heal it further myself or even to look at my own reflection, I can only imagine the sight of the scar where Mercer cut me. I know it feels bad enough, I think, having traced my fingertips gingerly over the wound several times and felt the sensitive paper-thin skin barely holding the split flesh together and the uneven stitching of Karliah's hastily wrought spell.

'You can say I told you so,' I say lightly, trying not to let my voice shake.

Sapphire's jaw clenches. 'I'm not going to do that,' she says, her voice clipped. 'I'm going to kill him.'

'Then we share the same goal.' Karliah steps forward, her bow lowered, although her lingering caution narrows her eyes as she comes to stand beside me and looks over the two thieves. 'Do Brynjolf and Delvin trust you? If you speak to them when Mercer is not there, will they listen?'

'Karliah-' I start, thinking that we might need to explain ourselves and what happened first.

'We'll make them listen,' Rune says, surprising me with the briskness in his voice and the fact he does not seem to want an explanation. 'What do you need us to do?'

I see a flicker of relief in the Dunmer's violet eyes, as if she too half-expected to have to explain herself. 'Tell them the truth,' she says. 'Mercer killed Gallus and has been stealing from the Guild for years. Wren and I are both innocent of the crimes he has pinned on us.' She hesitates for a moment. 'And tell them I have proof of his treachery.'

Not giving us a moment to question her further, Karliah turns around and leaves her bow beside the fire before striding over to the furthest recess of the cave. She brushes aside a mossy overhang and pulls loose a few stones to reveal a small nook in the crumbling cave wall, into which she reaches her hand and retrieves a book bound in worn black leather.

'This is Gallus' journal, from the months leading up to his death,' she says, walking back to us with the book in her hands. 'I hid it here a long time ago, in the hope that I could one day show it to the Guild. This will prove what we are saying about Mercer is true.'

I look at her in surprise, noticing she holds the journal as tightly as I clutched at Rune. But Gallus' words might mean more to her than they will to anyone else. 'Karliah...' I start again carefully, but Sapphire voices my concern before I can find the words.

'A diary isn't proof of anything,' the raven-haired thief says bluntly.

A frown presses in at the Dunmer's brow. 'Gallus discovered Mercer was stealing from the Guild,' she says. 'He recorded everything he knew in his journal.'

'But anyone could have written that,' I point out, trying to contain my disappointment that this is the extent of the Dunmer's plan against the Guildmaster. 'Mercer could just argue that you've written it to implicate him. The Guild might think that anyway.'

'Brynjolf and Delvin will recognise Gallus' writing,' Karliah insists, her expression turning frostier.

'You could've forged it,' I say, and Sapphire nods.

'In five years, even a child could be taught to copy someone's handwriting,' the raven-haired thief puts in. 'Gallus' diary isn't proof of anything.'

'Do you have better proof?' Karliah snaps, the frost turning to fire in her eyes. 'Don't you think if there was some other way of convincing the Guild, I would've done it by now?'

I baulk at her sharpness but Sapphire only folds her arms, the expression on her pretty face as hard as the Dunmer's. 'A better idea would've been not hiding for five years,' she says. 'You haven't exactly made yourself look innocent.'

'Have you ever been hunted by Mercer Frey?' Karliah retorts, fury flashing dangerously in her eyes. 'I didn't really have the opportunity to wander over to the Guild and have a friendly chat about what actually happened.'

'All right,' Rune says quickly, before Sapphire can open her mouth. 'What matters is that we have evidence against Mercer.' He looks at Karliah, determination in his deep blue eyes. 'We'll show it to the Guild, the next time he's not there,' he tells her, but at the suggestion, Karliah brings the book to her chest, her fingers gripping its leather cover tightly.

'And risk him taking it before that happens?' she says sharply. 'I don't think so. I've kept it safe from Mercer for years, I'm not handing it over to him now.'

No one speaks for a moment. That book holds Gallus' last words, I realise, understanding the Dunmer's protectiveness, knowing that if I were her, I would not relinquish the journal to the people who would have happily killed me only a few hours ago.

Rune seems to understand too, as he does not press the topic. 'Then we'll just tell Brynjolf and Delvin that we have it,' he says, his voice level. 'We'll bring them here to read the journal for themselves. We won't take it anywhere near Mercer, I swear.'

Karliah opens her mouth and closes it again, a distinctly grateful look in her purple eyes as she looks at Rune, and for a brief moment I think she might be about to thank him, until her lips abruptly purse together and she lowers the book from her chest, as if no longer wanting to draw attention to the object's obvious significance to her. 'Good,' she says shortly. 'Then you should go. The sooner they come here and read it, the better.'

Without another word, the Dunmer turns away and walks back to the corner of the cave to hide Gallus' journal once again. If Rune and Sapphire are offended by the abruptness of Karliah's dismissal, they make no comment on it, and as their gazes fall back to me, the reality of the situation suddenly dawns on me. They've come here, risking their lives to meet with me, to willingly follow the commands of a woman they thought was a murderous traitor, all because of me.

'Thank you,' I say awkwardly, wishing I knew how to put into words the feeling in my heart. 'And I'm sorry to drag you into this.'

Neither thief seems to expect or want my thanks or apologies, as they do not acknowledge my words; Sapphire only looks at me with her familiar guarded look in her eyes as her gaze flits over the scar at my neck again, and Rune makes a small smile before he reaches down to unfasten a dagger from his hip.

'I have something for you,' he says, and as I follow the direction of his hands, I feel my heart skip a beat.

When Rune holds out the familiar silver dagger to me, I do not take it, fearing some trick, remembering the last time I saw the moon-like blade in Mercer's bedroom in Windhelm. Before he threw me out into the snow for Karliah to find.

'Mercer gave this to you?' I say in cautious disbelief.

'Not exactly.' Rune pushes the dagger into my hands. 'It was on his desk, and he's been distracted since he returned. I took it when I had the chance. It belongs to you, Wren. You should have it, not him.'

'Thank you,' I manage to say, touched that he would risk stealing from Mercer for me. I clutch the dagger in my hands, feeling its familiar weight and yet suddenly not knowing what to do with it, having convinced myself I would never see the blade again. I convinced myself I'd never see Sapphire and Rune again either, I realise, and the warm feeling in my heart returns, part of me still not quite believing that they trust me enough to risk themselves in this way and to work against Mercer.

'We should go,' Sapphire says shortly, not waiting for Rune to agree before she turns and strides back to the cave entrance, her arms still folded across her body, although the early evening temperature is mild.

Rune follows her out of the cave, and I trail behind them, desperately wishing I could go with them, that we could walk back to the city together and spend the rest of the night in the Flagon. But I can't, I think bitterly, knowing well enough that if I went anywhere near the Guildmaster, I might as well reopen the wound on my neck myself. He's tried killing me once, and I expect he'll try harder next time, if I give him the chance.

As if she reads my mind, Sapphire stops abruptly just outside the cave and turns to face me, the setting sun through the trees catching the warm brown flecks in her eyes. 'Does Mercer know you're alive?' she asks.

The thought makes my stomach flip uncomfortably. 'Maybe,' I say, hardly surprised if Mercer had learnt of my survival in the few days since he left me to die. For all I know, he had spies in that Windhelm dockside inn.

Sapphire looks at me for a second, some thought darkening her eyes. 'I told you I would cut his throat if you asked,' she says finally, her voice edged hard.

'I wouldn't ask, Saph,' I tell her truthfully, as disinclined to have her go anywhere near Mercer Frey now as I was when she first made the promise to me. I know what he can do now.

'And that was my mistake,' she says shortly. 'I shouldn't have waited for you to ask.' She is about to turn around when a thought seems to come to her and she stops, looking back one last time. 'Your dress is safe at the Guild, by the way,' she says, her eyes lightening so briefly I must have imagined it. 'For the next time you get yourself into trouble and need to send me a message.'

'I'll try not to make a habit of it,' I joke as I force my mouth into a smile, wanting to see her eyes light up again, but she only turns away without another word and this time she does not look back.

Rune gives me a last reassuring smile. 'It'll be all right, Wren,' he says. 'We'll clear your name, and Karliah's, I swear.'

I can only nod as he turns away to follow Sapphire, and I watch the two thieves walk away towards the setting sun, their figures soon disappearing between the autumn-sparse trees as they head in what must be the direction of the city. I wish I knew, I think, before I wonder what good it would do if I knew where Riften is from here. I can't go back, not yet, and maybe not ever.

I stay where I am for longer than I should, standing in the cave entrance for minutes after Rune and Sapphire have vanished from my sight, clutching the dagger in my hands as I breathe in the damp smell of the fallen leaves. As I listen to the nearby stream and the horse whickering quietly from where Karliah tied it to a tree near to the cave, I close my eyes for a moment, feeling the dying sun on my face, my cool skin warming a little with the last of the light. I forgot what this felt like, I think, before the sun sets deeper behind the expanse of the forest and a keen chill moves over me.

Reluctantly, I turn around and return to the cave to find Karliah pacing up and down. Her violet eyes glance over me briefly as she walks the short length of the cavern, but she says nothing and before I can read the expression on her face, she turns around and walks the other way, and I realise she does not want to talk.

More than willing to let the silence endure, I settle down by the fire again, laying my silver dagger carefully beside me and reaching for the waterskin to drink deeply before curling up on the earthy ground and closing my eyes, intending to try to sleep for as long as I can. Once Brynjolf and Delvin talk to Karliah and the Guild is on her side, I won't be needed here anymore, I think, knowing where my road will take me once the Guild learns the truth about Mercer and they deal with his treachery. I'll be going to Falkreath. To the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary. To Astrid. The thought at once terrifies and angers me, afraid of what will happen and yet feeling the familiar flicker of frustration that I have even let Astrid live for this long. But no more. I know where she is. And at least I have one dagger now.

'Thank you, Wren.' Barely audible and yet making me jump all the same, Karliah's sudden words are little more than a whisper, some part of me thinking her voice is only in my dream. 'They wouldn't have come here to speak to me if it weren't for you. So thank you.'

I do not answer, content to pretend that I am truly asleep and keenly wishing that I was. Her gratitude means nothing to me, I tell myself firmly, remembering how she had me in binds not so long ago and finding myself wondering if she will even keep to her word and offer me any help with Astrid – and yet, some part of me welcomes her gratitude and suddenly longs to tell her that she doesn't need to thank me, that I know she has been hurt too and that I am glad to help her if I can. I never thought I'd want to help someone who would've killed me only a few days ago, I think, before I start to wonder if I am still just as stupid and foolish as I was before when I willingly obeyed Mercer no matter what he did to me, and the thought is too unnerving that I quickly push it aside and close my eyes tighter, wishing I still believed in the promise of a mindless oblivion.

 

*

 

As the night draws in, I sleep only a little and as restlessly as before. I feel Karliah's impatient tension growing with every passing hour, and coupled with my own nervous anticipation at the possibility of Brynjolf and Delvin turning up sometime soon, it's not long before I abandon the idea of sleep. As the cool dawn light starts to break into the cave, I sit beside the magical fire and decide to use the time to try to heal the tender wound at my throat, but I quickly discover that my strength is too depleted to even bring a faint warm glow to my hands. Fighting own my rising frustration and growing increasingly irritated with the Dunmer's silent pacing, I tell Karliah that I'm going to get some fresh air.

The day passes slowly, and I spend the time wandering in the forest as much as I can, never straying too far away from the cave and returning to the shelter and the fire to avoid the frequent light autumn rains, some part of me continually waiting to hear approaching footsteps in the soggy fallen leaves. By the time twilight draws in and the misty rain starts to fall again, I return to the cave for the night, finding Karliah cross-legged beside the fire with a couple of empty vials on the ground next to her, her slender hands moving quickly as she crushes flowers and bits of plant into a paste between two stones.

My hair still damp from washing in the chilly waters of the nearby stream, I sit close to the fire and decide to try to heal the wound at my neck again, but like all my previous attempts during the last day and night, the spell dies in my palms before I can even feel the faintest warmth in my hands.

I give up trying to heal myself further and watch Karliah for a minute, noticing the force of her movements and feeling the impatience radiating fiercely from her, and it's not long before the tense silence finally becomes unbearable.

'When the Guild is on our side, what do we do then?' I ask, the question having lingered in my mind ever since we left Windhelm and conscious that Karliah has still not revealed anything further about herself or her plans. 'You said Mercer has this... Skeleton Key? You have to take it back somewhere?' I wait for her to explain further, but she only continues to crush the flowers against the stone in silence, and her refusal to talk sparks my frustration once again. I agreed to help and she tells me nothing, like I'm a child too stupid to understand. 'What if the Guild doesn't believe us?' I ask instead, not wanting to bring up Gallus' journal and the nature of the evidence contained therein but unable to avoid the fact that it has been a day since Rune and Sapphire left and yet no one from the Guild has come to meet with us.

Karliah does not reply, but her stony silence is answer enough to explain to me why she is so on edge. The exact same things are going through her mind.

'If Brynjolf and Delvin don't come, what are we going to do?' I say a little sharper. 'Don't you have another plan to take down Mercer?'

'Look, you spent more time alone with Mercer than I ever did,' Karliah says bitingly, not hiding her disgust as she looks up at me. 'You know him far more intimately than me, Wren, so why don't you come up with a plan to take him down and show him to the Guild for what he truly is?'

I blink, stunned for a moment and feeling my cheeks redden with her words. 'I don't know,' I say finally. 'But we have to think of something.'

'Let me know how that goes,' Karliah says, her voice sharp. 'As you are obviously aware, I'm no mastermind. Gallus was always the one-' Karliah stops abruptly, her jaw set hard. 'Gallus was the one who would've fucking fixed this a long time ago,' she mutters, turning her gaze back down, but not quick enough for me to miss the pain in her eyes.

I let the silence hang for a moment, uncertain how to reply and finding my frustration doused by my realisation. She loved him, I think, remembering what Brynjolf had said about them, before my mind wanders to the redhead's smile when I said the word lovers and I feel a strange fluttering in my heart, the thought of him suddenly hurting badly enough that I can only imagine how Karliah feels to have lost someone who actually cared for her.

'I've heard he was a good man,' I say tentatively, uncertain if she wants to talk about it, but I get my answer swift and hard enough, when the Dunmer shuts me down before I can say anything more.

'I'll catch us something to eat,' she says shortly, even though night has fallen outside and neither of us have eaten the pheasant she caught a few hours ago, but before she can drop the stones and reach for her bow, I catch sight of movement at the cave entrance, and out of the corner of my eye I see someone step out of the shadows.

My heart freezes in shock but Karliah reacts faster than I can even draw breath, grabbing her slender silver sword from the ground and drawing both it and the dagger from her thigh, rising to her feet armed and poised before I've even registered where my daggers are beside me.

'It's just me,' a familiar voice calls out, and a second later Rune steps into the firelight, quickly pushing back his hood, his jacket dappled with rain and his boots muddy from the forest. 'Sorry, I didn't mean to catch you off-guard.'

Relieved to see him again, I get to my feet as Karliah sheathes her weapons, and from the look in her eyes I realise that she too did not expect Rune to catch her unawares. As he walks forward to the fire, my relief at the sight of him falters slightly when I notice that he is alone, and from the way he looks around the cave, I realise that he seems disturbed by the distinct lack of any other guildmembers in attendance.

Karliah clearly makes the same assessment. 'Where are Brynjolf and Delvin?' she says without hesitation as she walks around the fire to stand before him. 'Are they with you? Are they coming?'

'I haven't spoken to them yet,' Rune tells her apologetically. 'Delvin's been away from the Cistern with clients and I haven't seen Brynjolf in days. But I'll speak to them, I swear.'

The Dunmer's disappointment cuts across her pretty face but my attention is on Rune's own expression as I realise that his blue eyes are clouded with doubt, and my heart suddenly lurches in a strange but fierce trepidation. He's afraid to say whatever he's come here to say.

'Then why are you here?' I say warily.

'It's Sapphire,' Rune says, his tone reluctant and his brow furrowed with concern. 'I was hoping she might be here.'

Something twists tight in my stomach. 'What do you mean?' I ask, some part of me already knowing and not wanting to hear it.

'When we got back to Riften last night, she said she wasn't going to risk Brynjolf and Delvin betraying us to Mercer if we didn't have actual proof to back up what we're saying.' Rune hesitates, his gaze flickering to Karliah, clearly registering her frown at his words and remembering her previous reaction when she showed us the journal. When his gaze moves back at me, Rune's eyes are pained, as if he does not want to speak the words. 'Sapphire said she was going to Riftweald to find her own proof.'

'Riftweald?' I repeat, not understanding what he means but recognising well enough the growing apprehension in my stomach.

'Rune-' Karliah starts, but the words are out of Rune's mouth before she can silence him.

'Mercer's house in the city, the one near the Black-Briar mansion,' the dark blond thief tells me. 'I tried to stop her but she wouldn't listen, and I haven't seen her since. I hoped she might be here.'

Rune looks at Karliah as he continues speaking, but I don't hear the words over the sudden racing of my heart, the blood thudding loud and fast in my ears as I try to process what he has told me and finding my mind trapped on only one thought.

I remember well enough what happened when I broke into Mercer's room.

Ice-cold claws drag down my back, sending a chill straight to my heart. Not needing to think or speak any further, I turn around to the fire and pick up my daggers from the ground.

'Wren,' Karliah says warningly, turning away from Rune as my shaking hands quickly strap her borrowed glass dagger and my own silver dagger to my thighs. 'You can't go to his house. If Mercer really has her, don't you think he'll know you'll try to rescue her?'

'Do you think I fucking care?' I snap, turning back to Rune. 'I'm coming back to Riften with you.'

Rune's deep blue eyes flicker to the violet ones almost indiscernibly before he looks back at me. 'Karliah's right,' he says. 'You're safer here.'

I look at him in shock, barely believing that the dark blond thief chooses now to disagree with me for what might be the first time, feeling my heart thudding fast and frightened in my chest as my mind still tries to process what he has told me. She can't have really gone there. She surely knows what he's capable of doing if she crosses him. The thoughts cut deeper when I realise Sapphire must have thought the same about me.

Karliah makes the most of my stunned silence. 'I told you I'd protect you,' she reminds me. 'I can't do that if you go to Mercer's house, Wren.'

'Well, you're welcome to come with me,' I say bluntly, but before I can turn away and head for the cave entrance alone, the Dunmer catches my arm.

'I'm not walking into his trap again and neither are you.'' Karliah stares at me, holding me fast as I try to pull my arm free of her grip. 'You think I didn't try to break in to his house once in five years? He has guards and every door is locked tighter than a jail cell.'

'And you couldn't ever slip past using your Nightingale tricks?' I retort, thinking of what Mercer said in Snow Veil Sanctum and how Karliah managed to elude him, but my words and memories only remind me of how little the Dunmer has told me about herself and I suddenly wonder why the hell I am even waiting for her to agree with my intention to rescue the raven-haired thief. Karliah's not my friend. Sapphire is. And she's in trouble.

'I could,' Karliah says, not releasing my arm as I struggle against her hold, surprising me once again with her strength. 'But he would've expected that. And if there's one thing I've learnt is that if Mercer expects something, you don't want to do it.' Her violet eyes are unblinking as she looks at me, a hard expression on her face, as if she dislikes the words from her mouth but knows she has to speak them anyway. 'Are you telling me he won't expect you to try to rescue Sapphire if he's taken her captive? That he has some game in mind for you to play the minute you show up there?'

Despite the panicked racing of my heart, I find it difficult to argue with her. Mercer surely remembers how I reacted when Sapphire got thrown into jail, I think, before with a flash of bitterness I remember of how much pleasure he took from my pain that night, and every night since. And how I always played right into his hands.

The truth hits me that I cannot deny Karliah's words, and my stomach seems to hollow with the realisation. He must know I'm alive, and he must know I would try to save Sapphire if he took her. And that last game he played with me, it ended with my throat being cut open.

'Fine,' I say coldly, hating myself for the word but hating Karliah more for being right. 'I'll leave her to Mercer, seeing as you seem to enjoy having people die because of you.' Some cruel cold part of relishes the hurt in Dunmer's violet eyes at my harsh words before I wrench my arm out of her hold and turn my icy gaze to Rune. 'Are you going to do nothing as well?'

The dark blond thief falters at my tone and expression, but it's only a second before his jaw sets and his brow lowers with determination. 'Out of all of us, Brynjolf will be able to get into Mercer's house unopposed,' he says. 'He hasn't been around the Guild for days but I'll find him. And I promise, we'll make sure Sapphire is safe.'

'Then go.' I turn away without another word and sit back down on the ground beside the fire, huddling my body close to the magical flames, although their warmth barely touches me and I feel only a deathly bitter chill inside me, just as I did at Snow Veil Sanctum. I feel like I'm back there, like Mercer is on top of my prone paralysed body, that he is the one deciding what will happen and what I deserve, as he always did.

I don't look around as I hear Karliah murmur something to Rune as she walks with him to the entrance. I don't catch Rune's reply, nor do I care to. When Karliah returns to the fire a minute later and sits down opposite me, I avoid her gaze and stare into the fire, still despising her for being right but now despising myself even more for listening to her. All the times I ignored my own common sense, and yet now I listen to reason, when it's not me being hurt.

The minutes crawl past in silence. I hear the rain falling outside and I desperate try to empty my mind of everything but that sound, not wanting to think of anything else.

'I never told you about the Nightingales, did I?' Karliah murmurs eventually, startling me with her words. 'I should've explained everything the moment we met, about Nocturnal and the Skeleton Key, but it has never felt like the right time to sit down and talk about it.'

I turn my head sharply to her, the movement making pain twinge in my neck. 'And now is?' I say viciously, my hand rising instinctively to my throat, my fingertips feeling the heat of the tender flesh there, the blood seeming to pulse faster than normal through my neck. 'You really think I want to hear about your precious fucking Key now?'

The Dunmer only looks at me, her eyes flickering down to my neck. 'Does it hurt a lot?' she asks quietly.

'Probably no worse than what Sapphire is feeling right now,' I snap, quickly taking my hand away from the wound at my throat and staring into the flames, not wanting to look at her anymore or admit my pain.

Karliah lets the silence hang in the air again, and I am only too relieved not to speak any further, drawing my knees up to my chest in an attempt to stay warm but knowing no fire or body heat could relieve the chill inside me.

As the minutes slowly turn into an hour and Karliah soon sets to gently crushing the flowers between the stones again, I feel her gaze flicker up onto me repeatedly and yet I barely notice and care even less, my mind restlessly picturing every possible circumstance that Sapphire is enduring at this moment and finding the knot in my stomach tightening with every imagined hurt and humiliation. This is my fault, I brought her into this, I think, realising that if I had never sent her the letter and the dress, she never would have come here and never would have thought to break into Mercer's house. For me. She did it for me. And I'm just going to sit her and let him do whatever he likes to her.

And I know what he likes.

I stand up abruptly, my legs aching with stiffness and my heart aching worse. 'I'll be back in a minute,' I say to Karliah.

'Wren,' the Dunmer says, putting aside her vials and rising to her feet too.

'I'm going to get water from the stream,' I tell her. 'Is that a problem?'

She doesn't even bother to throw a pointed look at the full waterskin on the ground beside the fire. 'Wait for Rune to speak to the Brynjolf,' she says. 'He'll find her.'

'Karliah, if you think Brynjolf and Rune will outsmart Mercer, you're clearly thinking with something other than your damn head,' I snap viciously.

Karliah only raises an eyebrow. 'Isn't that what you're doing, Wren?' she says softly, no malice in her voice. 'I learnt the hard way not to listen to your heart when you're dealing with Mercer Frey. Don't make the same mistake as I did.'

'But sitting here and letting her die isn't a mistake?' I say, feeling my heart flutter dangerously with the thought and realising that I have wasted enough time. An hour, if not more, of sitting here pretending this isn't happening, when I knew what I must do from the moment Rune told me. 'Look, I don't give a fuck what you believe I should do,' I tell Karliah viciously. 'I agreed to help you and you expect me to trust your fucking word and obey you. Sapphire is my friend, you're little more than a stranger who captured me and now wants to use me to gain the trust of the Guild. Why should I-' I stop myself, knowing that angering her is senseless, as if she wants to stop me physically, she is both stronger and quicker than I am. Threats will work, though. 'I'm going to the fucking stream,' I say coldly. 'You can follow me like a fucking jailer if you want, but if you do, I swear I'll never help you with the Guild. They can kill me for a traitor too, but I'll make sure I die telling them that you were the one who murdered Gallus and I've been helping you destroy the Guild all this time.'

Before I can register her expression or wait for her response, I turn away to the entrance of the cave, my legs shaking and my heart pounding when I step out into the drizzling rain. I pull up my hood as I walk towards the stolen horse, tied by its bridle to a nearby tree, daunted by the thought of riding alone for the first time but knowing it is the fastest way to the city. Soon realising that the saddle must be back in the cave, I push aside my trepidation and free the horse, leading it to a nearby tree stump and looping the reins over its head before I use the stump to climb up onto the creature's back awkwardly. Knowing I have no time to worry about how to ride comfortably, I jerk the horse's reins and kick it forward in the direction Sapphire and Rune went last night; as the creature moves and darkness of night envelopes me, the lingering light from the fire in the cave behind disappears and I feel a shred of panic that I may misjudge my bearings and end up lost in the shadows of the forest. Even if I ride til dawn, at least I'm not sitting doing nothing.

I urge the horse faster, hoping the creature will at least have some instinct of which direction will take us towards civilisation; my hands clinging tight to the reins and my thighs gripping just as tight around the horse's back, the discomfort of riding along with the poor visibility through the misty rain provides an adequate distraction from the thought of exactly where I am going, conscious of the fact that however uncomfortable I am, Sapphire might be suffering far worse at this very moment.

To my intense surprise, it's not long before the trees grow sparser and I discover that we were camped closer to the city than I imagined; the far-off sight of Riften's wooden walls through the murky shapes of the trees and the faint hum of the city sends relief coursing through me, and I urge the horse faster, my relief heightening further when I hear distant neighing ahead off to the right and see firelight flickering in the distance. I'm near the stables, which means I'm not too far from the secret way into the city that Brynjolf showed me.

As I come to the city wall, the horse slows its pace, overworked and snorting its protest at my urgency. Convinced that I'm near the right place and deciding that I can search the area faster on foot, I dismount, my weak legs quivering beneath me as I land on the sodden ground. I leave the horse free to its own will as I scan around through the night shadows, trying to remember exactly which grassy thicket conceals the trapdoor.

'Fuck,' I curse, wishing the clouds would part to allow moonlight to illuminate the way, knowing my sight is too poor to find the hidden entrance without a source of light and feeling frustrated that Karliah would have undoubtedly been able to find the trapdoor in the dark with ease. Or she could've cast her flames to set the grass alight to show her the way.

A glimmer of hope strikes me then, and as I raise my hands, the healing spell suddenly glows from my palms before I have even consciously thought about trying to cast. Startled, I hold out my hands and quickly scan the nearby ground, pacing faster than Karliah and straining my eyes through the hazy light, desperate for the spell to last long enough for me to find what I am looking for. As I search, I soon feel my strength wavering, and just as the glow starts to fade from my hands, the faint light falls upon an unusually thick clump of grass, and as I hurry forward, I catch sight of a rotten wooden board peeking out beneath the thicket.

The spell dies in my palms, plunging me back into darkness as I drop down to my knees in the soggy grass and push aside the thicket to wrench open the trapdoor. I waste no time in lowering myself down the slippery rungs of the ladder and descending into the shadowy depths below.

When I drop down onto the damp stone ground and set off through the passageway, I discover that only one of the magelight lanterns is alight about halfway along, the dim glow flickering uneasily and throwing the passageway into utter darkness every few seconds before flaring back into life.

My heart beating as uneasily as the flickering magelight, I haven't walked far before I raise my hands and try to cast the healing spell again, unnerved by the way the shadows seem to move and dance around me and suddenly wanting a steady source of light; however, inhibited by my nerves, only a small dull glow rises in my palms, barely enough to illuminate my own body, let alone banish the shadows that seem to press in around me.

My footsteps falter as I feel a shiver pass down my spine, my nervous breathing louder than the sound of dripping water echoing throughout the tunnel. If I'm scared now, how the fuck am I going to walk into Mercer's house?

Steeling myself, I hurry forward, my boots slipping on the mossy ground with my haste and my hands shaking a little as I hold them in front of my body to cast the glow as best I can. When I catch sight of the end of the passageway and the ladder up to the city, relief flutters in my heart momentarily, until suddenly the shadows move around me in a way that I know has nothing to do with the uneasy light.

A hand grabs my shoulder from behind, pulling me back against a broad solid body, and the glowing warmth in my hands extinguishes in an instant as I feel the touch of a dagger pressed to my throat.

I am about to scream when I hear a familiar voice murmur in my ear and my scream dies as surely as the glowing light from my hands.

'Give me one reason.'

A bitter shiver races down my back and my f