A/N: hey, I'm back. It's only been over a year since the last time I posted saying I was hoping to update more frequently. Shout out to my beta's for still putting up with my nonsense, and thank you to everyone who reviewed. A very special thank you to the anonymous reviewer K.M. I cannot express what your words meant to me, I was nearly in tears reading your review. Thank you so very much.
Ariana followed Mercer through the streets of Riften, through the door of one of Riften's larger manors. It was two stories tall, with cedar shingles and Nordic carvings along the outer beams on the roof. The wooden walls were either darkened by age or the inclement winter weather; she wasn't sure. Frosted glass windows adorned the front of the house, and an imposing door with cast iron hinges sat at its center.
She had passed the estate numerous times during her stay in the city. Brynjolf's warning to never target the dour building had stuck in her mind, though that may have had more to do with how stern his warning had been rather than the appearance of the home itself. Mercer turned to the right upon entering, passing through a door beside the steep staircase and into a room that could only be described as a study.
The room was cramped, overflowing bookshelves filling every available wall, save for the back corner where a shabby cabinet stood against the wall. The only light came from the windows set in the outer wall. A half burnt taper candle sat in a burnished metal holder on the corner of the desk. Remarkably, the surface of the desk itself was almost barren.
"Sit," Mercer commanded as he rounded the solid wooden desk. Settling into a chair that looked like it had been around since the Oblivion Crisis, he pulled out a leather bound book from one of the drawers and placed it before him.
For a long moment he stared at her, his hands frozen over the closed book, his expression stony. Ariana met his gaze evenly, refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing how unnerved she felt.
When she thought the arms of the chair might crack from her grip on them, he finally broke the silence. "That little display of yours certainly puts certain matters in perspective, Dragonborn."
The title sounded like a curse in his mouth. "Guildmaster-"
"No," he cut her off, voice even and steely. "Here is how this will go: I will ask you a question, and you will answer. Understood?"
His eyes sharpened. "Understood, thief?"
"Good." He leaned back in the chair, the wood creaking. There was a hint of an upturn to his lips.
Ariana's grip tightened further on the chair. She wanted to Shout that smug, self-satisfied look off his face. It would mean her expulsion from the Guild, and that she'd never be able to see Brynjolf again, but the thought was incredibly tempting.
"What business do you have with an Elder Scroll?"
She blinked, his question catching her off guard. "I…" She paused, trying to form a convincing lie. How in the name of Talos had he found out about the scrolls? Had Brynjolf…?
"Answer!" Mercer snapped, and she flinched.
"I need it to fight Alduin," she blurted, the truth coming out in an unexpected rush.
He cocked an eyebrow. "Fight Alduin? Really? How-? No. I don't care. Do you have any idea the damage you've caused? Your thoughtless meddling nearly brought the wrath of the entire Imperial army on our heads. Not to mention the battalion of Altmer who conveniently 'disappeared' in the sewers."
Her eyes widened and she felt her cheeks grow hot. "I - I didn't -" She stuttered.
"Think?" Mercer finished for her. "Clearly. Artifacts like that draw attention. A bad sort of attention. While you've managed to prove yourself useful on occasion, I am not convinced your presence is a benefit."
A lead weight dropped in her stomach and her mouth turned to dry ash. She was out of the guild. Of course she was, it was what any sensible leader would do.
His face was impassive. "You are, at least, a somewhat competent thief. I won't deny your potential. But no amount of skill is worth risking the entire Guild. Do you understand?"
Ariana swallowed hard, relief turning her voice into a whisper. "Yes, Guildmaster."
"Consider this a warning then," he said, eyes boring into her. "Magical fated hero or not, I have more people to concern myself with than you. You can fool the others as to your motivations, but you don't fool me."
Ariana could hear her heartbeat thundering in her ears, her cheeks burning in shame. She hated him, and worse, she hated he was right. It never should have even gotten to this point. She had no desire to be a career thief, but she had never intended to make the Guild a target.
"Now," Mercer said, forcing her attention back to him. "Since a nemesis I thought long-dead has decided to make her reappearance, I can't help but think your position in my Guild and your… abilities are nothing short of a gift."
The way he drew out the last word made the hairs on the nape of her neck stand on end.
"You currently remain useful to the Guild. Try to keep it that way."
Mercer leaned over, opening the book before him. She had been dismissed.
Ariana slowly stood up, and was instantly pinned by a look. "Sit. Down." Mercer ordered.
She stared back, unmoving, panic churning from her gut, clawing its way up her throat. In the back of her mind she could feel the dragon's soul, the panic turning into a boiling fury. She was done being lectured like some disobedient child.
Mercer made a noise of amusement. "Suit yourself. The other Imperial who showed up, you know him." He picked up a pen, writing a note on the page in front of him.
"Yes," she replied, attempting to mask the revulsion the mention of her brother brought. "Caius."
"I do not want to see another incident between you two in my Guildhall. Do we understand each other?"
"Then keep him away from me!" She snapped.
Mercer gave her a long look. "Your relationships with other guild members is your problem. Stop acting like a child and keep away from him yourself."
She resisted the urge to growl in frustration. "Was there anything else?"
"Yes, actually," he replied, resting the pen on the paper. "Your presence in Solitude offers an… interesting opportunity. While Brynjolf is an excellent thief, he can only see so much. So tell me, thief, what did you see?"
Sitting back down in the chair, Ariana tried to remember the details of the job. His interest threw her off balance. She didn't like it.
"Gulum-Ei was incredibly well established," she said at last, forcing herself to look at her Guildmaster. "I can't guess an exact time he had been working on this other smuggling operation, but it had to be at least five years."
Mercer made a thoughtful noise. "Is that all?"
"Your guild contacts who worked for Karliah have all been weak links," she blurted out and immediately regretted her words.
After an uncomfortable silence, Mercer gave a small chuckle. "I wish I could say you were wrong, thief."
Ariana let out the breath she had been holding. "Knowing who to target the way she does, she likely has a network of her own."
"A fair point," he agreed, "and while I would like to believe none among us would fall to her lies, it is entirely possible we have a traitor in our midst."
The implication was staggering, but it did make sense. How else could someone who had been gone for more than a decade know so much?
"Still, that is my concern," Mercer said, reading her expression. "Was that all?"
She thought back, trying to recall any small detail she may have omitted. There was something bothering her about the entire ordeal. Everything had been done with such purpose. Leaving these breadcrumbs had been the plan all along. But why? Was it to distract from something bigger? Or just to entice them into a reckless attack?
"I don't like this," she said at last.
Mercer cocked a brow, wordlessly inviting her to continue.
"It's all planned, all of it, right down to the hints and clues she's been leaving for us to find. The only thing I don't understand is why."
The Breton gave a bitter half smile. "To destroy everything I managed to salvage. This is her revenge for taking over the Guild in her stead. For keeping her from what was supposed to be hers by rights."
"I'm sure Brynjolf has already given you a good idea," he said brusquely, turning his attention back to the page in front of him. "If there is nothing else, thief, you may go."
Questions crowded her mind, but this time Mercer's dismissal was clear. She rose from the chair, retracing her steps out to the familiar streets of Riften. The city felt much less friendly and far colder than when she had stepped off them.
As she made her way back to Honeyside, Ariana couldn't help but look a little closer at every person she passed in the street.
Could the rotund baker be feeding information back to the excommunicated thief? It was no secret Vipir liked his sweets. Or perhaps a maid at the Bee and Barb was passing messages. There was no denying the merchants of the city disliked the idea of giving the Guild their due. Any one of them could be swayed by the promise of bringing it down...
Ariana paused at the doorway of her home, hand going to massage the budding headache behind her eyes. She needed sleep. All of this cloak and dagger conspiracy was exhausting.
Later that evening, Brynjolf stared up at the dark wooden ceiling, Ariana tightly curled up against his side.
It had been an odd day. Overall, Mercer had been far less irritable than expected given Gulum-Ei's betrayal and operations in Solitude. And Caius was a constant and clear window into Ariana's behaviours. Watching him was like watching her in some twisted mirror. He could see the similarities between the siblings and the damage they bore. But where Ariana acted cold and unapproachable to hide how much she cared, Caius would constantly make himself the center of attention, smiling and joking with other guild members, only to look at them with disdain when he thought no one was watching him. Brynjolf knew in no uncertain terms that man would be more than willing to divulge anything about Ariana for the right audience, whether she wanted her history known or not.
Ariana hadn't returned to the Guildhall until much later than expected. It was hours before the Guildmaster had made his reappearance, but the time passed quickly for Brynjolf. A new recruit meant observation on their first job in Riften, and Caius didn't seem to notice his shadow. All in all, he did alright, managing to clean out one of the lockboxes in the market with no difficulty... but nowhere near as quickly as his sister had.
Still, another competent thief would be a benefit to their organization. Brynjolf planned on keeping an eye on Caius though. It was strange that he would show up here without reason or warning.
Ariana shifted beside him. "Why are you still awake?"
A smile came to his lips at her sleepy voice. "Just thinking, lass. Nothing to worry about."
She made a disgruntled noise. "I don't believe you."
"You never do," he joked, kissing the top of her head. "I'm surprised that Mercer left you in one piece after Solitude."
"I'm surprised he didn't kick me out of the Guild," she replied, sounding more awake.
"Don't be ridiculous, he'd be a fool to expel you."
"He thinks I'd be useful in hunting down Karliah," Ariana dismissed, and Brynjolf had to wonder what exactly their Guildmaster had said to her during that meeting.
"You're an asset to the Guild," he replied carefully. "Things have been running a bit more smoothly since you've come here, not in spite of it."
She laughed. "If anything I've brought nothing but trouble here. And that includes my brother."
"You do a lot more good than you know."
"You give me too much credit," she grumbled, but he could hear the blush in her voice.
"I think you don't give yourself enough credit," he said. "The things you've done have rippled all through Skyrim. I've seen it."
She shifted in the bed beside him, laying on her back. "Can't say I've done much for Windhelm. Or Winterhold."
"True, you've never cared for the cold," he teased. "They'll just have to fend for themselves."
"I should have just headed to Elsweyr," Ariana retorted, and he could hear the smile in her words. "I much prefer the warmth there."
"I'm glad you didn't," he said, becoming serious again. "I'm better for meeting you."
There was a brief moment of silence. "I thought I frustrated you more than anything else," she deflected.
Brynjolf laughed. "Oh, you frustrate me to no end. But that doesn't mean I love you any less for it. We're a good team lass, and I wouldn't want anyone else to have my back."
"I chased after you into a vampire den for Shor's sake! Twice!" He said, pulling her closer. "If that's not love, I don't know what is."
She lay an arm over his chest. "Oh."
He shook his head at her obliviousness.
"I love you too," she blurted out after a moment of silence.
He kissed the top of her head. "I know. Now get some sleep. I have the feeling tomorrow will be a busy day."
As Ariana snuggled closer to him, Brynjolf took a moment to soak in this moment of stillness. Something told him that moments like these would be few and far between. But that was a concern for another day. For now, it was enough to have her by his side.
The passing of each day felt slow and heavy, anticipation keeping her on edge and anxious. She tried her best to suppress the urge to flinch every time the Guildmaster's gaze fell on her in the Cistern. Was it her imagination, or was it more often than before?
The shout came from across the room. Ariana bit out a curse in response. She had been avoiding Caius so well up until today. Taking a breath to steady herself and adjusting her armor ever so slightly, she turned on her heel to see her brother approaching from the direction of the training rooms.
"What do you want?" she asked, voice colder than the North Sea.
There was that damned pitiful, pleading look in his eyes again, the one that he used whenever he wanted to get his way. "Ari, please… talk to me. It's been years."
"For damn good reason too," she retorted, leaning away from the hand reaching to grasp her shoulder. Anger simmered in her gut, the voice of the dragon in the back of her mind threatening to burst out in an inferno.
"Come on Ari," Caius entreated, following her toward The Ragged Flagon.
As they passed the midpoint of the room, she caught Mercer's glance toward their direction. For a moment, she could swear she saw a cruel smirk flicker across his lips, but she wasn't about to risk a second look to be sure. Her fingernails cut into the palms of her hands.
"I told you to leave me be," she hissed.
"That was years ago," her brother refuted, doggedly keeping pace with her. "You know, after I got out I went back to the Guild. They said they hadn't seen you."
Ariana pulled the door to the Flagon open with more force that was necessary. "I left the Guild. For good."
Caius scoffed. "To do what? Settle down on a farm like a common peasant? You would be miserable without the excitement of all this."
She grit her teeth. "Don't talk like you know me."
The footsteps behind her stopped, and for a blessed moment she hoped Caius had gotten the point. "What do you mean, I don't know you? You're my sister. You're all I have left."
Without warning, a torrent of memories came rushing back. The smell first, as acrid in her nose as it was that day, burning it's way into her throat. She could see the farmhouse again, gutted by the flames that still burned. Her mother's rasping, ragged voice. The stench of charred flesh and hair. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing back the tears that threatened to fall.
After a long moment, she swallowed around the lump in her throat. "Then you have nothing left."
The door shut behind her as she passed through to the Ragged Flagon, and she didn't look back to see if Caius was following her. She spotted Brynjolf at his usual table, and she wanted nothing more to ask him to come with her back to Honeyside, to escape the stifling air in the Cistern.
Instead, she slid into the chair beside his, her back to the secret door.
"You alright lass?" he murmured, taking a swig from his mug.
The familiar brogue surrounded her, softening the cutting edges of her memories. "I'll be fine. I've heard you've been dealing with a batch of new recruits. How's that been?"
The look she received in response made her laugh, and she instinctually placed her hand over his on the table, seeking him without thinking. Here, under the warm glow of the lanterns, she felt some of the tightness in her chest relax as some of the claustrophobia began to melt away.
The moment didn't last long. "Brynjolf. Ariana." Vipir called from the edge of the bar. "The boss is looking for you."
Ariana looked to Brynjolf in concern, and he gave her a reassuring smile as he rose to his feet. "Thanks, Vipir," he called back. The dark-haired Nord inclined his glass in response then turned his attention back to the bar.
"Best not keep our Guildmaster waiting," Brynjolf said, nudging Ariana's shoulder. She followed him back into the Cistern, which was a lot more empty than it had been when she left it. Clearly assignments had been handed out in her absence.
"Ah, Brynjolf, Ariana. Good. We have a few matters to discuss," Mercer greeted them, still bent over the ledger on his desk.
They crossed the wide room and stopped in front of the wooden desk. After a long moment of silence, Mercer spoke. "Karliah is back, which is a problem we didn't anticipate."
Brynjolf nodded, "And you have a plan to deal with that?"
Their Guildmaster looked up, eyes locking with Ariana's, and she felt the sudden urge to run. You are going to stay here and keep the guild in order. And while you do, your lovely protege and I are going to find her and kill her."
Ariana felt her stomach drop like a stone. The idea of being alone with Mercer for an extended period of time made her feel ill and lightheaded. "No."
"Don't argue, Dragonborn." Again the title was spoken more like an insult, but this time all she could feel was a buzzing numbness turning her limbs to lead.
"You can't be serious!" Brynjolf exclaimed. "After what Karliah did! What she did to you!"
Mercer rose to his full height. "Are you questioning me, Guild Second?"
"If Ariana is going to be going up against Karliah, she deserves to know what she's dealing with!" Brynjolf shouted, slamming his hands down on the desk.
For a moment Ariana thought Mercer would strike the Nord for his explosion, but then the Breton relaxed, crossing his arms and pinning her with a steely gaze.
"Karliah destroyed everything this guild stood for. She murdered my predecessor in cold blood and betrayed the guild. After we discovered what she'd done, we spent months trying to track her down, but she just vanished."
"So why return now?" Ariana asked, giving into the curiosity that had been eating at her since their first encounter in Solitude.
Mercer frowned. "Karliah and I were like partners. I went with her on every heist. We watched each other's backs. I know her techniques, her skills. If she kills me, there'll be no one left that could possibly catch her. And thanks to you two, we now know her location."
Brynjolf raised a brow, and Mercer stabbed at the map on his desk with his finger. "She never struck me as the poetic type. But 'where the end began' can only be one place. The place she murdered Gallus. A ruin called Snow Veil Sanctum."
"She really…" Brynjolf trailed off, shaking his head.
"We have to go out there before she escapes again." There was no missing the malice in Mercer's voice, but for once Ariana couldn't blame him.
"When do we leave?" Ariana asked, and she could swear Mercer smiled. It was an alien expression on his face.
"At first light. We can't let her slip through our fingers."