Author's Note: This is a sequel to my story "Borrowed Trouble" and the second(ish) part of my Archer's Paradox series. I am hoping I did a sufficient job of recapping in this chapter so that going back and reading isn't required - or possibly interested you enough to go give it a read. ;)
The Fortunate Favourite
Chapter One: Dire Straits
The Goldenglow job had been simple.
Dangerous, but simple. And there was a lot riding on the outcome. The job had been – and still remained – vital to the guild's future fortune and success. That was why he'd entrusted it to Vex. She was careful, and she was good. She'd promised to get the job done, and Brynjolf had all but put the worry out of his mind.
Vex would see it finished.
Maybe he shouldn't have been so eager. Maybe he shouldn't have sent her out there alone. Maybe he shouldn't have put so much faith into one person – gods above knew he should have learned that lesson by now. He'd always been a fast learner, but he could also be the most stubborn of pupils and it was always those around him who paid the price.
Another lesson yet unlearned.
Brynjolf had never expected it would spiral down to this. In the twenty years he'd run with the Riften thieves guild, he had seen his fair share of jobs gone wrong. Even his own luck had turned sour time and again. As was most often the case, there was no explaining it. Things just went south sometimes. It was the work, a part of the life. They were thieves, after all, grifters and outlaws who tempted fate, and were blessed or cursed by its favour.
Partners got pinched, lookouts got lazy, desperate people talked. Sure, it was ugly and most times avoidable, but it happened.
But this –
She was soaked to the bone, his little Vex, and her hair was strung with reeds. He had scarcely recognized her when he'd walked down the steps, huddled shivering as she was near the fire that was kept burning beneath the brewing vats. The cellar of the meadery was dark but for those licking flames, casting a ghoulish pall on everything their light touched. Vex, washed of colour, was little more than a ghost.
"Shor's bloody bones," he swore quietly as he knelt down next to her. Delicately, he reached up to brush away the bloody hair matted to her forehead. The gash there was impressive.
"Don't you d-dare start coddling me," she hissed, batting him away. "It's nothing, I'm fine."
But it wasn't nothing. She wasn't fine.
He stood and stepped back. He turned to Maul, lingering in the shadows.
"Thank you for the help, lad."
Maul shrugged his shoulders and kept his arms folded tight over his chest. "She's just lucky it was me who found her and not one of the guards," he said.
Brynjolf silently agreed with him. He was going to need more information soon, he needed to know what had gone wrong, but in that moment, Brynjolf was simply thankful he would have the chance to hear the story from Vex's own lips. He wouldn't press her about it just then. Perhaps after she stopped shaking in her boots, but before she dried out and he took her back to the cistern.
There was time yet.
At that moment, however, he had an edgy mercenary standing before him, one who would go straight to Maven when he left the boilery, and there were a few things Brynjolf needed to make perfectly clear before he let that happen.
He looked to Vex slumping in her chair. He was sharply reminded of the return of Etienne Rarnis and the chaos he'd dragged in with him when he'd escaped the Thalmor a few months past.
This wasn't the cloak-and-dagger Dominion, though. This was guild business. This was Vex.
And he was the one who had sent her in.
"Will you be all right while I –"
She cut him off. "I will kill you if you talk to me like that one more time. Don't make me kill you, Bryn."
"Such a sweetheart you are, lass," he said with a smile, and left her alone. He slipped into the shadows and out of her line of sight – not that he was entirely certain she watched him go. She seemed drawn inward, and just by the look of her, he couldn't say he blamed her.
Maul hadn't moved, keeping his distance from Vex, but in his eyes Brynjolf could read impatience.
"Found her in the lake, out past the fishery," said Maul, offering his side of things without having been asked. The gentle rattle of the simmering vats all but blocked out their conversation. It was a good hiding place. "She was holding on to the collapsed pier, couldn't pull herself up out of the water."
"And no one else saw you?"
Maul shrugged his massive shoulders. "Can't be too sure. There's a pair of guards out on patrol, but they're sticking pretty close to the gate tonight."
Brynjolf smirked. He knew very well that what kept those guards close to the gate on that night of all nights was the weight of Maven's gold in their pockets, but if Maven had decided that such information did not concern the mercenary, Brynjolf was not about to go against her. And so he shook his head instead, as if he found the whole thing lamentable but entirely beyond his control.
Vex's own poor luck.
"Did she say anything to you?"
"Grieved my maiden's ear with all her cussing."
Brynjolf laughed. "Aye, I don't doubt that, but did she say what happened?"
"Not a word. That's why I came for you."
"I'm glad you did. Let me have until morning before you go to Maven. Then she can having something to chew on at breakfast. I need a chance to give Mercer the heads up, eh?"
He clapped the mercenary on the shoulder. "I'm in your debt, friend," he said. These were not words he used lightly, if at all – ever – but it was a debt he was more than willing to incur on Vex's behalf. There was no denying he had a soft spot for the girl, though it was beyond him why she allowed it, and he doubted he could have borne the guilt if she'd been caught or killed because he sent her in unprepared.
He leaned back and craned his neck to see past the towering vat to take in the sight of Vex, shivering beneath a blanket and so reminiscent of Rarnis that he had to look away. After all, one look at her was all he really needed to know that she was hurt and shaken and angry, that nothing had gone according to plan.
"Thank you again," he said to Maul, and nodded toward the door.
As he watched the mercenary lumber up the stairs, he let loose a sigh and ran his hands slowly through his hair, but it was only when he heard the doors to the docks creak shut that he stepped out of his shadowy little corner. He found a chair and placed it in front of Vex. He sat down and put his elbows to his knees, leaning toward her.
"Tell me what happened, lass."
His little Vex was trembling, but at the sound of his voice she tensed, tried to stop it, to put an end to such weakness as human frailty and the limitations of her own body. Her leg jounced forcefully with the effort. He'd never seen her more agitated, more vexed than she was in that moment. Mara's mercy, he hoped never to again.
She sniffed. "Maven's got a big problem on her hands, Bryn. We've got a big problem."
"Aye, I can see that much. I was looking for a bit more elaboration."
"Aringoth has gone and hired mercenaries to protect the estate," she said, wincing as she shifted. "There's not a city guardsman on the whole island."
"How's that, then?" Brynjolf asked, scarcely believing it. "Who paid to keep that quiet?"
"I thought you were the one with all the information."
Brynjolf snorted. "A fair point."
"They caught me just inside the house," she said, pulling a face as if she found it distasteful, which he supposed it was. A thief like her, sleek and professional, caught by some blundering mercenary hired off the roadside. It was a damn shame. "They were patrolling the halls, Bryn. Expecting trouble."
"Aringoth was waiting for us to make a move," he said, shaking his head. "And what about you?"
Vex scoffed. "What about me?"
"Looks like you've been in quite the tangle." He raised an eyebrow at her, and she had the decency to look contrite, even if just for a moment. "If something's happened –"
"Something has happened, Brynjolf," she said gravely. "Aringoth is locking down, locking us out. If we lose Goldenglow –"
He stared at her hard, and spoke in a tone that would brook no argument. "We won't lose Goldenglow. Have a little faith, lass. We will handle this, and Maven will have nothing to fret over." Soft spot or not, she needed to be reminded that such concerns were above her pay grade.
Vex looked sceptical. "What about Mercer?"
"Let me deal with Mercer. Just rest awhile. We'll head back to the Flagon soon."
He left her there in the smoky cellar of the meadery to wallow in her failure. He knew her well enough to leave her to it for a little while. He also knew that once she'd composed herself, she'd want to head straight back to the cistern. If he had to guess, he would say that she had no intention of allowing him to make excuses for her in front of the guild master.
It would infuriate Mercer. Bless her and that mouth of hers. And once Mercer was storming and stewing, once he'd taken to stalking the length behind his desk until he wore a furrow right into the stone, Brynjolf would swoop in with an easy smile, ready as ever with a risky solution to save their hides once more.
Now all he needed to do was find that solution.
The night's bitter cold hit him hard as he stepped outside. The wind was all frozen fingers, sneaking in beneath his collar and up his sleeves to steal all his warmth away. He braced himself against that thieving wind as he walked briskly past the fishery, down the pier to where a cog was moored. The pier was a mess of crates and rope and netting here, and would hide him well enough while he tried his best to collect his thoughts.
A deep shiver went through him as the cold settled properly in his bones. He did not envy Vex her swim, and the thought only served to fuel his guilt more. He pulled his hood up to guard against the wind, listening as it drove the water into white-capped waves to break against the wooden pilings beneath his boots. He tried to breathe a little deeper, to fill himself with winter's stark, empty peace. Lulled for a moment by the wind and the water, he watched as the lights of Goldenglow estate burned in the darkness at the centre of the lake.
In truth, Brynjolf was at a loss. In a single night, the situation with Goldenglow had gone from bad to worse, and unless the problem was remedied quickly, he had not the faintest idea how the guild would manage to redeem itself in Maven's eyes. Never mind for the moment the gold that all her lucrative and merciless business endeavours brought them. Maven's good opinion was crucial to the guild's very survival.
In a few days, the whole of the city would know that Aringoth had dismissed the city guard, who were notoriously the most effective of Maven's eyes and ears. Every shopkeeper and business owner in the hold would know that the glorified beekeeper had found some way to free himself from the iron grip of the Black-Briar family.
Every man, woman, and child in the city would know that the guild had failed to maintain the balance.
The very thought of the state of their reputation made Brynjolf snort, sending up a cloud of fog as the sudden burst of breath met the cold night.
It was a tenuous thing, their hold on the city. They were barely clinging to a purchase long ago eked out by the influence of the Black-Briar family. Maven's drive for dominance in all things had only increased their fortunes – but that golden time was twenty years gone now, and her confidence in them dwindled by the day. It was only the sure knowledge that Maven's need for the guild would never die that allowed Brynjolf to sleep at night, the dagger beneath his pillow notwithstanding.
What helped Mercer, the gods only knew.
Something in the distant dark drew his eye – there, again –
A burst of dragonfire rose high over the ruins in mountains to the northwest. It came once more, a brilliant jet of orange and yellow, before the sleek silhouette of the beast curved against the star-filled sky and disappeared into the depths of the night – blessedly away from the city.
Another shiver came over Brynjolf, one that had naught to do with the winter's chill. The dragons. The war. The guild's problems shrank by comparison, but these were matters that were close to his heart, and could not be banished in a simple, single moment of clarity.
Outside the walls of Riften, the world around him was shifting, shaking down to its foundations and being forged anew by great men and strange events, and though Mercer had ordered him to carry on with business as usual, even Brynjolf could not ignore just how much his little organization had been affected by the winds of change sweeping across Skyrim.
Ulfric's cause was gaining momentum; it was only a few weeks past that he'd marched his Stormcloaks to the gates of Whiterun. He'd taken the city in a matter of hours, and all those proud stone walls had stood for nothing.
It was said that he fought with a dragon at his side, a loyal pet he sent to do his bidding – it was also said that he had taken the dragon to his bed, that it would rule beside him as his queen and that all of Skyrim would burn before his lust for power and his dragon queen was sated.
Falkreath had been the next to fall, scarce a fortnight later, and with it, the Stormcloaks controlled all roads in and out of Cyrodiil. It increased the pressure upon the Imperials to retake Riften for the empire, putting their fair lady in the line of fire. Even though Mercer tried to keep the guild neutral to one side or another, it was undeniable that while a little competition was profitable, blood in the streets was not.
After all, the guild had been given a taste of the attentions of the Dominion, the focus of the war, and none among them was eager to repeat the experience.
How fate had intervened to bring that storm down on their heads, Brynjolf still didn't know. He wasn't certain if he'd ever find the answer.
Maven had yet to truly forgive them for their unforeseen involvement in the Dominion's affairs. Close to two months had passed since Etienne Rarnis had returned to the fold, the Thalmor on his heels. It was an incident that was rarely spoken of in the Flagon, though Brynjolf had heard the guards telling the tale amongst themselves while on patrol, that bloody, chaotic night in the Ratway when a light had been shone to reveal the hidden strings and rearrange the shadows.
And then there had been the girl. Archer, she'd named herself freely, while her eyes had betrayed her lie. Madeline, she'd whispered into his embrace, her voice giving away the vulnerability of the truth.
He still remembered her wildfire eyes, and the taste of her like a dagger, blood and steel upon his lips.
Gone, like candle smoke. Just a lingering memory that never had its moment to be before it was already gone.
Brynjolf had spent more of his own gold than he cared to admit using guild resources trying to track her down, but she and the old man she'd dragged out of Riften had disappeared into thin air the second they'd left the city. They could very well have crossed the border out of Skyrim, gone to Morrowind or Hammerfell, far beyond his contacts and his reach.
Despite what Mercer had said to convince the others, Brynjolf did not believe for even a moment that the Thalmor had caught up with her. She was a lucky one, he'd felt that in his gut the very instant he'd laid eyes on her. He'd tried to capture a little of that for himself and the guild, to no avail.
His own poor luck, that.
A strong gust of wind pulled at his hood, stealing his breath and interrupting his thoughts, as if reprimanding him for his pining. With a sigh, he shook off the cold and with a last dragon-seeking glance, turned away from the mountains and the lake, and hurried up the pier back to the meadery.
Dawn was not long off, and he needed to get Vex back to the cistern.
She was waiting for him just inside at the top of the cellar stairs, arms crossed, that signature dour frown securely in place.
"How's that cold for you?" she asked, quite cheeky for a half-drowned cat. Though she was still pale as a winter peach, she'd cleaned herself up a bit and had pulled most of the reeds from her hair. More like herself, a sight to make him smile.
"It's a little too chill for my blood," he teased, knowing he could handle the cold better than most in the guild.
"Are you done making me wait?"
He chuckled, and gestured up the stairs. "Aye, that I am. Let's go – oh, and lass? Tread quietly now. We are still trespassing after all. Wouldn't want to bring the guard down on our heads."
Vex rolled her eyes at him, and gave him a little shove. "I wouldn't dare. It would ruin the lovely evening we're having. You always take me to the nicest places, Bryn."
He smirked at her back as she slipped past him up the stairs.
It's a charmed life we lead, little one, he thought, but he could not find his smile again nor convince himself the words any truer than the lie they really were. Some days he managed, but not tonight.
The guards patrolling the streets and the plaza paid them little mind, though he kept Vex close, and she gave a few drunken stumbles for full effect. It was a quiet night, cold and full of stars. For all the dire news brought in on the wind of late, dragons and vampires and Stormcloaks, Riften had seen little of such troubles. Since the incident with the the girl and the Thalmor down in the warrens, life in his cozy little corner of Skyrim had been dull – and, he was sorry to say, downright boring.
That was, at the very least, until Maul had slipped unnoticed into the cistern mere hours before to whisper in his ear that Vex was in a bad way and that he should come at once.
Brynjolf had never been one to believe in signs from the gods. He was not a devout man, but neither was he a faithless one. Aside from the obligatory pleas in times of crisis – of which themselves were few and far between – Brynjolf tended to leave the gods alone as they had chosen to leave him all those years ago.
It was a mutually beneficial agreement, the best there was.
But the dragonfire on the mountainside had him thinking, and that in turn became a hollowed pull somewhere inside him, less guesswork and more gut instinct, and by the time he and Vex had ducked into the deep shadows of the temple courtyard, he was all but certain that the troubles were just beginning again.
Something was coming, as something always did when the guild was unprepared, only this time – perhaps his eyes had been open to see the sign.
Vex knocked his arm away when they entered the mausoleum. She pressed the button with the toe of her boot, leaving a wet imprint in the frost. The stone plate slid smoothly out of the way, and the grate to the cistern beckoned, torchlight gleaming faintly from below.
"Can we get this over with now?" she asked.
"After you, lass," he said, watching as she descended sulkily into the darkness. He gave one last look to the night sky and its scattered stars, but the hulking mountains over the city were empty and still, and there was nothing to see but shadows.