Stranger Things Have Happened
Laure lay in bed, comfortably between waking and dream. Since becoming a werewolf, she had run the full range of sleeplessness, from light tossing to vivid dreams that left her exhausted upon waking. Lying next to Vilkas had the benefit of calming her sleep on most nights, yet another thing to be grateful for. Not that it would be an issue for much longer, she reminded herself drowsily.
She was considering trying to catch a few minutes' more sleep when she heard a key snick quietly into the lock on the front door. Iona crept in on soft feet and closed the door behind her. The housecarl immediately stoked the fire back into life and began heating water, preparing breakfast. Laure snuggled back into Vilkas' chest, not quite ready to rise yet, content to sprawl lazily in bed for a moment or two longer with her thoughts of the new day's tasks.
Iona tried to be quiet, pulling plates and knives from the cupboards, but she cursed roundly when she bumped a pitcher of water and it splashed over the floor.
Vilkas stretched, pushing himself hard against Laure's back, letting her know he too, was awake, so she called out, “Don't fret Iona; we're up. Or getting there.”
“Sorry, my thane. I didn't mean to rouse you,” Iona called from the front room, setting the plates down with a muffled clatter.
“I say again, don't fret. Vilkas was getting up anyway to come help you with breakfast, aren't you lover?” Laure smirked as she yanked the blanket away from her mate and tucked it under her chin. Vilkas yelped at the sudden cold and shortly he was tugging the blanket, although Laure suspected more to cover his nakedness than from the chill air. Giggling, she fought back, until his fingers began burrowing under her arms, tickling the whole way.
“Perhaps you have forgotten, love, but we have many things to do today. We do not have the luxury of staying in bed all morning,” he reminded her in his low voice.
Shortly after they had arrived, a message had been delivered to the front door, summoning her to a meeting with Maven, who had kept her later than Laure was happy about. It had only served to emphasize how much their time belonged to every one else.
“Well I know it. I was hoping after last night's meeting I wouldn't need to work anymore and I could quietly retire with a dozen well-made manservants to wait on me hand and foot. Looks like I'm stuck with a smelly Nord who shivers when the nasty Dragonborn steals the blankets.” She broke off and howled in laughter when his fingers dug into her sides, and she leaped from bed, hair askew, chest heaving, naked as a newborn.
“You're going to get it someday, serah,” she said, leveling a stern look and finger his way.
“Promises I intend to hold you to,” he replied with an impudent grin, triumphantly tucking the blanket around his waist. “Since you're up, could you help me find my trousers?”
Laure winked and asked sweetly, “The ones I threw in the fire last night? Oops, I do hope you brought spares. I was in a hurry to get you out of them.”
“I suppose I don't really need pants,” he made to rise but she scooped his trousers up and threw them to him instead. He pulled them on and looked about for his tunic, unable to find that either. Until he spotted her a moment later, wearing it, and it only, as she and her housecarl seared up fish and scrambled eggs. Without protest, he pulled an extra tunic from his pack and sat down to watch her slender legs and appreciate the flashes of her backside as she moved about. He wanted to haul her right back to bed, but he had not been jesting when he said they had much to do. Maybe after the wedding--no scratch that, after Alduin--they would be able to take some time for themselves. For now he contented himself with hot food and kisses from his woman and, as she bent over to deliver both, a nice view down the loose neck of his tunic, so he enjoyed that too.
“Eat up,” she said needlessly. He looked down and took up a crusty slice of bread, warm and toasted. She even made her honey-butter he thought happily, tearing off an enthusiastic bite.
“You two are sickeningly cute,” observed Iona.
“Aren't we just?” agreed Laure with a lift of one shoulder and saucy grin to her beloved.
* * *
Breakfast was done, the dishes cleared away, Laure and Vilkas washed and dressed. She rubbed the back of her fingers across his cheek, raising an eyebrow at the rasping hiss it made. “Are you going to shave before we dine with the jarl?”
“Of course. I'll do that while you take care of your other business. Will you be back here before we head over to the keep?”
“Aye, I should come back and change clothes again.” The supple doeskin trousers and linen tunic she wore now might be fine for simple errands, but would never be acceptable for brunch with the jarl. Kissing him goodbye, she slipped out the front door and made her way across town, dashing up the stairs to the temple of Mara. Rolling her shoulders back and taking a deep breath, she opened the door and greeted Maramal, priest of Mara, with a broad smile.
She emerged a half hour later, wondering how she had been out-maneuvered so soundly by the enthusiastic priest. While he had agreed to make the journey to Whiterun to perform the marriage, he had guilted her into aiding him with tasks he had been guided by his goddess to see completed. She had agreed with the condition that she and Vilkas would see them done as long as she was able to see to Alduin first.
Maramal had been delighted with the outcome, and Laure was pleased herself, glad the list was growing shorter. Her next stop took her behind the temple to the graveyard. In moments she was splashing softly down the sewer tunnel, slipping into the back entrance of the Guild. Most everybody was asleep at this hour, so she pocketed the gems and gold Bryn had taken to leaving in her personal chest, and slid into the Flagon without waking any of the sleeping thieves.
Vekel gave a wave and poured a flagon of mead for her, setting it on the counter where she pulled up a stool.
Delvin gave her a smile and said, “Well, well, look who's dropped in for a bit of a friendly visit. We heard you was in town, Boss. How's the business o' being Dragonborn treatin' you?”
“Oh, you know the way of it. I wave my magic swords at the dragons and they fall out of the sky, dead at my feet. I am then showered with gold and gratitude. Handsome young warriors hold doors and offer me drinks. And my shit doesn't stink, either.” She grinned his way and they clinked mugs before drinking deeply.
“I take it the truth ain't quite so shiny then? We hear things, course. But half of it seems too strange to be true.”
“Don't believe half of what you hear, and take the rest with a grain of salt. You know how things get exaggerated. I'll tell you all about it when I get back from Sovngarde. How are things here?”
Delvin knew her well enough to ignore the comment about Sovngarde, filing it away as something to ask Bryn about later.
She covered the top of her flagon when Vekel moved to refill it. She wanted to keep a clear head, so she nursed the rest of her drink while Vekel and Delvin filled her in on the happenings and Guild business. Tonila sauntered in a while later and joined them for a bit before going to a quiet corner to break her fast.
Conversation trailed off for a moment. Delvin glanced her way with a curious look and cleared his throat. “So Brynjolf dropped an interesting nugget of news on us the other day. Said you're getting married soon, to that Companion fellow. Any truth to that?”
“That is correct. Vilkas and I are to wed in Whiterun before the moon turns.”
“Huh, 'that is correct' sounds nice and proper. You must know more than your saying. Truth is, we all figured that you'd just settle down with Bryn. This man your hitching yourself to, he make you happy?”
“Very much so, Del. How does Bryn seem? Is he okay?” Laure fiddled with her mug, eyes glued to the scuffed counter.
“Well enough. It's been a long time coming I think. He's had time to come to terms with the change, happened slow-like, so it's not as if he was particularly surprised. A little hurt, but he's a grown man. I told him years ago to not let you slip by, but he wasn't about to come over all heavy and try to force you into something you weren't comfortable with. His loss, and maybe next time a lass comes along and turns him inside out like you did, he'll take some initiative.”
“Perhaps. He can be rather stubborn.” Laure went ahead and took the shot of brandy that Vekel plunked in front of her, feeling the need for a little extra bit of fortification just then. “B-aahh, wow! A little fire to warm the gut. What I was about to say is, Brynjolf will always have a special place in my heart, no matter that I am wed or not. We shared too much for me to forget. Things are just . . .different now.”
“I'm sure he will be delighted to hear that,” Delvin remarked dryly.
“I'm sure he will be. Look, I have a few things to take care of, but when he wakes up, let him know I need to see him before I leave tomorrow, please.”
Delvin nodded slowly, accepting a refill of his empty mug.
A short time later, she excused herself and walked to the corner where the face changer sat. “Galathil, I have a little work that I need done, if you've the time.”
The Bosmer woman smiled up and said through gritted teeth, “Of course, what can I do for you this time?”
Laure grinned and announced, “Well, you see, I'm getting married and dragons keep burning my hair off. I'm just vain enough to want to style it nicely for the wedding. So I would like it longer, please. Also, I want some scars on my neck and chest healed.” She rolled a few glittering gems between her fingers, then offered them over. “For your time and skill.”
Galathil stood, making the gems disappear to a pocket sewn in her sleeve. “Aye longer, and thicken it up a bit while I'm at it. Here, sit.” She pressed Laure down to the bench, fingers already massaging her scalp, combing through her swiftly lengthening hair as she worked her peculiar magics. “So does Bryn know about this wedding yet?”
“Aye, he knows.” Laurelin watched her hair transform, becoming a glossy, brighter gold, waves springing to being. It did little to distract her from the worry that came when she thought of Bryn's reaction to her letter, the news. She had promised to give him the whole story and catch up with him when she was next in Riften, thinking they could sit down with a bottle and talk, but she hadn't anticipated Vilkas meeting her on the road into town. It might complicate a few of her plans, but she would have to work it out quickly; time was short and she was sure she didn't want Vilkas and Bryn meeting just now. Or ever. She was frowning when the other mer slid a mirror around to show her the results.
Galathil stepped back, “Did I do something amiss? Too much gold?”
“No, my compliments, actually. My hair hasn't looked this nice in years. I was just thinking.”
“About your husband to be? Or Bryn?” the face changer asked with a smirk. She set to tightly braiding Laure's waist length mane.
“Yes,” was Laure's brisk reply, as she mentally scratched off one more entry on the list. Next was midday meal with Jarl Laila. This much of the day she could look forward to without any worry. Laila was a leader concerned for the well-being of her people; if she had a fault, it was that she was too trusting of her advisers and thanes, often seeming unaware of the shadier business happening right under her nose. Laure could think of two thanes of Riften who were unarguably on the shady side. Namely herself and Maven Black-Briar. However, if Laila was easily manipulated, at least she wasn't a tyrant, and Laure did have genuine affection for the jarl of the Rift.
Outside once more, Laurelin headed back to Honeyside, ready to change into more appropriate attire. At the gate, a half dozen guards clustered, arguing loudly.
“What is the trouble here? Has there been some sort of attack?” Laure asked when she drew near.
The bickering stopped and one of them turned and replied, “Werewolf attacked not far from here, in broad daylight no less. We told that Companion staying at Honeyside; he said he'd take care of it, but told us to pull all the men back in the gates until he returns. Cocky bastard that one—hey, where you going?”
Laure was already dashing down the alley toward her house. When she burst in, Vilkas' street clothes lay discarded on the floor and he was fully armored, pulling on his gauntlets. His silver eyes met hers and he smiled grimly. “I'm afraid I will have to be excused from lunch, my love.”
“Of course, I understand. Please, be safe. You know our feral brothers are wildly unpredictable, and I want you in one piece for our wedding night.”
“I'll be back before you know it. In one piece.” He leaned over, kissing her hard, then snatched up sword and shield. He kissed her once more, before she pushed him off and spun him around.
“Go on then. Get all sweaty and bloody so I can get you naked and wash you clean.”
“Deal,” he said and was out the door. Laure listened to his steps and then bent to pick up his discarded clothing before changing herself.
* * *
Laila stood to greet her guest, hands outstretched. “Laurelin, I am glad to have you here again! But where is your Companion friend? I thought he would be joining us today.”
Laure took her friend's fingers and clasped them warmly in her own. “I'm afraid he was called away on urgent business. I hope you are not too disappointed, my lady.”
“Ha! Well leave it to a man to find any reason to avoid suffering through a meal with two women catching up on the latest gossip, aye?”
“Truly. However, in his defense, he wished to investigate the report of a werewolf seen not far from your gates.”
The jarls eyes widened, “Indeed! Well, I suppose he can be excused then. Will he be quite safe?”
“Vilkas is one of the mot skilled swordsmen I know. He won't take any unnecessary risks.”
“If you say so. I should be terrified to face such a beast myself, but enough of that. I had thought we might take our refreshment up in my rooms. There is much we should talk of, and little I want shouted from the walls by sunset.”
“Of course, it would be a pleasure.” Laure followed the jarl through the keep and up the stairs, smiling to herself. Poor Laila had no idea she had invited the wolves to dinner.
Jarl Laila indicated a velvet cushioned chair for each of them before a brightly burning fire. They settled in while a serving girl poured wine and lit a few lanterns, then quietly departed.
Laila sniffed her wine, swirling it thoughtfully, a small smile curving her lips upward. “So, Dragonborn, it seems we will be celebrating a momentous event soon. Are you nervous?”
Laure sipped and blithely said, “Not at all.” Laila raised an eyebrow and chuckled knowingly. “All right, I'm terrified. Is that more to your liking? But also elated too. Makes for an interesting emotional state. Is that normal?”
“Perfectly, I believe.”
“Well, I guess I'm fine, then. Here is your invitation, if you can find the time to leave. I would understand if you could not.” Laure passed the wax-sealed parchment over.
“Nonsense. A few days away from the Rift would be a welcome diversion from the tedium of court. Now you must tell me all about your betrothed. Is he handsome and brave? Does he treat you like a queen?” The jarl leaned forward, eyes wide and full of mischief.
Laure had no qualms about telling Laila of her beloved, and so the two women had a merry lunch, talking about men, children, and weddings over wine and roast chicken stuffed with creamy goat cheese and herbs. Finally, after the plates were picked clean and they were settling back with another goblet of wine, Laila pursed her lips, eying Laure speculatively.
“I suppose I should tell you why I asked you to join me up here today, rather down in the hall.” She toyed with the base of her filigreed goblet, gathering her thoughts. “I wanted to speak with you privately because I am concerned about a few matters here in Riften, and I hope you might help set my mind at ease, and we can come to an arrangement beneficial to us both.”
“It would be a pleasure and an honor to aid you any way I can,” said Laure earnestly. Though from her tone, Laure's guess that it wasn't just so they could gossip in private niggled its way into her thoughts.
“Excellent. I was hoping you might tell me what will happen with your business here after you have wed. Conditions in the Rift are slowly turning about--less crime, better regulation of the less savory elements that stained the reputation of my city. Given your solid affiliation with the Companions, it is altogether understandable that you have distanced yourself from your old friends. However, it would be a terrible thing if certain factions were to boil out of control again because you were not present to temper their behavior.” Laila allowed a ghost of a smile to lift her lips, somewhat softening the blow of her words.
Laure paused, not sure if she was understanding what the jarl was saying. Surely she isn't referring to . . .to that? Carefully schooling her features into a neutral expression, she waited to see if Laila would offer any more. Rather than say anything, she sipped her wine with a polite look of interest, while frantically chasing any sort of plausible response through the sudden maze of her thoughts.
“Come now, Laurelin. I'm sure you know of what I speak. The Guild is prospering once more, and I need to know if you intend to allow them to slide back into their old ways, or if things will continue as they have since you took over. Brynjolf seems capable enough, but one never can tell with a man like him. Some men need to be told what to do like children.”
Laure spluttered, choking on her wine, eyes wide in alarm. While she tried to regain her composure and breathe again, Laila sat back, smiling serenely over the table at a thoroughly flustered elf. Laurelin had suspected that eventually this conversation would have to happen; however, she had hoped it could be put off indefinitely. Damn, she knows, but for how long? Her association and status within the Guild had long been obscured behind various layers of cover stories and fronts established over the years, but when she and Brynjolf had battled a dragon before the very gates of Riften, she had realized--then conveniently forgotten--how difficult it would be to keep the truth concealed. And Bryn and I were seen together, wearing our Nightingale armor. Fuck me . . . .
“My apologies, Jarl Laila. You caught me completely off balance for a moment.” The jarl nodded and waved the apology away. “Before I attempt to answer your question, may I ask—how long have you known of my involvement with the Guild?”
“I suspect from very near the beginning. It may have taken a few weeks, but my information is usually quite accurate once it gets to me. One does not simply take up residence in my city and begin dicing with a thief of Brynjolf's notoriety without it coming to my attention sooner or later. Sooner if I have my way.”
Laure nodded. She should have known. “I'm sorry to have thought I could deceive you, your ladyship.”
“I'm still Laila. We can save the titles that adorn our names for the public, aye? We both have such nice ones, don't we?” She folded her legs and smoothed her skirts, giving Laure an expectant stare.
“Laila, it seems I must reevaluate some assumptions I had made about you. It would seem you know quite a bit of what goes on below.”
“Quite enough, and I pay well to be kept in the loop. Maven likes to think she has me blinded as well. With her I don't believe I will soon be disabusing her of the notion.”
“You know about her part in our business as well? My, my. Maven would be most distressed to learn you are more . . .aahh . . . aware than she likes to think.” Laure couldn't help the little tingle of admiration she suddenly felt toward the jarl.
“It pleases me to allow Maven her intrigues. Indeed, some of her most 'loyal' people are mine own. The fact is, she is useful in a fashion, as long as she keeps her own informants and network in order. For a while she was the only person standing in the way of sheer chaos within the Guild--until you came along, and Mercer Frey subsequently jumped ship. She is an astute businesswoman, accepting no excuses for poor execution of tasks. Her reputation was enough to help keep many small-time criminals properly respectful of the rules. However, as much as she likes to think she has more power and influence than she does, she is still little more than a well-connected merchant.”
“A well-connected merchant with the ear of the Dark Brotherhood,” Laure muttered into her nearly empty goblet.
“Be that as it may, I allow Maven her games and illusion of power. Any person with enough coin can gain the attention of the Brotherhood. She simply enjoys the terror and pliability of those who are intimidated by her boasting, and thus is fooled of her own accord that she has more influence than she actually does.” Laila poured the last of the wine into their goblets and sipped.
Laure was swiftly sorting out her options. Denial was right out. The jarl plainly knew enough to get Laure thrown into jail faster than she could say, “Fus Ro Dah.” But she must not want to do that, or she wouldn't have needed to bring me up for a nice, cozy lunch. “So what is it I can do for you, my jarl? You have me at quite a disadvantage, to be sure.”
“What I want is the stability you have brought to the Guild to continue. I was not lying when I said it would be terrible if the improvements that have manifested the last few years were to evaporate. I realize it would be unreasonable to hope that thieving could be eradicated, that the Guild be dissolved, Riften free of criminals and thieves. That day will most likely never come. Oh now, don't look so distressed; my sources have told me about the way you and that red-haired charlatan restructured the Guild after Mercer. I have noticed a subtle shift in your targets, and the 'protection' fees have dropped, while at the same time offering up true protection from members of the Guild. In truth, even the incidents from non-guild members have declined. You now govern yourselves, meaning I don't have to spend as much on patrols and investigations. I just need to hear from you, Guildmaster, that the situation will remain nicely balanced after you have wed your Companion.”
Laure felt she succeeded admirably in not flinching overmuch and said, “Brynjolf has been more or less in control since before I found out about being Dovahkiin. He and I instituted all these changes together, so when I was forced to assume other responsibilities, he was already prepared for the job. I don't foresee him making any radical changes to the operation any time in the future. I gather you would like me to keep this conversation private?”
“Oh, aye. Indeed. You should certainly tell Brynjolf, however, so there can be no mistakes made. To be blunt, I am not interested in disrupting your business, the situation in Riften is nicely balanced right now, I would be a fool to tamper with it, perhaps send it back to where we were before.” She smiled coolly at Laurelin before continuing. “My concern is, and always has been, making sure my city thrives and prospers. That its citizens are safe and fed. That the civil unrest touches us all as little as possible. That is what I am asking for your assistance with, Laurelin Vo' Shai. I named you thane four years ago for that purpose. And now I need your assurance of continued assistance, from you, Dragonborn. And from the Guild.”
“This would complicate the Guild's arrangement with the Black-Briars. Currently much of our information comes from Maven, or promptly goes to her desk. She will notice if we suddenly start holding back on her.”
“I would expect you to continue much as before, with the stipulation that all information relevant to my needs be passed to me, and only me, first. It may prove useful to see what she alters before handing information over to me, have true documentation to compare. In return, my guards continue to ignore the frequent visits to a certain mausoleum in town.” Laila finished her wine and set her goblet on the table. “Understand, I am quite fond of you, Laurelin. Thief, or Dragonborn, or both, it makes no difference to me. However, if you and your Guild are not being of more pertinent use to me, I see no reason why I shouldn't, say, impose a heavy tariff on all goods brought to the city by your associate merchants down below. Nor would I see the need to have thieves—even those who willingly surrender when caught—taken to a comfortable jail cell for a short time. Not when I could get my information in other ways.” The jarl raised her brow, eyes boring into Laure's, with no trace remaining of the seemingly naïve woman Laure had thought she knew.
Laure realized how deeply, how woefully she and Brynjolf had underestimated this woman. And people thought Maven was ruthless! A wide, genuine smile appeared on her face. “Of course I would be honored to assist you in any way possible, Jarl Laila. I will inform Bryn immediately. My own concern is that if Maven finds out . . .well, there will be blood if that happens.”
“Leave Maven and her brood to me. If she causes trouble, she will learn a few things herself. Naturally, I wish to be notified if the Guild learns that she suspects I am more informed than she currently thinks.”
Laure nodded, feeling almost as stupefied by this turn of events as when Farkas had changed into a werewolf before her very eyes that first time. At least he had given her some hints, when viewed in retrospect. Laila had tugged the carpet from under her feet with no warning at all. At least I'm not the only one, she thought to herself. The whole realm thought the Jarl of Riften was completely clueless. Oh, this is just too delicious for words!
“Excellent! I am glad we can work together in this matter. Now, shall I call for more wine, while you tell me more of your plans for the future with this Vilkas character? Are you going to wear something traditional to your people?”
Chuckling, Laure could not refuse. “Perhaps just one more. Maybe you can tell me about this flower girl I've been told I'm supposed to have strewing petals in front of me.”
* * *
Laure was in the midst of recounting her tale of lunch with the jarl and all its surprises to Vilkas, when he stopped her with a smug look. “You know you deserve this just a little bit, aye? The great Guildmaster, being completely fooled by a simple jarl. At least you aren't alone. Most people would agree that she seems to be quite different than the Laila you met today. You didn't feel the need to confess our condition, did you?”
“Absolutely not. Are we taking care of that soon?”
“As soon as we can spare the time. I had hoped to get up to the tomb before the wedding, but there is still much to do. Hungry? We can make something up while you tell me about the rest.”
Laure nodded and joined him, working together with practiced ease, taking numerous quick intervals to kiss and tease. Not long later they sat before the remains of a modest supper, sipping wine with full bellies. When a knock came at the door, Laure paused and gave Vilkas a puzzled glance, but he only shrugged.
“It's your house.” He calmly turned back to his wine, a hint of a smirk playing briefly over his lips.
Laure was rising when Iona breezed past and cracked the door. “Message for your mistress. G'night.” Iona closed the door and handed over a small scrap of paper, sealed with the Black-Briar crest.
Laure took it and opened it, eyes taking in the few words as her lips formed a silent, “Damnation! That vile woman leaves me no peace when I am in town.”
“Another summons from our favorite meadery proprietor, I take it?” asked Vilkas softy.
“Aye. If I go now, I can probably still catch her while she's installed at the Bee. You could come with and get a fresh beer. Jalen-Jei makes a few interesting drinks. Only one of them was slightly revolting.”
“Fascinating as that sounds, I think I'll stay in and snoop for your treasure stash. I know you must have one, and I'm curious to see if you really have a collection of ridiculously sized gems. And Chillrend, Farkas said you have Chillrend.” He leaned back in his chair to a wall and rapped it curiously with his knuckles.
“Don't go knocking holes in the walls; I'll show you everything, all my ill-gotten gains, once I get back,” laughed Laurelin.
“Take too long and I make no promises.” He rose and rapped at another spot near the hearth, ear pressed to the surface.
“Be good, and I'll hurry. That hag has wasted enough of my time with her schemes already. Going to have to do something about that, and soon. I always say that . . . really mean it this time.” She blew a distracted kiss to Vilkas and hurried out before she could be drawn in by him again.
Vilkas settled down by the fire and picked over the remnant of his meal, then hers, happily drawn into the pages of a new book, fortified by some fine vintages his mate had squirreled away. He knew that the next time that door opened, she would step through and she would be his for the rest of the night.
* * *
Laurelin walked quickly down the stairs, Maven Black-Briar's last words still bouncing around in her head. Always with the threats or demands. Never a bloody thanks, let alone inquiry to her health. The matron of the powerful Black-Briar family seemed constitutionally incapable of revealing the slightest shred of compassion, any where, any time. All Laure could do at the moment was keep the bitch satisfied enough for her to not interfere. <It may just be time to set some of those plans Bryn and I have made into motion. Yes, talk to Bryn and we'll start the game as soon I get back from Sovngarde.</i>
Sidestepping Talen-Jei, Laure bumped into the backside of another of the Bee and Barb's customers. “Oops, beg your pardon!” Turning to see who she had nudged, she beheld a familiar face.
“You're the bard I rescued from the sabre cat a few days ago!” exclaimed Laurelin.
The bard in question was a willowy woman barely into her twenties. Long, dark-red hair framed her face in a wild, comely jumble. The young woman blushed and lowered her eyes. “Yes my lady. I thank you again for your kindness.” Her voice was soft, and spoken with a pleasant but pronounced accent.
Laure smiled softly, “I am many things, lass. Yet none of them are a lady. Please, call me Laurelin. What was your name again?”
“I am named Autumn Rose, La--Laurelin,” said Autumn, correcting herself quickly.
“Aye, you would be,” smiled the pale mer. This one was a beauty that would turn heads in any company.
“I hate my name; as soon as I earn a better one with my music I shall change it!” flared the young woman in a surprising show of spirit.
“Why would you change your name? It is as lovely as you are, and I think it suits you. From what I have seen, that is. I am named after a tree. Truthfully, if you are half as talented as you are lovely, then your fame is assured.” Autumn blushed again, glancing to and fro, as if hoping that no one in the busy tavern would overhear, but smiled a bit in spite of herself. Alas, that spark of amusement faded rapidly.
“Talented or no, I think I must be cursed.”
Laure's sharp eyes caught the slightest glimmer of moisture at the corners of the other woman's eyes, which immediately sparked her concern. “What happened? Here, tell me over a mug. Do you prefer mead or ale? Wine?”
“Water please, just water. Or maybe some wine? If it's not too much to ask? Mead makes my voice all garbled, and without my lute . . .” The tall redhead stifled a sob as Laure was frantically signaling Keerava for drinks, steering the younger woman to a table in a corner. No mean feat, the Bee was almost perversely designed to prevent quiet, clandestine conversations, most tables arrayed in plain sight. Made it that much easier for the ever suspicious Talen-Jei to keep a reptilian eye on his customers.
The bard was snuffling quietly and fidgeting with her long fingers by the time their refreshments arrived. Keerava set a carafe of wine, a flagon of water to temper it, and two goblets on the table. Laure dropped gold into the Argonian's scaled hand before pouring wine from the carafe and handing Autumn her goblet.
“So what happened after the sabre cat?” queried Laurelin as she sipped her wine, moving the flagon of water aside. “You were right outside of Windhelm. I thought you were taking carriage to Solitude.”
Autumn took a long gulp of her wine, un-watered, before beginning. “I was. Rather, I did. We were just setting out, and barely had Windhelm vanished from our sight when a group of bandits set upon us! The horse and teamster were quickly slain, and I was forced to flee on foot. I escaped, but my only possessions were–foolishly, perhaps--left behind! My lute was a family heirloom, entrusted to me. It was a treasure to me and I lost it! I must confess, I panicked, and soon found myself lost. I wandered a day or more before I found the road, and a kind soul to point me in the direction of a town. A farmer was coming to Riften, which is the largest town I was near by that point, and he gave me a ride. Thus, I find myself here in Riften, impoverished and without even the humblest tool of my trade to earn my keep!”
Laure topped off the girl's drink. “So you play the lute, and you also sing?”
Autumn nodded shyly, again drinking deeply of her wine.
The mer caught the eye of Talen-Jei, who sidled over. Laure whispered a few lines to the lizard man, who left the Bee right after she was done. Smirking to herself, Laurelin kicked her feet up onto a spare chair, while Autumn watered another goblet of wine and stared glumly into the rafters.
Talen-Jei returned a moment later, carrying a lute, and walked over to where the thief and bard sat. Laure took it from him, then turned with a smile to present the instrument to Autumn.
The stunningly pretty bard stared at the lute with disbelief, not taking it at first.
“I have had this in my house for, well, I don't remember how long. I know it can't replace your old instrument, but I don't play, so it's been unused all this time. It should be sound, just needs tuning, I imagine.” Laure slid it over the worn tabletop and gave a small gesture with a long-fingered hand.
“I can't accept this; I have no coin to pay you,” demurred the redhead quietly.
“You are proficient with its use, though, correct? Play a few songs for me, and we shall see about payment after. I would be honored if you graced us with a song.”
Autumn Rose plucked a string experimentally, listening to the mellow, slightly out of tune note that sounded. She picked the instrument up finally and set to tuning it, her eyes sparkling with interest. She swiftly had the instrument tuned, while she tried to ignore the small crowd that was beginning to form nearby.
Warming up with a sweet mellow instrumental piece, the bard smiled to herself, delighted to feel the strings and frets under her fingertips again. It wasn't her family instrument, but it was a thoughtful, generous gift—again, from the Dragonborn herself! When she finished her warmup, she looked over at the Dragonborn, nodded once, then began to sing.
Laure heard the first passage and smiled. Indeed, the woman had a lovely voice that brought chills to her listeners. So what if she was singing that appalling tune she hated? If all bards were as gifted as this, she could listen to it all night.
* * *
Buzzed and humming to herself, Laure trotted the few yards from the door of the Bee to her own house, paying attention to little else, anticipating showing Vilkas her hoard. Then he would marvel at her wealth and cleverness, and they would make passionate love right on piles of her ill-gotten gains. Yes, and she had to tell him about the extraordinary bard she had found. Plans for that bard mingled drunkenly in her mind with her lascivious plans for her mate, pleasantly muddled.
She pushed through the door, intending to say, “Vilkas you should come hear this singer!” Instead she skidded to a halt, door swinging wide to slam into the chair behind the entrance, all speech temporarily ripped away. What actually came out was a somewhat slurred, barely audible, “Shhi—fuck me!”
Vilkas and Brynjolf sat facing each other at her miniscule kitchen table, their large bodies making the room seem suddenly, impossibly crowded. Bryn was handing a goblet to Vilkas. Alarm flashed through her fuzzed mind, and she had a sobering vision of bloodshed and dragonfire, before she realized she was witnessing a remarkably calm meeting. Vilkas and Bryn both had neutral expressions that revealed little to nothing of their feelings about the whole situation, conveying only polite courtesy.
Her surprised gaze fell on the goblet Bryn had extended to Vilkas, and she wondered if Bryn would be tempted to slip something nasty—perhaps not lethal, but assuredly intended to make Vilkas direly uncomfortable for a time--into that drink.
Rather than take that chance, Laure made straight for the wine and slipped the goblet from Bryn's fingers, taking a healthy gulp before he could protest.
“Easy lass, there is plenty more where that came from,” chided Bryn lightly.
Laure swished the wine around her mouth a moment, and when she could neither taste nor smell anything abnormal, swallowed. “I just wanted to have at least a taste before it was all gone. Nice nose to it, velvety finish. Although, I probably shouldn't drink any more this evening.” She passed the glass to Vilkas, who gave her a searching look before lifting the wine to his own lips for a taste. He nodded approval of the vintage and sat back, heavy brow still low and knitted over his eyes.
Laure sat and poured a cup of water, letting her heart slow back to its normal tempo. “So, Brynjolf, you have met Vilkas, I see. Have you been waiting long?”
“Just arrived a few moments ago. Vilkas was kind enough to invite me in while you were out. I hope I'm not intruding.” He directed this last toward Vilkas.
“Not at all, I insist. I know Laurelin needed to talk with you before our wedding, and it will give me a chance to become more acquainted with another of her . . . ah . . . associates.”
Laure suppressed a grim chuckle at Vilkas' not-so-subtle reminder that regardless of her history with Bryn, Laure and Vilkas were committed to each other. She was sure Bryn hardly needed a reminder. She could read it in his tiny facial expressions, the way his gaze would slide to her fingers, entwined with Vilkas' and away, the too casual slouch in his seat. His scent, silently crying out in torment, announcing his misery to anyone who could understand the message.
Laure wished there was a way to make this all less painful for him, but she could think of no ideal solution, no way to ease his way through. While she pondered the dilemma, Bryn broke the uneasy silence that followed Vilkas' statement.
“I know it's late, lass, and I don't wish to keep you both. Del mentioned you wanted to speak to me about something in person. What's the news?”
Grateful for his deft refocusing of the conversation, she nodded. “Where to start? Maven has been looking to use my reputation and status to increase her own. I managed to divert her for now, but I think we are going to need to do something about her soon. Although, we may have some assistance from an unexpected quarter if we play our cards right.”
Brynjolf flicked his emerald gaze toward Vilkas and tilted his head minutely to one side in question.
Laure nodded as if to reassure him and continued, “Which brings me to the second thing. I had a magnificent lunch with Laila today.” She leaned forward, pouring wine for the three of them. They all sipped their drinks for a moment.
“And?” prodded Bryn after he swished the lush vintage over his tongue and swallowed appreciatively.
“And we have a problem, but also a solution,” she said carefully.
“I'm all ears, lass. Poised on the edge of my seat in anticipation.” Lies. He reclined as easily as ever, looking relaxed and only mildly curious.
“Long and short of it is that we've been had. By Laila, of all people!”
“How so? I thought you had her sorted out.”
“She let me think so. Turns out, she is very much aware of what is going on in Riften, as concerned as she always seemed to be, and ah, proactive in keeping tabs on what goes on.”
“So, what you're saying is that she isn't quite the easy mark we all thought?”
“Not even remotely. Gods, Bryn, you should have seen her today. You might have pissed yourself with joy to hear it. Best of all, she isn't fooled by Maven.”
“I fail to see how any of this is good news. If she's connected you to Maven, and Maven to the Guild, we're done for!”
Vilkas leaned back and gave a grim smirk, enjoying on a deep level witnessing the two thieves get a little taste of the dish they had served so often to others. Deceit was always hardest to swallow to those who regularly served it out, and little expected to have it returned, and in such a fashion.
“Easy, it isn't as bad as it sounds. She knows, has known for years about you and me, knows I'm Guildmaster,” she continued on, ignoring Bryn's involuntary flinch when she spoke so baldly about Guild business in front of non-Guild members. A Companion, no less. “She isn't going to move on us, but she has conditions.”
Bryn visibly relaxed while Vilkas scowled. Bryn could handle negotiating, understood that game innately. “All right, I'll bite. What does our remarkable charlatan of a jarl have in mind?”
Laure launched into an explanation—quietly amused at how Laila and Brynjolf had labeled each other--of the requirements Laila had outlined, then she and Bryn fell to discussing ways to implement this into their scheme for bringing down Maven. To Laure, it felt like old times, before she had been pulled away from the life made within the Guild.
Vilkas sat back, patiently keeping his temper, holding back the irrational, seething jealousy he felt when witnessing her enthusiastic planning with the gingery thief. Against all rationality, he sympathized with Brynjolf. The man knew he was not her chosen and was gracious enough to surrender and accept the changes with some dignity. He knew he would never be able to keep his wits if the table was spun round the other way. However, when the planning had taken them through the first bottle of wine, and another, and was rapidly devolving into wilder and wilder ideas, liberally peppered with anecdotes and shared memories of past mischief that he had no part in—then, and only then, did he clear his throat softly.
Laure swiveled her gaze his way and he made a small flapping gesture with both hands, mouthing 'Alduin'.
The planning stopped abruptly, Laure popped out of her seat to stoke the fire, while Vilkas and Bryn stared at each other with distinctly unfriendly expressions for a moment before they masked themselves once more in courtesy.
“I'm sorry, Bryn. I shouldn't be making plans like that just yet. I still need to find my way to Sovngarde somehow and face Alduin. That would be the other news.”
“Sovngarde. Would you need to die to go there? How is a mer supposed to gain admittance to a human afterlife?”
“I've been led to believe there is a portal somewhere that I may pass through, still alive. Pointy ears and all. After all, I only intend to pass through, I've no intention of lingering; from what I understand, what Alduin does there is worse. But if something should happen . . .”
“Say no more, lass. I understand. Everything will be taken care of while you are away.”
“And after if something should--”
“I'll not be hearing any of that, lass. I'd wager good coin that you come back with Alduin's eyeteeth in your pocket. If something should happen, I would take care of business as usual, but I don't think you're destined to be defeated by an overgrown lizard.”
Laure nodded, glad he understood her need to be reassured that business would carry on. “Thank you. I've been told no good deed goes unpunished, so I hope you will forgive me for the last bit of business for the night. I was going to wait until I got back from Sovngarde, but this way will be better. I am giving you my resignation as master of the Guild, effective immediately. You will be new Guildmaster, Bryn, until such time as you wish to retire or find a suitable replacement. I asked Karliah, but she very politely told me to bugger off. I doubt even you could sway her. She did mention that she would help out from time to time, as always.”
Bryn tried vainly to cover the frown of unhappiness pulling at his lips, so he concealed it with his wine cup until he regained his composure. “Well, I can't say I'm surprised; I had rather guessed it might come to this sooner or later. Can't say I think much of your choice for Guildmaster though, lass. Very well, I'll take the position, but I don't like it one bit. However, anything I can do to help ease your transition back in to respectable society will be an honor,” he said, unable to hide the reproachful look he threw Vilkas' way.
Vilkas ignored it, keeping his gaze on his beloved, no longer smirking. He knew she hated causing the red-haired thief any pain, but he approved of her decision. It was past time she severed her ties to the criminal world and focused on what she was meant to do. Be more present as Harbinger, work on plans for further improvements to Breezehome, and then they were going to get to the business of filling it with pink-cheeked babies.
Bryn reached into an inner pocket and withdrew a slender packet of letters. “These are for you. I opened and replied to the ones pertaining to business, but the opened ones in there still have things I thought you should see yourself. As for me, I must be going now. I don't doubt I have kept you both up longer than you liked.” He stood up once she took the letters, gave a brief nod each to Vilkas and Laure, then disappeared noiselessly out the front door.
Laure gave Vilkas a stricken look, half out of her chair before she realized it. He rolled his eyes and said, “Go, then. Just come back soon, aye?”
She nodded, flung the letters to the tabletop without looking at them, and dashed out the door.
* * *
Bryn was down by the docks, sitting in the shadow of a pile of crates, gazing morosely out at the lake when Laure found him. She settled herself down with a sigh, legs dangling over the edge.
“Shouldn't you be nuzzling up to your husband to be, lass?”
“Bryn, I had hoped you could at least try to be happy for me.”
“You know why I never asked you, lass. I'm feeling a little less than charitable towards the man just now. I feel like I passed over an opportunity that he then snatched up, all because I thought you were comfortably off the market. Don't ask this of me just yet.”
“So I take it this means you won't be coming, then,” she said ruefully, knowing it had been a long shot anyhow. “All kinds of shiny baubles gathered in one convenient location, worn by influential upper crust.”
“I'd rather swim naked with a school of slaughterfish. Nice try, though.”
“It would mean a lot to me, and Vilkas will be on his best--”
“Lass, I'm sure the last thing anyone wants--Vilkas least of of all--is me at your wedding. No thanks. And I have a mind to refuse to accept your resignation.” He tried to glower her way but after a moment allowed it to soften. In that softening, she saw all the hurt he was so adept at concealing.
“Why, Laurelin? Does he make you so happy? I . . .I would have done nearly anything to be where he is now.”
“He does make me happy, Bryn. It has nothing to do with you; you always were wonderful. But I truly think I needed to meet him. I got the best weapons training money can buy,” she jested quietly, “all for free, and I found a partner as well. Just as I needed my time with you. I will cherish our time together, and I'll be grateful to still call you friend.”
“You know you went barking mad when you became a werewolf,” he teased, “I blame him entirely. Of course you and I can still be friends.”
“True, but he didn't turn me. He kept me sane through it all.”
“The giant twin then. Still blaming Vilkas, it amounts to the same thing.”
“It wasn't Farkas either. It was a woman,” reminisced Laure with a half smile.
“So she's a biter, eh? I love it when you talk dirty; tell me more.”
“Enough, I've told you too much already. So you won't be coming to Whiterun?”
“For that, sorry lass, but I'll join the Greybeards before I watch you marry some other man.”
“As if they would accept you.”
“I'm sure you catch my meaning. No, I think I'll take advantage of the fact that half the nobles in the province are going to be conveniently—for me--far from home. Already have agents abroad making early preparations, actually.”
“Good plan, Guildmaster.”
“That . . . it's not official yet, and I'm not telling the lads about my 'new position' until I sew some things up.” He stood and helped her to her feet, retaining her fingers long enough to brush them with his lips. “Plus, I know that it will be less than a year before you are bored with settled life and you'll march back in like you own the place, looking for mischief. If I can put it off long enough, you might be ready for quieter work. This is all some strange wolf phase you will grow out of.” He winked and released her fingers reluctantly.
“Better not get your hopes up, darling.”
“Always looking for the silver lining. Good night lass. For what it's worth, congratulations. I hope you have much joy in each other.” He turned and slipped into the shadows, blending away into the night.