Chapter 20 – One Good Woman

By all rights, Riften should be a far more lustrous jewel in Skyrim's crown. It has a warmer climate than either Windhelm or Solitude, and the Rift is a far gentler hold than any save perhaps Falkreath, though that town's association with its cemetery has always precluded it from greatness. It is well-situated to dominate trade from southern Morrowind and Black Marsh, and its passes into Cyrodiil, while not the most accessible, are no more forbidding than those that traverse Reaper's March or the Dragontail Mountains.

Why then, is Riften not counted as one of the great cities of Skyrim? The answer is simple: crime.

Alone among the cities of the Nords, Riften seems to have a real and lasting problem with criminal elements and corrupt officials. This is not to suggest that such qualities are unique to Riften, only that they have, for a variety of reasons, flourished there to a degree not seen in the other cities of Skyrim. Windhelm has long been plagued by the Stone-Tooth Gang, and the pirate presence in Solitude's waters has been infuriating officials for years, but only in Riften can a member of the infamous Thieves Guild stroll into any tavern and order a drink while wearing their colors, secure in the knowledge that no lawman would dare accost them.

While the city has always had a somewhat looser relationship with its criminal class than others in Skyrim, it is only in the last sixty years that the current situation has existed. Since Jarl Hosgunn's seizure of power and the subsequent rebellion that ended his rule and his family, not one jarl has had both the power and the will to reign in the criminals and lowlifes who have carved their way into the city's institutions. Groups like the Black-Briar family and the Fal'tong crime syndicate of the Dark Elves have enough influence that to remove them fully would be all but impossible, and any attempt would doubtless result in vicious reprisals against any jarl who tried.

Is it any wonder then that none have attempted such a task?

Constance Michel put the book down, and sighed. She had little time to read, and she hated it when she opened up something depressing.

Not that she should complain. Bersi, at the Pawned Prawn, had found this one at the bottom of his latest shipment, with half the cover missing and water damage along one side. He was a good man, though, and handed it to her when she stopped in to say hello, allowing not even a septim in payment.

Still, an adventure novel would have been nice. She lived in Riften, she didn't need to spend her free time reading about how wretched it was. Given all the stories about the Dragonborn, though, I bet those books are in high demand right now.

For a moment, the old dream returned. That she'd been chosen, been taken far away from this place. To Solitude, or Cyrodiil, or Winterhold where the mages learn! Instead, she'd just grown up. Nobody had wanted the scrawny little Imperial girl, just as they hadn't wanted the gangly adolescent she became. As time had passed and Grelod had grown older, it had naturally fallen to the oldest child to step in and help run the orphanage. Constance had picked up the slack, and told herself it was only for a time, that she would one day leave.

But she never did. Grelod the Kind was only getting older, and what had been a gently mocking nickname became a cruel jest. Pointed humor slowly became harsh words, and the woman who'd once held Constance's hair back as she emptied her belly during a bout of illness was now a figure of terror, growling and snapping at the terrified children.

So, Constance stayed. She made herself a little room in one of the larger storage closets, and fit a bed over some of the crates. It wasn't much, but it was enough.

Sometimes, she longed to pack what she had and run out the door never to return, but those were night-time dreams. The children needed her, and she knew that she needed them just as fiercely. There was a kind of peace to be found in giving them what joy she could, and little Runa especially had nobody else. I was never the only girl; I can't even imagine how she must feel.

Her room had no windows, but there was a water clock that almost kept good time. She filled it each night, and when the second bowl filled and rang the bell, she knew it was time to rise.

She'd gone over the books and stores last night, and she'd have to go down to the market today. The Temple of Mara gave them a little coin, the jarl a little more, and some of the farmers gave of their less desirable crops, so the orphanage got by. Winter was fast approaching, however, and so Constance knew that she'd need to stock up on meat, and whatever root vegetables she could. They're only children, they need to eat to grow. She could get by on less, but hopefully it wouldn't come to that.

Besides, Samuel's birthday is next week, so I'll need to go and get a bit of sugar. Her baking was adequate at best, but there was no way she could afford to buy a cake in whole. Besides, this way I can write his name on it. All of the children could at least read their own names, and Samuel loved to pick out the letters when he found them.

It's Tirdas, so Mellona should be in with her eggs…

They had trolls.

As Lydia entered Dayspring Canyon, where the Dawnguard were headquarted, one of the great beasts had lumbered forward, sniffing and growling. She'd almost drawn steel, but a closer glance showed her the armor plates fastened around its shaggy hide even as a young man ran up, yelling at the beast to stand down.

"Sorry about that. She won't attack without orders, but she hasn't quite figured out that not everyone's okay with being sniffed." Underneath the armor that she recognized from Dimhollow, a young man was blushing and apologizing profusely. "Great for security, though."

"Do you have much issue with that out here?" Her horse was some distance away, too laden to run but not getting anywhere near the troll. "And how do you get them working with horses?"

"Mostly we don't." He grinned apologetically. "It's easiest to just keep them apart. I'm taking this one out for a patrol. Just bad luck she was here when you came in."

She waved his apology away. "It happens. I have a message for the Dawnguard leadership."

The man straightened. "Right away! I'll take you to the fort!"

As they travelled along the path, alternating between smoothed dirt and sections of worn stone, Lydia noticed how beautiful their surroundings were. Waterfalls ran down the cliffs into sparkling pools, and now and then a deer or mountain hare would pop out of foliage and regard them suspiciously for a long moment before vanishing again.

And then, she saw where they were headed. When Lydia heard fort, she'd expected some sort of ruin, perhaps in the Imperial style. Something like Fort Greymoor on the Whiterun plains. What she got was something else altogether.

Fort Dawnguard was huge. Each tower could have housed half the Whiterun Guard, and the main keep rivaled Dragonsreach. "Divines! How many of you are there?"

Her companion laughed. "I know the feeling. Most of it's not used, though." The path was leading them to a palisade where several more Dawngaurd were waiting. He waved to them. "Visitor with a message!"

One of the women at the gate began laughing. She walked forward, head thrown back, almost braying laughter into the air. Lydia quietly shifted her feet into an open guard. What's she up to?

"Been a while, Lydia!" As she drew closer. Lydia recognized the woman from Dimhollow, the one who'd returned to help her fellows. By Kyne, she made it out!

On the heels of recognition came consternation, as Lydia realized she couldn't remember her name. Ing-something. Ingard? That didn't sound right.

The guard beside her saluted. "Ingjard! This woman claims to have a message for Isran!"

Well, I was pretty close on the name. She held out the map that her thane had gotten from the vampire Serana. "This is for someone who'll know what to do with it. If that's Isran, then your man has the right of it."

Ingjard took the paper from Lydia's hand. "A map?" She looked over at the man who'd escorted Lydia. "Recruit, next time ask them a few more question before showing them where to find us. What if she'd been a thrall?"

The guard murmured apologies, saluting again. Ingjard sighed, and gestured at Lydia to follow her. "Downside of being the upstanding ones, our recruits usually have more ideals than sense."

The Whiterun Guard had experienced similar problems in the past, when farmers itching for some excitement had signed up without knowing even the basics of discipline. "Not the worst problem to have, though, too many enthusiastic people joining."

The other Nord nodded. "When I left for Dimhollow, there were a dozen of us. Now? We're pushing fifty, and that's not counting the five that Celann's showing the ropes."

They were passing open areas clearly laid out for training, and Lydia saw sparring and practice with crossbows here and there. As they passed another palisade, a sentry waved at them.

Lydia liked the feel of it. She hadn't realized she missed the discipline of the Dragonsreach barracks, but the drilling here felt a bit like home. "Your group is impressive."

Ingjard nodded. "Next time, we won't have to rely on mercenaries to help us clear out infestations."

She winced at that. "I'm sorry about Dimhollow."

Ingjard shrugged. "Lynoit and I made it back, but Tolan didn't. I never had much use for the Vigilants, but he had a warrior's death."

"May he feast in Sovngarde." The platitude rolled off her tongue easily enough, though the memory of her thane's abandonment still tasted sour. "For what it's worth, that map points to what's probably a significant group of Volkiihar."

"Charming." Ingjard was smiling, though, so Lydia wasn't sure how to take her tone. "Isran'll be happy to see this, at least."

Isran, a heavily scarred Redguard who seemed to lead the Dawnguard, was indeed happy to see the map of Castle Volkihar. He was less happy, however, to hear that they had let Serana return there. "Had you brought her here, we could have dealt with her as she deserved."

Lydia pointed at the map. "But then you wouldn't have that."

"Fort Dawnguard was built to house those who do battle with vampires. We have…methods of obtaining information."

Lydia spared a moment's thought for what she knew of Serana. "Still, I think you'd have a hard time torturing anything out of that one."

"People who think they can resist simply haven't experienced the hopelessness of interrogation." Isran shrugged. "But I'm not here to argue with you. This is valuable information, and I consider the deal Durak made with your thane fulfilled."

Lydia nodded. She shouldn't have been surprised, she supposed, that Isran knew about that. He's leading these people, after all. "So you'll provide the designs for your crossbows to Whiterun?"

"I already have." Isran folded his arms. "I sent the package as soon as Durak told me of the deal. I know of Jarl Balgruuf's reputation, and your Dragonborn isn't wrong that the weapon could be potent against dragons as well."

"My Dragonborn?" Isran wasn't a Nord, but surely he knew of the Dragonborn. "Is our mission unimportant to you?"

However, the Redguard just shrugged. "Vampire attacks are up across the province. We've recorded a threefold increase over the last year, and our soldiers are barely scratching the surface. Everyone else can focus on their wars or their dragons, I'm not letting this threat slip away."

"A worthy war, though I hope if you see us fighting a dragon, you'll lend your steel."

Isran spread his tattooed arms. "But of course. Provided, naturally, that you and yours will assist when more of the bloodsuckers need killing."

She nodded. "Besides that, my honest thanks for those crossbows. Whiterun will make good use of them."

Isran smiled. "They are magnificent, no?"

Lydia figured this would be as good a time as any for her request. "I don't suppose…"

She left Fort Dawnguard the next morning, the proud owner of a brand-new crossbow and two hundred bolts, packed in neat purses of twenty. They had far more beds than they did bodies to fill them, and in exchange for her insight into what had happened down in Dimhollow—she'd told them everything except the specifics of what had happened between her thane and Serana—they were more than happy to put her up for the night.

Isran had explained that an associate of his named Sorine Jurard was working on improving their crossbows, but at the moment, all they had for her was the older model. Honestly, Lydia didn't much mind. What she'd seen of the Dawnguard crossbows was impressive enough. And when she met Sorine herself and the other woman explained that her new design still had a tendency to jam up on the third shot and the trigger mechanism fell apart on the fourth, Lydia was more than happy to take a weapon that was all but identical to the one she'd given to the Dunmer.

She'd had the chance to meet a few of the Dawnguard as well, and had to agree with Ingjard's assessment. A lot of heart, a bit of spine, but they need training badly.

She'd seen what Movarth and Serana were capable of, and even the hand axe Ingjard had shown her, etched with silver to better harm the undead, didn't set her mind at ease. Tools are all well and good, but a master vampire is a monster. They'd need specialized tactics to counteract their abilities, and maybe some wizards to even the playing field. Maybe Irileth was right, and I do have a knack for command. For now, though, the Dawngaurd wasn't her issue.

It was nearing midday as she exited the canyon, and the guard who'd seen her on her way indicated she could make Riften in not more than three days. It'll be nice to be in a Nord city again. Even if it was one with as unsavory a reputation as Riften.

Truth be told, what she was traveling on couldn't really be called a road. It had been once, but now it was a path, and sometimes she almost lost the track before finding a post or length of fencing. Not much traffic this way, it seems.

The mountain foothills were receding around her, and the lifting haze revealed a forest alight with trees in every hue of red and was almost a cliché to compare something beautiful to autumn in the Rift, and here it lay before her. As the road entered the light-spattered woods, she looked up to see how the sun was filtered between the leaves above.

Whiterun was her home, and she loved it dearly. The vast plains and the solitary hills that rose above them. The wind, sweeping in from the six corners of Skyrim, that the priestesses had told her was the purest example of the breath of Kyne. She would always hold Whiterun in her heart, and love it above all the rest of the world.

And yet, the Rift was beyond magnificent. Each turn of the road brought new vistas, whether it be a forest stream where a family of deer drank while a great red female watched her warily, or a circle of stones, carved in old Nordic runes but almost entirely covered in moss. Once, she caught sight of some great cat stalking her through the trees, but when she slammed her sword on shield and yelled, it vanished. Cats are cautious, wherever they be. That wouldn't have worked against a wolfpack or a bear, but even the huge saber-cats of the Moristrun Mountains avoided any fight where they didn't have the element of surprise. So, she kept on moving, enjoying the sights around her while keeping one eye open for danger.

She'd been warned of bandits, but saw none. She did pass a pair of Rift guards, who saluted and offered her the blessings of Talos. She smiled back and said the same, though her happiness at hearing the name of Talos was tempered by all of the political baggage that came with it. When did I start worrying about politics? Unfortunately, she knew the answer to that all too well. On the day she'd become housecarl to the Dragonborn, she'd lost her right to keep her head down and just watch the door.

Not for the first time, her thoughts returned to Irileth, the only Housecarl she'd ever really known. The Dunmer made it seem so simple, but being housecarl to a jarl had to be beyond difficult. And yet, she managed the Dragonsreach Guard while keeping a finger on the pulse of the city, as well as maintaining herself as one of the deadliest warriors Lydia had ever known. Maybe someday, I can pull all of that off. Right now, however, she only had one task. Reach Ivarstead, and meet my thane.

She had no way of knowing if Velandryn would beat her there, or indeed if he was even still on his way. He might be dead. It was a small, evil voice that sometimes whispered to her, and usually she gave it only the scorn it deserved. You let him send you away, and now the world is doomed.

She'd long since learned not to argue with that voice. She knew that it was only her own doubts and fears manifesting, and there was no cure for worry like work. And right now, that means reaching Riften. So, she picked up her pace just a bit, striding along at time-and-a-half, each step eating up the miles still to go.

Soon enough, she spied the first farm she'd seen since leaving Solitude, a simple Nord affair that looked to be growing some vegetables whose leaves she couldn't identify. Maybe it was something regional, but then again she might just be awful at recognizing plants when they weren't food. Nice part about being a guard, never had to wonder where my next meal was coming from. She thought that the ones to her left looked like carrots, but a wizened old woman was peering at her from across the field, and she thought it best to leave them be.

She found another farmhouse as the sun was receding, this one with boughs of silver elm over the door to symbolize an inn-house. For the price of five septims, she was given a bowl of soup and a place by the fire, and took it gratefully. In truth, she would have paid more to have the chance to pass the night with good Nord folk again. Morrowind was fascinating, but Skyrim is home.

The night was a good one. Other travelers were happy to tell their stories, and she laughed along as a pair of men down from Windhelm regaled them all with stories of hunting mammoths among the hot springs of Eastmarch. Another spoke of Dwarven ruins to the north and the treasure they hid, though the group agreed that venturing there was more likely to get someone killed. Her own Dwarven shield was the subject of some interest, but she told half the truth and said that she'd just gotten it from a smith.

She set out early the next morning, having been told that Riften could be reached after another day and night. More and more farms appeared, and soon she was in what almost resembled civilization. Clusters of homes and the occasional craftsman's house marked with a banner or sign were in evidence, and the number of guards on the roads had increased. Now, she was waving every few minutes, whether it be to patrolling soldiers or the civilians she passed. The day was in full swing, and by the look of things, it was harvest time.

In Whiterun, they'll be done with the harvest by now. The Rift was warmer, though, and so the farmers still worked. I wonder if they plant winter crops here? She knew that was something that happened in Whiterun, though she wasn't exactly sure which ones were the winter crops. Probably potatoes. There were always plenty of potatoes in winter.

She spent that night at another rural guest-house, though this one doubled as a feasting hall for the local farmers and offered only rudimentary accommodations. Still, it was warm and dry, and she stretched out on her blankets and hay with only a little stab of traitorous discomfort. There's no shame in liking a real bed beneath me. She was a city Nord, after all.

She left even earlier the next morning, determined to reach Riften by midday. It would be absurd not to spend the night in the city, but she'd heard enough about Riften's reputation not to relish the idea of wandering its unfamiliar streets after dark.

Lost in her thoughts, she must have missed the signs that the city was upon her. And yet, past some buildings and through the trees, a wall rose, of a height that suggested importance and in that state of almost-disrepair that spoke of age and constant maintenance that never quite got it as good as it was. That's a city's wall, all right. Whiterun's outermost fortifications were even worse.

She followed the road along the wall until she came to a gate. It was clearly not the main way into Riften, as it was barely eight feet wide, just high enough to allow her horse, and barred fast. Were it not for the pair of guards leaning against it, she'd have thought it impassable.

And what guards!

The Dark Elf was massive, though by the look of things he was more fat than muscle. He wore a leather jerkin that strained around his girth, and a fringe of black hair surrounded a glistening patch of skin. She'd never known elves could go bald, but this one seemed to be managing it. Rather than the shades of red on every other Dunmer she'd seen, this one seemed to have eyes of brown, which now squinted at her suspiciously. "Whaddyou want, then?" It took a moment for her to recognize his growl as speech. How can a guard be so lax? Then, to her mounting horror, she noted the sergeant's patch on his shoulder. He has authority?

The other guard gave a hacking cough, and Lydia's eyes flicked over and down to him. Then, they flicked down some more, until she beheld him in all his repulsive splendor.

He was most likely human, if only because even Riften probably didn't let goblins join the town watch. She quickly looked away, though. Learning anything more would require studying him, and she wasn't in the mood to punish herself that way.

With some relief, she wrenched herself away from the oddly compelling horror of the smaller guard, and faced the obese Dark Elf. "I need to get into the city. Is this gate usable?"

He nodded, leaning on his spear. "Aye. Gate works." He smiled at her. "It's ten gold to use."

"Ten septims!" She saw red, and had to restrain herself. "Is this—is this a bribe?"

In Whiterun, we'd have them flogged for even suggesting such a thing!

The scrawny guard coughed, and when he started talking she realized it had been to get her attention. "Aye, for upkeep, innit?"


The Dark Elf nodded in what he was clearly intending to be a sage manner. "Aye. Wear and tear, and the like."

The little one jumped in then. "Every day, the gate goes up and down, up and down. 'Snot good for the chains and, y'know, the like. So we needs you to contribute towards this public service."

Lydia knew a scam when she saw one. "Any why, pray tell, is the gate down at all?"

The Dark Elf puffed out his chest indignantly. "Why, leaving the gate open would be to invite all sorts of miscreants into our city! Perish the thought! Have you ever heard such a thing, Nobby?"

The little one—Nobby—shook his head. "Perish the thought indeed, Sarge! We'd be overrun with bandits and riffraff! This 'ere gate is key to the defense of our fair—" he devolved into a fit of coughing that may or may not have been divine retribution for calling Riften fair "—home!"

She looked them both up and down, wincing when her eye fell on Nobby's face. "Could I have your names, so I can report such... dedication…to your superiors?"

The Dark Elf laughed. "Won't be anyone to care, I can tell you that. Unappreciated, the two of us!" He scratched his nose. "But, if you're wondering, I'm the honor of being Sergeant Fedril Kolyn. And this here is the right honorable Corporal Mordistair Nobbs, what we call Nobby for short."

Mordistair Nobbs is it? It was unwieldy and completely unfitting, and might almost have been Breton. However, she had a hard time seeing any Breton she'd met sharing much with this… nodded absently as she thought, almost forgetting their attempt to shake her down. "And, ah, Nobby, if you don't mind me asking…"

"Human!" He grinned hugely, and produced a greasy sheet of paper from under his breastplate. "Got a paper right here from one of those fellows at the College, saying I am," he read aloud from the paper, marking each word with his finger, "in the absence of ev'dence to the contrary, almost certainly 'uman!" His grin showed off his teeth, of which most were yellow and several were gold. "'Not many folks can say they got a wizard's affa-davit on that!"

So, this is the quality of the Riften guard. She'd never been one for prejudice based on appearances, but only an organization desperate for warm bodies would take Nobby. And as for Sergeant Kolyn…

She waved at the gate. "It's been a pleasure. Now, let me through."

Kolyn stood up as straight as he could. "Like I said—"

She glared at him. "You're trying to bribe me. Either you open this gate now, or I report you for corruption."

The two shared a long look, and then dissolved into peals of laughter.

Lydia waited until they'd regained some control of themselves. It would have been the easiest thing to go and find another gate, but now she was well and truly annoyed. I'm going to go through this gate, and I'll not give them so much as a halved drake to do it!

Sergeant Kolyn finally stopped laughing long enough to point at the gate. "You must be new around here, miss. Nobody's going to care if we're collecting some extra repair fees. Plus, we're guarding the gate. Right hazardous duty, it is!"

Corporal Nobbs nodded vehemently, and his ill-fitting helmet almost fell off his head. "What the big man said."

Sergeant Kolyn gave Corporal Nobbs a little nudge with the butt of his spear. "You'd best show me the respect of my rank, Nobby."

"Beggin' your pardon, Sarge, but I shows you a lot more respect than most what 'ave your rank. If'n you was one of those officers like I had in the Stormcloaks, then we'd 'ave a real problem."

Apparently they'd forgotten that Lydia existed, but she couldn't let that last bit slide. "You were a Stormcloak?"

Nobby grinned. "For all of a day, I was! Offered a signing bonus and it weren't half bad money, but then they wanted I should go to war. So, I slipped out of my tent with some of the captain's silverware and came back." He winked at her. "Lucky I wrote the wrong name on the papers, and nobody never seems to draw my face right for the wanted poster." He shrugged. "Don't think war's quite to my liking, any'ow.

"Right you are, Nobby." Kolyn was nodding again. "War's a fool's game, and no mistake."

Lydia had had enough. "Very enlightening. Now open the damn gate."

Sergeant Kolyn blinked. "There's no call to be rude, miss."

She sighed and hefted her shield from her back. "Open the gate, or I will."

She could see the calculations happening in their heads. Their eyes went up and down the length of her body, and she obligingly loosened her sword and settled into an easy stance.

Sergeant Kolyn nodded, as though something had been agreed upon. "I think, for rare cases of clear civic virtue such as yourself, the ordinary upkeep fee can be waived." He slammed a fist on the gate. "Open up, you lot! Got a visitor!"

A muffled voice came back through. "Whatever you bilked her for, I get half!"

Corporal Nobbs put his mouth so close to the door that he was practically kissing the wood. "Listen to me, you skeever-sucking stout! We've an important guest out 'ere! Open this door, or the captain'll 'ear about it!"

There was bit of muffled cursing while the gate creaked open, and Kolyn nodded to her again. "May I be the first to welcome you to Riften, my lady. Enjoy your stay, and don't drink the canal water."

Nobby leaned in too, and Lydia resisted the urge to lean away. "Also, I'd recommend 'gainst the antagonization of any others what are wearing the jarl's colors. Me and Fedril 'ere are fair-minded types, but some of the other fellows would throw you in the canal for nothing at all." He bowed, and stuck out a hand, palm up.

As if he'd get a coin!

She glared at them both. "You have to be the worst guards I've ever seen."

Corporal Nobbs snorted. "That'nd a drake'll get me a cup o' piss-ale at the Shackle, so'n I'll lose no sleep."

Ignoring the urge to grab them both and smack them around until they were less, well, them, she grabbed the reins of her horse and passed beneath the gate.

Welcome to Riften, I guess.

Perhaps ten minutes later, Lydia had been in Riften long enough to decide that it wasn't the sort of place she would ever feel at home. For one, the shadowy figures who lurked in alleys, eyes locked on her bulging saddlebags. None of them approached, of course—it was not yet night and with her armor and weapons she was clearly no easy mark—but the constant worry that someone would jump out and try to rob her or worse made every minute very long indeed.

The roads of Riften were narrow, and the buildings tended towards multiple stories, jutting balconies, and haphazard walkways linking the roofs above. She was fairly certain that somebody of the criminal persuasion could get from the wall to where she was now without ever having to set foot on the ground. Not to mention there's no sun. Down at street level, Lydia was in shadow more often than not.

It was something of a relief when she arrived at the small canal. It was not the canal, that famous waterway that cut Riften in two and fed into the lake at both ends, since that one supposedly had homes, galleries, and hidey-holes of ill repute lining its walls. This was no more than a narrow stream some ten feet or so below the road, crossed by dozens of plank bridges, but above it, the sky was mercifully clear of walkways or protruding roofs. Maybe if I stay along the canals this will be less wretched.

Indeed, her travel along the planks and dirt that made up the road was easier once she stuck to the water. And, soon enough, there was stone beneath her feet and the buildings to either side, while still grim in a way she couldn't quite identify, were at least grander than the ramshackle homes and shops from before.

When she came upon the city center, it was something of a shock. The canal had been curving, and the roads getting gradually more built up, but she hadn't expected the path to open onto a massive open space, where buildings that could pass for respectable lined a market square and enormous bridges crossed the main canal. Here, she could look down and see the doorways above the water, and the rope bridges that crisscrossed the canal and linked these houses and shops together. The people around her had become something akin to a crowd while she wasn't watching, and she was seized with the realization that she really should have left her horse outside at the stables.

Turning, she saw a small man in a worn cloak drifting towards her, and tugged the reins to lead her horse away. However, that brought the beast—and its packs bulging with cargo destined for her thane—close to a woman with dark, hungry eyes. She put herself between them, and, glaring at everyone around her, hurried up the street to where she thought—and desperately hoped—she could find the main gate.

Indeed, it was only a matter of minutes until she saw the familiar ring of linked horseshoes hanging on a sign high overhead. Relief at seeing them—and the stables they signaled—warred with irritation at the fact that she'd just spent gods-only-knew how long stumbling through alleys with a horse in tow.

Somebody bumped her from behind, and she gave a gentle shove, more reflex than anything, that sent them tripping and cursing away. She glanced over her shoulder, and winced when she saw that she'd bumped a rough-looking man who was now glaring at her. However, after a long moment he just growled a curse and turned away.

Relaxing, she turned…and grabbed the arm of a child who had decided to go for the saddlebags while her back was turned. Her heart leapt into her throat, since the boy failing to steal anything was almost as horrible a prospect as his succeeding. Gods only know what curses Dark Elves put on their seals. "Away with you!" She released him, and the little boy gave her a gap-toothed grin before disappearing behind a pile of crates. Dear Mara, let them have room in the stables.

As she approached the building, she heard raised voices, and slowed her approach—after checking to make sure that nobody was too close to her precious cargo.

"I'll have the money, I swear! I just need more time!" It sounded like a young man, one who was about to soil himself from panic.

"I'm really getting tired of this. More time, more time. When you borrowed the money, you said you'd pay it back on time, and for double the usual fee." The second voice was a woman's, and Lydia could find no hint of humor or compassion in there.

"I know I did. But how was I supposed to know the shipment would get robbed?"

The woman laughed. "Next time, keep your plans quieter and nothing would have happened to it."

Lydia tried to process this. It almost sounds as if—

"What? You robbed it? Why? Why would you do this to me?" Now, there were tears in the man's voice.

"Look, Shadr, last warning. Pay up or else. All I care about is the gold. Everything else is your problem."

Footfalls on straw, and then a woman was exiting the stall. Lydia froze, feeling like a child who'd been caught eavesdropping. The woman, however, only gave her a glance and moved off, seemingly unconcerned with the world.

Lydia had only seen this mysterious extortionist for a moment, but that was enough to tell her two very important facts. First, she was wearing the kind of leather armor that prioritized quick, silent movement. Exactly like a member of the Thieves Guild. If this woman was a guild member, it could explain why she was so comfortable with such brazen admission of lawbreaking. From what I understand, they own half the city.

The second thing Lydia noticed, and the one that made her curse her traitorous mind, was that this woman was gorgeous. Long black hair tied back to reveal a slender and elegant neck, piercing blue eyes, and a heart-shaped face atop a body that made Lydia's mouth go dry.

Shaking her head at the direction her thoughts had gone—is that all it takes to undo you? A pretty face?—she brought her horse into the stall. "Hello?"

"Don't, please!" A Redguard who looked to be around her age was pressed up against one of the walls, eyes wide. This must be Shadr. "I'll get the money, I promise!" A beat passed, and she could see him realize who she was. "You aren't with Sapphire, are you?"

Lydia studied him. The poor boy was nearly delirious with fear. "That the woman who just left?" She shook her head. "Don't worry, I only need some place to keep my horse until I leave town."

It was impressive how clearly his emotions showed on his face. "Oh, thank Zenithar! Yes, we have room and warm stalls, and a vault for your valuables." He paused for a moment, clearly thinking. "It'll be extra to lock your things away, but they'll be safe." All of this was said with an air of faint distraction, and Lydia sighed.

"Tell me about this Sapphire business." Clearly his mind was still on the money he owed. "It sounds as though you're being played; you should go to the guard."

Shadr laughed. "You must be new here. Sapphire's with the Thieves Guild, and they've got Maven Black-Briar as their patron." He slumped against the wall. "If I don't come up with seven hundred septims before she decides she's had enough, I'm dead. The Thieves Guild has thugs whose job it is to hurt people who don't pay them!"

Lydia had dealt with situations like this before—though I'm supposed to have the guards on my side—and she'd made up her mind.

I have my mission, but I can take a few minutes to stop this one injustice.

She handed the reins to Shadr, warned him not to go rummaging through anything for his own safety, and headed out.

She was striding across the stable year with purposeful strides when something occurred to her.

Trying not to let her chagrin show, she returned to Shadr and asked where this Sapphire might be found. The Redguard, however, wasn't having any of it.

"You can't go up against her! The Guild, they'll come down on you!"

"I just want to talk to her. That's all."

He stared at her with wide eyes, but finally told her where the woman called Sapphire could be found. She thanked him, handed over the coin for her horse, and was off once more.

The Bee and Barb. A good establishment, Shadr had said, though criminals patronized it without any fear of the law.

Like any guard with even a lick of sense, she wore her purse beneath armor, and now she could move with little thought for being robbed. She still felt the eyes of the lowlifes that seemed to be everywhere in this blasted city, but they worried her less.

She might not have her thane's cunning or Serana's effortless grace, but Lydia was nothing if not a warrior. She knew the figure she cut, and even the Dwarven shield on her back—worth a fair pile of gold to any collector or adventurer—wouldn't tempt someone into taking on a woman who stood nearly six and a half feet tall, clad in full armor and bearing a sword of Skyforge steel. Though it might be fun to have one try.

Once more, she entered the main market square, and this time searched for the inn. When she saw the sign hanging over a handsome three-story affair, she shifted her shield, squared her shoulders, and headed for the door.

The Bee and Barb was a homey place, thick with chatter and the smells of food and drink. An Argonian –Lydia thought it was male, but she didn't have much experience with lizard folk—was serving drinks to a table of weary-looking Nords, and turned as she approached. He gave her a sharp-toothed smile, and bowed. "Welcome to the Bee and Barb, my lady. Would you care for a table, or a drink?"

She glanced around the room, but couldn't see Sapphire anywhere. "I'm looking for someone. A woman, with the Thieves Guild, goes by Sapphire—"

The Argonian's eyes widened and his smiles vanished, and the scales on his cheeks lifted in strange undulating waves. "Why her? What business do you have with her kind?"

She looked him up and down, and decided to trust him. No way a respectable inn likes having the Thieves Guild hanging around. "She cheated someone. I'm here to put things right."

"Then I erect the spine of warning, traveler." He lowered his voice and narrowed his eyes. "The Guild has power here, and angering them will only lead to grief. You cannot fight the Guild with armor and sword, no more than you can clean foul water with your cl—your hands."

She raised her own hands in a placating gesture. "I only want to talk. I promise there'll be no trouble." She looked around the inn. "You have a lovely space here; I'd not want to ruin it."

The Argonian gave her another smile, though this one was not quite so wide. "I thank you. Keerava has made a wonderful home for us here."

She smiled down and thanked him for his help, amused by the way his scaly face had changed when he mentioned Keerava's name. He might be a lizard, but I think he's in love.

The Argonian had pointed out a table to Lydia, and as she approached she grew more and more uneasy. The group seated around it seemed the worst sort of lowlifes, scum who nevertheless held themselves with confidence and likely had some skill to back up their viciousness. In Whiterun, any such gathering would have been suspicious, and even here it raised the hairs on her neck.

Of course, in Whiterun the criminals weren't usually in uniform. She counted no less than four of the dark leather outfits that seemed to pass for Thieves Guild colors, and two more who looked to be mercenaries of some sort. And there, in the corner, watching the others, was the woman she had come to see.

While the table was raucous, Sapphire was not. She had a drink before her, but her hands were crossed across her chest, and she was leaning back with a supremely self-satisfied air. Her eyes were on Lydia's approach, but if she recognized the housecarl, she gave no sign. Still, she leaned forward as Lydia reached the table, and one hand fell out of view. This one knows which end of the knife to stab with, no question.

By this point, the others at the table had taken notice of her, and fallen silent as well. For a long moment, they all stated at her, saying nothing. Then, a big fellow broke the silence. "So? You want something?"

Lydia gestured at Sapphire, mindful of all the weapons at that table. Courteous, but direct. "I want to speak to you, Sapphire."

The black-haired woman rose, waving down her companions when some of them made to do the same. "Oh, and why's that?"


Sapphire was fully out of her chair in an instant, smiling broadly. "Oh, what's that boy up to now?" She tapped the table. "Keep on without me, this'll only take a minute." She went for Lydia's arm, but the housecarl jerked it away. Never let a suspect touch you. You only needed one run-in with someone who'd mastered contact spells to learn that lesson. Sapphire kept talking, however, leading Lydia away. "Is the poor boy in love?"

Sapphire's companions were watching curiously, but in a moment returned to their drinks. Noticing, the scammer smirked. "The best kind of drinking buddies. The kind who know how to mind their own damn business." She glared at Lydia. "You hearing me?" She looked the housecarl up and down, clearly assessing her. "Did Shadr hire you to get out of his debt? I knew that stupid kid would try and find a way to weasel out of that debt he owes me. Look, this is really simple. I lent him some gold, he promised to pay me back and now he says he's broke. Which is clearly a lie, since I doubt someone like you even gets out of bed for less than fifty. Tell you what, I'll give you double whatever offer he made if you go back and tell him that I'm adding the cost of hiring you to what he owes me." She gave Lydia another once over. "Then maybe we can work something else out. There's a couple of deadbeats down at the docks who think that promises work instead of coin, and I think you're just the woman to go dunking them into the lake."

This woman's easy manner hit Lydia like a punch to the gut. She'd dealt with scum of all types before, of course, but usually there was at least a furtiveness, an understanding that what they were doing was wrong. Sapphire was trying to make Lydia her hired muscle with a casualness that wouldn't have been out of place from a grocer, and she felt dirty not dragging the woman off to the cells right this moment. But I have no power here.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. She shifted her feet, making sure that her sword-hilt was visible and her arms free. "Not an option. You already collected from your investment. Let the boy be."

With each sentence, Sapphire's smile had shrunk. Now she was studying Lydia with another air entirely. "Not happening. We had a deal. He still owes me my coin, no matter the fate of the caravan." She shrugged. "He made a promise, and where would we be if we didn't keep our word?" Her smile was back, and it was a vile thing indeed.

Lydia had a sudden vision of simply hitting the woman, of wiping that smirk off her face with a well-placed fist. But she had no authority here, and she would only be putting Shadr in danger. The moment I leave, he's on his own. Besides, she'd promised the Argonian not to cause a ruckus.

Instead, she shrugged. "A promise is a promise, but not in bad faith. I promised Shadr I'd get you off his back, and that's what I intend to do. You wouldn't want word of this getting to the guards, would you? I doubt caravan robbery is overlooked." Even in Riften, they can't be that far gone.

Sapphire looked worried for half an instant, but the moment passed swiftly and her air of ease returned. "You have proof, then? Because I know I'm a better liar than you, and I've the backing of the Guild besides." She winked at Lydia. "Maybe it was you that did it, and now you're going and accusing me of things to draw suspicion away from your criminal gang." Lydia opened her mouth, but Sapphire raised a finger and continued. "And if your next word was going to be 'Shadr,' I wouldn't bother. I'm astonished he found the spine to hire you, but there's no way he'd go before the jarl and publicly set himself against me."

Finally, Lydia could take it no longer. "How? How does this happen? This entire city is mad!"

Sapphire laughed. "We're just honest. There's crime everywhere, why hide it? This way, everyone knows where they stand."

"So Shadr gets terrorized by you and whatever goons you hire to do your dirty work, and you think this is good? That this is how things are supposed to be?" She shook her head. "If we were in Whiterun, the lot of you would be in the stone where you belonged."

"Murder, is it?" Sapphire's laugh was definitely forced now, and her smile strained. "You think we deserve to die, huh? For taking some gold?"

In truth, Lydia had simply been referring to the Dragonsreach dungeons by an old guard's phrase, but the thought of ceding even the ground that an explanation would require was hateful to her. "It's never just gold with your kind. Admit it; you love the power you have. I've been dealing with filth like you for years, and one thing is always true: it's about power. You crave power, and making that poor naïve stableboy tremble at the very thought of you is how you get it." She recognized that this wasn't the best way to go about convincing the woman, but this needed to be said. "I don't know you, I don't know your story or what else you do with your life, but this is evil. You made your money, Shadr's got nothing left to give, and now you're going to wring him dry because you can." She shook her head, the revulsion threatening to overwhelm her. "Turn away now. Let it go. Let him go."

Sapphire's blue eyes were boring holes into her own. "You're right. You don't know a damn thing about me." She blinked. "But I can finger a guard at eighty paces, and I've got you made. Nobody else actually believes that tripe about criminals and evil." She shook her head. "Look, you big fool, there's always going to be the strong and the weak. Shadr's too damn innocent for his own good; especially in this city, it was only a matter of time before somebody took him for what he had. I'm just looking out for myself."

Lydia saw her opening then, and pounced. "Which you did! You made your money back, and more besides! Why torment the boy? What good does it do?"

"Torment?" Sapphire laughed again, the bitterest one yet, eyes dark and angry. "This is nothing compared to—" She coughed. "Look, I'm not evil. I'm out for my money, and a lady's got to watch out for number one. Not like anybody else's lining up to secure my future. I let Shadr off the hook, what sort of message does that send?"

"That you know when to stop squeezing blood from a stone." What she was about to do was completely insane, but she saw no other way to end this without further strife. "The best criminals, the ones who gave us fits back when I wore the colors, made deals where everyone walks away happy. No injured party, no one goes running to the guards or takes matters in to their own hands. Take it from me. Quit while you're ahead with Shadr. He thinks he's out of options, and it's not long before he realizes that a dead woman can't collect on a debt. Next person he sends might not be coming to talk."

She wasn't lying about Shadr's desperation, but the Redguard seemed more like the type to flee than fight. By the way Sapphire was pursing her lips, however, the other Nord was considering her words. And now I'm advising criminals. Looking back at the last few minutes, she wasn't quite sure how it had happened.

Given Sapphire's bemused tone, neither was she. "For someone who wanted me dead a minute ago, that isn't half bad advice. Nothing I haven't heard before, of course, but maybe I was getting greedy. No need to spoil a good take by trying for more, right?" She reached out again, but Lydia took a step back.

"Keep your distance. This entire city is rotten, and I'm just doing what I can to help out a decent person who's gotten caught up in it all."

Sapphire threw her head back and gave a bark of laughter. "Shadr, decent? He came to me, you know. Looking to get rich quick. He might wear that amulet of Zenithar and wet his breeches at the thought of violence, but the boy's got the bug, same as any of us." She shook her head. "You'll have to learn how the world works, or it'll chew you up and spit you out."

Lydia snorted. "This was a mistake. You're just as vile as the rest of them." A horrible thought struck her then. "How many people died when you robbed that shipment?" She dropped a hand to her sword. "How much blood is on your hands?"

Sapphire raised her own hands defensively, clearly alarmed. "Hold on now! Nobody died, I swear it! I had an alchemist dose their meals in Shor's Stone, and we lifted the goods north of the Rhoba." A scowl marred her pretty features. "I've no shame for what I do, and when I shed blood, it's only those who deserve to die."

They glared at each other for a moment more, then Lydia sighed. "Fine. Leave Shadr be, and I'll walk out of here right now."

Sapphire nodded. "Fine." She looked thoughtful. "It is a shame you're on the wrong side. No interest in doing a job or two for me? I can think of a few places where some non-Guild muscle could give us both a hefty payoff."

Lydia couldn't help but laugh. "I'm here because you cheated someone, thief! Why in Kyne's name would I ever trust your word?" Still chuckling at the thought, she turned, then stopped. If I don't say it, it'll never be said. "You're scum."

Sapphire opened her mouth, but Lydia raised a hand. "You might not kill innocents, you might even be right that Shadr was blinded by greed, but that doesn't change what you did."

"I never—"

"You take, and cheat, and steal, and…" Words failed her for a moment, and she wished she had Velandryn here, to say what she was feeling. "All of this is false, is wrong. It's hollow, and one day, you'll wake up and have nothing." She leaned in. "I've never known a criminal who'd risk themselves for another. You'd best stay strong, because those friends of yours aren't going to be there when you're weak." With that, she did leave, content with having had the last word.

From behind, Sapphire's voice sounded out, thick with anger. "You're wrong, dammit!" Lydia smiled.

Shadr was trying to give Lydia some potions of invisibility, much to her displeasure. After her confrontation with Sapphire, she was wary of this man's motives as well, and only wanted to be done with this whole ordeal.

For the third time, she waved away the potions. "Stable my horse and we'll call it even." She couldn't get Sapphire's words out of her head, and the last thing she wanted was to be indebted to someone whose true goals she didn't know. I might already be in too deep.

Finally, the boy agreed to give her one potion and stable her horse for as long as she needed, though she paid to have the saddlebags locked up inside. Upon meeting the owner, a stocky Nord named Hofgrir, she felt slightly more confident that her things were in good hands. And, if they're not, no doubt an army of horrors will pour forth upon whatever fool tries to steal them. She had no actual evidence for her conviction that the Dunmer had used some horrible magic to safeguard their gifts, but it seemed like the sort of thing that they'd do.

Now, she only had to find a place to pass the night, and then she'd have the rest of the day to tolerate what Riften had to offer. She'd initially entertained an idea about bedding down in a common-hall or bunkhouse, but after actually spending time in Riften she wanted a door with a lock. Sorry, my thane, but I don't care that much about saving you a few septims.

She briefly considered returning to the Bee and Barb, but it was all but certain that Sapphire and her pack of goons would be there, and she had no stomach for another run-in with that woman. She'd seen some other likely-looking places on the main square, however, so she headed in that direction anyway.

The approaching sundown did not seem to be doing much to thin the crowds, and the market was still bustling even with many of the stalls closing up. I have a moment or two to spare. She hadn't had the chance to see the markets at Solitude, and she was curious how other cities compared to Whiterun. No question we have the best market, but maybe Riften has some curiosities worth seeing.

She saw one such not a moment later: a woman as tall as she was, if not even taller. She was standing with another person in a quiet alley; Riften seemed to get much less crowded when you left the main streets behind.

This other Nord was armored in iron and fur, though she wore no helm and curly hair of dark gold fell to her shoulders. Her poise was regal, and her face strong. A warrior born. Half her face was painted blue in the old style, and a few faint scars across her eyes and nose only told a story of battles lost and won. What are you, a poet? Snorting, Lydia dismissed such thoughts. This woman looked a formidable fighter.

She was also, apparently, as fed up with this city as Lydia herself. "I saw two of them. In broad daylight! Have they no shame?"

Her companion was a small Imperial man, who seemed to have heard it all before. "And you stopped them?"

The woman snorted. "Of course I did. The poor girl had no chance otherwise."

The man sighed. "And let me guess, they know who stopped them from having their fun? You have to be more careful! It's only a matter of time until they retaliate against you—"

The woman, however, had noticed Lydia, and raised a hand to stop her companion's talking. "You looking for someone?"

Lydia shrugged. "Sounds like you're doing the right thing, and that's rare in this city." She thought of what her thane would say. "I guess I wanted to see who else had a soul in this place."

The woman smiled, and held out her hand. "I'm Mjoll, and this is Aerin. You new around here?"

"Just passing through."

Mjoll shook her head, and the smile fell away from her handsome features. "Seems that's the way of it. Too many good folk leave, and far too many foul ones stay."

The Imperial, Aerin, was glancing around nervously. Mjoll had noticed too, and patted him on the shoulder. "Aerin worries for me, but I won't stop."

Lydia nodded. "Noble, but you should probably watch your back. I don't have much faith in the guards here."

"Some mean well." Mjoll sighed. "But the Thieves Guild is too powerful, and the Fal'tong too insular. I help one person, but ten more fall victim the same day."

"I…" Lydia started before thinking about how she'd end. You'll what? Help her? Stay in Riften to fight the Thieves Guild? She heard Velandryn's voice in her head. "One impossible war at a time."

"I wish you the best of luck, Mjoll." She clasped the other woman's arms in her own, and left the two to their valiant task.

It was not a long walk, once you knew the way. Without a horse, it wasn't even stressful. Once more, she arrived at the great canal and the market that surrounded it, and began looking around for a place to pass the night.

She hadn't noticed before, but the crowd was far more diverse than any she'd seen in Skyrim. It seems that every third or fourth person was a Dark Elf, and she saw no less than three Argonians, which meant there had to be many more she'd missed. Whiterun might be a center of trade, but its citizens were still overwhelmingly Nords, with a smattering of Imperials making up most of the rest. Here, it was obvious how many Dunmer had fled their homeland. Plus, judging by the clothing many of them wore, they had done well for themselves here. Well, good on them. She'd rather live in Skyrim too.

She kept her eyes above the crowd and scanning the buildings, trusting in her size and armor to keep others out of her way. In Whiterun, she'd never had an issue, though here she kept one hand on her sword, just in case. She'd also bound the shield to her back with an extra cord that ran under her breastplate, just in case some enterprising fool decided to try for her Dwarven prize.

Suddenly, something slammed into her side at a bad angle, and her next step sent her spinning. In heavy armor, that was no joke, and she could feel her balance going. She'd been wearing steel since she was fourteen years old, however, and dropped to one knee to keep from falling. She pushed up at an angle that she knew would use the weight of her armor to her advantage, and spun as she rose into a fighting stance. A moment later she was ready to take down whoever had assaulted her.

Her assailant, however, was no hardened criminal. A young woman blinked up at her from where she lay on the ground, food spread around her.

"Oh! Oh Mara, I am so sorry!" The woman scrambled to her feet, but then saw her things and fell to her knees. "I was hurrying, and not looking where I was going, and…I hope you're okay." She was trying to gather everything back into her arms, and Lydia found herself, without conscious thought, bending to help.

"I'm fine. Are you?" This girl was skin and bones, and Lydia had once unhorsed a fleeing bandit with a single well-placed hand. I could have broken her in half! "Here." She handed a package to the girl, who accepted it and stammered thanks.

"I'm Constance Michel." She, as many others had before her, had to do a double take when she realized that Lydia's face was a full head higher than she'd thought. "I am so sorry." She bowed her head.

"Lydia. Of Whiterun." Housecarl to the Dragonborn. She helped Constance to her feet, as she feared the other woman wouldn't be able to do it with her arms full. "Can I help you with those?"

Constance looked around, shook her head mutely, then visibly swallowed. "No, thank you." The words came out half-whispered, and Lydia frowned.

"Are you sure? I can carry quite a bit, you know." Lydia couldn't quite figure out what was wrong with the other woman. Is she afraid of something?

Constance smiled nervously. "Well, then, how about this?" She handed Lydia some parcels, and the housecarl took them with no small relief. She wasn't entirely sure why Constance was so jumpy, but she'd hate to be part of the problem.

Lydia parted the crowd easily, and Constance laughed as she followed in her wake. "It must be nice, being able to do that." She moved alongside Lydia, smiling up at her. "I'm always the little one, you know."

Lydiachuckled. "The armor helps too."

"So, umm, what's your trade? Are you with the Stormcloaks?"

Lydia hadn't been expecting that. "No. Why, do I look like it?"

Constance blushed. "Oh, no, it's just that, well, you look like a warrior, and so many are going off to fight." She sighed, then froze. "I mean...I support Ulfric, of course! I meant no disrespect!"

Lydia smiled at her again. The two of them were around the same age by the look of things, but the other girl's—I guess she's a woman, though—manner made her seem younger. "I'm just passing through, and I promise not to get angry based on your politics."

Constance gasped. "Of course! You're from Whiterun, you said, so your Jarl is neutral." She shook her head. "Aren't you scared, being in the middle like that?"

Don't I wish that was the only thing I had to be afraid of. Lydia shrugged. "We have brave hearts and strong walls, and the Dragonborn marches with us."

At least, I hope he does. Velandryn was a good man, but even Lydia had been able to figure out that Jarl Balgruuf wanted to use the Dragonborn to strengthen Whiterun's position. Which means Velandryn knows, and I have no idea how he feels about that. Her thane had no love for the Empire, but he seemed to disdain Ulfric Stormcloak just as much. Hopefully, that means he'll have no problem telling them both to pound snow if they try and invade.

Constance was staring at her again. "Have you met him? The Dragonborn?"

Lydia couldn't stop herself from laughing, but caught her tongue before it ran away from her. "Aye, you could say that. He—I was at the Western Watchtower when he slew the dragon." She nodded. "He's the real thing, no questions there." Her thane had neither bards nor skalds to sing his legends, so she'd have to play the part.

Constance's eyes opened wide. "They say he only speaks Elvish, except for when he Shouts."

Lydia had to laugh again. "Do they? No, Ve—The Dragonborn speaks the Imperial tongue just fine, though he'll switch into Dunmeris when he wants to be especially annoying." It was odd how fond she'd grown of her thane, despite the relatively small amount of time they'd known each other. "What else do they say?" He'll get a laugh out of this.

"They—" Then, Constance jerked to a stop. "Hey, thief!"

Lydia turned, and saw someone darting away, several of Constance's parcels clutched in his arms.

Oh no you don't! It took her half a second to dump what she was carrying into Constance's shocked grasp and another to take off after the ruffian.

Her quarry was smaller, and darted through the people like a snake in the grass, but more than one criminal had found out the hard way that Lydia of Whiterun wasn't easy to escape. When a woman who topped six feet and clad neck to toe in steel armor charged while bellowing demands to make way for the guard, people tended to move.

In Riften, of course, some of her usual shouts wouldn't quite work, so she had to make do with others. "Halt, lawbreaker!" was always effective, as was the ever-popular "Stop right there, criminal scum!" Truth be told, though, that one had always seemed a bit wordy to her, and most guards used it when sauntering up to some luckless fool who'd already been apprehended.

"Make way! Lawbreaker!" She saw the thief rounding a corner, and sprinted towards where he'd vanished. She didn't know this city, and every second she didn't have the thief in her sights was another chance for him to vanish.

Unfortunately, such speed had another effect. And so, when she hit the guard, she was going a good deal faster than was wise. Given the armor she was wearing, it must have been akin to being hit by a warhammer. And, as the man picked himself up off of the ground, Lydia could see in his eyes that he was not having a good day, and she'd just made it worse. Well, damn.

He spent a moment looking her up and down, then growled a single word. "Explain."

She pointed. "There was a thief! We can still—"

"You assaulted a member of the Riften Guard." He wasn't particularly intimidating, but the crossed daggers of Riften stitched on his tabard meant that any action he took would doubtless be backed up by the guard as a whole. "That's a crime."

Lydia gestured again. "So is theft! I'm sorry I hit you, but he's getting away!"

Just then, Constance hurried up, arms full of bags. Lydia winced at the sight of the woman she'd abandoned.

Constance gasped, and began babbling apologies. "Sir, please excuse her! It was my fault; I asked her to chase the man down—"

"Your fault, eh?" The guard leered down at her, and Lydia, with a wrenching in her gut, recognized the look on his face. "Well then, I guess you'd best make it right." He pointed to an alley. "Come on then."

Constance just stood there, though whether her hesitation was from ignorance or horror, Lydia couldn't say. For her part, the housecarl was frozen only because disbelief was still winning out over the blinding rage that was building behind her eyes.

Constance looked at Lydia, eyes wide. "I…I don't have money." She looked at the guard. "I'm sorry, but—"

He chuckled. "Ain't money I want, girl. You get on your knees, make me happy, we pretend this never happened and your friend here just walks away." He looked over at Lydia. "Else, well, assaulting a guard's no small thing."

Lydia's hand fell to her sword. "Get moving scum, and I pretend this whole thing never happened."

Constance jumped in front of Lydia, some of the bags spilling from her hands. "No!" She looked over at the guard, now moving for his own axe, and then up at the housecarl. "It's okay!" She gave a smile that might have been the saddest thing Lydia had ever seen. "This is…it just happens." She pressed her hand over Lydia's gauntlet. "I'm glad we met." She looked down then, and the faintest hint of a blush appeared on her cheeks. "I…I hope you have a good journey."

The guard grinned, and took Constance by the arm. "See? She's eager for it." He reached over and roughly cupped a breast. "Skinny little thing. You hungry?"

Lydia of Whiterun was not, as a rule, an impulsive person. Her time acting as the law meant that her every move was subject to scrutiny, and she'd long since learned to bite her tongue and hold her ire no matter what taunts a criminal came up with. If I'd done half the things they told me to, I'd never be able to sit down again!

This time, though, was different. She moved so quickly that her mind only caught up once she'd ripped the guard's hand away from Constance and pressed him against a wall by the throat. "You dare…" She couldn't even finish the thought, she was so incensed. "You!" She drew a shuddering breath. "You're a guard, for the love of Shor!" She pushed him away roughly, and one of his feet slipped on the cobbles, sending him to the ground.

Lydia advanced, and he tried to crawl away. "Stop running, you filth!" She grabbed him by the cloak and flipped him onto his back. "We are the law! Ours is to protect!" She realized she'd drawn her blade, but didn't much feel like putting it away. The guard was staring at her open-mouthed and with terrified eyes. "You would have raped her? And you dare to wear the colors of the jarl!" She wanted to drag him through the streets and throw him before the crowd, but she knew it would do no good. "Can I just have one of you not be awful? Just one! That's all!" She sighed, and sheathed her sword, her anger suddenly overwhelmed with a vast sense of exhaustion. "I'd drag you to an honest guard, but I doubt you could find one in the shithole of a city."

She turned away, but out of the corner of her eye saw the guard rising, his hand reaching to his hip—

What happened next truly was instinct. Lydia turned, hand lashing out to disarm him—

The hand that still held her sword.

The guard stumbled back, blood oozing from the gash on his chest. He stumbled over a crate and fell backwards—

Right into the canal.

Lydia didn't see him hit the water, but the splash and scream of rage was enough. She hurried to the railing, and saw a pair of townsfolk pulling the bedraggled, bleeding man from the murky water. He looked up at her, and there was only hatred in his eyes.

Someone grabbed her from behind, and bellowed into her ear. "Resist, and you're dead!"

She was hauled away, still in a daze. Four more of Riften's guards had arrived to bring in the woman who'd tried to kill one of their own.

One of them tried to rough her up, but his blow had been clumsy, and she turned so that his fist hit her breastplate. The crack of his fingers on cold steel gave her the tiniest stab of pleasure, though it was soon swallowed up in a rising tide of miserable disbelief. I'm not a criminal. Other people broke the laws, not her.

Welcome to Riften, I guess.

"So, uh, nice t' see you again, I s'pose."

Lydia looked up through the bars of her cell at the ugly, unmistakable, face of Corporal Nobbs.

Riften's jail was a single huge room, lined with cells and ringed by balconies. Lydia's cell was on the second level down from the entrance, and, so far as she could see, none of the other prisoners had been visited in this way.

She sighed. "Come to gawk, have you?" She supposed that word of the woman who'd attacked a guard was making the rounds through the barracks. Probably going to be a good crowd at my execution.

Nobby shook his head. "Jail duty." He leaned against the bars and grinned. "Heard some big wench in armor put Joldo in the dirt, and I thought, 'Nobby, that sounds like a lady I met just this very same day.'"

Lydia chuckled mirthlessly. "Suddenly, your little stunt at the gate doesn't seem so bad."

"Din't I tell you? Stand up fellows, the two of us." He pointed upwards. "Speaking of, Sergeant Kolyn's got some mead over the fire if'n that's your taste. Black-Briar, too." He stuck a finger in his nose, rooting around with a thoughtful expression. "Ever since we got the Sibbi fella down here, qual'ty of the victuals gone way up."

Lydia found herself unable to look away from the finger, jammed farther into his nose than she would have thought possible. "Who's Sibbi?"

Corporal Nobbs shrugged, extracted the finger, and flicked something over the railing to the dungeon floor below. "Black-Briar. Killed some poor bastard over a girl, so I heard." He leaned back and shouted to another cell, on the level above Lydia. "Hey, Sibbi! What'd ya do again?"

"I killed the bitch's brother, and I'll have her head too, once this preposterous exercise is done." The voice was cultured and cold, sending shivers down Lydia's spine. I've taken lives, but that one doesn't care who lives or dies.

Nobby leaned in again, and gestured Lydia to do the same. Against her better judgement, she did.

"Powerful, that 'un. 'E's Maven Black-Briar's son, so's we can't actually do much. She's teaching 'im a lesson, see, about how to be circumsept with the killing."

She'd heard of Maven Black-Briar, of course, but this was new information. "The richest woman in The Rift threw her own son in prison?"

Nobby shrugged. "Rule number one in Riften—"

Lydia cut him off. "Let me guess. Don't cross Maven Black-Briar."

"Got it in one. Yeah, Maven's bad business, so Sibbi stays until she says 'e's out. You want some dinner?"


"Dinner. Got a pot o' stew and some bread from the keep. Not bad, if you don't mind carrots." If there was one good thing she could say about Corporal Nobbs, it was that he didn't seem to harbor her any ill will.

She nodded. "Sure." An idea was forming, but she needed more information. "What was that Sibbi said about killing someone else?"

"'Oo knows? I don't mess with the important ones." Nobby tapped his nose. "Man of the people, me."

Lydia snorted. "You're a regular Othar Bared-Beard, Nobbs." As the little man beamed, she looked upwards thoughtfully. "You still in the mood for a bribe?"

Nobby grinned. "Doubt you've got much coin on you, less'n you hid it someplace…ah…private."

She shuddered at the thought. "My purse is with my things, and we both know that means it's all there." One thing all guards knew was that nobody stole from the prisoners. When you were dealing with people whose single unifying characteristic was contempt for the law, it wasn't wise to give them reasons to hate you personally. "Help me out here, and I've a sovereign for you."

Nobby snorted. "Dunno what you want, but I don't make deals with prisoners for less than a hundred."

Lydia laughed. "Don't' suppose you'll let me go free?"

Nobby joined in, chuckling companionably. "Not on your life."

She shrugged. "Then put me in the cell next to Sibbi Black-Briar, and I don't notice that fifty septims go missing. If everything works out for me, I put fifty more in your hands myself." It wasn't really her money after all, and her thane had given her a mission. She wouldn't risk failure to save him a few drakes.

Nobby looked thoughtful. "Wasn't kidding, y'know. Black-Briars are bad business."

"And what happens if I don't get out of here by morning?"

Nobby frowned. "You hit a guard. On purpose. And the market boys ain't nice like me. Them and the folks at the keep, they're the hard ones. You might get off with a lashing. Maybe they take a hand off, in the old way, like." He shrugged. "Or, you get really unlucky, they just drag you into a warehouse, have their fun, and we find what's left of you when it starts to smell."

"So, I think I'll take my chances with Sibbi. Would you do any different?"

"Wouldn't a hit him in the first place, for one." However, Nobby sauntered away, coming back with a ring of keys. "All right. I ain't gonna bind you, but best not try and do anything stupid. Four doors before you're out, and no one lady can take down every guard in Mistveil."

Lydia spread her hands. "You have my solemn word."

Nobby snorted. "Nope. Got fifty gold, though, and a knife to run you through."

True to his word, Nobby kept a dagger pointed at her as she marched upstairs. She tried to ignore the other prisoners, who ranged from miserable piles of skin and rags to scowling men in the patchwork armor of mercenaries and women with the unmistakable air of prostitutes. She asked Nobby about those, as there were no laws against the trade in Skyrim so far as she knew.

"Nothing 'gainst the selling, no, but those two got to robbing the ones what looked too rich." He grinned.

There was also a madman, pacing his cell while pulling at his clothes and hair, muttering about blood and darkness. They both game him a wide berth. Nonetheless, he glared at Lydia with bloodshot eyes. "All around the Throat of Snow, the Eagles chase the Dragon! Red, Gold and Blue as the sky! They're singing the old song!" The man collapsed on the floor, sobbing.

Lydia looked over at Nobby. "What's his story?"

The guard looked away and coughed. "Comes into the jail, cool as you please, says he offed his wife. We go to the house, find her guts hangin' from the ceiling. They were eatin' breakfast when he stabs her, he said. Said she wanted to live somewhere beautiful, so's he decorates the house—"

Lydia raised her hand to stop him. "I get the picture." When they reached the stairs, she was glad to leave the second level behind.

As they approached the place where Sibbi was held, there were no other prisoners to be seen. The cells on either side of the Black-Briar's were empty, and his room itself bordered on opulence. There was wooden furniture of fine make, blankets and cushions on which to rest, and in the middle of it all, a single bored-looking man reading a book. He was handsome and had an air of culture, but there was also something about him that made the hair on her arms stand on edge. Careful with that one.

Nobby opened the door next to the Black-Briar, and ushered Lydia inside. She nodded to him silently, and he waved and strolled away whistling the tune of an old and extraordinarily obscene drinking song. Then, she heard Sibbi approach. There was a long moment of silence, then that same cold voice that she'd heard while locked below sounded once more in her ears. "I told them not to put anyone in here. If I'm to suffer Mother's punishment, I'll do it in private."

Lydia took a deep breath. Time to do this. She imagined every thug and lowlife she'd hauled in for the night, every bandit she'd browbeaten into surrender. And Corporal Nobbs. "Yeah, well, shoulda thought of that 'fore you pissed off the big lady."

Another moment of silence. "Mother sent you then? Here to mock me?"

Lydia snorted. "Not hardly. Heard you need help killing some girl. Sounds like you could use someone to hunt her down."

She could hear the smile in his words. "Ah. An enterprising sort. And let me guess, all I'd have to do is let you go free? That right? You walk out this door, and then I just hope that you track down Svidi for me?"

"Got a lot of other offers, do you?" It was odd, mimicking this style of speech. It felt like wearing someone else's skin. No respect in my words. "Lot of folks looking to help?"

"If you must know, you are the first." He sighed loudly. "I've eight months left in this festering pit, and I'd sleep better at night knowing that little slut got what was coming." There was a long pause. "So, you'll hunt her down in exchange for freedom?"

Lydia nodded, though he couldn't see her. "That's right. Give me leads and an open door, and she's as good as dead."

Another long pause. "And how do I know I can trust you?"

Fortunately, she'd given this one some thought. "Look, seems to me there's two sorts of people in Riften. The kind that work for the Black-Briars, and the kind that cross 'em. Seems like one way you end up rich, and the other you end up dead."

"Hah! An opportunist indeed. But that's not a bad thing. You're right, you know. Help me, and you'll be well set. Betray me, and you'll be sharing Svidi's fate."

"Deal." She almost felt bad about reneging on her word, but the fact that she was being hired to kill an innocent dampened her guilt. "What'd she do to you anyways?"

"We were engaged to be married, if you must know. When she found out that I was entertaining some other women, just for fun, of course, she got upset and told her brother. He came at me with a knife, so of course I defended myself! And then they had the temerity to call it murder." She heard him snort. "That bitch tried to have me killed! It's my right to have her life in turn."

Lydia doubted very much that things happened exactly as he said. No mother would put her son in prison for self-defense! "Well, you keep up your end, I'll go track her down." She might at that, if only to warn this poor girl to stay far away from Sibbi Black-Briar.

"Good." There was another long pause. "What are in here for, anyway? I'd like to know the character of my new muscle."

Damn. "Hit a guard so hard he went into a canal." And just don't mention why.

A laugh sounded from the other cell. "Why?"

Well, that worked. "He said some things I didn't like." She suddenly realized the best way for this new persona she was creating to answer the question. "You worried I can't handle my own shit?"

Another laugh. "Don't try and talk tough to me. House Black-Briar has armsmen who'd make you soil yourself with a glare. But I like this. You aren't getting out of here without me, and you know it. Turnkey!"

The yell caught Lydia off-guard, and she only realized what he'd actually said a moment later when she heard the approaching footsteps of a guard.

It was, of course, Nobby. He bobbed his head in her general direction, then looked to the side where Sibbi was doubtless standing. "Somethin' I can get you, sirra?"

"You'll release this woman immediately. She's to be given her gear, and sent on her way." His voice rang with the unmistakable confidence of one who had been raised in wealth and power. She knew it well, and when she'd served at Dragonsreach, it had been a good way to quickly identify the visitors who would be trouble.

"As you says, sir." Given Nobby's earlier reluctance, she wondered at how easily he jumped to do Sibbi's bidding. I thought he was afraid of the guards. "O' course, you'd be signin' a form for her release, right? We in the Mistveil dungeons pride ourselves on our records." Well, he's not stupid.

Sibbi laughed, loudly. "Of course! Bring whatever papers you need, and I will make my signature. This woman is my creature now, and those who serve the Black-Briars are no common scum."

Easy, Lydia, this is all part of the plan. Still, it gnawed at her to let this farce continue. This isn't me! And yet, every step that had led here made perfect sense. Is this me?

Nobby gave Lydia a wink, then grinned broadly and bowed towards Sibbi's cell. "O' course, sir! It'll just be a moment, eh?"

There was the rustling of paper, the scratching of a quill, and then Nobby appeared again, pulling her gate open. "Out you are, miss."

Sibbi grinned when he saw her. "Shor's bones, but you're a big one. Shove a hand up her cunt and rip her in half, you hear?"

She nodded, not trusting her tongue. I start talking, I will tell him what I think.

"Wait!" Now that she was no longer confined to her cell, she could see Sibbi leaning close to the bars, sudden concern stamped across his face. "Your name, so I can…reward you for service well done."

Her heart fell into her stomach, and tasted bile as she opened her mouth. "I'm…L—Ledda. Ledda Elf-Scarred. From, ah, Falkreath."

"Hunt her down, Ledda. And when you do, make her scream. I want to know she suffered. Do you understand?"

"Of course." With that, she was gone. Sibbi had signed the papers, and all she needed to do was walk out of here.

As soon as they were out of earshot of Sibbi's cell, Nobby began chuckling. "Not bad, not bad at all. Had you fingered for one o' them uptight ones from the gate, said you wouldn't last you a day here."

"That you did, Nobby. 'Not a day,' you said." Sergeant Kolyn was reclining on a bench before a crackling fire. "Miss, nice to see you not dead." His tone wasn't friendly, exactly, but he gestured to the bench across from him easily enough.

"Thanks, I think." Considering how harsh she'd been with them, she was a bit surprised to get even this courtesy. Still, she sat. "I'm sorry about what I said at the gate." She wasn't, but she figured a little diplomacy couldn't hurt. These two hold the key to my freedom, after all.

Sergeant Kolyn shrugged. "You're paying me and Nobby a hundred each, so, way I see it, all's water 'neath the bridge."

A hundred each, am I? She glared at Nobby, who grinned back.

"You got a fat purse, there. There's this fella from the Temple of Mara, says gold corrupts." Nobby placed a hand on his grimy cuirass, over his heart. "Doin' your part for us lowly guards, right noble."

Lydia sighed. "Gods damn it all. Just give me my things and I'll be on my way."

As she strapped her armor around herself, she tried to figure out what she should have done differently. The frightening thing was, each step made perfect sense. If I don't do the right thing, who am I? And yet, each time she'd tried, she'd only gotten into deeper trouble.

Nobby was counting coins out of her purse and whistling, so she waited for the foul little man to finish. He tucked half the coins away, then handed her the bag with another gap-toothed grin. She took it, thankful that she was wearing her gauntlets. He can't be as foul as he looks. He'd have poisoned himself long ago.

The outer doors were great heavy things. The guards who hauled them open gave her a strange look as she passed, but neither moved to stop her. Glancing back, she saw Nobby waving, and couldn't help but raise her fist in salute. She resisted, however, her urge to use that hand to offer a rude gesture.

The doors slammed shut, and Lydia sighed. She nodded wordlessly to the guards, and headed up the stairs with tired tread. As she climbed, she warred within herself as to what to do next. The smart thing would be to leave Riften this instant, staying just long enough to grab her horse. Right now she was bone-tired, though, and it was still the middle of the night. Even the thought of travel in her current state felt like black ice in her gut.

Still, the one thing she knew was that she couldn't stay here. The wrong guard sees me, and I'm right back in the cold. She shifted her shield—the strap was digging into her hips—and—

"Hey." Sapphire leaned against a wall, smiling slightly. "Been looking for you."

Sudden panic gripped Lydia's stomach. "What does the Thieves Guild want with me?"

Sapphire raised her hands in a mocking gesture of defensiveness. "Hold on there, now. Nobody said anything about the Guild." She paused, and looked Lydia up and down. "How about a drink?"

"With you?" Lydia liked to warm herself up with some bite well enough, but she didn't usually share ale with people she'd threated. "I'm not in the mood to buy whatever you're selling."

"Yeah, well, you look like you could use a drink." She turned. "Come on. I'm paying."

The Bee and Barb was nearly deserted at this hour, and the table Sapphire had grabbed them was in a secluded alcove, far from prying eyes. Lydia had, with some reluctance, shed her gauntlets and cuirass to better fit in the chair. Sapphire's armor, at least, let her recline comfortably. By the smug look on the other Nord's face, she was enjoying watching Lydia have to compensate.

The thief had ordered them something called 'White-Gold Towers,' and the male Argonian she'd met before brought them two tall flagons brimming with foam. He deposited them on the table and looked down at Lydia, the scales under his eyes darkening. "If I'd known you'd been looking to join her, I never would have helped you."

Sapphire grinned. "Talen-Jei thinks my kind's no good for Riften." She looked up at the proprietor. "And don't worry your scaly little head. I'm making her another job offer, but she's already turned me down twice."

"Three times." Lydia snorted. "And I'll make it four when you ask again."

Sapphire smiled across the table at her. "See?" She looked up at Talen-Jei and waved a hand. "Now, leave us be."

The Argonian, scales still dark, retreated. Sapphire gave Lydia another smile. "So, where were we? Ah right, I got word about a fishing boat that pulled up some old Dwarven—"

Lydia raised a hand, "My answer's no, before you say any more." She studied the other woman. "Why exactly were you at the prison, anyway?"

Sapphire looked at the table, and Lydia was struck again by how lovely she was. Clear blue eyes cast down, cheeks ever so slightly flushed, she could have been a maiden out of a love ballad. And then, on that thought's heels, the disavowal. She's trying to play you.

Sapphire looked back, but this time she wasn't smiling. "I heard… someone assaulted a guard. A lot of rumors going around about who and why, but I heard about a big woman with a Dwarven shield." She shrugged. "Seen you just that day. Maybe I was curious about what happened."

There was a long pause as the two women studied each other. Finally, Lydia lifted her flagon and tried the White-Gold Tower. It was sweet and well-rounded, the kind of easy drink that hid a brutal kick. I can see why this one favors it. If Lydia wasn't careful, she'd be well drunk by the end of this.

"So you, a member of the Thieves Guild, were going to the jail just to satisfy your curiosity?" Lydia cocked her head, hoping her mockery was obvious. "I know you lot are bold, but don't you think that's a bit much?"

Sapphire flushed, with anger at her foolishness presumably. "If you have to ask—" She sighed. "I know you don't like me, but I–" She lifted an inconspicuous flap on her armor and produced a small bundle of rough cloth. She handed it to Lydia. "If it was you in there, I would have given you this."

Lydia unwrapped the cloth. Inside, she found a lockpick and a narrow dagger. Pick the lock or…the other kind of escape. She met Sapphire's eyes, and their blue was as pure as any sky Lydia had ever seen. "Giving me a way out?"

Sapphire took a long pull from her drink. "Yeah. Worst thing in the world, being helpless. This way, you get to make the terms."

Staring at the other woman, at the eyes that wouldn't meet her own any more, Lydia wondered how this had happened. Was she a callous criminal that found a spark of decency, or a good person fallen into a life of monstrosity?

The other thing she knew, however, was that it didn't matter. Maybe she's one, maybe she's the other, maybe she's neither. Soon Lydia was to be gone, and then she'd need no longer concern herself with Riften.

Except… "Thank you." Whatever her reasons, Sapphire had intended to do her a kindness. "Out of curiosity, why?"

Sapphire finished her drink, and waved for another. Lydia could only stare. The woman can hold her alcohol. "Before, you said you'd never known a thief to stick their neck out. Now you do."

"Just like that?" Lydia had another sip. "Truth be told, I didn't think I'd bothered you that much."

"Yeah, well, you're not as smart as you think, then." She smiled sweetly across the table. "I'm a good friend to have, you know. And I think you are, too."

Still trying to hire me? "

"Guards are easy to deal with, especially if you're with the Guild. A few septims or the promise of a favor can open plenty of doors." She shrugged. "And my hands are fast enough to slip that through the bars. Wouldn't be the first time somebody down there got a little present from a late-night guest." She sipped the White-Gold Tower. "So, why'd you put a guard on the ground. Thought you were smarted than that." She licked her lips. "Not much, but a little."

"He tried to rape someone." It might have been tiredness, or the surprising smoothness of her drink, but Lydia was done with convenient half-truths. "I ran into him while I was chasing a thief, he claimed I'd assaulted him, and tried to get the woman whose things were stolen to get on her knees." She took a long pull from her drink. "Then, I hit him." She might be tired and a bit drunk, but she'd always been good at remembering her fights. "The sword was an accident, though."

Sapphire's face had darkened as soon as Lydia started talking. "Rape, huh?" Her voice was cold. "Should have shoved that sword through the bastard's throat." She turned. "Barkeep! A plate of whatever's hot and greasy!" The other woman glared across the table at Lydia, though it was obvious that the housecarl wasn't the target of the thief's ire. "You and Mjoll, trying to save the gods-damned city." She leaned back, draining her flagon, then raised it. "And another White-Gold!"

"You know Mjoll?" Lydia didn't want to dwell on why Sapphire would have reacted so strongly to her story. "Maybe you should help her make the city better."

A snort. "Oh, please. She thinks that busting the Guild is going to make things safer? We make sure that things run well enough here. Not like the jarl's doing it. You see the Lioness again, tell her that every Guild job she ruins is a free chance for some freelance scum who isn't going to worry about collateral damage!"

"And the Thieves Guild does? You make sure that nobody gets hurt?" It hardly meshed with the stories Lydia had heard.

Sapphire shrugged. "Sometimes they do. But we don't slit throats before emptying pockets. Bad for business."

Lydia shook her head. "And the only reason you don't murder in cold blood is because it would cost you money."

"Oh, get off your fucking high horse!" Sapphire's fist slammed down on the table, and Talen-Jei paused behind her, drink in hand. "I don't kill people. I backed off Shadr! I brought you a lockpick and a weapon, then bought you drinks and talked to you like—" She turned, and saw the Argonian. "Drink, now!"

The moment the flagon was in her hand, she gulped from it. "You did a good fucking thing, and I never even got your name." She set it down, and Talen-Jei dropped a plate of meaty ribs on the table in front of her. Sapphire tore one from the rack, and set to work gnawing on it. "Eat up. Prison food's shit."

Lydia wordlessly used the dagger to slice a rib free, and took a bite. Not cow. It was far too small to be mammoth, but the musky flavor put her in mind of that meat. Carefully, she finished it, making sure not to drip anywhere but the table. I might be a bit drunk, but I won't make a fool of myself.

"Look at you." Sapphire was laughing now. "Eating like a thane at Ulfric's table." For her own part, the woman had remained fairy neat considering how drunk she was obviously becoming. If I'm feeling this, what must it be doing to her? She had to outweigh Sapphire by more than fifty pounds. "You'll leave soon, right? Gone with the—the morning fog?"

"I'm not sure." Lydia had entered that cautious area where every word was chosen deliberately, lest she ramble like Sapphire was. "I'm bone tired, but the thought of staying here is—"

"Not really your city, huh?" Sapphire was laughing again, the sloppy laugh of the miserable drunk. "You're one of the good ones, and you're leaving."

Lydia studied the other woman. One of the good ones, am I? "Mjoll is still here. If you want to make a difference—"

"The Lioness doesn't see the difference between me and that guard you thrashed! You've got something going on between your ears! And you put a guard on the ground to defend this woman." Sapphire slumped down, supporting her head on her arms. "Gods, where were you?" She looked up at Lydia. "Seven years ago at Last Seed, how old were you?"

"Twenty-one, barely. Why?"

"And you were big, right? With that shield?" Sapphire's eyes were fixed on the Dwarven piece in the corner. "What were you? A merc, a guard?" Her head fell into her hands. "Saving the innocent, right? That's you."

"Guard. In Whiterun." She rose. Any more, and she'll say something she regrets in the morning. "Sapphire…"

"Sapphire." The other woman looked at her through hands pressed over her eyes. "That's not who they raped."

Lydia froze. No. She didn't want to hear this, but short of abandoning the woman, there was no other choice. "I can get you a room, a bed to sleep things off—"

"That stupid little girl thought that if you begged, they'd stop." Sapphire's voice was flat. "My family died on our little pig farm, but they took me with them. After a fortnight, they trusted me. I stopped crying, so they thought I liked it." She laughed, and Lydia, acting without conscious thought, reached across the table to place a hand on Sapphire's wrist.

She jerked her arm away before Lydia could make contact. "I slit their throats, I took their gold." She glared up at Lydia with reddened eyes. "You hate me so much, but you weren't there! Nobody was there! I'm here, I'm alive, and nobody is going to make me weak again! You understand?" She sighed, and the anger seemed to melt like the snow."They can't hurt Sapphire."

"Because you're strong." Sapphire nodded blearily, and Lydia rose, wanting to weep. "Come on. Let's get you to bed."

Sapphire protested weakly, but Lydia had handled far more formidable drunks. Talen-Jei's scales darkened when she asked for a room, but he handed over a key in exchange for a sovereign and a handful of lesser coins.

Lydia slid Sapphire onto the bed, then tramped back downstairs to gather their things. By the time she returned, the thief looked to be asleep, black hair fanned around her head as she wriggled deeper into the blankets and mattress. She didn't look peaceful, exactly, but by morning she might be better.

How do you handle something like that? Lydia only knew that she didn't begin to have whatever was needed to help Sapphire. I'm just a housecarl.

Still, she had to believe that Sapphire would be briefly considered joining the other woman on the bed, but rejected it just as swiftly. The chair will do. Given what had happened, and where her mind seemed to be, the presence of someone else might be more threat than comfort.

Her chair was a big high-backed thing in one corner, and once Lydia grabbed some cushions from the bed, it was almost comfortable. Sitting there, watching the –what is she? Just a thief?—sleep, she suddenly wished she'd curbed her tongue. She was so tired, though, that she found herself falling into sleep the moment her eyes closed.

She awoke to find herself alone in the room. Sunlight streamed in through a window, and she'd been covered by a blanket. The bed was rumpled, but in the middle of it sat a folded sheet of paper, weighted down by a few gold coins and a single blue stone. Lydia opened the note and began to read.


Never caught your name, but thanks for last night.

I hope the coin covers my part of the room. Since I got the bed, figured I could be a bit generous.

Consider the gem a bribe, if you want. I remember everything up until I passed out, so I know I said some stuff I wouldn't want getting around. Can't promise I'd have spilled it all if I was sober, but I'm not sorry I did. I've gotten drunk plenty, but you're the first one to get the story. Carrying around a weight like that hurts after a while. Didn't mean to put it on you, but I saw the armor come off. If anyone can bear it, it's you.

I don't know if you still hate me, and I think I'd rather not find out. Right now, writing this, I can pretend that you don't, and I kind of like that. It's not fair, but why start now?

I don't think you'll be coming back to Riften any time soon, and even if you did I doubt you'd be needing the help of scum like me.

If you're ever passing through and you want to get in a fight, you know where I drink.

Whoever you are, wherever you're going, I hope you do well.


Lydia carefully folded the letter around the sapphire, and tucked both away. She made sure they were well-protected, and was shocked to realize how gingerly she was handling the parchment.

She's not a monster. Lydia couldn't begin to imagine what Sapphire had experienced, but she knew many who'd suffered as the thief had.

She dressed and made her way downstairs, to find the female Argonian behind the bar. "You're awake. The other one said we were to let you sleep. Would you care for breakfast?"

As she ate, Lydia couldn't get her mind off Sapphire. Finally, she decided to give in and ask the Argonian behind the bar what she knew.

The lizard's tongue flicked out, moistening her lips. "Hmm, only what I see. She's been coming in here for maybe two years. Always surrounded by a crowd of those lowlifes. Why?"

Lydia shook her head. "No reason." She took a quick drink, then looked around the inn. It was still early enough in the day that few people were sitting around. I should be gone before the crew at the jail comes looking for me. She paid for her meal, thanked them for the night, and headed out the door before she could have a moment of weakness and ask more questions about Sapphire.

Riften was already awake, and Lydia wasted no time heading to the stables. She settled up with Shadr, gathered her things, and in what seemed no time at all was making one last trip through the city.

There were three great gates of Riften, linked by broad roads meant for the traffic of carriages and wagons. The roads passed the markets and mercantile districts, making it easy for goods to get where they needed to go. The unintended benefit, of course, was that Lydia could easily find her way from the stable to the southern gate.

When she reached the gate, she found it open and lightly watched. A number of guards were standing about, but they had the unmistakable air of men who knew full well that the most dangerous thing they had to worry about was getting in the way of a careless cart driver. She'd always hated keeping watch, but these men's boredom was her gain.

She kept her eyes on the road before her, forcing the hand that led the horse to be causal with the grip and the other to fall at her side. I'm not reaching for my sword. One of the guards yelled, and she stiffened before realized that he was berating a farmer trying to lead his cow past a wagon laden with vegetables. Don't let them notice me, don't let them notice me!

For once, some god was with her, and she was on the road beyond without any giving her more than the most cursory greeting. She raised her head then, and took stock.

Ahead, the road wound along the shore of Lake Ilnalta, vanishing among the trees to the west. A road sign pointed that way, the word Ivarstead etched into the wood and accented with peeling black paint.

She had only the road before her, but what she'd done in Riften preyed on her mind. I'm a good person. Every step she'd taken had been the right one, yet somehow she'd ended up in a lot of wrong. Or did I? Given how Riften functioned, doing the right thing was no protection. What do you do in a city where a thief has more honor than a guard?

Right now, though, she had a task. I can worry over Riften some other time.

She gathered her beast's reins—I should really give you a name—in one hand, made sure her sword and shield were sitting well for a full day's trek, and set off down the road.

Riften had been an experience, but there was a world to save.

GNU Terry Pratchett