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Those Bugs In A Jar
The first jar held a bee.
Oblivious, it buzzed its exoskeleton against the thin glass, droning noise disturbing the silence of wood-panelled walls. His protégé, impulsive, stuffed the jar into a bulging knapsack for barter with Tonilia. Brynjolf was observing with pride when he noticed the black scratches on the underside of its lid.
"Do you see those symbols, Tonilia? Let me take a look."
While Brynjolf was not a credible scholar as old Gallus was, curiosity seemed to dominate his other convenient qualities and he was altogether inquisitive of anything he encountered. He knew right away the letters were something ancient. After inquiring all around the Flagon and Cistern of the guild, he set the jar on his table and watched the bee's frantic dance. An absent hand dug a dagger into the cork, plopping it open. Strange how the bee didn't seem to notice the invitation. Brynjolf copied down the worn symbols with a rustled quill and stowed away the sealed jar behind Vekel's counter. He advised himself to spare some coin for a letter to Winterhold.
Two eventful months whirled by and another jar found him. An orange dartwing, finger-sized and agitated, zoomed in the space it was given. A business transaction took Thrynn to a mining stronghold far in the Reach; when he returned sweaty and successful the jar was thrust onto Brynjolf's chest, followed by a low "you're welcome". As expected, dark inscriptions revealed themselves at the bottom of the lid. Brynjolf calculated how much Thrynn's pay would need to be as he pulled out the forgotten letter to Winterhold. He added to the scribbles and called for a lounger in the Cistern to deliver his message.
Brynjolf tested the dartwing. It drooped still to the bottom of the jar when he pulled out the lid. Intrigued, he examined the two cork discs for one hard moment. The runes somewhat resembled standard Cyrodiilic. D-A-T, J-W-T. A sudden surge of excitement shocked up his spine. He hoped, guiltless, that the College would turn out perplexed at the sharp scratches. He didn't remember embedding the letters again and again onto thick paper in the dank chambers of the Flagon.
Brynjolf squandered away some money looking for the next two jars. A monarch butterfly, fluttering away in a lonely shack, seemed to have been evading him after countless travels to Whiterun. To his delight the College had nothing to offer. Vex was shamelessly apprehensive, as anticipated; Delvin silently did what Brynjolf asked despite the tense air of disapproving concern. They caught wind of a family from Hammerfell murdered in the expensive lighthouse overlooking the Sea. Delvin handed him the glowing torchbug he had retrieved, unease shifting his eyes, and Brynjolf thanked him in an overly-polite voice that was not his own. In restrained steps he strode slowly into Vekel's quiet room and laid the jars in a straight file before him. The torchbug, resplendent even in the washing light, floated underneath Z-W-A-T in warped Cyrodiilic. He recorded the letters neatly under the butterfly's affronting P-I-G.
Z-W-A-T, P-I-G, D-A-T, J-W-T. They might be numerics. They might represent something in Cyrodiilic.
He assigned several even numbers to the T's, in a blurt of logic. To the A's, and the W's, a handful of odd numbers. The rest had to be thought out in a long straining search for reason. Add each possible value to each other, then multiply them by each possible sum of the other words. Or maybe add and divide, subtract and multiply. Letters and numbers were rolling in the back of his mind and the paper was running out of blank edges. He was coming up with a deluge of strange words until he realized they meant nothing.
Annoyed, he smothered the candle with the paper until it was floating ash.
Brynjolf was certain there were more. Guild duties were heaping over him and it was crucial he maintain the balance. Long weeks pulled into a stop when he unearthed another jar. He promised himself this was the last.
A luna moth, effervescent and soft, was waiting for him in a cave up near Dawnstar. Hot breath gusted amidst the frozen walls as he checked the lid, Falmer and bandits bleeding their life behind him. The inscriptions were there. M and T. This was it. He would not look for any other. The journey home numbed his mind to exhaustion.
Vex was waiting for him when he clambered down into the Cistern. He did not perceive the harsh look in her eyes, drained out by the white light that poured from the center of the rock ceiling. But he knew well enough she was about to berate him in unwavering cruelty. He was too tired to argue.
"I know, lass, it's getting out of control. I promise you I'm done."
She didn't buy it. "You're done when you stomp your feet over those jars. Hand them over and let me have my fun."
Irritation bit him. He invested hard-earned gold searching for them. Everything had some value to it. The scratches in these jars were worth a forgotten language. He had small chances of figuring out which one. Bigger chances of figuring out what the runes meant.
"No. That's the final word."
His feet carried him to bed as blood pulsed to the tips of his fingers. Bitterly, he organized the spiked lines of the letters in his mind, as he was routine to doing. The decision was made; he was going to stop soon. When he was done. M-T, Z-W-A-T, P-I-G, D-A-T, J-W-T. J-W-T, P-I-G, M-T, D-A-T, Z-W-A-T. P-I-G, Z-W-A-T, M-T...
The next conscious moment was the same as every day. Pulling himself away from the warm fur, he crouched under his bed. The jars were locked within a chest, buzzing and glowing; Brynjolf whisked them away and brought them for one final scrutiny in the Flagon. Vex was openly glaring at him.
"Look, I know I might seem irrational, but hear me out, Vex. The bugs are worth little-" Vex snorted. "-but the prize is in the etchings. If we could break the code, we just might have entitlement to a dead language."
"Trademark rights or not, it isn't worth it. Those words could mean anything. What makes you think you can actually figure them out?"
"Because it's obviously something so simple that I can't grasp in all this over-thinking."
Vex considered him. It was true; he was over-thinking. That one crazed night he spent calculating the numbers was not something he had fallen prone to before. It was absurd. Several theories gushed through his mind and none of them were even plausible. A message, a warning - he even entertained the possibility that these bugs in jars were a sort of discreet signal that alluded to one big conspiracy. But Brynjolf was too reasonable to believe any of his creative suggestions. He knew the answer was under his nose. He just couldn't catch it.
Delvin offered some advise. "Haven't you thought they're just the insect's names? What me and Tonilia've been thinking all along."
"I have. But it wouldn't make sense. The letters are too few to spell torchbug or dartwing. And it's not convenient to write the labels under the lid, rather than on top."
"Too few? Ah, well, something closely-related then?"
Brynjolf pondered for a moment. The steady drip-drip of water from slimy walls invaded their silence. He watched the bee, striped and electric, circling around an invisible point in the air. The luna moth fluttered gently, ethereal, and the torchbug was gleaming in suspended serenity. An image came to his mind and he saw them flying around the open world. Dragonfly whizzing above the lakes, honeybee buzzing around hives hanging in trees... Monarch butterflies bright as the day...
When the sure answer came to him, it was so elementary he really thought he was losing his mind.