It’s been a while, but Aria’s back! Dealing with adult things and teenager things at the same time sucks, but we’ve all been there, I’m sure…
Trigger Warning: References to domestic emotional abuse
The next morning I leapt from the bed Sedave and I shared and went about my routines as quickly as I could, as well as trying to look my best. The impromptu swim in the sea followed by my going right to bed meant that my hair was well and truly bedraggled, but if I could tie it back just so, it would look like I did it on purpose.
“Come in,” Gwynne called when I knocked on her door.
I obeyed, clutching the pillowcase containing my loot in front of me.
“Little Miss Aria,” she smiled. “I was worried you’d decided against joining our merry band! I daresay things went well?”
“Yes, ma’am!” I said excitedly, offering her the case. “Five things, just as you said.”
Gwynne took the case from me and walked over to her desk, beckoning me to follow. As she reached in, she said, “Seems you could’ve done with a smaller sack, hm?”
“Well it was all in my satchel, but, well, you see, my method for breaking in was a bit…smelly. Sedave took the satchel when I got back and put everything in the case because it smelled so bad.”
“Because if I didn’t wash all the stink off myself first I’d never have stopped throwing up.”
Gwynne looked at me curiously, apparently having trouble keeping from laughing out loud. “What on Nirn did you do?”
“Stinkhorn cap, ma’am. To mask my scent from the dog.”
“Good night! I do hope you considered the dog tracking that stench here?”
“Yes ma’am,” I nodded. “I ran to the other side of town – nobody was following me – and threw my clothes in the garbage bins beside one of the houses. Then I just ran back here. I figured my skin wouldn’t smell as bad as the clothes.”
“I suppose we’ll see,” Gwynne sighed. “For the moment let’s see if what you stole will be worth going to jail over, shall we?”
“Jail?” I repeated in a small voice, somehow surprised that it was a potential outcome.
“Oh my, yes. I’ll need to grease some palms to get us out of it, and, let’s face it, you’re the greasiest thing we have at the moment, our little applicant.”
I stood there with my throat tightening and my eyes stinging, wondering how I could’ve thought that plan was a smart one.
“You’re not really that scared, are you?” Gwynne laughed. “Goodness gracious, girl, if they had any idea they’d have been here by now.”
“You used stinkhorn cap, and you brought your satchel back home. It’s really only through Sedave’s decision to throw it into the sea that you’re safe, and to be honest I’m not sure if that was actual foresight or if he just couldn’t think of anything better to do with it.”
I didn’t like the way she put down my boyfriend, but I was relieved to hear her insight into the matter.
“But Aria, as I said, being a thief is about subtlety. Stinkhorn cap isn’t subtle. I’m really not even sure how safe you are. Those clothes are bound to be discovered, and it’s not as if it’s difficult to tell a ragamuffin’s clothes from a queen’s.”
“I stole the clothes, though,” I said.
“I didn’t have any that would be good for thieving in, so, for practice, I picked the lock on one of the wealthier families’ back doors and found some black clothes in their daughter’s room.”
Gwynne studied me through narrow eyes and with a bemused smile.
“I have to be honest, though,” I said slowly. “I didn’t really think about that being an advantage in terms of being found out. I just needed something dark.”
“Sometimes the best lessons are learned by accident,” Gwynne mused. “Now, back to the spoils.”
I watched as optimism replaced my nervousness as Gywnne pulled each item out and appraised it, sometimes muttering words of approval.
“Did you just grab whatever was in reach,” she asked, “or did you actually put thought into your choices?”
“I just took what I thought was pretty,” I said truthfully, worried that it might be the wrong answer, considering swiftness was part of the game.
“It shows,” Gwynne said. “They have a theme.”
“Rubies, rubies, rubies,” she said. “Except this dragonfly, but even then, he compliments them. Were you at a gala, not a single person would fault you for wearing this necklace and this brooch.”
I grinned and felt my cheeks warm again.
“Did you know, Aria, that a ruby is simply red corundum that has been cut and polished just so?”
Gwynne looked at me curiously. “It’s not a coincidence you chose these. Red is your color. And the dragonfly? I think you sense change.”
“It just reminded me of Sedave,” I said.
“Indeed,” Gwynne smiled. “Welcome to the Guild, Little Miss Aria.”
I almost ran up to hug my new Guild Master, but thought better of it. Instead, I bit my lip to keep from shouting and flew from her office, down the stairs, and into the basement where Sedave was just waking up.
“I’m in!” I nearly shouted as I jumped onto the bed, straddling his waist. “I’m in, baby, I’m in!”
“Oh yeah?” He answered sleepily, managing a smile as he rubbed one of his eyes. “She liked what you did, hey?”
“She did! She wasn’t really very pleased with my methods – not entirely – but still she seemed impressed.”
“Dead brill, Speck! Didn’t I tell ya?”
I threw my arms around his neck and pushed him back down so that I was lying on top of him. I took in those sharp Dunmer features. His long face to match his lanky frame, that mischievous grin he’d had since he was a boy. I leaned down and kissed him, thinking how lucky I was that I’d already found my mate. He might outlive me by a couple centuries, but that hardly mattered. We were kids.
“How long d’you fink we’ll be togevver?” he asked, as if reading my mind.
“A long time, I hope.”
“Me too, love. Me too.”
In the next few weeks, my work with the Guild started in earnest. It wasn’t much, and nothing as glamorous as a jewelry heist, but, difficult entrance test or not, I was still an initiate. Like Sedave, I was given basic breaking and entering jobs, pickpocketing, and sometimes just playing courier. Gwynne liked giving me courier jobs since I still looked younger than I was, and my size alone tended to make people coo over me. I wasn’t suspicious.
One day, though, as I was preparing to leave the city, someone called after me from the docks.
“Hey, you. Blondie.”
I turned to see Eagle-Eye Joe sauntering lazily towards me. He was tall for a Breton, and unusually fit for our lot. I’d been developing a bit of an infatuation since I’d been seeing him more frequently. His reddish-brown hair was always pleasingly mussed, and he always seemed to be sporting the exact length of beard one would typically only see after a day or so without shaving. I can only imagine he did it on purpose, and if so, he possessed a remarkable skill.
“Yes?” I answered.
“Found that Felix fella.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Really? Where is he? Did you see Jana?”
“Wasn’t paid to find Jana, just to track Felix. Was about to tell Sedave to break the news to you I’d given up, but sure enough, he came back. Skulking around, probably looking for another girl.”
“Where can I find him?”
“He’s got a manor about six miles north of here. Look for three apple trees. And before you ask, I can’t tell you his schedule. Wasn’t-“
“-paid to find out. No, I understand. Thank you, Joe. Thanks a lot.”
“Aye,” he nodded. “Need anything else, you come to me. I don’t come cheap, but I’ll get the job done.”
I nodded as he winked and turned back to the docks where he’d left his fishing pole, hands shoved into his pockets.
Bet I could make you cum for free, I thought, shivering slightly.
My heart stopped as what I’d just thought sank in. Did this count as being unfaithful? And towards Sedave’s own mentor! I swallowed, trying to will away that hateful heat, and ran off to find Sedave.
“Joe found him!” I shouted when I saw him walking back to the Waterfront from the city.
“Wossat?” he asked as I ran into his arms.
“Felix! Joe said he found where he lives!”
“Excellent! So you’re gonna try and check on Jana, yeah?”
I nodded. “I have a few jobs that can safely wait. Joe says he lives in a manor six miles from here.
Should only take me a day to get there, snoop around, and get back.”
“Bloody brill, Speck,” he grinned. “Told ya, didn’t I?”
“You did,” I smiled back. I was still bothered by that unbecoming thought, but right then I felt nobody could ever top my Sedave.
“When d’you wanna leave?”
“Cor…y’know if you can wait until this evenin’ I can come wiv.”
“I’d love to have you with me, Sedave, but I have to see her! I’ve missed her so much.”
“I know, love,” he said, pushing my hair behind my ear. “I just don’t like the idea of you goin’ out to that place alone.”
“I’ll be okay,” I promised. “Watch for me tonight. If I’m not back by morning, come looking.”
“Right. You be so careful, d’you hear me? If it happens that this Felix is as bad as you’ve always fought, he won’t take kindly.”
“Who’s the quietest thief around?” I smiled in a way I hoped was reassuring.
Sedave wasn’t in a joking mood, though. I’d never seen him so serious. “Just promise me, alright?”
“I do. I’ll come back to you in one piece.”
That coaxed a bit of a smile. “You’d better.”
He kissed me then, and we held each other close. “I love you, baby,” I said.
“Love ya more, Speck.”
With one last, parting smile, I ran to the headquarters to grab my things – snacks, mostly, my water skin, but most importantly: the dagger Sedave had given me before we were even together. It wasn’t anything to write home about; he’d known my apprehensions about Felix early on, and so found something I could at least use for protection if I ever felt I needed to. In this case, he certainly wasn’t the only one of us that had considered the possibility of needing to.
I didn’t want to waste any more time than I had to. I ran through the city, dodging people this way and that, out of the gates, and on and on until I couldn’t anymore. Back then I had stamina to spare, and when I was excited, that’s all I seemed to have. I looked around as I opened my water skin and judged myself to be around two miles and maybe a few yards out. The creepy, disused barn that belonged to the Furius’ farm was my marker.
I took to a brisk walk, then, only until I felt like I could run, and then I would run until I needed rest. I loved this part of Cyrodiil, so full of trees and so green this time of year. To think, I haven’t seen my home in so long; I wonder how much has changed, if that creepy old barn is still there in that field.
Right then, however, everything was a blur until I came upon what had to be the dwelling Joe described. It was both rustic and elaborate, roofs whose thatching was cosmetic, marble ornaments adorning the polished wood fascia. It was ostentatious in the most hideous way, the way expressed by the mindlessly wealthy who give no thought to what a thing is, only its price tag and the most obvious placement, aesthetics be damned.
Of course, back then if you’d asked me exactly why I shuddered, I couldn’t have told you. Identifiable or no, however, it was an extra layer of disgust on the pile of revulsion I’d felt since I first saw that fat, ugly skeever of a man.
I kept my distance, looking the place over. It didn’t seem like he had a lot of land, but there were stables with enough room for three animals, two of which were either out or nonexistent. Then I noticed the large shed. Carefully I dashed over to get a better look. It was large enough to house a carriage, like a phaeton, which could certainly explain two missing horses. There was a lock on the doors, but I thought better of picking it, not when there was nothing to really be gained from it. I walked around the building, ever vigilant of the sounds around me, until I found a small gap in the boards.
The roof on this building seemed to be a bit in disrepair. While it was dark inside, there were tiny little shafts of light reaching down to the ground. It was just enough for me to see that it was mostly empty, and that there was a tarp in a corner (or some terrifying beast, as I’d initially thought before common sense regained hold).
So now came the decisive moment. A stable for three was missing two, and a carriage-sized shed stood empty with a conveniently carriage-sized tarp rumpled in the corner. Chances were that Felix was out, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have help. I couldn’t imagine a man like him even deigning to brush a speck of dust from his seat himself. I figured that I didn’t really know anyone involved in this apart from Jana, though. Worst-case scenario, someone might come across a nearly child-sized Imperial girl and assume she was just some meddling kid and chase me off.
Taking a deep breath, I jogged gingerly over to the house and began peeking into the windows. It was all dim inside, even with the curtains open, but I squinted and tried to focus as hard as I could. My heart began to sink as I thought perhaps he’d gone out with Jana.
The house had a second floor on one wing, and, as with the rest of the structure, a lattice bearing morning glory vines ran up the height of the wall. There were windows up there, of course, and it seemed to me those rooms would be the private ones. I walked up to the first lattice and looked up at the window doubtfully before twining my fingers through one of the exes which comprised the lattice and shaking it. It was anchored well enough, I thought, and if I were quick I could get a good look in without risking pulling the structure off its moorings.
As much as I hated to damage the beautiful purple and blue flowers, I began the climb up. The thin wood bent with my weight, but I was quick, and I leaned forward as much as I was able. Once I reached the window, I leaned over and looked in. Indeed, this was a bedroom, and probably not one meant for guests. The bed was large and neatly made with fine clothes, bearing gauzy drapes over the canopy. A vanity sat opposite with gilded jewelry boxes and trinkets. It looked like a young girl’s room rather than the master’s room, and I thought for a moment that maybe Jana was right. Maybe he was just looking to give her a better home.
A sigh worked itself from my chest. It was partially relief, partially shame in my insistence to my friend that her apparent adoptive father was up to no good. As I began the careful, much slower climb down, however, I heard the sudden, loud noise of wood rubbing loudly against wood.
“Aria?” Jana gasped as she leaned out the window. “What are you doing here? Are you crazy?”
“I was looking for you!” I said. “I wanted to know you were okay. I mean, I guess you are, if that’s your room.”
Jana licked her rouged lips and looked behind her. Finally she held out her hand. “Come on, before that thing breaks.”
I took her hand and climbed into the room. The cloying smell of lilac made me gag slightly.
“I know,” Jana said, as if reading my mind. “It’s the drawer liners and sachets. Felix says it’s more becoming of women if every place they frequent smells of…of beauty.”
“I suppose so. It looks like you have it pretty good here, though. Right?”
Jana looked askance and slumped a bit. “Well…”
“Just tell me the truth, please? It’s me.”
“It’s not fabulous. It’s not exactly what I was expecting, but, you know. I have nice clothes and nice things, and I’m fed.”
“What’s the part you’re not telling me?” I prodded.
“Felix isn’t a nice man,” she answered quickly, as if it was something she’d been dying to say for ages. “He’s so very demanding, and I think he wants me to be a mind-reader, half the time. If we’re in the study and I’m trying to do my tatting (which I’m still not very good at, but he says I ought to know it), he’ll run out of drink, you know, and he’ll go and pour himself another, and I’ll think everything is fine until bed time when he’ll ask why I didn’t offer to refill his cup before it was empty. He says only a selfish woman wouldn’t be attentive to a man’s comfort.
“He makes me…do things, too. It’s just like you said, Aria. And he doesn’t bathe often enough, and he’s smelly and greasy, and oh, gods, I hate lying under him.”
“Why do you have your own room?” I asked.
“Because it’s supposed to be a privilege to lie with him,” she sniffed.
I held out my arms and almost fell over as she rushed into them. My forehead only came up to her chin, but I leaned against it, anyway, letting her cry. Trying not to let my own tears ruin her nice dress.
“He never lets me out, Aria,” she sobbed. “I don’t have any friends. The only people I’ve ever met since leaving the city have been his business associates and male friends, and I’m sure the only reason he lets me meet them is so he can show off his fifteen-year-old pet.”
“They don’t try to do anything with you, do they?”
She shook her head. “No, thank Mara. Honestly, I think most of them are a bit disgusted.”
“We need to get you out of here,” I said. “Right now.”
Jana yanked herself away, her dark eyes wide as saucers. “No,” she whimpered. “No, no, no. He’ll come looking for me, Aria, he will.”
“And then what? If you come back with me, you know we’ll all protect you. I will, and Sedave. He misses you, too, you know, and you know he always made sure you were safe.”
“I can’t,” she insisted. “And what if you do protect me? A bunch of Thieves Guild people and street urchins ganging up on a noble? I couldn’t do that to you. To any of you.”
“You should leave. Felix went to visit a colleague, but it’s been five hours and I’m sure he’ll be due back any moment.”
“I’m not leaving without you!”
“Yes, you are!” she almost shouted. “I made a stupid decision, and now I’m paying for it.”
“Don’t talk like that,” I said, feeling my stomach knot with disgust. “We all make bad decisions, but that doesn’t mean you have to subject yourself to this.”
“Go. Please. Actually, do you know what would help?”
“Just, if you can, maybe come visit once in a while? I notice you’re wearing nicer things, so I imagine that means you’ve gotten yourself into the Guild and that you’re busy, but if you ever can…”
My throat was tight and finally a sob escaped my throat. It was like the day she left all over, only a million times worse. “Jana, when I first came to the city, I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“You’d’ve found the others. Sedave would’ve watched out for you like he always did with us.”
“But you were my sister. I don’t think anybody could’ve comforted me the way you did, and I love Sedave, and he loves me, but you and me…”
“I know what you’re saying, and I feel much the same, but my life is here, whether I want it to be or not.”
“Go. Please. For now? Felix is out most of the day every day except Loredas and Sundas.”
I looked at her ruefully and hugged her once more. I didn’t want to accept it, but there are times when one can’t convince someone to do anything, even if it’s for their own good. I told her I would visit when I could, and let her lead me downstairs to let me out the scullery door. After one last goodbye, she shut the door, and I heard the clunking sound of a key turning the lock.
It was night when I got back to the city. My feet hurt, and my heart ached, but my mind was alive. Six miles is a long time to ruminate on a situation, and before I went to find Sedave, I searched for old Eagle-Eye.
He was in the Merry Minotaur, a skeezy tavern tucked away in a disused warehouse that nobody of any proper repute frequented. Sedave would hang out there, at times, and I was glad to see that this wasn’t one of those. There was Joe, though, his arm around the waist of a rather shapely wench, one grubby boot up on the equally grubby table.
“Joe?” I called over the general ruckus as I approached him.
“Hey there, Blondie. Find him alright?”
“Sort of. I need to learn to shoot.”
Joe snorted and shoved the wench away as he took his foot off the table to sit properly. He motioned for me to sit.
“I don’t suppose I need to ask why,” he smirked.
“I don’t suppose you do.”
“Look,” he said, leaning forward onto his arms, “this ain’t a glamorous life. I know you’ve got a reputation for reading, and all this nonsense about dashing rogues and assassins is horseshit. Thieving’s one thing. Pretty thing like you ain’t got business starting down that path.”
“Who says I’m going down a path?” I asked.
He shrugged and picked at his teeth with the nail of one pinky. “Just a common occurrence, is all. Kid already has no real regard for authority, gets it in her head for revenge against someone for one reason or another. Lotta times they get caught. Ones who don’t figure out there’s coin in it for ’em if they can keep not getting caught.”
“Even if that happens to me, what’s the big deal? You don’t look so bad off.”
He laughed. “Betcha don’t know my age.”
“Why should I?”
“I don’t know,” I said, deathly afraid now of offending the only person I knew who could help me. “Forty-five…ish?”
“Thirty-seven,” He replied, completely unfazed. “It’s stressful, this life. It’s one thing to be a mercenary, and quite another to be an assassin. Drove me to drink. Among other things.”
“Look, can we just get off this assassin nonsense?” I asked. “I just need-“
“I’ll do him, if that’s what you want.”
“No. It has to be me.”
“No talking you out of it, hm?”
I smirked. “Sometimes it’s not worth the effort.”
He nodded, a spark flashing in his bright green eyes. “Meet me outside the city, couple miles west, tomorrow around two.”
“How much will I owe you?”
“We’ll figure that out,” he chuckled, leaning towards me.
Our lips met softly, teasingly. Gods, it drove me crazy, but I pulled myself away and jolted upright, my chair scraping loudly across the floor.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I just…you know.”
Joe, unperturbed, raised a hand. “Faithful women are hard to find.”
I wasn’t entirely sure of what to make of that statement, but I nodded anyway. I didn’t know which was worse: that I would think lascivious thoughts about Sedave’s mentor or that the same mentor would make advances on his protege’s girlfriend. I supposed it was a comparison that wasn’t worth making.
“So. Tomorrow at two?”
I nodded as I began backing away. “Yeah. I’ll be there.”
I pushed my way out of the crowded pub and ran out to the docks looking for Sedave. I finally found him coming back from the city, proper, looking pale. When he saw me, he broke into a sprint and threw his arms around me.
“Geez, Speck, had me worrying all evenin’,” he panted.
“It’s barely ten,” I laughed. “I told you I’d be back before morning.”
“Yeah, but you’ve never been away for somefin like this, have you? My stomach was in knots all day.”
“Well, I’m back now, baby, don’t worry.”
He kissed me hard, and I gratefully returned it, running my fingers through his soft hair.
“Did you find Jana?” he asked. “How is she?”
I felt my throat tighten instantly. “It’s bad, Sedave. He treats her like a…a dog, or something. Training her to do things he thinks a lady should do, which all seem to include waiting on him hand and foot. And he locks her up in that house, and parades her out for his friends…”
“He hasn’t laid his hands on her has he? If he’s harmed one hair on her head, I’ll go there right now and-“
“Sedave, don’t. He doesn’t hit her, but even so, if you just barged in, things could get so much worse.”
“What if he kills you? Or what if something else happens? He’ll think she sent for you.”
Sedave looked away and down, shoving a hand into his pocket.
“Besides,” I said, “I tried to get her to come back with me, and she wouldn’t. She’s afraid of being tracked down.”
“Well we can’t just leave her there, Aria.”
“I’ll take care of it,” I said firmly. “I know what to do, and I’ll take care of it.”
Sedave narrowed his eyes. “What d’you mean?”
“I mean I’ll take care of it. It’ll take time, but I have a plan. She’s my best friend, Sedave. I should be the one to get her out.”
“This isn’t really helping my nerves.”
I sighed. “Just…You trust me, don’t you?”
“Just about more than anyone, I reckon,” he ceded.
“Then just trust me. Please? I’ve got it under control.”
“You’ll come to me for help, won’t you?”
I nodded. “Of course. If there’s anyone I can count on in this whole world, it’s you.”
I kissed him again, hoping my own nerves weren’t showing too much. Between a twelve mile trek, one half of which was spent fretting, a lecture and a kiss from a much older man, and Sedave worrying in a way I’d never seen before, I was beyond frazzled. Still, I took his hand, and we took a bath, and by the time we’d finished making love, we both were in a better place. His muscles were soft, his smile was back, and I was in his arms where I belonged when it came time to go to sleep.
As I closed my eyes, I thought: It’s fine, all is well. Joe will teach me to shoot, and soon Jana will be free again.
My loins speculated Joe might teach me other things, but I just had to ignore them. What did they know, after all?