While Rune paid a brief visit to his father, Ginna took care of the business she’d come to do for Vex and Delvin and after she finished, she snuck onto the farm below Solitude and stole both horses out of the stables. They whinnied in protest, as if they knew she was taking them for more than just a midnight stroll, but she placated them with sugar cubes she’d taken from the pouch just inside the barn and then led them by their harnesses to the edge of the road where Rune was already waiting for her.
He seemed more withdrawn than before they’d briefly parted, and when she asked if he was all right, he just said he was worried about his father and left it at that. She had more than enough on her own mind to keep her occupied, so she didn’t press him.
Discovering Karliah was behind the Guild’s troubles was more than Rune could stomach, but Ginna couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something far deeper going on. None of it made sense, though she supposed it didn’t have to. Some people were just plain evil, like Brutus, and that was the thought Ginna kept finding herself hung up on.
Though she couldn’t fully begin to comprehend why Brutus did the things he did, she had a pretty good idea. Jealousy had driven him to push her out of the picture; he’d been trying to get rid of her as long as she could remember, though when they were children she’d never taken it seriously. Now that she’d already yielded to him everything he could have wanted, it seemed he wanted to make her suffer.
But what was Karliah’s motivation? She remembered when Brynjolf first told her about his parents, about the woman who killed them…
She’d always been so kind to me.
Was this Karliah some kind of sadist who thrived on the agony of others? Just thinking about what she’d done to Brynjolf made the muscles in Ginna’s stomach clench tight as a fist. Even when they broke to rest awhile, she took little sleep while Rune kept watch. Every sound in the night was an intruder, every cracked twig some secret assassin sneaking up to take them out. It turned out to be nothing more than a fox, but she didn’t like feeling so on edge.
It was as if her entire life had become one big razor and she was constantly skirting along the sharp edge, waiting to slide off. The fact that Rune seemed just as paranoid as she did didn’t make her feel much better.
When Riften finally came into view, she actually felt relief for the first time in days. Even Rune seemed to lighten up a little. They rode hard until they reached the stables, dismounting and leading the horses to the stablemaster, but Hofgrir refused to board the horses at first.
“I know they aren’t your horses,” he said gruffly.
Ginna sidled up close to him and drew a small sack of gold from her pack. She reached for his hand and lowered it into his palm, closing his fingers around it. “And how does this help your conscience?”
“They’re beautiful horses,” he nodded, sinking the coinpurse into the pocket of his tunic. “How long will you need to house them here?”
“Indefinitely,” she shrugged, walking away. “Just take good care of them.”
“You bet I will.”
Rune noticed the way Hofgrir followed her with his eyes and said, “He better hope Brynjolf doesn’t catch him making eyes at you.”
“He wasn’t making eyes at me,” she insisted, the two of them pushing through the gates together.
“I’m pretty sure he was.”
“Well, even if he was, I wasn’t making them back.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Rune shrugged. “It’s the principle.”
She’d never thought when she first stepped through the gates into Riften just a month earlier with Brynjolf that it would ever feel like home, but she sure was glad to be there. As they walked the pier, she glanced toward Honeyside and longed to slip inside its comfort to finally familiarize herself with it, but she had a feeling Mercer would be sending her back out to take care of Karliah. She at least hoped he gave her time to flop onto her bed and get a good night’s sleep.
“Thanks for coming with me,” she turned to him when they entered the cemetery. “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“What do you mean, nothing? You pickpocket me when I was sleeping?”
“I didn’t come with you to get paid,” he told her. “I came as a friend to watch your back, and to do a little side work. My pockets are full and besides, I think I took enough of your gold playing dice.”
“Oh yeah. Remind me not to play dice with you again,” she jested, elbowing him as they approached the crypt.
Sauntering down the stairs side-by-side, he reached down to open the tunnel as Ginna tugged the pull chain to close the stone slab overhead. “If you’re heading out again and you need me to tag along, just let me know.”
“I will,” she assured him. “Thanks again.”
They parted ways in the Cistern, Rune heading left to catch up with Sapphire and Ginna scanning the area for Brynjolf. Taking a deep breath, he was nowhere to be found, so she exhaled and made her way across the passage to Mercer’s desk.
He was facing the shelving studying some trinket, but when she cleared her throat he replaced it and turned around. “It’s about time you get back. Did Gulum-Ei give up any information on our buyer?”
Straight to business. Good, that meant she wouldn’t have to spend much time in his company. At least she hoped that was what it meant. Knowing he was some murderer’s target didn’t make her feel any affinity with him at all, but he was her Guildmaster now and she would do whatever he asked of her. Even protect him.
“He said someone by the name of Karliah purchased Goldenglow.” Ginna carefully watched his face, the ever-present scowl melting away, the tightness in his eyebrows lowering as his jaw dropped slowly open.
“No,” he shook his head in disbelief. “No, that can’t be. I haven’t heard that name in… in decades.” He looked almost scared as he lowered his gaze and admitted, “This is grave news indeed. She’s someone I never hoped to cross paths with again.”
“She killed the former Guild-master, Gallus,” she said. “And Brynjolf’s mother and father.”
“Yes,” he stammered a little bit. “Yes, she did. Karliah destroyed everything this Guild stood for. She murdered them in cold blood and betrayed us all. After we discovered what she’d done, we spent months trying to track her down, but she just… vanished.”
“And now she’s returned,” Ginna leaned her hands down on the surface of his desk. “Any idea why?”
He shook his head, looking down at her hands. “Karliah and I were like partners. I went with her on every heist. We watched each other’s backs. I know her techniques, her skills.” Lifting his eyes to meet hers again, he squinted, lip curling just a little. “If she kills me, there will be no one left that can possibly catch her. If only we knew where she was…”
“Gulum-Ei only said that she told him she was going where the end began. Cryptic at best, unless that has some kind of special significance to you.”
“Where the end began?” he mulled that over for a moment and then nodded. “There’s only one place that could be. The place where she murdered Gallus. A ruin called Snow Veil Sanctum north of Windhelm.”
“Then I should head up there first thing tomorrow morning, see if I can find her.”
“Yes, we should head out there to see if we can catch up with her before she disappears again.”
“We?” That stunned her a little, and she stepped back to look at him.
“Yes, I’m going with you and together we’re going to kill her.”
Brynjolf had made it very clear to her that killing wasn’t the way of things in their Guild, unless circumstances prevented one from avoiding it. “Isn’t murder Dark Brotherhood territory,” she pushed up off the desk.
“This is different. I have a longstanding arrangement with the Dark Brotherhood. If I need someone in the Guild taken care of it, we do it ourselves. Here, here’s your payment for the job in Solitude.” He pushed a heavy sack of gold across the desk and Ginna reached for it. It was heavier than her last payment, but even as she lifted it she couldn’t even begin to guess how much was inside. “I want you to prepare yourself. I have a few things I need to take care of before I go, but I will meet you at Snow Veil Sanctum. We need to be quick. We can’t let her slip through our fingers again.”
“I’ll ride out first thing tomorrow morning.”
“What else do I need to know about Karliah? What should I expect?”
“She was a stubborn Dunmer,” he shook his head. “Always had to do everything her way, but she was also the best. She brought in more gold in a month than most thieves heist in a year. Gallus trusted her too much and let her get too close.”
“So… they had a relationship?”
“If you want to call it that, yes. Me? I think she was softening him for the kill. Gallus used to call her his little nightingale. He was absolutely smitten by her.”
Maybe it was a stupid question, but she had to ask because it still didn’t make sense, no matter how much deeper she delved into it. “Why did she kill him?”
“Greed? Jealousy? Spite? Who can say what drove her to such an iniquitous act. One thing’s certain. I intend to find out before she draws her last breath.”
“We will catch up with her,” Ginna assured him. That was all she’d needed to hear to seal her commitment to that act. Killing over greed, jealousy and spite… Karliah’s crime was as unforgiveable as Brutus’s in her mind, and as she made her way through the Cistern toward the Flagon to turn in her jobs to Delvin and Vex, she ignored her gut feeling trying to tell her something still wasn’t right.
Brynjolf wasn’t in the Ragged Flagon. Delvin told her he was taking care of a bit of business for Maven, and after collecting her payments she headed up through the Ratway with a heaviness in her heart. Business for Maven could mean anything, and she feared she wouldn’t get to see him again before heading out to meet with Mercer at Snow Veil Sanctum.
At home, she stripped out of her armor and into more comfortable clothes, and then she walked the market in search of food. She bought some venison and carrots and then headed back to Honeyside to make herself something to eat. She ate alone, then ventured downstairs to disenchant a few items she’d picked up in her travels and sift through the well-stocked collection of potion ingredients near the alchemy lab. She made a few potions and poisons to take with her in the morning, but mostly she was just dragging out time, hoping Brynjolf would come back before she went to bed.
As she was walking toward the stairs, she caught a glimpse of a lone book on the shelf and for some reason it struck her. Nightingales: Fact or Fiction? She paused and tried to remember if that book had been there before, but she hadn’t really spent much time down there and couldn’t recall. Lifting it off the shelf, she opened the pages and thumbed through it, reading the author’s argument on whether or not a secret faction within the Riften Thieves Guild that dedicated itself to Nocturnal existed.
Thieves and religion… it was an interesting concept but one most thieves only played to in passing. It was no secret their foul or favor was determined by Nocturnal’s whim, but few ever looked beyond the Daedric Prince of Darkness’s influence, and she’d never met anyone who actually worshipped or served Nocturnal.
The author of that book posed the question: did the Nightingales exist within the Guild itself? She’d have to ask Brynjolf about it… if she ever saw him again.
It was getting late, and try as she might to keep her eyes open any longer, she knew she needed to sleep if she was going to get up and ride out to Windhelm in the morning. Closing the book and returning it to the shelf, she told herself Brynjolf would be there when she got back, but even knowing that didn’t alleviate the subtle sadness she felt at not having the chance to see him again.
He’d really gotten under her skin, and try as she might to fight it, she knew she couldn’t anymore. She was falling for him, hard and fast and it terrified her.
She was just heading up the stairs when she heard someone come in the back door. She ducked around the corner with her dagger in her hand to find Brynjolf standing in the middle of the bedroom. Though his face softened a little when he saw her, he didn’t look happy at all. She felt ashamed of herself for not even realizing how hard he was going to take hearing the news about Karliah; the woman had murdered his parents.
“I’ve just come from the Cistern,” he announced. “Mercer told me everything.”
“We’re heading up to Snow Veil Sanctum tomorrow to track her down.”
“Good,” he nodded. “She needs to pay for the things she’s done.”
“Are you coming with us?”
“No.” He lifted a hand into his hair, fingers passing through it as it fell back into place around his face. When he sighed, it wavered against his breath like bright red feathers in the wind. “Mercer said I should stay here, in case he doesn’t come back. Someone needs to hold the Guild together.”
Those words send a shudder through her, the severity of the task ahead sinking in for the first time. “So, Mercer’s not planning to come back from this alive?”
“I don’t know what he’s thinking,” he shook his head. “Karliah is dangerous.” Stepping toward her, he didn’t seem to know what to do with himself when he finally stood in front of her. He lifted his hands as if he meant to grab her arms, but then dropped them again at his sides. “She’s smart as a whip, lass. One of the best…”
Ginna lifted her eyes to his, waiting for him to meet her gaze, but he didn’t. “Mercer’s been at this a long time too. He told me they were partners once. That will give him… give us an edge against her. As long as he doesn’t lose his head.”
“Aye,” he agreed with a nod. “I just… I don’t like this, Ginna. I have a bad feeling in my guts.”
“No, you don’t understand,” he shook his head, walking past her to sit in the chair near the wardrobe. He leaned down to rest his elbows on his knees, head lowering, hair falling into his face. “Once I was old enough to realize what had really happened to my ma and da, my hate festered inside me like a disease. I’ve spent the majority of my life thinking about hunting her down, running my blade through her heart.”
Ginna knelt down in front of him and took his hands into hers. “I can’t even begin to imagine how hard this is for you, knowing she’s out there… That she’s been working from the shadows to try and destroy everything you and Mercer worked so hard for… I just… I can’t stop asking myself why she did it in the first place.”
“She’s a madwoman?” he suggested, grinding his teeth together hard. “Who knows why crazy people do the things they do.”
“Mercer told me she and Gallus were lovers.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know,” she softened her voice in hopes of calming him. “Most people do the kinds of things she’s done for a…” Her voice trailed off when she saw the fire in his eyes, as if he were daring her to make an excuse for his enemy. “I’m just trying to understand, Bryn.”
“There’s nothing to understand, Ginna. She needs to die and that’s the end of that.”
“Before she tears my Guild apart or hurts anyone else I love.”
Ginna swallowed, dropping back on her heels to study him. “She will pay for the things she’s done, I promise.”
He steepled his hands together and lowered his head, the hair falling around his face like a curtain. For a long time they sat that way, with nothing but the sound of logs cracking and spitting in the hearth to break the silence. Finally, Ginna pushed up off the floor and started to turn from him, but he grabbed her wrist and stood, towering over her like a giant.
“I’m sorry, I just… I’ve never been this angry and confused. It’s like twenty-five years of hate just bubbling to the surface and my blade thirsts for her blood, but Mercer won’t let me quench it and…” Shaking his head again, he didn’t even know how to go on, so he just stopped.
Ginna lifted a hand to his face, traced fingers down the scar that lined his left cheek before leaning into him and putting her arms around his neck. The stiffness of his muscles relaxed against her and he lowered in to hug her closer.
“Just promise me you’ll be careful,” he whispered against her ear, lips soft as he brushed them across her cheek before tilting her chin upward into his kiss. “Promise, lass.”
“I promise,” she exhaled.
“I…” his fingers tangled through the ties of her bodies, tugging it slowly open while she worked down the buckles of his armor. “I just want to keep you here, safe… with me… always,” he murmured between kisses. Drawing back to tug out of his clothes, Ginna lifted her dress up over her head and let it fall to the floor. He came back in, hands bracing her shoulders, brilliant green eyes locked on hers. “I want to make a life together, Ginna, be partners. Real partners. You and me.”
She had a feeling he was talking about much more than just running jobs together and splitting the take. “When all this is over we’ll talk about a partnership…”
“Life’s too short. I want to talk about it now.”
“What is there to talk about, Brynjolf? You don’t want me to go back to Cyrodiil? You don’t want me to go on this job with Mercer?”
“I’m saying I want to keep you, full-time. I’m saying we should always be together, even when we’re apart. I’m saying…” he kissed her again, drinking deep from her lips as his chest came into hers. “I don’t want anyone else but you.”
Ginna didn’t answer, only kissed him back, hard and strong until their desperation showed them to the bed. She couldn’t deny the way she felt when she was with him. When he was inside her, it was more than just two bodies coming together. It was as if they’d been made for each other, body, mind, soul, and it both thrilled and terrified her. For too long sex had been her weapon against men, but with Brynjolf it was her weakness. Every caress, every breath they drew together, every heavy collision of their bodies in the dark was an addiction and she wanted to feed it until it consumed her.
His eyes, those gods-forsaken eyes, staring into her while they tangled and writhed and stretched their bodies together. It was as if he could see things in her even she didn’t know were there. He made her feel weak and yet so strong, and inside she was soft and warm and melting as her fantasies scaled impossible heights, unbelievable outcomes. The things they could do together, the life they could make together…
And every gasping whimper and desperate cry they sang together was sweet music to her soul. “Yes!” she echoed his triumph over her and then rolled with him until he was on his back and hers to claim in equal pleasure and mutual domination. “Brynjolf,” she whispered again and again. He reached for her, hands drawing her down into his hungry mouth to devour his own name from her lips.
Had she even been alive before she met him? She couldn’t remember anymore and didn’t want to know if there was life after him, without him.
When he finally let go, releasing his warmth inside her, she lowered herself to his chest and they clung to one another in the dark silence.
“Ginna,” he murmured, lifting a hand into her hair. “My Ginna.”