Ginna made an immediate left turn out of Black-Briar manor and cut through the temple yard into the cemetery behind the Hall of the Dead. Much to her dismay, the secret entrance into the Guild had been locked up tight, so she headed back out to quickly pad down the stairs and then ducked into the Ratway. The tunnels were unnervingly quiet, as if the multitudes of vagabonds and beggars had simply disappeared.
Crossing the bridge that led to the Flagon, she hiked down the stairs and opened the door, immediately spotting Karliah in the shadows at the edge of the pool.
She rushed up to meet her, grabbing her arm and confiding, “I’m so glad you’re finally here. I think some of these people are beginning to suspect who I am.”
“They know who you are. I spoke with Maven Black-Briar just a few moments ago and she’d mentioned having heard you were down here. No one’s spoken to you?”
“No. They just keep watching me from the shadows.”
“Any sign of Mercer?”
Ginna ignored the raging tumult in her stomach. “Brynjolf?”
“He disappeared into the Cistern a little while ago and I haven’t seen him since.”
“He was in my house,” Ginna said. “I don’t know when, days ago, maybe weeks. He left everything in shambles.” She glanced up and saw Delvin rise from his chair, and then he went back into the Cistern. Had he seen her? Had he gone to tell Brynjolf she lived? Were they planning an ambush? “I don’t know how I’m going to face him.”
“He always did have a temper, even as a little boy, but we can get through to him. We have to.” Drawing in a deep breath, Karliah’s gaze passed across the water. “Are you ready?”
Ginna held her breath for a moment, and then she nodded. “I’m ready.”
“Keep your eyes open.” She turned toward the walkway. “I don’t know what to expect when we enter the Cistern.”
Side by side, they walked through the Ragged Flagon. Dirge muttered something incomprehensible as they passed, which Ginna figured probably had something to do with bashing in her skull. Tonilia’s dark eyes squinted with distrust and Vekel leaned on his broom leering at them. Every step toward the secret door into the Cistern made the nervousness Ginna felt tangle and twist in her gut until she thought she would double over in agony, or worse, throw up.
Karliah went first, Ginna following, and they were immediately met by Brynjolf, Vex and Delvin in the alcove. Brynjolf’s hackles were up, his blades drawn, eyes blazing with madness unlike any she’d seen in him. Vex and Delvin had their daggers out, ready to attack on command if need be.
“I’d heard you were dead, traitor.” Those words stung, like a thousand angry bees sinking their stingers into her heart, but Ginna couldn’t let him see that. Not when there was so much more going on around them that needed resolved before matters of the heart.
“You can’t kill a ghost,” she said softly, her eyes never leaving his.
She watched him swallow, drawing back his shoulders and cracking his neck to the left. “You’d better have a damn good reason to be here with that murderer.”
“Please.” Karliah held her hand up to stay their violent tempers and draw everyone to the matter at hand. “Lower your weapons so we can speak.”
“So you can stab the rest of us in the back the way you did to Gallus and Mercer? To my mother and father?” Brynjolf challenged. “I don’t bloody think so, Karliah.”
“Please, Brynjolf,” Ginna stepped forward, but he didn’t move. “Hear her out. Things are not the way you think they are.”
“We have proof,” Karliah intervened. “Proof that you’ve all been misled. If you lower your weapons, I will share it with you.”
Brynjolf looked between the two of them for a moment, wide eyes still alight with rage and distrust. They were bloodshot, rimmed in red and so tired, she wondered when last he’d gotten a good night’s sleep; how much mead he’d had to drink over the last two weeks. “No tricks, Karliah,” he sheathed his weapons. “Or I’ll cut you both down where you stand.” Delvin and Vex resheathed their blades as well, but none of them relaxed.
“No tricks,” she promised.
“Now, what’s this so-called proof you speak of?” He positioned his hands on his hips and studied both of them, narrowed eyes filled with loathing. She’d seen him that angry the night she’d told Mercer it was Karliah behind Goldenglow and Honningbrew, fueled by unspoken rage and hate, but she’d quelled and contained it when he pulled her into his arms and made her swear she’d come back to him. Now that his rage was directed toward her, she didn’t know how it could ever be assuaged. What kinds of awful things had Mercer told him?
“I have Gallus’s journal.” She walked toward him, holding out the book Enthir had translated. “I think you’ll find its contents disturbing.”
“Let me see.” He reached for it, jerking it from her hand and flipping it open as he looked between Ginna and Karliah before lowering his eyes to the pages. He was quiet for a few moments, turning the page, his face softening, hardening again, mouth pursing tight as he muttered, “No,” and shook his head. “No. It can’t be. This… this can’t be true. I… I’ve known Mercer my whole life. He would never…”
“It’s true, Brynjolf,” Karliah assured him. “Every word. Mercer’s been stealing from the Guild for years. Right under your very noses.”
He closed the book and lowered it at his side, his eyes never leaving their faces. “There’s only one way to find out if what the lasses say is true,” he determined. “Delvin, I need you to open the Vault.”
“The Vault?” Vex snapped her head toward Brynjolf.
“Wait just a blessed minute, Bryn.” Delvin drew his blade again, Vex following suit. “What’s in that book? What’d it say?”
“It says Mercer’s been stealing from the Guild for years. Gallus was looking into it before he was murdered.”
“I call bullshit,” Vex said. “I don’t know what those two are up to, but I get the feeling they’ll say anything right about now to keep my dagger away from their throats.”
Delvin’s brow furrowed all the way back to the widow’s peak of peach-fuzz that covered his bald head. “How can Mercer open a vault that needs two keys? It’s impossible. Could he pick his way in?”
“That door has the best puzzle locks money can buy,” Vex reminded him. “There’s no way it can be picked open. It’s a lie.”
“He didn’t need to pick his way inside,” Karliah muttered to Ginna as they followed them across the Cistern to the Vault.
“What’s she on about?” Delvin stopped, turning back to look between Ginna and Karliah for an answer.
“As I said, there’s only one way to find out. Use your key on the lock, Delvin. We’ll open it up and found out the truth.”
Delvin approached the door and turned his key into the lock before stepping back. “I’ve used my key, but it’s still locked up tighter than a drum. Now use yours, Bryn.”
“Aye,” Brynjolf nodded, passing a glance over at Ginna before stepping up to the vault and taking out his keys. Ginna held her breath, a part of her terrified that despite everything she’d already seen with her own eyes, the Vault would still be full and they would all turn on them. She heard the tumblers click open, and Brynjolf pushed the doors, his gasp echoing through the Cistern. “By the Eight!” he exclaimed. “It’s gone! Everything’s gone. Get in here, all of you!”
Karliah and Ginna followed Vex and Delvin into the Vault, but she kept her distance from Brynjolf despite how badly she just wanted to go to him, comfort the immense grief and betrayal that must have been running through him.
Every chest in the room was open, gaping and empty and screaming silent betrayal. Mercer had committed the ultimate in unforgivable crimes against his own Guild: murdering their Guildmaster and stealing from the treasury put in place to maintain their operation.
“The gold,” Delvin cried. “The jewels. It’s… it’s all gone!”
Vex’s blades came out again. “That son-of-a-bitch! I’ll kill him!”
“Vex,” Brynjolf raised his voice. “Put it away! Right now! We can’t afford to lose our heads.” It was a little late for that, Ginna thought, recalling how easily he’d lost his head in her house. She hated how much it hurt that losing all the gold in their coffers seemed to disturb him more than the fact that Mercer had run a blade through her and left her for dead. “We need to calm down and focus.”
“Do what he says, Vex.” Delvin reached out to stay her hand, fingers curling gently around her arm to lower her blade. “This ain’t helping right now.”
“Fine,” she sighed, lowering her blade and returning it to her belt as she glared over at Brynjolf. “We do it your way… for now.”
“Listen to me. I need you both to watch the Flagon and set everyone on guard at every entryway. If you see Mercer, come and tell me right away.”
“Right,” Delvin nodded. “Come on, Vex.”
“Get your hands off me.” She jerked away from him and walked out of the Vault.
“I’m glad you’re all right, pet.” Delvin turned to Ginna after Vex was gone and lifted a gentle hand to rest on her shoulder. She winced a little, but he didn’t seem to notice. “It’d been a downright shame if we’d lost someone as good as you. I always knew you wasn’t a traitor.”
“Thanks, Delvin,” she couldn’t smile. She wanted to, but it felt like every muscle in her face had been paralyzed. “It’s good to know not everyone lost faith in me so easily.” She turned her eyes toward Brynjolf when she said those words, but he only looked away, a shameful downturn of his lips as he avoided her gaze.
Karliah followed Delvin out of the Vault, leaving the two of them alone, but for a long time they just stood there, avoiding each other’s eyes, saying nothing.
“I guess I’ll get going too,” she decided, not able to stomach the silence any longer.
“Ginna,” he reached for her arm, but she pulled away, spinning around to look at him. “Wait.”
“Now’s not the time, Brynjolf.” She was being stubborn and she knew it, but no matter how much she’d prepared herself for that reaction, there’d always been a part of her inside that kept wishing he’d held onto hope. After everything they’d already been through together, a little faith would have been nice. She hardly knew Delvin at all, and he hadn’t stopped believing in her. “I need to help Karliah track Mercer down.”
“Aye, and I want to help you, but…”
“There’s always a but.”
“No, no, it’s not like that. I just… You have to understand where I’m coming from. This is… it’s huge, lass. A blow to the gut unlike any I’d ever imagined. All those years, everything Mercer did for me, and it was all one big heist. I can’t wrap my head around it. The fact that he murdered my mother and father, Gallus… that he stole everything we all worked so hard for…” It hurt so much that he’d left stabbing and framing her out of that equation of unforgivables.
“I understand.” Probably better than he could possibly imagine. For her it was like Brutus all over again, only she was watching it unravel someone else from the outside, an observer who could do nothing to stop the man she loved from falling apart.
“When he told me you were dead, I felt like someone tore out my heart, and then he told me you were working with Karliah all along and I…”
“You believed him. And why wouldn’t you?”
Long locks of dark red hair fell around his face to hide it when he dropped his gaze then. “Look, I need to check his books and paperwork, see if he left anything behind that might help me… help us discover where he’s gone, but before I do, I need to know everything you learned from Karliah. And I mean everything.”
“So that’s it then?” she asked, the ache in her heart growing, twisting almost ironically through the dull throbbing ache in her shoulder from Mercer’s blade. “You just need to know what I learned from Karliah? All right, for starters, Mercer killed Gallus and your mother and father, not Karliah.”
“Right,” he nodded. “I already figured as much. From that last entry in Gallus’s journal, it looks like he was getting close to exposing Mercer to the Guild. Was there anything else?”
“Karliah was behind Goldenglow and Honningbrew. She’s been trying to stir things up here in hopes that someone would start asking the right questions.”
“All the while, trying to make Mercer look bad in front of Maven. Clever lass… Anything else?”
She looked out into the Cistern, saw Karliah standing alone in the center, and then she looked back to Brynjolf. She wanted to trust him. Wanted to tell him everything, but her heart wouldn’t let her. Not then, maybe not ever again. “I don’t know. Maybe, but I can’t really remember right now. My mind is still foggy from being stabbed in the back and it might take a little time for me to pull myself together.”
“Lass,” he finally brought his gaze up to meet with hers, his eyes full of so much pain and sorrow, it almost made her cry. “Please, know how sorry I am for not… for losing faith in you so easily. Mercer… he has a way with things, with words… He took care of me my whole life, and I never for a second suspected he would betray me.”
“I think that’s what hurts the most,” she decided, proud of herself for actually admitting out loud that he’d hurt her. “You asked me to be your partner before I left. Said you wanted to spend the rest of your days with me, and yet the minute Mercer called my loyalty into question, you lost all faith in me. I’m the one who should be sorry, Brynjolf. Sorry I actually thought we had something.”
Before he could say another word, Ginna turned and walked away from him, stalking out of the Vault and leaving him to brood with those words. Maybe she was just being stubborn and petty, she didn’t know, but her heart had never hurt as much as it did right then.
She made her way to Karliah, who crossed her arms as she approached. “That went better than I expected,” she admitted.
“What’s our next move?” Ginna asked, anxious to get as far away from the Cistern and Brynjolf as possible.
“I need some time to think,” she said. “Time to figure a few things out.”
“I’m going home for awhile to clean up the mess someone made there in my absence. And I think I need to figure out a few things myself. When you’re ready with a plan, come and find me there. I want to find Mercer and make him pay… just as much as you do.”
“Ginna,” Karliah started before she could leave. “I know you didn’t ask for my advice, but listen to me, please. Gallus and I had a bit of a falling out before… Well, before everything went down. It was nothing major, but we had words with each other I’ve regretted every day since. Things are about to get dangerous, even more dangerous than they already are, and it could get very ugly. There are no guarantees any of us will live through this at all.” Karliah lifted her lavender gaze toward the Vault, a sad smile drawing at the corners of her mouth. “Think about everything he’s been through and forgive him… before it’s too late.”
“Thanks for the advice, Karliah,” she nodded. “I’ll take that into consideration.”
Rune was standing near the exit above the cemetery, on his guard with his blade drawn. He was actually scowling when she approached, but it softened a little. “I knew you’d never betray us,” he said, stepping in to hug her. His tight arms around her neck were almost painful, but she didn’t care. It felt good knowing he’d never stopped believing in her either, but it only intensified the hardship of how easily Brynjolf had turned on her. “I kept remembering what we talked about in Solitude, how you kept questioning Mercer… None of it made sense at all and I tried to convince Brynjolf, but he was just so… angry.” He drew back to look at her, his sad hazel eyes searching her face. “He’s impossible to talk to when he’s angry.”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “He left the evidence of his anger all over Honeyside. It’ll take days to clean up the mess he made of the place.”
“You need some help?” he started to lower his blade into his belt.
“Thanks for the offer, Rune, but you should stay here, keep an eye out for Mercer while Brynjolf figures out what he’s going to do about all this.”
“Right,” he looked down. “I’m glad you’re okay though. I was beside myself when Mercer told us you were dead. I should have been there with you.”
“No, Rune.” She brought her hand up to rest on his arm. “Don’t beat yourself. I would have never forgiven myself if Mercer had hurt you too.”
“Well, you can guarantee that I won’t spare him my blade if he passes through here again. After what he did to you, to the Guild…” Even harder to bear was the fact that Rune had put her first in that equation. At least she knew he was a true friend. She’d never imagined she’d have one of those in her lifetime.
“It’ll be a slaughterhouse if he dares show his face in here, that’s for sure.” She glanced around the Cistern, the bodies at every entryway, blades glinting in the dull torchlight. “I’m heading home for now. I want to try to clean the place up a bit, in hopes I actually live long enough to stay there.”
“I’ll see you soon,” he promised.