She woke to the gentle prodding of his hand as he shook her, murmuring against her ear that it was quarter past eleven. Coming back into herself, it took a moment for her to realize what that meant and then she remembered they had promised to meet Karliah near the standing stone at midnight. As she stretched and tucked into herself for a moment, the events of the day replayed in her mind. She was married now, to the only man she’d ever let herself fall in love with. It made her grin again, the giddiness rising up inside her as she sat up in the bed.
Running her hand into her hair, she looked around her home before turning her attention back to Brynjolf. He was already dressed, and had been very busy while she slept, explaining while she drew back into her armor that he’d consulted with the Guild and come to a few very important decisions.
“But first, we need to find out what Karliah wants with us,” he said.
Rising from the chair at the foot of the bed after she’d finished dressing, he was eager to be off, and though Ginna was a little nervous about whatever it was Karliah had in mind, she hoped the other woman had a plan to get them on Mercer’s trail and quickly. The sooner they were able to take care of business, the sooner they could begin their lives. Even Karliah, who had seemingly put everything on hold for the last twenty-five years.
“I can’t even imagine what it’s been like for her,” Ginna lamented, lowering onto the edge of the bed to pull into her boots. “Losing everything that mattered to her, living in the shadows all those years…”
Brynjolf dropped into the chair near the bed and positioned his elbows to rest over his thighs when he leaned forward. She watched the hair fall in around the sides of his face when he lowered his head in thought. “I know I was just a child, but I still feel partly responsible for her suffering.”
“Oh, Bryn, don’t do that to yourself.” She reached out and rested a hand over top of his, fingers curling around and gently squeezing. “Mercer fed you lie after lie, and you had no one else. You trusted him. How were you to know?”
“I know you’re just trying to make me feel better, lass, but a con man realizing he’s been conned… It’s never a good feeling.”
“You’re a good con artist, Brynjolf.” Ginna leaned forward and rested her forehead against his, lifting her hand to rest on his cheek. “You’ll have the last laugh in the end.”
“Bloody well right, I will.” He lifted back up again, met with her eyes and for a moment she could see all the pain he’d carried around inside him all those years. “That I never questioned him in all those years is what bothers me the most. Rune said you had your doubts about Mercer from the start, and even when you asked me if I really trusted him, I thought you were crazy to doubt him. It makes me feel so…” His voice trailed off into silence as he swallowed the feelings of inadequacy swelling up inside him and sat up again. “I know I can’t dwell on it, but the fact that he nearly killed you makes me angrier with myself than anything.”
“Yeah,” she nodded, moving back to sit up straight again. “The fact that he nearly killed me pisses me off too. I won’t be happy until I’m standing over his dead body, celebrating his end.”
“Speaking of which, we should head out to meet Karliah. I know this is probably not the most romantic wedding night, but I swear that when all this is over, I’ll make it up to you.”
Ginna kissed him, a slow, lingering promise he answered with fierce attention that made her insides tingle with want.
They set out together, leaving through the back door so as to avoid being seen and combing along the lakeside path beneath the half and quarter moons, their conjoined light illuminating the southeasterly passage until the standing stone was visible in the closing distance. Karliah blended in perfectly with the shadows, only stepping into the light to let them know she was already there.
“Good, you’re here.” She nodded, walking up to meet them. “Congratulations seem to be in order, and I know asking you to leave the comfort of each other’s arms on the eve of your union is almost cruel, but…”
“But we all want the same thing here,” Brynjolf interjected. “And the only way we’re going to guarantee that this little partnership of ours enjoys its due, we must see to this business with Mercer.”
“What is this place?” Ginna drew her arms around herself to ward off the night chill, and was grateful when Brynjolf moved almost instinctively closer to her back. His heat radiating out to warm her.
“This is the headquarters of the Nightingales,” Karliah explained. “Cut into the mountainside by the first of our kind. We’re here to seek the edge we need to defeat Mercer Frey.”
“What kind of an edge, lass?” Brynjolf asked.
“If you’ll both follow me, I’ll try to explain on the way.” She turned toward a hidden doorway that led into the mountain, nodding with her head for them to follow. “This way, just up ahead.”
Ginna turned over her shoulder in silent question, but Brynjolf only shrugged. “I’m just as puzzled as you are, love.”
She supposed it wasn’t an appropriate time to gush over the fact that he’d called her love, despite the fact that she’d never gushed over anything in her life, so instead she started after Karliah, winding into the mountain until they came into a cavern entrance.
“So, this is Nightingale Hall?” Brynjolf stopped at her back, taking it all in. “I heard about this place when I was a boy, but I never actually believed it existed. Even when you confirmed the existence of the Nightingales earlier tonight.”
Karliah didn’t stop walking, but explained, “The assumption that the Nightingales were just a myth was seeded within the Guild on purpose. It helped avert attention from our true nature.” Ginna began to follow again, but Brynjolf just lingered there near the entryway with his arms crossed. “What’s wrong, Brynjolf?” Karliah paused to look back at him. “I can almost hear your brow furrowing.”
“I’m trying to understand why I’m here, lass. I’m no priest and I’m certainly not religious. Why pick me?”
“This isn’t about religion, Brynjolf… It’s business,” she said rather simply, turning back onto the path.
“Wait.” It was Ginna’s turn to stop. “What kind of business are we talking about, Karliah? Are we here to become Nightingales?”
Karliah didn’t answer at first, but continued along the winding, stone path until they came into an open cavern. Torchlight flickered in the sconces that lined the walls, and for a moment Brynjolf and Ginna just took it all in. Karliah finally stopped, holding her hand out as she began talking. “This is Nightingale Hall. You’re the first of the uninitiated to set foot inside in over a century.” She walked down the stairs, still speaking. “Now, if you’ll both proceed to the armory to don your Nightingale armor, we can begin the Oath.”
“Time’s wasting,” Brynjolf sighed. “Mercer’s still out there. We need to get this show on the road.”
“And we will, but first we need to make certain we are on equal ground with him, or all our efforts will fail.”
“Are we to become Nightingales then?” Ginna repeated.
“You appear hesitant, Ginna. What’s troubling you?”
“Nothing, I just… I’m not sure about this. Brynjolf…?” She turned back to look at him and he too was hesitating, studying the armor stones in the armory, glancing back at Karliah.
“If this will put us equal footing with Mercer, I think we should trust the lass and take the deal.”
Drawing in a troubled breath, she followed his gaze to the armory. “What is the deal though?”
“Slip into your armor and I’ll explain everything, I promise,” Karliah assured them.
Three sets of enchanted armor awaited claiming from the armor stones. As the trinity approached the stones to accept their armor, they drew back to change out of their Guild armor and into this strange new offering Karliah claimed would give them a much needed edge.
The Nightingale armor was unlike any Ginna had ever seen. Blue-black leather with hooded cowl that covered everything but their eyes and cape, as Ginna shimmied into it, she felt like some kind of super heroine, rather than a thief. She could feel the magic embroiled within the very threads of it, illusion, stealth, silence, skill empowerments perfect for those of their trade. As she turned around to face Brynjolf, she couldn’t see his face behind the mask after he drew up his hood, only his eyes. He turned over his shoulder to look down his back and she wondered when he moved back around if she even looked half as good in that armor as he did. Impressive, to say the least, and though she was still leery and confused, she couldn’t wait to test out the enchantments she could almost feel humming in tune with her body’s vibrations.
“All right, lass,” Brynjolf turned into their small circle, veiled eyes leveling over Karliah. “We’ve got these getups on… now what?”
“Beyond this gate is the first step in becoming a Nightingale,” Karliah began.
“Whoa there, lass,” he backed up a little, holding up his hand. “I appreciate the armor, but becoming a Nightingale? That was never discussed.”
“To hold any hope of defeating Mercer, we must have Nocturnal at our backs. If she’s to accept the two of you as one of her own, an arrangement must be struck.”
“What sort of arrangement? We need to know the terms,” he said.
“The terms are quite simple, Brynjolf. Nocturnal will allow you to become a Nightingale and use your abilities for whatever you wish.” She paused a moment to let that sink in. “And in return, both in life and in death, you must serve as a guardian of the Twilight Sepulcher.”
“Aye,” he nodded, turning toward Ginna. “There’s always a catch.”
“It seems we don’t have much to lose,” Ginna said.
“At this point, I suppose we don’t.” He was thoughtful, silent, and Ginna wished she could see his eyes in that moment. She was willing to do whatever it took to put an end to Mercer Frey, and then as if he’d read her thoughts, he said, “If it means the end of Mercer Frey, you can count me in.”
“Ginna?” Karliah looked to her next. “Are you ready to transact the Oath with Nocturnal?”
She looked to Brynjolf once more, the light catching in the shadows that hid his eyes and revealing their brilliant green for just a moment. Whatever they did from that day forward, they would do together. “Aye,” she agreed. “I’m ready.”
“Good,” Karliah turned toward the gateway into the heart of the Temple. “After I open the gate, Brynjolf, stand on the easternmost circle. Ginna, you stand on the western circle.”
“All right,” he agreed, lowering his arm over Ginna’s cloaked shoulder and giving her a much-needed nudge forward. “This is enough to make your head spin, eh?” he muttered once they began walking after Karliah.
“Aye,” she murmured, watching Karliah reach for the pull chain that lowered the gate.
The Temple held three stone walkways, and as Ginna and Brynjolf parted ways to make for the opposite edges, Karliah walked straight up the center. Ginna glanced across the temple at her mate, but it was impossible for either of them to even tell if they were making eye contact in that amazing armor. Centering herself on the carved floor glyph, she looked down at the symbol, a beautiful black bird, wings wide-spread, a black moon between them. The same symbol decorated the breast of their new armor as well.
If Severus could see me now, she thought… It was impossible to imagine what he’d think, but she had a feeling he would be more proud of her than he’d ever been. Perhaps this new contract with Nocturnal would give her the edge she needed to avenge herself against Brutus, as well as Mercer Frey.
And then Karliah began to speak, arms raised in worship as she summoned the Daedric Prince of Night and Shadows. “I call upon you, Lady Nocturnal… Queen of Murk and Empress of Shadow. Hear my voice.”
There was only silence, save for the constant run and trickle of water at her back, and then the lighting in the room shifted, darkening until Ginna could see nothing but the shadows in front of her face. The energy in the temple shifted, air tightening, cooling as if some great force was drawing from it to manifest. And then She did. Nocturnal blazed forth above the glyph that connected the triad in a single midnight blue ball of light that crackled and hissed.
“Ah, Karliah,” Nocturnal’s voice echoed across the stone walls. “I was wondering when I’d hear from you again. Lose something, did we?”
Ginna glanced over her left shoulder and watched as Karliah dropped to her knees in prostration. “My Lady, I come before you to throw myself upon your mercy and accept responsibility for my failure.”
“You’re already mine, Karliah. Your terms were struck a long time ago. What could you possibly offer me now?”
Ginna couldn’t help but wonder if Brynjolf’s religious views had strengthened any there in Nocturnal’s presence. She’d always honored Nocturnal in the past, but her respect and admiration for Lady Luck had tripled in that moment.
“I have two others who wish to transact the oath,” Karliah told her. “Both wish to serve you in life and in death.”
Life and death; funny, Ginna thought, that after spending a whole lifetime avoiding any type of vow that would tie her down, she’d taken two that day, swearing herself first to Brynjolf and now Nocturnal for all eternity.
“You surprise me, Karliah. This offer is definitely weighted in my favor.”
“My appetite for Mercer’s demise exceeds my cravings for wealth, Your Grace.”
“Revenge?” Nocturnal mused. “How interesting.” She was silent for a time, drawing the light and energy from the room as she thought over Karliah’s offering, and then, “Very well. The conditions are acceptable. You may proceed.”
“Lady Nocturnal, we accept your terms. We dedicate ourselves to you as both your avengers and your sentinels. We will honor our agreement in this life and the next, until your conditions have been met.”
“Very well,” Nocturnal agreed. “I name your initiates Nightingales and restore your status to the same, Karliah. And in the future, I suggest you refrain from disappointing me again.”
That midnight blue light wavered downward from above in three long streams and Ginna could feel it pulsing through her. The very essence of night and shadow empowered her, tingled in her veins as it mingled with her blood and soul, binding her to eternal service. She closed her eyes and just let herself experience that moment, that bond with the shadows, and then the light of shadow disappeared, taking Nocturnal with it and bringing Ginna back to the moment.
When she opened her eyes again, Karliah and Brynjolf were already walking down the ramps to meet within the circle where only moments earlier, Nocturnal had made herself known. On shaking legs, she walked out to meet them, stepping in beside Brynjolf as Karliah turned to face them.
“Now that you’ve both transacted the oath, it’s time to reveal the final piece of the puzzle to you. Mercer’s true crime.”
“You mean he’s done more?” Ginna balked, stepping back to cross her arms. Did that man’s treachery know no bounds?
“Mercer was able to unlock the Guild’s Vault without two keys because of what he’s stolen from the Twilight Sepulcher: The Skeleton Key. By doing this, he’s compromised our ties to Nocturnal, and in essence, caused our luck to run dry.”
So it was a curse! Every Guild in Tamriel suffering the same bad fate because of Mercer Frey’s betrayal. Old Delvin had been right from the start. Something out there had been piss-drunk mad at them all along. She bet Brynjolf felt like a real ass, having poked fun at Delvin all those times for being so unfailingly superstitious.
“So, this Key unlocks any door?” Ginna asked, returning to the matter at hand. She recalled how easy it had been for Mercer to unlock the Nordic ruins of Snow Veil Sanctum, the spinning puzzle door without a claw. Dear Gods! No wonder he’d stolen the Key. He could get into everything, anything…
“Well, yes,” Karliah answered. “But the Key isn’t only restricted to physical barriers. All of us possess untapped abilities, the potential to wield great power, securely sealed within our minds. Once you realize the Key can access these traits, the potential becomes limitless.”
Oh, how tempting that potential was to her then. The potential to surpass any door, physical or ethereal, to unlock her own hidden potential and become the most powerful thief to ever walk Tamriel. Her mind lusted for that kind of power, her soul yearning for the ability to literally walk through walls, as her old Guild Family had said she’d always been able to do…And yet, no… It was… wrong. It was what had driven Mercer Frey, and no matter how badly she lusted for that kind of power, she never wanted to become like Mercer… or Brutus, or anyone else without honor.
Most people didn’t believe there was honor among thieves; after all, how could one who spent their lifetime siphoning from the wealth of others claim to know honor? But there were codes in place that ensured they were an honorable part of the economic societal structure, just as she’d explained to Marcurio on the road from Markarth.
“It sounds like no one should possess it,” Ginna finally said, glancing between Karliah and Brynjolf.
“Good,” Karliah nodded, and for a moment it almost seemed as if she sighed relief. Had she been worried the temptation of that power would be too much for them to handle?
“I agree with the lass,” Brynjolf noted. “No one should have that key, least of all Mercer Frey.”
“Then we are all agreed that the key must be returned to the Twilight Sepulcher once it’s been taken from Mercer’s dead body,” Karliah said.
“Agreed,” Brynjolf said.
“Aye,” Ginna replied, and then noted with a soft laugh. “I have to say, I think this is the first time I’ve ever set out to return something.”
“Very true,” Karliah answered with a bemused chuckle. “In our line of work, it’s quite rare we set out to return a stolen item to its rightful owner. But until that key is back in the Twilight Sepulcher where it belongs, no Guild under Nocturnal’s influence will know prosperity again.”
“Then we should get going.”
“Before we depart, there is the matter of the Guild to decide. Brynjolf and I had some time to speak in great detail earlier this evening while you were at Mercer’s place and he has an important business matter to discuss with you. Brynjolf?”
Ginna turned toward her husband, brow furrowing beneath her hood. “What sort of business?”
“Listen love, there’s one last piece of business we need to settle before we go after Mercer,” he started. “The leadership of the Guild.”
“Why tell this to me?”
“Karliah and I had a long discussion earlier tonight, as she mentioned. Thanks to your efforts, Mercer’s treachery has been exposed. After we deal with him, all that remains is restoring the Guild to its full strength. As a result, we both feel that you have the potential to replace Mercer as leader of the Thieves Guild.”
“What?” she stepped back to look at him in disbelief. “You can’t be serious…”
“Dead serious, lass.”
“What about you? That Guild is yours… It’s practically your birthright.”
“Ginna… I’ve been at this game a long time. A long time,” he shook his head, and when he glanced down at her, she could see how tired he was. She wondered when last he’d had a good night’s sleep. How long it would be before he enjoyed another one. “I’ve stolen trinkets from nobles and framed priests for murder. I’m good at what I do, maybe even one of the best, but it’s all I know. Your skills well match my own and you’re a natural leader. I’ve never been one to lead. Never desired it, never cared for it… Don’t want it. Why you refused the cowl of leadership from the Grey Fox when he died, I’ll never know, but I don’t think you should make that mistake again, lass.”
“I…” she lowered her gaze to the sigil on the floor beneath her feet. She didn’t know why, but she could hear Maven Black-Briar in the back of her mind, scolding her for walking away from a position of power like some kind of fool. It wasn’t a mistake she ever wanted to make again, and yet she just wasn’t sure if she was ready. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Well,” he chuckled. “We do have a bit of an errand to run before your coronation, and there is the matter of restoring the Guild to its full strength, so don’t go getting all sentimental on me.”
“I will think it over.”
“All right,” he agreed, turning to Karliah. “Now, we have quite the task ahead of us.”
“Yes, we should get going.”
“I’ve been pouring over the plans you brought me from Mercer’s place and I’m convinced the Eyes of the Falmer in the Dwarven ruins of Irkngthand. The three of us could travel there together. It’s at least a two day journey from Riften, maybe even three if the weather is unkind. Mercer’s already got a pretty strong head start, so we’ll need to make haste.”
“We should leave right away.”
“Aye, we should,” Brynjolf agreed.
“One last word of warning,” Karliah added. “Prepare yourselves. We already know Mercer is willing to go to any lengths to get what he wants.”
“Aye,” Brynjolf nodded. “This will certainly be a fight to remember.”