Tugging at the strings of the pouch, the jewels inside rolled together with the movement. A beautiful sound, stone on precious stone as Ginna tilted the bag and watched them spill out in front of her crossed legs onto the green comforter that covered the bed. Two rubies, three flawless emeralds, countless sapphires and amethysts and one flawless diamond—all of them had come from Mercer Frey’s pockets at Irkngthand and there was another pouch of jewels in the bedside table, spoils from Riftweald Manor that she’d split with Rune.
Everything Mercer had left behind was now in her possession. His house, his gold, his plans, his Guild. Brynjolf was having trouble wrapping his head around it whenever they talked about it, but Mercer Frey had made her a very rich woman.
Coin comes and goes, Ginna. Until we start securing more clients, it’s best if we hold onto as much of it as possible.
She scooped up the puddle of jewels and let them roll through her fingers, watching them drop and bounce back onto the mattress when they fell. Tonilia’s reserves didn’t hold enough coin to compensate for all the loot Ginna had in her possession, but Delvin had bought the left Eye of the Falmer for four thousand gold Septims and the right would likely sell for almost double that if she could find the right buyer.
Glancing up at the mantle above the hearth where the right eye was currently on display, it shimmered in the firelight like a beacon of things to come. Good things. Better things than she’d ever known in Cyrodiil. And they were only going to continue to get better after she returned the Skeleton Key to the Twilight Sepulcher. Just retrieving it from Mercer had seemingly returned the shadow of Noturnal’s favor to the Guild, with Vex and Delvin juggling more jobs than the Guild could handle and Brynjolf reorganizing the mess of books, paperwork and plans Mercer had left behind.
Things were looking up, she thought, scooping up the jewels again and delighting in the way they tumbled through her open fingers. She dropped them back into the velvet bag and opened the drawer beside the bed to lower them in beside the others, and then she hopped up from the bed to walk into the kitchen and pour herself a snifter of brandy.
It was getting late and Brynjolf still hadn’t returned home from the Cistern. She’d probably be asleep long before he stumbled through the back door so exhausted he wouldn’t even take off his armor before falling into bed with her. They’d only been married a month, and she couldn’t even count on both hands anymore the number of times she’d gone to bed alone.
He was busy. He had important things to do. She understood that everything he did was for the good of the Guild, but she was starting to take it personally every time she crawled into bed alone and curled up to his empty pillow. She had her own important things to do, things she should have set into motion weeks ago, but she could barely stomach the thought of traveling to the Twilight Sepulcher alone to carry out the task of returning the Skeleton Key. A task appointed her by fellow Nightingale, Karliah, who was also too busy to see it done.
Just thinking about the Key made her feel anxious, and she glanced toward the satchel hanging on the back of the chair in the bedroom. She didn’t like to touch it; well, that wasn’t entirely true. She loved the way it felt in her hand, that pulsing potential singing to her soul—a song of wealth and wonder murmuring in her soul. Discover me, whispered the Key. Use me…
Her attention snapped away from the carrier bag, toward the fire again. They’d agreed not to use the Key. She’d promised to return it, and yet it was still in her possession. She didn’t know what she was waiting for. Well, she did, but her excuse for not returning it the minute she came back from Irkngthand was rather pathetic.
She didn’t want to go alone. Karliah told her the Pilgrim’s Path would be hard to walk, that even she didn’t know what to expect once Ginna set foot on the path. It wasn’t a path designed for the Nightingales to walk, but for those who wished to serve Nocturnal in other ways… darker ways, Ginna assumed.
“Rune will accompany you,” Brynjolf insisted when she’d tried to appeal to him again to accompany her; after all, it was his duty just as much as it was hers.
They’d taken the oath together, all three of them had sworn it, Brynjolf, Karliah and Ginna, the last of the Nightingales. All three of them should have returned the Skeleton Key together as well, but Brynjolf was busy restoring the Guild. Karliah too ashamed of herself to face Nocturnal again so soon. The responsibility fell to Ginna, and she’d gratefully accepted, but walking the Pilgrim’s Path alone… it didn’t sound like something she’d return from.
Rune had left for Solitude shortly after they returned from facing Mercer. Word from his father’s nursemaid explained that the old fisherman’s days were numbered, and though the man hadn’t brought him into the world, he was the only father Rune had ever known. He’d left within the hour, after receiving that missive from the Courier, and had only sent one letter since he’d been gone. He didn’t know how many days the man had left, but he wouldn’t leave him in his final hours.
He was a good son. A better son than Ginna was a daughter.
She’d had too much idle time to think about Cyrodiil, about her traitor Guild-Brother, Brutus and the hard truth she’d been hiding from since their Guild-Father died. Brutus had poisoned Severus, slow poison that had drawn out his suffering for more than a year before finally claiming his life. He’d framed her for the murder more than a year after Severus died, setting her up to take a fall in Solitude before blackballing her from the Cyrodiil Guild and sending assassins to punish her and hide his crime.
She still felt stupid for not having seen it until it was too late, and sometimes when the Skeleton Key sang that sweet song of temptation to her, she imagined drawing from its power to avenge herself and her beloved mentor and father.
But no… she looked toward the bag again and tried to deny the desire for perfect vengeance. She’d promised her fellow Nightingales, sworn an oath to Nocturnal, and while she may have been a thief and a liar, as Mercer Frey pointed out before she’d killed him, she still had honor.
Maybe she shouldn’t wait for Rune to come back. He’d told her not to, though she could see in his soft hazel eyes that he hoped she would. She’d told him she would wait as long as she could, but it had already been a month and the call of the Skeleton Key was getting harder and harder to resist. Even Brynjolf could hear it, could be seen occasionally glancing toward the satchel hanging on the back of the chair beside the bed with untold longing. And then he’d shake it off and turn to her, reminding her, “The Key needs to be returned, Ginna. Before one of us uses it and starts that whole blasted cycle all over again.”
“Aye,” she agreed, but the Key still hung there.
Tipping back the last sip of brandy from her cup, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and lowered the cup to the table. She was tired, and though she longed to wait for her husband, to curl up in his arms and dream of their future with him in the dark, she couldn’t wait up for him anymore. It was well past one o’clock, and she planned to rise early in the morning to map out the route to the Twilight Sepulcher.
With no word from Rune, she’d have to go it alone. Rune was the only one in the Guild besides Brynjolf and Karliah she trusted. She considered hiring Marcurio to at least travel with and protect her from dragons. He didn’t have to know where she was going or what she planned to do when she got there. Marcurio knew when to keep his nose out of her business, but Brynjolf wouldn’t like that one bit. He’d back off on the mage, even tersely thanked him for accompanying her on her journey to Markath and back, but he’d made it clear enough that he didn’t like Marcurio. Toleration of his company when she called on him was pushing a boundary with Brynjolf’s fiery temper, and telling him she wanted Marcurio to travel with her was another matter altogether. She wasn’t sure if he was jealous, or angry with her for spending her gold on a mercenary when she had a whole Guild full of capable brothers and sisters more than willing to watch her back.
On the other hand, seeing as how he refused to set business aside long enough to accompany her, he’d just have to deal. She almost laughed at herself then. Imagining herself telling Brynjolf to deal with something he didn’t like never went over well; she’d learned as much within their first week together after he’d bailed her out of Solitudes prison.
Regardless, she wasn’t traveling halfway across Skyrim alone and with Rune gone, that left Marcurio. She’d call upon him in the morning and go from there, she decided, peeling away her Guild armor and slipping into a loose cotton sleeping gown. She drew back the comforter and crawled into bed alone. Curling up on her side, she drew up her knees and nestled her head deeper into the pillow, allowing the warmth and the low crackle from the hearth to lull her into relaxation. Every breath carried her further away, until she felt herself floating upon a sea of shadows, their soft waves lifting her up, drawing her back down into the spongy depths, whispering softly as black birds circled overhead, occasionally swooping down to glide just across her line of sight.
“Ginna,” the birds whispered her name, gathering in flocks to swarm overhead, their chittering chorus of voices drawing her up, lifting her away from that comfortable place where she rested. “Ginna.”
She tossed upon the waves, rolling and swimming further from the shore. There were tiny bodies waiting for her there, and when she squinted her eyes in the darkness, she could just barely make them out. Nightingales… Brynjolf… Karliah. Behind them stood Rune and Delvin, Vex and Vipir, Sapphire, Cynric, Thrynn and Ninruin. Her family, her Guild.
Overhead, Masser and Secunda were both in new stage, their shadows like two empty holes in the sky with edges of soft purple light glowing around them. On her back in the water, she watched that purple light gather, as if drawing power from the moons’ shadows to materialize.
“Ginna,” the voice that spoke her name was not the birds, but a single powerful voice—feminine, strong and commanding. “You cling to the notion of power my Key will bring and yet you do not use it to your advantage, no matter how loudly it calls to you. This intrigues me.”
Ginna felt her legs drop from under her, the water giving way until she fell freely, arms flailing like broken wings as she tried to right herself. Glancing down beneath her feet, she could see the ground rushing toward her, but when she landed it was like a cat, steady and on her feet, her curious gaze taking in her surroundings. She recognized the place she’d come to. It was Nightingale Hall, where she and Bryn had taken the oath with Karliah.
She was standing on the stone where Karliah transacted their oath, and pooling in the central circle was that brilliant blue and purple ball of light that had revealed herself to be Nocturnal.
“This is just a dream,” Ginna announced, quite proud of herself for working that out. Even still, she felt the need to prostrate herself before her benefactor, and knelt on one knee, lowering her head with respect.
“Perhaps,” the steady voice agreed. “Or perhaps it is a summons from your Empress of Shadows, Ginna of Cyrodiil.” The laughter that followed was thick, heavy and yet perfectly beautiful and dark as shadows. “You have yet to return my Key to the Twilight Sepulcher, as you promised your fellow Nightingales you would, but you have not used it to your gain. I wish to know why.”
“I do not wish to walk the Pilgrim’s Path alone, my lady. The temptation to use the Key is almost more than I can bear and…”
“To don my sigil and walk in shadows is to walk alone,” Nocturnal reminded her, “both in life and in death.”
“Be that as it may, Skyrim is filled with peril and though I am no mere child wielding a blade, I am not a warrior either.”
“You shame yourself,” the Dark Lady tsked, and were she little more than a ball of light, Ginna would imagine she was shaking her Daedric head in disappointment. “You stood valiantly against Mercer Frey, my champion of the Shadows.”
“Mercer had it coming,” she sneered, even her dream shoulder aching almost arthritically where he’d plunged his blade into it.
“Indeed, he did,” Nocturnal agreed. “The Pilgrim’s Path cannot be walked in the company of others, be you warrior, mage or thief. It can only be traveled alone, a test of your absolute devotion to me, which I am beginning to doubt.”
“I am devoted to you, my lady.” Even as a child, she’d revered Nocturnal, always treading within the shadows looking for her guidance, never forgetting to ask for her blessing before undertaking a big job. Severus had taught her as much, but Nocturnal had never answered, choosing to act in silence and play her servants like puppets to her whim. Ginna had taken the Oath, and even then she hadn’t made their pact personal. Until now…
“Were you truly devoted to serving me, you would do as you are told.”
Lifting her head to look upon her, the shadows flickering through the orb burned her eyes like sunlight and she turned away to shield her gaze. “I will leave at once to carry out the task, if it please your grace.”
“While I’ve no doubt that you would do this thing, and my disappointment in your hesitation knows no bounds, it is not the Pilgrim’s Path I command you to walk at this time.”
Ginna looked up again, ignoring the harsh glow and how it affected her eyes. She could almost make out a face within that swirling ball of shadow and darkness, a beautiful face with intriguing eyes and broad, wicked smile. “Whatever you ask of me, I will do.”
“Vengeance intrigues me,” she went on, as though her supplicant hadn’t spoken at all. “Mercer craved to teach his pious master, Gallus a lesson. Karliah sought my blessing to avenge her lover’s murder. You reek of vengeance as well, though you do not ask to employ my aid in satiating your desire. Why?”
“Are not secret plots of murder and deceit the governance of Boethiah?”
“You’ve done your homework,” she mused. “But plotting and shadow go hand in hand, do they not?”
“Yes, my lady, but I am a thief, not an assassin.”
“I grow weary of you telling me all the things you are not,” she almost seemed to yawn. “You say you are no warrior, and yet you wield a blade when need be. You say you’re no assassin, and yet the blade you wield glistens with the blood of those who stood in your way. Since you seem to have no concept of your own identity, I will tell you who you are. You are my agent, Ginna of Cyrodiil, and you will carry out my will.”
“What would you ask of me, my lady?”
“Carry out my sentence,” she said rather simply, “on the fool you once called brother, for his treachery runs much deeper than murder and deceit. Brutus Arenicci plots, even now, to steal my cowl from the Evergloam so that he might rise to power undetected and unremembered, but in order to do that he must also possess the Skeleton Key.”
“I’d heard your cowl was destroyed almost an Age ago.”
“Of course you did.” She laughed again, cold, calculating and clearly amused, but it quickly subsided and only silence remained for so long Ginna felt like her dream had carried her away into the darkness again. “The Key will not be safe in the Twilight Sepulcher, not so long as it will open the path to my realm and allow that miserable wretch access to that which he desires.”
“So… you don’t want me to return the Skeleton Key then?”
“No, I want you to use it, in my name and with my blessing.” She allowed Ginna to stew on that for a moment and then added, “Restore your precious Guild, discover your potential and embrace who you truly are: a shadow child, a Nightingale. Great power awaits you. Embrace it, my daughter.”
“After everything we went through to get the Keys back from Mercer…”
“You dare question me?”
Ginna had had nightmares before, strange dreams that left her feeling as dark upon waking as she’d felt in the dream, but this was no nightmare. Nevertheless, it felt too real to discount the nervous clench of fear that gripped her belly. “No, my lady.”
“You will use the Key and when the time comes, I will grant you the strength you need to stand against your own brother, who dares to bite my hand, the very hand that has fed him all his life.”
“I will do as you wish, Lady Nocturnal.”
“Good,” she said softly. “Now go forth and carry out my orders.”