The sound of the closing door must have woken her, or perhaps his tired attempt at quiet footsteps as he crept across the dining room had done the trick. Try as he might to get quietly past her, stealth was her agent and he’d probably have been better off stomping through the house rather than trying to sneak in.
Ginna sat upright with a jolt, as if Nocturnal had shoved her from dream into the waking world.
He’d come in the front door, another attempt to keep from waking her, but she’d been expecting him to come through the backdoor and the difference in the two sounds had disturbed her. She couldn’t even guess what the hour was, but her body told her it was late, the receding shadows near the edge of the window correcting her immediately; it was early. Nearly dawn.
“Aye,” he confessed, starting toward the bedroom. He sat down on the edge of the bed, lowering a hand to cup her cheek, twitching fingers whispering through the loose strands of blond hair that framed her face before tucking them behind her ear. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“What time is it?”
“Too late,” he shook his head and sighed. “Go back to sleep, lass.”
“Are you coming to bed?”
“Aye.” He started to unbuckle his armor, rising to strip down to his smallclothes. He tossed the leather into the chair at the foot of the bed and crawled in beside her, blowing out the tallow candles on the table before lying down. “Are you cross with me?” he asked, tucking his arm beneath her shoulders and rolling her into him.
Ginna snuggled in closer, lowering her head to his chest and stifling a yawn into her hand. “Yes,” she murmured quietly. “All work and no play makes Brynjolf a dull boy. I almost forgot I was married tonight when I came home to an empty house after two days away and had my dinner alone.”
“Ah, lass,” he let loose another frustrated breath, its warmth fluttering across the top of her head. “I am a bad husband. I wouldn’t blame you one bit if you left me.”
“Shut up,” she mumbled, yawning again before tapping a scolding palm across his shoulder.
“How’d things go in Windhelm?”
“They went.” She shrugged. “Delvin says he thinks he may be on the verge of drawing in a very important client, which’ll mean another trip or two north in the near future.” Windhelm was certainly no Riften, that was for sure. It was frigid cold and packed full of soldiers and Dunmer refugees and there was a serial murderer on the loose there killing young women. “I suppose it won’t be so bad, now that the war’s over and you know I heard that Ulfric Stormcloak married the Dragonborn.”
“No kidding,” he chuckled. “Well good for him. She’s a bonnie lass, that one, though not near as lovely as my lass.” He kissed her temple and nuzzled the tip of his nose across her brow. “She’s got to be almost half his age though.”
“Aye,” she nodded, recalling her one glimpse at the legendary Dragonborn from the roadside. She had been a real beauty, hair red as fire Ginna had admired from a distance. “Any luck making sense of Mercer’s files?”
“I think I’ve finally got them all sorted, but getting any of those clients to trust us again won’t be easy. Even with Nocturnal leaning in our favor, Mercer made a hot mess of everything.”
“It will work itself out.” His mention of Nocturnal brought the fleeting memory of that strange dream to mind and she stretched against him, turning it over and again while trying to make sense of it. “I had the strangest dream just now,” she told him.
Soft fingertips traced along the curve of her shoulder, dropping back down the length of her arm again. “Were you buried under a mound of paperwork six feet high and covered in strange glyphs you couldn’t make heads or tails of?”
Soft laughter escaped her. “Not exactly. I dreamed Nocturnal called me to Nightingale Hall to ask me why I hadn’t returned the Skeleton Key to the Twilight Sepulcher yet. Only she didn’t want me to return it. She wanted me to use it.”
His chest rose with his breath, heartbeat quickening as he exhaled. “That Key is messing with your mind, lass,” he said. “Tempting you down a dark path there’s no coming back from. It tore our Guild apart and we can’t let that happen again.” Another sigh escaped him. “I know you were waiting for Rune, but it’s been more than a week since last we heard from the lad. There’s no telling when he’ll return. You can’t wait for him any longer.”
“I know,” she conceded. “I suppose I still can’t convince my own husband to accompany me,” she tried. “After all, it’s just as much your responsibility as it is mine.”
“Ginna,” he groaned softly. “We’ve already been over this. The Guild needs me right now.”
“And I don’t?” That guilt-trip came in a whisper and she felt him shudder under its power. He never failed to tell her how much he hated the distance their work was keeping between them, and yet he did very little to close that distance. From the minute he rose from bed until the time he crawled back into it so exhausted he was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow, he was in the Cistern trying to restore the Guild. It made her feel like a spoiled child every time she had to throw that in his face, but what was she supposed to do? They were supposed to be taking over the world together, out there running cons and heists, rebuilding the Guild as thieves, not bookkeepers and accountants.
“That isn’t fair, lass. We all agreed…”
“You and Karliah agreed that the task would fall to me. Between your business with the Guild and her guilty conscience, neither of you really gave me much choice to disagree.”
“Shor’s bones,” he grumbled. “Let’s not do this now. It’s late and we’re both tired…”
“Fine.” She started to roll away, fully intent on brooding on the other side of the bed alone, but he held her tight against him.
“I said, let’s not do this now,” he repeated. “I know so far the life I promised you hasn’t exactly come into focus, but it’s getting there, I swear it. I just need a little more time, Ginna. Mercer made a real mess of things and it’s going to take a lot of work to straighten it all out. We all have to do our part right now, and I know you’ve been working a lot of jobs for Vex and Delvin to make that happen, but your biggest job should be finding a way to get the Key back to the Twilight Sepulcher where it belongs. If we don’t hear from Rune by noon tomorrow, I’ll talk to Vipir and…”
“I’ll just take Marcurio.”
He stiffened a little, every muscle in his soft, warm body growing rigid upon hearing that name. “I’d rather you didn’t, lass. It’s a waste of good coin, employing that mercenary.”
“And I’d rather take you, but seeing as how that isn’t an option, I’ll take whoever I bloody well like with me and you’ll think it’s a fantastic idea.”
“I thought we weren’t going to do this right now.”
“We’re not. I’m going back to sleep, Brynjolf.”
She jerked out of his embrace and flopped across the bed with a huff, rolling away from him and tugging half the blankets with her. He struggled to tug a few inches back his way as he rolled onto his side with his back to her, but she barely let any of them out of her grip.
He was hot-blooded, she told herself with a silent smirk. Let him keep himself warm.
They both lay there brooding in the fleeting darkness for a long time. She listened to the sound of his breath, but for more than an hour it was only frustrated sighs and fidgeting to get comfortable before he finally grew still and his breathing slowed and evened out. Ginna stared into the shadowed corridor above the stairs, weary eyes blinking against sleep.
Several times when she drifted, she could hear the chatter of birds calling out her name from a distance, accompanied by that soft, stern voice from the shadows. “Protect the Key, Ginna. Use it and I will reward you…”
“No,” she murmured, tossing in the loose sheets she’d horded and tucked in tight around her body. “It’s a trick. Only a trick.”
“If you don’t do my bidding, I will find someone who will and the Key and everything it promises will be lost to you forever. Do not defy me, child… Do not defy me.”
Her eyes felt like someone had thrown sand in them; sore and itchy and swollen from lack of sleep. She didn’t know what time she’d fallen asleep after she’d rolled away from Brynjolf, only that the sleep she had fallen into had been restless, her dreams twisted and filled with shadows.
Nocturnal did not speak in dreams; it was not her way… or was it?
No. It was just that blasted key growing more clever the longer they held onto it. It needed to be used, craved and desired to align its power with another’s soul. Not Ginna’s soul, she shuddered. Not if she could help it. She was taking it back to the Twilight Sepulcher where it belonged, and quickly.
She crawled quietly out of bed, so as not to wake him. Pausing at the edge of the bed, she covered him with the blankets and stood over him watching him sleep for a few minutes. She hated that every night they spent together seemed to end with one of them rolling over in a huff of anger. Things were supposed to have gotten better, but the stress and tension seemed to have increased tenfold after doing away with Mercer Frey.
Tugging into her Guild armor, she buckled every strap before slipping on her boots and ducking out the front door, closing and locking the house up behind her. The damp chill in the air and the position of the sun suggested it was still morning, but just barely. The piered streets of Riften were already bustling, Mjoll the Lionness and her housemate, Aerin were just coming out of the Bee & Barb when Ginna approached the door. As always, Mjoll had nothing but a tender smile and a sweet hello, but Ginna only scowled at her and pushed between them.
Marcurio sat where he always seemed to sit when he wasn’t employed: on the bench near the opposite door with a tankard in one hand and a crust of bread in the other. Ginna was relatively sure he slept on that bench too, though he swore Keerava rented him a room upstairs by the week.
The Imperial mercenary glanced up at the sound of the door opening, his amber eyes glistening with mischief when he saw her. “Well, well, well,” he grinned, lifting his tankard toward her. “Look what the horker dragged in.”
“Very funny.” She kicked at his boot and dropped onto the bench beside him. “Especially considering that I feel like I got drug around by a horker last night. I barely slept at all.”
“It must have been pretty late when you got back from Windhelm,” he noted.
“Not really, just after sundown. Look, I need to talk business with you,” she started, glancing up at Talen-Jei, who had a nasty habit of eavesdropping on every conversation he could tune his tiny little Argonian ears into. “Let’s go for a walk.” She smirked at the lizard and he scowled at her before bending to wipe the crumbs from the table nearest to them.
“All right,” Marcurio agreed, swilling back the last of his mead and walking the cup to the bar before joining her near the door. “So, what kept you up so late? Wait, never mind. I’d rather not hear those details.”
“Oh, if only there were details to share,” she sneered, pushing out onto the docks for some peace and quiet. Maven Black-Briar’s right hand, Maul, was lingering near the Fishery, but he didn’t follow them to the end of the docks.
Ginna could see Honeyside from where they stood, and for a moment she just stared at the back door with longing. She wanted to go back home and crawl into bed with her husband, apologize and make up with him, but even that was starting to feel like a vicious cycle. The Skeleton Key was interfering with every aspect of her life, and if she didn’t do something about it, everything she’d grown to love over the last couple of months would be lost forever.
“Trouble in paradise?” Marcurio quipped, a sarcastic grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I told you that you were too good for that wastrel, but did you listen to me? No, you did not.”
“I’m not in the mood for jests right now, Marcurio.”
“Who’s jesting?” He lifted his brow to try and make her smile, but Ginna was still not amused. “Okay, down to business then. What do you need?”
“I’m planning a trip to Falkreath and I need a travel companion to watch my back.”
“All right,” he nodded. “My usual fee applies, of course.”
“Of course,” she agreed, handing him a bag of coin. “Five-hundred Septims. You can count it if you want.”
“I trust you.”
Ginna laughed at him and he weighed the bag curiously for a moment. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning. Can you be ready by then?”
“I’m ready right now.”
“Good. I’ll want to start out early, just after sunrise. So tie up any loose ends you need to tie and meet me by the stables at dawn.”
“Sounds easy enough,” he shrugged agreeably. “So, what are we doing in Falkreath?”
“I can’t tell you.” She lifted her gaze to meet his and watched his bright amber eyes arc skyward with exasperation. Before he could even complain, she was already on him. “Come on, Marcurio. You know the rules. I pay, you don’t ask questions.”
“And one of these days I’m going to double my fee.” He threatened for the tenth time, crossing his arms and leaning his back against the wooden post behind him. “I’ll call it damage and risk insurance.”
“Well, at least you’ll have enough to pay your bounty if we get carted off to jail,” she winked, nudging him playfully with her elbow.
It was his turn to not be amused. “Why do I always get the feeling you’re going to get me killed after I agree to work for you?”
“Oh, come on. You laugh in the face of danger.”
He chuckled softly, not nearly the reaction she was hoping for. “Indeed, I do. All right, so I’m meeting you at dawn by the stables and we’re going to Falkreath. Is there anything else I need to know before departure?”
“Dress warm, and buy yourself a better pair of boots.” She gestured at the threadbare shoes that wrapped his feet. “And not from Grelka. I know you think she’s cute, but she’s a bitch. Talk to Balimund. He’ll do right by you.”
“Listen to you,” he was grinning again. “A handful of months in Riften and you’re an expert on all the shops and traders.” He glanced across the lake, toward Honeyside, and then asked, “And your husband? Does he know you’re hiring me?” he asked, one eyebrow arching higher than the other in question.
“He knows.” Ginna shrugged, following his gaze toward the house. She didn’t know why, but she expected to find Brynjolf standing on the porch in his loincloth, arms crossed, scrutinizing glare narrowed across the water. But he wasn’t there. He was probably still asleep. No doubt Maul would fill him in as soon as he woke. The guy was worse than a fox in a henhouse when it came to rooting out gossip in Riften. They said it was because Maven liked to keep on top of everyone’s business, but Ginna really thought he was just nosey. “He’s not exactly thrilled about it, but he knows.”
They were both still staring at Honeyside when he asked, “You wanna talk about it?”
“Not really.” She did want to talk about it, of course she did, but she hated how down Marcurio always got on her about Brynjolf. The only person who’d really listen and understand without judgment was Rune, and he was a million miles away, or so it felt.
“Well, I guess that’s it then. I’ll see you tomorrow at dawn.”
“Don’t thank me until we come back from whatever this is alive. I always get a bad feeling when I travel with you and I’d just as soon you not jinx us with premature gratitude.”
He pushed up off the post and left her standing there on the docks alone. There was only one boat out on the water, one of Bolli’s, to be sure, but with the storm clouds rolling in from the east not even Bolli would be on Lake Honrich long. Ginna lifted her face against the soft, cool wind that swept in off the mountains, but as she lifted her head she caught sight of a lone bird flying in to perch atop the post Marcurio had been leaning against. Grey-body, black wings, it tilted its head to look at her with sharp white eyes that suggested it was blind. Its black beak gasped open to croak at her, wings fluttering as it settled atop the post like some strange guardian watching over her.
“All right,” she muttered to herself, shaking her head and walking back toward the entryway into the City. “Now I’m getting paranoid. That Key has got to go.” Maul eyed her suspiciously when she passed him by and for a moment the knit of his brow was almost identical to that of his brother, Dirge.
The bird at her back crowed again, a throaty scream that seemed to echo in protest, but Ginna didn’t look back. A part of her was actually afraid she’d see Nocturnal standing on the pier.