Marcurio was a strange man, Ginna decided after he’d left Honeyside with barely a word after she’d changed their plans and asked him to eventually accompany her to Solitude once she came back from Falkreath. At first she’d thought maybe it was something she’d said, but then she just concluded there was far more going on inside that man than anyone would probably ever know. He was too cocky to really be as sure of himself as he projected, and ever since she’d told him she and Brynjolf had gotten married, Marcurio put a barrier between them that made it damn near impossible to get any closer to him than she’d gotten during their brief period of travel together while she was finding what she needed to get Gallus’s journal translated.
She’d retreated back into the house after he left and set out to make a stew for dinner, highly doubting Brynjolf would be home anytime soon.
He had promised he wouldn’t linger long in the Cistern after talking with Delvin and Vex about their plans, and though two hours passed before he finally came through the door to find dinner waiting for him on the table, Ginna was actually surprised he’d returned so quickly. All the stress of rebuilding and restructuring the Guild was dragging him down, but things would get easier once they gave back that blasted Skeleton Key.
They just had to.
“What’s all this?” He gestured to the table, the food, the small candle flickering in the center.
“It’s called dinner, my dear.” She smiled teasingly up at him and added, “I know you haven’t had it in awhile, but it’s that meal people eat after lunch and before bed.”
“You’re a real smartass, you know that?” He knelt to kiss her forehead, ducking her chin with his knuckles before sliding into the chair. He rubbed his hands together in eager anticipation of something warm to fill his belly and take the chill off his bones.
The rain hadn’t let up, in fact it sounded like it was pouring again and she’d felt the cold, damp air rush in the door with him. She only hoped the gods didn’t muddy the road all the way to Falkreath. Rain would make for long, hazardous travel and Ginna wanted nothing more than to get their trip over with.
“Everything all set?” she asked, lowering a steaming bowl of venison stew onto the table with a warm crust of fresh bread and a crock of fresh churned honey-butter she’d bought from one of the market stalls that afternoon.
“Aye,” he nodded, reaching for a spoon. “Delvin’s going to take over the books and Vex is going to double up on job distribution until we return.”
“Good.” She took a seat across from him and ladled a helping of stew into her wooden bowl. “As long as the weather clears up, we should make it to Falkreath Hold in two or three days. We’ll return the key, as promised and get back to business as usual. I don’t think we’ll be gone more than a week.”
“That’s as I told Delvin.” He reached for the knife and slathered butter across the crust, and then asked, “And Marcurio?”
“Taken care of,” she replied. She’d tried to get him to keep it, on good faith that he would repay her with his services in due time, but he’d refused her, leaving the bag of coin on the table just before he left without explanation.
For a time they ate quietly, and Ginna watched her husband. She’d heard stories growing up of relationships gone sour over simple things like a man slurping his soup too noisily or chewing his food with his mouth open, but she didn’t think she’d ever have that kind of trouble with Brynjolf. He was one of the most meticulous men she’d ever known when it came to manners, and he always complimented the chef when he lowered his napkin to the table after pushing his empty plate away.
“What were your parents like, Bryn?” she asked, watching his eyes narrow almost suspiciously at the question. “Do you remember much about them?”
He was quiet for a moment, and then he lowered his head. “Mostly I just remember their faces and sometimes I think I remember my mother’s voice, but aside from that I don’t remember much about them at all.”
“Karliah said they were good people.” He seemed to flinch a little at the mention of Karliah, or maybe Ginna was just seeing things. “She spoke very fondly of your mother when she was nursing me back to health outside Snowveil Sanctum.”
Tilting his head, a long lock of red hair slid down his chest. Highlights from the candle flickered gold across the strands and she wanted to reach out and twine it around her finger. If they had children, would they look like him? Have his stunning green eyes, bright red hair? Not that she was chomping at the bit to have children, but since they’d spoken about it during their trek to Irkngthand, she had thought about it. She thought about it a lot.
He’d said they could be a real family with children, and though she’d hardened her heart against the very notion of family ever infiltrating her life again after Brutus betrayed her, the Riften Guild had been impossible to resist. Over the last few months she’d let herself get close to all of them, well, all of them except Thrynn, who didn’t let himself get close to anyone, and no matter what he said about his place in the Guild, Dirge didn’t count in her mind.
But Brynjolf had said a real family. Something she’d never imagined she could have.
“She did,” she said, pressing her back into the chair behind her and stretching a little as she reached to tear off a hunk of bread to sop up some of the stew from the bottom of her bowl. “She tells good stories. By the time she’d finished talking about Gallus, I felt like I’d actually known the man myself. You should sit down and talk with her about your parents sometimes.”
That uncomfortable grimace tugged at his mouth again and once more he looked away. “Maybe after all this is over, I will do tha—.”
A rapid but quiet knock sounded at the back door and they both looked toward the bedroom. The only people who came to the back door were Guild members, Rune and Delvin, occasionally Vipir when he couldn’t find Brynjolf in the Cistern. Ginna started to rise, but Brynjolf shook his head and held out a hand to stop her, the other already drawing the dagger from his belt as he stood and stalked quietly through the kitchen.
She heard him slide open the peephole to peer out and then a soft scoff of laughter before he unbolted the door and yanked it open. “You little scoundrel! Where in Oblivion have you been?”
“It’s a long story.” The familiar sound of Rune’s voice was both a relief and a sorrow, as she realized Brynjolf would probably shun his promise to accompany her and send Rune in his stead.
Ginna pushed away from the table to rise and go to greet him. He and Brynjolf were embracing, Brynjolf clapping him heartily on the back before drawing him into the house and closing the door. “We’re just finishing our supper, but there’s plenty to go around. Come in and eat, lad.”
“Thank you.” He lifted a troubled gaze toward Ginna, a peculiar half-smile twitching at the edges of his full mouth, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m starving, actually. I rode all the way from the Imperial City in just three days. I stopped once in Cheydinhal to change horses.”
“Cyrodiil? What were you doing in Cyrodiil?” Ginna balked.
“Again, it’s a long story, and one I will tell you both soon enough, I swear it.”
Brynjolf laughed uneasily and led him to the table, shaking his head. “How go things with your father?”
“My father passed away two weeks ago.” His tone was flat, but she could hear edges of hidden emotion just beneath the surface.
“Oh, Rune.” She reached out to lay a hand of comfort on his arm. “I’m so sorry.”
“I appreciate that, my friend.” He took a seat and while Brynjolf poured him a mug of mead, Ginna fetched another bowl of stew for him and then resumed her seat at the table.
“If there’s anything we can do for you…”
He nodded meekly, and then reached for his spoon, eagerly shoveling in bite after gulping bite like a starving man who hadn’t eaten in weeks. Ginna lifted her gaze across the table, meeting eyes with Brynjolf, who furrowed his brow and shook his head as if to say he had no idea what to think either. They didn’t press him, but let him eat until the bowl was empty and Ginna rose to fill it for him again, returning with a half a loaf of bread for him as well. Only when she set that second bowl down did he begin to speak.
“My father had been keeping something from me,” he said, finally looking up at Ginna. “Just before he died, he confessed to me that there was a letter… well, not a whole letter, but a page he’d found in the wreckage where he found me. He held onto it, sparing me from the pain of hope in a hopeless cause, but for years he tried to find answers so he’d have something to tell me before he died.”
“Did he give you the page from the letter?” Ginna asked.
“He did.” Rune nodded again, and opened the front of his armor to retrieve a worn and tattered bit of parchment from within. “It doesn’t say much, but it held the name of a ship that set sail from an Imperial port on Lake Rumare on the fourth of Sun’s Height, 175, about five months before my father found me just off the coast of Solitude.”
“That seems an awful strange passage for a boat to sail,” Brynjolf observed.
“Not so strange as you might think.” Rune shrugged, handing the parchment over to Ginna. “Traders and pirates voyage full circle along the coastline, making port in Valenwood and Hammerfell, Highrock and Skyrim before moving on to Morrowind and traveling south to Blackmarsh and Elswyr and back to Cyrodiil via the Niben River again.”
Ginna scanned the faded parchment, many of the words rubbed almost clear from the page with time and weathering, others smeared and smudged so badly they were almost impossible to make out. But there were clear words, the date, as Rune mentioned and the name of a ship: The Alessia Fair, along with a few others that didn’t mean much when strung together.
“The Alessia Fair,” Ginna said, skimming the page once more before handing it back to her friend.
“It’s more than I’ve ever had, as far as clues go. My father tried to trace its origin for years, with no luck, so after I scattered his ashes in the sea, I started digging, asking questions around the docks. Most of those old sailors still know the name of every ship that’s ever docked in Haafingar, but none had ever heard of The Alessia Fair. I even went down to the warehouse to look through their old shipping ledgers, fully detailed records dating all the way back to 170, mind you, and the East Empire Company never received shipments from a trading galleon by that name.”
“Do you think it was a pirate vessel?” Brynjolf interjected, reaching out to absently tear another bite from his bread and tuck it into his mouth.
“At first, I did, yes,” Rune nodded. “But one of the old sailors told me the only way to track that ship was to its port of origin, so I hired a carriage and rode south to Cyrodiil, to the Imperial City port.”
“Did you find what you were looking for there?” Ginna reached across the table once more to lay a gentle hand on his forearm.
“Yes and no, but again, that isn’t why I raced back here so quickly. I did some extra digging while I was down there and it would seem you weren’t the only Guildmember Brutus Arenicci stabbed in the back.”
She scoffed laughter and retreated to cross her arms over her chest with a huff. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“I don’t know how to tell you this, Ginna, but…”
“What is it?” Brynjolf prompted him.
“There is no Cyrodiil Guild anymore.” Rune looked between the two of them, his sad hazel eyes lowering to the table as he shook his head.
“What do you mean, there’s no Cyrodiil Guild?”
He hesitated in answering, refusing for a moment to return his gaze to hers, but when he finally did, she saw such sorrow in his eyes it made her heart clench inside her chest. “House Dareloth was burned to the ground just five days ago, Ginna, and only one person escaped the blaze alive. Brutus Arenicci.”
“No,” she shook her head, the words he’d just spoken impossible to believe. “That’s not true. We… we would have heard…”
“The news is only reaching Skyrim now,” he admitted. “I rode as quickly as I could to reach you, to be the one to tell you…”
“No,” she muttered again.
She felt numb, her head buzzing atop her shoulders, a ringing in her ears unlike any she’d ever heard before. Even after everything, after the cold reality of his clever knife in her back, her exile from Cyrodiil, the assassin on the road and Mercer’s betrayal, she’d still had doubts that Brutus was capable of such conniving and vicious acts. She didn’t want to believe he’d killed Severus, and in that moment she didn’t want to believe he’d burned everyone who’d actually stood beside him through it all to ash.
Polliver, the pock-faced little rat who could climb into any window and walk out the front door of the home completely undetected and with everything of value filling his inner-pockets. Alilia the Shadow, who could all but disappear from plain sight faster than you could blink. Bartemus and Moriarty, brothers who’d joined the Guild just days after Severus and had specialized in requisition and distribution of highly-appraised underground merchandise. Many of the others had left after Severus died, but Ginna felt a cold shudder of fear for all who’d once been part of their family.
She could almost hear Nocturnal’s voice in her mind, the words she’d spoken in those dark dreams the Skeleton Key had brought upon her.
Carry out my sentence 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.
“He is coming for the Key.” Ginna wasn’t even aware that the words had left her lips until she’d finished speaking them.
“What are you talking about, lass?”
“Nocturnal.” She lifted her watery gaze across the table and met with her husband’s eyes. “She spoke to me, Brynjolf. She told me his treachery surpassed anything we could even imagine.”
“It was a dream, Ginna,” he pushed away from the table, shaking his head. “That bloody Key whispering in your ear, telling you what you want to hear.”
“No, Bryn…” She protested. “She spoke to me. She asked me to be her Champion.”
“What…” Rune started, looking between the two of them. “What is she talking about?” He finally focused on Brynjolf.
“It’s a long story,” Brynjolf sighed. “And not exactly one we’re supposed to be telling.” He turned a wary eye on Ginna, unspoken ire flashing in his emerald eyes.
Ginna’s head was still spinning when she pushed her chair away from the table to stand. “I have to go to Nightingale Hall,” she announced. “I have to talk to…”
“Ginna.” Brynjolf edged around Rune’s chair and gripped her shoulders. “Listen to me, lass. You’re distraught and after hearing what Rune has just told us, it’s understandable, but those dreams… they were only dreams.”
“Then there’s no harm in going to Nightingale Hall. Karliah will know what to do, and if I’m wrong, you get to be right for a change.” She pulled out of his grip and pursed her lips while holding his gaze steady. “Are you coming with me, or not?”
“I swear.” Exasperated, he threw up his arms and shook his head again. “You’re going to be the death of me, lass.”
“What’s going on?” Rune looked between them. “Where are you going? Where’s Nightingale Hall?”
“You stay here,” Brynjolf said. “Eat and drink and keep an eye on things. We’ll be back in a few hours.”