“…should have at least sent word to let us know he was traveling away from Solitude. I mean, he didn’t even tell us his father had passed. He didn’t have to go through all that alone. We could have been there for him.”
She’d been talking almost nonstop since they left Honeyside, clearly upset about Rune’s hardships and obviously avoiding the real matter at hand. He’d watched all the blood leave her face when Rune told her about the Guild in Cyrodiil, a hard blow, to be sure, but then she’d shifted her demeanor and in the blink of an eye all thoughts of the latest devastating act that bastard she’d once called brother committed faded from her mind as though she hadn’t even heard it spoken of. He’d seen her shut down like that before, whenever talk of trust had been brought up between them after they met, but even that had been trivial compared to this.
Shor’s bones. It was no wonder trust didn’t come easy to the lass, growing up with a psychopath like Brutus Arenicci. He could barely imagine the kinds of things he’d done to her when they were children.
Nevertheless, Brynjolf was worried about her, and just a little bit irked by the way she’d talked to him in front of Rune. He had come to understand her biting sarcasm was just a defense mechanism, one she probably didn’t even realize she’d put into place, but to make him look the fool like that in front of someone who respected him was just uncalled for.
“We’re his family too,” she went on. “It breaks my heart imagining him all alone out there, trying to carry those burdens by himself. It just isn’t like him to be so… solitary.”
If she’d seen him roll his eyes, she would have punched him hard in the shoulder, but she’d missed that little act, much to his good fortune. “Let it go, lass,” he finally groaned, turning left and lifting his gaze toward the Shadow Stone in the distance. It rose up from the fog like a beacon, the massive outline guiding them through the mist and drizzle toward the mountain where the old Nightingales had carved out their hall.
They were nearly there, and he didn’t even know if Karliah would be there. And even if she was, she was going to take one look at Ginna while she was rambling on about communing with Nocturnal and conclude she’d gone off her rocker. Brynjolf cast another sidelong glance at her and wondered if that was the case, if that bloody Key was driving her mad.
“I can’t let it go, Bryn. He’s my friend.”
“All right.” He felt his jaw tighten a little, teeth clenching together as he spoke. “I get it, he’s your friend, but it’s done now and there’s naught we can do about it, so let it go, Ginna. There are far more pressing matters at hand right now, love.”
There it was. He didn’t even have to look at her full on to see the wall come up around her like a fortress he had to keep breaking through. He didn’t know why it burned him so badly, maybe because he knew if she were on the road with Rune, and not him, she’d be talking about the trouble in Cyrodiil. Maybe it burned him so badly because he felt like it was his own fault. He put business before pleasure more times than he could count, even during the course of their short courtship he’d sent Rune off with her and when it came time to open up she’d turned to the person who was with her.
Not that he was jealous of Rune, or even that blowhard mercenary, Marcurio, for that matter. Despite everything, Brynjolf liked to believe that he was confident and secure in his relationship with Ginna, secure enough to let her roam with whomever she felt the need to have tag along with her when he wasn’t available. But he did feel edgy every time he realized she was out there sharing her inner-most thoughts with someone else. Especially considering that the only words they seemed to share of late were sharp as daggers in the dark and usually resulted in him sleeping with little more than a scrap of quilt to cover his hide.
Was this what being married was really all about? The priest had said all kinds of flowery words about love and eternal companionship strong enough to survive even the roughest of hardships, and damn him to Oblivion if he didn’t love the woman, but he didn’t know how much more tension he could stomach. Until Ginna, the bulk of his romantic endeavors had been short-lived, at best, and certainly never long enough to inspire any kind of thoughts of an eternity with the other person. The only married people he’d ever intimately acquainted with had been his parents, and that had been so long ago sometimes all he could remember was the two of them bickering in hushed voices that, try as they might to hide them, still echoed through the cavernous Cistern as though they were shouting at one another.
Gods, he felt his stomach clench and tighten. This really was what being married was all about. Learning to control your temper whenever your spouse was being ridiculous and going on loving them even when you wanted to strangle them.
“Right,” she agreed with a curt nod. “We’ll talk to Karliah, tell her about the dream, about Brutus. Maybe she can summon Nocturnal for confirmation, or something.”
“We don’t even know if Karliah will be here, lass, and she made it pretty clear the last time we saw her she had no desire to face Nocturnal right now. It’s why you got stuck with the blasted Skeleton Key in the first place.”
When they’d parted ways with their fellow Nightingale after disposing of Mercer Frey, Karliah had only said she’d be in touch at some point. She’d given no indication of where she was going, but Ginna seemed rather sure of herself when she reached for the handle on the old wooden door of Nightingale Hall and turned the knob.
“She’s here,” she said over her shoulder.
The torches that lit the entryway seemed to partially confirm Ginna’s assumption: someone was there. He edged in a little closer to her back and reached a hand out to rest on her shoulder. “Look, Ginna, even if she is here, I don’t know what you’re hoping to accomplish with this. They Key has to be returned to the Twilight Sepulcher, or what little luck we’ve had these last few weeks is going to fade until there’s nothing left for any of us at all.”
“I know you don’t believe me,” she sighed, turning into him and lifting her sharp blue eyes to his. “I wouldn’t believe me either, but if you had been there, Brynjolf, if you had heard the things Nocturnal said to me, you would have doubts too. I know you would.”
“The only doubts I have right now revolve around the fact that we held onto that Key too long. If we had gone straight to the Twilight Sepulcher to return it, none of this would be happening now.”
“This is about more than just returning the Key.”
“You don’t think Mercer told himself that every time the voice of reason tried to claw into that thick brain of his?” Still with his hand on her shoulder, he let his fingers burrow softly into the tension gripping her muscles. “Imagine all the lies to told himself just to hold onto that power, Ginna, and then think about all the people who died because he couldn’t let it go. You were damn near one of them yourself, lass.”
“This is different, Brynjolf. Mercer took the key without Nocturnal’s blessing. She gave me her blessing.”
“In a dream!” He didn’t realize how hard his fingers were pressing into her skin until she start to struggle out of his grip. “How many times do you imagine Mercer told himself he had Nocturnal’s blessing.”
“Maybe he did have her blessing,” she muttered, wrenching out of his grasp.
“Do you even hear yourself?”
“To even suggest we understand Nocturnal’s will is absurd. Severus told me stories when I was a girl about the Cowl of the Grey Fox, about how Nocturnal cursed any who dared to don her cowl to disappear completely. If a thief put it on, not even his own mother would remember giving birth to him. And yet…” she paused a moment, as if searching for the right words to day. “And yet, there are other stories still that claim it was a gift from Nocturnal herself, the ultimate prize for one of our trade. He could walk into the Emperor’s Palace and steal the crown right off his head and no one would ever be the wiser.”
He felt his nostrils flare as he inhaled through his nose, the frustration of anger bubbling inside him like a cauldron over a high flame. “They’re just stories, lass.”
“Maybe so, but until a couple of months ago we thought the Nightingales were just a myth and here we are.” She held up her arms, a smug smile turning her lips ever-so-slightly upward. “In Nightingale Hall, both of us sworn to serve Our Lady of Shadows until our contract with her expires.”
Damn her, if she wasn’t right about that, but it didn’t mean she was right about Nocturnal wanting her to use the Skeleton Key. He hoped she was right about Karliah actually being there because someone needed to talk some sense into her; clearly that someone wasn’t him.
He shouldered past her and grabbed one of the torches from the wall, continuing down the winding stone corridor until he came to the common room. Nightingale Hall looked different than it had the first time they’d come there, more lived in, and much of the stifling musty smell that overpowered the senses during their last visit seemed to have been replaced by spice and alchemy reagents. There was a small alchemist’s station, a bubbling tube of poison steaming over the fire and sitting almost casually on the bed with an open book in her lap was Karliah.
As the woman lifted her gaze to them, Brynjolf had to look away to keep the overpowering emotion of his own twisted dreams from rubbing him the wrong way. Guilt ate away at his insides, and he hung back when Ginna moved forward to meet her.
“My fellow Nightingales,” Karliah said, lowering her long legs over the edge of the bed and slipping her bare feet into a worn pair of leather slippers. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?” She leaned into Ginna’s eager embrace, a gentle smile lighting up her whole face when she drew back. “Have you returned the Key?”
“No,” Ginna shook her head almost shamefully, some of the enthusiasm fading from her presence. “Not yet. We were setting out tomorrow to do so, but then something came up.”
“Several things, actually,” Brynjolf corrected, crossing his arms over his chest and ignoring the stern glance Ginna threw in his direction. “It would seem my wife has been communing with Nocturnal and she’s got it into that pretty little head of hers that our Lady wants her to use the Skeleton Key.”
“He makes it sound so sinister and trivial.” Ginna turned back to Karliah. “The Guild in Cyrodiil is gone, burned to the ground along with everyone in it except for Brutus Arenicci.”
“Shadows take him,” Karliah spat over her shoulder, as if casting off a curse. “I’m so sorry, Ginna. To lose one’s family…” her voice trailed off for a moment, as if recalling how quickly her own family had up and turned their backs on her. “You must be distraught.”
“You’d think so,” Brynjolf interjected quietly.
“I am distraught,” she said, more to Karliah than him, but she turned another look toward him, a softer look, her eyes shining with unshed tears. Ginna wasn’t one to shed a tear without reason, but when she had a reason it took a lot to actually pull the emotion out of her. “And so confused, Karliah. I’ve had dreams of late, before this news from Cyrodiil.”
Tilting her head, the Dunmer lifted a hand to Ginna’s shoulder and began to walk her toward a small wooden table to sit down. Brynjolf preferred to stand, but moved in to hover near the edge of the table, arms still crossed.
“What kind of dreams?” Karliah asked.
“At first it was only birds, hundreds of them, thousands whispering my name and spreading like a shadowed cloak across the sun until all the world was darkness.”
Brynjolf took another step forward. She hadn’t told him that part of the dream, not that it made her assumption about Nocturnal’s will any truer.
“And then she brought me here, to Nightingale Hall, and I was standing at the altar in the place you stood when we swore our oath to her. She spoke to me, wanted to know why, if I hadn’t returned her Key to the Twilight Sepulcher, I hadn’t used it either to further my own gain. When I told her I didn’t wish to walk the Pilgrim’s Path alone, she laughed and said I shamed myself, that to don her sigil and walk in shadows was to walk alone, both in life and in death.”
He watched Karliah’s face, even as he listened to Ginna share another part of herself with someone else, a part she hadn’t fully shared with him. Karliah’s expression didn’t tell him much. She was listening intently, her eyes narrowing into two gleaming lavender slits as she tried to discern meaning.
“Was there more, Ginna?”
Ginna nodded. “She said she was disappointed in my hesitation to serve her, but that it was not the Pilgrim’s Path she wanted me to walk at this time. She wants revenge.”
“Revenge?” Brynjolf repeated that word, the doubt in his tone an indirect slap in the face that actually made her wince a little. “It sounds more like the inane ramblings of Boethiah or Molag Bal.” He didn’t know much about the so-called Daedric Princes; Daedric worship really had no place in a thief’s repertoire of tools, or so he’d thought before he’d taken the oath to serve Nocturnal. Even still, something about the whole thing felt off, and unless Nocturnal herself made an appearance to confirm what Ginna was saying, he simply couldn’t put his stock in dreams. No matter how real that blade had felt in his hand, how warm Karliah’s blood had felt spilling onto his skin when he’d twisted it deep into her belly.
“I questioned her too,” she assured him, drawing him from that dark, terrifying place his mind had wandered to in a matter of seconds. “And when I asked how I could help her, she asked that I carry out her sentence on the fool I once called brother because he was plotting to steal her Cowl from the Evergloam and in order to do that he would need the Skeleton Key. She said the Key was not safe in the Twilight Sepulcher as long as it opened the gateway to her realm and then she told me to use it, in her name and with her blessing, to restore the Guild and embrace my role as a Nightingale, for when the time comes to face him, I will need the blessing of her strength and power to defeat him.”
“I don’t know what enchantments that Key possesses, but it’s damn good at getting inside and discovering that which we obviously desire.” Brynjolf’s words seemed to move right through him, and for a moment it was as if he were a ghost in that stone room.
He watched as Karliah’s hand moved out to rest atop Ginna’s, fingers curling around and gently squeezing. “You’re right about that much, Brynjolf,” she finally lifted her eyes to him; they were serious and so sad he could barely hold her gaze longer than a second or two. “The Key does know what we want. It senses our desires and aligns us with the path we need to take in order to achieve them, and what Ginna wants right now more than anything, I’d suspect, is to avenge the murder of her Guildfather and punish the man who betrayed her.”
“You see, lass,” he said almost smugly. “It’s the Key messing with your mind. It wasn’t a visitation from Nocturnal.”
“Or maybe it was,” Karliah shook her head with uncertainty and Brynjolf felt a tightness in his chest. “Our mistress works in mysterious ways, and to believe for even a moment we understand her will is utter folly. There is only one way to find out if what Ginna dreamed was true.”
The hope in her voice was almost childlike when she asked, “Can you summon her?”
“One does not generally summon Our Lady of Shadows, Ginna,” Karliah said gently. “If Nocturnal wishes an audience with you, she seeks you out on her own terms, but this sounds too serious to ignore.”
It was Ginna’s turn to cast another smirking gaze in his direction, and Brynjolf muttered a curse under his breath. If it turned out the lass was actually onto something, there’d be no living with her.
“Did you bring the Key?”
“No…” Brynjolf started to say, but Ginna interrupted and said, “Yes,” lifting her satchel onto the table and unbuckling the pouch strap. He hadn’t even seen her grab the Key before they left and for a moment his anger enmeshed with a series of chills he couldn’t shake off. It was that feeling his father used to describe as someone walking over his grave, and in that moment Brynjolf had a sinking feeling in his gut that all three of them were as good as dead already… just like Mercer Frey.