The three of them took their prospective stances within the triad branching out from the main circle, and while Karliah called upon Nocturnal, Ginna felt her gaze shifting left over her shoulder, in Brynjolf’s direction. She wished she could see his face, or know what he was thinking. He’d been so passive-aggressive about everything since she’d told him she thought Nocturnal wanted her to use the Key, but could she really blame him? After everything Mercer put them all through, that key should have been locked up and never touched again. Forgotten before it could wreak havoc in anyone else’s life.
He hadn’t said much to her while they were changing into their Nightingale armor, and when she’d tried to make a point of eye contact with him, he’d actually given her the cold shoulder. Stalking toward Karliah, he’d said nothing more than, “Let’s get this over with, lass. I’ve got important things that need taking care of, and the sooner I can get back to them, the better.”
Important things that had held them apart more than brought them together of late. Had they made a mistake in getting married so soon? It hadn’t felt like that at the time, but the tension between them was beginning to suggest otherwise. All that time she’d been blaming the Skeleton Key, but what if the tension had nothing to do with Nocturnal? What if they just weren’t meant to be?
Gods, that thought made it hard for her to breathe. That alone should have been indication of how stupid she was being. Of course she and Brynjolf were meant to be together, if for no other reason in the world than that no one else in all of Nirn would have tolerated either one of them.
Glancing back toward the center of the altar, Ginna kept waiting for the air to stiffen the way it had done last time, for the electricity to sharpen and crackle until she could feel it in her blood and bones, but nothing happened.
“Mistress of Shadows, we seek your council, please grace us with your presence,” Karliah pleaded, her tone unyielding in its faith and devotion.
Ginna could feel eyes on her, boring into her soul and when she turned her head left again she saw Brynjolf staring straight at her through the shadowed openings in his mask. She imagined that beneath the hood, he was smirking at her; his silent eyes seemed to carry the words, I told you so, straight into her mind. Even knowing firsthand the Gods and Daedric Princes were real did very little to foster faith in him. Anything that required him to bend the knee was a waste of time. Pomp and ceremony, he hated it all and she knew that, but for once couldn’t he just humor her? Support her and make her feel like he was on her side? She knew what she was feeling, what she’d experienced in those dreams. All she needed was confirmation.
Waiting in the silence for an answer to her call, Karliah’s uplifted arms didn’t waver, her eyes did not drift from the apex and seeing her absolute devotion, Ginna felt a little foolish. A part of her hadn’t believed Nocturnal would answer, and maybe that was why she hadn’t come.
“Lady Nocturnal,” she turned toward the center and lowered onto her knees, cutting Karliah off before she could begin another round of petitioning. “I seek not just your council, but confirmation of your will. In the shadows of my dreams you came to me, your humble servant, and bid me to use the Skeleton Key to not only assist you, but to further my own gain. Please, lady, all I ask is for you to tell me here, before my fellow Nightingales, what it is you want me to do.”
Nothing… Only the constant drip and splash of water trickling to the floor behind the altar, the distant wail of the wind through the caverns of that hollow space, and then she felt it when she drew a breath in preparation of the sigh about to deflate her chest. She could smell the air thickening with ozone and electricity, the properties of everything around her shifting to accommodate the shadows as they gathered and swarmed together in a slow swirl of rich blue light writhing to life on the altar.
Before she could finish manifesting, Ginna lowered her arms in reverence, her heart thundering so hard her eardrums felt like they might explode.
“What is the meaning of this summons?” Her voice echoed through the chamber like a thousand bad dreams, the constant chatter of birds at its back, lifting it, lifting her presence into their world until she hovered above the symbol on the floor, a mesmerizing ball of blue and black light pulsating with otherworldly energy. “Have I not given you a task, Nightingale? Why do you bother me when there is work to be done?”
“The terms of your request are uncertain, Lady,” Karliah spoke on her behalf. “You asked us to return the key, but now you want us to use it? We only seek clarity, my lady. Enlightenment so that we might carry out your wishes as you see fit.”
“Clarity?” Her rich laughter reverberated through the chamber. “Enlightenment? Am I not the Daedric Prince of Darkness? The Queen of Murk and Shadow? What use have I for clarity, Karliah? Honestly, I thought you, of all people, would know me better than that by now.”
“Please, Lady Nocturnal,” Ginna intervened. “It was not Karliah’s idea to summon you. It was mine. I am new to your service and do not trust myself, not since I’ve had the Key in my possession. To dream you want me to use it after you expressly instructed us to restore balance and return it to the Twilight Sepulcher seems well in line with the Key’s powers of persuasion, and not something you would actually want me to do.”
“You don’t know me very well yet, do you?” the shadowed light mused. “I choose my allies wisely, and after Karliah spoke to me of the vengeance burning in her heart for Mercer Frey, I found myself longing to play a little game. A game of vengeance and betrayal, punishment and due, and who better to serve me in this game than the three of you, my most humble servants and protectors.”
“I didn’t sign on for this to play games at your whim.” Brynjolf’s protest echoed across the vast space between them and Ginna actually felt the focus of Nocturnal’s shadowy attention shift toward him.
“The fire-hearted Nord speaks at last,” she made a sound, like a tongue clucking against the roof of a mouth. “I wondered how long you were just going to stand around and allow life’s whims to move you where they would without a fight. You like to play the victim, you always have, but you’re one of mine now, and I do not suffer victims. Nevertheless, you swore yourself to my service, Brynjolf of Riften, and you will play whatever games I see fit for you to play.” Ginna swore she saw him flinch a little, as if those words had stung him. Her disembodied focus rolled once more, drifting across the cavern until Ginna could feel it pulsing in her direction. “All three of you will play my games and see them through until the end.”
Karliah’s soft voice filled the void of sound that followed that admission. “What would you have us do, Lady Nocturnal?”
“Use the Key,” she said. “Restore your Guild, fill your chests and coffers with as much wealth as you can. Grow rich and powerful until all who encounter you envy and fear you completely. Feed from the well of power, discover your potential and grow strong. Become one with me, align yourselves with me and when the time comes stand and fight for me against the one who seeks to betray me. That is what I would have you do.” She was silent for a moment, almost as if she were willing one of them to deny her order. The thick air roiled with electricity, and beneath her armor Ginna could feel every hair on her body standing at attention. And then she asked, “Is this something you can do, or do I need to find another triad to serve me?”
“We are your humble servants, Lady,” Ginna spoke up before Karliah could. “We will do whatever you ask of us.”
“Good, now if that’s all, I have important business that requires my attention. Do not summon me again to satisfy your petty curiosities, or you will all be sorry you disturbed me. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Lady Nocturnal.”
Just as quickly as she’d come, she disappeared with a pop and a rush, but the electric heaviness in the room did not abate. From the corner of her eye, she saw Brynjolf leaving the platform, walking down the long aisle until he arrived on the altar where only moments before Nocturnal had hovered. Karliah joined him, but Ginna wasn’t ready yet. Her feet felt both light and heavy where she stood. She looked down at the two of them and tried to imagine what they were thinking, how soon it would be before Brynjolf’s acceptance for Nocturnal’s will turned to sarcasm aimed at his wife.
Finally gathering herself, she picked up her feet and started down the ramp, meeting with them in the center and looking between the two of them.
“I can’t believe she actually wants us to use the Key,” Karliah murmured. “Come into the common room and tell me about your dream again while I make us all a cup of tea.”
“We’ll join you in a minute, lass,” Brynjolf said.
Reaching up to remove her hood, Karliah looked between the two of them and nodded agreement before slowly walking out. Brynjolf waited until she was little more than a shadow cast upon the wall outside the ceremonial chamber before he reached out and curled his fingers around Ginna’s upper arm. With the other hand, he lifted the hood away from her face and brushed the hair off of her cheek.
“It seems I owe you an apology, love,” he began. Those fingers squeezed gently, before reaching up to draw her gaze upward when she started to look away. “I should have listened to you,” he went on. “Taken your concerns more seriously. I’m a terrible husband.”
“Don’t say that.” The edges of her mouth twitched in protest of the smile she tried to hide from him, but something about him saying those words terrified her. Sometimes she still had a really hard time believing her luck when it came to Brynjolf, even on the days they did nothing but bicker and turn their backs on each other in bed.
“It’s true, I’m awful at this whole being married to someone else thing,” he admitted. “I keep ridiculous hours, leave you sitting at home alone with Marcurio until all hours of the night, send you off traveling with other men. And Talos strike me where I stand, but I’m guilty of being a little glad when a job comes up that takes you away for a day or two because then I don’t feel so pressured to rush home every night and make sure you’re not upset with me for spending so much time trying to get our Guild back on its feet.”
Stepping back, she shrugged out of his grip as her hackles immediately went up. “You’re actually happy when I go away?”
“Not happy, no,” he shook his head. “I guess that was a stupid way of saying all the tension between us has made everything really difficult lately. See,” he paused for a moment. “What kind of husband would say something like that?”
“Apparently, a really bad one,” she snarked. “Do you not want to be married to me anymore, Bryn?”
“Of course I do, lass. You’re the only good thing that’s ever happened in my life. Shor’s bones, how could you even ask me that?”
“I don’t know, I just thought…”
He reached for her again and drew her into his chest, tilting his head to look down into her eyes. A lock of hair fell across his face, curtaining his gaze until she reached up and moved it away. She loved looking into his eyes; they were green as the sea and whenever that impish grin of his made an appearance they shone with the most incredible light. Gods, she loved him so much it made her legs weak and wobbly whenever he was near her like that—and yet every minute they were together they were at odds. How could that even be?
“I’ve never wanted to spend every waking moment of my day with anyone before. Frankly, lass, most people get on my last nerve after about five minutes, but you…” Shaking his head, the rogue hair she’d just pushed away fell back into place and she snorted a laugh. “Since the day we met, I’ve wanted to be with you all the time. From dawn ‘til dusk, every minute of every hour, and when you’re not with me there’s this big, aching emptiness right here.” Reaching for her hand, he lifted it over the left side of his leather breastplate and held it there. “I thought life was going to get easier after we took care of Mercer.”
“It hasn’t, has it?”
“No, it’s gotten harder. We’re always on edge, always at each other’s throats about this unimportant thing or that. It’s like we skipped through all those years of wedded bliss you’re always hearing couples talk about and we’ve turned straight into some ornery old codger and his spiteful wife taking snipes at each other just for kicks.”
Most men Ginna had known throughout her life would never have talked so openly about their emotions, but that was one thing she could always count on when it came to Brynjolf. It was one of the reasons she’d fallen in love with him in the first place. Everything was on the table, but he was right. Lately they’d barely even had time to make eye contact, much less appreciate the newness of their relationship.
“I don’t want our life to be like this, Ginna,” he reached up and took her chin between his thumb and forefinger, holding her in place so she couldn’t look away. “I don’t like the sound of you sighing before you roll over in bed and turn your back to me, and I hate the cold nights even worse.”
He lowered his forehead to hers and closed his eyes. “I want to be partners, just like we said, in every aspect of our life together.”
“Then we have to do it together,” she pointed out. “Not you sitting neck-deep in paperwork in the belly of the Cistern while I’m out running jobs for Vex and Delvin Rune like some lackey. I know I’m not the Guildmaster yet, but one day we will share that honor together. Why don’t we start sharing all its responsibilities now? Really make the life we want for ourselves, Brynjolf?”
“All right,” he agreed. “Let’s do it then.”
“And as much as I hate to say I told you so, it looks like we’re going to have a little help from Nocturnal to make all that happen,” she pointed out. “We’ve got the Skeleton Key and all its perks on our side. We’re going to be unstoppable.”
She watched the dimple in his cheek deepen as he grinned. “You didn’t hate to say that.”
“No,” she laughed. “I didn’t.”
“Do you forgive me for being the worst husband the world had to offer you?”
“Only if you forgive me for the being the worst wife for making you sleep in an ice box every night these last few weeks.”
He leaned down and kissed her, mouth opening against hers as his arm slid down the length of her back to sweep her closer. And when she was in his arms, all of her doubts and fears, all of the worry that maybe they weren’t really meant to be melted away and she felt like a fool for even doubting that Brynjolf was exactly where she was supposed to be.