Brynjolf was not having the best of days. In fact, it was probably the most bizarre day he’d ever had in his life, if he didn’t count the day he’d stood before Nocturnal and sworn an oath to serve her for the rest of his days.
He and Ginna had been at Nightingale Hall with Karliah until well after three in the morning discussing the Mistress of Shadows odd request, and when they’d finally returned home around three-thirty to find Rune asleep in the chair it was another hour before they had the house to themselves. And of course, because they’d been so cold and distant to one another of late before drifting off to sleep, he’d thought it was important to cement everything he’d said to his wife with more than just a little kiss goodnight.
Sex always alleviated the constant tension that seemed ever-present in their lives, relaxing them into light, but serious conversation, both of which he’d missed more than he could possibly express to her. They talked about Rune and Nocturnal, and most disturbing were the few things she’d muttered to him about the Skeleton Key. The strange power she could so obviously feel whenever she held it in her hand–as if it chose her and wanted her to do the most amazing things. That thing was a bloody curse, and he had no idea how they were going to survive using it until Nocturnal’s will was done.
Before he knew it he was propped up on his elbow above her and watching as the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on drifted off to sleep beneath the soft rays of sunlight filtering through the window.
Everything about their fast-paced relationship had been fire and tension from the start, and he just kept telling himself it had to slow down at some point. He’d never thought he’d settle down, find a woman who held his interest long enough for him to ask for her hand, but Ginna never ceased to awe and inspire him. He actually wanted to stop and savor every moment of their life, put babies in her belly and watch her swell with the life they created together. Most days those simple pleasures felt like insurmountable impossibilities, even if he did believe all the way down to the very depths of his soul that they could do anything as long as they were together. Sometimes it just felt like he was asking too much from the gods in asking for a moment’s peace to enjoy her.
He loved touching her when she was sleeping, tracing the tip of his finger along the curve of her full, almost pouty lips, down the dip of her adorable chin and back up the strong line of her jaw before tucking the rogue strands of her golden hair behind her delicate ear. Even in her sleep she nuzzled into his touch, murmuring something unintelligible before rolling into him and lifting her calf to rest atop his.
Laying his head down on the pillow in front of hers, he tried to sleep, but sleep never came.
Every time he closed his eyes he saw himself running his blade through Karliah and startled himself out of the grip of that dream before it could reclaim him. He’d been blaming it on the Skeleton Key, a part of him still convinced its presence was tapping into some dark side of him he didn’t want to believe was there. He was not a killer. He didn’t even like to get his hands dirty if he didn’t have to.
Nocturnal’s taunts still circled in his mind. He would play whatever game she designed for him, whether he liked it or not.
He did not like it.
After hours of tossing and turning in the bed, he finally threw the blankets off and stepped into the soft black leather pants puddled beside the bed. After tugging them up around his hips, he sat down and slipped his boots on before leaning over to grab the jacket of his Guildmaster’s armor from the back of the chair.
Kneeling to kiss her forehead, the tips of his long red hair tickled her cheeks and she reached up to swat at them before rolling away and drawing the quilt up around her neck.
She’d told him to wake her when he got up, but she hadn’t slept much lately either and he didn’t want to take that moment’s worth of peace away from her too quickly.
He figured he was only going to be gone an hour and she’d never even know he’d left, but then he got caught up in the street listening to the buzz and gossip about Grelod the Kind. Seems someone murdered the old hag right in her bed while the children over at Honorhall slept. Just when he thought he was finally going to get down to business, he’d had the most bizarre confrontation with a ghost in the cemetery leading into the crypt on his way to the cistern. A ghost that had cost his Guild almost as much as Mercer had.
The gods were definitely testing both his patience and his nonchalant belief in the supernatural.
Then Ginna’s bloody magic-wielding mercenary friend had gotten involved, knocking him most embarrassingly on his backside with a blast of shock magic so strong he could still feel its repercussions thumping in his veins. It hadn’t won him over if that was Marcurio’s game, that was for sure, but it had confirmed some of Ginna’s assurances that the lad was a lot more powerful than he looked.
He did not like that either. Any of it.
“I don’t know, Bryn, maybe it was just a coincidence,” Delvin Mallory proposed, tipping back the last swish of ale resting at the bottom of his mug and holding it in his mouth for a moment before loudly gulping it down. “All kinds of people look like other people. And all those elf-types look alike, if you ask me.”
Vipir’s lip twitched as if he were about to say something, but Vex was sniping on Delvin before he even had a chance to open his mouth. “Oh for shit’s sake, Delvin, that’s gotta be the most racist gods damned thing you’ve ever said.”
“What? They all look the same with their pointy ears and strange eyes… Not to mention how they all have to go for those uppity hairstyles. I mean who wears their hair that way on purpose?”
Brynjolf rolled his eyes and looked across the table at Vipir again as Vex went into another tirade against Delvin, cocking her fist back in a threat when he asked, “When did you grow such a soft spot for Merfolk?”
Sometimes he wished the two of them would just sleep together and get it over with already. They’d been at the game for years, and Delvin never made it secret that he was up to the very challenge of their little firebrand. Vex seemed to be the only one who couldn’t see it.
Shifting his gaze across the table, his thoughts moved with it. He wondered how Vipir was holding up. He hadn’t exactly been fond of Grelod the Kind, but she’d still had a hand in raising him after his mother died, and all that talk about Anariel, the dead thane of Riften, probably wasn’t making things in his mind any quieter. That horror had ruined the only good thing he’d ever had going for him. Well, Brynjolf supposed only half of that was true. There were things Vipir could have done before it all went down to set things right, but he’d kept putting them off.
“You all right, lad? You been quiet.”
Vipir raised his sad, dark eyes and shrugged it off. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t there. I would have killed her on sight and I don’t think I could handle another year behind bars.”
The ghost thane in question had lost the Guild one of the biggest heists they would have ever pulled off, nearly getting Brynjolf killed during his escape and landing Vipir in prison. It had been the hardest year of the man’s life, damaging his credibility with clients and costing him the only woman he’d ever loved. In retrospect, maybe at least some of it had been Mercer’s fault.
Either way, no one ever spoke of it.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” he went on in that deep, quiet voice of his. “I spit on her grave every time I come into the cistern. Twice if I’m feeling especially lucky.”
“Aye,” Brynjolf agreed, lifting his flagon. It was a ritual he practiced as well, a bit of good luck he liked to tell himself. “Now you’ll have two graves to spit on, thanks to whoever killed Grelod.”
“Do you think the two are connected somehow?” Vipir contemplated. “It seems like an awful strange coincidence, that bitch showing her face here the morning of Grelod’s murder.”
“Aye, it does.”
“Maybe we should nab the mage and drag him out into the woods for questioning,” Vipir suggested, his thick eyebrows lifting suggestively. “Find out what his game is before it gets out of hand.”
Brynjolf hadn’t even heard her come in, she was that stealthy, and he swore the woman had ears like a bat because she answered Vipir’s suggestion from halfway across the Ragged Flagon with a tight-lipped warning that actually made Brynjolf feel guilty for quietly agreeing with Vipir. “Maybe you should just leave Marcurio alone.” And then she turned her crystal blue eyes down to meet his. “I asked you to wake me up before you left.”
“I know, I’m sorry, Ginna.” He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, ignoring Vipir’s sneering grin, which was followed by a palmed cough he swore was a cleverly disguised exclamation of the word whipped.
Ginna was not amused, judging from the narrow glare of her gaze in her fellow pickpocket’s direction.
“Does anyone else ever do any work in this Guild?” She glanced around at the four of them, leisurely clutching tankards as if they didn’t have a care in the world. “I mean, for a bunch of people in such a bad way, it just seems like no one’s making much of an effort to turn our luck around.”
Not a one of them met her eyes except for Delvin, who spoke up almost casually. Ginna had a soft spot for the old codger and he knew it, took advantage of it every chance he got, too. “I’ll have you know I just got back from Whiterun this morning, pet. Had a meeting with a very important potential client.”
“Good,” she nodded and crossed her arms. “More important clients means were getting closer to getting this Guild back on its feet. Vex, I’m heading up to Solitude. We got any jobs in need of doing up there?”
“Only the one I just gave Brynjolf. Rune did a real number on the place while he was up there, and there hasn’t been much coming in these last couple weeks.”
She turned a surprised look in his direction, as if she couldn’t believe he’d actually taken a job. He chuckled, pushing away from the table. “Come on, lass. I’ll give you the details on the road.”
“You two be careful out there,” Delvin called as Brynjolf lowered an arm across her back and ushered her toward the secret panel she’d come through just moments before. “Try to stay on Erikur’s good side. It took a lot for me to convince him you were the best person for this job, Ginna. Don’t make me look bad in front of him.”
“I’ll try not to poison or seduce him this time,” she winked and grinned at Delvin, the sound of the old thief’s laughter seeing them out of the Flagon.
She waited until they were outside to ask him what had happened with the mage. He’d been trying to come up with a logical explanation for it since it took place, but there wasn’t one. Nothing about any of it made sense at all. He’d never seen Anariel’s body, so maybe celebrations after news of her death had been premature. On the other hand Marcurio had certainly put on a convincing enough show after the funeral rites. He’d never seen a man more broken in his life, and though he’d never admit it to anyone, a part of him actually felt sorry for the lad.
“Marcurio stopped by on his way out of town,” she said, an inflection in her voice meant to suggest it was his fault the coward had skipped out. “He said the two of you got into it over here in the cemetery.”
“He’s got a lot of nerve,” he muttered, more to himself than her. “I should have known he’d run to you for protection like some kind of milk-drinker.”
“He didn’t come to me for protection, just to say goodbye. I guess he’s got some important job up in Dawnstar or something. And that term is just so stupid,” she rolled her eyes. “Milk-drinker. Is that supposed to be insulting because I like milk, you know? Who thought that up, anyway?”
“Big strong Nord men with a healthy appetite for mead.” He laughed and squeezed her body closer to his as they walked. “It’s probably better if he’s not around for a spell. I don’t know if Vipir can hold himself back.”
“I thought his beef was with you. What did he do to Vipir?”
“It’s a long story, lass,” he sighed. “One that’ll pass some time while we travel. It’s a long road to Solitude, even by horse.”
“Yes it is,” she agreed. “And we’ve wasted enough of this day. Let’s get on the road.”
It was well after two before they left Riften, reaching the edge of the southern mountain pass between Falkreath and the Rift before he’d finished telling her the tale of Anariel, Thane of Riften and destroyer of all good things.
“Poor Marcurio,” she muttered, shaking the flakes of snow from her hair. “Poor Vipir.”
“Poor me,” he reminded her. “I almost died trying to escape.”
“My poor baby,” she grinned over at him.
The weather had quickly shifted as they passed into Falkreath, the feathery flakes of snow that followed them through the southern tip of the Rift soon becoming a blizzard they could barely see through once the sun started to set. That kind of storm never failed to bring the trolls out in droves, and he’d never fancied fighting those bastards after dark.
He was just about to suggest they stop and set up camp when Ginna pointed to a quiet cottage nestled just within a patch of firs that lined the edge of the road. She dug her heels into her steed and galloped faster, not stopping until she reached the cottage.
“I think we should stay here for the night.”
“Ginna,” he started to protest, watching as she rifled through her pack and drew out the Skeleton Key before sliding off her horse and tethering it to the tree. She was already picking the lock with the accursed thing by the time he climbed down and was turning the knob in her hand to push open the door just as he reached her back. “We can’t stay here. Let’s just set up camp…”
“We can stay here,” she assured him with an impish smile. “The owners are gone. They won’t be back for weeks.”
“What?” he wrinkled his brow. “Do you know these people?”
“Nope,” she shrugged.
“Then how in Oblivion can you possibly know they won’t be back for weeks, lass?”
“The Key told me,” she said as casually as one might say the sky was blue or the snow was white, pushing the door all the way open and trespassing across the threshold.
Brynjolf lingered on the doorstep, trying to process what she’d just said, but no matter how hard he tried it just didn’t make sense. Finally, he picked up his feet and followed her into the empty cottage, closing the door at his back. “The Skeleton Key spoke to you?”
Shor’s bones, could this day possibly get any weirder? Nocturnal recruiting them for some bizarre game he’d rather not play, the haunt of his own murderous dreams, Grelod murdered, the ghost in the cemetery and now this? He just wanted a blessed break from the madness already.
“Aye,” she knelt down in front of the hearth and went to work kindling a fire there.
“As in, that crazy metal lockpick has a voice all its own,” he crossed his arms, adding, “and you can hear it?”
“Sort of,” she shrugged again, conjuring what little fire magic she possessed until the dry bits of kindling took spark. “I get these hunches sometimes,” she went on. “Ever since I took the Key from Mercer, it’s like there’s this little voice in my head telling me exactly how to get everything I want. Which things are worth stealing, which places are safe to stay in, whose pockets have the most valuables.”
“Okay…” Normally when people heard voices, they were either in touch with the gods or they’d been touched by the Daedra. Nocturnal had definitely touched his wife, and oath or not, he didn’t like it. “Do you have any idea how that sounds, lass?”
“Yes,” she said softly, leaning back to stare at the fire as it gathered air and momentum, its warmth spilling into the cold, damp cottage until he could feel it drying the air. “Do you think it spoke to Mercer like that?”
“I don’t know,” he murmured, walking toward the small table on the other side of the fireplace and pulling out a chair to sit down. “I know it drove Mercer mad.”
“Maybe Mercer was always mad.” Still hunkering down in front of the hearth, she turned her head to look at him. “Maybe I was always mad.”
“You’re not mad,” he told her, his mind immediately rushing through the madness of his own dreams of late. “No more mad than I.”
“Don’t you ever hear it?” she asked. “The Skeleton Key, I mean?”
“I don’t know,” he confessed. “It doesn’t speak to me, not with a voice anyway, but I know when it’s there, when it’s inside my head messing with my mind.” Pushing me into some murderous rage I can’t control.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” he said again. “I don’t know how to explain it. I just feel it sometimes, its pull, its darkness.”
“It is darkness,” she shuddered, he watched the chill move straight through her as she turned back toward the hearth. “Pure evil. I think if it could, it would turn us all against each other,” she murmured. “Tear us all apart.”
An uneasy laugh caught in his throat, scraping free and disrupting the strange silence of that place. It was as if the Key itself was listening to them, reveling in their every fear.
“Then why are we using it, Ginna?”
“Because we have to.” Could it really be that simple? “We are sworn to her service, and she has given us her orders. A Nightingale does not simply say no to Nocturnal.”
He swore under his breath, lowering the edge of his forearm onto the table and leaning his forehead into his hand. His fingers spidered through his loose hair, crawling along his scalp as the strands dropped back in to rest against his face. He’d left her alone too often after they’d taken care of Mercer, hadn’t listened carefully enough on the rare occasion they actually communicated without raised voices. Even when she’d tried to tell him what was going on, he’d refused to listen. How could he have not seen this happening to her?
He knew how. He’d been too wrapped up in his own selfish fears.
Without a word, Ginna rose from where she’d crouched and came over to stand behind him. She rested her grip on his shoulder and then began working the tension from his muscles with both hands. “You’re scared, Bryn. I know you are. I’m scared too, but…”
“But what? He leaned his back into her, rested his head against her chest and lifted his gaze to meet hers. “I don’t get scared, lass, and on the rare occasion I do it’s because I’ve got good reason. Whatever game Nocturnal’s playing, we shouldn’t have any part in it.”
“We took an oath, Bryn.”
“Damn the oath.”
“She will reward us for seeing her will done,” she murmured, lowering herself to kiss him, her voice whispering across his lips as she spoke. “Everything we want is just a turn of her Key away. More than just that house in Markarth,” she said. “A house in every hold. More gold than we could ever spend in a single lifetime.” Before he’d met Ginna, he’d wanted all those things and more, but something about being with her had changed him. He wanted stability, not more risk. She kissed him again, her soft tone almost soothing him. “Jewels, Brynjolf. So many jewels.” She’d always had a soft spot for the shiny bits. “We could retire from all this, for real. All we have to do is embrace the power she’s given us and see this through.”
The breath he drew in was heavy, he could feel it swelling so painfully inside his lungs that even when he exhaled the anxiety was still there. “At what price, Gin?” he asked. “Our lives? The only retirement for a thief is death, and you know it. We all talk about doing it, but there’s always one more job, one more heist, one more pocket you can’t keep your hand out of. That’s what scares me about that damn Key, about Nocturnal and what she wants from us. There will always be just one more thing she needs from you, just one more thing you have to get your hands on, and if there’s not, that’s the end.”
As if she hadn’t even heard what he’d said, she went on. “Through her I can make him pay for everything he did to me, to our father.” The gleam for riches was gone from her eyes, replaced with an insatiable hunger for vengeance unlike any he’d ever seen. In the short time they’d been together, he’d seen her hurt, distraught, angry and fueled by the need to punish Mercer for the things he’d done—not just to her, but to the Guild. Her longing for revenge against Brutus Arenicci was well-deserved, but that lust was different; it was ten times darker and all-consuming. She whimpered the man’s name in her sleep sometimes, and those desperate, sorrowful murmurs had only grown more frequent since they’d taken the Key.
That was what scared him most; Nocturnal seemed to know exactly how to pull her strings, how to draw her in deeper than she already had with promises of a payback sweeter than the reward of any job she’d ever taken on in her life.
“I just don’t want to lose our heads in all of this, love,” he told her. Lifting a hand to stroke her face, he held her close, a part of him so afraid he’d already lost more of her than he could spare.
She nestled her cheek against his and kissed him. “We won’t,” she promised, but he just couldn’t believe it would be that simple. “That bed looks awful cozy.” She gestured her head across the room. “I’m so tired I could sleep for a week. Come on,” she drew back and tugged his hand. “Let’s go to bed.”
The worst part of it all? Since the moment he’d met her, he couldn’t say no to her. He rose with a half-smile, troubles momentarily forgotten as they fell into a stranger’s bed together and made love like two kids who’d just discovered one another.