It took every ounce of integrity he possessed to walk away from her without saying more than those four words. He’d wanted to slug her in the mouth for what she’d said, had felt both fists clenching at his sides until every one of his knuckles was white with restraint, popping against the tension before he’d loosened his fingers and walked away from her to clear his head. The funny thing was that she’d probably welcome a good brawl with him; Ginna was just that kind of woman.
But no matter how she hurt him, not even the angriest part of him would ever want to harm her. Not with his hands, not with words, and there were plenty of things he could have said to her that would have crushed her where she stood. Things that had never mattered to him and probably never would; sorrows and regrets she would most likely carry for the rest of her life.
As he stalked the streets of Solitude, he could hear her walking behind him, but she kept her distance. For that he was glad because he didn’t even want to look at the woman right then, much less hear anything else she had to say.
He had been called a lot of things in his day; coward had never been among them. Worse was the fact that it had come from the lips of the only woman he’d ever trusted and loved with every part of himself. Even harder than that to swallow was the part of him that felt like she was right to call him craven. He’d spent a lot of time lately hiding, from his thoughts and emotions, his guilt and anger over everything Mercer had done, his nightmares.
While the Skeleton Key seemed to be empowering Ginna, it appeared to have the opposite effect on him. That blasted Key was evil in ways he couldn’t even begin to put into words, and though he’d never really considered himself superstitious he had seen enough bizarre stuff over the last few months to change his mind about that forever.
“Excuse me, Brynjolf of Riften?” The Courier approached him out of breath. “I’ve been looking for you. I’ve got something I’m supposed to deliver.” He rooted through his satchel and pulled out a sealed letter. “Ah, here we go.” He thrust it forward, but for a moment Brynjolf just stared at it, not sure what to think. “It’s a letter, for your eyes only.”
Couriers didn’t generally track him down unless something big was going down with the Guild. In fact, the last time he’d come face to face with a Courier whose pocket he hadn’t been picking had been the day Vipir had taken the fall on account of that do-good elven Thane disrupting one of the biggest heists they’d ever tried to pull off. It had pushed him over the edge and he’d gone in to try and finish the job himself, an effort that nearly got him killed.
“You’re supposed to take it,” the Courier told him.
“I’ll take it.” Ginna stepped up beside him and snatched the letter out of the young man’s hand. The Courier looked over at her with absolute indignation that didn’t fade even when she explained, “I’m his wife. Here, for your trouble.” She tipped him five gold Septims and sent him on his way.
“I believe that was meant for me.” He grabbed it from her hands and stuffed it into one of his pockets.
He kept waiting for her to remind him that being partners in more than just crime made everything that was his hers and visa-versa, but instead she just shrugged and asked, “Aren’t you even going to read it?”
“That last time I got a letter from a Courier it was bad news…” He realized as soon as the words escaped him he was acting accordingly to her accusation of cowardice and his face warmed with the heat of embarrassment. He wasn’t being a coward. He just wasn’t in the mood for any more bad news. “I’ll read it when we’re outside the city,” he added, to assure her he wasn’t running from whatever dark tidings obviously awaited him within the folds of parchment in his pocket.
“Do you want me to do some digging about this Jaree-Ra character and meet up with you by the docks?”
Some time apart from her would probably help to cool his temper, and if it was bad news he’d definitely want a few minutes to think through it before he relayed it to her anyway. “Yeah, that sounds like a plan.”
“Bryn…” She grabbed his arm before he could walk away, soft fingers curling around the thick leather armor over his forearm. She stared up at him, her striking crystalline eyes gleaming with apology and sorrow. He hated seeing her so sad, hated the nagging fear inside him that worried they would never make it in the world together. “Look, I’m sorry I said that to you…”
He glanced down at her hand on his arm and studied her long fingers for a moment, the jeweled marriage band she wore on her left index finger and then he lifted his eyes to her face. “We keep saying we’re sorry, Ginna, but I’m starting to wonder if either of us really means it.”
Withdrawing his arm from her grip, he turned his back on her and walked quietly out of the city without looking back. It wasn’t meant to be cruel; just a cold observation, but he imagined it hurt her enough to keep her thinking about it until she found him by the docks.
He hadn’t even gone near the guard just outside the doors, but the woman still felt the need to hiss, “Hands to yourself, sneak-thief,” when he passed, making him feel oddly self-conscious as he glanced back over his shoulder at her with a furrowed brow.
With the Guild on the rise again, there was likely to be some fallback from the guards, the overly righteous thinking they knew how best to deal with criminal activity even though their efforts would always be thwarted by corruption. It was just how the world worked when the Guild was at the top and sooner or later they would all learn their places.
The long, downhill walk to the docks helped clear his head a little, but it didn’t alleviate the feeling of dread pressing tight on his chest. Sitting down on the dock steps, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the letter. The seal had broken when he crumpled it into his armor, sticky bits of powdery red wax clinging to his fingers as he drew in a deep breath and unfolded the stiff parchment.
Without reading, he scanned the paper all the way to the bottom to see who it was from. Vex… The dread doubled in his gut, and then he swallowed his fear to read what she had to say.
Hey, I know you’re probably freaking out because I sent a Courier after you, but you need to relax. Things here are going well and the jobs are overflowing like Lake Honrich after a heavy winter’s snow melts. Delvin’s already got another big client lined up in Whiterun and I’ve got a prospect I think will help lighten some of the load around here. Gods know we can use all the help we can get.
So to the point, the Aretino kid showed up here in the Ratway this morning. I have no idea how he got to the Flagon, but he marched right into the place and went straight to Dirge, of all people. The moron threatened to pound the brat into the ground, but Delvin and I managed to step between them before any death threats or black sacrements were issued from either side.
We questioned him extensively to find out what he was doing down here. Turns out he was looking for you. He says he was sent by the Dark Brotherhood to apprentice you. Delvin did some digging, got in touch with a few contacts and it turns out the Brotherhood has no idea who this kid is. Not sure what we should do with him.
Awaiting your word.
He read over the letter again, some of the dread alleviating only to be replaced by confusion. He played that name over and over in his head. The Aretino kid… why did that sound so familiar? Aretino… Aretino… And then he remembered. There’d been rumors circling both Underground and above that one of the kids from the orphanage managed to run away and he’d gone home to perform the Black Sacrament.
To make matters even more disturbing the old bat who ran the orphanage had been killed the night before he and Ginna left Riften and he’d overheard rumors it was a Dark Brotherhood hit.
A shudder moved through him as he folded the letter and stuffed it back into his pocket to mull it all over. He’d never cared much for the Dark Brotherhood. Sure, there was a place for everyone and there were definitely enough people in the world in need of a quick blade in the dark, but the assassins had done a number on Delvin a few years back. One particular assassin to be precise—a sultry Nord named Astrid who’d broken the old thief’s heart and spirit, or so he claimed.
When Ginna found him, he realized he was sitting in the exact same place he’d waited for her the day he’d liberated her from Solitude’s dungeon. She sauntered toward him as confidently then as she had that day, but then he’d known her confidence had been nothing but a protective ruse she’d thrown up to keep him on his toes. Even then she was all fire, and maybe it had been crazy but he’d known the moment he laid eyes on her the two of them had been made to burn together.
Now her swaggering confidence came from Nocturnal, and as much as he hated the dark hold that Skeleton Key had on her, he couldn’t deny that just watching her walk took his breath away and stirred an ache in his groin that only being inside her could soothe. Remembering the cruel words she’d spoken, he tried his best to harden the rest of himself as she approached, crossing her arms and standing over him with a smug grin that made it almost impossible to stay mad at her.
“So, according to Jaree-Ra’s little Nord girlfriend he’s a con artist and he and his scaly sister have been scheming for months to find an idiot they could dupe into helping them pull off this trader ship heist.”
“And Brutus turned out to be their idiot.”
“Sounds like it,” she shrugged. “She says she hasn’t heard from Jaree-Ra in days, which isn’t unusual. She also said they probably killed whoever they got to help them pull it off, but I know Brutus isn’t dead. I have this strange feeling I’d know it if he was.”
“I’m not so sure about that, Gin. You didn’t know he was going to betray you when he did, and you had no idea it was him that poisoned your father.”
“That was different,” she refuted. “Nocturnal wasn’t involved then.”
“No, I suppose she wasn’t,” he sighed.
He hated how tangled Nocturnal was into all of their affairs now, how reliant they were on her influence to pull themselves up, dust off and get back to the top of the gold pile. Most of all, he hated how seriously Ginna was taking all of it, as if Nocturnal herself were somehow always with her, whispering in her ear, corrupting her and filling her with shadows and promises of a vengeful payoff she couldn’t resist. Everything he knew about Nocturnal, which even he had to admit wasn’t much, told him she should care less about vengeance, and yet there they were embroiled in the very throes of some Daedric Prince’s dark game.
He hadn’t realized Ginna was still talking until he heard her say, “…so I threatened to run my dagger across her throat if she didn’t tell me where he might go to hideout for a few days. Turns out he and a pack of marauders hideout in the grotto just north of the city.”
“All right,” he nodded. “We’ll look into it a little deeper after we take care of this job for Erikur.”
They put their personal issues aside for the moment and focused on business. While Ginna walked up the dock to the deck of the Red Wave to talk with Sabine Nyette, Brynjolf prowled below the prow. He could overhear the conversation Ginna was having with the pirate above and it was quickly getting heated. Apparently the woman wanted fifteen hundred Septims for a bottle, a price Ginna wasn’t willing to pay. He was actually proud of her for that. Gods knew she was always throwing coin around like she had a never ending supply of it hidden under Honeyside.
The last thing he heard was his wife telling the woman, “You better hope I don’t come back here and run a blade through you tonight while you’re sleeping.”
“I’d like to see you try it, little girl.”
“You won’t see it when it comes,” Ginna assured, calling back over her shoulder as she dropped down onto the deck.
“What the Void was that all about?”
“That greedy wench wants fifteen hundred gold for a tiny little bottle of Balmora Blue.”
“So you threatened to kill her?” Gods, that Key wasn’t just making her bolder, it was making her violent.
Ignoring his tone and his question, she went on talking as if he hadn’t spoken at all. “I’m sure she doesn’t have it onboard. That would just be stupid, but maybe we can do some digging, bribe or threaten one of her crew to tell us where she keeps it hidden.”
Brynjolf surveyed the docks. There were definitely plenty of sailors milling about. It would just be a matter of finding one who worked on the Red Wave. “All right,” he nodded, returning his gaze to her. “Let’s split up and ask around.” After a moment’s hesitation he added, “And Gin, try not to kill anyone, all right?”
A hurt look dawned on her face, her brow furrowing over her sharp eyes as she stared up at him. “I haven’t killed anyone since Mercer. I’m not an idiot, Bryn.”
“I wasn’t implying that you were an idiot, but you’ve been waving that blade of yours around with everyone you talk to. One of these times someone’s going to take you up on your offer for a fight and it could fall back on the Guild if you get caught standing over a dead body with blood on your blade.”
The hurt in her eyes increased, sadness mingling with hints of disbelief. “That really is all you care about it, isn’t it? Your precious Guild?” Shaking her head she started walking away from him, but not before informing him, “I’ll head over to the East Empire Trading Company and see what I can find out. Don’t worry, Brynjolf. I won’t kill anyone while I’m there.”
He watched her walk away with the same stubborn determination not to give him the satisfaction of looking back that he’d employed when he’d left her standing outside Erikur’s house. Brynjolf’s stomach roiled and clenched inside him. He hated the notion that they’d made a mistake in getting married; it made him feel sick to think they weren’t meant to be together, but if they didn’t find a balance between anger and apology soon he couldn’t imagine they would make it more than a few months before they completely fell apart.