Brynjolf lay in the bed watching her brush through the loose strands of her wavy blond hair, gathering the layers into two braids that held it away from her face and securing them into place with thin strips of leather that disappeared into her hair when she let them go. She’d put on the dress he brought her and for a time she couldn’t stop looking at herself in the glass behind the dresser. So regal, so incredibly beautiful he felt his breath catch in the back of his throat and lowered his head onto the pillow again. How had he gotten so lucky; better yet, why was he questioning that luck instead of celebrating it?
It was an old thieves’ superstition, he supposed. If it feels like it’s too good to be true than it probably is, and since the day he’d met her Ginna had been too good to be true.
She glanced over at him in the bed and caught him staring at her, a tiny smile working the corners of her full mouth as she tilted her head and asked, “Why are you looking at me like that?”
It amazed him that she had no idea how beautiful she was. He sat up to reach for her hand, tugged her back into the bed and cuddled her body close to his. “I like to look at you.” He kissed her temple and then her cheek. She made a soft mewling sound as she lowered her arm over his chest and snuggled against him. For a while he stroked his fingers along the velvet sleeves of her gown, soothing himself with the feel of it against his skin.
“I know I’ve been kind of hard to get along with lately, but I’m so glad you came with me on this trip. That we were able to get away from Riften together for a little while.”
Even though they’d kissed and made up at least once every day since they’d left Riften, sometimes twice, it still surprised him to hear her say that. They’d spent more time sniping at each other than actually working together, but on further reflection he realized that when they did work together, they made an exceptional team.
“You just liked breaking into your little estate in Markarth to spend the night and play house together,” he chuckled.
“Mm,” she agreed. “I did like that. I’ll like it even more when I don’t have to break in because I have the key and the deed both in hand. Can you imagine how much profit I could make stealing from that silversmith on a regular basis? From the Treasury House?”
As much as he liked the idea of living the lifestyle she so desperately longed to live, it never failed to make him nervous when she talked about owning property outside Riften. Mostly because he knew she was serious. She may have hated the Cistern, which he could live with, but Honeyside was comfortable and Maven liked her well enough to make sure she never had to leave, but somehow he feared their little bungalow would never be enough for her.
He didn’t say anything about her dream home in Markarth though. It wasn’t worth getting into another argument over and for the time being he just wanted to lie there and hold her until the sun went down. He stroked his fingers through her hair, tangling the soft strands around his finger and loosening them again until Ginna’s breath soon deepened and slowed. Her tiny body grew slack and light in his arms and he shifted to accommodate her without waking her. She sighed in her sleep and drew her leg up to rest over his thigh.
Below their room he could hear the bard playing, her sweet voice singing of a great hero come to battle the dragons. He closed his eyes and let the music lull him, sleep eventually claiming him but it wasn’t peaceful.
It never was.
He was a boy again pleading with his mother not to leave him. He was scared to let her go; he knew she was going to die if she left him. And then Karliah came and she sat on the edge of his bed. She promised to sing him to sleep, and her gentle song mingled with the bardsong outside his dream. And then he stabbed his dagger into her belly, growling the words, “Die, you miserable wretch!” before awareness gripped him and he cried out in desperation. Karliah grabbed his hand, fingers pressing tight around his as she pulled the blade into her body, smiling down at him through blood-smeared lips as he cried out, “What have I done? What have I done?”
“Everything you love will die, my boy.” He looked up to see Gallus standing behind Karliah, dripping blood glistening black against his Nightingale armor, his dead eyes so bright he couldn’t stand to look into them. “Everything you love will die.”
Waking with a start as Ginna walked back into the room, she was balancing two plates of food and an unopened bottle of mead. Raggedly trying to catch his breath and push those images away, she lowered the plates to the table and peeked around the post to look at him.
“You all right, Bryn? I heard you out in the hallway, it sounded like you were having a nightmare.”
Swallowing, he nodded curtly and sat on the edge of the bed to try and regain his bearings. What was it about that dream? Why did he keep stabbing Karliah over and over again while he slept?
“I’m fine,” he mumbled, lowering his feet to the floor and running his trembling hand through his hair.
“I brought us dinner,” she told him. “Roast pheasant with leeks and potatoes.” She groaned the words blissfully. “The smell woke me from a dead sleep and I had to have it.”
Those words—dead sleep—gave him chills.
She sat down at the table and started eating, still talking as she forked a bite of buttered baked potatoes into her mouth. “I woke up so hungry. I swear it’s like we haven’t eaten since we left Markarth.”
“We ate this afternoon,” he laughed, shaking off the bad energy from that dream and joining her at the table.
“I know, but then I went swimming and you completely wore me out,” she grinned over at him and watched as he took a seat. “All that exercise completely drained my stamina.”
“Well, we’ve probably got a long night ahead of us, so best to replenish it now.”
“So what were you dreaming?” she changed the subject. “It sounded scary.”
“Oh, nothing,” he shook his head. “I don’t remember.”
She accepted his lie without question and went on to ask, “Did you ever read that letter the Courier brought you? I forgot to ask you about it earlier.”
“Aye, it was from Vex.”
“Everything all right?”
“The Guild is fine, but apparently some boy came to the Flagon looking for me. Said the Dark Brotherhood sent him to find me, but he won’t tell any of them what he wants.”
She wrinkled her nose and shoveled in a bite of chicken. “That’s weird,” she said when she’d finished chewing. “I wonder what the Dark Brotherhood wants with you?”
“Who knows. Delvin did a bit of digging, but his Brotherhood contacts say they have no idea what he’s talking about, they never sent the kid.”
“Again, I say weird.”
The memory of that dream clung tight, and every time he blinked for just a second too long he could see Gallus’s face, hear those dark tidings. Everything you love will die, my boy. To date, that had been more true than he could ever imagine. His parents, Gallus… Mercer. Not that he should give a damn about Mercer, but a part of him did. The man had raised him, taken care of him despite his treacheries, and while he certainly wouldn’t mourn him, he would never forget the things Mercer had done to keep him alive.
Looking over at Ginna again, he felt every muscle inside him tense. What if something were to happen to her? He’d faced the heartache of losing her once before, but she’d come back to him. What if she didn’t come back next time?
He wasn’t really hungry, in fact his stomach felt a little off, so he pushed his food around on his plate while she ate and chattered like a sweet little bird about the job ahead of them.
“Come on, Bryn,” she lowered her fork onto his plate to carve out a bite of pheasant. “You haven’t touched your food. You’re going to need your energy tonight. Eat.” Lifting the fork to his lips, she held it there for him and he just stared at her until he could no longer resist the urging of her smile. He took the bite, but leaned back before she could offer another, chewing while he thought of a way to steer her away from his mood.
Cutting off another piece of meat, she didn’t lift it toward him, but ate it herself.
“The food here is really good,” she noted. “I could send you off to do this job alone and just sit here and stuff my face all night.”
He quirked an eyebrow at the thought. If she stayed behind there’d be less chance of anything bad happening to her. “I could pull this off alone if you really don’t feel up to doing it, Gin.”
“Yeah right,” she laughed. “I wouldn’t miss this job for the world. Speaking of missing this job, we should finish up here and head out. I want to get this done and over with so I can enjoy the look on Erikur’s face when he finds out I actually pulled it off.”
He should have known she wouldn’t go for it. She’d been stubborn as a mule since the day he’d met her and he’d learned quick there was no trying to change her mind once she had it set on something. He would protect her, keep alert and watch her back like a good partner should.
He couldn’t let anything happen to her, or anyone else he loved ever again.
The docks were quiet, save for the constant bells of the buoys bobbing in the harbor. From the shadows they scanned the perimeter, placed the guards and gestured out a silent entrance strategy that kept them in the shadows and led them straight to the front doors of the East Empire warehouse. He stood behind her keeping watch while she worked her magic with the Skeleton Key and then ducked between the barely opened doors when she tugged his sleeve to let him know she was inside.
They crawled along boarded walkways between pallets and shelves stocked with goods from all over the world. Two shadows that made no sound as they moved, even as they bypassed one of the sentinels, the woman had no idea they were even there. He’d never been in the smugglers tunnels, so when Ginna hopped down to lead him through the doorway beneath the pallets, he was surprised to find how intricate the system was. They crept past bandits unnoticed, slipped through an old cobwebbed system filled with dead frostbite spiders bigger than he was and came out in an alcove where two more bandits stood muttering to each other about the latest shipment coming in at sunrise.
She really did move like a ghost; invisible, silent, she blended with the shadows as if she were a part of them. She was an example of perfect stealth and Brynjolf realized it was the first time he’d ever really seen her in action up close. He didn’t know if it was the Skeleton Key’s power, or if she was just that good, but when she led them through the exit he thought for sure the three men inside the cavern were going to hear her activate the gate.
They never noticed.
Outside the cave she breathed audibly for the first time, releasing a sigh that spoke volumes of the amount of concentration it must have taken for her to pull it off. No wonder she was wound so tight all the time. The effort to get through that place undetected had taken everything he had; Ginna did that sort of thing all the time.
“That was amazing, lass,” he fell into step beside her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone just disappear like that.”
“It’s just what I do.” Grinning over her shoulder at him, she pointed to a craggy path on their right and started toward it, reaching back to take his hand in hers. “Come on, the Dainty Sload should be that way.”
They followed the dark road, clinging to the shadows until the Dainty Sload rose up out the water in the distance like a monstrosity. There was certainly nothing dainty about it, and he found himself wondering just how many men of Captain Volf’s had stayed aboard. He hated the notion of having to bloody his blade for Erikur, of all people, but Ginna didn’t seem concerned.
“We only take out anyone who tries to get in our way,” she whispered, her stare lingering over the ship. “If you’d feel better leaving it to me, I’ll totally understand.”
He couldn’t just let her walk in there by herself. He’d never forgive himself if something happened to her and he wasn’t there to protect her.
“I don’t feel better just letting you do this alone,” he asserted. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”
They snuck past the crew outside easily enough, but there were Corsairs waiting just inside who jumped up from their game of dice and drew blades to attack. Brynjolf charged into action in front of Ginna, swiftly running his shortsword into the first one’s belly and wrenching it out as the man fell slumped over his arm and then dropped the floor. Ginna spun into a double-bladed attack that staggered the other man just enough to allow her to scissor her dagger and Nightingale blade across his throat. He dropped his shield and lifted a surprised hand to the wound, gurgling surprise and horror before falling backward into the chair and twitching as he bled out.
Exchanging nods in silent appreciation of each other’s skill, they crouched down into sneak mode and headed down the stairs into the bunkhouse of the ship. There were voices on their immediate left, three more mercenaries in a side room who couldn’t wait to get back out to sea. Slipping past them unnoticed, they turned left at the end of the hallway and headed straight for the door. The voices faded, but a new rambling dialogue picked it up, an orc threatening to kill the captain if he ever talked to him like that, to cut his throat in his sleep.
Again, the slipped by undetected and headed cautiously down the stairs leading into the hold. There was only one man in the container, pacing back and forth muttering to himself about keeping a knife in his boot. As they glided silently through the shadows and up the opposite stairs, he thought for sure they were caught when the man said, “Huh?” and began to search behind him.
Ginna found Captain Volf’s footlocker and jammed the Skeleton Key into the lock, deftly freeing the springs from within and popping it open, but not without alerting the Orsimer First Mate sitting at the table enjoying his dinner.
“Finish the job,” Brynjolf told her. “I’ve got this.”
He rolled into action, arriving at the feet of the giant Orc dressed in fine clothes and reaching for the mace on the table to protect himself. He lifted it to block Brynjolf’s attack, but he slipped his dagger up under his foe’s arm and slid it into the warm, soft part of his stomach. The First Mate drew back in surprise, gasping as he looked down at the wound leaking his lifeblood down the front of his pants. That moment of dismay gave him the perfect opportunity he needed to jam his shortsword through the bottom of his jaw and up into his skull. As he tugged it out, the Orc’s large body puddled on the floor and Ginna appeared over his shoulder.
“It’s done,” she told him, stepping past him to survey the table. He saw what caught her eye and tilted his head as he watched her lift the small golden case into her palm to inspect the brilliant pink jewel nestled within a bed of grey velvet.
“What have ya got there, lass?”
“I don’t know,” she shook her head. “But it’s beautiful, isn’t it? I bet it’s worth a fortune.”
“Aye,” he agreed. “We’ll take it back to Delvin, see if he might be able to identify it.”
“Good thinking,” she tucked it into her pocket and zipped it closed before turning back to face him. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“Is someone there?” the Corsair in the hold must have heard their voices and he started up the stairs to investigate. He saw the body of the First Mate slumped on the floor between them and flared into action with a heavy battle axe.
The sound of battle roused the rest of the crew and together the two thieves fought their way through the Dainty Sload, taking out everyone they came in contact with until they reached the doors and fled into the night, running along the path until their lungs were filled with the fire of their breath and they were sure they were no longer being followed.
“Shor’s balls,” Brynjolf cursed, and then eased into excitement-fueled laughter. It’d been a long time since he’d been on so dangerous a job, ages since he’d felt the adrenaline of a quick escape coursing through his veins. It aroused him in ways he’d forgotten it could do and when Ginna threw her arms around his neck to kiss him, he felt his hunger for her stir.
“That was close.” She was laughing too, a musical, wonderful sound that made all of his fears abate for the moment. “This is the life, Bryn,” she breathed against his lips and when he lowered his arms over her back to hike her up against him, she jumped into him and wrapped her legs around his hips. “This is our life.”
“Aye.” He drank deep from her kiss, one hand tightening in the thick of her hair, the other holding her body close to his. “Our life, my girl.”