The journey back to Riften took five days even on horseback on account of a heavy-handed ice storm blowing through the northern tip of the province. It had been Ginna’s idea to travel across The Pale, which would allow them to briefly stop in Dawnstar and pay a visit to the museum that had caught her Guildbrother’s eye. Its doors were locked and closed and even though she’d begged him to let her use the Skeleton Key to get inside Brynjolf talked her out of it.
Strange things were afoot in the city of Dawnstar, a Daedric plague of nightmares the ornery townsfolk said they wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies.
At the mention of nightmares, he steered her out of Dawnstar almost as quickly as they’d arrived, refusing to believe the curse didn’t affect outsiders. He had enough bad dreams of his own, most of which seemed somehow tied to that accursed Skeleton Key, and that was all the Deadric influence he was going to allow into his life, thank you very much.
She asked around the Windpeak Inn before they left for any information about travelers who’d recently happened through, but the proprietor wasn’t exactly forthcoming. Distrust and malefic intent seemed to ooze from every body in the place, so he nudged her back out into the frozen afternoon and managed to convince her that making Winterhold before nightfall was their best course of action. He just wanted to go home.
She’d been looking for her idiot mage friend, which annoyed him to no end, but she reasoned that maybe she could convince him to keep his ears open for her and loathe as he was to admit it, it was a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, no one admitted to having actually seen the guy and that worried her. She spent the rest of the trip home quietly worrying about her friend and it took everything Brynjolf had inside him not to tell her it was probably better for the world if Marcurio disappeared from the face of it.
Things had been going so well between them since Solitude; he didn’t want to spoil it. That alone made him think he should get some kind of reward, but the gods rarely rewarded those who thought they deserved it. Usually they had more twisted things in store for them.
Leaving their horses at the stables with Hofgrir, the man was careful to steer his wandering dark blue eyes everywhere but Ginna for fear of bringing Vipir the Fleet and Thrynn up for another visit. He thanked them kindly for their business when Brynjolf paid him the housing fee and then turned the horses over to his stablehand before heading into his house where it was safe.
The guards at the gate welcomed them back and Maul met with them inside to fill them in on everything they’d missed in Riften while they were gone. There’d been some kind of vampire attack in the merchant circle and some skooma junkie threw herself off the pier, but other than that it’d been a slow couple of weeks. He also announced that Maven wanted to see him as soon as he set foot on the docks, so Brynjolf told Ginna to go ahead into the Flagon to settle up with Delvin and promised to meet her there as soon as he was finished with the esteemed Lady of Riften.
Meeting with Maven as soon as one got back from a job was never a good sign. It usually meant she had a gripe about the way they were doing business or a special job she needed done. Brynjolf didn’t have time for either.
He found Maven in her office above the Bee & Barb, her quill racing wildly across a piece of parchment and her attention so dedicated to the task at hand she hadn’t even heard him come up behind her until he cleared his throat and asked, “You wanted to see me?”
“Good, you’re finally back.” She tried to hide the fact that he’d startled her by lowering her quill into the inkwell and folding trembling hands in her lap to steady them. “I trust your business in Solitude went off without a hitch?”
“Aye,” he nodded. “Erikur is reopening whatever doors in Solitude the Guild requires as we speak.”
“Excellent,” she nodded, the corners of her deep blue eyes crinkling into deeply-etched crow’s feet as she smiled her approval. “And Ginna is accepting her eventual ascent into Mercer’s position, I’ve no doubt?”
“Aye. A few more jobs and she’ll be firmly planted in the Guildmaster’s seat.”
“Make them quick jobs,” she instructed. “The longer that rabble goes without a solid voice to keep them in line, the more likely they are to go rogue and that’s the last thing we need after all the hard work that’s gone into reestablishing your foothold in Skyrim.”
For a moment she just tilted her head to study him, her calculating eyes narrowing before she finally looked away and said, “Have a seat, Brynjolf.”
All the hairs on the back of his neck rose upon hearing those words. Maven Black-Briar never offered him a seat unless she was preparing to loom over him with bad news or a scolding he wouldn’t soon forget. Reluctantly, he lowered into the chair at the edge of her desk and folded his hands in his lap, looking down at them while waiting for whatever hideous tidings she planned to lay at his feet.
She didn’t rise as she was prone to do, but sat there quietly for several minutes, as if she were choosing her words carefully. Drawing in a deep breath she finally clicked her tongue against her teeth and said, “It has come to my attention that the Aretino orphan is back in Riften, and instead of going straight to Honorhall where he so obviously belongs he went looking for you in the Ratway.”
“Vex sent a Courier to notify me…”
“Uh-uh—” Maven held up a finger to stop him from interrupting her, the narrow edge of her sharp gaze enough to silence him. “My sources tell me he performed the Black Sacrament up in Windhelm to get rid of that wretched old hag who’d been running the orphanage. I’ve been trying to get rid of her for years, so that little boy did me a favor and now I’m going to do one for him.”
Brynjolf felt his brow furrow, and for another long moment Maven held him in suspension while allowing his thoughts to overrun him. She was a master at dramatic tension; she could hold out with the best of them until he was squirming in his seat. Fortunately, she didn’t make him wait.
“I spoke with Delvin Mallory and he’s assured me the Dark Brotherhood know nothing about this boy and that it was not them who carried out his deed. My own sources confirm this. But you know how assassins are. Silent to a fault, and that’s what makes them deadly. If what they say is true then we have no idea who answered his call, but it was answered and that’s all that matters to me.” She reached for the flagon above her parchment and took a slow drink of mead before returning to her train of thought. “For a child to enact the Black Sacrament, Brynjolf… That takes a great deal of power, power that could one day be more useful to us than we can even begin to imagine. Power that could tear us apart if it is not culled by absolute loyalty and devotion to our cause.”
“You want me to watch over him and hone his skills?” he guessed.
But what Maven next said shocked him more than he could have ever dreamed. “No, you’re going to adopt him.” She paused just long enough for the severity of her order to sink in. “Bring him into the family completely and get him under your thumb. Mentor him, train him to do whatever it is you people do and keep close watch on him. You will report to me regularly in regards to his behavior and growth within the Guild, and if at any time he becomes… how should I put this?” She reflected thoughtfully and then continued. “If at any time he shows signs that his loyalties might lie anywhere other than our best interests I want to be notified immediately so I can have him disposed of.”
Those words chilled him to the very marrow of his bones. Had she said the same thing to Mercer after his parents were killed? Told the man to watch over him, teach him, hone his talents and report back to her? Had she told Mercer she’d have him disposed of if he ever threatened her prosperity? He lifted a tentative gaze in her direction, a gaze that flitted back to the hands folded between his legs just as quickly as he’d raised it.
“I don’t know if Ginna’s ready to mother any—”
She cut him off before he could finish. “Make her ready. Tell her whatever you need to get her to comply. Void, tell her the truth if you think that will help. She deserves to know what kind of monster she’ll be raising. And make no mistake, Brynjolf. This boy is dangerous and it’s better we have him on our side than wandering out there plotting against us before he’s old enough to know what’s good for him.”
She pushed her chair away from the table and stood up. There it was, her dominant, overbearing position, a reminder that he should never question her, never bite the hand that fed him and his boys. Gods, he hated the power she held over them all.
“I’ll have all the legal paperwork drawn up and delivered to you by tomorrow afternoon. That should give you plenty of time to get your wife onboard.”
“All right,” he nodded hesitantly. Twenty-four hours to get Ginna to commit to the idea of motherhood… Clearly, Maven knew less about his wife than she liked to think she did.
“And Brynjolf,” she crossed her arms. “I don’t want him living in that skeever hole down there. Take him home and keep him comfortable. Make him happy. Treat him like a little prince, all the while teaching him everything he’ll need to know to survive in our world. Do we have an understanding?”
“Of course, Maven.” He wanted to bite his own tongue off for caving to her will without a thought. She really did own him. Mercer had trained him well and now he would do the same to another boy just like him.
“Good,” she pursed her lips tight and then said, “you’re dismissed.”
As Brynjolf pushed through the double doors of the Bee & Barb, the agitation he felt ran deeper than Maven Black-Briar would ever know. Sure, he wanted to have kids with Ginna eventually, but having someone else’s kid thrust onto him was not how he envisioned starting a family. He had no idea how he was going to get Ginna to accept this, how he was going to come to terms with it himself, and as he ducked through the stone pillars leading toward the Temple of Mara he nearly bowled Maramal over without apology.
“Love, young man!” The priest called as if in answer to his internal strife. “Love is the answer to all of life’s troubles.”
“Shut up, priest, or you’ll find out just how much love I have for you!” he growled, ducking behind the archway and disappearing into the crypt that led into the Cistern.
Rune and Vipir were hunched down in front of the cooking pot warming their hands, both of them grinning up at him as he stormed by. “Someone light a fire under your arse, brother?” Vipir laughed, a sound that quickly died in his throat when Brynjolf turned a harsh gaze in his direction.
“Both of you with me.” He started across the pathway toward the practice room and then called back over his shoulder, “Now.”
The scramble of their footsteps fell in behind him on the stone, but neither of them said a word even after they slipped into the practice room to find Thyrnn with his dagger out and honing his moves on the battered dummy in the corner.
“Thrynn, can we have the room?”
“Yeah, sure,” he shrugged, sheathing his dagger and sauntering out without looking back.
Vipir crossed his arms, a stance Rune emulated almost without thinking until both of them stared back at him with identical expectation. Funny how hard Rune still tried to impress Vipir, he thought, how hard he worked to get the pickpocket’s approval.
“I heard Maven wanted to see you the minute you got back to town.” Vipir turned his head, the narrow slits of his dark eyes lengthening with unease as he squinted. “What’s going down?”
“Where the Void do I start?” he mumbled, shaking his head. “I need you to do some digging for me, Vip.”
“Someone getting buried?” A thick, intrigued brow raised over his left eye, the corner of his mouth quirking with a grin.
For the first time since they’d walked through the gates into Riften, Brynjolf laughed. “No, nothing like that. Not yet, anyway. The kid that came here a few days back looking for me, I want to know everything about him.”
“Why don’t you just ask him?” Rune suggested good-naturedly. “He seems like a good enough kid. I’ve been spending a lot of time with him trying to keep him occupied while…”
“Good,” Brynjolf turned his eyes toward Rune as he interrupted him. “We’re all going to be spending more time with him. Maven’s drawing up papers for Ginna and me to adopt him.”
“What?” Vipir stepped back and lowered his arms at his sides.
“That’s what I said,” he nodded. “She wants us to train him, hone his skills and make him one of us. She’s afraid if we don’t he’ll wind up being a curse to our cause and it’s best if we get him on our side before that happens.”
“Huh,” the pickpocket shook his head. “That seems a bit extreme. I mean, we take in orphans all the time down here, yeah, but why would she take the extra step to make it legit? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I don’t question her,” Brynjolf said, suffering internally for that admission. It made him look like her puppet, but then they were all dancing on Maven Black-Briar’s strings and they knew it. “I know better. For now I’m going to play along and do what she’s asked, but I want to know everything about this kid. What happened to his parents, how long he was at Honorhall, how well he knows the Dark Brotherhood…”
“Digging into the Dark Brotherhood is dangerous business, Bryn. Business more suitable to Delvin’s list of contacts if you ask me.”
“I’m not asking you, Vip. I just want you to do it, all right? Head up to Windhelm, start digging into this kid’s past and get back here with everything you can find on him. Are we clear?”
“Of course,” he nodded. “I’ll leave right now.”
“Thank you.” He lowered a hand to Vipir’s shoulder and added, “Be careful up there. They still haven’t welcomed us back into the city yet, and the guards won’t take kindly to us meddling in affairs not our own.”
“I’m always careful, you know that.”
“Aye, that’s why I’m sending you.” Turning to Rune, the young thief anxiously awaited his orders. He waited until Vipir was gone before clearing his throat. “I need you to shadow Ginna, Rune, twenty-four seven until further notice. Things with that deadbeat brother of hers are getting very weird, weird in that I don’t even know if we can protect her, but I know you’d lay your life on the line for her if anyone ever tried to hurt her.”
“Absolutely.” He nodded eagerly. “I’d die before I ever let anything happen to Ginna.”
“Good.” The kid’s loyalty should have relieved some of his apprehension, but it didn’t. Brynjolf had a feeling he was going to be wound tighter than a drum until Brutus Arenicci was lying face down dead at his feet and Nocturnal was momentarily satisfied. “There’s too much going on right now, stuff I couldn’t begin to explain even if I wanted to, but I will talk with Ginna and Karliah and see if she can fill you in. You have a right to know what you’re getting yourself into with all of this.”
“It’s pretty messed up stuff, isn’t it?”
“Messed up doesn’t even begin to describe the dung we’ve stepped in, lad. We’re all kinds of screwed if we can’t get a handle on everything, and quick.”
“Whatever you need me to do, Brynjolf. I’m your man.”
“I know, Rune. Thank you.” He squeezed Rune’s shoulder thankfully. “From here on out if I’m not with Ginna, you are. In the house, on the road, in the streets of Riften… She doesn’t even squat to take a piss without you standing guard over her. Understood?”
“All right.” It wasn’t much relief, but it was something. “I’m going to have Vex head over to Honeyside and work up the locks on the house, tighten security. Ginna and I are going to have to go see Karliah later, so I’ll need you to sit with the kid.”
“I can do that.”
“Good.” He exhaled and lifted his hand through the loose locks of his hair. “I guess I should go meet this kid and tell him the good news. Ginna’s gonna have my balls in a vice for this.”
“You might be surprised, Brynjolf,” the young man said as he started toward the exit. “She was an orphan once too, just like the rest of us. Why don’t you hold off on telling the kid until you have a chance to talk to her? I’ll hang out with him while you two talk to Karliah.”
That wasn’t a bad idea, though he was dying to get a look at the murderous little brat he’d be calling son. “Is she still down here?”
“She’s in the Flagon.”
“Go and fetch her for me, would ya? Tell her to meet me by the south gate in ten minutes?”
“Sure thing, Brynjolf.”
Rune hurried out of the training room and for a moment Brynjolf just stood there trying to pull it all together. There were too many things going on around him, too many heavy burdens pushing down on his shoulders and it was all starting to make him feel like he might buckle under the pressure. Up until that point in his career there was always someone above him to figure out the difficult things, but now they all fell to him. Not that he wasn’t smart enough to figure it all out, he just hated the leash of responsibility and how tightly it tugged on his personal freedom.
Everyone was depending on him.
Looking up at the stone ceiling above him, he didn’t know which of the Gods he should petition, but for the first time in his life he truly believed he was going to need a bit of divine intervention if he wanted to get through it all alive.