It was an odd thing. Brynjolf expected not to sleep a wink with Ginna gone. Ever since he’d met her sleeping apart meant restless nights, but the night she left for Whiterun he slept like a log for the first time since they’d tracked down Mercer and made him pay for his crimes against the Guild. He woke up well after the sun rose to find Aventus sitting on the edge of the bed staring at him, which was possibly one of the most disturbing experiences he’d ever had.
“Are you all right, Da,” Aventus asked him when he jerked awake with a start? “You were talking.”
It took a few minutes for him to come back into his right mind and actually understand why there was a strange boy sitting on his bed calling him Da.
“Aye.” He wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth and sat up in the bed. “I’m fine.”
“If you say so,” he shrugged. “But you didn’t sound like you were okay. You sounded like you were having bad dreams. I would know. I had a lot of bad dreams before… well… you know.”
He couldn’t remember what he was dreaming, and he was glad of that, but he was relatively sure he could guess without probing too deep. “I don’t remember what I was dreaming, so it must not have been important.”
“So when you remember your dreams, does that mean they’re important?”
“Absolutely.” A slow grin found his lips. “At least that’s what my ma always said, before she died anyway.”
“Your mother died too?”
“She did,” he nodded. “When I was very young.”
“How did she die?”
There was an ache in his throat that only seemed to tighten when he raised his eyes to look at the boy. It was only curiosity, a way for him to try and relate to the new people in his life. Ginna thought connecting with him through the simple fact that they were all orphans banding together to make their own family might help him adapt and feel more comfortable, but she’d obviously not considered how uncomfortable it might make everyone else feel when he started asking the really intimate questions.
He debated with himself for a moment, wondering just how honest he should be with the kid and then he sighed, leaning his back against the headboard behind him and running his hand into his hair. His mother had died brutally, and even though he’d never seen her body or gotten the chance to say goodbye, Brynjolf’s imagination had painted the portrait of her death thousands of times over the years.
“I don’t know the details, only that she died when I was just a wee lad younger than you.”
“Do you still miss her?” he asked, allowing a few moments of space before he went on talking. “I mean, I just wonder sometimes if I’ll ever stop missing my mother. My real mother, I mean.”
“Sometimes I do still miss her, but it feels like it gets less and less every day.”
Before Aventus could press him for more details, or at the very least some kind of confirmation that one day he would feel whole and almost human again, a knock sounded at the door. Relief flooded through him and he scrambled out of bed, tugging his pants on and working buttons and zippers as he hopped toward the front door to answer it. The knocking persisted, even after he called out that he was coming, and when he unlocked the door it pushed open and Maven strolled inside without invitation.
Her upper lip curled derisively when she realized he was only half dressed, but her attention was quickly drawn to Aventus standing behind him.
“Still asleep at this hour?” she scolded. “With the number of responsibilities on your task list, I assumed you’d have been up hours ago, but I can see you’re taking your duties as seriously as ever, Brynjolf.”
“Maven, I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Clearly,” she crooned, still staring at Aventus. “I came to visit, make sure our young man is adjusting to his new home and family. To see if there was anything he needed because we want to make sure he’s very happy here.” She stopped only long enough to snap at him again, “Oh for the love of Kynareth, Brynjolf, get dressed.”
He ducked back into the bedroom and tugged into his armor and boots while Maven prodded Aventus to ensure he wasn’t a threat. It had only been three days since they’d brought him to live with them, and yet he’d already grown so protective of the boy that leaving him alone with Maven, even though he was just in the other room, made him feel uncomfortable.
She sat him down at the table with her and began grilling him with questions about his treatment, the food he’d been eating, if his bed was comfortable and whether or not he liked his new parents. By the time he came back into the kitchen and paused in the walkway to watch her for a moment, she’d gone through at least ten questions.
What surprised him most was the fact that she was almost kind with him, grandmotherly and endearing in the way she spoke to him and for a moment he found himself recalling how she’d treated him when he was just a boy. She’d always been kind enough, giving him sweeties whenever Mercer brought him around to meet with her, but the realization made him uncomfortable. Her disposition toward him changed the moment he was old enough to start thinking for himself, and where he’d once felt great love for the woman he found himself resenting how quickly she’d turned sour.
“And have you been training,” she was asking?
“Yes, ma’am. Yesterday I worked with my da and Vipir the Fleet on pickpocket training. Vipir says I’ll get it with a lot of practice, but Da says I really need to work on my sneaking. Delvin’s been teaching, but it’s hard sometimes. Today Vex is going to teach me to pick locks, but she scares me.”
“Marvelous,” she chuckled. “Soon enough we’ll have you working our streets right here in Riften. Goodness knows there’s plenty here for a boy of your particular talents to do.”
“It sounds as though you’re very happy with your new family. Everyone is treating you well, I trust?”
“Of course we’re treating him well, Maven. Aventus, why don’t you go downstairs and get dressed.”
“Don’t rush him off like that while I’m talking with him.” She tightened her voice, so it still sounded pleasant enough to a child, but Brynjolf understood her tone perfectly.
“We have an appointment with Karliah this morning. She’s coming by to help with the boy’s training and we don’t want to keep her waiting.”
“Very well,” she agreed, leaning back in the chair. “Go and do as your da has asked, but don’t you hesitate to come and see me if you ever need anything at all, young man. You can usually find me at the Jarl’s palace.”
“You work with the Jarl?” Aventus gasped.
“I am the power behind the Jarl. She does nothing without my recommendation. Now run along. Go on, shoo.” She waited until he scrambled out of the room and down the stairs before lifting her cold blue eyes to Brynjolf. “It’s a damn shame what Ulfric Stormcloak did to that boy. How long is Ginna planning to be gone? A boy needs a mother. We learned as much with you and won’t be making that same mistake again.”
Under general circumstances her cutting insults washed right over him, but in the last month or so just the site of her tight mouth twitching with scorn when she looked upon him was enough to turn his stomach to acid. He knew better than to bite the hand that fed the Guild, and there was no way out from under Maven’s thumb, but he didn’t know how much more of her interference in his personal life he could take.
“A few days, and then Delvin’s going to have to send her up to Windhelm for another few. Important jobs rolling in, reestablishing our grip in the nine holds. That sort of thing. This is a crucial time for the Guild, and we all agree that if she’s going to be the one holding the reins our important contacts need to see who they’re working with.”
“And this business with the Cyrodiil Guild?”
“There is no Cyrodiil Guild, though I’m sure you’ve already heard that news and my telling you is nothing new to your ears.”
“I heard about what happened at House Dareloth, yes. Brutus Arenicci is a menace.” She said his name with a loathsome scowl. “I want him taken care of, and quickly. Should I contact my people in the Dark Brotherhood and have him disposed of? My reach goes well beyond the province of Skyrim. I can have him taken care of before he ever even knew what hit him.”
“Do you have ties with the Deadra?” he asked. “Because I’m afraid it’s a wee bit more complicated than contacting the Dark Brotherhood, Maven. We have it on good authority that he’s working a major heist to get his hands on Nocturnal’s Cowl.”
He chewed his lower lip from the inside for a moment and then sighed. As much as he hated that he was the one who had to tell her what was going on, there was also a part of him that realized he was going to take a great deal of satisfaction in the look on her face when she realized the fate of her affairs was out of her hands.
“Nocturnal’s authority. She’s tasked the Nightingales with his disposal, Ginna most specifically. It would seem our Lady of Shadows wants him to suffer for his arrogance.”
Her face softened even as he eyes widened, a lingering amusement alight within them as the edges of her tight mouth quirked upward. “Is that so?”
“Aye, it is. And we don’t know what he’s up to, but he took out a band of Blackblood Marauders up in Solitude. Seems he was searching for an invitation to a museum opening in Dawnstar.”
“The Mythic Dawn museum? What in the name of the Eight Divines could he possibly want from Silus Vesuius?”
“We don’t know, but we think whatever it was he may have found it. We made a detour in Dawnstar on our way back from Solitude, but the museum doors were closed and locked.”
“Did you try to get inside?”
“No,” he took a step back, shaking his head almost furiously with denial. “Dawnstar’s got another problem with the Daedra right now and we just wanted to get the hell out of there before we got tangled up in Vaermina’s curse.”
“Vaermina?” she gasped. A moment of genuine concern flooded through her, a hand lifting to rest on her breast as if she held the power to steady her heart rate with just a touch. “What the Void is going on, Brynjolf?”
“I wish I knew, but whatever it is, it’s bad and I’ve got more than just a feeling Brutus Arenicci is causing it.”
“We need to look into this.” She stood up and smoothed the wrinkles from her elegant dress. “I’ll make a few inquiries, see what I can discover from the priests on my payroll. In the meantime keep a closer eye than ever on our boy and have Ginna come to see me the minute she’s back in Riften. I want to know everything she knows.”
“I’ve already just told you everything Ginna knows, Maven. She doesn’t know any more than I do.”
“Perhaps not, but she knows Brutus Arenicci and I want to know everything she knows about that man. His strengths, his weaknesses, his fears and aspirations. I’ve worked too long and too hard to see everything I’ve built go up in smoke because some arrogant little Imperial fool didn’t know when to quit. Whatever she needs, whatever the Nightingales require to see him exterminated, I will provide it.” She pinned him with a sharp glare that carved into him like an axe’s blade through a man’s skull. “Whether you believe it or not, I actually like your wife. She’s the only thing your little ragged band of cutpurses has going for it right now, and if anything happens to her we’re all in trouble, Brynjolf.”
“I’ll send her to see you as soon as she returns from Whiterun.”
“Good.” Turning back over her shoulder as she was walking toward the door, she called out, “Goodbye, Aventus. You be a good boy. Oh, and Brynjolf,” she paused in mid-reach for the door handle, “if anything does happen to Ginna, I’m holding you personally responsible. Keep that in mind.”
As the door closed behind her, the tension she created with mere presence alone lingered. He found his hand rushing through the loose strands of his bright red hair, gripping while he pressed the tip of his thumb into his aching temple. He’d resisted Ginna’s urgings to move away from Riften from the moment she’d first started to propose it, but there was a part of him that knew the only way they’d ever get directly out from under Maven’s thumb would be to move as far away from her as possible. Though he hated the very idea of putting distance between himself and his Guild family, of leaving the only city he’d ever called home, that house in Markarth was looking better and better every day.
“I like Lady Black-Briar,” Aventus said thoughtfully when he appeared at the top of the stairs. “She’s nice to me.”
Lowering his hand, Brynjolf chuckled. “Yeah,” he ushered him into the room and toward the door. “She’s a real treat. Come on, let’s head down to the Flagon and get you some breakfast before Karliah gets here.”
“Is Karliah nice?”
“Oh yeah,” he nodded as they slipped out the door and he turned to lock the house up tight. “She’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
“Nicer than Lady Black-Briar?”
“A thousand times nicer than her.”
“Wow, that’s pretty nice.”
“You have no idea, lad.”