In all his life, never once had Brynjolf seen Maven Black-Briar enter the Cistern or the Ragged Flagon, no matter how severe the situation. Yet there she was, sitting at the table across from him wringing her hands nervously before reaching up to grip the cup on the table and slam its contents. She downed two cups of brandy before lifting a hand to signal Vekel to bring her another, which he did without question. He left the bottle on the table before walking away to give them space.
Clearly frazzled, she had yet to say why she’d come. She hadn’t said anything at all except, “Brandy, young man,” but her presence there could mean only one thing: something bad had happened. Something real bad.
His mind raced through a thousand different dark scenarios, every last one of them including his wife in some way. Had she been abducted? Tortured? Murdered? Raped and left for dead? Gods, the thought of Ginna dead did strange things to him, woke a monster inside him that would never rest until whoever hurt her was a bloody pulp drying on his hands.
He’d nearly lost his mind when Mercer told her she’d betrayed them all and he’d had to run his blade through her. He’d torn Honeyside apart, looking for answers, some kind of sign that every word she’d said to him had been a lie, but he’d found nothing. Nothing except his heart broken inside him as he tried to understand how something so right could have turned out so wrong?
He couldn’t go through that again.
A trembling hand lifted into the loose locks of his hair, gliding back to hold it out of his face while he stared Maven down in hopes that she would find her tongue and just tell him what was going on.
“Da, Vex said I could…” Aventus and Vex came sauntering in from the Ratway, the woman’s hand affectionately lingering on the kid’s shoulder as she steered him toward the table.
Vex stopped the minute she saw Maven there, a curse catching just under her breath. “Oh shit,” she muttered. “What’s happened now?”
“Vex, take the boy into the Cistern and have him work with Vipir a bit,” he said stiffly, his eyes never leaving Maven’s face.
“Yeah, sure,” she agreed, guiding him back through the paneled entryway into the Cistern.
“Don’t leave the Cistern, Vex.”
“You got it. Come on, kid. Let’s go see if we can catch Vipir off guard.”
He was just about to ask Maven to be done with it already when familiar laughter echoed out from the passage and Aventus’s excited voice called out, “Mama! You’re back! I missed you so much.”
“Awe, I missed you too, Aventus. I thought about you all the time.”
“Did you bring me anything from Whiterun?”
“I did actually. I found this enchanted ring just lying about. It’s supposed to make it easier to pick pockets.”
Never had he felt such bitter relief in his life. Turning over his shoulder, just to see her standing there with the child in her arms was almost enough to make his eyes water, and ignoring Maven completely he pushed away from the table and hurried toward her. She’d barely let go of Aventus before Brynjolf grabbed her and drew her against him protectively, actually muttering into her ear, “You don’t leave this city without me ever again. Do you hear me, lass?”
She was laughing again, drawing back to look at him with bright blue eyes before lifting a hand to rest against his scarred cheek. “Miss me, did you?”
“You’ve no idea, love.” He kissed her, fierce at first and then softening as she relaxed against his chest.
“I missed you too,” she murmured into his lips. “Where’s Delvin? I’ve got good news.”
“Maven’s here in the Flagon and she hasn’t said why. She’s been asking every day about your return, but today she didn’t even ask. I immediately thought the worst. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him, stepping back and holding her arms out so he could take a good look at her. “I’m just tired, is all, and hungry. We tried to ride through the night because I just wanted to get back home, but I couldn’t do it. I was so tired I nearly fell asleep in the saddle.”
“Did you run into any trouble on the road?”
“Not really,” she shrugged. “A couple of frostbite spiders. And Mr. Tough Guy back there almost got squashed by a giant, but other than that all was quiet on the western front. We didn’t even run into bandits.”
He hadn’t heard Maven come up behind him until she cleared her throat to make herself known. “Good, you’re back,” she said almost stiffly. “And I’m afraid I have a bit of dreadful news to share. News that had me worried sick about your well-being.”
“It must be pretty important for you to make your way down here, Lady Black-Briar. What’s going on?”
“Not here,” she shook her head. “Take a moment to refresh yourself from the road and meet me at my house.” Glancing between Ginna and Brynjolf she said, “Both of you.”
No one said anything until she had disappeared through the secret panel and into the Cistern. Leaning back over her shoulder to look in that direction, she released a sigh and shook her head. “Well, that was mysterious.”
“Aye,” he agreed. And yet whatever weight hovered over Maven’s shoulders had lessened the moment he heard Ginna’s laughter. “Come on, lass. Let’s go home and get you changed. Aventus, you stay here with Vex a little while longer while your Ma and I take care of business, all right?”
He groaned a little, but a mere look from Brynjolf silenced him and he lowered his head. “Yes, Da.”
After thanking Rune for bringing her safely home, they made their way through the Flagon and into the Ratway to come out on the pier just under Honeyside. Neither of them said a word while they climbed the stairs and headed left toward the house, but he couldn’t take his hand away from her shoulder. He just wanted to be close to her, to be touching her—as if nearness alone would erase the emptiness of dread that had come into the Ragged Flagon with Maven.
“Here,” he stepped in front of her when they approached the door and took out his keys. “I had one of Vex’s guys change all the locks to bolster our security. Your new keys are inside.” Unlocking the door, he pushed it open and led her inside, closing and locking up again behind him.
“How have things been going with Aventus?”
“Well enough, I suppose. He really missed you.”
“I missed him too.”
She was already stripping out of her armor, loosening the buckles and sliding the coat down over her arms to drape it across the back of the chair and for a moment he just stood back and watched her step out of her boots and shimmy her pants down her hips with a little more effort than usual.
Vipir had asked him a few weeks back if he ever worried he’d get tired of the same old pair of legs wrapped around his hips. Coming from anyone else, he might have slugged him, but he and Vipir went a long way and they’d seen plenty of women together. The truth was, he couldn’t imagine himself making love to anyone but Ginna for the rest of his life. In fact, he’d never made love to anyone before her; all the other women in his past had just been a quick release. With her he liked to take it slow, to know every inch of her body while he was inside her, to feel some part of their souls touch in a way he’d never known with anyone else.
And he wanted to be inside her right then more than ever. To envelop himself in her damp warmth, feel the soft mounds of her breasts beneath his chest and the squeeze of her thighs every time they came together. Stepping up to her as she pulled open the wardrobe, he brought his hands up to rest on her hips, the soft flesh there warm to the touch. After tugging out a plain green dress, she relaxed her back into his chest, her soft hair tickling his shoulder when she laid her head back against him.
“What do you think is up with Maven?”
“I don’t know.” He lowered his head, dipping in to brush his chin along the crook of her neck. She shivered against him, gooseflesh dotting the length of her arm as she tilted her head to rest against him and reached back to tangle her fingers into his hair. “I suppose we should go find out.”
“Mm.” A soft moan escaped her when he flicked his tongue out to tease the sensitive skin of her ear, drawing the lobe between his teeth to nibble until she almost squirmed against him. His hands snuck around her waist, fingers lacing together across her belly. The muscles there felt tighter than usual, and when he drew back to look down her chest he watched the buds of her dark pink nipples harden with anticipation. “We really should.”
“You have no idea how much I missed you.”
“I missed you too, but I get the feeling that whatever she wants isn’t going to wait.” Pushing him back just a little, she turned around and lowered the dress over her body before smoothing it down her hips. Even fully clothed, he wanted her, wanted to wrench that fabric up over her head again and step back to just look at her in all her pale white glory. “It must be pretty important for her to stoop and lower herself to come into the Flagon.”
“Aye,” he agreed, not so easily ignoring his need as she seemed to. “Honestly, Ginna, when I saw her there I thought she’d come to tell me you were dead.” Reaching for her again, he gripped her shoulders in his hands and just held her out to look at her. The narrow sharpness of her eyes softened, widened as she raised them to his face.
“Awe, Bryn, I’m fine,” she assured him. “Like I said, we didn’t even run into any bandits on the road. It was surprisingly quiet and I wanted to just ride straight through the night to get home to you, but I was so tired.”
She looked tired, traces of shadow nestled beneath both eyes, her skin a little paler than usual, and yet she had a strange glow to her that he couldn’t quite place his finger on. “You don’t think you’re coming down with something, do you?”
“Nah,” she shrugged. “Probably just my moons’ blood coming on. You know how I get sometimes. Cranky, tired, achy. Come on, let’s go see what Maven wants so I can check in with Delvin. Things in Whiterun went well. Olfrid Battle-Born has promised to work the Guild back into the city.”
“That’s good news.” He followed her through the house and back out the door. “He’s got another job lined up in Windhelm. Maybe we could take Aventus with us, let him do some hands on training in a bigger city.”
“Do you really think that’s a good idea? Taking him back to Windhelm so soon after he left the place? It’s probably best if he stays here with you while I take care of it. I’m sure I’ll only be gone a couple of days and at least one of his parents should be with him until all of this settles down.”
“Perhaps you’re right. I just can’t stomach the idea of sending you out again without me. If anything happened to you…”
She stopped in front of Haelga’s Bunkhouse and spun around to face him, her hands coming up to grip the collar of his armor almost gently. “Brynjolf, I know things are weird right now, this stuff with Brutus and Nocturnal, the weirdness of the Skeleton Key, trying to piece the Guild back together, but I’ve been doing this my whole life. I may be a little reckless from time to time, but I can take care of myself. They didn’t call me the Ghost of Cyrodiil because I stayed locked up on House Dareloth haunting the attic. I earned that title because I’m good at what I do and right now Delvin needs me to take care of business.”
“I know, lass, but…”
“No, no buts.” When her hand came up to rest on his face, he nestled his cheek into her palm and closed his eyes. Just to feel her touch, to hear her say his name… Gods, it was absolute weakness on his part, but he really couldn’t live without her. “Nothing has changed because we got married.”
“I know that, Ginna, but it has changed. It’s changed for me. I spend every minute of the day worrying about you if you’re not in my direct view, and at night I dream these awful things. If anything ever happened to you…”
“Nothing is going to happen to me. Nocturnal’s got my back.”
“You keep saying that, but what does it even mean? The fact that she wants you to be her Champion of the Shadows doesn’t mean she’s going to stand behind you diverting danger from your path.”
“Maybe not, but she wouldn’t have chosen me if she didn’t think I could get the job done.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t,” she shrugged, stepping back and lowering her hand. “I just know that I have to do this. It’s like it’s my destiny.”
He started to scoff over those words, the same way he might have scoffed a few months ago to hear someone talk of destiny or fate, but the rumbling caught in his throat. “Well, just because it’s your destiny doesn’t mean I have to accept it, or even like it. Destiny is a dangerous thing, Ginna. The kind of thing that leads people to their end.”
“I’ve got too much to live for right now,” she reminded him. “I’m not going anywhere without a legendary fight. Trust me.”
“I do trust you, love,” he told her, reaching out to grip her hand inside his as she started to walk toward Black-Briar manor again. “It’s the forces at work in our life I have no faith in.”