“Please behave, Brynjolf,” Ginna warned when he started for the door. “She’s only trying to help.” Her words shamed him, and when he found her eyes he could tell that was exactly what she’d meant to do. Lowering his head like a scolded dog, he followed her back into the house and scanned the interior. Save for the blood on the floor and a few knocked over items in the bedroom that told of a struggle, nothing at all seemed out of place. He half expected Aventus to come barreling up the stairs asking why it had taken them so long to get back, but the boy never came and for a few minutes he just stood by the hearth trying to come to terms with what that might mean.
Maven sent the guards out, telling Brunhilde and Garthus to clean up the mess out back before closing the balcony door and turning back to face them. Brynjolf swore she glowered at him with silent promise of future retaliation for his brutality against her, but he’d never deny how good it felt to put her in her place for even just a moment.
On the other hand, he did feel just a little guilty for what he’d done. Ginna was right. Maven was probably one of the few people who could help them find Aventus, and he’d nearly taken her head off.
He wouldn’t even try to deny it, he’d grown mighty attached to that little boy despite the bizarre set of circumstances that brought him to their door. Aventus reminded him an awful lot of himself at that age, eager to learn, desperate to please, anxious to be loved. They couldn’t just stand idly by and let that psychopath do whatever he planned. Brutus Arenicci had killed enough people to get to Ginna. If Brynjolf could help it in anyway, that man wouldn’t kill anyone else in her life—most especially not their children.
He’d barely had time to process the fact that she’d told him less than an hour earlier that they’d managed to make a new life together. A life he would die himself to protect if he had to. For the first time he understood how his parents must have felt, the sacrifices they must have made in order to keep him safe.
“This book,” Maven held it up, the cover still dangling open so the sticky symbol was visible. Glancing sidelong at Ginna, he watched her shudder and wondered for a moment if she would be sick again.
Someone had cleaned up the mess she’d left on the guard’s shoes, but the pool of blood where Rune had lain was still soaking into the floorboards, the light of the flickering hearth shimmering across its surface in such a way that even Brynjolf thought he might be sick himself. If either Rune or Aventus died, she wouldn’t be able to stay in that house; neither would he.
“It’s a clue.”
“Boethiah’s Proving,” she explained, flipping the cover closed to show them. “It’s an invitation to a cult designed to gain favor of the Daedric Prince of Treachery and Betrayal, a fitting prince for this web of tragedy and deceit your brother has been spinning.”
“Boethiah,” Ginna muttered from beside him, pushing the book across the table without opening it again. “Mehrunes Dagon… Nocturnal… He really is gathering Daedric artifacts.”
“It would seem that way, yes,” Maven agreed, “but for what purpose.”
“I would presume he’s attempting to open an Oblivion Gate,” Karliah said, stalking toward the table.
No one heard her come in, but then they’d left the front door wide open. And why not? Brutus Arenicci wasn’t coming back. He’d taken what he came for, the bait he needed for whatever trap he planned to set. Brynjolf glanced over his shoulder when she spoke, a part of him both relieved to see her and saddened by the forlorn look in her pale lavender eyes.
“Karliah.” He watched his wife go to the other woman and embrace her, her body sagging into Karliah’s waiting arms. For a moment every bit of hardness he’d seen in her when she put on her tough face to back him down from Maven disappeared, only to be replaced by a vulnerable shell that would crumble if squeezed too hard. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I was just getting ready to head back to Nightingale Hall when Tonilia came into the Cistern and told us all what happened. I’m so sorry this has happened to you. Every one of us is at your disposal, whatever you need.” She rested her hand on the back of Ginna’s head, fingers tightening to hold her near as she closed her eyes and tried to absorb some of the sorrow and despair for even just a moment.
“Did you say he’s attempting to open an Oblivion Gate?” Maven interrupted their comfort and Ginna drew back, leading Karliah to the table and offering her the seat she’d been sitting in.
“It would seem so.” She slid into the chair and Brynjolf stood up so Ginna could sit. For a moment she just stared at him, almost silently refusing, but the look he gave her was enough to make her give in. She was sitting for two now, and if he could reduce the stress in her life even just a little, he was going to do it. He was going to be on her like a second skin for the next few months, and no amount of glaring or protest was going to stop that. “I can’t think of any other reason he might be gathering such powerful artifacts.”
“But all the Oblivion Gates were destroyed.”
“Or so we were led to believe,” Karliah nodded. “When the three of us spoke to Nocturnal, she was very insistent in her belief that he wanted the Skeleton Key in order to gain access to the Evergloam to take her cowl.”
“The three of you spoke to Nocturnal?” Maven balked, leaning back in the chair, jaw resting against her chest in disbelief.
Karliah’s eyes rose to meet with his and then she returned them to Maven without missing a beat. “Ginna, Brynjolf and I are Nightingales, Agents of Shadow and Murk. I thought they would have told you, or else I never would have brought it up.”
“We never really had a chance,” Ginna explained.
“Nightingales? I always thought they were a myth.” She clucked her tongue and shook her head, muttering nothing more than a slightly impressed, “Well, I’ll be damned. And the Skeleton Key? I’ve heard it mentioned before.”
“It was how Mercer gained control of the Thieves Guild. It’s a powerful tool, though it’s more often a weapon because it tends to corrupt whoever possesses it,” Karliah said. “But if he is collecting artifacts, I’d be more like to think he’s after the Key for something far more sinister than retrieving her Cowl.”
Clearing her throat, Ginna reached for the book again, but she didn’t peel open the cover. She just traced her fingertip across the surface almost absently, as if through essence of touch alone she might understand what Brutus had been thinking. “What would he have to gain in opening a Gateway to Oblivion?”
“Power,” Karliah murmured. “An alignment with dark forces unlike any this world has seen in an age or more. You mentioned to me before he was ambitious, perhaps his ambitions exceed even your expectations of him, Ginna.”
“But he’s made this so personal.” There was such pain her voice it made him want to reach out and comfort her, but for the moment he settled with a hand upon her shoulder. “It’s like he wants me to know what he’s doing, and I can’t figure out why.”
“He wants to hurt you,” Brynjolf said.
“Maybe,” she nodded. “But it feels like something more than that.”
“Well,” Maven started, “if what Karliah says is true and my assumptions about this little clue are even half right, we have a pretty good idea of where he’s gone next. The book says there’s a shrine of Boethiah on the mount which overlooks Windhelm. Boethiah generally requires human sacrifice to gain her favor, if it can even be considered favor. Perhaps he plans to sacrifice the boy.”
“Then there is no time to waste. We make for Windhelm tonight,” Ginna decided.
For the first time in his life, he and Maven actually agreed on something, both of them abruptly answering, “No.”
“You said yourself when we were outside that he’s baiting a trap, lass,” Brynjolf reminded her. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you walk right into it.”
“We can’t just let him go,” she wailed. “He’s got our boy, and we’ve got to get him back before…” She couldn’t finish that thought.
“We’ll get him back. I’ll send men…” Maven started, but before she could finish her thought, Karliah interrupted.
“No, I will go. Aventus knows me. If you send strangers to fetch him and bring him home, he’ll be absolutely terrified. I’m sure he’s already been traumatized by this whole thing. The best option is to send someone he knows, someone he feels safe with.”
“Then it should be me,” Ginna insisted, then catching Brynjolf’s glower she added, “us. It should be us. Brynjolf and me. He’s our responsibility, and…”
“And as much as I agree with you, lass, I’m afraid I have to put a damper on that plan. You’re in no condition for the task.”
There was pure venom in her eyes when she assured him, “I am perfectly capable of carrying out tasks.”
“Not if you want to actually have that baby in your belly.”
Ignoring the gaping mouths and stares, she slammed her palm down on the table and shouted, “Brynjolf, he is our boy. He’s never going to understand if we aren’t there to bring him home. All that trust you’ve worked so hard to establish with him will be lost and he will never forgive either of us. He’s already been through enough, and now this? We owe it to him.”
For a moment no one else seemed the least bit concerned about the conversation at hand. Karliah leveled a very serious gaze across the table. “I knew it. I knew you were with child. I could just feel it.”
“Well, aren’t we all just full of surprises this evening?” Maven shook her head, the braids that crowned her hair jostling as she moved. “Is there anything else of importance I should know about while we’re all here?”
“I think you’re all caught up,” he sneered down at her before returning his eyes to Ginna. “Look, I know you’re right, lass, but this is beyond dangerous. If he’s luring you there as his sacrifice…”
“Mara will watch over me.” She was so serious when she said those words, he almost didn’t know what to think. Was she even the same woman who’d told him where to stuff his notions about going to temple to find comfort less than two days ago? “I have to do this,” she insisted. “We have to do it.”
“Please, Ginna,” he pleaded. “Don’t do this.”
“I’m sorry, Bryn,” she said firmly. “I’m afraid I have no choice.”
He cursed under his breath and turned away from the table, stalking toward the hearth to try and get a handle on his temper. Why were the gods testing him? Even worse, why had they decided it was a good idea to impregnate the most stubborn and defiant woman on Nirn during the most obviously trying time of her life? Were they trying to drive him mad?
“No matter what you decide, I’m coming with you,” Karliah insisted. “The three of us together. It’s the way Nocturnal would want it.”
“Agreed,” Ginna nodded.
“I can see that even if I don’t agree, I obviously have no voice here.” He threw up his arms. “When do we leave?”
“As soon as I know Rune is out of the woods and on the mend.” She pushed her chair away from the table. “I’ll go check on him now. If he’s awake, he might even have some information. Maybe Brutus said something… I don’t know.”
“I’ll come with you,” he said.
“I need to head home to Nightingale Hall,” Karliah said. “Retrieve my gear.”
“Then we will meet you there.”
“Shadows protect you both,” she nodded.
After she’d gone, Ginna walked into the bedroom, carefully stepping around the blood on the floor and making her way toward the wardrobe. He watched her open the doors and rifle through her clothing for something clean to put on. She drew out her Nightingale Armor, and laid it on the bed, and then gathered a simple cotton dress to slip into for the journey to Nightingale Hall.
“It is bad business for us to keep secrets from each other,” Maven finally spoke up. “How can I protect you and your family if you don’t tell me everything?”
He wanted to shout at her that a little privacy went a long way, but instead he only sighed and said, “We just found out about the baby.”
“I’m not just talking about the baby,” she leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms. “You barely mentioned your ties with Nocturnal. Isn’t that the kind of thing I should be privy to?”
“We took an oath, Maven. It wasn’t up to us to decide when it was safe to share that information with you. That was Nocturnal’s call.”
“I see.” She looked almost hurt, some part of her actually distraught over the fact that there were forces in their world beyond her reach and control. “Well,” pushing away from the table she rose and started toward the door. “Stop by Black-Briar Manor before you leave for this Nightingale Hall. I have something important for Ginna.”
“Of course,” he agreed.
“And if there’s anything else you can think of that you might require before you embark on this journey, please, don’t hesitate to ask.” She paused in the open doorway and turned back to look at him. “Regardless of what you might think, I care about you and your family, Brynjolf. I’ve known you since you were no more than a flutter in your mother’s womb. I never wanted anything like this to happen.”
Lowering his head, he felt ashamed again. “I’m sorry I tried to strangle you, Maven.”
Nodding once, she said nothing more than, “Apology accepted,” and then she left.
After she’d gone, he stepped up behind Ginna just as she was lowering the dress over her head. He waited until it fell into place and then he turned her around to face him. “You know you’re going to be the death of me.”
He watched all the color drain from her face and regretted saying those words before she even reacted.
“Don’t say that,” she whimpered. “Please, don’t ever say that. I don’t know what I’d ever do without you, Bryn.”
“Now you understand where I’m coming from,” he forced a slow smile and positioned a hand on each of her shoulders, holding her out to really look at her. “This is pure madness, Ginna. We both know it. If anything happens to you, to our baby, Brutus Arenicci gets exactly what he wants.”
“The only thing Brutus Arenicci is getting from me is exactly what he has coming to him. An arrow between the eyes and a dagger in the heart.” She drew her shoulders back and added, “Nobody hurts my family. Nobody.”