Funny, Ginna thought, but the passing through of tragedy made it somewhat easier to relax. Not that she was the least bit relaxed in regards to Aventus being out there somewhere with Brutus, possibly his next victim if they didn’t get to him in time. That thought tore her up inside, but on the other hand, knowing they could walk through Riften without looking over their shoulders and into the shadows every few seconds was somewhat relieving.
Unless she was wrong, and her brother was still there, hiding in the darkness watching the aftermath of his little sideshow to see how badly he’d rattled her.
That small inkling of relaxation disappeared and she stepped closer to Brynjolf, causing him to stumble a little when her hip nudged into his. He lowered an arm across her shoulder to bring her nearer, and together they hiked the stairs to Mara’s temple.
The general peace of the temple had been disrupted, bodies wedged into every open pew, Delvin and Vex standing in front of Maramal just before the altar. The entire Guild was crammed into that tiny little temple, everyone there to make sure Rune was going to come out okay. Maramal was at his wits end, directing everyone to sit down, be quiet and keep their hands to themselves.
“This is a temple, not a tavern.” His generally docile voice rose over the turmoil, silencing them all for a moment. “I understand you are all concerned for your associate, but we cannot work to heal him with so much noise and commotion. And I don’t have time to stand watch over you to make sure the temple’s coffers contain the same amount of gold that was in them before you all came bursting through the doors.”
“I’ll choke the life out of that pretentious bastard!” Vex started for the priest, both hands stretching out to strangle the man, but Delvin gripped her arm and jerked her back into the pew beside him with a thud. He told her to sit still through very tightly clenched lips, adding, “You want them to throw that poor kid out on his arse before he’s even healed?” Yanking her arm from his grip, she didn’t get up again, but muttered something under her breath that made him chuckle and say, “You keep making that promise, sweetheart, but you ain’t never held good on it.”
“Has anyone heard anything yet?” Brynjolf asked.
“Not yet,” Delvin glanced toward the priest. “What the Void happened?”
“Brutus Arenicci happened,” her husband explained, “again.”
No matter how many times he told her Brutus was not her fault she still felt guilty. She’d brought the storm with her all the way from Cyrodiil, another wave of bad luck and consequence even darker than the one she’d rode in on. They could say she was family all they wanted, but if it was someone else and not her, she knew she’d probably want to point the finger.
Drawing in a deep breath, she avoided Delvin’s eyes and marched straight toward Maramal. “How is he? Is there any change?”
“He is stabilizing,” the priest nodded. “He should be conscious in a few minutes, if he’s not already.”
“I want to see him,” she glanced over his shoulder into the side room and saw Dinya hovering over the bed where they’d laid him to rest. “Now.”
He scanned the sea of angry faces decorating his temple and then nodded. “Very well,” he relented. “Come with me.”
She followed him into the side room, Brynjolf hovering close behind her, much to Maramal’s displeasure. He stepped around and closed the door, but before he could say another word Ginna went straight to the other side of Rune’s bed and just watched for a moment as circles of visible healing energy emanated between Dinya’s hands and the still body resting on the bed.
He looked peaceful, the lines of stress that pressed down harder on his brow since he’d returned from Solitude and Cyrodiil relaxed, his full mouth slack. He didn’t look as pale, which was definitely a good sign, but it wasn’t enough. He should never have gotten stabbed in the first place, and though a part of her knew better, she still couldn’t help feeling it was all her fault.
As if he’d sensed her guilt, Brynjolf put a hand on her shoulder, his body coming in close behind hers until she could feel his warmth through his armor. “He’ll be all right, lass. He’s one of the toughest bastards I’ve ever known.”
Gods, that sounded so funny to her. Rune was one of the most sensitive and caring men she’d ever met, but she knew Brynjolf was right. In a fight he was pure fury. He’d had her back more times than she could count, and he always came out on top. Every time but that time. As much as she wished she could deny Brutus was any good at what he did, he was a ruthless rogue, and once he set his mind to something he made it his at any cost, but Rune was still ten times better.
How had he been caught off guard?
“He was asking for you,” Dinya told her. “Just a few moments before you arrived.”
Ginna raised her head in question and the Dunmer woman smiled softly as she nodded. The sound of her voice stirred him, his eyes fluttering open, squinting as he tried to determine if she was really standing there or if it was just a dream. He tried to sit up, but Dinya immediately eased him back onto the pillow and Ginna leaned over him, one hand resting on his shoulder to keep him down.
“Don’t get up. You need rest.”
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, his dry lips parting just long enough for his tongue to moisten them a little. Eyes flitting between her and Brynjolf, he blinked and looked away in humiliation. “I failed you both.”
“No, Rune.” Ginna shook her head, clasping his hand inside hers and squeezing his fingers before bringing them to her lips and softly kissing them. When he didn’t return his gaze to them, she reached down and gently gripped his chin, steering his face back toward hers. “No. You did everything you could.”
“He came in so quick,” he shook his head. “I don’t know how, but there wasn’t even time to react. One minute I was standing to draw my blade and the next his was in me. Poison,” he gasped. “I was paralyzed.”
“Sh.” Her eyes burned with unshed tears. “We’re gonna go get him,” she promised. “And I’m going to make him pay for what he did to you, my brother.”
“No, Ginna.” His tired eyes widened with terror, his head shaking against the pillow. “It’s too dangerous.”
“We have no choice,” she told him. “He’s got Aventus and he needs to pay for what he did to you.”
“I’ve been trying to talk her out of it for an hour, my friend,” Brynjolf lightened the mood as best he could, but Rune winced when he heard what she’d said about Aventus. “But you know how stubborn the lass can be. Telling her no is like trying to walk away from a good heist. She’s completely impossible.”
“He has Aventus?”
“We’ll get him back,” she told him. “Karliah is coming with us.”
“Then so am I,” he strained to sit up again, groaning against the pain in his abdomen where the knife had plunged into him. “It’s my fault he was taken. I’ll help you get him back.” Dinya and Maramal pushed in between them and shoved him down onto the straw-stuffed mattress.
“I’m sorry, but your friend needs rest if he wants to recover. I think it’s time for you to leave.”
“They’re right, Rune,” she scolded him. “You are in no shape to travel, much less stand to fight.” Her words seemed to hurt his fragile feelings, and once more he looked away in shame. “You know there’s no one else I’d rather have at my back, right?”
He nodded, but still didn’t lift his eyes back to hers. “Yeah, I know.”
“We are going to have plenty of other fights to dive into together.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
Bending, she pressed her lips against his feverish forehead and then drew back to smile at him. “We will be back before you even know we’re gone. I swear it.”
“Rune,” Brynjolf edged in beside her. “Before we go, we need to know if he said anything before he got to you? Anything at all that might be useful?”
Ginna leaned back to look at him, part of her not wanting to pressure him, but the other half of her knowing he was the only one who’d seen Brutus, who might have overheard something that could be of use to them.
“He was talking to someone else,” Rune said. “I couldn’t make out the words, but I heard him while I was going down. There was no one else in the house though.”
Furrowing her brow, she glanced over at Brynjolf but he didn’t take his eye off Rune. Lowering his hand over Ginna’s resting on the other man’s shoulder, he nodded and said, “You rest.”
“Be careful. All of you.”
Everyone was on them as soon as they came out of the room, dozens of questions bombarding them from every side. Was Rune going to be all right? What in the name of Oblivion had happened? Where were they going? Were they taking volunteers? Brynjolf led everyone out of the temple and down into the Cistern, where he told them all that had gone down. Ginna couldn’t help but feel like the narrowed looks they cast in her direction were personal, tiny unwhispered accusations—you brought this down on us. You put us all at risk. But no one said as much. It was just a feeling.
“Bloody insane is what this all is.” Delvin crossed his arms and shook his head. “First Mercer and Nocturnal, now this.”
“I know I brought this, and I will finish it before it can hurt the Guild any more than it already has.”
“This ain’t your fault, pet. It’s the way of things in our line of work. Some little fish is always getting too big for his pond, so he thinks he can land in ours without some kind of splash-back, but that ain’t the way things go ‘round here, and certainly not after that little fish sinks his blade into one of ours.”
“But he wouldn’t have targeted you…”
“You don’t know that,” Delvin cut her off. “And even if that is true, you, that kid and the one you’re totin’ around in your belly, you’re family. Your troubles is our troubles, and we don’t take kindly to people making trouble for us.”
How they’d found out she was pregnant was beyond her, until she glanced over and found Tonilia avoiding her gaze almost guiltily.
“I find myself saying this more often lately, and it’s starting to make me feel sick, but Delvin’s right.” When Vex stepped up to her and put an arm around her, she didn’t know how to react. There was generally nothing soft or gentle about Vex; every ounce of her was pure venom from head to toe, but there was genuine kindness in her embrace as she said, “You are one of us, and I don’t care who this guy was to you before you got here, but nobody fucks with our family. If you need anything, any damn thing at all, just say the word.”
“Thank you, Vex.”
She nodded, stepping back and then glancing around the circle of faces staring at them all for answers. “It’s been awhile since one of our own took a blade, and we’re damn lucky Rune’s tough, but still…” She paused to emphasize the righteousness of her anger. “Still, no one steps on our family like this and gets away with it. Mercer tried to tear us apart from the inside out, and look what happened to him?”
“Vex is right,” Brynjolf stepped up. “We have all worked too long and too hard to return this Guild to glory, many of us pulling multiple jobs, running from one end of the province to the other. And we are so close to restoring prosperity. We can’t afford to lose heart right now. So what I need all of you to do is keep the coin flowing into the Guild. See Vex and Delvin for jobs and when you’re not outside of Riften, lock this place down like a fortress. No one comes into or leaves our city without us knowing. Riften is our town, and it’s high time we take it back.”
A mutter of inspired agreement circled through the Cistern, and the paranoia Ginna felt just moments earlier disappeared.
“Now, we’ve all got jobs to do, so let’s get to it. If you don’t have a job, I’m sure Delvin or Vex would be happy to provide you with one.” The circle of thieves broke off, many of them heading back up the ladder leading into the Cistern, a the others gravitating toward Delvin for a new assignment. “I don’t know how long we’ll be gone,” Brynjolf told Vex. “A couple of days, a week maybe.”
“Whatever it takes to get that little brat back here with us where he belongs, and vengeance on the bastard who dared to take him from us.”
“I will not rest until my brother’s dead,” Ginna assured her.
“Good,” Vex nodded. “Just try not to get yourself killed in the process. We need you down here,” she looked between them with very serious hazel eyes. “Both of you.” She hugged Ginna again, a strange moment that left both women feeling awkward as they pulled away, but she didn’t say anything until they were outside again.
“That was weird,” she noted.
“Yeah,” Brynjolf chuckled in agreement, following her into the courtyard beneath the Temple of Mara. “She’s been acting real strange ever since she brought that new guy into the Guild. Arthur or Gathrus, or whatever his name is.”
“You think she’s serious about him?”
“It’s hard to say with her. I have known her for more than a decade and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her get serious with anyone. She likes her freedom far too much and that guy might be fun for now, but he’s not really her type.”
“No,” she agreed, turning toward Black-Briar Manor. “She’ll probably never admit it, but I think Delvin is her type.”
Laughing, he lowered an arm over her shoulder and tugged her body close to his. “She’ll cut your tongue out if she ever hears you say that, lass.”
“Truth always seems to hurt the most.”
Maven was waiting for them in the parlor of Black-Briar Manor, leaping to answer the door before they’d barely finished knocking as if she’d been pacing the floors in desperate waiting. She welcomed them inside, and over her shoulder Ginna could see Hemming and Ingun sitting at the dining room table having a later supper. For the first time all night, she realized she was hungry herself, that she hadn’t eaten since that afternoon, but she’d have to make due with whatever she had in her travel pack because there wasn’t time to sit down and feast the way her body wanted her to.
“How is Rune?” Maven asked.
“They say he’ll heal,” Ginna told her.
“Good. I’ll keep my eye on him while you’re gone. Make sure he doesn’t try to be a hero or anything stupid like that.”
“And since I can’t keep my eye on you, I have something for you. My mother gave this to me when I was pregnant with Hemming, and I thought to give it to my own daughter one day, but Ingun’s probably never going to get her head out of the cauldron long enough to find a man, much less carry a child.”
She brought an amulet out of the side pocket of her coat and let the strips of leather drop in front of her. If Ginna didn’t know any better, she’d almost think it was an amulet of Nocturnal. The center contained a bird with open wings perched atop the buds of an open flower with an amethyst pistil pointing downward. An oval chunk of moonstone rested in the birds belly and the outer carvings were similar to the amulet of Mara. She’d never seen anything like it before, and with covetous fingers she reached out to touch it.
“This is the Amulet of the Thrice Blessed. Some say it carries the very essence of Kynareth, Mara and Dibella. It won’t do anything to make the petty annoyances pass, I’m afraid. You’ll still experience the nausea and fatigue, cravings and mood swings, all the little trifles that make pregnancy such a joy.”
Maven reached out for Ginna’s hand and lowered the amulet into her palm. The metal of the charm was warm, as if she’d been cradling it in her hand while she paced the floor waiting for them to come, and as Maven closed her fingers around it, she patted them gently. There was something almost endearing in the older woman’s dark blue eyes, and for an emotional moment Ginna found herself wondering if that was what it felt like to have a mother. Maven may not have been the most amicable person in Riften, but she’d done nothing but kind things for her since she’d come to that place. Ginna had to blink several times to keep the tears that swelled in her eyes from spilling over and down her face.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Once you put it on you will not be able to physically remove it again until your child is born. It will protect you both, keep you strong and ensure that you can continue to perform your duties to the best of your natural abilities.”
“Thank you, Maven.”
“Family is a precious thing. Many of us come into this world without one to call our own, and so we make our own families.” She patted her fingers one last time and then withdrew, watching with a tight-lipped smile as Ginna lifted the amulet over her head and lowered it to rest over her chest. With a satisfied nod, she turned her attention then to Brynjolf. “I expect this problem to be swiftly dealt with. I don’t even begin to confess knowledge of what an Agent of Nocturnal is capable of, but I presume she’s gifted you all with stealth and shadow. There is no reason you should not be able to pull this off without a hitch.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he grumbled.
“You’re right, Brynjolf. That is easy for me to say, but that does not mean it should be any harder for you to carry out. I gave that child into your care, and I expect you to bring your entire family back to Riften in one piece. Do I make myself clear?”
“As a crystal, Maven.”
“Good. Now go.”