“The girl was furious,” Ginna read, snuggling Aventus’s body closer to hers in the old bed near the hearth. Karliah had offered them the hall, choosing to catch a quick nap in the bunkhouse until Brynjolf woke up, and they’d been passing the time reading together. She’d been delighted to find a dusty old copy of Purloined Shadows* on the bookshelf. Severus had read that story to her so many times when she was a little girl she still practically knew every word by heart.
“She had done everything perfectly, but the so-called Master of Stealth had proven himself a coward. Perhaps he had taught her a little in the months that it took to plan this, but what was it worth? Only one thing made her smile. On that night when she had stolen into his stronghold, she had kept one single gold piece and he had never suspected it. It was symbolic, as symbolic as stealing the cloak of Nocturnal in its way, proving that the Master Thief could be robbed.”
Aventus reached up to turn the page and then nestled back in against her. “My mama used to read with me all the time,” he said with a thoughtful sigh. “My other mama, I mean. Even after she got sick, I would climb into bed with her and sometimes we would take turns reading every other page. She always helped me with the words I didn’t understand.”
Severus had done the same thing with her when she was small. He would climb up on the edge of her bed and lean back against the headboard, taking turns reading every other page with her. She couldn’t remember him ever having done that with Brutus, but then Brutus claimed he was too old to have someone else read to him and he was much too proud to have to read out loud.
“I like reading with you.” Ginna hugged him a little tighter and kissed the top of his head. “Would you like to read the next page to me?”
She closed her eyes and listened to him read, smiling to herself when the Master Thief called out to Nocturnal, “Mistress! A thief! Behind you!”
She had thought about nothing but Nocturnal since the Key had led her into that cave. Could what she’d overheard really be true? If Nocturnal were her mother, what did that mean? And how had she stopped the flow of time? Nocturnal had no influence over time, and yet Ginna had felt the very fabric slow and bend to her will. The Key said she had been doing it all along, but she would have known if she was… wouldn’t she?
All afternoon she had been trying to imagine telling Brynjolf and Karliah what happened, that she’d overheard a conversation between her quite obviously mad brother and the Daedric Lord of Destruction in which she discovered that she might possibly be Nocturnal’s daughter and that mad brother of hers had called Mehrunes Dagon his father. Just rehashing it made her feel crazy, made her wonder what kinds of things the Key had whispered to Mercer.
Nestled deep in her pocket, she could feel the Key vibrating with the rhythm of her body, could almost hear it whispering secrets she wasn’t prepared to hear no matter how intriguing they seemed. The Skeleton Key said she wasn’t crazy, but she bet it said that to everyone who possessed it.
“Who art thee who dares pr-pro-profane? Is that right, Mama? Profane?”
“What does that mean?”
“In touching Nocturnal’s sacred cloak, the girl would desecrate it,” she explained, and then seeing that he still didn’t quite understand, she went on. “Nocturnal is saying the girl is not good enough, that she has no right to touch her cloak. She’s not worthy.”
He nodded understanding and returned his attention to the words one the page. “The Princess hissed as the pitch shadows flew from her body en-envel-enveloping the girl in their lethal chill. In the last instant before she was swallowed alive by darkness, the girl looked to the ground and saw that the cloak was gone and she answered, as she understood, “Oh, who am I? I’m the distraction.”
Closing the book, Ginna lowered it onto the edge of the bed and asked, “What did you think of that story?”
“I liked it.”
“Me too. My father read this story to me so many times when I was a girl, and then he would ask me to tell him what I learned from it.”
“What did you learn from it?”
“Oh, something different every time,” she laughed. “What about you? Did you learn anything from that story?”
“Ahuh,” he nodded. “I learned that no matter how clever a thief thinks he is, there’s always someone else who’s cleverer.”
“That’s a very good lesson,” she agreed.
“Did we miss story hour?” Brynjolf called out from the edge of the room, his voice echoing through the empty stone hall. When she looked up she saw both him and Karliah approaching, and she knew the time for stalling was drawing to a close. She had to tell them, even if she knew they were both going to think her insane.
“We were reading Purloined Shadows.” She sat up and lowered the book onto the table beside the bed. Reaching for her water, she took a drink and then placed the goblet beside the book.
“Oh, I love that story,” Karliah beamed, climbing the steps to join them. “The lesson it contains is one every pickpocket should learn at an early age.”
“I made salmon steaks.” Ginna gestured to the cooking pot. “And there are some potatoes roasting near the fire.”
“Excellent,” Brynjolf grinned. “I’m famished.”
“Mama, is it all right if I go lay down for a little while? I’m still tired.”
“Of course,” she stood up. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, I think I’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure?” If she had another excuse to leave them, she could slip quietly into a nap herself and avoid what needed to be done, but unfortunately Aventus didn’t seem to need her near as much as she needed him at the moment.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“We’ll be right here if you need anything.”
“I know.” He offered her a sincere smile and then made his way toward the bunkhouse, leaving her alone with her fellow Nightingales.
Brynjolf had already helped himself to a plate and was sitting down at the table when she joined him, Karliah sliding into the chair across from her with a potato and some butter.
For a few minutes they were graciously silent, enjoying their food, but the silence passed when Karliah finally looked up at her and said, “Now that we’re all here and we’ve had time to rest and recuperate from the ordeal, I’d like to know what happened last night? How were you able to get in there and rescue Aventus without any of us seeing you? Brynjolf told me you never even left his presence.”
“I guess I didn’t, really.” She lowered her gaze to the table and just stared at the flickering lamp in the center. “I sat down with the Key, just like you said I should, and then Brynjolf left me to it. One minute I was just sitting there watching the colors pulse to the beat of my own heart and the next it was standing in front of me holding out a hand.”
“What was standing in front of you?”
“The Skeleton Key.” She lifted her eyes to meet with Karliah’s, her wide lavender stare growing larger when she heard those words. “It told me it had been waiting for me to claim it again for centuries, that I had walked this world many times and we always came back to each other. I got so freaked out I called for Brynjolf, but he couldn’t hear me because we’d stepped outside the boundaries of time.”
“You what?” Brynjolf looked up at her then, his full fork still suspended. “What do you mean you stepped outside the boundaries of time?”
“I don’t know exactly, but that was what the Key called it. It said it was how I got into places, how I’d always done it and why in this life I am called The Ghost. It told me that I can stop time and bend it to my will, but I think I would remember doing things like what I did last night.”
“That’s…” Karliah began.
“Madness, I know.”
“I was actually going to say astonishing, but it does sound a bit strange. When you say you stepped outside the boundaries of time, what does that mean, exactly?”
“I’m not sure. All I know is that I was out of my body, almost like I was on another plane of existence so close to this one that I could interact with and affect it by stopping the moment, but my surroundings weren’t aware of me at all. And if you think that’s crazy, wait until I tell you about who Brutus has been working with.”
She told them everything, spilling the details out slowly and trying to ignore the fact that at times they both looked at her exactly how she’d expected them too. It all sounded so insane, and had she not been party to it herself, she would have thought it was madness too, but she’d experienced it. She knew it had happened and the fact that she’d brought Aventus back with her was the only proof she had.
“Mehrunes Dagon?” Brynjolf balked. “Did you actually see him?”
“No, but I could hear his voice,” she said, “and Brutus called him Father.”
It was Karliah’s turn to gasp in astonishment again. “Are you saying Dagon is Brutus’s father?”
“At least that’s what he’s led him to believe, and he told him Nocturnal was my mother and by spilling my blood upon the altar of Boethiah with Mehrunes Razor it would bring them that much closer to freedom.”
“He has Mehrunes Razor?” Brynjolf swallowed uneasily. She wouldn’t deny that she was actually grateful he’d skipped over the whole part about Nocturnal being her mother for the moment.
“Yes, I saw it. He was preparing to kill Aventus with it to invoke my wrath so I would come after him. I got there just in the time and I was so close, I could have killed him. I even had my blade against his throat, but the Key said it wasn’t time yet. That I only had enough time to get Aventus and get him back here to Nightingale Hall where he would be safe.”
“This…” Karliah stumbled across that one word while shaking her head. “All of this is simply unbelievable.”
“I knew you wouldn’t believe me,” Ginna sighed defeat. “I barely believe it myself, but I know what happened. Aventus is proof of what I did.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you, Ginna. I just don’t know what to say. Gallus always said the power of the Key was beyond even our wildest dreams, that the greater the potential of the individual who possessed it, the greater its power would be. I always knew you had great power, Ginna. After you returned from Markarth with the translation for Gallus’s journal, I thought you surely must be some kind of ghost, but I never imagined…”
“Why would Dagon tell Brutus he was his father?” Brynjolf interrupted Karliah’s trailing thought. “Better yet, why would he tell him that Nocturnal is your mother?”
“I don’t know, but he seems to think the shedding of my blood at the shrine is necessary for whatever he’s planning.”
“There’s only one way to find out, I suppose,” Karliah pushed her chair away from the table. “Confront Nocturnal and ask for the truth.”
“Right,” Ginna laughed uneasily. “The last time we bothered her she wasn’t exactly happy about it. In fact, if I recall she said, Do not summon me again to satisfy your petty curiosities, or you will all be sorry you disturbed me.”
“But if what you overhead were true, she owes you an explanation, Ginna. If she is your mother…”
“Nocturnal owes no one anything. You know that, Karliah.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “but I get the feeling she would want to know Mehrunes Dagon is plotting against her. She may even already know about it and she could help us.”
“If she felt so inclined, but everything I’ve learned about Nocturnal tells me she helps no one but herself.”
“She would help her daughter,” Karliah said softly. “We have to at least try.”
She stood up then, the look she cast around the table a silent plea for them to follow her lead. Brynjolf stared across the table at Ginna, so much confusion and doubt in his face that as soon as she met his gaze he looked away and tightly pursed his lips together. He had only ever avoided her gaze one other time, and that had been when she and Karliah brought Gallus’s journal to the Guild. He’d thought she’d betrayed him; now he thought she was crazy.
She couldn’t blame him for that. She felt crazy, one step from the shore of the Shivering Isles with no turning back. Maybe it had been Sheogorath all along holding her hand through that strange suspension of time, leading her further and further from the land of rational thought.
“Karliah’s right,” Brynjolf agreed, rising from the table. “The only way to know for sure is to summon Nocturnal to the altar and ask for answers.”
But Ginna was afraid. A part of her didn’t want answers, didn’t want to know if she was losing her mind, but even more than that, she didn’t want to know if she was sane. What if she really was Nocturnal’s daughter?
Holding his hand out to her, she just stared at it for a moment, the smooth creases in his outstretched palm, the slight curl of his fingers almost beckoning her to come to him. He would make everything okay; he would always accept her for who she was. That was what it meant to love someone, and Brynjolf loved her. He was the only one other than Severus who ever had.
Finally lifting her gaze to meet with his again, she watched his lips quiver over unspoken words and then he cleared his throat. “Whatever we learn in there, it changes nothing, Ginna, and we will all get through this together. I swear to you.”
“And if I’m crazy?”
He shrugged, his fingers twitching again to coax her to take his hand. “We all go a little mad sometimes.” A soft, throaty chuckle escaped him. “Come on, love.”
She reached for him, and he helped her to her feet, his arm slipping in against the small of her back to lead her after Karliah to the place answers awaited. They didn’t separated until they reached the triad that branched out before the altar, Brynjolf heading right, but not before he squeezed her hand gently inside his to let her know he was there for her no matter what they discovered in Nocturnal’s presence. Karliah headed left, nodding Ginna toward the central circle so she could take command of their summoning.
Swallowing hard against the nervous ache in her throat, she stared at her own booted feet as she walked the stone to take her place. When she arrived at the circle, she faced the wall for a moment, breathing deep to calm the sudden surge of fear trembling through her. The story she’d just been reading with Aventus itched in her mind, Nocturnal calling out the words, “Who art thee who dares profane?” And in her mind she imagined responding, “Oh, who am I? I’m your daughter.”
She drew another breath, holding it inside until her heartbeat was all she could hear, and then she exhaled, releasing as much tension as she could as she turned around to face the altar. Bending to her knee, she lowered her head and spoke.
“Lady Nocturnal, Mistress of Shadows and Night, your faithful Nightingales summon you to ask once more for your guidance.”
The last time they’d formed the trinity around her altar, Nocturnal had taken her sweet time in answering, but Ginna immediately felt the energy in the air shift and tighten, a surge of dark electricity moving through the room and stiffening every hair on her body.
“What is the meaning of this?” The blue ball of light she’d come to associate with Nocturnal snapped into place, hovering and pulsing over the circle below them. “Did I not make myself clear the last time you summoned me? I gave you a task. Why has that task not yet been completed?”
“Lady,” Ginna lowered her head, though a part of her wanted desperately to look upon the Daedric Princess, to see the force Mehrunes Dagon claimed had given birth to her. “The circumstances of your task have changed since then, and we seek answers only you can provide for us.”
“Is that so?” Her rich voice echoed through the altar room, a sardonic quality in her reflection on Ginna’s words that was not lost on any of them. “The man you once called brother still lives. Nothing has changed. I want my vengeance, and if you will not perform the task I gave you than you are worth nothing to me. Nay, less than nothing. Give me one reason I should allow the three of you to live, much less continue to serve as my agents.”
A mother would not say such cold words; Mehrunes Dagon had been lying. He had to be.
“My brother is communing with Mehrunes Dagon, my lady. He holds the Razor and is working his way through the shrines of your brethren one by one at Dagon’s behest, collecting artifacts.”
“Dagon?” her tone changed. “To what end?”
“That is why we’ve summoned you,” she explained. “It is not solely the Skeleton Key Brutus Arenicci is after. We have reason to believe he’s been collecting Daedric artifacts in order to open an Oblivion Gate so Dagon can cross into this realm once more.”
“That arrogant fool!” she hissed. “He never learns.”
“He is urging Brutus to lead me to the Shrine of Boethiah.” She went on. “For some reason he believes the shedding of my blood will bring them closer to freedom. What does that mean, Lady?”
Nocturnal’s silence fell heavy through the hall, the pulsing energy of her presence crackling with unspoken anger unlike anything she had ever felt. Ginna glanced over her left shoulder at Brynjolf and then right at Karliah.
“Spilling the blood of a Daedric Lord upon the altar would weaken the barrier between your realm and Oblivion.”
Swallowing again, Ginna tried to wrap her mind around those words and what they silently implied. “But I am not a Daedric Lord, my lady.”
“No,” Nocturnal agreed. “You are not, but my blood runs strong through your veins, my child, and even diluted as it is by your pathetic mortal father, it is still powerful enough to dissolve the boundaries that hold our kind at bay.”
“Then it is true, what Lord Dagon said?” Her voice was so quiet, she was sure no one had heard her speak. She barely heard herself. “Are you… my mother?”
Silence, the strange energy of her presence in the room making it difficult to breathe, and just when Ginna thought she might suffocate, Nocturnal spoke again.
“Leave us,” she said to Brynjolf and Karliah, but both of them hesitated on their pedestals.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Brynjolf protested.
“I will not command you again, Nightingales. Leave us, or suffer my wrath.”
“If you harm even so much as one hair on her head…” He started down the rampart, toward the ball of energy that commanded him, every step he took bolstering the unspoken threat he’d just issued.
Nocturnal’s frigid laughter echoed through the hall, a chilling sound so powerful Ginna felt her blood run cold. “You dare to threaten me, puny mortal? I would crush you before you so much as lifted your arm to defend her.”
“I would die for her, but don’t you dare think I wouldn’t put up one hell of a fight on my way out.”
“Brynjolf,” she called out to him. “Please, don’t…”
“Yes, Brynjolf. Please. Don’t.” Nocturnal said his name with so much scorn, even he seemed to shudder. “You should heed her warnings, lest your wife bring another child into the world without a father. I will not harm her, but you mean nothing to me. Now go, before you force my hand and I make my daughter a widow.”
“Come on, Brynjolf,” Karliah approached him and linked her arm through his. “She’s promised she won’t hurt Ginna. We must trust her.”
“Trust?” he scoffed. “Her?”
“Bryn, please,” she whispered. “I will be fine.” Though even she wasn’t sure about that. Nocturnal had been her mother all along, and she’d never hesitated in putting her in danger. She had to have known about Brutus, that he was Dagon’s son, and that pitting her against him would mean bringing the wrath of his father down upon her.
He glanced back over his shoulder at her one last time, his desperate eyes pleading with Ginna as Karliah yanked him out of the chamber. He stumbled over his own feet, finally turning his attention to the gateway. She heard the heavy thunk of the chain releasing to door, and then Karliah tugged him out of the room, leaving her alone for the first time with her mother.
Returning her gaze to the crackling ball of livid blue light on the altar, ready to hear the truth.