The waterfall in the central hall should have comforted him. In every way imaginable it reminded him of home, of the Cistern, but Brynjolf was not at ease. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had peace of mind. As a child, maybe? But even the memories that once made him believe he’d been innocent as a child had become corrupted, tainted by the outcome his adult mind knew too well.
He stalked away from the water’s edge, toward the altar room again, his gaze falling over the gate, lingering and then shifting with his body as he turned to stalk back into the main hall.
Karliah told him twice he was going to pace a rut right into the stone if he didn’t sit down, but leaving Ginna alone in there with Nocturnal made him nervous. Nay, worse than nervous. He was on the verge of a panic attack, something he’d talked Vipir down from enough times since he’d gotten out of prison that he easily recognized the symptoms.
Nausea, thumping heart, a constant feeling that his insides were quaking, but no amount of steadying seemed to calm him.
He didn’t care if Nocturnal was her mother; he didn’t trust the woman… er Daedra… whatever she was.
And he didn’t like the way she’d thrown him out like a bag of trash in need of dumping, threatening to make his child fatherless if he didn’t comply. His children were not growing up without a father, or a mother for that matter. He didn’t care what he had to do to make sure he and Ginna didn’t put their children through the same darkness his parents had. He was sure they hadn’t meant to die, but of late he couldn’t even count the number of times he’d thought about how different a man he might have been if his mother and father had lived long enough to raise him.
Panic started to seize him again. For a moment he wanted to blame the oath they’d taken, swearing themselves into Nocturnal’s service with very little questioning just to get back at Mercer. A con-artist could smell a con from a hundred miles away, and the longer they spent donning Nocturnal’s sigil, the more her shady terms felt like a con.
Had she manipulated the entire tragedy with Mercer from the start just to reel Ginna in to her? The more he thought about that, the more absurd it seemed. Considering those threads had been sewn over twenty-five years earlier, it was highly unlikely, but then what did the Daedra know of the future? Had Nocturnal foreseen the very essence of the moment in which her champions would flail like gasping fish out of water and then set the circumstances to favor her? Or was she equally oblivious and simply grasping at whatever weapon was closest to her?
He knew next to nothing about the Daedra, save for the fact that they’d been responsible for some Oblivion crisis more than two-hundred years ago and some Septim bastard had more or less sacrificed himself to save the world. But he was no Martin Septim. He was a con-artist and a thief. How could he protect them from something he didn’t understand? What if he couldn’t protect them at all? What if he wasn’t strong enough to keep them safe?
Brynjolf may have been born with more fire in his blood than his temperament knew how to handle, but bloodshed had never exactly been his thing. Save for moments of self-defense when absolutely unavoidable, he preferred to con and bribe his way out from between a rock and a hard place, but when it came to Ginna, to his children and his Guild, there was no doubt in his mind he would slaughter anyone who sought to hurt them. Daedra, Gods, mer or man, he’d crush them with his bare hands, and the more he thought about doing it, the harder he could feel his blood pumping through his veins.
He felt like he was at the end of a very long rope he’d been dangling from at someone else’s whim for years. He was either going to reach up and cut himself loose, or that rope was going to hang him. The only thing he knew for certain was he wasn’t going to hang without a fight.
Without even thinking, he reached a hand up to rub the untouched skin of his neck, his fingertips itching through the prickle of stubble leading up his chin. For a moment his throat felt constricted and he couldn’t breathe and then Karliah jerked him from the quagmire of his own destructive thinking.
“Please, Brynjolf.” Crossing her arms over her chest and narrowing a pleading gaze across the hall at him, her voice was gentle, soothing, grounding. “You’re making me more nervous than I already am.”
“Sorry, lass.” Driving his hand through the loose locks of his hair, he let it fall back into his face and stalked toward the table to sit down. “How long have they been in there? It feels like it’s been hours.”
“Not really,” she shook her head. “Twenty, maybe thirty minutes at the most. I imagine they have plenty to say to each other though. Things you and I couldn’t even begin to understand.”
He liked that notion even less. Ginna had enough distractions as it was. The last thing she needed was more pressure from that pretentious Daedric bitch as the tangled threads of her identity twisted and braided in her mind. Family. In the end it always came down to family for Ginna. She liked to play it tough, to pretend she didn’t need anyone or anything, but his wife was loyal to a fault when it came to such matters. Nocturnal would use that to her advantage, no doubt, playing on her loyalty as not just a champion who’d sworn an oath, but as a daughter.
“I have a few things I’d like to say to Nocturnal,” he muttered. “Do you really think she’s Ginna’s mother?”
“Anything is possible,” Karliah answered. “She is an exceptional thief, Brynjolf. Everything is easy for her,” she went on. “In the short time since I’ve known her she’s achieved things most in our line of work only daydream about, and let’s not forget the things she did in Cyrodiil. Nocturnal is definitely a prevalent force in her life. She seems to favor her in ways a lot of thieves would give their right eye to experience. One has to ask why, and all the answers seem to arrive back at that place with Nocturnal.”
“Aye,” he dropped into the chair with yet another sigh. If Nocturnal was Ginna’s mother it changed nothing about the way he felt for her. He loved her completely, would do whatever he had to keep her safe and alive, but still… He couldn’t help wonder what that meant for their unborn child. A lucky life, perhaps? Or more darkness and blood than one man could possibly stave off?
No sooner had his backside hit the seat than did he hear the gate lifting. He jumped back out of the chair and rushed toward the hallway, past the armor stones just in time to see her walking out of the room looking almost defeated. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him as she approached. It surprised him when she wrapped her arms around him and practically melted into his chest, her head falling against his shoulder in search of comfort and stability. “Let’s run away,” she muttered, “to another planet.”
An overwhelming sense of lightness uplifted him to hear her joking, and he brought his arms around her as he chuckled. “Another planet sounds perfect right about now, love.”
He expected her to withdraw and get down to business, as she was prone to do at even the most inopportune of times, but when Karliah approached from behind Ginna just lingered there in his arms. Protect me, her body language seemed to say, love me and hold me and keep the darkness away.
After several silent minutes, she finally pulled back and lifted tired eyes to hold his gaze. “We have a lot to talk about,” she told them, turning her stare toward Karliah. “I suppose we should get to it.”
“If you need time, Ginna…” Karliah started.
“There isn’t enough time in the world to sort through all this.” Dropping her hand down the length of his arm, she twined her fingers into his and said, “Come on. You’re both going to want to sit down.”
Several mugs of mead later, Brynjolf pushed his empty tankard across the table and pressed his aching back into the chair behind him. More than an hour had passed and his head was throbbing between headache and information overload.
“So, he can’t be killed?”
“Not by anything we have here… or anywhere in our possession, actually,” Ginna replied. “I don’t have any Daedric artifacts lying around except the Skeleton Key, which I could maybe stab him in the eye with if I could get close enough, but that’s unlikely. Unless one of you has been hiding some secret loot stash from me, I’m assuming you don’t have any Daedric artifacts either.”
“Bugger me running,” he cursed. “Basically, we’re completely screwed if we run into him before we can track down your father and this Bow of Shadows. Is that what you’re saying?”
“More or less.” She huffed the loose hair off her forehead and avoided his eyes, glancing toward Aventus, who was roasting an apple near the hearth. The boy had been listening to their conversation quietly since he’d emerged from the sleeping quarters, and while Brynjolf supposed there was really no harm in letting the truth fly after everything he’d been through already, he hated filling the kid with any more fear than was really necessary.
“And me what?”
“If he attacks you? What does that mean for you?”
“He’s got Mehrunes Razor and gods know what else in his possession. If he attacks me with one of those I’m as good as dead.”
Aventus looked over his shoulder at them, his sad, long gaze lingering on Ginna. That poor boy had already lost one family, and in his short time with the two of them he’d come damn close to losing his own life. Curse Maven and her meddling. He’d have been better off a community effort raised in the Cistern, but it was too late for that now. Besides, with a baby coming, he guessed there was no time like the present to get used to having to protect the innocent.
“We’re not going to let that happen,” he said, more for the kid than anyone else, but he meant it. Whatever it took, whatever he had to do, he was keeping his family safe. “I’m not letting that son of a bitch anywhere near you or Aventus again. Not until we can stand against him on equal footing and cut him down.”
“He can be wounded, right?” Karliah interjected. “Slowed down with a belly full of arrows, I assume.”
“Yes.” Ginna reached for the flagon of water in front of her and gulped down several swallows. “Nocturnal said it won’t kill him, but it will hurt like hell. Sort of like when Mercer stabbed me. What about Delvin, Bryn?”
“What about him?”
“A lot of rare bits and baubles wind up in his hands,” Ginna said. “Since I’ve been working with him, I’ve made a good bit of gold selling oddities I’ve come across to Delvin. You think he might have something Daedric stashed away?”
“Tough to say. He’s got a lot of strange things in his possession, come to think of it. Wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
“Then we should head to the Cistern. I’d really like to check on Rune anyway,” she confessed, avoiding his eyes when she said that. “Make sure he’s healing.”
“I know you’re worried about him, lass. We all are, but Karliah and I agree it’s best to stay here a couple days, wait Brutus out, make sure he isn’t out there lurking in the shadows to catch us off our guard again.”
“No, you’re right, I know,” she sighed again. “I hate this so much. Being trapped here,” she didn’t even notice that flash of disappointment in Karliah’s eyes upon hearing that. Karliah was lonely, and even if her solitude was self-imposed, she’d come to life in their company of late. He watched her light up in ways she probably hadn’t done in years, even laugh a few times since she’d been helping him train Aventus. “Trapped anywhere, actually. It makes me feel like a caged bird.”
Ginna pushed her chair away from the table and stood up, walking toward the fire to hover beside Aventus in silence. He looked to Karliah apologetically, but she didn’t catch his eye. If anyone knew what a caged bird felt like, it was her. She’d spent twenty-five years in exile, suffering alone while she plotted her revenge against Mercer, and even though it brought her peace she would never get her life back. He couldn’t allow that to happen to Ginna anymore than he could just stand aside and let Brutus Arenicci kill her. He’d already taken so much from her.
“We won’t be here for long, Ginna,” he promised. “Just long enough to make sure the road to Riften is safe.”
“Right,” she muttered, and then stalked off toward the sleeping quarters. “I’m tired. I think I’m going to go lie down for a while.”
After she’d gone, Karliah rose from her chair and walked to the weapon rack near the bookshelf. “Aventus, I know it’s been a strange day for all of us, but what do you say we take advantage of this rare bit of downtime and put a few arrows in that target over there. A man who can take out targets from the shadows is a man to be feared, and the better his aim, the more his enemies have to worry about.”
“Yes, Auntie,” he groaned a little. “But can I eat my apple first?”
“Of course you can,” she conceded and then turned her attention back to Brynjolf after she tugged her bow from the rack. “She needs something constant right now, Brynjolf, something she can depend on no matter what she has to face.”
“I suppose that would be me.”
He didn’t feel constant or dependable. In the handful of months they’d been together he had sent her off with Rune or Marcurio more times than he’d accompanied her himself. He’d always put business at the forefront of their relationship telling himself there would be time to focus on the more personal aspect of their life together when enough coin rolled in that they could actually relax.
But life didn’t work that way.
“Go and comfort her,” she said softly. “Let her know we’ll all get through this. Together.”
“Aye,” he agreed.
She didn’t move when he opened the door and slipped into the room to find her curled up on her side in that tiny little bed, but as he approached he knew she wasn’t asleep. He lingered near the edge for a moment just staring down at her, and then he sat on the mattress to tug out of his boots before settling in behind her and lowering his arm to draw her near.
Nuzzling his cheek against hers, he rested his lips against her ear and whispered, “You know I love ya, lass, right?”
“Aye.” She swallowed, the muscles in her jaw and throat flexing against his face. “I know you do.”
“And you know I’m going to get us through all this, don’t you?”
She didn’t answer, but brought her hand up to rest over his, drawing it down to cup her belly. “Nocturnal offered me a choice,” she started, a long pause following that statement before she continued. “If I lead Brutus to Boethiah’s shrine and kill him there, the spilling of his blood will weaken the portal and allow her to cross over onto this plane. She said she would make me a queen, give me a throne, servants, more pretty things than I’ve ever dreamed of owning and my child… our child, would be first in line to rule a new Era.”
A cold trickle slipped down his spine when he considered how close that sounded to one of his favorite fantasies. A lord with a castle and plenty of servants bowing and ready to kiss his arse on a whim. But that wasn’t a life he could ever take lightly, no matter how tempting it sounded. It wasn’t the life for a man like him at all, and as pampered as his wife could be it wasn’t the right life for her either.
“And…” it was his turn to hesitate. “And what did you say to that?”
“I told her to get bent,” she said stiffly, and then she softened again, uncurling her fingers from his.
Rolling around until she faced him within the tight confines of that tiny bed, she lifted her leg up to rest atop his and scooted her hips closer to his. Funny how so subtle a gesture, how the slightest provocative touch from her brought him to life. It was the most inappropriate and inopportune of moments; their entire world was crumbling into dust around them, and he wanted to roll her onto her back again and lay claim to her like some savage beast.
“More or less, anyway.” Her voice barely distracted him from that lustful impulse, but he pushed it aside anyway. She needed him to focus, to be there for her and listen. To be the one constant thing she could depend on, as Karliah so bluntly put it. “I didn’t want to invoke her wrath, but I’m not some Daedric pawn for her to push around on a game board while she plots against her brethren. Even if she probably only gave birth to me for that purpose in the first place.”
“I don’t imagine she took that very well.”
“She seemed to accept it, but only after pointing out that I’ve spent the majority of my life disappointing her anyway. I think she expected it, to be honest, and now she’s punishing me by sending me to look for Hakon.”
“I don’t suppose she gave you any ideas on where we might find your dear old da, did she?”
“Not a clue. She doesn’t even know if he still has the bow.”
He closed his eyes and touched the tip of his nose to hers. “We’ll find him, love. Him and that blasted bow.”
“And then what?” she whispered, her hand clutching almost desperately at his arm. “How many people get hurt or killed along the way?” she proffered. “Maybe the only way to do this without putting everyone I care about in danger is to do it alone.”
Eyes bursting open in disbelief, he growled, “Out of the gods damned question.”
“What if that’s the only way I can protect you?” There were tears in her eyes, unshed and making the brilliant blue of her orbs glisten like diamonds in the pale light of the lantern on the bedside table. “I can’t lose you, Brynjolf. You’re the only thing in my life that has ever made any kind of sense.”
“I’m not going anywhere, lass.” He assured her, his hand gliding down to hold her chin so she couldn’t look away. “And neither are you. We stand together in this every step of the way. No more going off alone. We get this little family of ours through it in one piece and come out the other side smelling like a rose.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“Hey,” he leaned his head back to really look at her. “I meant every word I said to you when we met. The feelings I had about us, about all the things we could do if we put our heads together. Separated, we’re just two clever thieves with a world of possibility always just out of reach, but together we are unstoppable.”
“You really believe that?”
“Don’t you?” he asked. “I believe in us, Ginna. I’ve never believed in anything the way I believe in you and me.”
She was quiet for a moment, soft and thoughtful as she played his words over and over in her mind. “You know, it’s a damn shame Brutus doesn’t have anything in his life worth destroying. It would make it easier to get to him if he actually cared about something other than himself.”
“Maybe he does have something,” he shrugged. “No one fights harder than the man who has everything to lose, and for someone with nothing he sure is putting up one hell of a fight.”
“Maybe,” she muttered agreement. “If only there was a way to find out what he cares about, other than power, and yank it from his grasp. Maybe we could actually win this fight.”
“We do what the two of us do best then, lass. Put our heads together and figure this out. You and me. Whatever it takes, and we do it together.”
“Yeah?” she still sounded so unsure, but he knew the only way to convince her was to make it real.
“Aye,” he nodded. “I promise you.”
“I believe you.” Ginna laid her head back into the crook of his arm, closing her eyes and easing out a long breath. “I’m so tired, Bryn.”
“Rest now, love,” he whispered, stroking his fingers into the hair at the nape of her neck. “I’ve got you.”