“Hide a knife behind a smile.” Severus stalked the grass in front of the fountain where they often spent the afternoon studying, the length of his meticulous black cloak fluttering behind him like wisps of smoke on the wind. He stopped pacing and turned to look at her, the sunlight catching brilliantly in the streak of silver that decorated his jet-black hair. “Ginna, tell me what that means?”
“It’s like playing pretend,” the young girl spoke confidently, her clear voice unfettered by the scoff of the adolescent boy beside her. “When you treat your enemy with kindness it lulls him into a false sense of security, making him believe you are a friend.”
“And what does the advantage of security provide for a thief?”
“An open target,” she replied, “someone who will welcome you with open arms so you might embrace him and pick his pocket without the danger of suspicion. False friendship lessens ones chances of getting caught.”
He smiled at her, a gleam of fatherly pride and approval in his eyes that immediately disappeared when the boy fidgeting on the grass beside her spoke up. “You’re not supposed to pick his pocket, you idiot. You’re supposed to stab him in the back. A dead man’s pockets are more than ripe for the picking and you can take everything without getting caught.”
The boy was so proud of himself, of his shrewd solution to an age old problem—kill or be killed, but surely he knew there were other ways. When Ginna glanced over at him she could tell he expected praise from their father, but what he got instead blanched the pale olive color from his face and immediately filled him with shame and loathing.
“Brutus, it is neither mature nor polite to call names,” he scolded. “For our purposes Ginna’s methods are more correct than your own. We are thieves, my son, not assassins. We only kill when there is no other solution available to us, when our own life can only be spared by ending the life another.”
“Maybe I should have been an assassin then,” Brutus muttered.
“What was that?” Severus quirked a sharp eyebrow, his dark eyes widening with disbelief.
“Nothing indeed,” he nodded once. “But perhaps nothing requires further study in order for you to understand your place in this world. I want you to finish reading Aevar Stone-Singer tonight and write for me one thousand words on the dangers of greed, which you will present to us tomorrow as we begin a new lesson.”
“But that isn’t fair!” he remarked, rising in the grass on his knees in protest.
“Life is so rarely fair, son. I recommend that you head to your room at once and begin your studies,” he said stiffly. “You are dismissed.”
Ginna watched her brother storm through the courtyard, trampling flowers beneath his boots and cursing under his breath all the way through the open back doors leading into the sitting room. The echo of a vase shattering to the floor made her wince, but Severus paid it no mind. Instead he turned a soft grin down to where she still sat in the grass, and then he knelt in front of her.
“You did very well today,” he lowered a hand to rest on her shoulder, gentle fingers squeezing. “You never fail to make me proud.”
The swell of happiness to hear him say that always came with an equal helping of guilt. He rarely seemed to have occasion to praise Brutus for anything, and though she never quite understood why, that made her feel bad.
“Why does Brutus hate me, Father?”
“He doesn’t hate you, dearest,” he shook his head. “I’m afraid Brutus doesn’t like himself very much, and for that he makes the rest of us suffer so we might know how he feels inside. It is how he relates to the world and I have tried to teach him there are more peaceful means of expression, but it would seem he isn’t yet ready to learn them.” Lowering his arm across her shoulders, he steered her toward the open doors as he said, “You must be patient with your brother, Ginna, and always remember when his world is at its darkest he will look to you for light.”
Ginna woke with a start, the peaceful comfort of her father’s presence still clinging to the air around her. Those words resonated in the cottony void of her tired brain, the sound of his voice still an echo of memory in her mind. Always remember when his world is at its darkest he will look to you for light. Severus had actually said those words to her when she was just twelve years old; she’d never forgotten them.
Through their father’s long, difficult illness, after his death, as their Guild and family began to crumble away into dust—whenever she found herself questioning her brother’s judgment it was those words she remembered. She’d believed in them, perhaps only because her father had spoken them. Now she didn’t know what to believe anymore.
The stiffness she felt in her neck radiated into her shoulder when she lifted her head from the crook of Brynjolf’s arm and blinked the sleep from her eyes. He barely stirred, a long lock of auburn hair lay across his face, the ends rustling softly when he exhaled through his slack mouth. Her movement prompted him onto his back, the hair falling away to lie on the pillow around his shoulders.
There had been so few peaceful moments since she’d discovered the life inside her, very little time to reflect at all, but for a second she lowered her head onto the pillow and just stared at him. She hadn’t given it much thought before, but she hoped their baby looked like him. More than that, she hoped they were both around long enough to see that child grow up.
The mere thought of anything happening to him…
Ginna’s eyes watered and stung before a tear dripped across the bridge of her nose and she reached up quickly to brush it away. Sniffling softly, she started to sit up, catching a glimpse of Aventus sleeping in the other bed. He was curled on his side, one hand dangling over the edge. She watched his relaxed fingers twitch before he drew them into a loose fist and then let them open again.
She employed every stealth trick in the book to disentangle herself from the blankets and Brynjolf’s body unnoticed. Tugging the blanket up over him again, she crept from the room and into the main hall. Despite the constant run of water, the occasional snap of a log in the hearth, Nightingale Hall was eerily quiet, but not even she was quiet enough to sneak past Karliah.
She’d been sitting with her back against the wall, her bow loose across her lap and her closed eyes in the direction of the entrance, but as soon as Ginna stepped into the room she sat upright and stretched her neck. She shoved the loose brown locks of hair over her shoulder with a quick gesture and raised a tired smile toward her.
“It’s so quiet in here, like a sanctuary.” It sounded so meaningless after she said it.
“It is very peaceful,” Karliah answered, shifting the bow from her lap and resting it against the bedside table. “Even with the three of you here, it feels comfortable and safe.”
“We shouldn’t be intruding on you like this.” Ginna drew a chair away from the table and sat down, avoiding the other woman’s vibrant lavender stare. “I know you value your privacy, and…”
“I wouldn’t exactly say I like to be alone,” she confessed, “so much as I’ve grown accustomed to it. It’s been a strange adjustment, having a family again, but I’m glad I do. And even though the circumstances of your company aren’t exactly pleasant, I’m still glad you’re here, that I can help.” Karliah gave her a moment to process that, and then asked, “How are you feeling? Can I get you anything?”
“Always tired, always hungry,” she laughed, “but I’m all right.”
“Would it be cruel of me to say that despite everything else that’s going on right now, I envy you?” Rising from the edge of the bed, she walked to the table and sat down opposite Ginna to pour herself a cup of wine. “The life we’ve all chosen, it’s a hard one to endure, but living it with someone you love makes it so much easier. Watching the two of you together, even when you’re bickering or at one another’s throats… You remind me so much of Gallus and myself.” Her voice trailed into her cup for a moment, and when she lowered it again a grimacing smile lingered on her lips. “Gallus wanted to have children, you know? At first I thought he was out of his mind. Who purposely brings a child into a life like ours? But Beigan and Hekja, they had the right idea. Watching them with Brynjolf… spending time with him myself when he was small… It wasn’t long before I changed my tune.”
“I’m so sorry, Karliah.”
“No, don’t be sorry, please. It’s been twenty-five years. I should have let it all go a long time ago…”
Ginna shook her head almost desperately. “No, I know it hurts to hold onto, but…” She couldn’t imagine ever letting of Brynjolf, even if the gods took him from her too early. She would cling to very notion of him until they came for her, and his name would be the last word upon her dying lips.
“Love does strange things to the mind and heart. Some believe it makes them weak so they choose to never love at all, and maybe that’s the right thing to do. I don’t know. The only thing I do know for certain is that I would give up everything for another chance to hold him in my arms, even if only for a moment.” She filled her cup again and drank down several thick swallows before lowering it to the table and pinning Ginna with a very serious gaze. “No matter what happens, Ginna, hold onto each other and all you’ve made together.”
“I will,” she nodded almost desperately, feeling like she was on the verge of tears again. She blinked several times to hold those tears at bay. All her life, one of the few things she’d been really good at was holding her emotions in check, easily disguising them from others to keep from revealing her vulnerability, but in the last couple months they’d gotten the best of her so many times she felt like she was broken. Grabbing onto the furthest thought from the conversation at hand, she quickly changed the subject, asking, “Karliah, if Nocturnal gave me a specter, how would I summon it?”
“A specter?” she repeated. “What do you mean?”
“A gift from my mother,” she explained. “Once a day I can summon Severus to my aid, be it in battle or for council. She traced a symbol over my heart as she gave me the terms, but she didn’t tell me how to do it.”
“Of course she didn’t,” a sarcastic snicker followed her words. “I’ve never been one for Conjuration, but Gallus was fascinated by all manner of magic. He left a few rare tomes lying around Nightingale Hall. Perhaps if we leaf through them we can figure it out together, and if not we could always employ Enthir’s help again.”
Enthir was a world away in Winterhold and getting to him any time soon would be out of the question. Ginna didn’t want to have to wait to see her father again. Following Karliah into the old library where Gallus kept his books, the two of them sat down on the floor in front of the shelves and began leafing through dusty tomes written to specifically enhance skill development. Most of them played to the school of Illusion, but a few rare texts catered to Conjuration.
Skimming through 2920, vol 10 –Frostfall, Ginna came across something mildly familiar and lifted her eyes from the pages. “In this story, when Turala summoned the daedroth from Oblivion, she thought of the color red. Of its simplicity and clarity and then she spoke the words of summoning and reached across the plains as if to grab it and bring it to her.”
“Well,” Karliah sighed, closing the book she’d been browsing, “this is probably a long shot, but if you close your eyes and think of him, what colors come to mind?”
She felt silly doing it, but Ginna closed her eyes and thought of Severus. She could clearly see him pacing the courtyard as he’d done in her dream, both his black hair and ebony cloak rustling in the wind each time he turned. As a child she used to think he was everything a living shadow should be, and opening her eyes her face lit up. “Black,” she said. “Black as shadow, black as pitch.”
“All right,” Karliah nodded. “Now if only we knew what words were required to summon him while you envisioned him in that way…”
They were silent again, flipping through page after page of useless text until finally Ginna closed the book in her lap and leaned back against the stone wall behind her. “My mother is a cruel abomination,” she sighed. “There is nothing here that can help us, and asking her for anything else is out of the question. She’s already made it abundantly clear that she prefers punishing me for the many ways I’ve found to disappoint her and she wouldn’t help me even if I begged.”
“I know you don’t wish to wait, but once things calm down enough for us to travel again, Enthir will gladly help us. After all you’ve done to help me, to put Gallus’s restless spirit at ease, I imagine Enthir would move heaven and Nirn if he thought it would help you in any way.”
Ginna was just opening her mouth to respond when a subtle, almost nonexistent sound disturbed the silence in the main hall. Both women instinctively turned their attention in the direction of the open door and immediately took to their feet. Swift and silent as shadows, they began to creep from the room where they had unintentionally hid.
At first she thought it was only Brynjolf or Aventus waking from troubled sleep and searching the hall for them, but every step she took closer to the main hall made all the hair on her body stand up with alarm. Something was off; the silence was too raw, too unnatural. He was there. She could feel him, the familiar essence momentarily reminding her of the familiar ache she sometimes felt for home.
Turning over her shoulder, Karliah whispered, “Stay here,” but Ginna shook her head no. She wasn’t letting her friend walk into the open alone. Reaching down between them, she wrapped her fingers tight around Karliah’s forearm and squeezed.
The constant rushing water did little to assuage the tension, both of their eyes scanning the interior for signs of intrusion, neither of them seeing anything out of the ordinary. But Ginna could feel it, almost as if some invisible force were lingering over her shoulder with a blade drawn and ready to plunge into her back.
She jerked around, on guard, but there was nothing behind her. At least not anything she could see. With a tentative hand she reached out and swiped at the air, part of her terrified she might actually connect with something, and then what?
A book on the shelf near the bed just feet away toppled over onto the floor with a thud so loud the two of them jumped. Karliah quickly shoved Ginna behind her in a protective stance, but neither of them had weapons at hand. Karliah left her bow propped near the bedside table, and Ginna’s blade still rested on the rack in the sleeping quarters. She hadn’t even thought to grab it before she crept from the room; now she felt like an idiot.
When he grabbed Karliah’s arm and jerked her away, his connection with the physical world reestablished. Karliah didn’t struggle, even as his forearm tightened against her chest, the razor in his hand pressed tight against her throat. “One false move and my blade will taste her blood.” Loose tendrils of unkempt black hair framed his face, his brilliant amber eyes wild with anticipation as he gasped to catch the breath he’d been holding to disguise himself.
“This has nothing to do with her, Brutus,” Ginna held up a tentative, helpless hand. “Let her go and face me like a man, or are you really that afraid of me?”
“Me afraid of you?” he spat, tightening his arm to jerk Karliah closer. “You always were an arrogant little bint. Father’s little princess could do no wrong, but the way he coddled you made you weak and that weakness will be your downfall. Feelings,” he laughed. “Thieves aren’t supposed to have feelings, and yet he filled you with so many of them it surprises me you’ve managed to live as long as you have.”
“Is that what this is all about then? I had my suspicions in Solitude when I read your little note. You were always jealous of me.”
“Me? Jealous of you? Despite your noble parentage you are hardly what I’d consider a force to be reckoned with. Nocturnal’s pathetic power trembles in the wake of my true father.”
Ignoring his slight, she continued to play to his jealousy. “You wanted Father all to yourself. You were so envious of how easy it was for him to love me, but he loved you too, Brutus, just as much as he loved me.”
“Love,” another laugh. “A mortal anguish so far beneath me I scoff at the very notion. I’m not sure what amuses me more. The fact that you believe that, or how much I’m going to enjoy proving to you just how wrong you were about our precious father.”
Ginna glanced over his shoulder at the flurry of silent movement in black. Brynjolf edged into the shadows with his blades drawn and was quietly moving into the hall. She wanted to will him to turn back, to run as fast as he could, but even acknowledging his presence would put him in danger. She quickly looked away, meeting with Karliah’s steady gaze.
She was not afraid. In fact she seemed to welcome death, her slack arms at the ready to embrace it when the time came, but Ginna wasn’t going to let that happen. No one else was going to die because of her.
“Severus never loved me, and he didn’t love you either, Ginna. Fool yourself all you like, but we were nothing more than tools as far as he was concerned. Little weapons he liked to keep hidden beneath each sleeve. He would tug us out to do all his dirty work and take the credit for our skill, all the while filling our heads with those pathetic riddles of his, as if he were some great mastermind and scholar. He was a fool, Ginna. A blithering idiot.”
“Is that why you killed him? Because he took credit for making you the man you are?”
“I killed him because he was weak. I killed him because I thrive on your suffering, and watching you cry over his spent, pathetic corpse empowered me in ways you’ll probably never understand.”
“Even as he drew his last breath, he still believed there was good in you.”
She lowered her eyes, closing them and trying to draw his image to mind. The wind whispering through the flow of his long black cape, the length of his hair blending into the rustling fabric, only standing out because of a single strip of silver beauty that always made him look distinguished. What words could she possibly use to bring him to her side, to call upon him to help her through this moment before she lost it all? She imagined herself like the character in the book she’d just read, reaching across time, space and into the shadows of the Evergloam where he was waiting with an outstretched hand. She willed herself to grasp that hand and with a force unlike any she even knew she was capable of, tugged him from that place and into her world.
“I still believe there is good in him, buried as it may be by the dark whisper of his father’s blood.”
The unexpected sound of his voice startled even her, but when she opened her eyes the look on Brutus’s face was priceless. The trembling blade in his hand nicked the ashen skin of Karliah’s throat when she took advantage of his surprise. Spinning on him, she forced him to his knees and wrenched his blade-hand behind his back with enough pressure that Mehrunes Razor clattered to the floor.
“What… what is this treachery?”
“Just as your father empowered you, so has my mother given gifts to me. You are a fool if you think you can stand against me unchallenged, Brutus, if you think I’m going to just lay down and die because you will it.”
“I can take him far from this place if you wish it, but it’s only a matter of time before he finds his way back to you.” Severus knelt and touched an ethereal hand to Brutus’s arm.
“Yes, Father. I wish it.”
“Then use this brief window of time wisely, my daughter. Remove the firewood from under the pot.”
In a blinding flash of stark white light the two of them disappeared, and for a moment the only sound Ginna heard was the rushing water of the falls inside the hall while her father’s cryptic message lingered in her mind.
“What… what in the name of Oblivion was that?”
“A gift from my mother,” she said, lifting her eyes to meet with Brynjolf’s, but his gaze faltered when Karliah swayed on her feet, her balance diminishing. Brynjolf swept in from behind to catch her in his arms before she fell, gasping the word, “No!” as he dropped to the stone floor cradling her weightless frame against his chest. “No, no, no.”
“Karliah!” Ginna dropped to her knees in front of him, hands reaching up to touch the other woman’s face. Poisoned, her skin was already so cold, and her lavender eyes glazed with strange euphoria as a smile of acceptance toyed upon her dark lips. “No, Karliah. You are not going to die.” She gritted her teeth in frustrated denial, her hand sweeping up to the nick trickling a droplet of black blood down her throat. “Not like this,” she whimpered. “Not after everything.”
Her glistening eyes stared off into the distance over Ginna’s shoulder, unmoving even as Brynjolf began to sob in outrage, rocking her body back and forth against his chest, a stream of unintelligible curses and denial frothing at his lips.
“Gallus, my love?” she whispered, her hand reaching weakly into the distance. “Is that… you? Have you come at last to take me home with you?”
Ginna turned to look over her shoulder and for a moment she saw a blurred shadow stalking closer, the outline of a hand lowering toward Karliah’s spirit to lift her from their world. The hand that nestled into it lacked substance, a clear blue essence only that instantly mingled with the energy that came to claim her until they were as they should have been all along: united, one, eternally bound in life and beyond death.
When she returned her tear-blurred eyes to the body in Brynjolf’s arms, she saw only peace, but her heart felt like it shattered into a million fragments she would never be able to put back together again. Her friend, her sister in shadows, gone without a trace. Another member of her family fallen to her brother’s darkness. Seething with unspoken hatred and rage, she vowed beneath her breath that the hunter would become the hunted and before all was said and done Brutus Arenicci would die pleading for mercy from the storm she would bring down upon him with a vengeance.