If the circumstances had been better, Selene and Karliah might have had a grand time. They clicked, falling into easy conversation, hunting, and other tasks as if they had been traveling together for years. They made good time and went farther the first night than they had expected.
Trying to keep the mood light, they steered their conversation away from Mercer’s betrayal as much as possible and discussed other aspects of their lives. Being a thief—and a Nightingale—was in Karliah’s blood. She had learned—through Gallus, ironically—that she was the granddaughter of Queen Barenziah, who had been seduced by a Nightingale in order to learn the location of an artifact called the Staff of Chaos. The daughter that was born from the union searched for her father for years, and when she finally found him he taught her his ways and inducted her into the Nightingales. Karliah already knew about Selene’s relationship with Brynjolf, so Selene shared the fact that she was the Dragonborn, which Karliah found fascinating and asked all the expected questions. She also discussed the Companions and the Stormcloaks, even Ulfric, about whom Karliah had a dozen more questions. Normally, Selene would keep such things to herself, but she understood why Gallus felt he could let his guard down with Karliah. Her manner, her speech patterns, and her willingness to talk about her own history made Selene feel she could trust the Dunmer.
The biggest, heaviest question was, “Did you love Ulfric?”
“Yes,” Selene admitted, “but not enough. The difference in our philosophies was enough to come between us, and I’ve learned since then what real, all-consuming love feels like. You asked me once if I’d ever known someone who was bigger than life. That was Ulfric. But imagine living with someone like that every day. I need somebody to be my friend, my partner—my equal.”
“Your soul mate.”
“Aye, my soul mate. And that’s Brynjolf.”
“Then he’ll believe you. But I must tell you, Selene, you’re bigger than life yourself. You’re the Dragonborn, and you’re easily Ulfric Stormcloak’s equal.”
“It didn’t feel that way. It doesn’t feel that way.”
“And that’s the difference between you and Ulfric. Brynjolf will never have to feel inferior to you because you know the meaning of humility. Something I’d wager Ulfric had trouble with.”
Selene laughed. “Aye, he did, at that.”
Later that evening, the conversation turned back toward Mercer and the journal.
“Gallus’s journal talked about the Twilight Sepulcher,” Selene mentioned.
Karliah shrugged. “Well, you’ve come this far. I see no harm in revealing the rest. Besides, if events continue on their current path, you may learn more about it than you ever planned. The Twilight Sepulcher is a temple to Nocturnal. The Nightingales are sworn to protect it with their lives.”
“Why does it need that type of protection?”
“This isn’t just an everyday temple where anyone can come to worship. Everything that represents Nocturnal’s influence is contained within the sepulcher, including a conduit between our world and hers.”
“Thieves and temples? Those aren’t things one normally equates with each other.”
“I think given time you’ll come to understand what I mean. I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you for now. As a Nightingale, I’m sworn to secrecy regarding the sepulcher, and I’ve probably told you too much already. All I can do is ask you to trust me a little longer.”
“Just don’t betray that trust.”
Karliah smiled at her. Something came to mind, and she got up and ducked into the tent. When she emerged, she held a sword, which she held out to Selene. “This belonged to Gallus, but under the circumstances, I think he’d approve. It steals life when it injures the enemy.”
“Karliah, I’m honored. I’ll put it to good use.”
“If the Guild isn’t willing to listen to reason, you may have to.”
“Don’t even think like that. I know them; they’re my friends. And Brynjolf, he’ll…I won’t lose faith in him. Whatever Mercer has told him, he’ll at least give us a chance to explain.”
* * *
Not knowing what they were getting into, Selene and Karliah felt it was best to come into town late at night and draw as little attention as possible. Getting to the cistern undetected was unlikely, but the fewer people who knew they were there, the better. It was nearly midnight when they walked into a cold, dark Honeyside from the balcony door. Selene lit a couple of candles, but not enough for the light to be seen outside the window, and put a few things away. Nothing in the house seemed any different from when she had gone except the bed. She had made it before she left, but someone had messed it up. She sat down and sniffed the sheets and blankets; Brynjolf’s scent was all over them, and it was relatively fresh. By the way his scent covered her pillow and the position it rested on the bed, she surmised that he had held it like a doll. The faint smell of salt made Selene wonder if he had cried over her. Perhaps he hadn’t believed Mercer after all.
“Selene, are you all right?”
“Brynjolf’s been sleeping here.”
“I know this is difficult, but we should go and get this over with.”
“You’re right. Let’s go.”
A chill wind whipped down the back alley to the Guild’s cemetery entrance. When Selene pressed the button to open the secret door, nothing happened. It had been locked.
“They know we’re coming,” Karliah mused.
“Maybe they saw us coming into town. We were careful to remain hidden, but maybe somebody saw us anyway and told Mercer.” They skirted around the plaza and took the stairs down to the Ratway. Selene hesitated at the door to the Flagon.
“Are you ready for this?” Karliah prodded.
“I’m just trying to figure out what to say if Mercer is there.”
“We stick to the plan and give Brynjolf the journal. Remember we have proof; Mercer only has his word.”
“All right.” She opened the door and stepped through.
The Ragged Flagon was empty except for Vekel, who swept the floor, and Dirge, who stood at the entrance with his arms folded and blocked their way. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, Selene.”
“Come on, Dirge. Do you really think I’d come back if I were guilty of whatever it is Mercer said I did? To say nothing of bringing Karliah with me. Let me in so we can clear all this up. Please.”
The bouncer glared at her but stepped aside. She walked past him with Karliah following, ignoring the dirty looks they were receiving from Vekel as they passed through the tavern and the false panel in the pantry.
When they entered the cistern, they were met by three very angry thieves wielding daggers. The scent of fury permeated the air. Brynjolf stood between Vex and Delvin, face red and eyes blazing, his knife trained on Selene. He looked as if he was a hair’s breadth away from springing on her and stabbing her to death. “You’d better have a damn good reason to come in here with that murderer,” he growled.
“Of course I do, love.”
“Please,” Karliah said, “lower your weapons so we can speak. You’ve all been misled, Brynjolf. I can prove it.”
Brynjolf’s eyes never left Selene’s, but his expression went from angry to questioning, and Selene understood his unspoken question: Was it you? She shook her head earnestly, and he lowered his dagger. “No tricks, Karliah, or I’ll cut you down where you stand.”
“No tricks,” she promised. “I have Gallus’s journal. I think you’ll want to see its contents.”
Brynjolf took the journal and read as Delvin and Vex put their weapons away. “No, this can’t be right. I’ve known Mercer too long. I’d have known he was up to something this big.”
“It’s true, Brynjolf. He’s been stealing from the Guild for years.”
“Where have you been all this time?” he asked Selene as he paged through the diary.
“I’ve been getting that translated. Gallus wrote it in Falmer.”
“Did he, now?” He closed the book and looked up at her. “There’s one way to find out if what the lass says is true. Del, I’ll need you to open the vault.” He turned and stalked across the cistern toward the vault, the rest of them hot on his heels.
“Bryn, what’s in that book?” Delvin demanded. “What did it say?”
“It says Mercer was stealing from the Guild. Gallus was looking into it before he was murdered.”
“Yeah, but that was a quarter century ago. He can’t be doing it now. How could he even get into a vault that needs two keys?”
“He couldn’t pick it,” said Vex. “That door has the best puzzle locks money can buy. Even I can’t pick it.”
“He didn’t need to pick the lock,” Karliah interjected. Delvin looked at her as if she’d grown horns.
“Del, use your key on the vault,” Brynjolf said. “We’ll open it up and find out the truth.”
Delvin used his key on the lock and stepped back. “Yep, still locked. Now use your key.”
Brynjolf unlocked the door and stepped into the vault. Alarm flooded his scent and he shouted, “By the Eight! Get in here, all of you! It’s gone—all of it!”
They followed him into the vault to see the walls lined with racks and chests, all empty.
“That son of a bitch!” Vex snarled. “I’ll kill him!”
“Vex, put it away right now,” said Brynjolf. “We can’t afford to lose our heads.”
“But how’d he get it all out?” Delvin wondered. “There’s a dozen thieves out there.”
“He had ways to get past them,” Karliah remarked.
“Didn’t pick the lock? He had ways? Just what are you on about?”
“Del,” Brynjolf cut in, “you and Vex go tell the rest of the Guild what’s happened and watch the Flagon. If you see Mercer, come tell me right away.”
Delvin followed Vex from the vault, and Brynjolf gazed into Selene’s eyes.
“I’ll just wait outside,” Karliah muttered uncomfortably before slipping out the door and closing it behind her.
They stood and stared at each other for a moment, and then Brynjolf reached for Selene and threw his arms around her, holding her close and burying his face in her hair.
“Don’t. Just let me—” He strengthened his hold on her, and Selene could have sworn she noticed a faint sob, but when he pulled back, his eyes were dry. He still held tightly her, and he leaned in and kissed her hungrily. “I thought I’d never taste your lips again,” he whispered.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t come back until I had proof.”
“I didn’t believe him. I trusted him too much to think he was lying, but I was sure he was wrong about you. He had to be wrong because you just wouldn’t do the things he said you did.”
“What did he say?”
“He said you were working with Karliah to bring the Guild down. She did all the planning and the outside work while you infiltrated the Guild and did what you could to sabotage it from the inside. He said Gulum-Ei hadn’t told you about Karliah, but you had told him that to get him to Snow Veil Sanctum for an ambush. He said Karliah got away, but he fought you to the death.”
Selene cocked an eyebrow indignantly. “He said he beat me in a fight to the death?”
“And he said your last words were a taunt to me. ‘Give Brynjolf my regards.’”
“No, love, I swear.”
“I know. It’s all right; I know.”
“Actually, Karliah did set up an ambush—”
“But you didn’t. I knew you wouldn’t betray me—the Guild.”
“Your scent and the look on your face when we walked into the cistern said otherwise, Bryn. You were ready to kill me.”
“I suspected you just long enough to draw my weapon. But when I looked into your eyes, I knew. Please forgive me for doubting you.”
“There’s nothing to forgive. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I had to go all over Skyrim for that translation.”
“You didn’t happen to go to Whiterun, did you?”
“Aye, Lydia and the twins know I’m alive. I asked them not to tell you because I didn’t know what Mercer had told you, and I was afraid—”
“—my knowing you were alive would make it worse. It’s all right, love. I understand.” He kissed her again before releasing her. “Very well, then. Tell me everything you learned from Karliah.”
“Mercer killed Gallus; you probably figured that.”
Brynjolf nodded. “In his journal, Gallus sounded like he was close to exposing Mercer. Anything else?”
“Gallus, Mercer, and Karliah were Nightingales.”
“What? You’re kidding. I always thought the Nightingales were just a myth.”
“No, and apparently Mercer broke some pretty serious oaths with his betrayal. There’s one more thing, Bryn. Maven is involved.”
“Involved how?” he asked, his eyes hard.
“I think she’s partners with Mercer. Even he said it. Do you remember the night before I left for Snow Veil Sanctum? We were at the Bee and I eavesdropped on a conversation between the two of them. Maven said ‘she’ couldn’t be allowed to live because she could ruin all they had worked for. I thought she was talking about Karliah, but she was talking about me.”
Brynjolf recoiled as if she’d slapped him, and began pacing the floor. “This changes things,” he murmured.
“Bringing Mercer to justice is going to be hard enough, but Maven is on a completely different level. Whatever we do, we have to take extra care to protect ourselves, because she has a very wide reach.”
“Then what do we do?”
He stopped and regarded her for a moment, then said, “We take them one at a time. As far as Maven is concerned, it’s business as usual. We tell her as little as possible about the situation with Mercer. She’ll know, but only what he’s told her. For now, let’s keep you out of sight as much as possible, so she’ll still think you’re dead. After we get Mercer, then we’ll take care of her. Did anyone see you come into town?”
“A handful of guards, maybe Balimund; he was working late.”
“We’ll just have to hope none of them mentions you to Maven.”
“Taking care of Mercer first will also give us time to figure out what we’re going to do about her. I suppose taking out a Dark Brotherhood contract would be out of the question.”
Brynjolf chuckled. “She’s used them so many times, I think they’re actually on a monthly retainer.”
“So we set Maven aside for now. What’s next?”
“We need to break into Mercer’s house.”
“Mercer has a house in Riften?”
“Aye, it was a gift from Maven. It’s called Riftweald Manor; it’s just down the path from the cemetery. He doesn’t stay there, just pays some thug named Vald to guard the place. If he’s hiding something, he’s likely to think no one would look there.”
“I’m on it. What’s the best way in?”
“Didn’t I just tell you to lie low?”
“You said it’s down the path, which means I can go down the back alley from the graveyard. I doubt anybody will see me, certainly not Maven. Besides, who have you got that’s better?”
“Vex would argue that she’s better.”
“That may or may not be true, but Vex is angry right now.”
“Vex is always angry—”
“When you’re angry you can’t focus as well, and you know it.”
“Selene, this is the last place in Skyrim I’d want to send you—”
“Brynjolf, you can’t start being overprotective. Just because you almost lost me doesn’t mean I’m any less capable of getting the job done.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” he relented. “You’re never gonna let me win an argument, are you?”
“I will when you’re right.”
“Okay, I’m not sure of the layout—I’ve only been there a few times—but after you get past Mercer’s watchdog, I’d say your best bet is the ramp to the second floor balcony in the backyard. Mercer had it installed in case he needed a quick escape. I’d bet a couple of arrows from below would lower the ramp.”
“And the watchdog?”
Brynjolf chuckled. “That’d be Vald. Talk to Vex. She used to know him very well, if you catch my meaning. She should be able to give you tips to work around him.” He wrapped his arm around Selene’s waist and pulled her close. “Be careful at Mercer’s place, love. When he told me he had killed you, I…I just died. I can’t lose you again.”
She placed her arms around his neck and kissed him softly. “I said before that I’d always come back, remember? I’ll be careful.”
When she and Brynjolf emerged from the vault, Karliah waited by Mercer’s desk. Selene squeezed the Dunmer’s hand. “We’re still alive!” she marveled. The elf chuckled in response. “I’m off to Mercer Frey’s house. Brynjolf will give you the details.”
“Take care, my friend.”
“I will.” She stopped in at the Flagon to sell her rare items to Delvin and discuss Vald with Vex.
“Vald! That pig? Oh, I have info, all right. Where do I start?”
“How do I get on his good side?”
“Vald doesn’t have a good side, and the only thing he cares about is gold. I doubt you could buy him off, though, at least not for a reasonable amount. He’s in some major debt with Maven Black-Briar. Your best chance is to settle that debt.”
“No can do. I need to keep Maven out of this. In fact, Maven isn’t even supposed to find out I’m alive.”
The pixie-faced Imperial looked at her, wide-eyed. “You have got to be kidding me. She’s in with Mercer?”
“Picked up on that, did you?”
“Well, then I’d say you should just run him through and be done with it. Nobody’ll miss him; I certainly won’t care. And listen, while you’re at Mercer’s place, feel free to help yourself to anything of value.”
* * *
Vald did a regular circuit around Mercer’s very small backyard, stopping at various locations and standing for a moment, back to the wall and eyes on the yard. There was no way to sneak around him; he would have to die. Thus, she pulled her sword and waited in the shadows just outside the gate. When he stopped at the gate and turned away to watch the yard, she stabbed him in the back. With a muffled “oof,” he fell to the ground. She withdrew the sword and picked the gate’s lock, then wiped the blade on the fur of Vald’s armor before sheathing it. The dead sentry didn’t have much on him, only a single gold piece, a half-eaten slice of cheese, and the house key, which she retrieved.
A set of stairs led up to a landing, which was separated from the balcony and house by the ramp Brynjolf had mentioned. The ramp was raised like a drawbridge. The mechanism that lowered it was under the awning, and a lever protruded from the gears just waiting to be activated. Selene drew her bow and aimed carefully for the lever, taking a deep breath and squinting down the length of the arrow. She released the arrow, it hit the lever, and the ramp fell to the landing with a thud. She ascended the stairs and used Vald’s house key to get inside.
It was evident that Mercer hadn’t used the house much. A couple of bandits appeared to have taken up residence, but there wasn’t much of value, just a statue of Dibella, some gems, and a few gold pieces. She took care of the bandits and pocketed the gold and gems. In a room off the kitchen, Selene found a couple of wardrobes set into the wall. After investigating the murders in Windhelm, she had gotten into the habit of checking wardrobes for false back panels, and one of the cabinets had just such a panel. The door opened onto a flight of stairs, which led down into Riften’s sewers.
The tunnels were loaded with traps; Mercer obviously wasn’t taking any chances. She came upon a room in which the entire floor was made up of fire-jet pressure plates. There was usually a pattern to the plates so those in the know could walk through easily; but not knowing the pattern and reluctant to use her Become Ethereal Shout in case she wasn’t alone, Selene could do nothing but make a run for it. She whispered a quick prayer to Kynareth and darted across the floor to the opposite doorway, getting singed in the process but not sustaining any serious burns. In the next hallway was another pressure plate, but this one was easy to go around.
In a niche off the corridor, Selene found a chest containing a large sack of coins. It wasn’t as big as the one she had brought back from Solitude, but there were at least a couple hundred gold pieces inside. She tied the sack to her belt and silently thanked Mercer for finally sharing his wealth.
She turned a corner, and though she didn’t appear to set off any traps, more than half a dozen pendulum blades started swinging in the following hallway. There was no lever to stop the blades, and they all swung separately so there was no easy way to get through them. “Gods damn it,” she muttered. “Okay, fine. FEIM ZII!” With the Shout, she instantly felt weightless, and when she looked down at her hands, she could see right through them. Confident the blades would no longer hurt her, Selene took off running. Two or three of them caught her but passed through her ethereal body harmlessly. By the time the effect wore off, she was on the other side. Fortunately, neither bandits nor Mercer awaited her.
More stairs led farther down into the sewer. At the bottom, she found a heavily trapped door and set about disarming it. The mechanisms were complicated and took several long minutes to work through. She even set one of them off and had to leap out of the way as a sharp spike burst from the wall. Fighting frustration, she finally managed to disarm all the traps and open the door to find Mercer’s office.
All the valuables missing from the rest of the house were present in the office. She found several flawless gems, a large pile of gold, and an enchanted glass sword that glowed blue instead of the normal malachite green. It was fantastic. She smashed the display case housing the sword, picked it up, and tucked it under her belt.
On the desk, she found what she was looking for. Mercer had detailed his plans on a rather large piece of parchment, complete with a drawing depicting the statue of a seated person with a circled X and an arrow pointing at its eyes, a map of the Dwemer ruin Irkngthand, and notes on how to locate and retrieve the Eyes of the Falmer. Selene smiled. “Oh, Bryn’s gonna love this,” she said softly as she rolled the parchment and stuffed it in her pack. There was also an item on the desk that Delvin would like. It was a bust of the Gray Fox, the leader of Cyrodiil’s thieves guild. It sat proudly on Mercer’s desk, its face obscured by the Gray Cowl of Nocturnal, just waiting to be liberated from its moldy dungeon. Resolving not to pick anything else up short of the crown jewels, Selene lifted the bust and exited the office through the far door.
Down yet another flight of stairs, Selene found a drainage hole in the floor leading down to the next level. The drop wasn’t far and she could make it easily, but one of Delvin’s Shadowmarks had been carved into the stone next to the hole, warning of danger. The area at the bottom was silent, and Selene sniffed the air and picked up no scents, so she figured the coast was clear. However, she worried about the bust of the Gray Fox. It was only plaster, and a six-foot drop onto a stone floor would probably shatter it. She dropped the glass sword and her knapsack first, then lowered the bust as far as she could before dropping it. “Please don’t break,” she whispered, “please don’t break.” The bust hit the pack and rolled off unharmed, and Selene leapt down and retrieved her items. She looked around and realized she was in the Ratway Vaults, only a few steps from the door to the Ragged Flagon.
She found Brynjolf standing at Mercer’s desk in the cistern, paging through a log book and looking frustrated. He looked up and started to reach for her, but he noticed the bust and peered down at it. “Have I been replaced already?”
“There’s something about him, but he just doesn’t have your…ahem…warmth. I got this for Delvin.” She set the bust on the desk and drew the glass sword. “I thought you might like this.”
Brynjolf’s eyes lit up as he took the sword from her. “Chillrend! It’s one of Mercer’s most prized pieces. I’ve coveted it for years.”
“It’s yours, then.”
“Thank you, love. I’m afraid I didn’t get you anything.”
“Maybe I can take it out in trade later.”
“Ah, it’s a win-win!” He tucked Chillrend under his belt and became serious. “There’s no sign of Mercer anywhere. We’ve scoured the town, and I’ve spoken to every contact I could locate.”
“Sapphire and Vipir are checking out Black-Briar Lodge. Unfortunately breaking into Black-Briar Manor is out of the question, so we won’t know if he’s there. Any luck on your end?”
Selene smiled and nodded, then dug into her pack and produced Mercer’s plans.
Anger seeped into his scent as he studied the page. “Shor’s beard! He’s going after the Eyes of the Falmer!”
“Enthir—the elf who translated the journal—said Gallus was working on something that would involve knowledge of the Falmer language. I take it this is it?”
“It was his pet project. Do you know what the Eyes of the Falmer are?”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
He pointed to the statue depicted in the plans. “Twin jewels, bigger than your head, set into the giant statue of an ancient snow elf king. Lass, if Mercer gets his hands on those, he’ll be gone for good. He’s taken everything the Guild has, and to go after such a heist—especially one Gallus planned—is a slap in the face.”
“Then we’ll stop him. And perhaps we can get the eyes while we’re at it—an homage to Gallus.”
Brynjolf smiled at her and caressed her cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. Where did that come from?”
“Sometimes I think you can read my mind.”
“Sometimes I can. What’s next?”
“I spoke with Karliah and apologized for how the Guild treated her, and she’s happily rejoined us. She said she wishes to speak with you and me, though. I think she has a plan.”
“Let’s not waste any time, then. Hopefully her plan will allow us a little alone time, though, don’t you agree?”
“I certainly do, my love.”
He took her hand and led her across the cistern, where the dark elf waited with a proposal that would change their lives.