It was mid-afternoon when Karliah picked the lock of Black-Briar Manor’s back door and slipped inside. Before she had come, she had wandered around town to locate all the family members and ensure the house was empty. Maven was in her office on the second floor of the Bee & Barb, and Ingun was working at Elgrim’s Elixirs. Sibbi was still in jail, and Hemming was practicing swordplay in Mistveil Keep’s training yard. Still, she was swift as she darted through the house to find Maven’s desk. There was no desk to speak of, but she did find an end table with some of the mead magnate’s personal stationery, ink, and a quill. She took a piece of the stationery and, in handwriting so like Maven’s the forgery would never be detected, wrote the following:
It is past time to move forward with the plan to eliminate Jarl Laila Law-Giver and her family. Her housecarl and steward must die as well. This must go flawlessly if my plan to take my place as jarl and bring the Empire back to Riften is to succeed. I do not need to tell you there will be dire consequences if the assassination is not executed to perfection.
When she was finished, Karliah folded the letter, dripped candlewax on the fold, and used Maven’s seal to close it all up. While she was at it, she took a couple of extra pieces of stationery to use later. She slipped out the back as silently and invisibly as she had gone in.
* * *
Selene crouched behind a rock, waiting. She was in beast form and the scents around her were tempting, but she did her best to remain focused. Her prey was already determined, and he was on his way. She could see him from here. Edmund Fleet-Foot, Maven Black-Briar’s favorite courier, ran up the road toward her. Edmund was a singularly disgusting man who spent his free time partaking in every form of vice to be found in Tamriel. Haelg’s perversions were nothing compared to this man’s. Selene didn’t shock or offend easily and was certainly no prude, but Edmund gave her the creeps. Whenever she spoke to him, she felt like she needed a bath afterward. She would have no trouble liberating Nirn from his contamination. When he reached the rock where she was hiding, she leapt out and menaced him, baring her fangs and snarling.
“Dear Stendarr, help me,” he whispered as he pulled his dagger.
Without hesitation, Selene slashed him across the face and chest, basically ripping him to shreds. She didn’t hunt often enough, and the scent of fresh blood was intoxicating. It was with monumental effort that she managed to step away from the corpse without feeding. She ducked behind the rock and shifted back to human form, quickly dressed, and pulled Karliah’s forged letter from her pack. She placed the letter in Edmund’s pouch, then knelt behind the rock again and waited.
It had taken quite a bit of doing, but they had managed to procure two schedules—that of Edmund and that of Lars, a courier Selene knew that ran for the Stormcloaks. They had compared the two itineraries, neither of which varied widely from week to week, and found a place and time where the two couriers passed in close proximity to each other. On this day, at this time, Lars ran on the same road about half an hour behind Edmund. Selene had tested the schedule two weeks in a row, and on this third week, she had executed the plan. As long as nobody else came along in the meantime, Lars should be along shortly and find Edmund. He would search the pouch and see the letter from Maven to Astrid and most likely read it. After that, it wasn’t a stretch to expect him to take the letter to Ulfric for follow-up.
No one came by, and about twenty minutes after she had planted the letter, Lars came running up. Selene engaged her Shadowcloak and remained very still. He apparently knew Edmund because he spoke to him.
“Oi, Edmund, what got you, a sabre cat? Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Let’s see what you were carrying. Anything interesting?” He searched Edmund’s pouch and browsed through the few letters he had on him. “Well, well, look at this. Maven Black-Briar to Astrid. Hmm, Dark Brotherhood. That should be interesting reading for my lord.” He stuffed the letter in his pocket and then took off in the direction from which he had come, back toward Windhelm.
Selene smiled with satisfaction and headed home to Riften.
* * *
Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak read the letter with interest, a large smile forming across his face. He had known for years that Maven sympathized with the Imperials, but she had never done anything he could actually use to bring her down. She had so much power that even he was reluctant to oppose her. But it appeared she had finally made a mistake.
“Where did you get this?” he asked Lars, who stood at the bottom of the dais, facing him.
“I came upon one of her favorite couriers, someone I knew, who apparently had been mauled by some animal. He had the letter on him.”
Ulfric chuckled. “Luck favors us all. Come with me.” He led Lars to his chambers, where he sat down at his desk and reached for a piece of stationery. He penned a quick note to Laila, placed it and Maven’s letter in a large envelope, and closed it with his seal. “This goes from your hand to Jarl Laila’s,” he instructed Lars. “No one else touches it.”
“Understood, my Jarl.”
* * *
The Nightingales had discussed the matter of who would kill Maven and ultimately chose Brynjolf. He was closer to her than the rest and more likely to pay her a visit without a summons.
Although he didn’t give them many details, Brynjolf had the thieves and some of his other contacts watch the routes into Riften with the directive to get word to him immediately when anybody suspicious or strange came into town. They were looking for a courier coming to the jarl, but they also couldn’t discount the notion that someone might come to warn Maven. It was unlikely, but as sure as they neglected that minor contingency, it would come back to bite them on the arse. The plan was simple: if the courier went to Mistveil Keep, Anuriel would inform them if he brought a message from Ulfric Stormcloak. If he or she was heading to Black-Briar Manor, they would intercept and kill them. The timing had to be precise, or the plan would fail. Brynjolf had stopped manning his kiosk in the marketplace when the Guild started doing better, but he took his place among the merchants again so he could keep an eye on things from up top. Better to be as close to Maven as possible so that when he had to move, he would be ready. He just hoped Nocturnal would grant them the luck they needed to pull it off.
A week after Selene killed Edmund and planted the letter, a teenage boy Brynjolf had hired to watch the north road ran up to the stand. “Stormcloak courier coming this way,” he informed Brynjolf.
Brynjolf handed the boy a small bag of coin. “Good work. Go back and let me know if you see anything else. I’ll let you know when you can leave your post.”
Now, he just had to wait. If this was their man, Brynjolf would receive word from Unmid Snow-Shod shortly after the courier arrived and informed Anuriel he had a message from Ulfric. Having both the jarl’s steward and housecarl in the Guild’s pocket came in very handy. They didn’t have details, only instructions to let Brynjolf know as quickly as possible if the jarl got any messages from Ulfric.
Brynjolf saw the Stormcloak sprint past the plaza and up the stairs to Mistveil Keep, and a few minutes later Unmid descended the same stairs and sauntered into the marketplace. He stepped up to Brynjolf’s stand and said, “Courier just arrived with a letter from Ulfric Stormcloak for the jarl’s hands only. Go and warn Maven; Anuriel will stall for as long as she can.”
Maven was at home, so when Unmid went back up to the keep, Brynjolf started across the plaza to Black-Briar Manor with a small chuckle. Unmid had thought they were trying to help Maven. That little misconception could be very beneficial in case someone asked questions about why Brynjolf had visited Maven this afternoon. As he approached the house, though, a terrible thought crossed his mind. What if it was just your ordinary Stormcloak courier, and he wasn’t even carrying anything about Maven? There could be anything in that letter. No. He couldn’t think like that. Life wasn’t that cruel.
When he reached the house, he steeled himself for the task at hand. He had killed before, of course, but in fights. This was cold-blooded murder, and though Selene hadn’t had trouble killing Edmund, it was different for him. She was a warrior; he was far from it. He did what was necessary, but he didn’t know if he’d ever get used to killing people. For the first time since they had begun to execute the plan, Brynjolf had doubts. What if he got there and couldn’t go through with it? The letter from Ulfric would arrive, and Laila would question Maven and possibly arrest her. But Maven was too influential to stay locked away for long. She had hands in many pots, and one of those allies would either find a way to exonerate her or help her escape. And Maven wouldn’t rest until she found out who had plotted against her and exacted her revenge. No. It couldn’t get that far. Maven had to die, and she had to die today.
Maven opened the door and looked him over critically. “What are you doing here?”
“Just checking in. You know the Guild is back on its feet, but I thought you might like to see some numbers.”
“Of course. Come in.” She let him into the house and led him to the kitchen table. “I just made some tea. Would you like some?” One thing about Maven: she might be the biggest hard-arse on the face of Nirn, but when one was in her home, she was an excellent hostess.
He sat down as she went to the fireplace and poured tea for them. He reached into his pocket and fingered the tiny steel vial containing the jarrin root extract Karliah had made. Just having it in his pocket could incriminate him if he got caught. But he wouldn’t get caught. The plan would work. It had to.
They chatted about the profits the Guild was making while they sipped their drinks. It was good tea, an expensive, imported blend, and Brynjolf briefly considered stealing the box when he left.
“I didn’t realize the Guild was doing so well,” Maven said as she finished her tea.
Brynjolf stared into her eyes and used Subterfuge to get into her head. “You should pour yourself another cup, Maven.”
“I think I’ll have another cup of tea. You?”
“I still have plenty, thanks.”
Maven got up to retrieve the kettle. While her back was turned, Brynjolf took the opportunity to pour some of the poison into her almost-empty cup. He hoped it didn’t change the flavor too much.
“We were able to get back much of what Mercer stole, and we’ve had a few good heists. It seems our luck has turned.”
Maven scoffed and poured her tea, then sat down and took a sip. The flavor must not have been off because she didn’t seem to notice any change. “You thieves and your luck.”
“It’s what gets us by, Maven.”
Before long, Maven’s second serving of tea was more than half gone. “What’s next for you?” she asked, her words beginning to slur a bit.
“We’re naming Selene Guild Master.”
“Why not you? You should have the…the…oh, dear.” She closed her eyes and swooned, then looked down at her cup. She glared up at Brynjolf. “You bastard. What have you done?”
“Justice, Maven,” he replied icily.
She never got the chance to respond. Her eyes went blank, and she slumped over, her head crashing to the table.
Brynjolf felt for a pulse in her neck, and feeling none, he set to work. He placed the half-empty vial in her hand, then washed his cup, dried it, and put it away. He set his chair back as it had been before he had come in. Then for the final piece. He retrieved her quill and inkwell from her desk and placed it next to her on the table, along with a letter Karliah had forged that read:
I do not regret what I did. The Empire must come back to Skyrim, and Ulfric Stormcloak must be quashed. However, I will not rot in the dungeon of a barbarian who is more bear than man, and I refuse to give him the satisfaction of sending me to the executioner’s block. I will die on my own terms.
He stood and looked at Maven’s fresh corpse for a long time. Her skin was already turning gray, and her eyes started blankly into the Void. He still thought it best to check again for a pulse, so he placed a finger on her throat. No, she was very dead.
“Goodbye, Maven,” he whispered. Then he left the house.
* * *
Lars stood before Jarl Laila-Lawgiver and gave a short bow. “A letter from Ulfric Stormcloak, my jarl, to be delivered into your hands only,” he said. He handed her a rather large envelope, and she broke the seal, opened it, and read Ulfric’s letter.
This letter found its way to me. I have not verified its authenticity, but I felt you should be aware of it.
Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak
She pulled the letter from the envelope and perused it, a cold chill running down her spine. It was definitely Maven’s handwriting and seal. As Jarl of Riften, especially when tensions were so high in the province, they always assumed her life was in danger. That was why she had a housecarl and guards. She was used to the possibility that someone might attempt an assassination, but the thought of being the target of Maven Black-Briar terrified her. The woman was certainly capable of having her killed. And the letter was to Astrid, reputed to be the leader of the Dark Brotherhood. Ulfric was right: she had to confirm the validity of the letter, but she could not just let this go. She would have to interrogate Maven.
“Unmid, take a man and bring me Maven Black-Briar. I have some questions for her.”
“Aye, Jarl Laila.”
* * *
Unmid Snow-Shod had seen a lot in his lifetime, so the sight of Maven Black-Briar sitting dead at her kitchen table barely made him blink. He despised the woman—everyone did, he supposed, except her children, and he wasn’t so sure about them—so he certainly wasn’t heartbroken about her demise. He was surprised, though. As he read the note lying on the table, he shook his head. “Didn’t think she had it in her,” he mused.
“Unmid,” said Dolff, the guard who had accompanied him to Black-Briar Manor. “There’s a vial in her hand.”
Unmid took the vial and sniffed it. “Take it back to Wylandria. And be sure to warn her that it may be poison. She’s so scatterbrained, she might take a taste before she realizes what she has. Still, she should be able to identify it. Let’s have a look around the house.”
Although Maven’s corpse didn’t give him pause, the tableau he found in a locked room in the basement did. A skeleton lay amid a circle of candles, along with a heart, skull, and what appeared to be human flesh. A dagger also lay on the floor next to a couple of blooms of nightshade and the book A Kiss, Sweet Mother. So far in his life he had been spared from seeing the profane Black Sacrament, and it would be a while before the image left his mind. “Sweet mother of Akatosh,” he whispered.
Dolff handed him a note he had found just outside the circle of candles. It was to the Brotherhood from Maven, complaining that Astrid was not moving forward with the assassination as quickly as she should be. He stuffed the letter in his pocket and said, “I think we have enough. Let’s go back to the Keep.”
* * *
Laila read the second note and sighed. She had known Maven sympathized with the Imperials, but she had also thought the woman was her friend. How could she have been so stupid?
She looked over at Anuriel, who sat staring at her expectantly. “Go to Elgrim’s Elixirs and bring Ingun to me. I need to tell her that her mother is dead.”
“Understood, my jarl.”
Anuriel got up and headed for the door, pausing briefly to exchange a glance with Unmid. The couple thought Laila didn’t know they were together, but their affection for each other was hard to miss. Such a relationship was normally frowned upon, but the steward and housecarl seemed happy, and as long as they didn’t let it interfere with their duties, Laila wouldn’t put a stop to it.
“Is there anything else, my Jarl?” Unmid asked when Anuriel had gone.
Laila shook her head. “Not at the moment. I believe justice has been served.”
* * *
Guards gossiped, and it didn’t take long for news of what Unmid and Dolff had found in Black-Briar Manor to spread throughout Riften. The Black Sacrament in the basement was a complete surprise, but it only gave more validity to what they had done. Perhaps they did thwart an attempt on Laila’s life.
Selene stood in the circle in the center of the cistern surrounded by Brynjolf, Karliah, Delvin, and Vex. The rest of the Guild stood just a few feet away, watching the ceremony.
“I’m not good at this, so I’ll make it short,” her husband said. “When you arrived in the Flagon for the first time, the Thieves Guild was dying a slow death. Due in large part to your work, we’re back on our feet and looking at prosperous times. Therefore, I propose that you be promoted to the position of Guild Master. Delvin, what say you?”
“Aye, I agree.”
The blonde Imperial shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
“I agree wholeheartedly.”
“Then it’s official. Selene Stormblade, I hereby name you Guild Master.” He handed her a key and an amulet, which he had been wearing around his neck since she had met him. “This is the key to the tribute chest in front of your desk. The amulet is enchanted to enhance your speaking ability. Persuasion, bribes, buying and selling goods, all will be easier with the amulet. After we’re finished here, see Tonilia, and she will give you your new armor. I know you probably won’t wear it, but it’s yours nonetheless.”
“Thank you. Thank you all.”
Brynjolf sighed, seemingly with relief. “That’s it, then.” As the group dispersed, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks. I want you to keep the amulet, though. You’re the con man, and I think it will benefit you more than me.”
“How about if we share it? You do all the shopping, after all.”
“The thieves are gathering in the Flagon for a celebration. After that, boss, what will be your first executive action?”
“To forbid you to call me ‘boss’ ever again. I may be Guild Master, but you’re my partner in every way. You don’t put me on a pedestal as Dragonborn; don’t do it for this.”
“You’ve got it, boss.”
She slapped his chest playfully. “You will pay; you know that.”
“Are you gonna turn me over your knee?”
“I just might.”
He chuckled softly. “I love you, wife.”
“I love you too, husband.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. “All right. Let’s get this party started.”
* * *
This ends A Nightingale’s Tale. Look for The Dragonborn’s Tale, coming soon.