“No,” Mercer Frey said slowly, eyes wide, but Selene wasn’t fooled. His voice and eyes may have shown shock and fear when she told him about Karliah, but his scent told a different story. He wasn’t surprised to hear his nemesis’s name.
Brynjolf had told her all about it on the way back from Whiterun. Twenty-five years previously, Karliah had seduced Gallus to gain his trust, and then she had begun stealing from the Guild. When Gallus had discovered her treachery, she had killed him and gravely wounded Mercer. She had disappeared after that, and no one had seen or heard from her since.
But Mercer had been expecting her.
Then again, it did make sense. Who better to take down the Guild from the inside than someone who had actually been there? Mercer had said their enemy was clever and patient. It was a long con, and the perpetrator was a master. Brynjolf had talked about how shrewd Karliah was. Plus, she was an elf. Twenty-five years to plan such an operation would be nothing to someone with such a long life.
“What’s the plan?” Selene asked the Guild Master.
“At this point, there is no plan,” he said with frustration. “I have no idea where she is. Our only option for now is damage control. I’ll need to talk to Maven—”
“Actually, I might have a clue as to where she is. Gulum-Ei said she was going ‘where the end began.’”
“There’s only one place that could be: Snow Veil Sanctum. It’s where she murdered Gallus.”
“Show me where it is on the map, and I’ll head out first thing tomorrow.”
“I’ll meet you there.”
“Mercer, I think I can—”
“Karliah is the absolute best at what she does. Even if you are an experienced warrior, you’ll still need backup, and I’m the best person for that. She and I were partners; we went together on every heist and watched each other’s backs. I know her techniques, her skills. And I owe her. Brynjolf can show you where the ruin is. There’s something I have to do before I go. I’ll meet you there in four days. Don’t be late. We cannot afford to let her slip through our fingers.”
* * *
They propped up on pillows in bed, Selene leaning back against Brynjolf with his arms around her and their fingers intertwined, watching the fire as it flickered merrily in the kitchen, warming the house against the brisk autumn wind that buffeted the windows and doors. She closed her eyes and relished the feel of his body against hers—the hard muscles in his chest and legs, his strong arms, his soft lips and the bristles of his beard tickling her shoulder when he kissed it. It was going to be hard to leave him, but Mercer had already told him to stay and manage the Guild while he was gone. It was going to be hard to leave the house again, too. She was starting to wonder if she’d ever actually get to spend any time there.
“I’ve owned this house over a month but have only spent a few days here,” she complained. “Now I’m leaving again.”
“Perhaps when you get back, you can take a few days off to enjoy it.”
“Hmm, that would be nice. That is, if I have you for company.”
“I’ll be right here with you, lass. Just take care of yourself and be sure you do come back.”
“Plan to miss me?” she asked playfully.
He didn’t answer right away, and anxiety seeped into his scent. He wrapped his arms tighter around her, and he spoke, where was a catch in his voice. “I’ve got a bad feeling. I know you can take care of yourself, and you’ll have Mercer, but I can’t help feeling something is going to go wrong. I never knew I could feel like this. I didn’t believe love existed—not for me, even after what Olava said—and I don’t want it yanked away.”
She turned in his arms and looked up into his handsome face. Brynjolf bent his head to hers, but the kiss was interrupted by her growling stomach. He chuckled. “Are you hungry?”
“I could eat,” she admitted. She climbed out of bed and went to the kitchen, but there was really no point looking around for anything to eat; she’d been gone for weeks, and there had been no time to shop. She went back to the bedroom, retrieved a dress from her wardrobe, and pulled it over her head.
“Are we going somewhere?” Brynjolf asked as she put on her boots.
“Let’s go to the Bee and get some dinner.”
Brynjolf got up and dressed, and they made their way to the Bee and Barb. “Ah, look who it is,” said Talen-Jei when they sat down at a table near the stairs. “It’s my dearest friends.”
“Sarcasm isn’t attractive, Talen-Jei,” Selene told the Argonian.
“What can I get you?”
They each ordered venison steaks, baked potatoes, and Black-Briar mead. When Talen-Jei left the table, Brynjolf gave Selene a wry smile. “You have the oddest taste in food,” he mused.
“I ordered the same thing you did!”
“Aye, but you ordered the venison rare and bloody. Who does that?”
“Well, it’s obvious that your tastes are simply unrefined.”
“You must be right. Look who I fell in love with,” she said with a coy grin.
Brynjolf brought a hand to his chest, a pained look coming over his face. “Ugh, lass, you cut me to the quick!”
As they waited for their food, Selene noticed Mercer entering the inn and stealing up the stairs. A few moments later, she heard raised voices. Curious, she got up from the table. “I’ll be right back.” She crept halfway up the stairs to eavesdrop on a heated conversation between Mercer and Maven Black-Briar.
“Karliah!” Maven cried. “Damn you, Mercer, you said you had this contained.”
“How was I supposed to know she would pick now to reveal herself? She hasn’t done anything for twenty-five years.”
“Well, it seems she’s been rather active these past few months, does it not? And you can’t look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t suspect she was behind it all.”
“Was I surprised? No. But it doesn’t matter; it’ll be taken care of soon enough. I know where she is, and Selene and I are going to get rid of her.”
Maven snorted derisively. “Selene. You didn’t tell me she was responsible for breaking up the Cragslane skooma operation. Half the town is talking about her deeds; the jarl is even talking about making her Thane.”
“So what? We have half of Mistveil Keep in our pocket anyway.”
“Well, Divines know what else she has her hands in. Does she fight as well as she digs up information?”
“I hear she was instrumental in the Stormcloaks’ victory.”
“In any case, I’m certain that taking Karliah down will be a piece of cake for her.”
Maven didn’t speak for a long moment, but when she did, there was a tremble to her voice. “Mercer, she could ruin everything, all we’ve worked for. All those years without an incident, and suddenly she shows up and threatens to topple it. You cannot allow her to live.”
“Don’t worry. She won’t leave Snow Veil Sanctum alive.”
Selene snuck back down the stairs and sat down across from Brynjolf.
“What was that about?”
“I was just being nosy. Mercer and Maven were talking about Karliah, and I wanted to hear.”
“You’re a bad girl.”
“Well, if you feel the need to turn me over your knee and spank me, I’ll try not to squirm too much.”
“Squirm, love. It’s more fun that way.”
“They were talking about me, too, if that helps.”
“Oh? What did they say?”
“They said Laila was going to make me Thane.”
Brynjolf made a sour face. “Don’t get too respectable on me, love. I don’t think I could handle it.”
“Well, according to Mercer, being employed by Mistveil Keep doesn’t necessarily make one respectable. He said half of them are in the Guild’s pocket.”
“Half, eh? That’s about right.”
“Actually, Maven was pretty upset. She worries that Karliah will jeopardize everything she and the Guild have worked for.”
“She said that?” Brynjolf asked incredulously.
“More or less. I’m sure she makes a good deal of coin off the Guild, no?”
“Very little, actually. We do her dirty work, and she offers us financial support, not vice versa. She threatens to cut us off or sell us out at least once or twice a year.”
“Perhaps she’s getting more out of the arrangement than you know. Mercer doesn’t tell you everything, does he?”
“I’d know if he was giving Maven a cut,” he retorted. “See, this is what you get for eavesdropping. Now we have questions we may not want answered.”
“Tell me you’re not angry with me because I listened in on that conversation.”
“No, love, I’m not angry with you. I just have to wonder why she suddenly cares so much.”
“Better to have her care than sell us out, no?”
“Aye, I guess you’re right.”
The conversation turned to other things, but Brynjolf was unusually quiet. Only when they made love later did Selene feel like he was right there with her; otherwise, he was pensive, preoccupied, and she finally fell asleep not knowing what was bothering him. She awoke the next morning to find him lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. He looked exhausted.
“Do you know you growl in your sleep?” he asked her when she cuddled up to him.
“So I’ve heard. You didn’t sleep at all, did you?”
He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “Were you ever with a group of people, at a party or something, and everybody was in on a joke, but you didn’t get the joke? Like you were missing something. That’s how I feel. I’m missing something, something I should have picked up on, and it confounds me.”
“I’ve never seen you like this.”
“I like to think I’m pretty sharp. You can’t get much past me, can’t con the con man. But something is not right, I can’t figure out what it is, and I can’t help feeling you and Mercer are walking into the lion’s den.”
Selene propped on an elbow and looked him in the eye. “Bryn, you’re just feeling this way because we’ve never been separated before.”
“I accept that you’ll come and go; it’s part of the job. This is more than that.”
“I don’t think you’re missing anything. I think I only heard part of a conversation, and what I relayed to you didn’t give you enough information to ease your mind. If it will make you feel better, I’ll take extra care to watch for the unexpected, but I’ll come back, love. I’ll always come back.”
Brynjolf caressed her cheek and forced a smile. “You’d better. I have plans for you.”
“You’ll have to come back to find out.”
* * *
Snow Veil Sanctum was halfway between Windhelm and Winterhold, about a three-day hike from Riften. Selene made good time and approached the ruin late on the third afternoon, wrinkling her nose as she passed a freshly dead horse.
“Good, you’re finally here,” Mercer muttered when she met him near the entrance. “I’ve scouted the ruins and I’m certain Karliah is inside.”
“I take it that was her horse?”
“It was. Let’s get moving. I want to catch her while she’s distracted. You take the lead, and watch your step. These places are rife with traps, and I don’t want you blundering into something and alerting her.”
“I’ll try to be careful,” Selene retorted sarcastically.
“So what’s going on with you and Brynjolf?” Mercer asked as they descended the spiral stairs to the entrance.
“What makes you think anything’s going on?”
“Because I’m not stupid. You left alone but returned together, and things between you two were very cozy.”
“We ran into each other in Whiterun.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything; it makes no difference to me. But I hope you’re not expecting him to pledge his undying love. He’s a notorious ladies’ man, and he’ll say anything to get you into bed.”
“Whatever you say, Mercer.”
“Love is what killed Gallus. He let Karliah get too close, trusted her too much, and it was a fatal mistake.”
“Well, I don’t see Brynjolf betraying the Guild. I know you don’t believe it, but I won’t, either; and I’m certainly not going to use him to do it.” She worked on the lock, but it was tougher than most ruin doors she had encountered and didn’t want to budge.
“Here, let me,” he said. “I don’t know what all the fuss is with these things. All it takes is a bit of knowhow. And a lot of skill,” he added pointedly. “I’ve waited too long and spent too much coin to let her get away because you can’t open a lock.”
“You know what, Mercer? You’re kind of a dick.”
He chuckled. “After Karliah killed Gallus, the in-fighting in the Guild was brutal. The Ratway turned into a bloodbath, and I didn’t become Guild Master in a popularity contest. The struggle for leadership gave Karliah time to cover her tracks. I spent years and thousands of Septims trying to find her, but it was as if she had simply vanished. I’m too close now to worry about bruising your delicate ego.” With a pop, the lock gave way, and Mercer stood back. “After you.”
Once they were inside the crypt, it was pretty evident that Karliah had been through and left a fairly easy trail. Selene could have followed her by scent, but it wasn’t an issue because it seemed Karliah wanted them to find her. A handful of dead draugr, a footprint, an open chest all left clues that she had passed through. She didn’t make it that easy for them, however; she reset any traps she triggered and set more.
Selene could tell early on that dungeon delving with Mercer would not go down as one of her more enjoyable endeavors. He told her to be quiet, but he spoke loudly. He warned her to watch out for traps and then triggered them himself. He was fairly generous when splitting any loot they found along the way, however; then again, maybe he just didn’t want to carry it. Selene took point and eliminated any draugr they came across. Once or twice, when there were more than she could handle easily, Mercer stepped in. He was an adequate fighter, and she was grateful for the help. The more they fought, though, the more fear seeped into his scent, and she got the distinct impression that it was her he feared, not the draugr. He knew she was a Companion, and she thought he knew she was the Dragonborn. Surely he hadn’t underestimated her fighting ability.
“There are an awful lot of living draugr,” Selene noted. “Well, moving draugr, anyway.”
“Karliah always was a nimble minx. Slipping past them must have been child’s play for her.”
“And foolish, if you ask me. You never leave an enemy alive behind you.”
At the end of a long tunnel, they found a set of wide double doors, which Mercer mentioned would be a good place for an ambush. They didn’t find an ambush, only a large room guarded by a couple of draugr. They were easy to dispatch, and when things quieted down, Selene heard familiar chanting. She found a word wall at the back of the room and approached it, the chanting growing louder and the word glowing brighter on the wall.
“Zun,” the wall whispered to her. She reached deep down to connect with the last dragon she had killed, and understanding filled her mind. Zun meant weapon and was used to disarm an opponent.
When she turned away from the wall, Mercer was standing behind her, eyes wide. He didn’t say a word, and when she tried to make eye contact, he looked away. The fear in his scent was unmistakable now. “I imagine that’s pretty shocking for the first time,” she said kindly.
“It’s fine,” he barked. “I’ve seen a lot of crazy things over the years.”
After looting a particularly lucrative chest, they moved on until they came upon a door with a dragon claw puzzle.
“Ah, if it isn’t one of the infamous Nordic puzzle doors,” Mercer drawled. “How quaint.”
“You say ‘quaint,’ but without the matching claw, there’s no way through.”
“No worries. These doors have a weakness if you know how to exploit it.” He stepped up to the door, again turning his back so she couldn’t see what he was doing. After a moment, the door began to drop into its recess. Mercer stood back and motioned for her to go ahead.
“That’s handy,” Selene said, impressed. “You’ll have to show me that trick sometime.”
Mercer answered with a grunt.
Selene didn’t see much as she stepped through the door. There was a sharp pain in her shoulder, a dizzy, hazy sensation, and then she blacked out. When she came to, Mercer stood farther in the room, talking to a dark elf wearing tattered Thieves Guild armor. Her bow was drawn, and an arrow was trained on Mercer.
“Do you honestly think your arrow will reach me before my blade finds your heart?”
“Give me a reason to try,” Karliah dared him in a soft, gentle voice. She sounded more as if she should be singing lullabies instead of threatening to kill someone.
Mercer sheathed his sword, and Karliah lowered her bow. “You’re a clever girl, Karliah. Buying Goldenglow and funding Honningbrew was inspired.”
“‘To ensure an enemy’s defeat, you must first undermine his allies.’ It was the first lesson Gallus taught us.”
“You always were a quick study.”
“Not quick enough. Otherwise, Gallus would still be alive.”
“Gallus had his wealth, and he had you. All he had to do was look the other way.”
What? Was Selene hearing this right? It sounded as though it was Mercer who had betrayed the Guild and killed Gallus. He had spoken of a long con, implying that Karliah had engineered it, but it had been him from the very beginning.
“Did you forget the oath we took as Nightingales? Did you expect him to simply ignore your methods?”
“That oath was a means to an end. I owe my allegiance to no one.”
“Oh? What about Maven Black-Briar?”
Mercer hesitated but finally said, “Maven is also a means to an end, and don’t think she’s not using me just as I’m using her. Better to have her as an ally than an enemy, something you weren’t able to make her for all your effort.”
“Perhaps she trusts you more than she should. Or do you trust her more than you should?”
“I can trust Maven because I know I can’t trust her. Neither of us will betray the other because the cost would be too great.”
“You’re a fool, Mercer.”
“Enough of this mindless banter!” He drew his sword. “Come, Karliah! It’s time for you to be reunited with Gallus.”
The elf drank a potion and vanished. “I’m no fool, Mercer. Crossing blades with you would be a death sentence. But I can promise you the next time we meet, it will be your undoing.”
Selene tried desperately to get up, to move, to do anything as Mercer sheathed his sword and moseyed nonchalantly toward her, but nothing happened. She could barely breathe, much less defend herself.
“Oh, look, you’re awake! And you heard every word, didn’t you? Maven was right when she said I couldn’t allow you to live. You know too much already, and you’re a master at investigation. It wouldn’t have been long before you uncovered our operation, even if you and I hadn’t come here. And just as with Gallus, Karliah has provided me with the means to be rid of you.” He drew his sword and smiled mirthlessly down at her. “Farewell, Selene. I’ll be certain to give your boyfriend your regards.”
No. He couldn’t. He would go back and tell Brynjolf she had been working with Karliah all along. Bryn would hate her, and she would never be able to tell him the truth. As Mercer buried his blade in her abdomen, she managed a faint whimper, but it was only moments before the pain and weakness overtook her. Then there was nothing.
* * *
She was in the garden with the picnic, the strawberries, and the lovely goddess, who sat smiling at her. The clearing where they sat was sunny and peaceful, but a storm raged just outside the perimeter.
“Milady,” Selene said to Kynareth with a nod, “am I dead?”
“No, child. I refuse to allow that conniving reprobate to end your life.” The storm intensified as she spat the words. “He is weak, selfish, and he has no idea how many he has angered with his…antics.”
“That is all they are, really. Compared to you, my champion, he is but a child playing a foolish game. He is no match for you.”
“It seems he defeated me pretty thoroughly.”
“He took advantage of your paralysis. He knew he could not defeat you in battle, so he was forced to cheat. You smelled his fear; you know what I say is true. Now you must go back and show him what real fear is. I cannot say I approve of your actions of late, but free will exists for a reason, and even your larceny has a purpose. You will be given a choice soon; someone will try to force your loyalty. But know this: concessions must be made for the Dragonborn.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Hircine was correct. Most would not be allowed to divide their loyalties as you do, but you have a greater purpose than most. Do you what you must, and it will all be sorted out when the time comes. That is not to say true evil will be condoned. You know the difference between a rogue and a villain, and I trust you will not cross that line. Now, go back and defeat Mercer Frey, but do not forget that you are Dragonborn. Alduin will wait, but he will not wait forever.”
* * *
Selene slowly opened her eyes and looked around. She was outside Snow Veil Sanctum, lying next to a campfire near the dead horse It was sometime in the afternoon, and the sunlight glinted off the snow like diamonds. Her shoulder hurt where Karliah had shot her, and her side ached where Mercer had stabbed her, but she was alive and in better shape than she would hav expected. She struggled to her feet and took stock. She still had her bow and arrows, but everything else was gone.
“Easy,” said the Dunmer. “Don’t get up too quickly.”
Selene got up anyway and faced Karliah. Most dark elves had red eyes, but hers were a stark violet. Her scent was unusual as well. She was Dunmer, but she was more. She handed Selene a healing potion.
“Where’s my stuff?” she demanded as she accepted and drank the potion.
“Mercer took it; I’m sorry. How are you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been shot and stabbed.”
“My arrow saved your life,” Karliah informed her. “It was tipped with a unique paralytic poison that slowed your heart and kept you from bleeding out.”
“But why did you save me?”
“I never intended to kill you. My original intent was to use that arrow on Mercer, but he made a point of keeping you out in front. I couldn’t get a clear shot. I shot you instead to get you out of the way.” She bristled. “That poison took me a year to perfect, and I only had enough for one shot. All I had hoped for was to capture him alive, and he outplayed me.”
“Aye, by using me as a shield. That bastard. Why capture him alive?”
“Mercer must be brought before the Guild to answer for what he’s done. He must pay for Gallus’s murder.”
“I know now, and I can go back and tell Brynjolf. He’ll believe me.”
“Do you think so? I’ve been watching you, you know. Brynjolf has only known you a few months. He’s known Mercer since he was a boy. Do you really think he’ll believe you over him?”
Selene didn’t want to think about the lies Mercer would tell Brynjolf. He had worried something was wrong, and she had dismissed his fears out of hand. He would remember that when Mercer told him she had been the betrayer. Karliah was right. A few “I love yous” wouldn’t be enough to keep his trust by the time Mercer was finished. She closed her eyes to stifle the tears that threatened to well up.
“You’ll also have Maven Black-Briar to contend with,” Karliah continued. “She is just as guilty as Mercer but with much more power, and she knows how to orchestrate a cover-up.”
“Then we’ll need proof. Any ideas?”
“To get Maven? No, not yet. However, my purpose in using Snow Veil Sanctum to ambush Mercer wasn’t simply for irony’s sake. Gallus’s remains are still here, and before you arrived, I recovered his journal.”
“What does it say?”
“I wish I knew. It’s written in some sort of language I’ve never seen before.” She went into her tent and retrieved the journal, which she handed to Selene.
She looked through it to find thousands of odd symbols like nothing she’d ever seen. “Perhaps it can be translated,” she mused.
“Enthir! Of course!”
“Gallus’s friend at the College of Winterhold. He was the only outsider Gallus trusted with knowing his identity as a Nightingale.”
“Nightingale. I keep hearing that word.”
“The Nightingales are an anonymous splinter of the Thieves Guild. There were three of us—myself, Mercer, and Gallus. Perhaps I’ll tell you more about it later, but right now, it’s important to get to Winterhold with the journal.” She handed Selene a knapsack containing some healing potions, a few bottles of poison, and a coin purse. She also picked up a dagger and gave it to her. “Take these with you. They may help you on your journey. I know Mercer didn’t leave you with much.”
“My journey? You’re not coming?”
“I’m afraid not. There are preparations to make, and Gallus’s remains to lay to rest. I promise to join you there as soon as I can.”
Selene noticed a tear sliding down Karliah’s face. “Are you all right?”
Karliah sighed sadly. “You’ve heard the phrase ‘bigger than life,’ yes? Have you ever met anyone who fit the bill?”
Ulfric’s face instantly came to mind. “Aye, I have,” she replied with a sad smile.
“You’ll have to tell me about him sometime. Gallus was bigger than life. He was a scholar, a master thief, and a natural leader. Everyone respected him and followed him without question. He inducted me into the Nightingales and honed my skills to a razor-sharp point. I owe him everything. We were…very close.”
“Mercer said you were lovers.”
“Gallus felt he could let his guard down around me. I can’t help but think I’m responsible for what happened to him.”
“No,” Selene said resolutely. “Mercer is responsible for what happened to him. People are accountable for their own actions, and trust me: Mercer will pay.”
“You should get going. Remember, speak only to Enthir. Trust no one else.”
“Do you think they’ll actually let me into the college? I know enough magic to heal a wound, but I wouldn’t call myself a mage.”
“They will. They must. But check at the Frozen Hearth first. He spends a lot of time there; perhaps you’ll get lucky.”
“I don’t believe in luck,” she replied automatically.
Karliah laughed. “Once we get through this, you will.”
Selene thanked Karliah for her help, said goodbye, and headed north. As she topped a small hill, she saw the College of Winterhold looming in far the distance, a stark tower rising over the Sea of Ghosts, connected to the mainland only by a narrow bridge. And here she was, isolated from those she loved, alone, connected only by a cryptic journal and the hope that some wizard could translate it. It had to be enough.