Chapter 2: Fallen
18th of Month of Earth, 1837
The boat falls to the water with little ceremony, the final few meters of our descent a drop. Geoff is shouting orders to the lever master above while our driver toys with the throttle. I try my best to relax into my seat and ignore the shuddering of our craft. In an hour, I will be with Jessamine and Emily again. Though my travels weren't terrible, one can only be away from their family for so long before it becomes torture.
"Take us straight to Dunwall Tower," Curnow orders the driver. His tone is gentler than usual, due in no small part to being back in his city. He is as glad to be home as I am. "Lord Corvo has news for the Empress, and we've come a long way."
The driver, a Corporal Morrows, snorts in sarcasm. "A long way to bring bad news. The sailors say there's a curse on us. Black magic."
"You say that as if we should care," I comment. The men of the sea assume there is magic or a curse to everything. They are nothing but stories to explain what cannot be otherwise. If every curse spat at me was potent, I would be without eyes and feet.
Geoff seems to agree. "Superstition. For all we know, there's a cure for the plague now."
I grimace at the mention of the Rat Plague. It would be nice to have a day without the damned disease ruining it. Morrows continues the conversation, albeit, in a slightly different direction. "Maybe. We live in strange times. Sending the Empress's bodyguard away for a couple of months: that's unusual."
Another nerve the guardsman has managed to fray. Jessamine and I have scarcely been apart for more than a day before, let alone two months. The distance between us was torture for myself. I cannot even imagine what it was like for her. Or Emily, the poor girl. "It was not by choice, Corporal," I counter.
"Well, it was important," Geoff continues. "We need help with the Rat Plague."
Darkness falls over us, the shadow of the water lock cooling the air. I climb to my feet before the boat starts to rise: I've made that mistake before.
"Ho, there! Going up!" Curnow shouts.
I look up to the engineers and see them signaling each other. The exposed gears on each side of us grind to life, screeching over the yells of their operators. It seems Sokolov still hasn't made the machine any less delicate than it was. As long as it does not break with me in it again.
Water pours down around the craft. With the entrance sealed shut, the slow filling of the room raises us toward the Tower. Our boat stops at the dock three stories above the sea without incident. The Captain leaves the boat first, followed by myself.
Once again on solid ground, he stops to face me. "It's been good traveling with you, Corvo," Curnow declares, a relaxed smile thanking me.
I return the gesture. "Thank you for the company. If you'll excuse me." I slip past him toward the manor, to greet those I have been separated from far too long.
The familiar arch of the worn stone bridge is comfort beneath my feet. I smell the flowers of Jessamine's private garden, budding tulips and miniature white roses to my left. She always takes care to maintain them herself, an exercise to relieve her stress. Truly, home never feels greater than it does after a lengthy absence. Both sensations set me at ease more than anything else did during our travels.
But a greater cause of joy sprints toward me, her white sundress and black hair waving in the wind as she leaps down the stairs. "Corvo!" Emily shouts with grasping hands.
I bend down to so that when she jumps, I catch her at the waist. The ten-year-old's laughter garners everyone's attention, guards turning to watch us as we spin in circles. She wraps her small arms around my neck for the comfort of my touch, rather than fear being dropped.
"Will you tell me about your trip? Please! Did you see any whales?" she questions when I set her down. Her brown eyes beam at me with youthful curiosity, something I've missed greatly.
I lay a hand on her shoulder. "In time, Emily, in time. But I must speak to Mother first. Can you take me to her?"
"Mother is busy talking to that mean old Spymaster," she explains. "Let's play hide-and-seek first. You have time."
As much as I distrust Burrows and yearn for Jessamine, interrupting the meeting will achieve nothing. And it provides a perfect excuse to play with Emily: these games are as fun for her as they are for myself. "As you wish. But only once, understand?"
With clapping hands, she runs down the other stairs. "Let's go! Come on!" she shouts over her shoulder. I follow in a relaxed jog, taking care not to trip.
Emily's excitement becomes ramblings as she races for the courtyard below. Questions of monsters and climbing lessons pour from her lips faster than I can answer. But it does force a smile out of me. I have missed her the entirety of the trip, her curiosity and imagination a source of fresh air during dark days. There's a special light to this child, one she brings to anyone she meets.
As the ground levels for the bare lawn, she slows. "Let's see if you're still good at this," the young Lady declares. "I'll close my eyes and count, and at the end of the countdown, I'll try to find you."
I nod. "Beware: I have only gotten better since our last game."
"That won't stop me!" She places her hands over her eyes. "One, two..."
Before she has reached three, I'm hidden away at the top of the staircase. The stone banister prevents her from seeing me, and there is no possibility she heard me. But it will not take her long to find me if she tries. A perfect place for our game.
"Ten!" she proclaims. I listen closely to her movements below, using my ears instead of my eyes to observe. Her hands check the bushes across the yard while agitated sighs leave her throat. Then she checks the other stairs, then behind a stone planter. There are only a few places besides the one I hide in that remain for her to search.
Her slow and heavy footsteps reveal she is on the verge of surrender. I decide to let her win, vaulting the bannister into the bushes below. They do little to soften my landing, but the sound of breaking branches alerts her. She spins on her heels towards the source. "Found you!" she proclaims, finger pointing straight at me.
I rise from the thicket. "It seems your hearing has improved, Lady Emily. I must admit defeat to such a worthy adversary." The look of disappointment I sport continues to sell the act.
Thinking she has bettered me, she smiles. "I win! I win!"
"Yes, you did," I say while walking toward her. "Here is your reward." With a bear-like growl, I snatch her from the ground in a fierce hug. As she laughs, I kiss her forehead. She accepts the same way she always has: by giving me the tightest embrace she can manage around my torso. I feel her head bury itself into my chest, and I begin to smile.
"Thank you for playing, Corvo," she giggles. "I missed you."
I pull her in tighter. "The same, Emily. Our trip was terribly boring without you. You tell much better stories than our ship captain."
"Maybe I can come with you next time. Mother and Misses Pilsen could come too. I've never been to Serkonos. Please?" Her eyes beam up at me in hope.
I lay her on the ground and pat her head. "A bridge to cross another day. May we go see Mother now?"
That elicits a small frown. Not of disappointment, but thinking of something unhappy. "Ok. While you were gone, Mother seemed very sad. I think she missed you."
"Then what say we make her happy? The three of us can play together, hmm?" I nudge her shoulder. "We can float Mrs. Pilsen's boat in the pond, where she'll brave the evil hagfish that guard the sunken treasure."
"I'd like that," she smiles. "She's upstairs. I'll take you to her." She grasps my hand and leads me upstairs. I follow in a hunch, not letting go of her small paw.
Emily takes us to the bridge where we started, then up another set of stairs toward the stone gazebo. She stops to observe a common sight: Sokolov painting an aristocrat. Today's subject is High Overseer Campbell. He stands regally and upright, like a war hero getting a medal placed on his chest. An honor he would love, no doubt, as if he ever did something to deserve it.
The red-cloaked chaplain raises a hand in greeting. "Welcome home, Lord Protector," he offers from a distance. He doesn't seem to notice the time of my arrival, but the bottle of hard cider beside him may have something to do with that. Or his general dislike of me. The feeling is mutual.
"Stop moving, Campbell," the artist argues. "And you, Corvo, welcome back from wherever you've been." The arrogance cuts through his gruff voice as it always has. I wager the "genius" having to work for the coin of poorly educated aristocrats infuriates him more than he would admit.
"They sent him all around the Isles to beg for aid," Campbell explains. At least he's not inserting another of his hypocritical scripture quotes into the response.
Sokolov scoffs. "A waste of time. My elixir will banish this plague from the city. Now keep still, High Overseer Campbell."
Emily wanders toward the art-in-progress with eyes jumping between the subject and the canvas. "I'm not so sure that painting looks like Campbell," she proclaims. I suppress a smile. Leave it to her to insult the great Sokolov.
I pat her head. "Let him finish. He may surprise you." His art may not be to the level of his publicity, but he rarely disappoints in the end.
"Be sure the young lady is taught in the proper arts, Lord Protector," Sokolov lectures. "She must be well versed in them to be a true ruler."
"I will. Whether or not your paintings become a part of such a lesson remains to be seen." My comment makes him glare at me in rivalry. I match his gaze, and he submits immediately. As he returns to his work with a bruised ego, I follow the stairs to the gazebo above.
Curnow is waiting at the entrance of the stone building, keeping his distance from the politicians talking in the far side. He knows the conversation is not his place, and I do not blame him for avoiding it. Jessamine and Burrows are arguing again, flared tempers visible from here. Emily stays by my side as we observe: I would like to know how things stand before entering the argument.
"They're sick people, not criminals," Jessamine iterates. The plague again.
"We've gone beyond that question, your Majesty," the Spymaster proclaims. "They're-"
Jessamine steps up to him. "They're my citizens, and we'll save them from the plague if we can. All of them." She's standing up to the old snake, not giving in. Good for her.
"Very well," he concedes as Emily approaches the pair. I choose to say back.
Jessamine's gaze becomes cold in loathing. "We will not speak of this again."
The excitement of the young girl is evident in her tone. "Mother, Corvo is back!" she shouts.
Jessamine turns to her daughter. "Thank you, Emily." Her eyes fall back on Burrows. "Leave us, please."
The Spymaster bows. "As you wish, Your Majesty."
The only exit is past me, so Burrows approaches. A false smile grows on his ferret-like face. "Corvo, two days early. Full of surprises, as usual."
"Someone must startle you from time to time, Spymaster. Reveal the flaws in your network." I side-step to allow him passage.
"And you are quite good at it." Without shifting his gaze from me, he waves at Curnow. "Follow me, Captain. We should leave them alone."
I allow myself to watch him and Geoff leave. Two opposites marching side-by-side, a duality that almost makes me chuckle. I hold no love for the spies or their illustrious leader. The company has proven their worth before, but it never seems equal portions give and take. If the phrase about staring into the abyss has any merit, a man who lies professionally is one to be monitored. A spy and a politician in the same person is a combination I do not enjoy. His weasel features do not help.
I dismiss these thoughts as I approach Jessamine. No more time to dwell on the negative, not among family. Maybe I can bring them peace today, even if the news is foul.
I had almost forgotten how beautiful she was, as if that was possible. Her pale skin has so fewer flaws than my own, which is only accented by her azure irises. The life and diet of an Empress has given her body a long and slender frame. I am an inch taller than her, but the bun of black hair on the top of her head hides this small 'flaw'. The black suit she sports today is far from the most flattering item in her wardrobe, but does little to hide her beauty. Said magnificence has caused several incidents among the other aristocrats, especially with her lack of a marital status. But she has turned all of them down. She carries no love for the hypocrisy of the upper classes, something I have admired for many years.
My knees give a slight bend while my head bows to the Empress. "Milady," I smile with practiced grace. This gesture is not any royal tradition, merely a jest between the two of us.
Relief flows over her features. The corners of her mouth pull back to show her happiness. "It is a fair wind that brings you home to me. What news have you brought?"
I retrieve the stamped letter from my breast pocket. "I wish it were better. Read for yourself."
The folded paper trades hands, Jessamine wasting little time to tear the seal. Her eyes fly across the ink in search of truth or hope. She finds only the former. As sorrow fills her eyes, she turns away. "I had hoped one of the other cities had dealt with this before. Knew of some cure. This is very bad... We're at the breaking point."
She crushes the paper in her fist, then throws it to the ground. "Cowards!" she shouts bitterly. "They're going to blockade us! They'll wait to see if the plague turns the city into a graveyard."
Emily comes to her before I can. "Are you ok, Mother? You seem sad." Her innocence is... touching. She knows little of the plague and politics: all she sees is her mother's depression, and that is all she cares about.
Jessamine turns back and pats her daughter's head. "Yes, don't worry, darling. Mother is fine." She puts on a brave face, as she always does.
I lay my hand across the Empress's neck. "This will pass, Jessamine," I promise. "We have prevailed through worse. This plague pales next to the Serkonan incursion three years past."
"You are right," she accepts. Her eyes come up to mine. "Between my advisers, Sokolov, and you, we will find a way to battle this. Dunwall has not fallen yet."
"And it will not fall tonight." I put on a smile, one solely to cheer the pair up. "We are together again. I propose a small celebration, a few hours of merriment to cloak these trying times. We are due a meal or two alone, without work to bother us."
Emily beams up at both of us. "Does that mean my test over the parliament is delayed?"
Jessamine tries to be strong in the face of the adorable child staring back. "No, Emily. Your lessons will not stop without a proper excuse."
I step back with hands out at my sides. "Is my return not enough? Surely her tutor can wait one day. A game will cheer us all, as will peaceful dinner where I recount my travels."
"Clearly, I cannot convince you two otherwise," she finally surrenders in a smile. "I suppose one day will do no harm. But Corvo, you must drink with me when Emily falls asleep. I have missed my friend."
"You're not staying up later than me!" Emily protests with a child's tenacity.
"An evening of conversation with Jessamine Kalwdin? Who am I to say no?" I give a short bow, fanning my coat to the side. "It would be my honor, Milady."
I almost turn to find a servant when Jessamine's tone changes. "Wait, where are the guards? Who sent them away?"
A brief scan shows that none of the Watch are at their posts. Did Curnow take them? My hands twitch toward the holsters at my hip.
Emily points across the way. "Mother, look! What are they doing on the rooftop?"
I follow her hand to the target. Two men in black are running across the tiled roof of the water lock, swords in hand. Assassins.
"GET BEHIND ME!" I order while drawing my blade and pistol. "GUARDS!"
The pair disappear in a small puff of ash. But in the same heartbeat, they materialize not ten feet in front of me. What magic is this? They wear whale butchers' masks and black cloaks, hiding all flesh on their bodies.
"Emily, come here!" Jessamine shouts as she grabs her daughter's arm. The first assassin charges with a high sword swing. My pistol levels at his chest and fires. My shot stops his assault, but he dodges toward his partner. I click the reload mechanism while tucking the firearm into its holster. Then I charge with a low stab at the first assassin while watching the second. He's waiting for a chance to double-team me.
The first dodges again, slipping past the strike and countering with his own slash. I come under it and slam my fist into his sternum. Stunned, I can grab his neck to finish the bastard. As my hand wraps around the spine, I feel him start to dissipate. When my sword reaches where his heart should be, he's gone in another black cloud. No blood spills from where his body was.
There's no time to wonder what happened. The next assassin is panicked that his friend is gone, and I need the advantage. I sprint at him while he readies a strike. When I'm close enough for his attack, he swings and I dodge to the outside. He leaves his sword arm open for catching, so I capitalize on his mistake. I bend his elbow into his side for control. The gun at my hip clicks, signaling the next bullet is ready.
"Corvo, there's another!" Jessamine screams, interrupting my efforts to finish this one. A new assassin has appeared on the other side of the gazebo, accompanied by the sound of air being sucked from a room. With too much ground to cover between us, I have to use my pistol. I rotate the assassin's captured arm and twist it behind his back, leaving him hunched over instead of having the shoulder ripped out. I use his back as a brace to aim and fire at the far target. It may or may not have hit him, but he disappears as the first did.
The one in my grip struggles free. He points his wrist at me, a small crossbow slipping out from under the sleeve. I leap back as an arrow flies past my head and he gets his sword ready. Before he can prepare another surprise, I charge with a slash at his stomach. He springs back out of my reach, but slips and lands with his stomach to the ground. So I leap forward, sword angled for his skull with a downward stab. And just like his friends, he's gone in a poof of smoke before my blade can end him. The steel sinks into the soft dirt beneath my feet, still clean of blood.
With no more of them around, I take the moment to catch my breath. My pistol tinkers away at the next round, and I sheath my sword. Damn it, what were those things? Nothing natural, not even trained assassins, can move like that. Were there more than three using smoke bombs to disorient us? Or something else entirely? "I think they are gone," I say while walking back towards Emily and Jessamine.
Before I can fully cover the distance between us, Emily rushes me in sobs. A line of tears shines along her cheek. She presses her head against my chest while hugging me. I lay my hand across her back. "It's ok, Emily. I'm here..." I try to comfort.
"Corvo, thank you," Jessamine smiles in relief. Fear still controls her, but she seems better. "If you hadn't been here..."
The same sound of vanishing air reaches my ears. Before I can react, a force slams me into the stone column, Emily scampering away before it can grab her too. Another assassin is standing before me with a hand held out. Green energy is flowing from him and surrounding me. "No! No more!" Jessamine shouts.
The tone again, and a man in red materializes next to Jessamine. He's the only one without a mask. I struggle against the force holding me, but I can't even to reach my pistol. "Mommy!" Emily screams, running for her mother. The man in red steps toward her.
Jessamine intervenes, jumping between them. "Get away from her!" she commands. He slaps her across the face and knocks her away from Emily.
"Leave her alone!" I scream, fighting harder against the assassin's power. I manage to pull my head from against the column before it gets stronger and pins me again. "Leave them! Leave them out of this!"
All I can do is yell and watch as the one in red grabs Jessamine by her collar... and sinks his blade into her chest.
Time slows as Jessamine falls to the ground. Her innocent blood surges out, turning the man even more crimson than before. He steps back without any emotion on his face. Her eyes grow wide as shock and pain overtake her. Tears well in them as they beg me for help. Emily wails at the sight of her bloodied mother. The delicate white and black silk of Jessamine's blouse shows a growing pool of red in the center. Her body goes limp from blood loss and collapses like a stuffed doll.
Emily tries to flee too late. The assassin uses his free hand to grab and pull her against him. The last words she shouts before disappearing are pleads for her mother... and me. Just as the others did, they are gone in a brief cloud of ash.
I fall to the ground, landing no more than four feet from Jessamine. Her killer stares at me for a moment, his eyes analyzing me. In that brief heartbeat, all I can do is memorize his face. The paleness of his skin, the scar running across his right eye, the way his brown hair refuses to move in the breeze. How his dead gray eyes see me. Every detail commits itself to my memory. And with the same sound as his arrival, he vanishes.
I scramble to Jessamine, praying to every deity I know this is all a dream. Please, please let it be another nightmare. But as I hold her close and feel her warm blood sticking to me, I know it's not. Her head rolls back to look at me, too weak to do anything on its own, but still containing life. She's crying now. In pain, in sorrow... in realization. "Corvo... It's all coming apart," she moans.
I press a finger to her lips. "We'll get a doctor. Just wait," I plead. "Please wait. Don't do this. Just hang on." My own voice is starting to break.
She pushes my hand away. "Find-find Emily. Protect her. You're the only one who can." Her voice is getting weaker.
"No. We will protect her together, as we always have. You have to be there for her too. She needs her mother." I stroke the side of her face. The little color her skin held is gone.
She wraps her fingers around my hand. "You'll know what to do. Won't you? Corvo?"
Her final thoughts can't be of my weakness. I can't let her last moments be ruined by that. She has to know I will save Emily. "I will, Jessamine. I promise," I manage through a broken voice.
Her head rocks back limp. She closes her eyes. And then she lies still.
I pull her body close to me and cradle her head. She makes no effort to curl against me, no attempt to accept my touch. My tears mix with her blood. I can feel her spirit leaving. Leaving me alone. It can't be. Jessamine, please... You can't be gone...
"Word us all, look at what he's done." Campbell is standing over me. When he arrived, or Burrows and the two guardsmen with them, eludes me.
The Spymaster points a finger at me. "Yes, he's killed the Empress!"
He tries to get closer to Jessamine. I pull her in and twist away. "Don't touch her!" I scream. "Don't you dare touch her!"
"What have you done with young lady Emily, traitor?!" the liar demands.
I can only stare at them in tear-filled rage as they accuse me. "Her own bodyguard. Ironic," Campbell sneers.
"I'll see you beheaded for this, Corvo!" Burrows shouts. "Take him!"
The blunt side of a Watch sword strikes my temple.