The boat reaches the water with a small splash, 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 in my seat while we ride, to focus on the good of the day. I'm finally back in Dunwall. In an hour, I will be at my home again, with my family to looks after and enjoy the company of. It has been far too long without Jessamine and little Emily. Though the travels were kind and favorable, one can only be away from his family for so long. Today, that ends.
"Take us straight to Dunwall Tower," Curnow orders the driver. His tone is kinder than usual, due in no small part to being back in the city. He has missed his friends as much as I. "Lord Corvo has news for the Empress, and we've come a long way."
I can hear the driver, a Corporal Morrows, snort 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 place faith or fear in such nonsense," I comment, closing my eyes and leaning back in my chair. There's a curse or magic on everything according to the men of the sea. While some of it has a certain element of truth, most of it is wives' tales. If every curse spat at me was potent, I would be without eyes, feet, and reproductive organs.
Geoff seems to agree. "Superstition. For all we know, there's a cure for the plague now."
I try to ignore the mention of Rat Plague. This is the first time in six months I have been happy, and I won't let it be ruined by thoughts of this damned disease. 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 topic I wish not to dwell on. I've been away from Jessamine for six months, one week, three days, and four incredibly long hours. We've never been separate for a day before, let alone this length of time. The distance between us was Hell for myself. I can't even imagine what it was like for Jessamine. Or Emily, the poor girl.
"It was not by choice, Corporal," I counter to his comment.
"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 to the engineers above and see them signal each other. The exposed gears on each side of us grind to life, screeching in their rotations. More shouts from its operators fill the air. This machine is incredibly delicate, something the 'amazing' Sokolov has yet to fix. One wrong button press, and the entire mechanism will destroy itself. Another stipulation with this technological revolution.
Water pours down around us. With the entrance sealed shut, the rising liquid level makes us float up with it. The three stories between the back of the Tower and the sea becomes nonexistent in a matter of moments, our boat stopping at the exact height as the docking exit. 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 gentle smile thanking me.
I return the gesture. "I'm glad you came: your company has made the trip much more enjoyable. If you'll excuse me, I must see the Empress." I slip past him toward the manor, to greet those I have been separated from for far too long.
The worn stone bridge is comfort beneath my feet, the feeling of home granting me peace. I smell the flowers of Jessamine's private garden, budding Tulips and miniature white roses off to my left. She always takes care to maintain them herself, an exercise to relieve her stress. A tulip's scent in Serkonos made me think of her each day during our stop there. To find the true source again is wonderful.
But a greater cause of joy sprints to me, her white sundress and black hair waving in the wind. "Corvo!" Emily shouts with grasping hands.
I bend down to receive her. When she jumps, I catch her at the waist. The ten-year-old's laughter grabs everyone's attention, guards turning to watch us as we spin in circles. She wraps her small arms around my neck for the pleasure of my touch, rather than fear of me dropping her fragile body.
"Will you tell me about your trip? Please! Did you see any whales?" she questions when I set her down. Her hazel eyes beam at me with youthful curiosity, something I've missed these last six months.
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 still 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, to interrupt her meeting will achieve nothing. And it provides a perfect excuse to play with Emily: I've missed these games as much as she has. "As you wish. But only once, ok?"
With clapping hands, she runs down the 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 spew from her lips faster than I can answer. But it does bring a smile to me. I have missed her the entirety of the trip, her curiosity and imagination a constant source of joy. There's a special light to this child, one she brings to many peoples' lives.
As the ground levels for the small garden, 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 to her. "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. My feet made no sound in their movement, and the stone banister prevents her from seeing me. But it will not take her long if she tries. A perfect place for our game.
"Ten!" she proclaims. I listen closely to her movements below, my ears detecting her every action. 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. Only a few places besides the one I hide in remain for her to search.
I can tell she is on the verge of surrender by the sound of her footsteps: they've become slow and frustrated. Rather than letting her feel such disappointment, I decide to let her win. I vault the bannister, the bushes below doing 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 to me.
I rise from the thicket. "Curses: your hearing has improved." The look of defeat I put on truly sells the act.
Thinking she has bettered me, she smiles. "I win! I win!"
I quickly walk to her. "Yes, you did. Here is your reward." With a bear-like growl, I snatch her from the ground in a strong hug. As she smiles, I kiss her forehead. She accepts the gesture as she always has: by giving me a warm embrace around my chest. I feel her head bury itself into my chest, and I start to smile again.
"Thank you for playing, Corvo," she giggles. "I missed you."
I pull her in tighter. "The same, Emily. Our trip was not the same without your stories or games."
"I can come with you next time: I really want to see Serkonos. Maybe Mother and Misses Pilsen could come too." Her eyes beam up at me in hope.
I lay her on the ground and pat her head. "Another bridge to cross another day. Can we go see Mother now?"
That elicits some semblance of a 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? We can have some fun together, hmm?" I prod 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. She should be done talking to the Spymaster. I'll take you to her." She takes my hand and leads me upstairs. I follow with a slight hunch, not letting go of her small paw.
Emily takes us to the bridge where we started, then up another set of stairs towards 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 act he would probably like, though he does nothing to deserve such praise.
The red-cloaked Overseer 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, or even care. The bottle of spirituous cider beside him may have something to do with that. Or his general disdain for me. The feeling is mutual.
"Stop moving, Campbell," the artist argues. "And you, Corvo, welcome back from wherever you've been." There's an unpleasant gruff in his voice, his arrogance cutting through. The "genius" sees himself above the rest of us in every way. I bet having to work for our money infuriates him like nothing else.
"They sent him all around the Isles to beg for aid," Campbell explains. At least he's not inserting another of his hypocritical comments into the answer. I wouldn't mind the man's prayers and reminders if he truly was a man of the cloth. He's simply another politician, a grand actor for his own ambitions. The only difference is his mask is that of religion instead of feigned kindness.
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 end results are great. Maybe not to the level of his hoopla, but he does not disappoint.
"Be sure to teach the young lady in the proper arts, Lord Protector," Sokolov follows. "She must be 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 face me in anger. I match his gaze, and he submits immediately. The man's ego could stand a good bruising. As he returns to his work, 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 going at it again, tempers flaring all the way over here. Emily stays by my side as we observe. I would like to know how things stand between them 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." A small glimmer of happiness finds me in this. She's standing against 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 anger. "We will not speak of this again."
The excitement Emily's feeling is evident from here. "Mother, Corvo is back!" she shouts.
Jessamine turns to her daughter. "Thank you, Emily." Her gaze falls 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 fox-like face. "Corvo, two days early. Full of surprises, as usual."
"Someone must surprise you from time to time, Spymaster," I nod. I side-step to allow his 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 man I constantly monitor next to one I trust wholeheartedly. The spies or their illustrious leader are on my list of "Those to despise." No man can spend all his days lying without corrupting his soul. The company has proven their worth before, but it does not always seem equal parts give and take. 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; I am back among family. Maybe I can deliver peace to them this day, 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 accented by her hazel irises. The life and diet of an Empress, in addition to the fact she is seven years my junior, has left her body long and slender. I am only an inch taller than her, but the bun of black hair on the top of her head hides this small 'flaw,' if one would call it such. Even without her fine white blouse, black coat, and pants, she is one of the most attractive women in all the Isles. Several incidents among the other aristocrats have been caused by her beauty, but she has ignored all of these petty politicians. She carries no love for the hypocrisy of the upper classes, something I have admired in her for many years.
My knees give a slight bend while my head bows to the Empress when I get close. "Milady," I smile with practiced grace. This gesture is not for any political situation or long-standing royal tradition: it is merely something for myself and her.
Relief flows over her features. The corners of her mouth pull back into something resembling happiness. "It is a fair wind that brings you home to me. What news have you brought?"
I retrieve the stamped letter from my chest pocket. "I wish it were better. Read for yourself."
The folded paper trades hands, Jessamine wasting little time tearing the seal. Her eyes fly across the ink in search of truth or hope. She finds more of the former than the latter. 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 curls the paper in her fist, then throws it to the ground. "Cowards!" she bitterly shouts. "They're going to blockade us. They'll wait to see if the plague turns the city into a graveyard."
Emily approaches before I can. "Are you ok, Mother? You seem sad." Her innocence is... touching. She knows little of the plague and politics and death: all she sees is her mother's depression, and that is all she cares for.
Jessamine turns back and pats her daughter's head. "Yes, don't worry, darling. Mother is fine." She puts on a brave face.
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 Tyvian incursion three years past."
"You are right," she accepts. Her eyes come up to mine. "Between my advisers, Sokolov, and you, we will create a way to battle this. Dunwall has not fallen yet."
"And it will not fall today, nor 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 darkened times. We are due a meal or two alone, without work to bother us."
Emily beams up. "Does that mean my test over the our adviser ranks is delayed?"
Jessamine tries to be strong in the face of adorable child staring back at her. "No, Emily. Your lessons will not stop without proper reasons."
I step back with hands out to the side. "Is my return not enough? Surely her tutor can wait one day. A days of 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 not harm us. But Corvo, you must drink with me after Emily falls asleep. I have missed my dearest friend."
"You're not staying up later than me!" Emily protests with a child's tenacity.
"An evening of peace and conversation with Jessamine Kalwdin? How am I to say no?" I give a short bow, fanning my robe to the side. "It would be my honor, Milady."
I almost turn to leave 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 the posts. Did Burrows take them? Instinct and fear start to take over me.
Emily points across the way. "Mother, look! What are they doing on the rooftop?"
I follow her hand to the attention source. At least 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 sword and pistol. "GUARDS!"
The pair disappear in a small cloud of ash. But in the same heartbeat, they come from nothing not twenty feet in front of me, accompanied by a strange sound like air being sucked from the room. What Outsider 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 attack, but he dodges right and towards his partner. I click the reload mechanism while tucking the weapon into its holster and initiating my own assault. I stab low for the first assassin's gut while watching the second. He's waiting for a chance to double-team me.
The first dodges again, slipping past my strike and countering with his own slash. I come under it and slam my fist into his ribs. It finally stuns him so I can grab his neck to finish the bastard. As my hand wraps around the spine, I feel his body start to dissipate. When my sword reaches where his organs should be, he's gone in another black mist. No blood spills from his body, leaving only that sound of vanishing air.
There's no time to wonder what happened. The next assassin is hesitating, probably in a panic that his friend is gone, and I need the advantage. My feet sprint at him while he readies a strike. When I am 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. Another assassin has appeared on the other side of the gazebo. With too much ground to cover between us, I have to use my pistol. I grab the assassin's extended arm and twist it behind his back, which leaves him hunched over in fear of having the shoulder ripped out. I use his back for 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 beneath my grip struggles free. He points his wrist at me, a crossbow poking 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 lunge at his stomach. He's fast enough to dodge with a backwards roll. So I jump high above the ground, 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 of my sword sinks into the soft dirt below my feet.
With no more of them around, I take the moment to catch my breath. The reloader of my pistol tinkers away at the next bullet, and I sheath my sword. Damn it, what were those things? They moved like something of story or myth. What sorcery is this? "It looks like they're 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 small 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 lifts me up from the ground. My back slams into the stone column, Emily scampering away before it can grab her too. Another assassin is standing before me, holding a hand out with strange green energy flowing from it. "No! No more!" Jessamine shouts.
The sound 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 to no avail. I can't move at all, not 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 and harder against the assassin's power. I manage to pull my head from against the column, but nothing else. It gets stronger in response and pins me again. "Leave them! Leave them out of this!"
All I can do is watch as the man in red grabs Jessamine by her collar... and his blade sinks into her chest.
Time slows to a crawl as Jessamine falls to the ground. Her innocent blood spurts out, turning the man even more crimson than before. He steps back without an ounce of sympathy on his face. Her eyes grow wider as shock and pain overtake her. Tears well in them as they beg me for help. Emily wails at the sight of her slain mother, in horror and in fear that she will be next. The delicate white and black silk of Jessamine's blouse becomes red from her wound. Her body goes limp from blood loss, like the men I've slain before. To watch her turn from a breathing woman to a rag doll is...
Emily tries to flee from danger. The assassin uses his free hand to grab the girl and pull her against him. The last words she shouts before disappearing with him are the names of her mother and mine. Just as the other assassins 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 glares at me for a moment, his eyes reading me in thought. In that brief heartbeat, all I can do is memorize his face. The paleness of his skin, the scar running in a diagonal across it, the way his tawny 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 of that 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. My arms pull her body to my chest. Her head rolls back to look at me, too weak to do anything on its own but still containing life. Jessamine'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. Don't leave me." My own voice is starting to break with tears.
She pushes my hand away. "Find-find Emily. Protect her. You're the only one who can." Her tone is getting weaker and weaker.
"No. We will protect her together, as we always have. You have to be there for her too. You have to." I stroke the side of her face. It's getting colder.
She wraps her fingers around my hand. "You'll know what to do. Won't you? Corvo?"
In one last moment of strength, I realize I have to fight for her. Her final thoughts can't be of my weakness. She has to know I will save her daughter. "I will, Jessamine. I promise."
With one last exhale, her head rocks back limp. She closes her eyes. And then she lies still.
I hug her body tighter and cradle her head. She makes no movement to curl against me, no attempt to accept my touch. My tears mix with her blood. I can feel her spirit leaving. Leaving me all alone. It can't be. Jessamine... 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 guard 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. The world goes black.