Daud ate well as Dunwall cracked around him, slumping and slipping down into the sea. The food was perhaps the smallest benefit of his profession, between the money he took in and the skills he had acquired, but why bother stealing bread and tinned whale meat when he could just as easily sup on wine and caviar?
He didn't have a taste for the dishes of his homeland, never much had.
The decision had been purely tactical, when he'd decided to call the wasteland of the Flooded District both home and fortress, but Daud was not such a dullard that he couldn't see some poetry in it. Why pretend the cracks hadn't always been there, even before they were visible? The obvious, perpetual decay that lingered on all shores, from sea to sea, and the knowledge of what lay at the end of all enterprise. The world was as the world was, why hide from it?
It could be beautiful, even so. Daud could stand on the rooftops and look across the crumpled buildings as the sun went down and every brackish pool and cove and watery grave for a dozen Weepers was touched with gold and splendor, and it was terrible and beautiful and no one needed to tell him of the Outsider, or the pathetic smallness at the heart of every Stricture.
A man could stand against that, if he wanted to. A man could build towers and walls and music boxes, and play pretend for all the hours of all his days.
The wood in the buildings was badly bloated, heavy and waterlogged no matter how many stories he walked above the submerged streets. Everything creaked and groaned in the wind, or when the tides came in and out, and the salt air was relentless, the windows scoured opaque, held together by welding that was little more than rust, a single touch enough to send it all caving in. The carpets at the highest floors still carried the echo of rot, the only way to avoid the smell to keep as much of a room as open to the elements as possible. Daud had done so with his own quarters, a way to keep him at his best should one of his own men finally decide to act, with little reason to worry about an attack from outside. The Flooded District was its own best security, he would hear anyone coming a quarter-mile before they got anywhere near him.
It was a damn stupid conceit, and Daud hadn't realized how much he'd actually believed it until he'd been in his office and felt that particular prickling sensation, the one that always told him when to have steel in his hand. He'd stood there for nearly a full minute, fingers poised to draw his blade, listening for the smallest sound from the floorboards or the slightest change in the room. A displacement of air, or the odd pull of gravity, that impossible shift in the light as everything ground to a halt.
He hadn't cast his gaze on a shrine for some time, though Daud doubted his lack of piety had any influence in either direction.
It had taken far, far too long before he realized his key was missing from the nail, and his pocket was that little bit lighter, the charm he'd kept there now gone off to give another the chance for better luck.
As if a man who'd caught the Outsider's eye would have any use for luck.
He hadn't said anything to his guards, and they'd kept on the watch for their escaped prisoner for days afterward, if only for the coin he would have brought. Daud knew the former Lord Protector was already gone, off to finish things with fools who'd thought they'd been clever. Who'd thought they could easily best the man who'd done all their work for them, and hadn't even bothered to cut his throat for good measure. Daud doubted they were bad men, or at least, not bad enough to keep from caring about it.
It was the problem with letting doubt and shame into the mix, in allowing regret to take hold. Those weren't just common feelings - no, they were smarter than that, more cunning and entirely merciless. Regret could slip in without warning and undo a man utterly, could disarm him so completely he would welcome death, and yearn for that balancing of the scales.
Daud had let Corvo keep the mask. If he'd wanted to make sure the man would kill him, though, he should have taken the heart. His men, his cutthroat band of the blackest of souls, each one of them touched by the Outsider's power - they hadn't dared to carry it, or even look at it, shying away as he'd drawn it from the pocket of what was left of the Empress' bodyguard.
It had throbbed in his hand, clicking and shifting with a strange, mechanical purpose. He'd felt the beat of it pulse up to his elbow, as the former Lord Protector had groaned. Half-conscious at best, Corvo had strained in the grip of his men, trying to fight free with the look in his eyes the exact same as it had been in that timeless second before Daud had advanced upon the Empress.
He'd said he didn't know what the man fought for, or for whom. Stupid, really.
Daud should have flung the heart into the sea, if he'd wished for Corvo to give him no quarter. He was certain of that now. Of course, he'd been certain then that it wouldn't matter, that things had already been well decided, and in a somewhere that was nowhere, the Outsider was paying close attention. Corvo would surely come for him, the mark on his hand and six months underground erasing any lingering differences between them, eliminating hesitations and sharpening all the edges.
It would be a wonderful fight. It had been a long time, since Daud had anything like a wonderful fight.
He'd heard and seen the full of what had been accomplished: the ravings of the fallen Lord Overseer echoing up from the streets below had been his lullaby for many a night, and there were whispers of the final fates of the brothers Pendleton and the Lady Boyle. Corvo Attano was not content with mere killing. He wanted more than simple blood for blood, so perhaps Daud should not have been as surprised as he was to keep the life he no longer had much use for. Sitting at his desk, staring at the nail where the key had been, sending his men out about their business while he waited to see what his end would be.
Had they been lovers, the Protector and his Empress? Of course everyone knew the rumors, but there were always the things that everyone knew. Everyone knew what a whale was for. Everyone knew what the Outsider was.
A whole world of children telling stories in the dark, blind and stumbling down what might be nothing but one long corridor, a hand against the wall and no idea where they had been or where they were going, only faster, faster…
Jessamine Kaldwin, by all useful accounts and his own observations, had been an exceptional woman in a difficult time, and Daud thought it spoke volumes of her to have sent her bodyguard away at such an hour, knowing what such a gesture would look like. A way to buy more time from a populace growing more frantic by the day, a way to underscore the seriousness of her plight to those she wished to petition. The Empress knew there was danger all around her, that it might easily cost her life to do as she had done, and she had done it anyway. Daud wondered what she might have changed, had she known what her decision would do to her Lord Protector.
Or perhaps that was what drove Corvo now, not a love for the Empress but the simple shame of failing at his duty, a matter of tarnished pride and responsibility. If things had gone to plan, if he had returned those few days later perhaps he would have nobly laid down flowers and just as nobly taken up at the side of the new Lord Regent.
Daud remembered Corvo's eyes, the desperation there. He's killed many men, and they've died in many ways, few of them well and even fewer of them with any hint of nobility, but the Lord Protector - nothing former there, why had he ever thought it? - had been true, would have flung himself on the assassin's blade in an instant, to save the life of the Empress.
He could still feel the throb of that beating heart, pulsing all the way up his arm. Open hand, closed fist - it didn't matter, he never stopped feeling it.
A soft creak came in with the breeze, giving way to a sound like the surf against the shore, only louder and growing more so by the moment as another building surrendered to the sea, moaning like a dying thing as it collapsed into the water. Daud listened carefully for the sounds of screaming, of Weepers who could think no more but still felt pain. He would go out sometimes, or give the orders for target practice, to make an end of the ones they found. It had to be a mercy, he would have wanted it so. A quick, clean death, rather than twitching and vomiting all his insides out onto the street.
Daud made no apologies for the life he had lived or the deeds he had done, not a single one, and in turn he would not beg or plead or refuse to face his fate when it came. He was not surprised to hear that the Lord Regent had sniveled like a babe when they'd managed to rouse him, when he realized the guard had not come to help him and his pathetic days of glory - less than a year, barely even half that - had all come to such an end. Had Corvo spent all his vengeance there on that waste of a man? Had he seen Daud as nothing more than the blade and the Royal Spymaster the one to wield it? A thousand times a fool, if he had ever thought so, a noble gesture that would not be rewarded.
Outside, he could hear no cries of pain, no further sounds of destruction, only a few bricks and boards splashing into the water like drops from a leaky pipe.
It was quieter now all across his little kingdom, fewer bodies being dumped in the shallows, and more care taken in all the city's affairs. Every day, it seemed, Dunwall moved a little further from the precipice.
He'd received one missive in the days between the loss of his key and the end of it all - a note from the last remaining Pendelton, of all possible people, with an oblique reference to the price of his services. Daud hadn't bothered to find out if he had meant protection or assassination before throwing it into the fire. He didn't care, content to wait and listen to reports as that quarter-assed intrigue finally came crashing down. It didn't take long.
Emily Kaldwin had been taken prisoner by the new Lord Regent, with the new High Overseer and Lord Pendleton murdered when they'd protested the sudden coup. The disgraced Lord Protector had been a hero all along, wrongly accused of his crimes, sweeping in to save the girl so she might rightly reign. Stories in place of stories, with the truth as an unnecessary side-effect, though at least these new tales had kinder ends. Havelock had been sentenced to execution at Coldridge, though there had been a few, even then, to speak up for him, and his sentence had been commuted to some far-off shore, never to be seen again.
Why cut a man down, why make it easy when you could bleed him a drop at a time? So Daud sat and waited, as the city rejoiced for the crowning of its true Empress, as the combined knowledge of the two best minds in Dunwall finally started to make headway against the horror of the rat plague – though they were calling it the Burrows Plague or even Hiram's Horror, now. Not so long ago, there had been the suggestion of moving the seat of Imperial power out of Dunwall entirely. No one mentioned such things anymore.
He'd stopped with the caviar. It didn't taste of anything. It never really had.
Daud sat. Daud waited. One of his men finally sought to take control of the Whalers, and came at him in the dark, as if that would make any difference at all. Daud put the man's head through the remains of a window and flung him, blind and screaming, into the waters below, or what would have been the water had the tide not been out. Very soon in Dunwall, they would have the resources to take a new look at the Flooded District, to build and drain and perhaps even reclaim the whole of it. It was of no real consequence. He had no ties and even fewer allegiances. Daud had put up in a dozen places, lived a dozen lives and he could live a thousand more before his time was through.
He sat. He waited.
He still didn't see it when the invitation arrived, a single moment's inattention enough for the messenger to be there and gone again and why, why did he still breathe? The letter lay in the center of his desk with a quiet, modest splendor. The paper was flawless, thick and cream-colored, with his name ornately etched across the surface, and a single line within.
Her Serene Highness, the Empress Emily Kaldwin, requests your presence tonight at Dunwall Tower.
1. Story title is from a song from the album Rogue's Gallery, a great selection of whaling/pirate songs.