Author's Note: I have nothing to say...


Ch 4

Gentlemen callers


After a leisurely breakfast, the three "participants" went their separate ways for the day. Vera summoned her chauffer to go to her business office. Corvo returned to his room, to think… and mainly practice on his piano. Piero went away, grumbling about the inevitability of Sokolov finding out that they were staying inside the same building; he shuddered at the thought.

However, as the remains of the day slowly crept onto the patrons of the hotel, Vera playfully called Corvo out for dinner. He met her at the Café Pandyssia without protest.

When he entered the restaurant, he felt as if he had stepped into a classic movie. The entire room was elegant, sprawling, and yet, somehow, it had an almost intimate atmosphere. The furniture was made up of subdued colors, and the walls were decorated with murals of dancers and musicians, probably restored from some bygone era. And to top it all off, someone was playing a piano in the background.

Vera had already ordered two servings of Tyvian caviar, some bread, cream cheese, and a bottle of champagne. She was dressed comfortably yet appropriately, with a burgundy, long sleeve dress and a pearl necklace, and her hair was pinned up in a braided bun. Corvo had simply worn a plain, black suit and made sure that his hair was slicked back.

"Glad you could join me," Vera said to him.

"Hello again, Lady Moray," he replied with a smile.

Vera puffed out her nostrils in response and sipped on her champagne. Corvo sat down.

"You wanted company?" he asked.

"No," she answered. "I wanted to talk to you. About that disaster in Karnaca."

Corvo snorted in displeasure.

"But before we get into that," she continued, with a toothy grin, "I need to ask. What do you think of The Outsider? From your limited perspective?"

"To put it bluntly," he replied honestly, "he makes my skin crawl."

Vera giggled and nodded assent. "Yes… yes, he is… rather strange… but you'll be used to him soon enough."

"So, you've been doing business with him for some time," Corvo said.

It wasn't a question.

"I have," Vera admitted. "It's been about ten years now, when I purchased that vineyard in Serkonos. He was a potential buyer… but he allowed me to have it. For a… certain price."

"So, by chance?" he asked.

"No. I supposedly caught his interest when I set up that orphanage in Tyvia. He even read up on my late husband's exploits."

"Stalker much?"

"More of… an admirer."

"Admirer?"

A waiter came by and poured Corvo a drink. He refilled Vera's nearly empty glass and disappeared.

"I'm probably one of the very few people on the Isles… who has ever seen his face. He thought it was only proper."

"Proper?"

"He courts me on and off. When he isn't too busy. And he's asked me to marry him before."

Corvo blanched in shock. "What!?"

"Twice, actually," she went on, holding up two fingers. "The first time was a year before you got married, and the second time was three months before you pulled off that stunt. The first time, it was easy to say 'no'. The second time, I nearly said 'yes'."

"How old is he exactly?"

"His mid forties, I believe. But you know how faces can be deceiving."

"And he knows you're past sixty, right?"

Vera gave him a half-smile and finally helped herself to her caviar.

"On the Isles," she said, "The Outsider has many titles. One of which is 'the god of information'. So, of course he knows I'm over sixty."

"I commend him for his open-mindedness," Corvo declared, becoming more comfortable. "And you almost said yes?"

"Aren't you going to have any caviar, dear?"

Corvo looked at his serving, hundreds of tiny black beads, sitting in a glass bowl. He briefly remembered years ago, when he used to hate caviar. And yet, he dug right in without a fuss. That was the past.

"He's different from my other 'gentlemen callers'," Vera explained. "Nowadays, most men try to buy you with jewelry and expensive toys. But not him… he does it right. He takes me to nice places, and we have long, intellectual conversations. And he sends me books, flowers, stuffed animals… and chocolates! Mmmm."

"That's the right way?" Corvo asked incredulously.

"Yes!" she rejoined confidently. "It's simple, and you can be easily creative and thoughtful with it. Besides, the only time a man should start dishing out rocks is when he goes to buy an engagement ring. And clothes are out of the question too! A man shouldn't have to 'buy' a woman into marrying him."

"But what if the woman insists on having… 'rocks'?" he prodded.

Vera scowled in disgust. "Then she isn't worth your time."

Corvo scoffed irritably and rested his cheek in his palm. "You should've told me that before I got married."

"Yes…" she murmured, her tone becoming serious.

They finished their caviar in silence. After the table was cleared, the waiter took their orders with precision and left. Vera sighed after he had gone; whether it was out of fatigue or deep thought, Corvo wasn't sure.

"I've been meaning to ask," she said. "When you left your wife, why did you annul the marriage… instead of divorcing her?"

"Because I thought it was more fitting," he replied. "Rather than saying 'you are no longer my wife', and I wanted to say, 'I no longer recognize you as ever being my wife in the first place'…"

Vera tugged at her collar. "Brrrr!"

Corvo simpered devilishly.

"Well, it was awfully brave you," she said, "leaving your home like that… not knowing just what The Outsider had to offer you. Most people would have thought that you'd lost your ruddy mind."

"I'd rather be seen as a stubborn fool," he replied, "than to become a greedy coward."

"Well said! No regrets?"

"Absolutely not."

"Even when…you've caused own brother to lose his precious company?"

Corvo went silent. He took a deep breath and shook his head.

"Why should I feel sorry for his losses," he countered, "because he couldn't drink from his own cistern? He's humiliated me in private … and now he's sore because I've humiliated him in broad daylight, for the whole of the Isles to see, and it's all in my favor. You know, between Daud and me, I've often wondered which one of us was born the real bastard!"

He shook his head again, replaying the previous events in his mind. Vera remained quiet and let him talk.

"I probably don't need to say it," Corvo thought aloud, "but Daud… he's really pissed me off this time. I… I'm a very giving person, like you are. If a large sum of money falls into my lap, I'm more likely to take what I want and give the rest of it to everyone else around me who needs it. I feel nothing for money; it's just a tool. And I give much more than money. And more than anyone else, I gave the most to him. To him. I always knew he hated me; he never made any secret of it. After all, I was a love child his father had with a mistress. Never justified it, but I never held it against him. I always let him have his way, and I literally altered my own personality, tolerating his abuse for years! And when Father died, when that will was read, I didn't stay on the estate because I wanted the money. But I knew that Daud wanted that company. He'd wanted it ever since we were children, before he even knew what that meant. So, I submitted to the terms… knowing that living with him any longer would be hell! I gave to Daud. I gave, and I gave, and I gave…and I gave!"

He exhaled sharply and swallowed a great deal of his alcohol.

"But here's something that he failed to understand about me," he said a low tone, his voice like ice. "As much as I'm willing to give the majority of my all to you, I expect to have what I've kept back for myself. But if you have the gall to screw me over for what I have left… I will burn you. I'll burn you, and I'll happily, sincerely, thoroughly enjoy—from the bottom of my heart—watching your skin peel... Off. Of. Your. Flesh."

"How vicious," Vera trilled in amusement.

"Naturally. After all, even on the wrong side of the blanket… I'm still my father's son."

00000

Meanwhile, Jessamine and Emily walked hand in hand into the restaurant. One of the hostesses gestured to them and led them towards a table. And yet, once they were in the middle of the room, Emily spotted Corvo, sitting at a table… with…

Granny Rags? she thought.

Emily waited until the hostess had taken them to their table, a corner booth. As soon as her mother's back was turned, she scampered off towards Corvo's table in order to "say hello".

00000

"Corvo!" a little voice sang.

He felt a small hand touch his arm. Turning around, he saw Emily, standing right behind his chair, with a bright smile and twinkling eyes. She looked adorable in her purple dress and hair ribbons. Vera leaned over to stare.

"Hi!" she squeaked.

"Hello, there," Corvo greeted her softly. "Fancy meeting you again! But… aren't you with your…"

"Do you play the piano?" Emily asked.

"Um… yes. I do."

"Mr. Burrows said you were a pianist."

Corvo frowned, very perplexed. "Mr. Burrows?"

Emily briefly turned her attention towards Vera, sizing her up.

"Granny Rags, are you his girlfriend?" she asked defensively.

Corvo let out a wheezing cough. Vera smiled blankly.

"He's not my type, dear," she declared soundly.

Jessamine, who had already noticed her missing daughter, came marching up to their table, driving the conversation into a halt. "Emily!"

Emily winced in the wake of her mother's scolding but quietly held her ground.

Corvo looked up and saw her face. She was beautiful. Jessamine Kaldwin was very beautiful. No, she was not glamorous in any sort of way, but had a rather quiet and pleasant sort of attractiveness. She wore little make-up, and the way she dressed was simple yet stylish, as only a mother would usually dress.

"I'm sorry," Jessamine said breathlessly. "I hope she hasn't bothered you…"

Corvo took his eyes off of her and found his voice.

"No," he replied. "Not at all."

He looked at Emily and instinctively stroked her head. "Emily is a very good girl."

"I see that your weakness for children hasn't diminished!" Vera stated.

Corvo glared daggers at the older woman. She merely responded by wagging her head.

Jessamine gently put her hands on her daughter's shoulders. "Darling, why don't we go and leave these people to…"

Emily persisted. She reached out and grasped Corvo's arm.

"You see! Corvo cleans up really nice," she proclaimed. "But… he isn't wearing the black coat…"

"The black coat?" her mother asked.

"Yes! He's was wearing it when he carried his suitcases in."

Jessamine was promptly stung.

Corvo went gray. That was NOT something I wanted to relive!

00000

Jessamine stared hard at the man sitting before her. He looked nothing like that man, the man she grumbled about with Callista that very evening, who came slogging into her hotel out of the middle of nowhere, without a car, wearing that old coat and unseemly hood, laboring with his own bags, looking as if he had stepped into the wrong building. But this man… he was well groomed, well dressed, and behaved in a manner that clearly matched with the hotel's usual protocol.

Her daughter had to be mistaken, she believed. She had to be mistaken.

Corvo held up his hand to vindicate himself. "That's the worst you'll ever see of me, m'am. Trust me."

And her line of logic was crushed.

"Um… and you are…?" she asked feebly.

Corvo politely stood up and reached out his hand. "Excuse me. I'm Attano. Corvo Attano."

"Jessamine Kaldwin," she replied with authority. His handshake, she noted, was warm and firm.

She paused, processing his name. "Corvo Attano? The… composer?"

"I seem to be well-known in this hotel," he commented.

"Everyone who knows of Salazar's downfall automatically knows your name."

Corvo lowered his eyes sheepishly. "Heaven help me; I must be the talk of the Isles."

Jessamine stared at him in astonishment. "Hmmm, that's not an answer I would've expected from you."

"Expected?"

"I assumed that you would've… taken more pride in your actions."

Corvo rubbed the back of his head, finding it hard to face her. "Well, I never believed it would be something… to be proud of…"

00000

In the background, Vera and Emily exchanged furtive glances. Emily raised her eyebrows with a smug curl at the lips. The older woman had a brief revelation and mouthed an inaudible "Aha!" She took her clutch purse and rose from her seat.

"I'll be retiring to my room now," the great Lady Moray announced.

Corvo spun around in surprise. Vera slipped away from the table and put her hand on his shoulder.

"Tell them to deliver my dinner to room 2720," she instructed.

"What!?" he whispered briefly. "Why?"

"Oh, I think it's best I made myself scarce," she replied cryptically.

"But you were the one who asked me to be here!"

"You of all people should know that life changes quickly. I'm just going with the flow. You should keep doing the same. Thanks for eating caviar with me. Ciao!"

And Lady Vera Moray sauntered out of the Café Pandyssia. She waved her hand without looking back, a light sway in her hips, despite his mumbled protests. Corvo watched with his mouth wide open.

What exactly just happened? he wondered, wholly mystified.

"I beg your pardon," Jessamine said. "Have we ruined your evening?"

He collected himself and quickly denied it. "Not at all. She just decided to quit for the night."

But I don't know which would feel stranger, he thought. Eating the meal I ordered in my room or staying down here alone…

"Since, he's all alone," Emily began. "Can he eat with us?"

Corvo and Jessamine gaped at the little girl, shocked by her…unexpected suggestion.

Then again, he mused, I don't know what would be uneasier than suddenly eating dinner with someone you only met two minutes ago.

But he gazed at Jessamine's stunning face as she looked to him for an answer (or support).

On the other hand…

00000

Vera quietly entered her suite and shut the door.

The hall light had been turned on, and she was certain that she had only left on a lamp in her living room.

Maybe, she surmised, a maid left it on when she turned down my bed.

She shrugged with some indifference, passed by a niche in the hallway… and stopped. Sitting inside of the opening, there was a small plush toy that was shaped like a rodent. Flanking the toy, there was a small vase with a single, Pandyssian orchid and book on the medieval history of Morley. On top of the book, there was a very large bar of solid, Tyvian chocolate.

Vera burst out laughing.

00000

And so, Corvo found himself enjoying a somewhat quiet dinner with Jessamine Kaldwin and plotting, little Emily. He quickly adjusted to the idea. Emily engaged him almost non-stop in simple conversation, which her mother took little part in. He answered all of her questions with a willing smile, and thankfully, none of them were too personal or embarrassing. Miss Emily was a lady.

After finishing the appetizers, they waited quite a while for main course to come. Emily left her seat out of "boredom", with her mother's permission this time, and ventured over to the pianist to play. Jessamine watched as Emily leaned against the white pianoforte. The pianist gave the girl a wink and moved over the piano's keys like the rolling waves of the sea.

The patrons and the diners merely savored the food. Others, Corvo among them, sat still and listened to the music. At times, he had his eyes closed, and when not, he was enjoying a glass of dark wine. Jessamine barely glanced at him, her eyes trained on Emily, and he hardly said a word. She made an occasional comment, and he hummed assent.

At about this time, Anton Sokolov entered the restaurant, looking very out of sorts in a fancy suit. As the hostess led him through, he passed right by their table… and stopped.

At that moment, Corvo sat very still, eyes closed, taking slow, heavy breaths. There was a strangely, paradoxically serene aura that came off his rugged features. His face was virtually expressionless. The artist in Professor Sokolov sprang up, and he wondered if Corvo's hair looked better when untied. But, the hostess had noticed his stalling, and he forced himself to steal away… for the time being.

Once in a while, Corvo suddenly drew crinkles between his eyebrows, and his ears subtly twitched, almost on reflex. Jessamine happened to notice this strange occurrence more than once. On a fourth time, he did it again while finishing his glass; he snorted with a disapproving wrinkle on his nose.

"Is there something wrong?" Jessamine asked in concern.

Corvo smiled blankly, remembering himself. "Oh no. It's nothing… nothing of importance."

A waiter poured him a second glass, the last of the alcohol he would have that night. Though very tolerant, he usually preferred not to be reckless.

The song on the piano ended, signaling the end of the pianist's performance; after a half-hour, a cabaret-style show was going to begin. The diners clapped in response, and the pianist bowed. With a single wiggle of her finger, Emily urged him down on one knee, and she whispered something in his ear.

The pianist's face brightened, and he straightened up. Emily walked back to the table with a delighted gait, and he was following close behind. Jessamine blinked curiously.

"Hello, Ms. Kaldwin," he greeted, bowing his head low.

"Hello," she replied.

"Ah, and Mr. Attano!" he said joyfully. "It's an honor."

The pianist introduced himself and offered his hand. Corvo gave it a brief shake without getting up. He examined the pianist's manner: a decent yet not high-class upbringing (which he believed to a benefit), sharp appearance, cheerful personality, and—by the look on the younger man's face—slightly overconfident.

"And it's a pleasure," Corvo replied.

The pianist leaned close for a more private comment. "Nice number you pulled on that two-timing strumpet."

"Thank you."

He coughed, withdrawing, and hoped the Emily hadn't heard. "And did you enjoy my performance?"

Corvo became stern, without meaning to. He was expecting that question. "A nearly flawless rendition."

"Nearly?" he asked, focusing on the crucial word.

"I've heard you play eight, lengthy songs since I came here," Corvo said. "You were following the original versions with your own flair, and that's good, but you clearly ruined notes in every one of them."

The pianist stiffened. "Erp!"

"Fourteen in total," he recalled. "No… it was sixteen. And there wasn't enough heart in the second to last piece; you got a bit sluggish on a few bars. You were especially off on that particular number. You only recently learned it, didn't you?"

The pianist nodded regretfully.

Jessamine watched the verbal critique with some confusion. She couldn't grasp a word he was saying.

"I don't mean to be to offensive, though," Corvo waved it off with a smile. "Everyone has bad days, right?"

"Of…c-course…"

"So, if you're a better pianist," Emily interjected. "Would you play me a song too? Right now?"

Her mother gave her an authoritative glare, and Emily shrank. Corvo frowned, slightly reluctant to consent to the little girl's wishes. He wasn't sure if he was prepared to perform in front of a crowd, no matter how small it seemed. But the pianist spoke up.

"That would be a nice treat for the patrons," he added, trying to change the subject. "I think the manager would be thrilled!"

Emily nodded vigorously.

Corvo realized that the surrounding diners' chatter had undeniably lessened. People were staring at their table. People were staring at him.

The Outsider did say to draw attention on myself, he remembered.

"I don't mind a little performance," he said. "Never deny a lady."

Jessamine sighed in acquiescence. Dear Emily… the world spoils you!

"Just one, Emily," she replied firmly. "No more. The restaurant has to prepare for the show."

Emily grinned in satisfaction.

Corvo stood up, righting the wrinkles on his suit jacket. He allowed the shaken musician to lead him to the piano, and Emily trotted eagerly at his heels. Jessamine beamed with a twinkle in her eye.

Sitting down on the piano's bench, Corvo seemed to be ever conscious that this was only a temporary instrument for him. He always made the best of things that weren't permanent. He set the music sheets aside, while the pianist sat Emily on top of the piano. He moved his neck from side to side, took a deep breath, hovered his fingers over the keys, and simply began.

00000

Jessamine looked on as the waiter finally came with their food.

She wasn't a music aficionado; she had never found the time to be one. Nevertheless, she had always been keen on attending concerts and recitals. And often times, her lack of knowledge always sprang up questions in her analytical mind. Questions that—she often thought—would always go unanswered.

For instance, Jessamine was always agog on the physical movement of pianists. Why were some so lively and animated as they worked their fingers upon the keys…while others behaved as if they were using a typewriter. Or why some were calm at one point and intense at another. After a while, she had come to assume that it was based on the musicians' varied souls, their talent level, and the overall difficulty of the pieces they played. Though, she steadfastly believed this speculation to be correct.

And Corvo appeared to be of the lively category, with a currently relaxed disposition. His eyes were half-closed (or even completely closed), as if in a dreamlike haze, and he swayed over the keys; his hands seemed almost unhurried, even as they became extremely attentive and the melodies quickened. Not a movement was forced out of him, and if one didn't know any better, it appeared as if a child was absentmindedly, diligently, absorbedly playing with a familiar toy… while thinking intently of something else.

It's only natural, Jessamine mused. That's what masters are often like.

Corvo gave Emily a silly grin and quickly flicked out his tongue. Emily covered her mouth and giggled.

Jessamine suddenly remembered an image, one that looked almost identical to the scene before her. One of a man and a child sitting together, laughing and having fun… though, it never necessarily had a piano involved. She had often imagined, in times past, that she would certainly see it play out before her eyes on a daily basis. But, just as quickly as that dream had formed in her mind, it had just as quickly been dashed to pieces. Mercilessly.

She swallowed a lump in her throat but kept watching. Her daughter, after all, was there.

00000

As the song finished and the patrons clapped enthusiastically, Emily stated candidly, "Corvo runs circles around you."

The pianist groaned. "Miss Emily, please don't compare me to someone who composes his own music and has perfect pitch."

"What's perfect pitch?"