"It's a strange thing, Corvo. Even though you've done little of interest these past few months, you remain quite interesting yourself."
The assassin froze solid where he stood behind Emily's right shoulder, watching impassively over the proceedings of the court. Right now, his young Empress and her several regents (one was not an option anymore, there needed to be check and balance) were entertaining the concerns of a nobleman who had fled Dunwall when the plague set in and returned to find his home in the Flooded District collapsed, with what remained of the main floor filled with water and the second floor with rats and bloated corpses. It was just more of the same; he was hardly the first entitled aristocrat to show up expecting special treatment and royal accommodations.
When the man continued his aggrieved rant without pause, waving a handkerchief emphatically in the air, it became clear that the Lord Protector was the only one who could sense the Outsider, hovering what felt and sounded like only inches behind him. It took everything he had to resist the urge to turn around. Corvo instinctively tightened his grip on his sheathed saber, the leather of his glove creaking slightly under the pressure.
The Outsider hummed in his ear, a cold, mirthless sound that echoed into the Void and back again.
"See? Even now. You set me aside, you ignore me. You pretend I don't exist. You've given up all the gifts I gave you, even though they are there for you to pick up and use whenever you like, at no cost…" The Mark on Corvo's left hand burned cold under his glove, like the bite of the ocean in the winter. He fought the shiver that ran down his spine.
The aristocrat bowed and retreated, and Emily finally let loose a sigh when the far doors closed and slid off the throne she had yet to grow into.
"I'm hungry, Corvo. Let's go see if lunch is ready." The Lord Protector forced a smile, and trailed after his young liege, a creeping chill in his spine suggesting that the Outsider still followed.
A light lunch was being laid out as Emily led the way into the private dining room, and while she greeted and thanked her servants, Corvo prowled the perimeter of the room once before coming to a halt at her shoulder once more.
"I had a place set for you, Corvo!" admonished the girl, gesturing to the empty seat on the right hand of her place at the head of the table. Lips pressed tightly together, the man seated himself. He had never grown comfortable with the way the nobles ate; he had been raised to eat what he was given with a single fork or spoon, a single cup. Emily's table was that of an Empress; cutlery lied in neat lines on either side of a fine china plate like plague victims waiting for burial. Two glasses stood like crystal watch towers over them. By now he knew the proper etiquette of fine dining, but it didn't mean he enjoyed it. Much simpler when he could just drop by the kitchen when Emily went to bed and scavenge from the leftovers, maids and cooks nodding politely at him and pointing him towards whatever was freshest.
"What would you like?" Emily asked, drawing him out of his reverie. He scowled inwardly. It was imprudent to let his mind wander like that. Five seconds of negligence was more than enough time for an assassin to slip by. He smiled at Emily again, and helped himself to some of the food set before them. It wasn't that he was hungry; he just hated the concerned scrunch of her forehead he was catching more and more often when she looked at him.
"What would you like?" echoed the Outsider quietly, his voice silky. Corvo sucked in a sharp breath that he quickly covered up with a mouthful of steamed carrots. He had almost forgotten his Shadow. "Nobody has ever set aside the power before. They couldn't, and they never wanted to. You are an oddity."
The Lord Protector ignored him, instead choosing to pick at his food and nod while Emily recounted a story from earlier in the day, while he was at a meeting with the guard.
"Ignore me if you like, Corvo, but know that I have seen every possible future. You can't just ignore that kind of power at your fingertips, even if you want to… and I'm not sure you do."
Corvo did shudder then as he felt the Outsider go, drawing the attention of Emily, who knitted her eyebrows together with that worry her guardian hated to see. It was the worry of adults, of children forced to grow up too soon.
"What's wrong?" she asked, laying down her fork and peering up at his unreadable scarred face.
"Nothing, Emily," he reassured her. "Just a draft, that's all. Finish your lunch. You have lessons in the afternoon."
He stands in the tall windows at night, Heart in hand and mask tucked under his jacket, staring out to Dunwall, hearing its secrets. He knows who carried carved whale bones in their pockets and tucks the charms away under bunks. He hears who has died, and who will die, and who will kill them. He knows where he wants to go and what he wants to do but he never touches the window latch, and he eventually forces himself to bed and uneasy sleep.
The Outsider left him more or less alone for two weeks, only twice grazing his nightmares with his finger(fin-tentacle-nothing). All Corvo saw was a brief glimpse of black eyes, tough skin, empty smile, tousled hair. Then he was gone, and Corvo could not be sure he was ever there in the first place.
The Lord Protector blinked, and looked down at Emily, once again caught lost in thought while he waited for her to emerge from her morning etiquette lessons so he could walk her across the tower to her weapons training. Callista and some of the others had protested that particular decision, but it was one Corvo stood firm on. He was getting older, and while Emily would choose a Protector closer to her own age after her coming birthday, he knew from experience that his eventual replacement would not be at a skill level on par with his own. There would be a gap of a few years while Emily was a teenager that she would not be as protected as her guardian would like, and so she had to learn to defend herself in the worst case scenario. For now she was learning how to use and maintain firearms, but she would eventually be taught swordplay and hand-to-hand combat.
Emily reached a hand towards Corvo, whose face softened. He too it gently in his own, and they walked side by side in comfortable silence down the long halls of the tower. There were none but servants around to see, and at this point, Corvo would not have cared if all of Dunwall saw. There had been rumors that he was Emily's father before- well, before. It had been scandalous then, true or not, and both Corvo and his fair Empress had done all in their power to squash them out. Now, though, it hardly mattered. The city knew he had saved their Empress's life, and no longer blamed him for the death of Jessamine. He had also ousted Burrows and brought together the scientists who would develop a cure to the plague, making him a generally well-respected figure in the city, even if everyone still tiptoed around him. Whether he was Emily's father or not, they were unsurprised that she would look up to him as one, and very few people objected.
"You don't talk much," she remarked out of the blue, and the man looked down at her, mildly perplexed.
"Your mother used to say my gift was knowing when not to speak, and my curse was not speaking when I should."
"You used to talk more when Mother was alive," the young Empress continued, a note of sorrow in her voice. Corvo squeezed her hand but said nothing.
They passed through the door to the courtyard terrace not long after, where her mentor awaited. He was affiliated with the guard, and trained their new recruits. He seemed as old as time itself, and often reminisced to the days of Jessamine's father. Emily liked him well enough, but she was put out that Corvo wouldn't teach her himself.
"He is the best there is," he told her once again after checking the guns the pair would be using that day for any flaws or rigged parts. As always, he concluded that the weapons were safe enough, as long as the barrel never pointed towards his liege.
"You're the best there is," Emily argued back as she always did, arms crossed over her chest.
"I have other responsibilities."
"I thought I'm your only responsibility? I'm the Empress."
Driven to quiet frustration once more, Corvo carefully exhaled, masking his sigh. Frowning, he squatted down so he would be closer to her height.
"There are protectors stationed all around the gardens, Em, and your tutor would never let harm befall you. There are dozens of men dedicated to your protection, but only one Lord Protector. I have to meet with the captain of the guard about finding you a new spymaster-"
"I don't want one."
"- and then review candidates for my replacement-"
"I don't want one! I want you, Corvo!" The bodyguard was shocked to see Emily's eyes well up quickly with tears as she bit her lip, trying ferociously hard not to cry where the men could see her. Or maybe just where Corvo could. She was reaching the age where she thought she had to be fearless in the face of all danger.
Heart wrenched, Corvo drew her gently into his arms, holding her tight while she cried into his shoulder. The gunmaster turned away politely, though his craggy face remained unmoved.
"I don't-" she gasped out between sobs, "I don't want anybody else! Nobody else can keep me safe! Don't leave me, Corvo!"
"Shhh," he soothed, rubbing her back. "Nothing will happen. We got all the bad guys."
"You didn't get the man who killed Mother," she whispered in response, and Corvo went very still in her embrace.
"And who told you that?"
"The man in my dreams. The man with the dark eyes."
The Lord Protector gripped Emily's shoulders lightly, and he moved her back to look at her face.
"Just dreams, Em. Just dreams."
With that, he pecked her on the forehead (the guards all pretended not to notice) and stood, waving her off to her waiting mentor. Emily hesitated, then with a resigned glance at her riding boots, shuffled off to start her lesson, leaving Corvo to ghost away.
He was barely through the large double doors of the tower when cold washed over him, pressing suffocatingly around him and leeching the warmth from his very bones.
"Would you like to know what she dreams of?"
"You, apparently," Corvo muttered darkly as he continued with long strides through a door, down a hall. "Stay away from her."
"Is that what you want? Is that what you truly desire?"
"What I want doesn't matter. What she needs…"
"That's it," the Deep One remarked suddenly, something insidious in the way he spoke, as if it were some interesting new revelation that made everything so much more fun. Corvo slowed to a stop, and finally glanced back at the Outsider. A passing maid gave him an odd glance, but said nothing as she ducked through a doorway to another hall, leaving man alone with monster.
"What?" Corvo finally worked up the nerve to ask. His body was tense; he tried to relax but everything about the Outsider put him on edge.
"This has never been about you." The man with eyes like ink cocked his head minutely. "You act to benefit Empress Emily Kaldwin."
"Your intellect astounds."
"You used my gifts to place her in power, to protect her. You risked your life for her mother for all those years. Before that you trained with Serkonan combat experts at the whim of your father, who just wanted his bastard out of the picture." As he spoke, the Outside slowly approached, carefully watching his pupil's face for a reaction. "Nothing you have ever done has been for yourself, Corvo. Not one thing."
Corvo shook his head slightly, subconsciously bating his breath as the Outsider's face came to a stop unnervingly close to his own. He could smell brine coming off him, and algae, and decay.
"You're wrong." He reached inside his heavy coat, pulling out the Heart he had been given months ago, the Heart he had instantly known, the Heart that repulsed him but he could not bear to destroy. The brown muscle tissue throbbed weakly once in his hand. "She was for me. Everything we… That was for me."
The Outsider barely had time to murmur "Interesting…" before Corvo turned on his heel and marched off to meet the guard captain.
"What do you want, Corvo?"
"I want you to leave me alone."
The Outsider came to stand next to him at the window, examining the reflection of Corvo's grim, unhappy face in the glass.
"The game has been won. Empress Emily rules without contest; the common people are starting to call her Emily the Wise. Dunwall is being rebuilt, the plague is beaten, and the city is at peace." He turned his head to face the Lord Protector directly. "You are free to do as you please; the city you hold so dear will not fall apart if you venture out for a night. So tell me, Corvo- what ido/i you want?"
"What I want is unimportant."
"I'm interested to hear anyway," encouraged the Deep One mildly with the light shrug of one shoulder. For a long time, Corvo did not respond. He reached out with his right hand, touched two fingers to the window latch, then let them fall away.
"What I want is not attainable."
"Nothing is impossible." The Heart lurched in Corvo's hand, and he winced.
"Everything has a price."
The Outsider hummed, and leaned closer in to Corvo, drawing a deep breath. Smelling him. Then he leaned his head to the side, stared into the man's sunken eyes.
"I shall be interested to see how long it takes until you snap, Corvo. Because you will snap." And then the creature pulled swiftly away, stepping out of the Lord Protector's peripheral vision and sinking back into the Void.
Emily's voice was unusually tentative as she called to him from her bed. He pushed open the door to her bedroom (Jessamine's once, but it was her father's before then, and her great-grandfather's…) and slipped inside, walking over to sit at her bedside. The girl looked tiny on the enormous mattress, surrounded by pillows and blankets as she was.
"I can't sleep."
Corvo shot her a sympathetic smile, absent of all joy.
The girl nodded, and reached for his hand. He let her take it, but flinched when she started to pull his glove off, revealing the Mark. She hesitated for a moment, but pulled the glove off the rest of the way and held his scarred and tattooed hand in both of hers.
"That man in my dreams was real, wasn't he?"
"Don't lie to me," the girl demanded suddenly, her voice sharp. Corvo's eyes shot up to meet hers, so like her mother's. More softly, she added, "I saw what you did when Admiral Havelock… when you rescued me."
Corvo couldn't hold back his resigned sigh this time, shoulders slumping. He cast his gaze to the fireplace as he attempted to gather his thoughts.
"Did you dream of him again?"
"No. Not since I told you about it."
"Good. Good…" Another sigh, and he looked at Emily again. "Yes, he's real, but he's not to be trusted. He might promise you things, give you things, but there are costs…" He thought of the Heart tucked against his breast, and hoped Emily never found out about it. "It's not worth it, Em."
"Then why do you worship him?" the child monarch asked, tears rolling quietly down her cheeks as she flipped his hand palm-down, bearing the Outsider's Mark.
"He chose me. I never asked for it."
"But you used it. You used magic."
"I had to use magic," Corvo replied finally, reaching over with his other hand to cup her cheek in his palm, wiping away tears with his rough thumb. "To save you." He gave her one more sad smile before tucking her blankets closer around her and retrieving his glove. As he quietly moved to the door, her voice stopped him one more time, tiny and nervous.
"What did it cost you?"
He thought of ever nail prized from his fingers, every burn, every cut. He thought of the electricity shot through him, and the bullets and bolts and acid that would come later. The rat bites. He thought of the men he had to kill. He thought of his wounded trust shattering forever with the second betrayal, and the crushing pain of Jessemine's death, and the terror of losing Emily too. He thought of the men who had done these things to him and his loved ones, men now beyond his reach. And breath like the ocean on his skin, a mind-rending whale song in his nightmares.
He said nothing but "good night" as he left her room.
He returned to his desk that night to do what little paperwork was expected from him, unable to sleep but unwilling of late to hold his vigil at the window. Three letters waited for him, stacked neatly in front of his chair. One was on fine white stationery, while the other two were somewhat grungier. He sank into his chair and started with those, more comfortable with the simple speech of common people than the driveling vagueries of aristocrats.
The first letter was written in a curly, feminine script unbefitting of the cheap, stained paper.
We haven't heard from you here at the pub in quite a while. I'm sure you're busier than any of us are, and I don't presume to say that you should blemish your good name and high status as to come visit us here in the slums, but Samuel and I would appreciate seeing you and catching up. Drinks on the house for everyone's favorite Lord Protector.
We're worried about you. Please write back.
Corvo rubbed one temple as he tossed the letter to the corner of his desk. He'd write back eventually, when he had the time, and when he felt up to it. He didn't mind Cecilia, and got along well with Samuel. Though years and experience separated them, they understood each other, and where Corvo fell silent, Samuel was happy to fill in the gaps with his own easy chatter.
Visiting was difficult, though. He had tried to swing by a few times over the months, but every time he came near, he remembered the betrayal. He saw the bloodstained concrete, and remembered the moldering smell of the floorboards when he had been drugged and tossed aside. There were too many memories, and they were too raw. It was hard enough living in the Tower without that additional burden.
He thought Samuel understood, which would explain why he had received no letter from the old fisherman. The last time Corvo had come by, he had lingered out front before heading down to the waterfront. Samuel was there, sitting in his boat, and one welcoming gesture had them both silently gliding out further into the sea, leaving memory behind.
He reached for the second grubby letter. This was in even worse shape than the first, just a torn sheet of paper folded over on itself and sealed with an untidy dribble of wax. The handwriting inside was just as untidy, a cultureless chickenscratch.
I feel like I still owe you, it read.
You saved my life. Thought you'd be interested in this.
Rumor is that bastard Daud is leaving for good. Sailing for Serkonos on the Lady Margaret, tomorrow night. He'll be at the docks at 7.
This letter he held for a long time, slumped in his chair, other hand holding his mouth and chin. Daud.
He didn't know what to think of Daud.
Now preoccupied, Corvo opened the final letter, skimming over its contents several times before any of it actually sank in.
It has been months since Her Royal Highness has taken the throne, but the criminal Farley Havelock still awaits judgment in his prison cell in Coldridge Prison. If he is not sentenced soon- whether to execution, life in prison, or otherwise- I fear the public may start to whisper about injustice.
Please have a conversation with the Empress. She listens to you, and trusts your judgment. I know this is the man who tried to assassinate her, but she must make a decision as our ruler, not as a wounded child. I'm sure you see that, but it may take convincing to bring her around. She was not receptive to the idea of sentencing him so soon after she was crowned.
Help her see reason.
Havelock and Daud. Months have passed, and still they were a problem. Corvo grimaced as he smoothed out Slackjaw's note next to Curnow's on his desk, glancing between them.
A hand on his shoulder made him jump. Corvo squeezed his eyes shut as he felt its icy cold sinking through his coat. Another hand then rested on his other shoulder, trapping him uncomfortably in his chair.
"Ah, Corvo. You are just like any other man in the end."
Hot, humid breath touched his ear and he remained silent.
"I know what you want," the Outsider whispered, barely audible, though the triumph and delight in his voice was sickeningly apparent.
"I want you to-"
"No," the Leviathan corrected, one hand sliding suddenly to Corvo's throat, forcing his head back, making him look at his unsmiling god. "You want revenge on the men who killed your love, threatened your daughter, ruined your life."
"I've had my revenge."
"No!" The grip on the Lord Protector's throat tightened threateningly. His heart quickened nervously. "The Admiral Havelock waits safe and sound in prison, content to whatever fate he receives, because he no longer has to fear you with the thick walls of Coldridge standing in the way. Daud sails home, thinking he can start his life over again, as if he never killed all those people in cold blood. As if he never killed your Empress. You have the opportunity… why not seize it?"
"No. I can't. Emily…"
The Outsider leaned down, his lips nearly brushing Corvo's ear.
"It's what she wants, too."
The hand on his throat moved to his cheek, caressing it (almost tender, but not quite) and then He was gone, leaving nothing but the faint scent of low tide.
He finds Daud on the pier the next evening, walks up to him, grabs him by the shoulder, and steers him behind a cargo crate.
Daud is unafraid, and does not move to attack.
"I'm not here to kill you."
The assassin's eyebrows betray his surprise, twitching almost imperceptibly upward.
"I'm here to forgive you." The words do not come easily, and taste bitter on his tongue. He feels the Heart quake in his pocket. "You were going to sell me to the highest bidder. I forgave you for that a long time ago. But tonight I forgive you for killing my Empress. I hate you for it. I will always hate you for it. If you so much as think about returning to Dunwall, I will kill you. But I forgive you, and I am letting you go."
He turns to leave, but Daud says something.
"I said, 'no wonder the Outsider is so interested in you.'" Daud walks past him towards his ship. "Even I can't forgive me."
"I know you're watching. Let's talk."
Corvo was resting in a plush arm chair in an empty sitting room in the Tower. He had sent the guards away, telling them to go stand at Emily's door while he took a break.
"I don't come when summoned, as you well know," drawled a familiar voice, and Corvo looked up to see the Outsider sitting in the chair across from him. The Lord Protector spread his hands .
"Yet here you are." The Deep One's expression changed slightly, from one unreadable look to another.
"Here I am," he confirmed, dark eyes very slightly narrowed. "You didn't kill Daud."
"What do you want?" Corvo asked suddenly, unwilling to play along anymore. The Outsider leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees and hands knit together in between.
"I think you know."
"But do you?" With a cold smile, Corvo stood up, brushed the wrinkles from his coat, and left the room, leaving the Outsider sitting alone.