Chapter Six

Exaltation

The Royal Protector, Nicolai Essen, did not make it through the night.

Jessamine had not seen him when he passed.

They had escorted her into his quarters to say her goodbyes to her loyal companion and dear friend. He had been the last of the connections to happy days (and the bad days) with her father. She could still remember the times he had watched her at her father's side as she recited cities of Gristol for the soldiers, her just a small girl. He had taught her what each part of the sword was called, and in which order's ranks in the military were received.

He had been one of the few she could speak to in earnest, in trust; a rare luxury in her life of regalia.

They had asked if she wished to have a ceremony at sea, which she denied. He would be buried in Dunwall on the Royal grounds such as he deserved.

She had locked herself away after that. The image of Essen's cold face, older and paler than she ever remembered seeing him, haunted her mind as she walked the seemingly long hallway back to her quarters. She had dismissed whoever had opened the door for her in a haze, requesting quiet privacy and receiving it dutifully.

Jessamine had allowed herself only that; the reprieve from duty aboard the ship. She did not cry. She didn't believe she could even if she allowed herself. Her shoulders simply grew tenser, winding herself tight like a string. She held her chin high as she grieved from a simple longing and remembrance spoken through the sorrow between her brows as she stared out the window towards the seas. She allowed the boat in all its creaking to mourn for her, with each groan and wail of the wood and iron of its making as it barreled back toward Dunwall.

No one called upon her for the rest of the journey.

The waters about the isle of Serkonos had been rough, and even after their path straightened for Dunwall, the skies were grey and it rained on the day they ported.

She had waited until they had taken away his body, before departing from her room.

The Royal Guard met her at the docks, along with Commander Dalen; Essen's acting officer left to lead her City Watch while he had traveled with her to Serkonos. Who now, was a temporary replacement. His expression was grim as he gave his condolences. She had simply waved him off, assuring him she expected him to fulfill his duties to the utmost ability in a time of tragedy.

They had taken her straight to the Tower, escorted deftly from the docks and the returned soldiers shuffling about the boats. She thought nothing of them or the quiet talking about her as she left, or of the Royal Guard arguing away the rest of the accompanying entourage.

Word was sent quickly to her advisers of Parliament at Dunwall Tower. And a session was called immediately for her return. Jessamine had walked into court and presented the grave news. Her mind automatically finding the words she had built during her quiet solace. There were no other words said except her own, and the airs of court were for once, stilled. The benefits of their new treaty and the strength of their Serkonon ally felt unbalanced with the weight of her Lord Protector's death.

The week of Parliament sessions was cancelled.

The speakers throughout Dunwall called for a length of silence for Essen's passing on the day of his procession.

Condolences were spoken to her throughout the tower. Servants in mid-curtsy, as she passed the halls, whispered their apologies and watched her leave with pitiful gazes. She ignored them for the most part, her acceptances growing more tired each day.
The funeral was beautiful despite the overcast clouds haunting them from the sea. It was as if the dust of Serkonos was chasing her home, she mused.

The officers draped a flag upon the lacquered wood of his coffin. They wore they're ceremonial uniforms, and Commander Dalen placed Essen's sword upon it, wrapped in the deep teal and gold of the Kaldwin family.
The High Overseer, Wesley, read a passage speaking of the righteous of the living and the memory of the fallen. She didn't hear a lot of it.

Jessamine whispered words of thanks to the carved stone adorning the grave. It wasn't the first time a Protector had died for his charge, she told herself. And to die in valiantly for his duty was not a vain or dishonorable death.

The city mourned for a week and a half. News of the Royal Protectors death brought pity and sorrow. He had been loved by his soldiers and the citizens. Essen had been an honorable man; soldier and fighter for his city in the war. And he had saved their precious Empress from the hands of Serkonos men.

But his death also brought about whispers and puzzled looks. Advisers began meeting to discuss the news. Officers overlooked their positions and everyone waited for more news.

Who would be Lord Protector now?


"It's in bad taste to do something so soon after..."

"Your Majesty it has been two weeks."

"That's not a lot of time."

"Perhaps." The adviser straightened, watching Jessamine's back as she faced the great window overlooking the Tower grounds. Cromwell was Secretary of her Parliament, her Privy Council. He was her official messenger and correspondent for her decrees and decisions, as well as the voice of the advisers council. "But the position is a great one. Not only for your safety, but for the command of your forces..." Cromwell tried again. When the Empress didn't interrupt he continued. "You must begin your choosing. It will take a few months to prepare the new appointed officer and it would not be announced for some time... But you must begin the process now."

Jessamine sighed, her finger reaching to trace the curtain in contemplation. She glanced at the strange reflection of Cromwell in his black suit, shifting on his feet in her office. She supposed they had left her alone for as long as they could. And for her advisers, two weeks was indeed long.

She knew he was right in any case. It didn't matter how close to her Essen had been. He had held a great title, one that needed to be replaced in order for the Kingdom to continue order. To leave the position empty was not just a hazard to her protection and the order of security at her Tower, but it was not proper for her people to go without a Lord Protector in their government, even in name.

There was only so much time for grief in her position. She had learned that from the death of her father.

But Jessamine could spot a box of political intrigue from miles away. And the selection of a new Royal Protector screamed of it.

The Privy Council was made up of eight men, including her Secretary. They were judges, senior politicians, men from the Academy and more importantly, all noble men within her court. They all had things to gain, positions being one of them. Money being the other. She trusted their opinions and their urgency for the factions they supported within her Kingdom, but she did not trust their acknowledgment of each other or the whole of her people.

Still, she would have to begin sifting through it all. She was Empress, after all.

"Has my Lord Protector left behind recommendations for his succession?"

He nearly sighed out loud in relief. He had almost expected a dismissal, but their dear Empress had always been sensible. A trait he was thankful for in times such as these. "Yes, Empress," He nodded, coming forward to place the small stack of papers upon her desk. "I'm afraid that some of them may not be as prepared as others though…" He trailed and looked up to the Regent with analytic eyes. "Ultimately, the decision is yours, Majesty. But your council has nominated candidates as well, they are there too."

Jessamine nodded, tearing her gaze away from the overcast sky and dreary city. She glanced at the new papers on her desk. So it was as she predicted. No doubt none of them wanted her choosing from whatever recommendations Essen had made. They had probably been through them all, already. "Thank you, Cromwell. I will go through them." She dismissed, turning away with false disinterest.

She waited until he was gone before swearing quietly.

She crossed the room quickly, sitting on her chair and reaching to splay the papers before her.

Small cameo portraits accompanied written dossiers of various men. Most of them were Corporals in the City Watch, and one she recognized as Essen's right hand Commander, Dalen. It was immediate what problems were apparent in his evaluations though. They were all great soldiers, high ranked, with awards and special honors.

But none of them were high enough in society. They were middle class, brought up to high stations in the military but not in lineage and hardly in wealth. Which she knew, was an unfortunate must. To hire any old guardsmen from any family would be scandalous. Not only because of the lack of class, but because it showed a degradation in her own station. Not to mention the instant disapproval from all the other houses. Jessamine's lips pursed, ignoring the issue for now.

Experience, of course, was also important. And quietly, she promised herself not to hire another of Essen's generation. She needed a Lord Protector fit for duty. One that was adaptable in a time where change was rapidly occurring in her Kingdom. Something the former Protector had had some trouble with.

Pushing away the top papers, she came to those nominated by her Privy Council, each page tabbed with their wax seals. Such support went only to Naval Officers, which they all were, of course. The Naval force was much more highly respected than the Watch was. Not unrightfully so, but perhaps a little unfairly. Especially since the Naval force gained much more financial and social support from those in the courts. It paid to endorse an Admiral and his fleet unlike a Commander and his guards.

Unfortunately, regardless of which faction she chose from, narrowing her specifications to young, adaptable, experienced and high stationed was very limiting. Not to mention, she had meet none but one.

And loyalty came with a certain amount of acquaintanceship.

A trait she realized, that was perhaps the most important of them all.

Surely they were all trained for devotion to their land... but to their Empress on a level for her safety?

A knock on her door paused her thoughts and she looked up. "Come in."

The door opened to expose one of the guards who had been keeping watch outside her door. "Reports for your Majesty."

She frowned and gestured him inside, his hands full of scrolled parchments, stacked up his chest. "Reports?"

"On Serkonos, Majesty. From Essen's faction."

Oh.

She paused at the idea, but nodded him towards her desk. She had no intention to reread the events at Karnaca, but there they would stay.

He crossed the floor quickly and at her motion to the spot in her desk, he began to try and set them all down at once. They cluttered out of his hands awkwardly, a few escaping to roll over her dossiers and papers. One fell to the floor.

The guardsmen tried to straighten them in embarrassment, trying to stack them on top of each other in vain. Jessamine frowned heavily, her own hands reaching across the mahogany to snatch a stray scroll. "Leave them." She demanded, saving the poor man from further embarrassment by offering him a dismissal.

The officer's eyes flickered to her and back to the mess, glancing at the one that had fallen to the floor.

"That will be all, watchmen." She tried again. He saluted hurriedly, bowing for good measure over his blunder and hurried out the door.

Jessamine watched the door close, tapping her chin with the paper scroll she had caught. Her eyes strayed back to the cameos of all the Naval and Watch officers of different ranks, their quaint little drawings looking back at her stiffly. She placed the scroll idly down, rolling it along the desk beneath her fingers as she read.

Living with an angry court and choosing from her City Watch was something she did not want to do. But the position was not one she was willing to grant to her councilors benefit. She sighed tiredly. Cromwell and the others would just have to wait. There was no way she could narrow her mind by reading through pages of titles and badges.

When it had come time to appoint her Protector years ago when her father had died, she had done so easily. Essen had always been there. There had been no need for interviews or preparations; the man was practically Royal Protector already. And none had questioned his rank or duty, or even his stations. Then again, he had been a Naval Commander, she reminded herself.

And now this? Her fingers twiddled the scrolls on her desk. She stared at it listlessly as she contemplated putting together an evaluation for those applicable for the job.

The scroll rolled a little too far from her fingers, and the lettering above its seal peered out at her.

Corvo Attano.

Jessamine's mind blanked.

A vision of the Serkonos man rushed back to her, his worn and hard face strangely soft as he awaited her orders. Puzzled, she racked her mind at the last time she had seen him. The ship? Perhaps the docks? It had been a haze when they had ported and she could recall having her Royal Guard escorting her away, but not Corvo following about her like a shadow. He must have stayed with the others; the soldiers that he had been positioned with at Serkonos.

Her eyes stared at the name in confusion before flickering to the other rolled parchments on her desk, lying about innocently. Her eyes widened in realization. He must have, for these were the reports from all those soldiers of the actions in Serkonos.

And so… Corvo, too, had written a report.

Jessamine snatched up the paper, crinkling it in her haste. The City Watch seal popped off easily and she unrolled it a bit gentler than her finger's wanted to in their eagerness. She pushed the curl of the paper flat on the mahogany and sure enough, a hand written report stared back at her and her eyes skimmed it greedily.

Corvo's handwriting was shaky with the quill. Not illegible, but obviously the characters were difficult for him to shape. The shakiness of the ink seemed to reflect the quickness in his hands, as if written in haste, or perhaps in frustration. It seemed disappointingly short – nowhere near the length of others had she seen in her rulings. It was also littered with stricken words as if edited by another.

The Captain, no doubt. His fancy cursive hovered above Corvo's crossed out scrawling. It was almost sort of comical, like a tutor fixing a student's error filled scripts.

She began reading slowly, even as her mind longed to whirl through the entire text. Perhaps she would have felt less inclined to read such a thing had her charge not been... addled as he was. She was admittedly curious to hear the words of one who had not spoken to her at all. Especially during the events he had practically carried her through.

For while she had been there herself, the entire goings on had still stirred in her mind like a surreal dream. And since they had arrived at home, she had pushed it from her mind.

Forcibly slowly, she read:

Corvo Attano
Assassin Hand

The first correction lay here. 'Assassin Hand' was stricken. It was replaced with the words, 'City Guard.' Jessamine frowned at the change. It was a true enough error. He was not what he was assigned in the treaty. But had they not told Corvo that? Or did he not accept such a reassignment?

I killed 3 Gallows men the night before the meeting on the compound. I knew they're failure meant they would attack again. I left my post when I learned there was to be a gathering of people not a private meeting. It meant they could come during the day where she was exposed in a crowd. They entered from the roof of the palace where no guards were posted. There were 16 of them. I killed three on the way towards music room to find the Empress. The tattoos on their faces meant they were from Cullero, not Karnaca. They are in esili. Pirates. I took the Empress from his Lordship and used his safe passage in the music room to take her to the stables. I killed a fourth by the gates. We went through the city with another three chasing us. I tried to lose them through the crowd and when it grew too heavy to run I took the Empress to a safe house. Postribolo. They give runaway women rifugio.

Another set of strike outs. She could make out the strange Serkonan words Corvo had written, probably to substitute words he didn't know how to say in their language, but the Captain's replacements were 'exiled,' 'whorehouse' and 'sanctuary.'

I killed a fifth in there. I believe he found us by seeing us from the streets and following so I switched clothing to not be spotted as a Gristol guard. I gave the Empress a cover to hide her face. She does not look Serkonan.

The safe houses in Serkonos lead to the sewers a safer place to run. Cullero men would not know Karnaca sewers. We walked to the end of the city and came up to a trader I know by name. I lied to him that the Empress was my wife and I needed passage to the coast and paid him to take us. The Empress was not physically hurt during our escape.

I killed five men. Bodies will not be found. Gallows men carry their dead back with them.

Jessamine let her fingers trail over the last words. So he had known. Not only had he known that they would come, he had known what for. Pirates... no doubt upset that she had come to stop their business and legally ratify certain trade. They would lose much money, bounty and sea turf.

And of course, they would want to kill her only. Stir war between two nations and frame Rossini? A predictable if feeble plan. Although, she supposed it would have worked smoothly had Essen and Corvo not been there.

The information wasn't exactly the closure she wanted. But it was nice to understand what Essen had been protecting her from.

She traced the page again and again, short as it was, remembering all the details. The small things weren't mentioned. Not Corvo showing her his cut tongue to explain he couldn't speak. Not the attempt to write letters on her hand, or his breathy laugh at her catching an eyeful of brothel patrons. Nor did he mention her falling asleep near the end of their journey.

She didn't expect him to. But she remembered once more that she had yet to thank him despite saving her life more than once that day. Perhaps a bit more than her dear Protector had. She frowned at the thought, but it was true. Besides, Lord Rossini had gifted her Corvo and she had placed him in the Watch with mistrust. Now that she had confidence in the Lord, and even more in Corvo, she could do her best to reward him. Even if it wasn't to appoint him as her Assassin Hand…

She had not even spoken a goodbye to him, or seen to his station upon arrival at Dunwall. With a stab of worry, she wondered if they shipped him back to Serkonos.

She rolled the report back together neatly, placing it in the drawer at her desk side. It wouldn't mean anything to read any others. Corvo's had been the only one she needed.

Jessamine decided that her Privy Council would wait.

She had to see to Corvo.