Masquerade

by Lord Divestre Croft


It has been eight long nights since they came to tell me. Corvo, my Lord Protector, has been poisoned. I had scarcely responded before they began the proper explanations. I listened without truly hearing. My chest was tight, my heart hummed in my ears. I couldn't breathe.

"The Lord Protector is a strong man," they've assured me. "And fortunate. He just might survive."

They pleaded for me to sit, but I curled into myself, my fists balling up like a child's. It took something larger than me to steady myself, to force myself from swooning right where I stood. All I could do was ask questions that I already knew the answers to. A maid forced some strong liquor down my gullet, and I almost wretched in protest…but they cared for me nonetheless.

Later, when I regained myself as Empress, I was able to see him. The Royal Physician hovered over him at all times, considering leeches. All the while, I detected an overwhelming gray beneath his olive skin. His breath was ofttimes erratic, unmistakably feverish.

In the end, it has all been a game of dreadful patience. So, I've waited.

The maids led my weary self to retire, and I've waited. I woke up to the whole of Dunwall Tower in an absolute frenzy, three servants already led to torture. A day passed as I accomplished my noble duties, forced to pretend that all was well, and I've wait. One more day, a long visit included. He became half-lucid at some points, only to splutter broken logic, and I've wait. Two more days, the meetings and documents and dilemmas never ceased to fall onto my lap…and the traitors have long confessed. I continued to see him, sometimes wiping away his sweat, and I've waited.

I have long gone to bed, but I cannot bring myself to sleep. My valerian formula was promptly disposed of, and my bed is cold, so terribly cold. And where he is right now… is where I much rather would prefer to be. Wrapping myself warm with a shawl, I steal away from my rooms. The corridors are dim. The chill of the floor nips at my feet, exhilarating my every step.

I know the guards' movements well; it is hardly thinkable to remain unseen. No matter. I am only a royal creeping into the infirmary.

A covered lamp is in the far corner. Corvo lies peacefully in a soft bed, in a quiet, gentle slumber (for the time being). I approach, plumping myself onto a miniscule stool, and watch over him.

He's all right, is he not? The brunt is over. He is here, breathing the air along with us. His flesh and blood are still warm. He has gotten better, far better than the last few nights. He had writhed and thrashed with barely a moment of rest. The Royal Physician believes it was partially from a nightmare. The nurses feared that the Void was trying to tear him asunder.

He grunts, interrupting the calm. His head jerks away, his chest jumps. I already know what will follow, so I hop up and get to work, quick as a flash. The shawl slides down, splaying at my feet. His breaths sharpen and become ragged.

(Where is the Physician when he is needed!?)

A water basin stands nearby, filled with some medicinal solution. A sea sponge sits at the bottom. I hunch over him, my hands take control with a frenetic violence, dabbing his face with the sponge. He coughs in response and pulls away. Over time, his breathing slows to a steadied pace, rolling like the ocean. Not so bad.

Yes, he is safe and sound. Yes, he will awaken for sure. And I shall be there to greet him.

But when?

I dip the sponge and press on, though he is already calmed. I work downward, from his neck, meticulously drawing the outline of his collarbones. I admire the elegance of their form—one of them interrupted by a jagged scar. Swallowing skittishly, I pull the sheet down, only slightly, to rub down his chest. I wonder if my efforts do any good; the fire of his skin burns at my fingertips.

(This appeared so blameless when the Physician did it.)

It's fascinating the way one sleeps. A man can be one way in his waking hours, but he can't take his visor with him to the land of Nod. He is naked, defenseless, his heart crying out in a loud silence. And Corvo—even he is not immune; he sleeps, and years of fortitude peel off of his mien.

If he could voice his true self now, I would ask him many questions. And he would respond faithfully, readily, honestly.

Don't you realize that you have slept too long? Will you be able to find your sleep…even without the tisane? What affected you so horribly that sleep escaped you in the first place? Why is it so wrong to tell me the truth?

I drop the sponge back into the bowl. The water and (possibly) his sweat splash against my palm. I rub it quickly with my fingers.

No one is more special, more competent than you, do you know that? Do you understand how irreplaceable you are to me? What do you think I would do if you died?

I stare at his tranquil face, something uncurling in my breast. A weight falls from my shoulders, and my balance is off. My head feels as if it's swaying.

I know this feeling. It's called relief. But no. It's not enough.

You're truly alive, aren't you? You belong to me, right?

This time, my hand reaches out. I let a finger touch him at first, tracing across his brow. He flinches, sensing the abrupt change. Emboldened, I touch his face with my hand.

"Get up… Corvo."

The words form effortlessly from my mouth. It doesn't sound even remotely demanding. This time, I lean closer. He smells of the earth. I caress his cheek, half-hoping for a response. Nothing. I brush dampened locks from his forehead and brush my lips against it.

"Corvo…"

He lets out a small cough.

I am terrified, but I am at ease. I am miserable, but I am blissful... oh so blissful. Corvo—he is well. This fever is nothing to him! And soon, the moment he awakens, he will be right there. Right at my side. Right where he belongs.

You still belong to me, don't you?

The closer I inch, the more his scent intoxicates me. Something powerful draws me in. I want… to kiss him. I would like to. I might not get another chance. And foolishly, with only a hint of reservation, I do exactly that. I nibble on his lips at the beginning, all but devouring him in the end. My nails dig into the mattress.

(I can indulge just this once, can't I?)

But then, unexpectedly, I realize that I'm not doing all the work. His lips are taking back freely. I recoil with a gasp, stifling a cry. Corvo doesn't move; he is dead to the world… but not to me.

And so, I flee from the infirmary, my toes numb to the cold.

I will not sleep tonight; I'll waste the remainder of it on paperwork. Tomorrow, I will form an excuse for leaving my shawl on the floor.

And later that afternoon, Corvo will answer my plea, opening his eyes with his mind fully intact. He will find me positively unkempt, the aftermath of dozing at a chair with my torso slumped near his resting form. My clothes and hair will be a mess, with my favorite hairpin threatening to tumble out.

00000

I recall, years ago, the summer of my sixteenth year. Corvo and I are the same age, but he is always a few months shy. Like every year, my family enjoys a holiday in the city of Karnaca. I complain of the daily heat, but the nights leave me blithe and free, as if the world should always feel so pleasant. I have never asked whether Corvo, a native, would agree.

One night, in the midst of Karnaca's annual parade, Mother, the Empress, beckons me (and Corvo) to regard a mask-clad dance troupe from her balcony. Father, the Emperor, does not care for the sensual dances of Serkonian tradition and disapproves of it being exposed to his innocent daughter. Never mind that the Gristol gentry copies it in their ballrooms. Mother understands, but she wishes me, their daughter, to become acquainted with the ways of the world as soon as possible.

So, we stand, flanking her, as we behold their performance. I don a lovely, navy suit with a primrose blouse underneath. My hair, studded with white tears, is held back with a mother-of-pearl hairpin. My body is perfumed in sweet oils from the region. As the final flourish, the most important piece, an eagle visor is fitted over my face.

Corvo has chosen an ebony form, and has somehow procured the visor of a raven. I laugh at his hidden jest.

And the harlequin vision I witness—I fear I shall go blind, but—it causes my heart to leap. The males are stalwart and virile, wearing vermeil from head to toe. And the females, they are spun almost dizzy, their rainbow skirts curling and revolving 'round their wild, gyrating hips. The females, they move as if they melt, and their costumes spin like feathers, with the movement of hummingbirds' wings in motion.

In due course of the night, upon being questioned, Corvo will calmly, shamelessly deadpan the name of the dance and the blush inducing translation: "the twisting of the bum".

"Observe," Mother commanded. "See… they all wear such magnificent visors as they perform this specific dance. Do you know why that is?"

I shake my head. Corvo only watches in silence.

"When they wear their visors," she explains, "it transports them to the highest state of their art. Yes, no matter what others think, this dance is a moving work of art. Without a visor, their emotions might betray their performance. But with a mask, the right mask, they can convey any emotion they please with their bodies."

I glance at Corvo, wondering what he feels for Mother's lesson. His eyes are trained on the dancers; he appears to not be hearkening to her at all.

"But many politicians, aristocrats…and even the most ordinary of people," she continues, "are hardly any different. Only, they adopt this concept and take it a step further… by hardening their own face into as many visors as they so choose. Some need to cultivate the art. For others, it is one of their basest instincts. It is a skill that best you learn."

00000

And soon after, only months later, Mother succumbs to typhoid. As a result, I take her words to heart as best I can. I cannot heed my visors at all times. My temperament sometimes gives way.

As the years go by, it seems as if Corvo did, in fact, listen to Mother's lesson. And during those years, I firmly believe that he is the better student. But after Father passes from the world, after I become the Empress, after Corvo is a fully realized Lord Protector, I finally understand the truth.

Corvo never needed her instruction. Even then, it was always a part of his very nature.

00000

The poisoning of the Lord Protector gradually becomes a memory. As soon as he regains the stength in his limbs and rises from his bed, the terrified whispers begin to die away. No one has ever bothered to inquire upon his health. The name of the toxin is consigned to oblivion, only to be stored away in the files of the Royal Physician.

Two months go by without a care.

(The excitement is gone. They wish to move on to better things.)

Now there is talk of a long-awaited state dinner, anticipated since the end of the Fugue Feast. Only days away, and the streets of Dunwall will swarm with foreign gentry. Among the Isles of the realm, every vital diplomat will attend with their best suits. The palace will be aglow, sumptuous and gracious. The servants will strive for perfection, from the highest retainer to the lowest scullion. The banquet shall be a kaleidoscope feast, a spectacle of diversity, assortments of delicacies hailing with pride from all corners and tangs of the Empire.

(The conversation will be intolerable.)

The alien vessels already flock to the harbors—more savage than leviathans. Everyone wants to disembark first. Everyone is watching.

But as for the Lord Protector, he speaks nothing of glamorous fanfare or exotic offerings. He prefers to drill the guards on matters of security. Punctiliously, as always, he has planned out every move, from the time they set foot in Dunwall Tower to the time they finally return to their homelands.

As always, he leaves nothing to chance (everything is ready). Yet, he instructs them, disciplines them, exercises them, and instructs them again. He is always like this, even in the face of the pettiest of balls. Some condemn it as paranoia or nitpicking. No one truly unravels his attention to detail.

And in the background, there are malicious whispers, caroming off the walls of the Tower, back into my ears:

"Weren't two of the traitor-servants… two of the beheaded ones… were they not also Serkonians?"

"Didn't a Serkonian envoy grace us only recently?"

(I clutch the arm of my throne in a silent rage.)

I can see the Royal Spymaster sneering down his nose as the Lord Protector strolls past. All I can do is strike him with a warning glare.

The Lord Protector does not dignify it, not even with an acknowledgement. It's not surprising. It never is.

00000

Despite everything, with sickening precision, the arduous week begins. There is barely a moment of tranquility in court; I spend my free time hiding away under the gazebo. I watch tiredly as more ships speckle the horizon. Nevertheless, I am grateful. I will always have a special love for this view, for the sea, for the ocean breeze that causes my hair to dance. I stand at the rail, observing the curious seagulls.

There are some aristocrats I will be thrilled to mingle with: interesting noblemen from Cullero, who have never attended before. Cullero—where the common folk go expel their worries. Someday, someday I will go.

(And the Lord Protector was born in that city.)

Father was staunch against the very notion of setting foot there, and I've been buried in the avalanche of imperial business. I wonder aloud if Cullero is very beautiful, if the city is very different from prestigious Karnaca.

The Lord Protector, who stands at my side, pauses for a moment, perhaps to sort through his distant memories.

"Yes," he answers, a blank smile, "it is quite beautiful. But only slightly different from Karnaca. There are more ghettos."

I frown inwardly. I wanted a more nostalgic tale.

I wonder… if he ever does dream of his hometown. But alas, it's impossible to judge what he truly feels; I understand that more than anyone else. I ponder, with an ache in my heart, would he return there if given the chance? Without a second thought?

And I, foolish enough, inquire him on the matter.

"Is that a possibility you have conjured up for my future?" the Lord Protector asks.

At once, the blood rushes to my ears, and the world begins to spin. "N-no!"

The word expels out my mouth, past my lips, leaving a terrible flavor in my mouth. It sounds paltry, like a whimper, or a squeak, or a feeble misfire of a wail. He lowers his head, perhaps apologetically.

I turn on my heels, and he follows a few paces slower, no longer at my side.

00000

It's always been so enchanting. Corvo is a consummate expert in many crafts. He brandishes a sword as if he dances upon a stage; I'm often too engrossed, too spellbound as he defends me. He commands my guards with the mentality of a dictator, downright sensible and thoroughly detested. He is brusque but polite, reticent yet eloquent, unique yet well kept.

And above all else, he blurs even the tiniest hints of his innermost thoughts.

(A talent that oft makes me sick at heart.)

No one knows even a ghost of his real smile, his hearty laugh, or even his rage. Many declare that they are a myth. And yes, Corvo—he allows them their various assumptions. Anything to harden his masks, anything to tighten them against his features.

Even I cannot count how many he wields by now. He never explains to me how they work. After all, I am merely the Empress.

Not that I haven't tried to discern him. Oh yes, I've fully mastered his personal language—his body language, that is. I've trained my ears to catch any fine-drawn inflection in his voice, inadvertently finding his dry sense of humor. He stares off into space when he is greatly troubled. He purses his lips together when he looks askance on something. When he laughs, actually laughs, it sounds closer to a wheeze or a clearing of his throat. He becomes entrenched in his own duties…when he has something to hide.

Though anyone with half of a functioning brain cell could tell something has gone abysmally wrong… when dark bags appear under his eyes and his appetite dies a slow death.

Yes, all this time, I honestly believed I could perceive all the subtleties of his unique disposition. I was honestly confident that only I knew his genuine face. Honestly, until he briefly shook off all of his concealments, only for me, to make a confession:

"…I am enamored with you… I have always been enamored with you…"

I concede; I've had to swallow my pride and accept that I truly know nothing, nothing at all. Even the keenest and truest of insights could never calculate the mysteries of his heart. And it was arrogant of me to think so.

Yet, he speaks of nothing, nothing of his sentiments. And it has been two months… since that incident.

From the very hour that he returns to his duties, Corvo continues his routine. He is as immaculate as ever, following my demands without fail, without hesitation. He focuses, more so than before, blending into the shadows as a crow in the night, scanning the courts with the vision of an eagle. He wears the coat of Lord Protector… as if he will wear it to his grave.

And I almost forget, hope to forget.

I almost convince myself that it had all been a sick joke, a third-rate farce. A result of leftover delirium, and unsound reasoning (ignoring that he had seemed quite aware of his persons). After all, he makes no mention of his tender admissions, nor does he continue to persist in stepping down…or withdrawing from my presence. Life, for the most part, has gone back to its normal swing. He stands by me without flinching, as if he recalls not a thing.

I am almost relieved. I almost feel secure. I am almost certain that the matter… was no matter at all…

Almost… until he furtively gazes upon me with that look. That quiet look that anyone else would mistake as stoicism, anyone except for me. And—confound him—he's fully aware of that! His eyes are a somewhat reliable window to his soul, and I can see them welling with longing, restlessness, and warmth. The message is as clear as a bell:

"I have anything but forgotten, Your Majesty."

(Corvo does not change. He maneuvers.)

00000

Three nights before the state dinner, before the deluge crashes over us, I dream—no—I recall the faraway memories of my childhood.

From the moment I first draw breath, I have an avid fondness for birds. During my fledgling years, when I receive my first pillow, I revel in the soft plumes that lay within. My heartbeat jumps rhythmically on the surface, diving into the down, bouncing back into my ears. The steady trembling is always what I sleep by, and I often dream of flying.

On the celebration of my twelfth year, the gift my father bestows upon me is a birdcage of platinum, exquisitely shaped and sculpted … and any choice of bird my heart desires. I already know which one I will choose: something fair and lovely, like an oriole, a goldfinch, or even a turtledove! As I traipse around in my fantasies, I simper, giggle, dissolve into laughter.

And yet, on a normal, calm day, as I take my walk through the garden, my fate chooses else wise.

That day, as I pass by, I hear the raucous cries of a distressed creature. Behind the bushes, somewhere under the trees, I climb over and step under, until I find it. Lying helplessly under the fallen leaves, I see a small, young raven. It's wounded very badly, a twisted wing, and it's too infirmed to stand.

I look down at the raven, moved with fascinated grief. The bird stops squawking, noticing that someone has seen it. It stares up at me, but I cannot see any emotion behind its eyes. I slip my jacket off, and I wrap the poor thing into its folds. It squirms at first but doesn't caw another note.

The previous Royal Physician soundly binds its wing. Soon, the raven rests in a small basket, inside the cage. After filling its belly and bathing its feathers, the bird looks quite content. I want to see it stand on the perch soon. But Father warns me, warns me many times—the raven is of the wilderness and for the wilderness. He tells me that it's heart still longs for the open sky.

I do not listen.

As the creature slowly returns to a finer fettle, as I tend and dote upon it, palace life continues on. And before it becomes well enough to stand on the perch, a Serkonian ship arrives at port. "Be polite and good," Father and Mother say. "The passengers are very important."

A man disembarks from the vessel, surrounded by his dark entourage. He is friendly, he says sweet things, but his gloved hands are slimy. His kind smile gives me the chills. He is the sun to us all, pulling the strings of our attention as he pleases. So much so… that hardly anyone notices a tiny little shadow that follows him. A boy in sable clothes.

Yes, that was when Corvo first set foot in Dunwall Tower.

The man stays for a time, discussing adult business and all that I can't yet understand. But when he leaves, he disappears only with his entourage. Corvo is left behind, alone at the Tower.

No one quite tells me why.

00000

The eve of the state dinner is upon us. Dunwall Tower welcomes the choicest of politicians. My voice hardly withstands the greeting ceremony. Among them, the noblemen of Cullero present themselves. One of them gifts me with their best vintage.

I've heard from Father that Cullero gentry are a different breed from Karnaca. But, (un)fortunately, there is only one expert of that gentry that I personally know…

The Lord Protector comes that night, to remind me of certain aspects of security. I stand before him, dressed already for bed, wearing a modest robe over my gown. He drills me too, like the guards, but he is respectfully gentle. Before he turns to leave, to retire for the night, I have to ask him. I just have to!

"From your memory," I inquire, "what is the character of the Cullero gentry? You are the child of one yourself, is that not right?"

"Their character?" he questions.

"I wish to make a good impression," I reply.

In light of that, he gives me a thorough answer.

"They favor a dress of simple, bold colors," he advises. "From what I hear, that has not changed. You have not chosen an ensemble with prints, have you? They smile always—even while inhaling the stench of rotted meat, the rancid flesh that moves around them, about them. It's their ambrosia in the end. They never show that they are famished, for that is reviled as weakness. They drink their wine in moderation, taking care that their glasses are half-empty. They pour it quickly, with a touch of disdain, as though it were vinegar. And they laugh discreetly, as though they need to cough…"

He demonstrates, touching his lower lip with his knuckle. A small sound wheezes out of his mouth. His lips are curled in a half-smile. It appears suspiciously like the way he laughs.

I scoff, slightly unnerved, and begin to pace. My enthusiasm is dampened.

"I've often been taught that all Serkonian noblemen were more jovial than ours," I declare in disgust.

"That is a hopeful but gross distortion of the truth," the Lord Protector replies.

He betrays no sadness, no annoyance, no disgust… and no indifference.

Suddenly, I feel the fabric of the rug brushing underfoot. My slipper, the flimsy thing, lies beyond my reach. He marches attentively and stoops to collect it. I sit down in a chair, waiting for him to return it.

A (possible) mistake.

"If I ever go to Cullero," I muse, "should I not attend any of their frolics? I like Serkonian masquerades."

The Lord Protector kneels silently before me, inspecting my slipper with his clear, dark eyes. He sets it down and catches my foot, embracing it. My foot tingles. It's so pale between his hands.

"Only if you wish to escape their bile," he replies. He raises my foot up, under his chin. He rests it against his neck, as if he plans to slit his throat. His eyes take on a wild look. "In the summer heat, they tend to delight in throwing off their masks."

(He says that as he casts off his own.)

I swallow a knot, my toes quivering strangely. I stammer a reply.

"I…I can put it on…on my own."

Corvo narrows his eyes and doesn't smile.

"…No," he hisses defiantly… decisively.

And before I realize what's happening, he takes…he takes…he takes one of my toes into his mouth, gently sliding his tongue against it. A crackling wave travels down my spine, a gasp arrests my voice. He continues without mercy.

I almost rage at him…for boldly exploiting my weakness, but a foreign suck tightens my stomach. A queer throb overtakes me. My head starts to reel; a shaky groan, unfamiliar to my own ears, escapes from my lips. I lean back far too much against the chair, and it tips backwards.

My haze ends as I fall with it, a startled squeal erupting from my mouth. But Corvo, quick as a knife, catches me in his arms. I swallow again, closing my eyes, turning away as he lowers me onto the rug. I feel him slither onto me, lowering onto me. I can't speak a word of dissent. He stops below my chest, hiding his face.

(I can inhale his scent, the light aroma of day's perspiration. He smells of hot sand.)

"…Your Majesty…" he murmurs, his voice choked back, as if saying the proper title is somehow misplaced.

"I…" I whisper, "We can't. You and I…"

He stirs to nuzzle my stomach. "Then why? Why will you not release me?"

"I…I don't know," I manage to respond.

Corvo goes rigid against me. He advances further until we are face to face. His eyes bore into me, right through me. His hand clutches mine, intertwining our fingers. And he knows, he knows I've told him a lie.

"That's horrid," he challenges. "I thought I served an honest Empress. Please… answer me properly. Why will you not let me go?"

"I don't…"

He claims my lips, boldly but tenderly; he will not allow me to say it again.

(I must speculate… what would he say if he knew this was not our first kiss?)

00000

I suppose I'm a sinful woman; therefore, I'm reaping what I've sewn.

(I wonder, does Corvo truly know the woman he claims to love? Would he accept what she has to offer him?)

I will not pretend to myself: I've always taken notice of Corvo's… acquiescent manners. No matter how whimsical my command, no matter how strange my opinions, he always fulfills it and lives up to it. Without complaint, without exception. And believing that it will always be so, it pulls and squeezes at my heart, twisting my mind at perverse angles. Exacting orders and tart remarks have become such a delicious pastime, and he never winces.

But he's not some marionette, simply there to manipulate his strings. I despise when he refuses to confide in me, when it clearly brings him harm. And barring him away from lovelies is solely for firm reasons. After all, isn't it only rational that no other female should soil what is mine?

(But if Corvo discovers this… if he knew…)

Again, I will not be dishonest with myself: it wasn't like this from the start. I actually hated Corvo when I first laid eyes on him. His seemingly genteel traits, his very demeanor, his cold version of the Serkonian accent… I loathed it all! And adding salt to the wound, the attention I monopolized from Father was to be shared! I wanted, more than anything, to see that unsightly shell come crumbling down.

But I was chastened decisively, in two strokes.

The first time I was put in my place (a mere month of his permanent stay), I had intended to demean him, or hopefully make him angry… by kicking my shoe across the room and ordering him to fetch it. He was not at the Tower to be a servant. But Corvo was then as he is now, only smaller and a little maladroit. He snatched it up for me, scampered to where I sat, and without having me ask, he carefully replaced the shoe onto my foot. The whole incident made me shiver with an emotion I couldn't fathom. And his eyes, his expression… a innocent, subservient smile, wholly eager to please me.

The second time (almost two months later) was out of petulance and cruelty; it haunts me to this very day. One day, as my family toured the holy Whitecliff, I "accidentally" tripped him into a stream. I recall being upset with him, but I don't remember the reason. There's no need to remember the reason. He went in with a yelp, only a yelp, but he shot back up, gasping for air, and paddled to the other side. I followed after him, scrambling madly over a path of rocks.

When I discovered him, quietly huddled under a tree, he had taken off his shirt and twirled it into a rat's tail. But that wasn't what I saw. Corvo's body, his whole torso, was laid bare…a patchwork of scars. Disturbed that I had seen, he simply covered it all over.

"It was a carriage accident," he told me with a fixed grin, his answer rehearsed. "It's unsightly, I know."

And later on, when I was alone, I couldn't stop shedding my tears, despising myself. My ill feelings vanished. I vowed to myself, pleaded with myself, admonished myself never to misuse him ever again.

(Even now—I doubt it—have I really kept that promise?)

00000

It seems like ages before Corvo pulls back, his breath smelling of a mineral vintage. I lay still with quickened sighs, eyes half-lidded, waiting for more. But he brushes my bangs, plants an endearing kiss on my brow, and slinks away.

He retrieves the slipper, lifts my leg, and slips it back on my foot with the care of an artisan. He hoists me up, back on my feet, scrutinizing me for something amiss.

And with a clipped, "Good night, Your Majesty," he turns away, walks away…

… disappearing from my sight!?

My knees buckle. I fall again.

(My lips burn. Everything is burning.)

I am Jessamine Kaldwin, the Empress of Gristol, whose throne sits on the land of the Isles.

And yet, here am, on the floor, on my knees.

Left behind—alone.

00000

When I sleep, when I finally manage sleep, I remember my little raven again. Father had warned me—the raven now pleads to leave. It squawks, it caws, demanding to be released, but I ignore it as long as I can. But its sorrow is not lost to me. Its calls stab at every note, every flap of its wings.

In the end, I even can't muster up the strength to open the cage, so Corvo does it in my stead. The bird gives me no ceremony; it rushes out the window in a flurry, its presence suddenly a vestige. It doesn't even leave a feather behind, nothing to be remembered.

I weep in outrage—I'm still such a spoiled twit—and Corvo just holds me, does everything in his power to pacify me. At that moment, it's the first time he ever touches me by his own will. And for years after, it's the last time.

(I'm curious, did he love me even then?)

00000

My breakfast is ruined.

This is not the way I wanted to begin such an auspicious day!

Ooooh! How I wish to be a boiling pot, piqued and seething over the rim! It's unforgivable, lighting a fire in my bosom, only to take to his heels and leave me to sour! If I wasn't equally to blame, if there was no provocation, if I'd found no pleasure in the act… I would have had him thoroughly scourged on the spot!

(The thought of performing it on my Tyvian rug… pleases me more than I'd care to admit.)

And in the morning, the Lord Protector—confound him to the Void—he behaves as bloody usual! All the world sees is an ever-dutiful face. Yet, I can see his eyes; they flicker with passion!

I try to disregard it… really I do! I resort to the usual habit, throwing him arraignments and last minute bids. But the Lord Protector—oh, confound him, confound him—he gives me that obedient smile. It's… it's the same exact expression, that infuriating look he had on his face, so many years ago, when he had faithfully retrieved my shoe!

(Corvo hasn't changed in more ways than I'll ever know.)

00000

And the evening finally rears its head, ripping through the day with a sparkling kaboom!

Dunwall Tower is a dream, a castle towering in the sky, sitting above the city limits on rounded cliff. The lights shine from a mile away. The city below raises it head in reverence. I'll never know what the people see as they gaze in wonder.

Not meaning to swagger, but the Tower outshines any fanfare that the whole of Gristol could create. It's an easy thing to accept; it has been a state of fact since my earliest year. The marble floors are sprinkled with glistering confetti, the pillars dressed with silver-sewn silk. The walls are redolent with grapes, spices, and the finest soil. The diverse, shimmering hues make me a babe once more.

(The Boyle family shrivels in green just glaring upon it!)

Once more, I can almost forget…

(What crossed Corvo's mind when he first witnessed such splendor?)

After I am presented to court, we mingle first on the grounds. When I acquaint myself with the Cullero elite, I make sure that I do not appear starved (though I've hardly ate a morsel since this forenoon). I make sure my liquors are sparing. The Lord Protector never serves himself. When I carouse at a party, a drink never goes betwixt his lips.

No exceptions.

The viands are succulent. The diplomats trip the light fantastic. Tyvian, Serkonian, and Morley drunkards are like old friends. Music wafts through the air, making love to us all!

On the ballroom, with a carefully chosen partner, I move about the floor in a revolution of royal blue. My partner simpers, grins toothy at the gleam of my skin, the very little that is exposed. Perhaps, the fragranced spice that scents my body is far too much for his control. And he has the grace of lumber.

(The Lord Protector is watching from the darkness. He is always watching.)

After one more turn, I leave my partner behind, taking along another glass of wine. My sanctum, the gazebo, beckons to me.

As I study the harbor, the moonlight enhancing its glimmer, the Lord Protector appears behind me… as if he is some fanciful illusion. He asks if I will want more to drink. My third glass seems sufficient for now.

I want to talk with him—if feels too long since I've last had a true conversation with him. If I ever have at all.

"I feel as if…I hardly know you," I finally say. "Especially now as of late. But you're supposed to be in my company at all times."

The Lord Protector grunts low in reply, his hands folded behind his back. I swallow, gathering the fortitude to venture further.

"Do you even know who I am?" I question him.

The Lord Protector pauses in reflective thought. I finish my wine.

"I have probably seen too much of you," he answers. "But I don't know well enough at all."

(He takes the words right out of my mouth.)

"Does this have to… truly… necessarily…does it have to be that way?" I implore him.

"Is that not how it often begins?"

I shake my head. That's not enough for me.

"And if what you see is too scandalous to bear," I reply. "If you…"

His voice hardens, almost in high dungeon. "It won't."

I whirl around, staring him in the face, meeting a quiet intensity. His mask is not there again; I can see it in his eyes.

"How can you say that when…?"

Corvo sighs, drops to his knees, never wavering his gaze from me. His eyes are blacker than the night. He takes my hand and kisses it tenderly, as if it might break apart.

"It won't," he breathes into my bones.

I wonder what one would make of this, witnessing such a scene, actually understanding what it meant from afar. What an insanely ridiculous farce, the two of us. An eagle, destined to soar alone, smitten with a raven.

00000

As nightfall grows deeper, as the state dinner runs past the witching hour, some are probably asking:

"Where has the Empress gone to?"

Even fewer will dare to think, "Isn't the Lord Protector gone as well?"

(If only they knew… hmm, if only they knew…)

00000

I sit properly before him, as properly as one can when wearing only a thin robe. He kneels before me, wearing only his trousers. The coat of Lord Protector is hung on a chair. Our shoes are dumped on my rug.

(Our masks are lying…somewhere in the palace.)

"Do you ever miss your birthplace… your Cullero?" I inquire.

Corvo answers with silence.

"Do you even miss your country at all?" I question.

"My country?" he asks, as if I've spoken tommyrot. "My country—the only one I know of—is you."

(But…I'm the one who needs you here.)

A sigh vibrates in my belly. He sees this—of course, he does.

"Then I refuse to ever let you resign," I answer him sharply. "I will never let you go. Never."

He lifts my leg, admiring my calf as he strokes it. "I understand, Your…"

"Jessamine…" I stop him.

"Jessamine," he repeats softly, tasting my name for the first time.

Soon, Corvo and I will have a long chat, a deep heart-to-heart. But right now, I'm more interested in taking a journey.

First, we begin at my toes. No one is on this floor, everyone too absorbed by the banquet below. No one hears the melody I sing, especially when he travels to my ankle, my calves, all the way to my thighs.

After that, after that, I sample the flavor his skin. It tastes much like the wines of his homeland, a sweetened relish of the earth it comes from. The scent of his hair reminds me of the strands, crashed into and buffeted by the sea. The scars he hides so well, more so than I once thought, are unsung deserts, each with a bittersweet anecdote.

(I will wrangle the stories from him for sure.)

And all the while, I confess to him one of my sins: the secret visit I made during his illness. He listens, without a word, until I have finished.

"I see…" is all he responds with. "So, I was awake at that time."

00000

That night, I dream one last time. Of that time. The bird has long gone, replaced by two turtledoves. It never passes to fill the void.

Winter comes and goes. The servants transition in an eternal dance. Father and Mother are busy, very busy. Corvo and I have a mutual respect.

But then, one afternoon, in the spring, Corvo opens the window and passively asks me to look at something. I look out the window, him by my side, as he points at a cluster of tree branches near the sill. There is a nest, a raven's nest, with eggs waiting to hatch. And the little raven, my little raven, sits cozy at its roost, waiting for its mate.

I bite my lip, so happy I could burst.

"I thought it might come back," Corvo says. "I thought it would. This is the only place it knows."

I turn to him, wanting to share my joy, but his eyes are buried, hidden, darkened from view. I lean forward, trying to catch a glimpse of them.

"Raven…" he muses. "That's my name, you know. That's what it means. They both agreed on that name. My mother… she thought I was safest in the darkness. And her husband… he thought I was dirty."

My hand touches his face, before I even want to. His body rises in shock, his eyes wide and still. I brush back his hair, touching his swarthy skin; his cheeks are soft.

"You're not dirty," I say. "You don't need the darkness here."

And only once, for many years to come, I see his real smile.

I think, this is when—yes, this is when I realize… I can never stand to lose Corvo. Ever.

(I've already given up one raven. I refuse to release the one that matters most.)

Someday, I will tell Corvo that. Yes, someday I will.

00000

I awaken from my memories. It is still before dawn.

Before long, I cradle Corvo in my arms. He clings to me like a child, one hand on my shoulder, one snaking on my back. He tries to hide his face at my chest, but he can't hide from me, not anymore.

"It's not a mere feat," he says quietly. "You stare at me unceasingly, you see so much. That's why… it takes everything… to hide anything from you."

I smirk, humming proudly.

(I'm cocky, still so cocky.)

He shifts his head, his hair tussled like seaweed. His face is flushed. His chin is turned down. He smiles, shyly.

"But please don't stare right now," he pleads. "I must look pathetic."

I chuckle, pushing my nose into his hair, smelling the ocean again. I don't listen.

00000

Months pass us by. The state dinner is forgotten.

Now, there is constant talk of the Isles of Serkonos, the shining Jewel of the South. It's time to cast off the worries of everything politicks. Such things are not needed for an Imperial holiday. But I have decided not to grace the favored city of Karnaca. I am more intrigued by the offerings of Cullero.

As the preparations draw to a close and the ship draws into the harbor, the Lord Protector speaks nothing of longing for his birthplace. He would rather antagonize the guards with his long-drawn plans, from the time her Imperial Majesty sets foot on the vessel to the time she steps off, back into Dunwall Tower.

And with swimming precision, the voyage begins as planned. We set sail for Cullero, a lengthier cruise than I'm accustomed to. The Lord Protector takes special care of me.

To all appearances, nothing has changed. I still issue my demands, and he still carries them out with alacrity. And it's quite true, that will never stop.

Though, masks cannot protect all things. Whoever believes that a facade is impenetrable should be flogged. By now, the whispers flow like little streams, trickling into everyone's ears. And no woman can vindicate a belly detectably stretched, Empress or not.

(They can only guess who the culprit might be.)

I know… this could be very messy.

But the Lord Protector and I don't seem to mind.