They call the Dunwall theatre district the most famous in all the Isles, and of its innumerable entertainment houses the Void is perhaps the most spectacular. Dreams are made on this stage. Its gold-embroidered purple stage curtain is the stuff of legend, and the blue-stained wooden boards have played host to every performer that matters. They're almost sacred, these boards. This is as close as anyone in Dunwall really gets to religion.
Right now there are three people seated centre stage in a loose circle, sharing gossip, doughnuts, and a sizeable bottle of vodka between them.
"-so the Tower and the Abbey are a mess right now and Uncle Curnow won't let them open to the public until the investigation is over. The Tower was only really running on Boyle funding anyway though, so I suppose it was bound to happen. I pity all the workers. But on the other hand, it's good news for us. We'll get all their customers." Callista takes a dainty sip of vodka and passes it on to Cecelia with a shudder. "Urgh. I'm no longer working at a bar, so I feel no guilt in admitting that straight vodka is probably the worst thing invented since fried hagfish. We should have brought something to mix it with."
"It's not so bad," Cecelia says through a mouthful of doughnut. "Better than what the Admiral used to shell out for, anyway. At least it warms you up."
"If you're going to complain you can bring your own next time," Corvo says peaceably, taking the offending bottle from Cecelia. She mumbles a protest but surrenders without too much of a fight. "Relax, Callista. You won't have much more time to do so, once costume work gets started."
"I'll have to re-measure you, you've put on weight. Thank goodness."
"Could you make me some kind of...I don't know, dwarven mail undershirt? Just in case someone tries to stab me during one of my monologues?"
The other two groan, and Callista grabs the vodka for another ladylike sip. Corvo shoots a fleeting glance up at the rafters, past the various lights and scenery, and silently apologises. It's done out of habit more than any real sense that he might have caused offense; Jessamine was always happiest when her friends were laughing around her. She'd have understood.
"You're not really worried about your safety, are you Corvo?" Cecelia says suddenly. "I don't think there's anyone left to get revenge. And none of it was your fault anyway."
Corvo carefully selects a chocolate-iced doughnut from the large box in the middle. "I doubt Martin will see it that way."
"He might," Callista objects. "He's had plenty of time in hospital to think things through, and he isn't a stupid man. As for Pendleton... Well, I don't think we need to worry about any threats from that front."
"I'll grant you that, I suppose. So you're keeping an eye on Martin? How is he?"
Callista just sniffs. "I am not- I wouldn't know. I haven't spoken to him since...well, it never would have worked."
"I'm sorry," Corvo tells her, and in a way he is. For a while there she'd seemed happier, a little less reserved. What happened to Martin is at least partly his fault; he doesn't regret that it happened, but Callista deserves to be happy and he took that from her.
"No, Corvo. Don't be sorry," she tells him firmly, enunciating every syllable with deliberate care. "He was a bit of a prick. Pass the vodka, please." He does so and thinks, it was probably for the best. Corvo never did get around to telling her about that charged encounter with Daud, and now he won't have to.
The Watch still haven't found Daud. He seems to have up and vanished overnight with roughly half the Whalers, leaving little trace of his presence and the Regency Black woefully understaffed. The remaining Whalers are still around and occupying themselves with trying to work out a use for the place. They'll probably keep it as a coffee shop in the end. With the Hound Pits out of the running, they stand to make a killing in coffee orders if they can find a way to rebrand. Though they'll have to step out from under Daud's shadow to do so, and that's easier said than done.
Corvo visited a few days back. It took a while before he could bring himself to do so, but the Outsider has decided to change Daud's role in the events of his play, and the man is on Corvo's mind a lot these days. What happened to him? Where did he come from? Why kill all those people and then suddenly stop? It's far too late to ask these questions, but a part of Corvo's brain would not let him drop the issue that easily. A part of him still believed he could go to the Regency Black and find Daud there waiting, leaning on the counter with a scowl and a knife held loosely between his fingers.
And for a moment he actually believed it, because the red coat and scowl were certainly present, but the woman who sized him up and jerked her head in greeting wasn't Daud.
"He's gone," she told him when he approached the counter. "But I expect you already knew that, didn't you? The black-eyed bastard must have mentioned it at some point, he's not the kind to leave loose ends untied."
"Does it matter, if you've taken over?" Corvo asked. Billie Lurk laughed bitterly and gestured at the empty shop around her.
"You tell me. I'd have thought the scandal would just drum up more business, but it turns out even Dunwall's people have their limits. I've had idiots tell me they see the ghost of the Empress' murderer in every corner, if you'll believe that kind of bullshit. Looks like rumours have spread now, and you see where it's left us. The only other fully trained employee who stuck around is Thomas, and all he wants to do is feed the birds out in the courtyard. Never seen a more useless lot of morons in my life." She shoved her notebook forward aggressively and jabbed at it with a pen. "So congratulations, you beat us. I hope it was worth it."
He ordered an espresso in the end, one he didn't really want and was forced to drink with Billie hovering over him, arms folded and dark eyes furious. Several Whalers came and went while he was there, polishing the empty tables and tilting their masked heads towards the front door. A familiar sort of hopelessness, but Corvo couldn't find any reassurances to give them. In the end he left, one of the Whalers snatching up his empty cup as soon as he rose, and didn't bother with any promise to return. He didn't find what he was looking for, but he slept a bit easier that night, and in the nights that followed. Daud's people won't cause him any trouble.
Corvo has thought long and hard about the situation, and lately he finds himself wishing them the best. Them and Daud too, most of the time. It's not forgiveness and never will be, but maybe peace is something a bit better. He has to wonder if Daud will ever forgive himself.
He asked Callista and Cecelia about it; by now they're both very aware of the secrets Havelock was keeping from them, and they have the advantage of being removed enough from events to give him more impartial opinions. Callista stands firmly in support of forgiving and forgetting. What you have now is more important than what you've lost, she says. It is done. Let it go.
Strangely enough, Cecelia takes a more vengeful approach. It's not something Corvo would have expected of her back at the Hound Pits, but these days she comes to her cleaning job at the Void with the usual grey cap and a different rose tucked behind her ear every time he sees her. She believes in learning, not forgetting. She tells him to be careful who he trusts, because few are worth the risk. But then, she also smiles more brightly, and the fingers clenched around the handle of her broom show flashes of smeared paint she seems disinclined to wash off. There is a new energy to the work she does.
The vodka isn't bad and it hits them all around the same time. None of them will ever be raucous, or even loud, but they are perfectly capable of lively, especially once intoxication sets in. The theatre district is never short on gossip.
Emily's great aunt was discovered in a Serkonan mansion, completely unaware of the situation. She has since relocated to Gristol for the sake of raising an eight year old with crayon-stained fingers and an uncanny knowledge of various alcoholic spirits and the things they should be mixed with. The woman is a dragon, but she is also a Kaldwin. Emily will be loved. Better still, she'll be within travelling distance. Corvo and Callista have taken to visiting, equipped with Samuel's latest stories. It isn't perfect; Corvo misses her painfully and suspects Callista feels the same. But it's good. He'll settle for that.
Piero and Sokolov have formed a partnership of sorts. Nobody is really sure how it happened, or whether or not the rumour that they share Sokolov's townhouse is true.
"I saw Piero a few days ago, when he came in to take a look at a few of the blown out bulbs in our lighting rig," Cecelia confesses, leaning forward as though the news is somehow scandalous. Her eyes dart to Callista and then flutter guiltily away. "Sorry I didn't mention. But I thought, since he didn't mention you, that maybe it was alright? Anyway, he looks different. A bit. I'm not sure how, maybe more distracted than usual, like his mind was somewhere else the whole time. He didn't give me any lectures on circuits this time. But he looked...happy, I guess? A bit less beaten than he used to. Guess I should have been paying more attention, if the gossip is anything to go by."
Apparently the fire department has been called out to Sokolov's house several times already, the latest because someone let off what appeared to be a multitude of rainbow fireworks indoors. The neighbours complain of explosions and the smell of chemicals wafting over when the wind blows the right way. If Sokolov gives a damn, he isn't saying anything.
Piero and Sokolov aren't the only ones benefitting in unexpected ways.
"Whatever else people say about her," Callista begins, a little unsteadily, "Lydia Boyle is a- a fine figure of a woman. People still talk about her sister eloping even after the newspapers printed the truth, but she has her eyes fixed on her career. That- that's admirable." Cecelia hums in agreement, and Corvo just shrugs.
"Each to their own," he says neutrally, then winces as an elbow digs into his ribs.
"Don't start lecturing on taste, Corvo." Cecelia frowns at him; she's started openly disagreeing with things that irritate her recently, and the change is still a novelty. One more small miracle, in a story that is littered with them. "Yours is absolutely dreadful."
"I'll assume you are referring to me with that comment," says a voice from the wings, and then the Outsider steps out onto the stage. He raises his eyebrows at their little gathering, the half empty bottle and doughnut crumbs all over the floor. "Are we celebrating something?"
"They demolished what's left of the Hound Pits today," Corvo says. He shuffles closer to Callista so the Outsider can join their circle if he wants to. The other man hesitates for a moment before folding himself elegantly into a cross-legged position at Corvo's side.
"Then perhaps a brief interlude is forgivable." He plucks the vodka from Corvo's hands and takes a sizeable gulp.
"Should you be drinking?" Cecelia asks. "It's not setting a very good example. I mean, you sort of own this place, right?"
The Outsider politely passes her the bottle. "Anton Sokolov has made seven different attempts to contact me today. So far. The situation is becoming dire."
"But if you'd just meet him once-"
Corvo shrugs, resigned to losing this discussion yet again. They've had it before and the end result never changes. He shifts uncomfortably on the floorboards; something digs into his thigh. Pulling the offending object out of his pocket, Corvo holds it up to the light and laughs.
"Well, would you look at that. It survived. After everything that happened I still haven't managed to lose it." He offers the slightly battered business card to the Outsider. "Apologies for the damage, but you'll be pleased to hear I put it to good use. I even lived long enough to give it back." The Mark still shines oddly, sometimes silver and others rainbow; Corvo finds he no longer cares what it stands for. Rather, he doesn't need anyone else to tell him when he has already decided for himself. Victory, loyalty, hands clean of blood. This is what the Mark has become for him.
The Outsider shakes his head. "It was a gift. And I am no seer; I can weave a thousand futures with words, but I can never be certain. The world is full of surprises, as you have shown me. Keep it close. I cannot promise you will never need it again." He smiles. "I also cannot promise that I will remember to have a proper house key made for you any time soon. That one will serve in the meantime."
"Did you completely shut out that talk we had about how it would be more appropriate for me to look for an apartment?" Corvo asks, resigned. He can't claim any surprise, not really, and it's not as though he's in a hurry to leave the Outsider's home. Plenty of space; open, unused rooms with excellent acoustics for line rehearsal; a mysterious cat that fades in and out of corporeal existence depending on whether he appears inclined to stuff it with treats. The house is still too large, too lonely, but Corvo likes to think he helps with that a little.
"People are going to gossip," he says half-heartedly. Slightly wobbly, Cecelia reaches out to give the Outsider a mostly friendly shove.
"Don't let him bully you, Corvo," she says. "He's being bossy and you need to...to not let him be bossy." She sways a bit, blinking down at the blue floor in confusion. "This is dusty. But I know I cleaned it before. Why isn't it clean?"
There is a quiet buzz from Callista's phone, and she pulls it out to squint at the screen. "Oh, that's Samuel. I invited him, he said he'd come when he could. And he's bringing..." she narrows her eyes and brings the phone a bit closer to her face, "Pizza, I think. Kind of him. Can someone else tell him where we are, please, I don't think I can punctuate correctly right now." She tosses it to Cecelia, who fumbles the catch and then throws it at Corvo's head and misses, mostly because she's giggling too hard to aim properly.
Corvo scoops the phone of from the floor behind him and sends the required message as best as he can, with only a little of the Outsider's assistance. They pause to argue over the necessity of a semi-colon in a text message; inevitably, the Outsider wins.
Samuel had better appreciate the effort that took, Corvo thinks, dropping Callista's phone in among the remaining doughnuts and scattered sugar crumbs. It says a lot about her current state that she doesn't protest, and even more about his own that he thought it would be a good idea in the first place.
Bidding a decent farewell to the Hound Pits is by far the only reason for this gathering. Looking around, Corvo suspects they won't be addressing the other one. Cecelia is still giggling in silence, her shaking shoulders betraying her. Callista is trying in vain to retrieve her phone. Now is not the time for serious topics.
Havelock's trial is looming in the near future, and they won't be able to ignore that forever. They'll all be called on to give evidence, and Samuel too; even the Outsider's presence may be required, if only to remind Curnow of the promise he made. Amnesty to Corvo for the things he did, in exchange for any assistance the Watch might require in hunting down witnesses. No names were mentioned, but Corvo would put money on their target being Lady Esma Boyle, if it isn't Daud. The extent of the Outsider's reach still doesn't fail to shock him. "Uncanny" doesn't even come close to describing it.
A door bangs shut somewhere off stage, and Samuel makes an appearance moments later, his arms laden with pizza boxes. Far too many, but he still hasn't shaken the habit of buying to feed several more people.
Callista waves him over with a bleary smile. "Hello, Samuel! Sorry, we seem to have started without you." Her words are slow and measured; whatever her state of intoxication, Callista will never not be the most sensible-sounding person in the room.
"Miss Curnow, you've been drinking," Samuel says, handing out pizza boxes. Cecelia manages to knock her own cap off as she takes one, which starts up the giggling again. "And you as well, Cecelia? Didn't realise stage work was so stressful."
"Thanks, Samuel." Corvo accepts his share of the pizza boxes with as much grace as he can muster. "Any complaints can be directed to the man in charge. Also currently the man with the alcohol."
"A precaution," the Outsider tells him. "To keep it out of your reach."
"Seems to me you're not setting the best of examples for your employees," Samuel says mildly. It's not quite a reprimand, but still more of one than anyone else would dare to give. The Outsider doesn't seem to care.
"All work and no play makes for a very boring performance in the end, I've found. And it would be remiss of me not to supervise." He hands the vodka over to Samuel, who looks at it regretfully.
"Guess we all need the occasional break from our misfortune," he admits, and takes a generous swig.
He's not quite right about 'misfortune', but Corvo can't find the words to contradict him, and maybe it's all subjective anyway. He went to watch the pub's demolishing for a while, Callista at his side and Cecelia lurking behind them, her hands clenched at her waist. It should have hurt to see. In a way it did, but not as much as he'd expected. None of them could ever have returned. Maybe now its shadow will stop following them around.
"Delilah says the future looks rosy," Cecelia pipes up, giggling at Callista's groan. "She was so serious about it, I didn't dare ruin her moment. And anyway, I guess she's right. Things are better."
I'm hopeful, Corvo thinks, looking around their mismatched circle. Callista's face is flushed, but the anxiety is slowly fading from her eyes. Samuel is losing his guilt, Cecelia her fear. The Outsider wanders around with a semi-permanent smirk fixed to his pale face, and Corvo would like to think he's at least partly responsible for that. Or maybe that's just his default work expression. Hard to tell with him.
The new play won't open for several months. They're rushed off their feet already, but the work comes easier and his smiles don't feel like masks anymore. Little things; subtle, wonderful things. A stranger wouldn't notice that the tides have turned at last, but they are not strangers. They feel the difference within their ragged little family.
Callista takes a neat bite of pizza and covers her mouth as she says, "Speaking of better, does the play have a proper title yet? Because we can't keep calling it 'the play' forever. It needs something..."
"Memorable," Cecelia pronounces carefully. "Something that tells you what it's about."
"I suggested The Hound Pits Coffee Shop and Cocktail Parlour, but apparently it's not dramatic enough," Corvo says.
The Outsider makes a dismissive sound. "Nobody would bother with something so generic," he says. "A little imagination will work wonders for our ticket sales. And there is also the fact that the play itself has nothing to do with a coffee shop."
"But that's where you wrote most of it."
"Irrelevant to the matter at hand, Miss Curnow."
"And they knocked it down anyway," Cecelia points out. "It's demolished. Gone. They'd better clean the mess up, because I won't." She has the bottle of vodka gripped in a stranglehold, until Samuel reaches over and gently takes it from her. It's empty; he lays it aside with a shrug.
"Seems to me the place is better off as a pile of rubble we all forget about," he says peaceably. "Give your play its dramatic name, Mister Outsider, sir, and we'll all stand by it proudly."
"He already has a name," Corvo tells them. "He's been holding onto it for weeks and trying to make me ask. It's hilarious."
"You are a cruel man," the Outsider says. He's spent weeks saying it, every time Corvo refused to cave in and beg to know whatever genius title he finally settled on. Watching him fume in sulky silence has been a wonderful source of entertainment.
Guess it is a little cruel, Corvo thinks, though he suspects the pity he feels is made up of very little sincerity and a great deal of vodka. But he would have given in eventually. "Go on then," he says in resignation, and rolls his eyes at Callista's muttered, "finally." As if she hadn't been the one to suggest his game of wilful ignorance in the first place. "We're all dying to know, you might as well say it. What's the mystery play to be called?"
To the Outsider's credit, he doesn't leave them waiting long. "It's a matter I'm giving careful consideration to. But I think I may have a preference for..." he meets Corvo's gaze and smiles.