"Your mother knew my face," says the Outsider, and Corvo's breath momentarily catches. The Outsider watches him with a mild expression, hovering a few inches over the dilapidated, waterlogged shrine with his arms crossed. The water flooding the cellar reaches halfway up Corvo's knee-high boots and smells so putrid that Corvo would've been gagging if he hadn't been so used it by now.
Why? Corvo wants to demand. What did you do? He stands silently, right hand on his sword and his left tightening around the ring of an oil lantern. The Outsider tilts his head to one side like a cat, but where the lantern's light should cast a dull shine on his eyes there's nothing, just oil slicks with two distant stars shining back.
"No, she was not one of mine. She was not special, like you, but I showed her the possibilities that she would never live to see."
"Which possibilities?" Corvo asks, though he doesn't really need to, suspicion dripping cold under his skin like the rusty water that had seeped between the stones of his prison cell, like the constant echo of the dripping, running, splashing water of the Flooded District outside. (It's the first time he's spoken in several hours.)
"You already know."
Corvo looks away, staring unseeingly at the patterns of light thrown by the lantern over the water covering the floor. The light looks frosty and vaguely blue from the burning whale oil, washing out the pallor of the Outsider's skin into something like bleached bone. He feels colder than he did when he first descended the rotting stairs, not entirely sure what he was looking for except that Emily had forbidden him from doing his duties because you need a break, Corvo, you aren't sleeping, just take an afternoon, okay?
"Your mother cried with horror when she saw the world in which the Wrenhaven ran red with the blood you spilled. She cried for her son when she saw the world in which your heart howled for vengeance but you still stayed your hand."
"Why would you do that?" Corvo whispers, but the Outsider doesn't reply. Corvo briefly considers hurling the whale oil lantern and watching it break open against the Outsider's chest, setting his clothes alight, burning the clinical curiosity off his fake human face.
Instead he turns his back and sloshes through the water towards the safe half-submerged on the far side of the room, braces the lantern on a high shelf that hasn't yet disintegrated, and reaches down to pull on the safe's front. The door swings open with an awful screech that briefly reverberates around the room and he finds a gold-plated figurine of a whale inside. Typical treasure of the nobility: pretty, skillfully crafted, but completely useless. Odd that it would be hidden in the cellar alongside a shrine, but when he glances up and sees the broken boards of the ceiling, he figures the sheer weight of the safe must have been too much for the rotted wood.
The Outsider is still watching him, unblinking, unmoving except for the Void-smoke that twists around his body and makes Corvo's head hurt if he looks at it for too long. Corvo stares him straight in the eye instead and waits for some sign that'll tell him why the Outsider would bother appearing when Corvo's doing nothing more interesting than scavenging for trinkets. When the Outsider still doesn't say anything, Corvo finally tucks the whale figurine in a deep jacket pocket, grabs the lantern, and makes for the stairs.
"You are going to die, in the fashion of all men. Are you not curious to know when, and how, and why?"
Corvo lets out a startled breath – that would've been a threat from anyone else, anyone human – and his right hand automatically flies to one of the bone charms hidden under his waistcoat. He's suddenly so tired. "Everyone has to die sometime. I suppose I'll find out when it happens."
"There is more than one type of death, my dear. Sometimes it is slow and begins before it ever touches your body. It creeps towards you when you lie in bed and stare at the ceiling; when the company of your loved ones is as lonely as standing in an empty room; when the things that once gave you pleasure become tedious."
"You speak of nothing that concerns me."
Corvo decides he's been away from his duties long enough and climbs back up to the empty plains of filthy seawater. He'll have to take a long bath and change his clothes to get rid of the stench of decay before he finds Emily.
It doesn't take long for the implication of the Outsider's words to hit him: the Outsider had been patiently waiting for Corvo to be born and to grow up and to choose any number of futures waiting for him, some more mundane than others, waiting while having the power all along to give Corvo what he needed to prevent himself from getting stripped raw and bloody. It wasn't until Corvo chose to be interesting – or if he hadn't proven to be interesting at all –
When he realizes the scope of such dispassionate cruelty, Corvo Blinks to the highest point of Dunwall Tower and sits on a ledge overlooking the sheer drop of the cliffs, consciously holding himself very still so that he doesn't do something irreversibly stupid. Corvo's love for Jessamine had been a bright, blinding thing, unquestioned and absolute. Corvo can't decide if he loves or hates the Outsider, or even if those are two different things for him anymore.
A week after Emily was put on the throne and Corvo was pardoned of any and all alleged crimes (which was a political nightmare and, hell, it still is, more than a few people suspect that the Masked Felon was the disgraced Lord Protector himself, even without actual proof, and surely the signature in the Boyle's guestbook had been a tasteless prank), Corvo orders a handful of guards to clean out the dungeons and dismantle the late torturer's shrine. It takes the promise of extra coin and their utter terror of him to convince them to touch the shrine, let alone rip it down, but Corvo doesn't trust himself to go down there yet.
For several days after that he finds himself tracking shadows and quiet voices, waiting for the water to stream sideways whenever he turns on a tap, but the Outsider never appears and that, at least, is a good thing. (So he tells himself.)
Corvo himself never builds a shrine. He doesn't need to when he already has a permanently-branded hand, a head full of blue Void-dreams, and the faint whisper of whalesong in his ears whenever it's a little too quiet.
His mother had been as devout as any of the women in the Oracular Order. She kept to herself, even among the other servants in a Karnaca lord's household, and taught Corvo the value of keeping his head down and his eyes and ears open. She recited the Scriptures each night before bed and again each morning when she woke up, and had Corvo do the same. When one of the maids was taken away by the Overseers, she stood by with an inscrutable expression on her face.
Mama, Corvo asked later that night when they were alone in their tiny closet of a bedroom, why did they take her away?
She's been accused of being a witch, she'd murmured, sitting beside Corvo's pallet on the floor and holding the little bone charm normally hidden under his rag pillow. He stood next to her awkwardly.
Why is that a bad thing?
Because the Outsider isn't to be trusted, was all she said, looking at him like he was something she'd never seen before, something alien and fanged left on her doorstep. She did that sometimes but Corvo never knew why, just stayed still and quiet until she was his mother again. He doesn't know why until thirty years later when a god tells him in a flooded basement.
Corvo wouldn't have thought any more of it until the evening he walked into their tiny, bare bedroom, nine years old and exhausted from running between the kitchens and dining room during one of the lord's many fancy dinners, and found his mother with tears on her face and an assortment of bleached animal bones in her hands. The last time he'd seen her was when another lord, one of the honored guests, had pulled her aside and asked her to show him to a private sitting room; Corvo figured he wanted to get some respite from the stuffy, crowded confines of the party and needed someone to show him where to go.
Mama? Mama, what's wrong?
Soon, nothing, she replied, voice oddly steady despite the tears as she guided a pocketknife over one of the bones. At a loss of what to do, Corvo finally turned away to get his nightclothes and nearly tripped over a bloodied rag lying crumpled on the floor. Mama?
It's all right, Corvo. Go to sleep.
And six days later, the aristocratic rumor mill was set on fire when that lord died in a freak accident at one of the brothels. Corvo caught his mother wearing a grim smile, but didn't ask, and it wasn't until he was a little older and walked in on a maid crying into the shoulder of another while a third ran a washcloth over the inside of her thighs that Corvo finally realized what goes on in the world of invisible women. I have to keep this position, the maid sobbed, I have to.
After that realization, the next time he was on the training grounds, eleven years old and freshly apprenticed to the quartermaster, he ended up hacking one of the practice dummies to pieces and nearly got his hide taken off by the furious officers. Why don't you ever get angry at the people who deserve it, he thought while the officer yelled at him, a small, hard ember of anger being fanned to life deep behind his heart.
His mother taught him how to be silent, how to watch, how not to be seen, and that sometimes, when all else fails, you have to take justice into your own hands.
It's at the latest lavish ball being thrown by the nobility at court that the Outsider's smooth voice flows through the space where Corvo is half-concealed by curtain and shadow.
"Your empress is crowned and the plague reduced to a recent nightmare by the greatest minds of your time. Everything is returning to the way it was as though the last year never happened."
Sudden adrenaline makes Corvo's heart pound. I'm not dreaming, there's no shrine, why is he here, but through the panic he still has the self-control to glance around the ballroom, track the location of every person and make sure no one's spotted his hiding place.
"The nobility still scheme and trade coin as easily as their loyalty beneath tables of exotic wood while the bodies of the poor fill the streets. They talk about the latest prisoner from the depths of Coldridge Prison, scarred and starved and turned as vicious as a rat by his suffering, and take bets on how far his head will roll."
Emily stands as tall as she can in a room of adults, smiling and charismatic in her formal white dress as she makes the rounds from person to person. Curnow follows her closely. Corvo fixes his eyes on her and observes the hands of everyone around her, the shift of expressions, the particular fall of clothing that might betray hidden weapons. He forces himself to think of nothing but the fastest way to get to her side and the spray of blood that would stain the floor.
But it doesn't stop the hair rising on the back of his neck with the Outsider's closeness. The Outsider doesn't breathe, of course, but there's a sense of presence: a stranger hovering over his shoulder, an open door at his back, the anticipation of something happening without quite knowing what. He forces himself to keep looking forward.
"You are a blade that has grown dull with nothing on which to sharpen itself," the Outsider whispers, and Corvo wonders when the Outsider became so – so chatty, and why. He'd always dropped pebbles of painful observations, but never ones quite so pointed as this; it makes Corvo's hands clammy with nervous sweat and his gradually slowing heart occasionally give a hard thump.
The Outsider's quiet laugh sounds like a wave breaking against rock. Perhaps he can hear Corvo's thoughts, and isn't that an unsettling possibility. "What would it take to hone your edge once again?"
Corvo's hand tightens around the hilt of his sword as he hisses, "If you so much as look at Emily – "
"You misunderstand. I have no intention of turning my attentions to your beloved empress, even as you slowly wither with the passing of days."
His words pour down so casually. Corvo's knuckles turn white, teeth clenched so hard that he'll go to bed with his jaw aching.
The Outsider says, "I will give you a name, as I did for Daud. I do not play favorites, Corvo, but I'm interested to see which future you will choose when you realize how easily it could have all fallen apart, no matter how hard you tried or how many despots you ruined."
Corvo's tempted to ask why are you doing this even though he already knows the answer.
The Lord Protector's quarters lay immediately to the left of the Empress' and they're connected by an intricately carved wooden door. At night, Corvo's personally-chosen guards make the rounds, but tonight (just like last night, and the night before that) he can't bring himself to sleep. He paces in circles instead, listens to Callista's muffled voice telling Emily some story or other before going to bed, takes comfort in the occasional little-girl snore or soft mumble that makes its way past the door. His quarters are far larger than his prison cell and it feels unnatural to have so much empty, echoing space.
It's a cold night and he's aching in the places where his skin was stripped off and his bones broken. The scar on his face pulls whenever he tries to smile. The back of his left hand burns a little like the touch of nettles, but though he might just be imagining it, he can't stop rubbing the brand with the fingers of his right hand until the sky begins to lighten and the castle wakes up for a new day.
"'Ello, Lord Attano," says a scullery maid, voice muffled by the enormous hearth she's leaning into and scrubbing. "How can I help you?"
Corvo stands close to the hearth so that he doesn't have to speak too loudly to be heard over the general noise of the kitchens. "Do you know a woman named 'Delilah'?"
"Delilah?" The maid sits back on her heels and thoughtfully rubs her nose with the back of a wrist, leaving a streak of soot across her cheek. "No, m'lord. Well, there's a fishwife down in the market off the Distillery District named Delilah Rose, but she's about as old as the cliffs and twice as ornery."
Probably not the right person. "Thank you, Priscilla."
The maid smiles, pleased that he bothered to remember her name. "You might try asking the housekeeper? She's been here for absolute ages."
Before he leaves the kitchens, one of the cooks insistently pushes a few apricot tartlets into his hands ("Still so thin, Lord Protector!") and a servant boy hauling a bucket of rotten vegetables asks him shyly about one day joining the City Watch. Corvo escapes with a few uncomfortable words and about half his dignity.
The housekeeper is in the laundry, eyes sharp in her wrinkled face as she barks at the servants scurrying around with pails of hot water and baskets of linens. The smell of lye and humans sweating in the heat is nostalgic, makes him think of the times he'd stolen a bedsheet and wrapped himself in it so he could sneak around pretending he was a ghost before his mother chased him out.
"Lord Protector," the housekeeper calls when she sees him skulking along the wall, "if you're looking for the empress, she isn't hiding here."
Corvo quirks a brief smile. "I'm looking for you."
"What's wrong?" she asks immediately. This close, he can hear the faint remains of a Tyvian accent.
"Nothing," he reassures her, "I simply had a question. Do you know a woman named 'Delilah'?"
He can see her flipping through the meticulous pages of her memory as she yells to a maid not to put more coals under that tub, good spirits, girl, are you trying to burn away the royal underclothes? Corvo waits patiently, noting the rhythm of the servants working, the entrances and exits and hidden corners, the thick glass bottles of caustic lye and the hot pokers moving coals around.
"There was a girl named Delilah some years ago," she says abruptly. "One of the kitchen apprentices. Baker, I think."
"What happened to her?"
"Had a talent with color, that one. Caught someone's eye when she started getting creative with the cake decorations. Allie! How many times have I told you, separate the colors from whites!" She adds in an undertone to Corvo, "Although, if you ask me, that peacock Lord Brandlestock could do with a bit of a mix-up."
He mimes turning a key to lock his lips and she huffs with fond exasperation. "If I remember correctly, she got snapped up by the nobles to be an artist of some kind. Might want to ask Sokolov, if you can find that babnik outside of some poor woman's chambers."
Sokolov is in the lab in which he and Piero found a cure for the plague. The carcass of a small animal is split down the middle and pinned open so wide that Corvo can't tell what it is. He carefully doesn't look.
"Delilah Copperspoon," says Sokolov with a contemptuous snort. His eyes keep straying to Corvo's left hand as though the Mark were shining electric through the glove. Corvo slides his hands into his coat pockets as casually as he can. "Significant raw talent paired with a deplorable taste in style. If I remember correctly, she abandoned my efforts to rehabilitate her lack of artistic knowledge in favor of a nobleman with a deep purse."
"Do you remember which noble?"
"Why should I? Nobility are a dime a dozen but believe themselves worth infinitely more."
Corvo mentally recites the mantras he'd used before Jessamine's death to remind himself that putting a fork through someone's eye isn't considered diplomatic.
(When he leaves to go speak with more of the Tower servants, he tells himself that he's feeling more awake and determined than he has in a long time because he finally got a few hours of sleep, not because he now has a reason to hunt.)
"My family deserves restitution," Lord Stratford concludes, standing tall and proud in front of his empress and a good portion of the aristocracy. Emily's feet barely touch the floor from where she sits on her throne.
Old money, Corvo recalls, with most of the family's value tied up in property. No longer as powerful as it once was, though the family retains some influence simply for the history of its name. The heir has quiet affiliations with some of the more questionable businesses in Dunwall.
"Why?" she asks bluntly.
Stratford rocks back on his heels a little, blinking. "What you mean, 'why'?"
"Why does your family deserve restitution?" she repeats, obviously remembers Corvo's briefing prior to this audience.
He sputters. "Our manor was unlawfully repossessed. There are lower classes living in our rooms!"
"Do you have other manors?"
"Well, yes, but this was – "
"Did you get your stuff out before other people moved in?" she interrupts, a little more impatient than is strictly proper.
"Not all of it, but – "
"From what I understand," she says shortly, "you were buying up all the elixir you could, selling it for really high prices, and then turning around and lying about the money you were making. Is that true?"
"Your Majesty, that's a gross misrepresentation – "
"But not a lie?"
"Your Majesty – "
"Your manor was repossessed because you were lying about your debts and money," Emily continues, "so it wasn't unlawful at all. If your family has other places to live and got most of your stuff back, I think it's only fair that poor people who lost their homes and have nowhere else to go should stay. It'd be terribly cruel to make them sleep on the streets."
Corvo listens to Emily and the nobleman's byplay while scanning the crowd from his place beside the throne, taking note of who looks carefully neutral and who look more openly alarmed at the empress' notion of taking care of poor people. He'd never stopped finding it bizarre how the amount of someone's wealth was inversely proportional to their sense of charity.
Corvo watches Stratford during the rest of the audiences until Emily tugs at his sleeve and declares that she's ready for dinner, and then he escorts her out, putting her in the capable hands of Callista and four handpicked guards. He leaves through his bedroom window, Blinking down the sheer side of the Tower and heading for the Estate District.
The manor in question has been converted into a sort of halfway house for plague survivors, many of whom had been on the edge of becoming weepers before Piero and Sokolov discovered a cure. It's the beginning of an experimental outreach program that's the brainchild of Callista and, surprisingly, Cecelia, who absolutely refused to take any credit when Emily overheard their discussion in the Hound Pits before everything went to hell and decided it was a great idea. Corvo remembers the still-living people crawling over corpses in the Flooded District, the Boyles' desperately lavish party papering over the dead on their doorstep, and he takes no small amount of satisfaction seeing the Stratford Manor's lavish bedrooms full of plain but clean cots.
It's pure luck that lets Corvo find a locked chest in the dusty, untouched attic that cracks under his lockpicks and yawns open over a stack of papers. There are lists not unlike the one Slackjaw had of customers, detailing liquid amounts of elixir and prices and methods of payment. There are other lists, too, and damning records, and Corvo's smile is filled with teeth.
Lord Stratford is currently living in a manor that's no less grandiose for being smaller than the previous one. There's a high number of estate guards later that night, but Corvo is less than a shadow and finds the lord himself getting ready for bed. The man shrieks when Corvo throws him up against a wall with his face pressed into the wallpaper and a hand wrapped tightly around his throat from behind.
"W-what – "
"You have a choice," Corvo murmurs without preamble, speaking low and forcing Stratford to keep his face in the wall to avoid recognition. "Either you give up attempting to recover assets that are lawfully no longer yours and, additionally, donate a substantial amount that will be determined later to charity, or I snap your neck."
"How do you expect to get away with this?" Stratford chokes out. "Who are you?"
Exasperated, Corvo gives the wall above them a look as flat as a coffin lid and tightens his grip. Stratford gurgles and reflexively clamps a hand around Corvo's wrist, trying to push him away, but it's a lamb fighting the bite of a wolf and Corvo patiently, silently, waits him out. After a few moments, Stratford stops struggling.
"You wouldn't," Stratford whispers hoarsely.
The next day, Emily is pleasantly surprised when one of the court's aristocrats hands over a bank slip with a number containing a fair amount of zeros. She accepts it graciously as her Lord Protector watches from the shadow of her throne and listens to a disembodied voice whispering into his ear, "Such an interesting idea of honor in you."
"What will you do if you succeed in your search for understanding the power of a single name? Will you continue holding back your blade as you did before, or will the realization that you were so close to failing, despite everything you had done, finally break you and flood the streets with blood? Whichever way you choose…happy hunting. I'm sure it will be an interesting journey."