As he drops his sword and crossbow and bolts to the end of the rickety walkway with wind and freezing water whipping all around him, drops to his knees, reaches out a hand, Corvo understands three things.
First, Havelock did not deserve such a merciful death.
Second, it’s going to be hard to let go of Emily’s hand. To leave her side. Ever. He can never, ever fail her again.
Third (he thinks, as her little nails gouge his wrist and he pulls her up, as he wraps her in his arms to make sure she’s safe and the blood on his coat smears all over her white clothes and he doesn’t care and he doesn’t let go), it’s not Corvo who’s just pulled Emily back from the brink of a horrible fall.
It’s the other way around.
They come down from the lighthouse hand-in-hand – and though the wind is fierce and claws at the structure until the walkways sway and creak, it cannot touch them. Corvo helps her step over corpses. She does not look down; she does not look away. When she goes to step into the empty, empty boat she slips in the blood on the grey stones, and her cry is as piercing as the cry of a gull. Something wild and high, not human; and the sound cuts Corvo to his core.
He catches her.
He must always catch her.
“Where’s Samuel?” she asks.
“He betrayed us,” says Corvo after a moment. Us. The words are ugly. The words are true.
“Oh.” Emily looks down at her lap. She nods. Just once. “Okay.”
They pull away from shore, just the two of them in the boat with the storm lashing around them, and the rain washes the stones clean.
Oh, says the Heart in his pocket, trembling under his fingers, it is such a long, long fall.
The boat bears them back to the city.
They come for him.
There is a pricking at the back of his neck, and the air vibrates like a plucked string, and Corvo catches the Whaler’s paltry magic in the net of his own and blinks before him and opens his throat. It’s all very quick. It takes very little time; it takes no time at all. The drops of blood are suspended and glittering in the air. He does not even dirty his hands.
He finds the rest of them, one by one by one.
This one has only been a member for a fortnight, whispers the Heart, as Corvo’s blade slips through leather and rubber and skin.
He revels in his new powers.
The others dared him to come. He had only met Daud once.
When they gave the bodies to the river, he threw all of his possessions in their wake.
It’s terribly easy.
Disposing of the bodies is less easy. In the water lock, when the moon is a blade in the sky, Corvo hears a soft sound that echoes the softer sound of a body slipping into the water and whirls to find a white little shadow watching him. Clothes pale. Face pale. Eyes dark and depthless and hard.
He straightens, throat working. “You should be in bed.”
Should not be here, echoes the Heart in his pocket.
“This is what it’s going to be like, isn’t it?” says Emily. Her eyes are on the body just at Corvo’s feet. He is small, probably only a boy, and if they took off his mask Corvo knows that his eyes would be wide and terrified; and the ruin of his throat is red and gaping and torn.
“Did they come for you or for me?”
“You,” says Corvo automatically (because she is always first, because it is always her). He stops. Reconsiders. “Me.” He breathes in, breathes out. Complications of they came for me to get to you, you to get to me swirl around in his brain, but that’s unimportant now when they lie at his feet with throats so red. Reasons – politics – justifications – not important. “Me, I think. I’m not sure.”
“Because of someone you killed?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Emily’s face goes flat and hard. She steps up to the corpse of the boy with the mask-hidden terrified eyes, and she kicks him hard in the chest where the blood sheets down like a flag.
Again and again and again.
The sound is wet and percussive, and there is something childish and frantic and awful in how she does not stop. Corvo wants to grab her and pull her away and hug her and he also wants to join in. His hands, marked and bare, hang limp at his sides. He watches as Emily drags the body to the edge and gives it a great, unbalanced shove that sends it tumbling down into the water below. Watches her pull off her little blood-soaked shoes and hurl them in afterwards. The darkness swallows them whole. Unlike the boy’s corpse, they sink instantly.
The Empress and her Lord Protector dispose of the rest of the bodies together, and he wipes the smear of blood from the floor and wipes the blood from the soles of her feet, and he carries her out of the gatehouse on his shoulders. And the door is locked behind them.
She will dream of red tonight, says the Heart, when he leaves Emily at the room that used to be Jessamine’s but is now her own.
She wishes she could be as brave as you.
They come for her, again and again and again.
She is not loved.
The plague boils through the city, and Corvo hears Emily crying late at night, high in her room past the reach of all assassins but him. Her door is locked.
She takes the kingsparrow as her royal sigil, so that the name of the lighthouse where she almost fell but ascended to the throne instead is hers in truth. The bird is a small thing that nests up high and darts down to pluck insects from the water in haphazard, crazy patterns. Its feathers are banded and beautiful. It is fitting. It is not as elegant as her mother’s swan; but this is fitting, too.
She is not loved, and neither is he.
Corvo walks the grounds of the Tower, and the guards shrink from his passage as if he is one cursed. He supposes that he is. The men in the streets remember High Overseer Martin’s preachings of the Outsider following in his steps. They do not know, or do not care, that Martin was a traitor. That he now lies beneath the waves with his own bullet buried in his skull.
Subtleties like this are not important. Not to the mobs. Not to history. Not to him.
Corvo is not a subtle man.
He walks the Tower, circles around the empty plinth where the statue of Burrows once stood, stays far from the gazebo that burns like a white stone beacon in the night. The Heart thrums under his fingers, answers his questions before he can ask them.
He is a loyal man, it says of a watchman that passes by.
You can trust this one to guard her with his life.
He cannot, though.
The only one who will guard her with his life is him.
One of the flagstones cracked under the statue’s head when they threw it down. It will never be replaced.
The chairs in the reading room are wrong. She liked to sit by the window.
Someday the ivy will cover her name and no one will remember.
On and on, as he wears a grove in the stones, unsleeping, and the Heart keeps tight to his own pulse.
He knows that it’s Jessamine.
He supposes he’s always known.
Sokolov has a new lab in Dunwall Tower, and locks on his doors, and new assistants to compensate for his injuries. Corvo circles around his lab like a hawk, watching in his breaks from watching Emily as Sokolov struggles with a cure for the plague. He can feel the man watching him back, hear him tsking under his breath. He does not care.
“Did you know?” he asks, blinking opposite the Royal Physician as he squints at some of Piero’s bloodstained notes.
Sokolov jumps and gives a put-upon sigh. “Hello to you too, Corvo. Know what?”
“About Burrows. Beforehand.”
Sokolov frowns. It’s at Corvo’s tone. It’s at the blood on the notes, dark and final, the only bit of Piero that remains. “Did I know that he was going to kill the Empress? Did I know that he was going to frame you and take the throne and make such a botch of it? No. If I had known – ”
“You would have done nothing.”
“I would have protested and been ignored. And likely murdered. That is not the same thing.”
“You stayed,” Corvo says bluntly, “after. You kept your position and your booze and your whores and you stayed. You could have – ”
“You could have stayed,” Sokolov snaps. His knuckles are white on his cane. “If you’d spared five minutes to help Piero and I get out –”
He slams the binder shut and a few blood-spattered notes flutter to the floor. Corvo does not move. Sokolov stares at them, helpless, until one of the man’s new assistants sweeps in and sweeps them up for him and leaves without an upward glance.
Corvo does not wish to know the specifics of Sokolov’s injuries, nor the specifics of what happened at the Hound Pits after he was gone and Havelock’s men moved in. It’s done. It’s over. It is not worth dwelling on.
The Heart whispers in his pocket.
He knows you did not kill the Empress. He heard gunshots.
His wounds will pain him in the winter.
When they threw his portrait of you in the fire, Sokolov was the last to turn away from the flames.
“I’m sorry,” says Corvo after a long moment. “Emily was more important.”
Sokolov sighs and goes back to his notes, his scalpels, his butterflied corpse of a rat with the heart still beating and beating. “Yes. Of course. She always is.”
They ride out the plague. It’s not a pretty thing.
Corvo hires advisors for the Empress – and fires them. All the people he can trust are poisoned or stabbed, shot in the head, buried in the blue grave of the sea. The men and women who come to teach Emily have sideways-glancing eyes. The lace at their cuffs and throat is as dry and rough as scales. They speak to her of governance, treaties, economy, geography and history and all the flags and ages of her Empire, and Corvo can hear rats chattering in the pauses between their words.
He replaces them again and again and again.
You are like the sun and moon, says the Heart. She shines, and you are eclipsed and held tight by her. You are the brightest things you can see in the sky. It is like you and the Empress again.
Of course it is.
Corvo stands behind Emily’s throne, and when he hears men whispering that he is as good as a new Lord Regent he takes the rumors back to Emily, and the little Empress calls for their heads. He is glad to deliver.
No one must insult her Protector within her hearing.
No one must come near her while Corvo watches, lest they whisper lies into her tiny ear.
Corvo and Emily stay up late in the night, alone behind a locked door, discussing men to replace all the men he has killed. She chooses, with his help, a new High Overseer. He chooses, with her approval, men to guard the Tower gates. She sends him out to the Estate District late at night, makes him creep through brothel vents as a rat and lurk in the shadowed rafters of the Abbey and come running back to her with all the rumors and conspiracies and plots that he hears. Sends him out again, sword in hand.
He keeps her safe.
He must always keep her safe.
It is all that he is for.
Emily repopulates the Tower and Parliament and beyond with men of her choosing, whom she trusts but does not trust. She never hires another Royal Spymaster. She does not need to. They both understand that the position is filled.
There is a ball for her fourteenth birthday. Emily has been asking for years, and it is the first time that Corvo has relented and opened the doors of the Tower wide. The guests throng the halls. He speaks to none of them. He stalks the borders of rooms, twitches curtains, follows in the patrols of guards to make sure they do not slip. He has not slept for two nights.
Waverly Boyle corners him in the great hall, suit golden and hair golden and face impeccable and cold, and she grabs his gloved hand and drags him out on the dance floor. Her touch is precise. Her grip on his hand, moreso. It’s his left, and Corvo’s mark pricks under her fingers, and if he were not caught so he would stop all the time in the room and wrench himself away.
“I’m sorry for being so forward,” she begins, not sounding sorry at all. “You’ve denied me a formal audience thrice.”
“You’ve got your family’s Parliament seats. What else do you want?”
The music curls around them, directs the dance steps that neither of them are thinking about. Corvo’s moves are automatic. The urge to spin her out and never catch her again and spin her into the marble wall so that her skull cracks is very strong.
“The Empress won’t be a child forever,” says Waverly mildly. “You can’t be everything for her.”
(He can, though)
(He has to)
(Lady Boyle’s eyes are glittering like the eyes of a snake)
“She will need lessons you cannot provide,” she goes on. “Etiquette, courtship – ”
“I’m not letting something like you teach her.”
“Oh? What am I?”
“You worked for Burrows.”
“My sister worked for Burrows. Then you cut off my sister’s head. This is all water under the bridge.” She twirls around him like an elegant shark in the water, and Corvo can feel Emily’s eyes upon them both from her throne at the head of the hall. “She will need well-born female advisors,” says Waverly, “especially once she starts receiving suitors. My motives are utterly transparent and self-interested and ultimately harmless to you, which is more than you can say for any other such offers you will receive.”
“What she needs,” Corvo snaps, “is her mother. You will not replace her.”
“Oh, quite. I’m quite preoccupied being mother to my poor niece.”
He leaves her cold upon the marble floor in the midst of the music, and he does not care about the stares and whispers that follow him as he sweeps back to the Empress’s side.
What Emily needs, he wishes to shout, are men and women she can trust. Not Waverly. Not any of the rats in this room, with their false smiles and poison in crystal glasses (Corvo knows well how sweet poison can taste). She needs men who care about her.
Not the Empire. Not advancement. Her.
He’ll have failed her if he brings her anything less.
“What were you two talking about?” Emily asks, under the swell of the music in the room.
“Oh. She wasn’t courting you, was she?”
The Empress’s reply is lost under the music that rises like a wave in a storm.
The Heart continues to beat, unceasing, on and on and on.
Late at night, when he cannot sleep, Corvo sits on the edge of the bed and holds it in his cupped hands. He asks it about the men he sees at court. The guards circling the ground below. The diplomats who bow at Emily’s feet. All the men he wishes to trust and cannot, all the men he tries to trust and dare not, all the traitors who prove him right. He asks the Heart about their secrets, again and again and again, until he can safely find each man wanting.
It’s a difficult thing.
Jessamine always saw the best in everyone, even him, and there are nights when Corvo wonders if he can even trust the Heart.
He tells himself that this is why he never asks it about himself.
He tells himself many things.
The temptation is horrible, though. And there comes a night when he holds the Heart in his cupped hands and his throat closes up. And he asks, voice ragged and halting, “do you know me?”
He’s not sure which would be better: a no, or a yes.
There is no answer for a long, long time. Just the steady thud of a heartbeat. Mute. The breath leaves Corvo in one long shuddered exhale. He slumps. His eyes close. He’s trying to focus the Heart and hold an image of himself in his mind: himself, not as the people see him with the mask, but without it, the scar under his eye from a hot iron, the lines beginning to form on his face, all the things he has become. Everything that he has done. It’s harder than he’d thought. There are no mirrors in his room, after all, and he does not think of himself in terms of what he is or wants but of what Emily requires him to be, what he needs to do.
It startles him when the Heart finally speaks. Something stutters in his chest. Twists. He has heard it ask what have they done to me? with such sorrow in its voice before.
He has never heard what have they done to you?
There are mobs outside the gates.
There is a bomb that goes off in the breakfast room, and Corvo stops time in a frantic adrenaline-white rush and snatches Emily away from the burst of flames and shrapnel and crockery shards. Maids die. The portrait of Jessamine on the wall is incinerated in a flash. But the two of them are safe, not even a smudge of soot on them, and Emily curls into his chest and shakes and shakes and thanks him between her shaking.
She is not loved.
He and his mask are hated.
Corvo hears them howling for him late at night, crouched on a roof-top and breathing in smoke from their torches. The mob moves like a swarm of rats in the street. Overseer masks glitter in the crackling light. When he finds the letter on the High Overseer’s desk the next morning, and Emily’s signature on the base of it, he is hardly surprised. He brings it back and throws it on her desk before the man can read it and act upon her declaration.
“You’re going to start a war,” he snaps.
“I don’t care.”
“You can’t break from the Abbey.”
“I can. I don’t care. I’m the Empress. And you are –”
“A witch. It’s just their duty. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t care! You’re my Protector and I won’t let them burn you!”
She would burn down the city to see you safe, howls the Heart. You are hers, and she is yours.
I am yours and you are mine.
There is nothing else.
Corvo speaks to her, incessantly, in simple words, of witch hunts and holy wars and the falling of the Empire. “You can’t do this,” he tells her, “It’s not worth it.”
He plucks Emily’s letter daring excommunication from her hands and throws it in the fire. They watch it burn. “We’ll survive this,” he tells her, gently. “I’m not worth ripping your Empire apart. That’s not why I did all this.”
Emily curls her small hands into fists. She’s grown old enough to pierce her ears, somehow, and the rubies set against her dark hair glitter like drops of blood. “Isn’t it?”
Sokolov catches him on one of his midnight patrols, the clack of his cane interrupting the silent cycle of his own feet. “Do you ever sleep?”
“Corvo,” the man snaps.
Corvo sighs and ceases his pacing and turns. Back carefully to the wall in case someone sneaks behind him, as always. “I’m not seeing the Outsider in my dreams,” he says flatly. “At least not very often. There’s nothing for you to study.”
“That wasn’t my question.”
“As Royal Physician, I am responsible for –”
“- Emily’s health.”
“She’s more important.”
“She’s only as safe as you are.” Sokolov eyes the mark on his hand, and it’s the first time Corvo has seen him look at it with anything less than reverence. “You may have that, but you’re still human.”
(He’s not, though)
(He is something more akin to a knife)
Corvo shifts from foot to foot, hands twitching absently. “What do you want?”
“How often do you sleep?”
Sokolov frowns, sucks on his lower lip. “Someone bought and reopened the old Hound Pits Pub,” he proposes. “I find drinking alone to be an abomination. And it seems an appropriate place to make a fresh start – ”
He trails off.
Corvo thinks of bodies laid out in the sun, of guards upending his room, rifling through his things, touching Emily’s drawings. Of poison in a glass. He has not been able to drink whiskey ever since. “I’m leaving the library wing unguarded,” he says quietly.
“Somewhere else, then. I don’t care. When was the last time you spoke to a woman?”
“When was the last time you left the Tower without her?”
He blinks away.
There are mobs outside the gates, and assassins that he dispatches easily, and men who name him monster.
There are nights he does not sleep. There are nights that Emily does not sleep, either, and Corvo can hear her pacing in the room above his. He paces in echo of her, in synch, almost without needing to hear.
There is a letter from the ruling coalition of Morley that chills Corvo’s blood over the breakfast table. It makes Emily scream, makes the little Empress throw her cup across the room and shatter it on the window, makes the Admiral who delivered the letter take a step back with eyes gone hard and sharp as steel.
“Don’t worry,” he says flatly, over the tinkling sound of china falling to the floor. “They’ve done this before. Testing our strength. A few tributes and a diplomatic visit will send their ships turning for home with their tails between their legs.”
Emily is pale and trembling. “What’s the state of the navy?”
“The plague, your majesty,” says the Admiral. “And recruitment is low. Not many wish to sail under you.”
Emily’s eyes narrow.
(That night, she will order Corvo to the naval barracks to find this Admiral holding court with the other officers of her navy. It’s no wonder she’s wild, he will say. Stupid little girl. Her Lord Protector’s the only one who’s opinion she gives a shit about, and we all know what he is. The spatter of the man’s blood against the maps on the walls will be beautiful)
“Send out all our ships,” says the Empress.
Her tone leaves no room for argument, and Corvo watches the Admiral’s face close like a coffin. He bows, stiff. “Empress.” A second bow to him, a sneer and a flash of something in his face that almost makes Corvo step back. “Lord Protector.” And then he is gone with the slamming of a door.
Corvo presses both hands to his face.
“You don’t have to do this,” he murmurs.
“I do. It’s my Empire. Morley is mine. They have to listen to me.”
“I didn’t put you on the throne so you could start another Rebellion.”
“They started -!”
“Emily – !”
“They have to listen to me! Morley is mine.” She sets her jaw. “I am their Empress and it is mine.”
Corvo makes a small, abbreviated noise. “Emily,” he begins, and then stops. He has never been a diplomat, not ever. His words are slow and careful. “When we were trying to put you on the throne…” he trails of. “When they were trying to put you on the throne –“ (because there is no we, he was not one of the Loyalists, he has learned that lesson well) “- someone must have told you that when you’re Empress, you can do whatever you want. It… doesn’t work like that. You have to –”
“I. Don’t. Care.”
Corvo shouts at her then, forbids it, tells her of everything war will do to the city and the country and to her. He tells her no. But no is not a word that means much between the two of them, anymore.
This time, the burning letter is no victory. Corvo can only watch as Emily throws the Morley peace terms into the fire.
(He could stop her. He could stop time and pluck the letter back with magic. He cannot stop her)
“It’s not too late to fix this,” he says. “You’re Empress. You have the power to fix this.”
Emily looks up, and the flames from the burning letter light upon her face and hollow it and make her look so much older than she is. “Don’t you dare.”
She has listened to advisors and diplomats and soldiers, all, until the halls rang with shouting, until she had to slam the door on them all so that they did not see their Empress cry. Perhaps she will listen to him.
She is sixteen. She far too old to be seen as a little girl. She has begun to wear some of Jessamine’s old clothes, to wear her hair swept back by pins, and Corvo sees shadows and ghosts whenever he looks at her. She is old enough that nothing is forbidden to her, anymore, and all the doors are open; and she is old enough that there are things that the Empire will ask of her, soon, and Corvo can feel the Heart quake under his fingertips as he thinks of this. He is so afraid of voicing it aloud.
She is sixteen. She’s so old. She’s so very, very young.
“I hate their terms,” she tells the fire, as the letter burns and curls inward. “No. I’ll kill all of them. We’ll crush them.”
“You can… offer them other terms.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You’re sixteen,” Corvo begins, trying to ignore the sick feeling that twists inside his chest and the shaking of the Heart under his touch. The words are clumsy, sour. “You’re old enough to –”
“It would be smoother, it would be less violent –”
Emily laughs. It’s sharp and hard. It reminds Corvo of the sound of a bird – not the sparrow that is her sigil, not the swan that had been her mother’s, but something brighter like the eagle or vulture that had been Burrows, all taking – and he has to fight to keep from taking a step back. “Who are you,” she says, “to tell me to be less violent?”
She is sixteen. She is sixteen, and she is far too young for any of it, far too young for this and far too young for war, and her narrow shoulders are set and shaking, she is so set in what she is and what she needs to be and there are tears shining in her eyes and Corvo wants to back away and wants to draw her to him and wipe them from her cheeks. And he does nothing. And he can do nothing as Emily turns and storms away.
He can do nothing.
He never can.
Corvo slips in through her window, later (because there’s light spilling under her door even after midnight, because her door is locked). He finds her sitting up in bed surrounded by heavy books on the history and detail of the old Morley-Gristol treaty; he’s quite sure she understands none of them. She looks up when he enters. She does not seem surprised. Her eyes are perfectly dry.
“Get out,” says Emily softly.
The edge of the bed depresses under Corvo’s weight anyway.
They don’t speak for a moment. Corvo rubs a hand over his face. There are a few more lines there, these past few years; he doesn’t need a mirror to know this.
“You know what I’m going to say,” he begins, finally. “You can fix this. Easily. A few amendments and a betrothal to just the right politician –” The words are jagged coming out and he pauses, collects himself. She’s sixteen. She’s too young. She’s so grown up. He goes on. “It’d be easy. You could bring Morley back to the fold without any blood and they’d thank you for it. It’d make everyone happy.”
“Except me.” Emily’s voice is as tight as her arms around her knees. “It wouldn’t be easy. Not for me. I don’t care about what’s easy.”
“You know it’s smart.”
“I know it’s smart.”
“You won’t even have to meet him for –”
It is not, Corvo thinks (watching her navy leave the harbor with banners flying high and every captain and admiral waving to the young Empress, watching the bright and hungry look on Emily’s face as she waves back), it is not that Emily is afraid of a betrothal and all that it could bring and mean.
It is only that she desires her war.
Morley burns. The banners snap in the wind. The ships come back wreathed in cannon-smoke, the coffins come back draped in flags. Morley burns and Dunwall bleeds – it is a different sort of bleeding than before, empty and hungry eyes replacing those that had wept blood. The city runs red and drains dry. The Empress cares for none of it, reads the papers in the morning over bitter coffee with a hard look on her face. She watches the body count rise and dreams, he knows, of being on the deck of a ship, firing the canons herself, watching the sea below blossom red.
“It’s worth it,” Corvo catches her muttering, as she steps into an armored railcar that will protect her from the starving outside the Tower gates. “Of course it’s worth it.”
It’s so much like what Corvo has said, what he’s whispered to himself with blood and blade and magic in his hands, that he cannot think of a way to speak to her about this without Emily throwing the words back in his teeth.
They must all do ugly things. That’s what ruling is.
In her mind, says the Heart, in yours, there is nothing else.
In her dreams she can walk through flames and never burn. So can you.
Her toy soldiers are dying in her name. How small they look!
She is more alone than she allows you to know.
She will always be the princess in the tower, and you will always climb for her.
He has never heard the Heart sound so afraid.
Morley burns, and Dunwall burns, and the Tower remains high and untouchable throughout it all. Corvo does not sleep, and when he does he sleeps too hard to even dream. He does not visit the Void. There is too much chaos in the waking world, after all; he is sent out of the Tower more and more, to bring this chaos through the streets, to make the populace tremble in fear of him and his mask and the hand of she who holds his leash. He spies. He kills. He keeps the world from crumbling down.
He finds an Outsider shrine in the old half-reclaimed Rudshore District and finds himself kneeling before he can think. He’s not sure what he’s praying for. Not an end to the war. Not for life to return to the way it was. He can’t truly remember what life was before the mark and the mask, now; it’s been years, and the voice of the Heart sounds like something he heard in a dream, and words like peace and trust and safe have no meaning unless they wear her face.
Corvo feels a cool hand in his hair, and he looks up to see the Outsider smiling down at him with eyes that are soft as rotting things.
“This is fine, Corvo,” he murmurs. “This is well and good. I’ll not complain. But we’ve known each other too long to play games. You can come here and bow before my shrines, but we both know that mine is not the altar at which you worship.”
Corvo leaves with the sound of the Outsider’s laughter ringing in his head. The Heart, when he touches it, is silent.
And then, there are suitors.
They come from far and wide, and they are young, and the things they promise her are impossible. Corvo stands stiff at the Tower doors as each one passes through. He wants to like them, he really does, he tries –
“I hate them,” says Emily flatly. “All of them.” She’s curled on her bed with her knees drawn up and he arms tight around them. She’s seventeen and her dressing gown is a woman’s, silk, shimmering in the gaslights. The deep-ocean blue makes Corvo think of blood-spattered Outsider shrines in the dark, and it makes her look paler than she already is. More severe. Older. “They’re idiots,” she complains. “None of them actually care about me.”
“You should give them a chance,” Corvo chides from his place in the corner.
“Hah. You’re one to talk. You look at them like one’s going to strangle me instead of kiss me.”
He smiles weakly. “That’s my job.”
“I wish one would try to strangle me,” she mutters, glaring at the coverlet. “It’d give you an excuse to dump them in the ocean.” She looks up, and her next words are suddenly hesitant and girlish. “Do I really need to pick one?”
“See, you agree with me.” Emily resettles herself on the bed with a rustle of silk.
She looks so much like Jessamine when she was younger.
“Your mother despaired over suitors,” says Corvo, slowly. He clears his throat. “When she was your age.”
“You loved her.”
He swallows, hard, finds himself looking away. He does not see the point in lying; she knows, already, she’s known for years. “Yes.”
Emily picks at the beading on her gown. “I don’t love any of them,” she says. “Don’t tell me to try. I know I won’t. And I know that’s not the point. But they’re all so stupid. Transparent a-and scheming and shallow, and–” She makes a small frustrated sound. “I hate them. They’re all so young.”
They say nothing more after that. There’s just the howl of the wind on the roof, and the hiss of the gaslight like a snake in the corner, and Emily’s voice is very quiet when she finally dismisses him and orders him to bed.
They hold a ball, and Dunwall Tower thrums with music, and the halls thrum with the gossip of those who would throw her from the throne. Corvo kills a man by the second dinner course. He does not bother to change, after, and there is red on his coat when he stands in the corner and watches the dancing; and the red on the floor gets swept away and redistributed by the shoes of the dancers in intricate, swirling patterns.
Emily is beautiful. He’s not sure who taught her to dance; someone in her shifting succession of advisors, apparently. She’s beautiful, and cold, and she’s dressed all in white the color of winter and bone, and though she moves gracefully from suitor to suitor to suitor none of them are able to stain her. She is an untouchable beacon in the middle of the room.
“If she’s got half a brain, she’ll marry one of the boys from Morley and end the war,” Sokolov mutters, limping up to Corvo’s corner. “Tell her that.”
“I’m not telling her anything.”
The Royal Physician gives him a long look. “That’s the point of this thing, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I haven’t. She’ll pick who she picks.”
“None of them are good enough for her.”
Sokolov laughs. “That’s what Euhorn thought,” he says, “remember? Couldn’t imagine his little girl getting between the sheets with some –”
Corvo twitches. “Shut up.”
When one of the boys from Morley moves as if to pull a knife, it’s a relief.
When time slows to nothing and Corvo runs the boy through and pulls Emily away from it all, their footprints shine on the fresh blood on the floor; and this, better than anything seen tonight, is a dance in and of itself.
She’s reading the paper over the next morning’s breakfast when she asks what it’s like to kill someone. It takes him a long time to answer.
“Good,” he manages, at last. “And… hollow, at the same time.” He rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “Satisfying.”
“How many men have you killed?”
The paper crackles as Emily folds it over. Corvo can see an artist’s impression of a frigate broken open in Morley seas, bursts of canonfire peppering its frame. There are bodies in the water. Emily’s eyes are as dark as the ink the artist has drawn them in. She taps the paper. “How many men have I killed?” she asks.
Corvo’s smile is thin and sharp. “More than me.”
The Empress nods. “What did it feel like to kill that boy last night?”
“I didn’t feel anything. I was thinking of you, not him. I… I don’t feel anything when I’m protecting you.”
“It’s what I do.” The word do is clumsy. He has to catch himself to keep from twisting it into am.
“Did he really have a knife?”
Corvo closes his eyes. He remembers the boy reaching in his pocket. It could have been a knife or a grenade or a poisoned dart. It could have been a letter or a ring. It could have been a signal. Perhaps he had bought off the guards; perhaps it was a sign to order them all away.
“Yes.” His throat works. “He could have.”
She nods again. Her eyes land on the paper and the ink-print of the frigate in the water. It is a horrible, glorious sight. “Teach me how to fire a gun,” she orders.
“Why? I want to know. I want to do what you do.”
Corvo manages to come up with some answer about putting herself in harms way. The dangers of city streets. The ways that the weight of a weapon in a person’s hand make them reckless, mad, hollow and invincible. He shows her his own hand, the unmarked one, all the scars on his knuckles and the old slash on his palm, the powder burns on his wrist. Rolls up his sleeve just enough to show her the shrapnel wounds there, set against the more regular marks from Coldridge. Emily is clever enough not to ask about the latter.
“It’s too dangerous,” he tells her.
You don’t need to protect yourself, he tells her, something tight in his throat. You have me. I can’t fail you. I can’t.
“Do you know what they say about you?”
Corvo looks up from his post in the corner to find that the scratching of Emily’s pen has stopped and she’s watching him, eyes dark and purposeful behind her disarming smile. The gem at her throat glints in the firelight.
The necklace is emerald, says the Heart without his asking. She wore it because it was the old Empress’s favorite. She wonders if you remember this.
It is not that she respects you. It is that she cannot conceive of a life without you. You are alike.
Corvo’s throat works.
“Of course you do.” The scratching of her pen resumes. “They say –”
“They say I’m corrupting you with my black magic.”
This is the kindest rumor he can think of.
Emily’s smile goes crooked. “Are you?”
“Not that I’d mind.” Scritch scratch. Corvo shifts from foot to foot. He is not a subtle man; he cannot see the point of this. “They say you’re the left hand of the Outsider,” says Emily after a moment, no judgment in her tone. “They say you can summon storms and walk through walls and kill just by looking at someone. You’re more of a spirit than a man. I’ve got a bedtime story guarding me.”
Corvo can think of no arguments for this, and so he curls his right hand over his left and stands there in uncomfortable silence.
“They say,” says the Empress, “that you can do anything.”
“Not anything,” he corrects quietly.
“Near enough.” She looks up, eyes sharp and nearly black in the dim light. “Sokolov brought up me choosing another Lord Protector. Tell him he can’t say that. I can’t trust anyone but you. You’ve always been there. No one is as good as you.” She should be looking at his hand, his magic and his mark, but she’s not – she’s looking at his face, straight into his eyes so that he feels pinned. “Promise me you’ll always be there. Promise me.”
Corvo looks away. The leather of his gloves creaks. He thinks of Jessamine, of poison in his glass, of the grey beginning to streak and silver his hair. “I can’t –”
“Nothing’s impossible. Promise me.”
Sokolov squawks when he pins him up to the wall with his forearm against the man’s throat, but Corvo silences all his protests with a glare. “What are you telling her?”
“I’m advising her,” Sokolov snaps. “Since you won’t let anyone else close enough to breathe on her, it seems –”
“I should have let those rats eat you. She doesn’t need another Protector. She can’t trust anyone else.”
“You can’t trust anyone else.”
“Why should I?”
Sokolov squirms, finds he’s still quite effectively pinned, and gives Corvo a glare that is remarkably composed and furious for the situation. “You can’t be everything to her, dammit,” he manages. “Your job is to protect the Empress. Sometimes protecting the Empress means letting her go a bit. She isn’t –”
“What?” Corvo spits back. Teeth bared. “Perfect? I know that.”
(Neither is he)
(But she is)
(She isn’t but she is)
Corvo stares at him, a moment, and then he shoves him back and lets him go, and Sokolov rubs at his throat and fusses with his beard and glares at him over his shoulder as he limps away.
In the years since Emily took the throne, Sokolov has patched Corvo up from this knife, that swarm of rats, this misjudged jump and fall from the rooftops. He has seen the scars written all over his body. Whip and knife and fire. All the signatures of Coldridge, and after. It is clear to Corvo, though, that he doesn’t understand.
Of course Emily is life. She is his life. He cannot conceive of a life not lived in her shadow.
What is so strange about this?
Sokolov leaves on the next ship for Tyvia. Emily goes down to the docks to see him off, so Corvo must accompany her; but he does not wave, and his fingers do not play over the Heart and seek out what it might have to say.
“Do you know what they say about you?” she asks again, as the wind licks against the windowpane at her back but does not touch her.
“They say you’re impossible.” Emily is smiling. “They say you killed a hundred men fighting out of the Flooded District, back when.”
“More like twenty or thirty.”
“Still. They’re in awe of you.”
“I…” Corvo breaks off, looks out past the window at the lights of the city.
He has never been one for compliments.
He has never been someone worthy of awe or admiration. Certainly not anymore. Not for years.
And besides. He is Lord Protector and Royal Spymaster both, and he knows the way the nobility whisper behind their ring-encrusted hands. The majority of what is said of the Protector and his charge is barbed and wicked and cruel. Neither of them is well-loved. Emily is mistrusted. Corvo is admired and revered and feared. There are rumors about him, about the both of them, that curdle his blood. He dares not say them out loud, but he does not need to. The air between them both is ugly with them.
Emily frowns at her clasped hands on the desk, fusses with the fall of her sleeve over her slender wrist. The jacket is her mother’s. The signet ring on her hand, her mother’s. The quiet strength in her face, her mother’s. Corvo finds he cannot look at her.
“Esma Boyle’s daughter says that lots of women want to court you,” she murmurs.
“Lots of reasons. She says one of her aunts wants to court you too.”
Corvo’s shoulders tense as he turns this information over in his mind. “Which one?”
“Does it matter?”
“No.” He rubs a hand over his face. “You should – ”
“I’m not letting suitors call on me again.”
“Just because one of them maybe had a knife –”
He looks at the floor. Runs through the line of succession in his mind, all that could happen if Emily does not marry, the scandal, the upheaval. Intricate, subtle things. They are, ultimately, not important. His hands curl into fists and relax.
“I’m not receiving Lady Boyle,” he says, very slowly, unsure of how the words feel in his mouth. He shifts from foot to foot.
Emily nods. “Good.”
“…Why do you care?”
“I don’t.” Her frown deepens. Her knuckles go white. When she gets up, her chair scrapes against the floor with a sound like steel on bone. “Good night, Corvo.”
He watches as the maidservant ties Emily’s mask back with a length of white silk.
“I still think you should wear your skull,” the Empress murmurs.
“The point is to go as something no one will recognize, remember? Something I’m not.”
If he wished to go as something he’s not, Corvo thinks, he should wear red: something bright, something vibrant, something not shot through of holes, something alive.
It is the Empress’s first true Fugue Feast, and his hands twitch. Nervousness. Anyone could recognize her out there, and so many wish her harm. His gloves itch against his skin. He wants to tear them off, rip off this damnable mask, run ahead and bar the doors of the tower and keep her caged and wing-clipped and safe.
Emily is dressed as her sigil, a kingsparrow in white barred in shades of brown and grey, her sharply-beaked mask hiding her face. The eyeholes of her mask are slanted, and her gaze from behind them is as sharp and penetrating as a bird’s. There are feathers on her gloves, her collar, her cloak. Everyone will remember her costume. No one will remember her.
No one will remember Corvo at all: he flits and leaps above her, out of sight, in clothes that are covered with the feathers of ravens. Vultures. Birds that devour the dead. The Empress leaves the Tower in kingsparrow-white and he follows in raven-black, wearing the skin of a raven for a moment to float upon the updrafts of air from the crackling fires in the streets below. He swoops down, spreads his wings to shadow the people, folds them in and comes back to himself on a garret-top and watches.
The crowd is lit from fire and fireworks both, all mad shades of red and yellow and blue. Emily’s costume seems to glow white in the flickering light as she moves between other men and women, and they do not recognize her at all. She is smiling.
Look at her, whispers the Heart. They do not see her as human.
Corvo watches. He watches for knives and anger and betrayal. He watches where Emily is watching, where she goes, who she speaks to. The things that touch her. The things that pass her lips. It is her first Fugue Feast outside the Tower, and so she hangs back. Her eyes are wide behind the mask, and they skip over the wine and the women and the bodies twisting on the ground. She looks upward, sometimes. She looks as if she is searching for something. Perhaps she is searching for him.
Look, says the Heart, do you see?
This man will do murder by tomorrow.
In the morning, they will drink sweet wine to forget.
He will hate her for this.
This is the night on which bastards stake their inheritance.
There is not an single bit of his skin that is not tattooed. Green and blue and black. Such shapes!
I see fools, and Overseers dressed as hounds, and masks of whale and panther and rat.
I once kissed a man at such a Feast who wore a mask of yellow silk.
Corvo closes his eyes. When he opens them again, Emily is gone, just a white shadow fluttering into a distant alley.
He follows on the rooftops with his heart in his throat and his hand on the truer Heart next to his breast.
Look, says the Heart, look!
It is said that children born while the bells ring can never lie.
I see her holding the smoke in her mouth. She likes the bitterness.
I see a boy who has lost his way in the crowd.
I see… I see…
Emily is in the back of the alley, garbage under her feet, and she turns and turns in a circle, and her head is tilted back so that the white of her mask reflects the shifting colors of the fireworks above. Jessamine’s voice falters in his hand.
Do you see where she is looking?
Corvo blinks down, and Emily jumps but is not surprised.
“I looked for you,” she tells him. “I couldn’t always see you. You’ve been following me this whole time?”
“Always. I was a bird, sometimes.” He gives an awkward little bow, because he knows it will make her laugh. It does. Feathers rustle on her cloak. “Enjoying the Feast?”
He’s not sure which would be better: a no, or a yes.
“It’s… odd,” she says. And the note in her voice is odd, indeed. “Everyone is… desperate. Mad. They’re dancing and drinking and having sex just because they can. They don’t seem to know what they want.”
He had expected her to talk about the hint of brandy that’s still on her lips, or the woman that had stumbled into her and tried to kiss it away and had almost made him reach for his sword, or about the rumors she has heard on the streets of Outsider rites in the Tower and Pandyssian demons in the Empress’s bed. Not… whatever this is. Emily is a dreamer, yes, but not a philosophical one; she has been taught to rule and overrule without asking why.
Her eyes behind her moon-white mask are liquid and piercing as those of the birds that is her sigil, and Corvo wishes to back away.
“So you’re different?” he asks.
He tries to make it light, turn it into a smile as thin as a knife.
That is when she kisses him full on the mouth.
She has to rise on her toes to do it, so this is nothing accidental; her lips are determined and dry and blazing like the wind that comes before a forest fire. Corvo freezes. Caught up in that wind, he can’t move. Her mask bumps the nose of his and goes askew, and she tries to –
He shoves her off.
“No,” Corvo manages. It can’t have been more than a second. Two heartbeats. Perhaps three. He takes a step back for each. He’s breathing as if he’s been pulled blue from the Wrenhaven and brought back to life. “No – what are you -?”
“I thought –”
“What did you think?!”
Emily’s hands are curled into fists, and her eyes blaze behind the mask. “I thought you -!” She catches herself. “I can’t go with anyone while you’re watching, and I don’t want to, I – everyone’s saying it about us anyway, and I thought you – you’re my Protector –” She gives a half-voiced little scream of rage. Strangled. Rips off her mask and turns away from him, shoulders tight.
“…Please tell me that was a joke,” says Corvo faintly. His stomach is twisting itself into knots. He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. “It’s – it’s okay, it’s just the Fugue, it’s just because you could –”
“You’re young, it’s okay –”
“No!” She whirls and her eyes are liquid because they are wet, and the white of her costume is so pure that it hurts his eyes to look at her. She is so lovely and she is so small. “I’m not a child anymore! I want –”
The bells in Holger Square begin to ring.
First one, hesitant, and then all at once, pealing and tumbling over one another. The sound shakes crows and pigeons from the rooftops. The fireworks cease. All around them, all throughout the city, there comes a great sigh and moan as the people remember themselves. It is disappointment. It is relief.
Emily stares at him, and her face grows hard. There’s a tremor in her chin. Corvo watches as she carefully replaces the kingsparrow mask on her face. He watches as the mask of Empress slides back into place, or slides away again; he cannot tell, anymore. When she speaks, her voice is only cracked at the edges. Not broken.
“Take me back to the Tower, Lord Protector.”
Of course he does.
He touches the Heart in his pocket just once, as he leaves Emily at her room and hears her door lock behind him; and there is such a trembling under his fingers.
She sends him to Morley after that.
It has been a long time coming.
This time, the mission is more fitting. The ship leaves at midnight and returns barely a fortnight later. Unannounced. Flags down. Corvo is no diplomat and the years have made him less so. He speaks barely a handful of words the entire trip. He deals in sharp, decisive things. Finishing ones. There are no more treaties. There is only ending punctuation. Red.
The leaders of the Second Rebellion suddenly find themselves with gaping holes where their declarations and dreams and hearts used to be.
When Corvo returns it is all in red, as well.
There is a moment, with his hands curved over the railings of the ship as he watches the Tower rise in the distance, that he considers not returning at all. He remembers what happened last time. He remembers Emily’s rage like a forest fire, the faint taste of brandy on her mouth.
He remembers that without him, she has no one else.
He holds his heart in his throat as he ascends the path to the Tower fresh from a voyage long at sea; but it is alike and not alike. Emily does not run into his arms: she is too old for such things, and they are both so changed from who they were before. He does not sweep her off her feet in a father’s hug. There are no assassins but him. There is no magic but his and the lesser magic of homecoming, and the only death is the death he bears himself.
There is no red. There is only the red of Emily’s regalia. Her suit is all in crimson, the color of fresh arterial blood. Rich. Wet. It’s a color he knows well, but not on her. She stands in the gazebo, and her hair is dark and lovely and her eyes are fathomless and ruthless, nearly black, and her suit is as blazing red as red can be; and when she smiles, it is like a storm.
This time, again, the news that Corvo brings is death. But death is what she desired. This time, the news is good.
This time, when Emily kisses his cheek to welcome him home, he can still feel her lips hours later as if they are a brand upon his skin.
He walks the halls of Dunwall Tower, and it is always night, and the sea below claws at the stones with the rhythm of a long-dead heart.
“It’s a challenge to visit you in your dreams,” says the Outsider mildly, keeping pace at his side. “You sleep so deeply. How long before you can’t tell the waking world from the dream one? How long before it doesn’t matter?”
“You need to relax, my dear. You’re coiled like a spring.”
The ground falls away beneath him, and Corvo yells and blinks upward so that he’s clinging to a chandelier above the swirling, howling emptiness of the Void. Brick by brick, he watches the floor rebuild itself. The Outsider walks upon it before it is finished. He looks up, and the lights shine on his black eyes. “You need to trust me,” he murmurs. “I wouldn’t let you fall. You’re too interesting. Still. Even when you’re ignoring me.”
“Why would I trust you?”
“You trust her.”
Her is the girl that the Outsider conjures before them both, frozen. Her chin is high and her hair is swept back in bone pins and her regalia is all the color of that bone, and Corvo’s throat works. From here, from above where he cannot quite see her face, he might be looking at a shade. There might be a red bloom under her breast. She might crumple like her mother to the pale gazebo floor.
“Of course I trust her,” he says. “She is –”
Everything catches in his throat, and life; and he can’t get the words out. And when he wakes he can still taste them in his mouth, sour, and he’s twisted up in his sheets as if he has tried to hang himself in his sleep.
“What was it like?” she asks. “In Morley?”
Emily’s lips twitch into the shade of a smile. “It was boring here without you, too. Don’t leave again.”
“Not unless you order me away.”
“I won’t.” She toys with the ruins of her dinner. She has eaten little. Corvo has eaten less. “Ever.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I won’t. I can’t trust anyone here. Remember Havelock? Burrows? I can’t trust my own guards. Just you. You don’t know what that’s like.” Emily’s eyes squeeze shut and she takes a sharp, calming breath through her nose. Corvo holds of course I know what it’s like, I am the only one who knows what it’s like on his tongue, but before he can speak she goes on. Her voice is acid. “I’m not ever marrying.”
The clock ticks.
Corvo looks down at his hands, marked and unmarked, folded over one another. A chill prickles down the back of his neck. “Emily,” he manages, after a long while, “we need to talk about –”
“No.” Her fork pings as she sets it down. “It was still during the Fugue, right?”
Corvo is silent.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Emily quietly. Her eyes are down. “Nothing happened.”
The clock ticks, and ticks, and ticks.
Her profile – if Corvo tilts his head right so that the light falls over it just so – could be her mother’s. Her nose is the same. Her eyes are exactly, exactly the same. The shape. The color. The depth. The peculiar way they can arrest and hold his gaze, make him feel like he is falling. Or drowning. When he looks at her, he is looking at a ghost.
Corvo swallows to wet a throat that is suddenly dry.
“When did your hair get so long?”
Her lips twitch. “You’re one to talk.” Tick goes the clock. “I don’t know. It’s the way Jessamine wore hers in all the paintings.”
“You look – ”
There’s hope in Emily’s voice. Corvo swallows down the yes. “Like a little girl playing dress-up in her clothes,” he finishes.
It comes out sharp, and he doesn’t imagine her wince. He mutters a short “sorry” and leaves the room. There’s a soft click as Emily pulls the swan comb out of her hair and sets it on the table; he will find it there in the morning, abandoned. It is the same comb that was holding back Jessamine’s hair when she died.
Emily cuts her hair by the end of the week, and it is short again, and she looks a shade less like her mother. She still does not look like a little girl. She never will again.
What have they done to you? whispers the Heart, safe in the cradle of his hands.
Corvo runs his fingers over its flesh. It’s quite cool. It does not bleed. Some of the wiring pricks at his thumb but does not break the skin. It beats as steadily as a drum. It is likely stronger than his own heart within his chest.
“I don’t understand,” he murmurs.
There is a rush of cool, salted air on the back of his neck. The Outsider rests his hands on Corvo’s shoulders and leans over him, ignoring the Lord Protector’s wince. “What?”
Corvo’s lips press tight. He traces the glass window that peers inside the Heart, studies the constant grinding of the gears. “When will she stop?”
The Heart throbs under his touch.
There is a hollowness where you used to be, it says.
Oh, it says, it is such a long, long fall.
“Do you want her to?”
The Outsider touches two fingers to the back of Corvo’s neck, and Corvo holds quite still and doesn’t need to turn to know the way his head is tilted to the side, all curiosity. “You’re still wound so tightly,” he says mildly. “She will stop when there is no one left for her to care for.”
And then he is gone, and the curtains ruffle in the wind of his passing, and Corvo is left staring at the Heart in his cupped hands and not shivering despite the chill in the room. He turns the Heart over and over. He turns the Outsider’s words over and over in his mind, and Sokolov’s, and the water-stained memory of Jessamine that lives in every corner of this room.
“I…” he begins.
The words catch and do not leave his mouth.
He locks the Heart in the dresser drawer, and he leaves the Tower by the rooftops as the setting sun colors them with fire. The city smells of smoke. He can hear a woman crying in one of the rooms below as he passes over. There are rats on the streets, still, though they do not carry the plague; and the Walls of Light lie decommissioned and rusting, and too many windows are dark. He finds graffiti on the walls in faded, cracking white paint. (The Outsider walks among us) (She doesn’t care) (The Lord Protector is a mad hound) (Give the city back to the rats).
He thinks of drowning, of drowning himself in drink and stumbling out into the streets and the knives of the gangs. It was foolish to leave his mask at home. Corvo feels far too exposed like this, with the free air on his face; he feels far too human.
It takes him a long time to realize where he is going.
The Golden Cat is shabbier than he remembers it from eight-odd years ago. He doesn’t use the front doors. He slips inside by the attic, and when he passes the room where they kept Emily long ago his stomach does a neat, sharp flip; but he can’t think of that anymore, he mustn’t think at all.
He pays twice what is expected, and he barely looks at the girl.
He only wants to forget. Make his skin stop feeling so strange. When she turns from him a moment to close the door, he has a mad urge to use his magic to slip inside her body. Perhaps it would be easier to live in hers than his own.
She is a beautiful girl. Her skin is pale. Her eyes are dark. Her hair is black. There are marks upon her neck, purpling bruises from someone else that her makeup cannot hide, and Corvo does not look at them. Her frame is small and breakable and the endearments she murmurs are not entirely feigned, not when she knows who he is, and this is awful, and when he kisses her he finds the aftertaste of some kind of alcohol on her lips –
He bites, because he can. Because he wants to hurt something.
“Don’t ask about the scars,” he murmurs, when she begins pulling at his coat.
“I won’t, my Lord.” She laughs, and this is awful too. “Who do you want me to be?”
“I don’t – ”
“One of the noble ladies? The old Empress? The new one?”
Her lips are cold.
Corvo pushes her away, stands, and leaves before she can say a word.
On the way home he pauses, just once, to empty his stomach into the corner of a rooftop garden. He’s shaking by the time he gets back to the Tower, and his skin is chilled and too tight and still awful. He drops into a chair in his room and buries his face in his hands.
Up above, he can hear Emily’s pacing stutter, pause, resume.
His hands open the dresser and draw out the Heart without his asking.
“I-I’m sorry,” he tells it. Stupidly. “I didn’t…” He draws a thin breath. “Tell me what to do. Please.”
The Heart is silent.
In the morning she will ask where you were, the Heart sighs, after a long while. She painted her face while you were gone. Lip stains. Powder. She wonders if she can turn herself into something else.
In the morning, she will wonder why her lips taste like death.
He walks the grounds of the Tower, and the moon hangs like a sickle-blade in the sky, and he turns the Heart towards each and every guard that he passes.
He sends his pay to a sister in Whitecliff.
He will die next year, when the mob breaches a barricade.
This one hates you.
He does not tell his friends where he is posted.
He asked to be transferred to the prison.
Corvo’s steps are automatic. He scans the skies, the rooftops, the gutters; he creeps inside the sewers as a rat to sniff for intruders, he hangs above the Tower as a raven and surveys the horizon. Emily must be safe. Whenever he feels sleep approaching he imagines red, poison, exposed ribs, purple bruises (strangle-bruises?) around her little throat –
The image jolts something in his chest, chilled and hot at once. It’s like being stabbed.
He’s crouched in the rafters of the gatehouse, watching the water far below, when the Heart speaks without his asking. Its voice is very soft under the sound of the sea.
And to think you call yourself Protector.
Corvo starts, startles, almost falls; but that is all. Silence. The waves below lick against the walls, and this is the only sound. That is all the Heart says for the rest of the night.
“I could throw you into the sea,” Corvo murmurs.
The Heart says nothing. It continues to beat, steadily, walls expanding and contracting in his cupped hands. Its rhythm is utterly perfect.
He could crush it in his grip, if he wished to.
His head drops. He toes away some of the ivy covering Jessamine’s memorial plaque, but it springs back. The stone is white, the metal gold. The sea breeze ruffles his hair. He can see the city across the water. It looks deceptively calm from here; it always does.
Can you hear them? says the Heart. They are crying for her blood, and yours.
Dunwall will never stop weeping.
She would burn this city to the ground if it meant she could rule the ashes at your side.
“What do you want me to do?” he snaps.
She is a child, still.
“Answer me.” The words are jagged. “Dammit, what’s the point of you if you won’t talk to me?”
(What’s the point of him, without an Empress to tell him what to do?)
“Corvo?” comes a voice behind him. “Who are you talking to?”
Corvo whirls, the Heart stowed back in his pocket before Emily can see. She’s standing on the path to the gazebo, all in red so bright it hurts his eyes, her face curious. His throat works. “No one.”
“Not the Outsider?”
“I… no.” Corvo looks down. Kicks away the ivy again, but it springs back. “Your mother. It’s… stupid of me.”
Emily shrugs. She walks up to stand beside him, white hands on the white railing. “You really loved her. Like stories.”
“We’ve talked about this.”
“I know. She was the Empress, you were her Protector. I’ve read the books. That’s the closest bond there is.”
“That doesn’t mean…”
He can see her shoulders tighten.
Corvo kicks away the ivy a third time, stupidly, trying to shove it away from Jessamine’s name with his boot. It’s better than looking up and seeing Emily not looking at him. His mind jumps to the girl at the Cat, her dark hair shading the marks on her throat, and he takes a shaky breath. “Emily,” he begins. Stops. Tries again. “Back when – they were keeping you at the Cat, did anything –”
“No. We’ve talked about this.”
“…Yes, but –”
But his mind is tumbling over and over like a corpse thrown about in the waves, and he’s afraid of what he might find in the depths.
“No,” says the Empress. Voice as taut as her shoulders. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t see anything. I-I was locked in that room waiting for you, and I heard everything down below, and you know what? People came there so they didn’t feel lonely anymore. That’s what it’s about. Even with strangers.”
“That’s not –”
“But all those fucking suitors were little boys and they didn’t care about me and I’m never marrying.” Emily shudders. “Ever. If I was you I would have killed all of them. I don’t know how you could stand it.”
Corvo stares at her until the mad, skin-crawling urge to strike her for the swear has passed. He says nothing. The sea thunders below them. The Empress takes a shallow breath and curls her hands against the railing as she stares out at the city.
“The people loved her,” she murmurs, and it takes Corvo far too long to piece out who her is. “You loved her. I-I don’t understand. I’m doing something wrong, and I don’t understand.”
The only thing he can think to do is flee, but if he flees he will never stop. Corvo steps up and wraps an arm around the Empress’s waist. It is protective; it might be fatherly. Emily takes a series of great, trembling breaths and blinks her eyes, but Corvo does not have to hand her a handkerchief and she does not quite cry. When she leans into him, when she tucks her head against his shoulder, he lets her. She’s as tall as him, as tall as her mother, and it feels more right than he can bear.
He doesn’t sleep.
He’s pacing in his room. Not circles. A rectangle. Precise. The exact size and shape of his old cell in Coldridge. It has been eight years, and he still knows the steps.
It has been eight years, and Emily is no longer a child. And he is afraid to look at her.
He needs to sit her down. Across from her, not beside. Explain, in small words, that she is (isn’t) a child and that there is silver starting to dust his hair. That he loved her mother and she is not her mother. That she isn’t his daughter, no, not in the literal sense, but she is; and while he cannot conceive of a life without her there are borders that must not be crossed –
(Not for you, she would say. Eyes bright on the mark on his hand. You’re impossible. You can do anything. And I’m the Empress and I can do anything)
He opens the window and throws himself out of his skin for a moment, into the body of a raven that floats high above. From here, he can see Dunwall Tower far below. All the guards on the grounds. The gazebo that stands out like a sore. The light in Emily’s window. The wind buffets him, and he can’t get control of his wings, this is wrong, and he spirals down and comes back to himself in his own room again and he still doesn’t feel right in his own skin and this is –
He can’t stop shaking.
He needs to come before her in the morning and get on one knee and tell her to send him on a ship, any ship, far away.
He needs to beg her to select a new Royal Protector who she does not adore so.
He needs to tell her that what she wishes is impossible, too.
He needs –
His hands slip on the lock, and he rattles the drawer and almost drops the Heart as he draws it out. He presses it tight against his own heart and wills the beats to synch. “Tell me what to do,” Corvo manages. “Please, I don’t know what to do with her –”
She is a child, hisses the Heart.
“I-I know –”
The noise that Corvo makes is small and ragged and he drops the Heart as if it has burned him. It rolls to a stop on the floor and continues to beat there, pulsing and ugly as a wound.
He is standing before he realizes, and the weight of the pistol in his hand makes him mad and reckless, and the stock is cold against his palm and the muzzle is cold as it presses against his temple and –
He is shaking as one stricken with the plague, but his hand is perfectly steady.
The bolt clicks as it sets.
The Heart stares at him from the floor, beating on and on, and his shadow falls over it, the shadow of him with the pistol pressed tightly against his temple. Corvo closes his eyes. He can still see that pulse. Or maybe it’s the hammering of blood behind his own eyelids. He can still hear its voice, low and soft as ever.
You’ll know what to do, it says, and its voice eats at him like the fire of a Wall of Light. Won’t you, Corvo?
After all, there is no question. There shouldn’t be.
Corvo breathes, in and out, and the air tastes like seawater and blood and drowning.
His hand relaxes. The pistol drops to the carpet. He doesn’t hear it.
“I can’t,” says Corvo slowly. “I-I can’t… leave.”
The Heart makes no reply.
What he means to say is “she needs her Lord Protector.”
What he stays instead, words torn as a wound, is “she needs me.”
Waverly Boyle comes to him, unannounced, wearing the same gold suit that she had those years before. He finds her standing at the door to his chambers, utterly nonplussed. Even when he points a crossbow at her heart.
She’s not as young as she once was. Not as beautiful. There is something in the way the light glints tinny and golden off her upswept hair that repels him.
“What do you want?” Corvo spits.
“To quiet worries about the succession. When will the Empress begin receiving suitors again?”
“She won’t be.”
“Ah. By who’s insistence? Yours?”
“Naturally.” Waverly fusses with her rings. “You realize this puts her throne in jeopardy. We are worried that she does not care.”
“As long as she’s safe and happy it doesn’t matter.”
“The Empress and her Empire are two entirely separate beings, my Lord. One is more important than the other. I do hope you understand this.”
Corvo grabs her by the wrist and drags her out.
At the top of the grand staircase, Waverly twists in his grip. Her nails scrape against his cheek. It takes Corvo a second to realize that this is not an attack and he jerks his head away from her and her carefully-painted lips. Her eyes glitter. She does not look surprised. “You need to get out of this tower, Corvo,” she says softly. “You need to see what her rule is doing to this city. Allow me –”
He wishes to push her down the stairs.
Late that night, Boyle Manor is awash in rats. They pour down the stairs in a sea of black. They infest the tiled floors. They drip from the attic like oil. They move through the house in a flood, roiling and devouring. It is as if the plague has come again. There is nothing left alive. The Empress reads of it in the morning paper, and raises an eyebrow towards Corvo’s post in the corner.
“She implied I wasn’t good at my job,” he tells her. “She implied we both should step down.”
Emily nods, once, and smiles. “Good.”
Swine, snarls the Heart, coward. There is nothing left of the man you used to be. She sees you as the sun, and will burn herself to a cinder if you allow her. You are filth. She does not know what she is doing. Why have you not stopped her? If you touch her she will stain.
He locks it in a drawer, and hides the key, but he can still hear it beating at night as thunderous as the sea. Corvo does not sleep. He patrols until he sways upon his feet. He patrols until his footsteps take him outside Emily’s door, again and again; and her light is always on, and he knows that she does not sleep either.
When he does, finally, he wakes to find that he’s twisted himself up in the sheets like a fish that is caught in a net. If he dreams, he does not remember. Perhaps he is afraid to. The Outsider appears to him one night, perched on the windowsill, and Corvo is so tired that it takes him a moment to register that the being is even there.
“I should leave, shouldn’t I,” Corvo mutters. He watches the Outsider out of the corner of his eye, but that’s not why his skin crawls. “I can’t protect her from me. I shouldn’t have to.” He claws a hand through his hair. “I don’t –”
“You’re coming to me for advice and guidance, Corvo?” The Outsiders smiles as if a fishhook is caught in the corner of his mouth and slowly drawing upward. “I am the last being you should ask to mete out moral judgments. I find this terribly fascinating. That’s all.”
Corvo stares at him, and his heart thuds like a drum in his chest.
He knows that she is so terribly lonely. So is he.
“If I leave,” he manages, “she’ll have no one else to trust, will she?”
“No,” agrees the Outsider. “You taught her well. I suppose she won’t.”
The first thing Corvo hears is Emily’s scream.
The mark on his hand flares to life. He is up and through her window and in her room before the pen has time to fall from her hands, because time is stopped. The entire room is frozen – the open window, her hair caught in the wind, the dust motes on the sunlight –
Panic is a white void in his chest, falling.
The entire room should be frozen – but there is a sword that comes out of the nothingness and catches his own, there is motion and there is magic that curls around him and tries to hold him fast.
They have come for her. At long, long last.
Corvo shoves the witch away. She topples into a bookcase and the books do not fall, just hang suspended in the air. Her magic snaps around him and he cannot move his limbs. Tethering. He can’t move at all. It’s like Jessamine, like before, and he can only watch, and –
He throws himself forward and takes possession of her skin.
Her body is a dead weight. It doesn’t move the way it should. It stumbles forward, clumsily, and trying to get control of it is like trying to hold sand in his cupped hands – and the witch’s mind is still there, flitting and eating and tearing at his own.
Lord Protector! she laughs, high and hysterical and birdlike. You’ve failed, you’ve failed, you’ve failed –
Corvo wrenches himself free of the woman’s body, and the moment of disorientation when she stumbles is all that he needs to grab her by the hair and open her throat.
She is laughing as she dies. She is laughing as the blood sprays out, even, as time catches up to it and it falls and reddens the carpet. And her laughter turns gurgling and wet and then is silent.
Emily stands perfectly still, staring, hand clapped to her mouth. Not a second has passed. Not for her. “Are there more?”
Corvo searches out with his magic, finds none. “No.”
“O-okay.” The Empress squares her shoulders. “Don’t bother with the guards, I’ll help you get rid of –”
Corvo shakes his head, waves his hand, and the body is ash, and the body is gone.
“Oh.” Emily wets her lips. “She was –”
“Like me. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I thought the Brigmore Witches were all gone.”
Emily is staring at the red stain on the carpet. “This is why I need you,” she says suddenly. “N-nobody else can do this –” She bites herself off, throat working.
She is wearing one of Jessamine’s old dressing gowns, dyed all red, and it is lovely on her, and the collar is high and he can see the pearl clasp rise and fall in the hollow of her throat. There isn’t a spot of blood on her. Her hair is dark, and her eyes are dark, and she looks older than her eighteen years. She looks so much like Jessamine that Corvo can feel the loss of her like a physical thing.
“I’ve lost,” says the Empress, softly. “Haven’t I?”
Corvo looks down and sees what she was writing before she screamed: travel plans, maps of the Empire spread out before her. There are circles drawn around many small towns in Serkonos. Many places far away from Gristol. There are notes in the margins – plans, the workings of spy networks, identities, names that are not their own.
“I’ve lost the throne,” she goes on. “Wh-why would someone pay so much to hire her unless everyone -?”
Corvo gives her a pained smile. “You know what they say about you.”
Emily nods. “We can leave. Tomorrow. Tonight. G-go to Serkonos, maybe.” She takes a deep breath. “I can abdicate. I’ve been thinking. I don’t care. If they won’t listen to me they can burn, if they don’t trust me they can burn, I-I –”
He catches her hands before she can do something horrible, and they tremble in his own. Emily gathers herself. Her eyes flick past him to the blood on the floor. “Thank you,” she mumbles.
“It’s what I’m here for.”
“N-no, I mean –”
This time, there is a moment when Corvo falls into her kiss as if it is empty air. She doesn’t know what she is doing but it doesn’t matter because her mouth is blazing as if all the heat in the world is held therein. The Heart was wrong. She’s not the one who will be incinerated. His grip on her hands becomes tight enough to be nearly painful and then he realizes this and goes perfectly still, panicked. He doesn’t push her away. He stumbles back, and his hands are up as if to ward something off.
“We can’t,” he says. It’s almost a snarl. He meant for it to come out you can’t and his skin is too hot and cold at once, wrong, but there is nothing to possess here. No body to slip inside except her own. He shudders at the thought.
“Of course we can, we can do anything, I’ve got it all planned –”
“I mean – this.”
“This?” Emily practically crows it. Bright and piercing as a bird. “Of course we can. I’m the Empress –”
“That’s not –”
“You did it before and everyone says I look just like her –”
“- So why not? Why not?”
Jessamine would know what to do. Jessamine was never like this. The loss of Jessamine pains him like a physical wound. The want for her is a physical thing. “Emily. She was your mother. I’m practically your fa-”
“But you’re not. I don’t care.” She looks at him and there are tears in her eyes, and those eyes are alien and dark. She’s not anything Corvo knows, not anymore, and he can see Jessamine in every line of her face, the tension in her body, her clenched hands, her mouth. He wants to hold her by the shoulders and quiet her shaking. Wipe all the tears from her cheeks. He wants to run. He can do nothing. He never can.
Emily swallows down an ugly half-sob sound. “I don’t. Have. Anyone else.” Her breathing shakes her frame. “You saw to that. Lord Protector. It’s just you, and I love you, and I need you, I don’t want anyone else and I-I don’t care what they say and I’m Empress and I could order you –” She breathes. “Don’t you –?”
Yes, he could say, I love you, of course, why would you ask, yes.
No, he could say.
But they are Empress and Lord Protector, they are so much above the common man; and no is not a word that means much between the two of them, anymore.
“Ask me to leave,” says Corvo softly. “Dismiss me.”
He means from the room.
He means from the Tower.
He does what he should have done with Jessamine those years ago, when she had kissed him hard and pressed him to the wall and said I love you, I am yours and you are mine. He turns on his heel. He leaves. He can feel her in the room above her, but he leaves; and each step downstairs hurts like a physical wound, and the closing door of his chambers is so loud.
Emily does not follow. Corvo sits, and does nothing. He listens to a maid upstairs scream and fuss and faint over the blood on the floor, but he does not move. The sky outside his windows fades from blue to dark to star-laced black. He can hear watch-sirens in the city below, shouting, fire. Dunwall tearing itself apart. Always. It will always be like this.
The moon is thin as a blade in the sky when there comes a knocking at his door.
“Corvo?” says the Empress. “I’m sorry.”
Corvo looks at his hands, the marked and unmarked, the way they are laced tightly over one another so that scars and knuckles both are white. Emily is not as subtle as she thinks she is. If he closes his eyes he can see her outside the door, not even with magic; he knows exactly what she looks like and exactly what she desires.
“Corvo. I love you. I’m sorry. Please.”
She tries the door. The door is locked. Corvo looks at the dresser, the silver pistol lying on top; looks at the drawer with the Heart within. He looks at the window. The empty sky, the rooftops, the sea, escape. The long and horrible fall.
It will always be like this.
He gets up.
He opens the door.
There are ways she is not like Jessamine. The fall of her hair against her neck. The mole on her shoulder. Her shyness. The slimness of her hips, because she is all bone stripped down from distrust and wanting. The quirk of her smile. The desperate, terrible heat of her body. The sounds she makes are whimpers, soft and animal, and she doesn’t hold his name in her mouth the same way at all. Corvo finds himself focusing on these differences and hates himself for it, keenly, hates himself for all of it, hates the shade of Jessamine he hopes to reveal as he draws the cloth off her narrow shoulders, hates the way he presses his mouth to the seam of one shoulder and leaves a mark so that he can prove to himself later that yes, this happened, this was real, yes.
She doesn’t ask about all the scars that she finds. She doesn’t know what to do. She is his Empress. She orders him to show her.
He is only too happy to obey.
He does not hurt her.
He adores her with every breath in his body.
This is the way it has always been.
Emily leaves quickly, arms wrapped around herself. She is smiling but there is something sideways in her eyes, and she doesn’t quite look at him; and when his door closes again it makes a snap like the sound of something breaking.
Corvo does not move for a very long time.
There is a hollow where he is supposed to be.
When the sky begins to lighten outside and the birds begin to sing, he rises. He has not slept. He dresses, impeccably, Lord Protector’s coat and sword. He ties back his hair, traces the silver at his temples. Finds himself grateful that he keeps no mirror in the room. He looks at the dresser. He looks at the pistol. He picks it up.
He buckles it onto his belt.
He finds the key where he had hidden it, and he opens the dresser. The Heart is there. It is still beating. Corvo’s insides curdle, and he takes a shallow breath and lays a hand upon it.
He stands like that, unmoving, as it beats and beats and does not speak.
When the silence has grown deafening, Corvo straightens and closes the drawer. Locks it. Lays the key on top of the dresser, along with his mask, and –
The door to his chambers is locked, and it will remain locked. It will be a long while before Emily misses him. The window is open. The spaces between the rooftops are long, the falls horrible, but he does not take them; he leaps between, sometimes as a raven and sometimes as a kingsparrow and sometimes as the shape that used to be himself, away and away and away.
As the dawn breaks bright on Dunwall Tower and fires all the stones to white and blazing brilliance, he walks down to the docks. The ship’s captain starts and stands at attention when he recognizes his face, his coat. The shock in his voice when he murmurs Lord Protector is equal to the shock in Corvo’s frame when he finds that the title still fits him.
(Of course it does. It always has)
The ship is bound for the cliffs of Pandyssia. Corvo hopes that they are as blood-red and wild and mad as all the stories say. He does not dare look back at the crumbling city as the ship leaves the harbor. He does not dare let himself look for the Tower, white, untouched, still standing.
He has bought no return ticket.
He is her Lord Protector, and he will do his duty to the end.
There is nothing else. Not anymore.