They call the Dunwall theatre district the most famous in all the Isles; brighter than any of Morley's, easier to navigate than Tyvia's, and a better class of entertainment than Serkonos' vulgar offerings. Lantern-hung streets (a cliché, to be sure, but the atmosphere makes the power bill worthwhile), red and orange, blue and green, yellow and white. Banners hang from lamp posts, shocking posters smeared on bricks, parades of actors in full costume hollering the name of their latest masterpiece. Jugglers on street corners, tarot cards and crystal balls, half-clad dancers from the Golden Cat. You can't think yourself 'cosmopolitan' until you've seen John Clavering Boulevard by night.
Wander the streets, packed as they are, dodging sightseers and musicians, vendors of all kinds. Listen: a boy balanced on a wooden crate, hawking cheap guides to the evening's spectacles. Plays, musicals, operatic delights. Street parades at midnight for the festival of the week (some religious holiday, no doubt; they always are). Fireworks over Kaldwin's Bridge, a masquerade at the Golden Cat, and Lydia Boyle to sing Tosca in her first public appearance! Two coin a brochure, delights for one and all!
But wander a little further; it's unwise to judge a place solely on its surface splendour. The tourist traps are packed three deep, and no visitor of standing would suffer such indignity. Wander through clouds of sweat and cheap perfume, the greasy foods, popcorn and toasted river krust, snap-crackle gunpowder and overdone face paint. Past the glittering salons with their last-minute wares: scarves and bolero jackets, cravats and fascinators, ornaments for the visitor who finds themself unexpectedly underdressed for their Occasion of choice.
Coffee shops and cocktail parlours; in these times of industry and innovation, they often serve a dual function, fielding the rush for sweets and caffeine before the theatres open their doors, and feeding the hunger for a higher class of refreshment once performances finish. There's good money in the business, if you attract the right clientele.
Evening falls; it's dark outside, and the lanterns are dimming inexorably. They do this on purpose, you know. Dim the lanterns so the theatres will shine, and you'll gravitate to circus lights and art houses like eager moths.
But what of the connoisseur, who has seen all the gilt, gold leaf, and tricks of light that can be stomached? Such people never wander Dunwall's streets (filthy, under the confetti smeared by boots and stiletto heels), or stoop to gawking with the common masses. For them a higher class of pleasure exists, of the kind booked solid months in advance, the odd stray tickets sold to queuing crowds for exorbitant sums, the discreet posters hawking names of writers and directors as their sole draw. This is the crème de la crème. Dunwall's elite clusters with dignified steps, outlandish cocktail dresses and lurid bowties, for a night in the district of joy.
The Abbey, the Tower, the Void; the most famous entertainment houses of all. There's not an actor in the Isles who doesn't aspire to treading these boards. Of one, maybe even two; almost folly to imagine appearing in all three. How many dreams have smashed open like overripe melons on the stone steps leading up to the doors of success? A role means fame, means an eternity carved in stage lights and encores.
A man can dream.
"A medium iced green tea latte for the lady, and a caffè Americano for her gentleman friend, both to have here. That'll be nine coin in total, take a seat and we'll bring it right out." They've only been open a few hours, and Lydia's smile has taken on a strained look already. She scribbles the order down, and all but throws in Corvo's face.
"They're in a hurry, just like everybody else, but they want their stupid coffee in stupid mugs, since take-out cartons aren't romantic enough. Can we get a move on, please? I need these made yesterday."
Corvo knows better than to argue when she gets like this; he grabs the order and gets to work, though a part of him would be a lot happier if he just dumped the green tea monstrosity all over Lydia's shoes. Sadly, that isn't possible. He needs this job.
"What's her problem today?" he hisses to Callista as she rushes past with a fresh tray of tomato, mozzarella and basil panini. She flicks a glance over her shoulder to check on Lydia (currently occupied with refilling the straw dispenser), then places her tray on the bench beside him and makes a show of tidying the food.
"Didn't you hear? Wallace has been at it again." She glances over her shoulder a second time. Callista's always tense, in her perfect apron and ironed blouse; she marches around the Hound Pits like a soldier on parade.
"What, mixing up the numbers?"
"Yes. Honestly, I don't know why the Admiral keeps him around when even Emily could do a better job-" she stops, bites her lip, stares down at her shoes. As always, they're impeccably polished. It's a running joke among the staff that, in the absence of a mirror, one can always check their appearance in Callista's shoes. As with all their jokes, it stopped being funny a long time ago.
"Right. Yes, she probably could." Corvo turns away to find the appropriate glasses, and when he gets back to his post Callista is gone. She doesn't cope all that well with confrontation; he doesn't blame her for making herself scarce. Everything's gone to hell since Jessamine.
She was the best of them. A young, single mother; nothing special for the theatre district, but still she managed to shine. The hardest worker with the kindest of smiles, and in all the time he knew her, she never once forgot a name. Customers came in once, and when they returned she would greet them as old friends, ask about their lives, their jobs, their kids. And they always came back for Jessamine. The first part she auditioned for was hers before she'd finished the read-through, and her luck never really left after that. Rave reviews and roses in her dressing room, but she never forgot who her real friends were.
The funny thing was, she didn't need any extra cash from a job at the Hound Pits. And when all was said and done, she didn't need the actress work either. Her dad was old money, and Jessamine was an only child. He'd loved her like there was nobody else in the world, and gave her everything she asked for. A chance to work like a normal person, an acting career without exploiting his connections, and the opportunity to make her own mistakes. When little Emily came along, Papa Kaldwin didn't have a single disappointed word for his only daughter.
Then the cancer got to him. And three months later, Jessamine was dead. Funny, how life works out.
"Corvo, the customers want to know where their drinks are! I swear, that idiot Wallace could do a quicker job of it, even if he did complain the whole time. Come on!"
He gives Lydia the drinks with a forced smile, and when she turns to storm off he doesn't bump her, or even glare at her retreating back. It's lucky thing, too, because he sees the Admiral over on the other side of the room, deep in conversation with Lord Pendleton. They look thoroughly engrossed, which means Havelock's eyes are peeled for the smallest misstep. Corvo meets his gaze, gives him a quick nod, and turns away to feign efficiency.
Three months after her father's funeral Jessamine Kaldwin died on the stage at the Tower, while a thousand people bayed for the blood they mistook for stage-magic. Stabbed while playing Emilia to an unknown Iago; the original actor took sick partway through (drugged, the tests showed later), and someone replaced him, spoke his lines perfectly, and played his role like a professional. When Jessamine screamed, the crowd roared, and her body was left on stage until the final curtain dropped.
An hour later and the Watch showed up at the Hound Pits to arrest one Corvo Attano, friend and rumoured lover to the woman they jokingly called the Empress.
His own fault. He'd actually been at the scene of the crime; an opening night performance, and Jessamine had managed to sneak him a ticket, in thanks for all the times he'd babysat Emily for her. Of course, the Admiral was being a slavedriver as usual, and Corvo left halfway through to start his shift. He missed the murder. Jessamine was stabbed without anyone realising, and he hadn't been there when she needed him.
Being on shift should have worked in his favour, once an alibi was required, but the Watch hadn't cared. They'd cared so little that it seemed pretty certain they'd been paid off, and after six months of court fees and lawyers and constant questions about the nature of his relationship with the murdered woman, Corvo found himself broke and homeless. Innocent, finally, but there was no way to piece his career back together after that kind of bad press. He's just lucky the Admiral took him in. Partly out of pity, mostly because Emily Kaldwin likes him.
"Corvo, I finished another drawing! Will you come and see?" She's always coming down to the shop to show him things; drawings, mostly, or hilarious cat pictures, if Havelock's been unwise enough to lend her his laptop.
He turns to smile at her, only to find himself nose to nose with Lydia.
"Corvo's busy right now, sweetie. You can bother him when he's on break, but right now he has customers to serve. Because that's his job." She glares at him as if the little girl's intrusion is somehow his fault, and it's a struggle to keep his voice even and work-appropriate.
"Right, yes. I'm sorry Emily, I'll have time later, I promise." Her face falls before he finishes the sentence, and he feels like the worst person imaginable. "I'll make it up to you, I swear-"
"No, that's okay. I guess I can go show the Admiral or something. He always has time for me."
He always has time for your inheritance, Corvo wants to tell her, and doesn't. It seems these days he spends more time not saying things than actually talking, to the point where some of his customers actually think he's mute. It's not true at all. Talking is just an effort he'd rather not make, when it's enough of an effort to get up in the mornings. But Emily's much too young to understand this, in the same way that she doesn't understand why she's suddenly living in one of the rooms above the Hound Pits, and being homeschooled by Callista. The Kaldwin inheritance is sizeable, and whoever ends up with custody of Emily stands to do well out of it. Not surprisingly, the Admiral's already making plans for the money.
"I'll see you later," he says as she walks off, and then Lydia is handing him the next convoluted order, and he gets back to work.
This is the way of things at the Hound Pits. They serve tea, coffee, and overpriced gourmet food to the theatregoers, the struggling writers, and the harried directors, and when evening falls and the lanterns light up, they start serving the harder stuff. Twenty cocktails on the menu alone, but that's more a suggestion than anything; if you want it, it'll get made. The Wi-Fi only cuts out every half hour or so, and the cherries, bits of pineapple, and amusing plastic animals are on the house.
As far as these places go, it's actually quite charming. The flickering neon hound sign hanging over the bar adds a certain atmosphere, and the seats in the booths are real leather, left over from more prosperous times. The floors get scrubbed as often as possible, and the tables are cleaned daily, or at least polished a bit. An old-fashioned woodburner in the corner draws the customers in during the colder months, and means that Admiral Havelock can be cheap and delay installing a heat pump for another year.
He's not actually an Admiral, in the same way that Jessamine wasn't an Empress, and Pendleton's about as much a Lord as the pigeons that roost in the gutters and shit all over the doorstep. Lydia says he once had a starring role in a production of HMS Pinafore, as Sir Joseph Porter, first Lord of the Admiralty, and the nickname stuck. Corvo chooses to take her word for it; he can't actually picture the heavyset Havelock on stage at all, let alone for a musical, but he's not going to argue. He owes the man a lot.
Lydia herself doesn't have a nickname, and if she secretly cherishes dreams of fame and fortune, she's mighty quiet about them. Anyone who makes the mistake of listening too closely will get a spiel on how happy she is to work for a great man like the Admiral, how optimistic she is for the future of the Hound Pits. Stick around after that, and she'll lecture on how overworked she is, and how slack the other employees get when she's not observing them. It's around that point that Corvo will trade eye rolls with Callista, or Cecelia; whoever happens to be nearby and sympathetic. Not Wallace, though. Wallace seems to live off work, in the same way that some of their regulars seem to live off nothing but caffeine.
It's shaping up to be a slow evening, as they all are; even when there's a rush it's a slow evening, because Corvo can't wait for it to be over and done with. He's tired. He's always tired. Maybe if he could find some sort of inspiration, something to get excited about, he'd be a little happier, but the acting roles have all dried up. He goes to every audition he can, and it's not like he's a newcomer. There have been roles, and praise, and reviews, "great things in Corvo Attano's future", and "eagerly anticipate his next foray into the theatre", but that was before he spent six months as a persona non grata. These days he only needs to walk into an audition to see faces go blank before he so much as utters a word.
Nobody wants to hire the man who probably didn't kill Jessamine Kaldwin.
"Corvo, is everything alright?" Callista comes by with a refill for the lime flavouring syrup, and gives him a worried look. She does that to everyone. For all her claims to independence and oft-repeated satisfaction with the single life, she seems incapable of going an hour without fretting over someone's wellbeing. The Admiral actually hired her to stick around outside work hours and look after Emily, give her lessons and cook her dinner; funnily enough, she always seems to make "a little extra", so in reality she's feeding Corvo too. He's incredibly grateful for that. Left on his own, he'd probably not bother.
"Yes, I'm fine. It's just Lydia's heckling again, nothing serious. Have you seen Emily recently?"
She snorts with laughter, and tries to cover it with a show of checking the other flavourings; it's dangerous to look too happy when on the clock.
"Have I ever. Upstairs with Admiral Havelock, she's pinned him down so they can draw battleships together, and never mind that he's never actually been on one. He can't think up a decent reason to leave, and telling her he wanted to go and check his results in the horseracing is a bit bold, even for him."
"That poor man," Corvo says seriously, and they both duck their heads and laugh over the juice fridge.
"Oh, thank you, Corvo. I needed this." Callista glances around for customers, then kneels to check her reflection in the clear fridge door. She looks fine as far as Corvo can tell, but apparently she finds her collar too crooked or something, because she frowns and tugs at it.
"Something wrong?" They're out of tomato juice, he notices. Damn. Someone must have missed it during the morning stocktake, which means either he or Cecelia will have to run out to get more before the evening rush. There's always that one person who just has to order the Bloody Mary. Always.
"Oh, just another rejection. You know how it is, you just have to keep on trying."
"I know. Which one was it?"
Callista sighs and straightens up, brushing down her already spotless apron. "The Mimì costume. I really thought- it felt right for the character, and not like anything that's been used before."
"They turned that down? I thought it was lovely."
Callista makes costumes. Or rather, she makes the ones she can afford on her wage as a waitress and part-time nanny for Emily. Half the time she wanders the Hound Pits with glazed eyes, locked away in some quiet imaginary attic with a sewing machine. The other half she's as sharp as an owl, memorising every pleat and hem and pocket on the clothing of their fashionable guests. She wants to create. She needs to create, and she does so, but it would be better if she could win herself a contract with a theatre, or opera company. Callista dreams of silks in sea-blues and greens, but so far the closest she's come is fantasy.
"Too covering, apparently." She closes her eyes, and for a moment her shoulders slump helplessly; Corvo reaches over to clasp her arm in a show of solidarity. He knows rejection better than anyone here by now. "I just don't understand it," Callista continues without opening her eyes. "Surely there's still some passion for art left over, surely we don't need every prima donna to go up on stage in a negligee just to attract audiences. It was one of my best designs!"
"Directors are bastards who deserve to be shot," Corvo says agreeably.
"Oh, come now. Surely some of us manage to redeem the profession."
Corvo jumps what feels like half a mile; he can see Callista flinch and whack her hand on the edge of the bench as she does. Normally he'd check she was alright before anything else, but...well.
"Hello...Corvo." There's only one man it can be, and Corvo's never gotten close enough to verify it before now, but apparently the rumours are true: he really does have black eyes. Dead-looking and slightly shiny, like petroleum. Add that to the too-pale skin (doesn't he go outside? Ever?) and the creepy head-tilt he's doing, he looks set for a starring role in Dracula.
Corvo blinks and tries to get his head back together. The most famous director in Dunwall, in all the Isles, is here in the coffee shop, at the very moment he and Callista had to go and be rude about his job, and never mind that neither of them heard him approach. What matters is-
"How do you know my name?"
Behind him, he can hear Callista whisper something like, "Corvo, you idiot," and the Outsider raises his eyebrows, gesturing at the nametag on the front of his apron.
"That is your name, yes? Or do you prefer something different?"
"Uh-" This is getting very awkward very quickly. Corvo swallows and tries for some semblance of professionalism. "No, that's my name. What can I get for you, sir?"
"Corvo." The Outsider frowns at him, as if trying to decipher some kind of puzzle. "The crow. A common device in mythology, the omen of war, and death...a harbinger to all sorts of fascinating occurrences. Most unusual to see such themes presented in name format."
Corvo tries not to feel insulted at the Outsider's mildly patronising tone. He knows what his name means, it's hardly a revelation. "Yes, I'm aware of that, thanks. What can I get for you?"
He's going to want something classic. It's far too late for a cappuccino, and he'd know that, so maybe a flat white; he'll probably want something stupid like rice milk, which is hell to use. Making it froth is nearly impossible, and while Corvo's known for his patience, that doesn't mean he actually enjoys failing again and again and again...
"Make me a... large trim Delizioso Marbled Mocha, with a shot of the strawberry syrup, whipped cream, and chocolate sprinkles."
"I-what? Seriously?" He pauses part way through ringing it up on autopilot to fix the Outsider with a disbelieving stare.
"Mm...no, perhaps not. Hold the chocolate sprinkles."
"You want anything else with that today?" His mouth is running on auto, but Corvo's already decided on where he stands with the Outsider. The guy is an A-grade jackass. He orders like he's...well, like he's giving orders, and there's a bored note to his voice that says he has better things to do than wait for Corvo to get his beverage sorted. No 'please' or 'thank you', and he keeps giving Corvo these looks. Expectant. Mildly amused, like he's waiting for a puppy to do tricks.
"No, not this time."
"Right. That'll be five coin. Thank you." Corvo doesn't grind his teeth at the pleasantries, but he does make sure not to touch the Outsider's bare skin when he takes the money. The man will get his drink, but it sure as hell won't be made with love.
The Hound Pits' menu is something that keeps him up late at night. The cocktails he can do; in a perfect world, every customer would come in and order something off their nice, sensible cocktail menu. He's make it for them, they'd go drink it, then they'd leave, and maybe he'd get a decent tip out of it. But the thing about the Hound Pits is: it's not just a cocktail parlour. And at some point the Admiral (though it was probably Pendleton's idea. The worst things always are) decided to spice up their coffee menu.
They offer the usual range of beverages, for the discerning customer who doesn't feel any pressing need to ruin their barista's day. You can have your caffè latte, macchiato, mocha, or Americano; if you order with a smile, you might even get one back. That's not the problem. The problem is the Other Menu. It's the bane of Corvo's existence, and if it wasn't written on a blackboard and stuck high on the wall he'd probably have torn it down and set it on fire by now.
They have a wall of syrups dedicated entirely to the Other Menu, with its amusingly long beverage names and gratuitous abuse of foreign languages. There are about ten different sprinkles on offer, from the usual cinnamon dusting all the way up to freeze-dried raspberry crumbs, and that's not even getting started on the extra syrups you can have drizzled on top of your heart attack in a cup.
Predictably, these are the best sellers. Corvo often catches himself wondering why he bothers to get up in the mornings. This is not a world he particularly wants to live in.
"There. It's done, all yours. Enjoy your day." He shoves the Outsider's drink at him without bothering to fake a cheery grin. At some point he noticed Callista sneaking out of the main shop, probably to avoid the disaster she foresaw with her usual intelligence. His career is in ruins already, but she can't afford to have someone with this much influence out for her blood. So it's just him and the Outsider, and Corvo's day can't possibly go further downhill from here.
The Outsider takes his drink without a word of thanks, and doesn't leave. Instead he stands by the bar and fixes Corvo with a curious look.
"I appear to have upset you," he announces, just as the silence is getting painful. "Do you perhaps disapprove of my choice of beverage?"
This is...strange. Corvo's not really sure how to react, so he goes with a half-truth that'll get him in less trouble. "It's just not what I would have expected from someone like you."
"I see." The black eyes are nothing short of unnerving, and if Corvo were at all superstitious he might say that they feel like they're X-raying him and inspecting his insides for faults. It's not a pleasant sensation.
The Outsider blinks, and nods to himself. "Well then, I will be sure to make a different order on my next visit."
"Wait, you're coming back?"
"There is a sizeable menu, is there not? So many options to choose from, and the anticipation in discovering a pleasant new beverage...or perhaps not. Either way, I expect a good show. Until next time, Corvo." And just like that, he turns and leaves.
Corvo's body goes into autopilot, wiping down benches and making a note of the things they need more of before rush hour starts. Simple, repetitive motions; at some point during his time in Coldridge Prison, he taught himself to detach. Outwardly he's calm, maybe a little dreamy, and it doesn't matter what's happening on the inside so long as he can smile for the customers.
"Is he gone?" Callista pokes her head around the door to one of the back rooms, wide-eyed and paler than usual.
"For now. He said he'd be coming back."
She stares at him as if he's grown a second head. "Are you- is this a joke? The Outsider actually said he'd come back here, for our coffee."
"That's what he said."
"Oh." They both turn to look at the door, as though he might come back at any second. It's completely irrational, but Corvo's not sure what else to do. This kind of thing doesn't happen to them. To him. How is he supposed to react?
As usual, Callista is the first to recover. "I suppose I should go and let the Admiral know; he'll probably want to see the place tidied up for tomorrow or... I really have no idea."
"You do that," Corvo says, and before he knows it she's left discreetly, and Lydia is back to micromanage from her position at the till. Cecelia gets the unenviable job of going to fetch last minute supplies, and Corvo spends most of his break looking for Emily so he can admire her drawing. She's nowhere to be found; the silence feels intentional. His time is up before he knows it, and he gets back to his station just in time to have a new order thrown at him.
One Vanilla Chai Tea Lussuoso latte, no foam, whip and caramel on top.
The day goes on.