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The Hound Pits Coffee Shop and Cocktail Parlour

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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.

Chapter Text

Whatever people say about the Admiral, (and Corvo says many things, though he's careful to keep the less complimentary ones safe in the depths of his own mind), he's quicker on the uptake than a tabloid journalist on scandal, and a council of war is called before the evening is out. Of course, they can't actually shut the Hound Pits down early in the middle of one of their busiest times, so in the end the Admiral and Lord Pendleton cluster awkwardly around the bar and try to keep their voices down, and Corvo alternates between answering the same questions over and over again, and serving customers while trying to look like he's happy to be there.

 

"Tell me again, Corvo. He said he liked our menu?"

Corvo keeps his head bowed over the champagne cocktails he's fixing for a group of giggling young socialites. They've gone to sit at one of the booths, but he can hear their tipsy laughter and feel their eyes on his back. It's as bad as being scrutinised by the Admiral; both at once is just unfair.

"He said he was interested by the variety; I've told you this. I don't know when he'll be back, or if he'll actually be back at all."

 

"He is notorious for mind games, I'll give you that." The Admiral leans against the bar, glass of whiskey in hand and forehead furrowed in thought. "And I'm very disappointed to hear you insulted his choice of drink."

"I didn't-"

"An implied insult is as bad as a spoken one, Corvo, and I expected better of you. It's a crew effort to keep a ship afloat and sailing; one weak link can ruin everything."

You've never been on a ship, Corvo thinks savagely, digging out the maraschino cherries for a garnish on the drink. "He surprised me," he says instead. "I reacted badly, and I'll be better prepared next time." Hollow words, whatever the Admiral wants to hear.

 

"Wallace could have done a better job of it," Lord Pendleton says unexpectedly. He's swaying slightly, his glass of wine sloshing as he waves his hands around. It's not yet midnight; someone's started early. "I can vouch for his superior manner in dealing with more...distinguished personages. After all, he's served me faithfully for long enough that he is accustomed to dealing with the social elite." He smirks and downs the rest of his wine in a single gulp. The glass gets placed on the bar, and he shoots Corvo a significant look.

 

"Won't be a moment, I just have to take these out to the customers," Corvo says, and gets a filthy glare in return, which is pretty much on par for normal. Wallace is out, delivering flowers to some up-and-coming soprano on Pendleton's behalf, Thalia something, so Corvo is the next best thing. The bastard's drinks are on the house, too, so he'll never tip.

 

Lord Pendleton comes from an old family. They were rich, up until his two brothers inherited the estate and started a competition to see who could throw it all away fastest. Parties, hookers, costly jewellery for starlets, a thousand other petty things Corvo can't even imagine. With that kind of money he could have an apartment, a studio even, somewhere professional looking to film auditions and practice lines. He could give Emily a proper home.

 

But the thing about the Pendleton siblings is they're all money without business sense, which is how Pendleton ended up here, drinking their cheapest vintage and buying the Admiral's lies about its "foreign origin" and "oak undertones". He also bought the spiel about the Hound Pits being a profitable venture, well worth the investment, sure to result in spectacular profit; that was a few years back, and so far there's no profit to be seen, and no sign of Pendleton ever leaving. Most nights he's too drunk to find his way back to the family mansion. There's a room permanently reserved for him on the second floor, and Cecelia has the unenviable job of removing the miscellaneous empty bottles and glasses every day.

 

It's nice to have a Lord around, Havelock says. Adds a certain something to the place, a certain amount of... class, that counteracts the obscurity or, in Corvo's case, notoriety, of its employees.

 

The women are happy to see him, and happier to see their drinks; he ducks away from their flirty smiles and attempts at groping him with resigned practice and a feeble attempt at humour. Jessamine would have handled it so much better.

"Then we're agreed," the Admiral is saying as Corvo returns with his empty tray. "In the interests of not annoying him any further-"

"Someone else can serve him if he comes in?" Corvo asks wearily. "Fine. Good. I couldn't care less."

 

The discussion turns to strategy, which is neither the Admiral nor Pendleton's strong point, but Martin isn't around right now so they have to make do. Corvo tunes them out and gets to work on his next order, this time for a group of semi-sober young men. They're all wearing top hats, so they're either gang members or just stupid, and either way there's the possibility of a decent tip; Corvo plays nice when they ask for shots, and "something with fire, man!"

 

Some parts of this job he can actually live with, and he won't deny getting a thrill from setting alcoholic beverages alight. There's probably some kind of unhealthy subconscious venting going on there, but isn't venting meant to be better than bottling things up? He gets to layering Kahlúa, Baileys, and Cointreau in heat resistant shot glasses. Wallace couldn't handle something like this; Corvo's seen him try, and he's better off sticking to coffee and doing Pendleton's laundry. Pouring the second and third layer in slowly with a bar spoon seemed to escape him completely, and all they ended up with was a mess. Luckily Pendleton was too drunk to care.

 

He adds a thin final layer of rum to help with the burning, and sets the shots alight one by one, to raucous applause from everyone near enough to watch it. They burn with a small, satisfying intensity, throwing strange shadows over the faces of those leaning in to watch. There's something about fire that brings people together, Corvo thinks. It's hard to take his eyes off it.

"Nicely done, Corvo." Callista comes by to hand out metal straws to their daredevil patrons and take their payment, and Corvo is suddenly overwhelmed with requests for drinks on fire. It's a part of the evening that he actually likes, and he spends a good hour handing out flaming Lemon Drops, Backdrafts, and Pumpkin Pies, and the tips start to come in at a decent rate.

 

Callista, Cecelia and Corvo have group bartending down to an art, and the evenings they're all rostered on are some of the more tolerable ones. Lydia is in charge of putting Emily to bed, and the three of them get a production line going, with Callista taking money, and Corvo and Cecelia on drinks. The air soon smells like alcohol and burnt cinnamon, the customers start to blur together, and they move around behind the bar like they can read each other's minds.

 

At some point in the night there's a short lull, and Corvo leans on the bar for a rest, swiping at it half-heartedly with a cloth in case the Admiral comes by. His back aches, and there are two hours to go until closing. Damn.

Someone's standing behind him.

"You actually met him?" Cecelia whispers, and Corvo jumps a little. Nobody ever hears her coming, and it's caused accidents on more than one occasion. Not intentionally; as far as he knows, there's not a harmful bone in Cecelia's body. She's just allergic to loud noises. Or any noises, for that matter.

"Sadly, yes," he replies out of the corner of his mouth, so as not to be seen 'chatting' while on duty.

"You didn't like him? What was he like?"

Corvo snorts. "He was nice until he opened his mouth. Then he was just like all the rest of them, only with a slightly better suit."

"Oh." She has this habit of wringing her hands absently when she's talking to someone, as if she can't justify the time spent not working. At least, Corvo hopes it's a habit, and not because she's genuinely afraid of him. He's been around long enough that she should know he's incapable of hurting anyone.

 

Even if he knew who Jessamine's killer was, he'd be unable to avenge her. That's a source of shame that'll follow him around for the rest of his life; one day Emily will want to know who, and why, and he will have nothing for her but his own weakness.

 

"Corvo, go to bed." Cecelia gently takes the cloth from his unresisting fingers; he's been staring down at it for the last...who knows, but apparently it was long enough to worry her.

"Sorry, I-"

"Go to bed," she repeats, moving behind him to start unfastening his apron. "Pendleton's passed out already, and the Admiral left a while ago to find out where Martin's got to recently. And I checked on Wallace and Lydia during my break, they're asleep."

"Cecelia, I can't, I need the money from this shift." The Admiral's kindness doesn't extend to rent-free accommodation, and everyone living in the building pitches in for power, gas, internet, the communal food fund, plus a little extra for Emily's meals... and he needs new clothes. What he has isn't going to work for auditions; with the amount of weight he's lost recently, nothing fits anymore.

"Go," Cecelia says, the closest he's ever heard her come to forceful. "We'll pretend you were here all along, nobody needs to find out otherwise. And I know that look. You need to sleep before you collapse."

 

He leaves in the end, with nothing more than an approving smile from Callista. It’s much too late to go and check on Emily, but Corvo lingers outside her closed door anyway. Around him, the Hound Pits creaks and groans, old wood settling in for the night, and the distant racket  from the downstairs bar still audible despite the distance.

 

She's quiet. Is she alright? As much as it would tear at him, he almost wishes to hear her crying softly through the solid door. It would be a reason to approach, a reason to offer comfort; he worries constantly that they're drifting apart. She spends so much time with the Admiral. How can he possibly explain that the man isn't to be trusted when he has nothing but gut instinct to go on? They were so much closer when Jessamine was around. In those days it was Corvo who babysat and helped with homework. Once upon a time she'd sit at the bar and he'd make her hot chocolate, just so Jessamine could have some time alone in her apartment to rehearse. He isn't Emily's father, but he'd tried to fill the role of Dad when she needed him to. It had all felt so natural.

 

Now he sees her maybe twice a day, and all he can offer her is disappointment. His own failure is eating him alive.

 

Corvo's room is located on the highest floor of the Hound Pits. "Room" is a charitable term for what should honestly be referred to as an attic; the peeling paint, rotting wood, and scattered debris of all shapes and sizes mean it resembles nothing so much as an abandoned construction site. In his darker moments, Corvo lies back on the lumpy mattress and imagines that he lives in the middle of a rubbish dump. He’s surrounded by useless junk; it's no wonder he fits right in.

 

Self-pity again. That won't get him anywhere. As he gets ready for bed, Corvo tries to focus on the positives. Work is one, however much he hates it. He has a job, and he also has a slowly growing savings account. Sometimes it feels like watching a snail move, but he still checks it every week and makes sure to never touch so much as a coin of it. That's the way out, for him and Emily, and maybe Callista too, if she's done with the Hound Pits and wants to try her luck in a new place. Wherever it happens to be doesn't matter, but he needs to get Emily away from here with her fortune intact, because he won't let anybody own her. She has a future that he lacks; he'll make damn sure she gets to make the most of it. Away from the Hound Pits, into a new, clean apartment, and back to school. Dunwall's bureaucracy is notoriously awful, but if it comes down to needing to swear he's Emily's father, he'll do it. There's nothing he won't do for her safety.

 

Corvo is asleep before he knows it. He has to be, because when he opens his eyes, the room is very different.

 

Blue light shines through new cracks in the ceiling; he stares bemusedly up at it from the bed.

How did I never notice that before, he thinks. You'd think when it rained I’d... But it seems the cracks have spread to the walls, large, jagged gashes through the ragged paintwork, and more blue light emerging from the gaps. He sits up, and finds the attic is suddenly a lot smaller than it used to be. Where an empty doorway usually leads to an unused storage room is now only a blank brick wall.

Huh. Guess the Admiral will have to start charging me less rent. I can work with this.

 

Corvo stands and moves towards the door, because his room has shrunk for no apparent reason, and if he tells Havelock immediately he might be just in time to negotiate before this week's rent is due. He forms a solid plan in the space between his bed and the exit, something to do with being firm but fair, and refusing to back down from his demand, and then the door is opening without his touching it.

 

What the-

 

The Hound Pits has disappeared. In its place is...blue, in every direction Corvo looks, unending and unchanging. There are odd bits of debris floating through it; unattached chandeliers, plush theatre seats, random pillars and archways that look to be stage props instead of the actual thing. Lampposts stand in mid air, and ropes of lanterns hang upside down, drifting above the hooks holding them in place. They sway slightly, though there's no breeze that he can feel. Corvo isn't really sure what to make of it all, but an ornate spiral staircase materialises in front of him without warning-

 

Materialises? No, no, it was always in front of him. He simply didn't see it. Trailing a hand over the banister, Corvo climbs it, slowly at first, then increasing his pace. By the end he's almost running, around and around and around, though what he'll find he isn't sure, only that it'll be important and that if he doesn't get there in time he might miss it. Step by step, black metal etched with roses flashes past under his feet.

 

He reaches the top without warning and finds it empty, until it's not.

"Hello, Corvo," the Outsider says quietly. "Your life has taken a turn, has it not? The Empress is dead, her precious daughter Emily is becoming lost to you, though you know not how, and you will play a pivotal role in the play to be written. For this, I have chosen you."

 

If he's too pale in the real world, he's even worse here. The bluish tone around the edges of his skin gives him a drowned look, and dead dark shadows under his eyes are either the result of an overly enthusiastic makeup artist, or he really needs to consider replacing his caffeine intake with actual sleep.

"Where am I? What is this place?" Corvo gestures to the rubble, the odd debris that floats lazily past. He glimpses a grand piano, sparkling with polish, and then a music stand. Bouquets of roses, a crumpled tapestry; all things he's seen before in Dunwall's various theatres and opera houses.

 

The Outsider seems happy to just float about a foot off the ground and stare at him wordlessly, so Corvo wanders to the edge of the platform they're standing on and looks down. It's...strange. He expected some kind of implausible drop, and the inevitable vertigo associated with leaning off the edge of somewhere very high up, but apparently nothing works as expected here. The blue (air? Water? But how can he breathe?) expands in all directions, and for all he knows he could be staring up instead of down.

 

Corvo turns back to find the Outsider exactly where he'd left him, arms folded and head tilted oddly, as if he can't quite work something out.

"What are you doing in my dreams?" Corvo asks him. "I've met you once, I really didn't like you, and if the Admiral has anything to say about it I'll never be in the same room as you ever again. I approve of that, by the way. So you have no place invading my dreams like they belong to you."

"You think so?" The Outside blinks slowly, his eyes never leaving Corvo."If this is truly your dream, then it stands to reason that you invited me in. How else could I appear, and in such an odd manner?" He gestures at himself, at the way his feet don't touch the ground and the air seems to warp around his shoulders.

"I didn't invite you," Corvo says, and the Outsider smiles unpleasantly.

"Yet here I am, and you have made me so much more than mortal... Tell me, Corvo, why am I like this? Do you fear me?"

 

He starts to drift closer, and Corvo backs towards the edge with an instinctive apprehension that he can't quite explain. Something in his bones says that he should leave, that this is not a safe place, and may not even be his dream. He's performed in enough Shakespeare to know that tampering with the supernatural is a Very Bad Idea.

"I'm not afraid of you," he says firmly, though his heel has reached the edge of the platform and behind him lies only endless blue. "You can't ruin me. Someone else got there first."

"No?" The Outsider stops moving a few feet away. He unfolds his arms and opens them wide, as though offering an embrace. There’s no warmth in those dead black eyes. "Perhaps you'd like to worship me instead."

 

"No," Corvo snaps, and makes the mistake of stepping back. He's out of ground, out of footing, and he snatches desperately at the edge of the platform as it passes, but the wood seems to slide through his fingers like smoke, like water, like-

 

sheets. He sits up to find them tangled around his hands where he gripped them in his sleep, and the thin duvet tossed onto the floor some way away. A quick look around confirms that the roof has mended itself, the only light coming in through the dusty curtains is a normal, sunny colour, and the brick wall is once again a doorway. Looks like he won't be getting that decrease in rent after all.

 

Time to get up.

Chapter Text

The kitchen is quiet when he stumbles into it; they don't open until late afternoon, and given the night shifts people pull it's not unusual for the Hound Pits to be dead around lunch time. Corvo is often one of the first people up, but he's never yet made it down before Cecelia.

"Afternoon, Corvo." She leans out from the open pantry to smile at him. Various crates and boxes lie scattered around her as she takes a sponge to some of the grimier shelves.

"Don't you ever sleep?" They have three fridges dedicated entirely to people food, as opposed to shop food, and every single one of them is an unbelievable mess. Even Cecelia gave up trying to clean them after a while because however much order she managed to restore, Pendleton could undo the lot after a single night's binge drinking.

 

Corvo digs out several eggs, steals somebody's bacon, and sets about making something vaguely edible.

"You want any?" He calls over to Cecelia; her response comes back slightly muffled by the pantry doors.

"No thanks, I'm fine."

"You know, I've never seen you eat," he remarks. Bacon in the cleanest frying pan, along with a couple of tomatoes to keep Callista from scolding. "You don't seem to sleep either; something you're not telling me?"

"I might be a robot. Maybe." She comes past with a bucket of filthy water, so the pantry is either clean, or she's surrendered. "It's not a dealbreaker, right?"

 

Like Lydia, Cecelia is never to be caught rehearsing lines or scrambling to fix up seams during her dinner break. The stage is no place for her, given how afraid she is of crowds and public speaking. Logically she shouldn't be working in a crowded bar either, but Corvo has asked several times and she always says it's different. Something about it being dark, and the way the patrons only really see her as the bridge between them and their next drink, means that Cecelia considers herself relatively safe. She also sides with Corvo on the subject of Emily's inappropriate living situation. Quietly, of course, because she does everything quietly, but the support is there, and he's grateful for it.

 

His shift starts unfairly soon, and it's clear from the get-go that this won't be just an average day. The Admiral charges past as Corvo and Cecelia are laying out the chairs, mumbling a vague greeting at them through the bagel in his mouth.

"Something wrong?" Corvo shouts after his retreating back, and gets no response, as expected.

"I think it's Martin." He turns to find Cecelia staring at the door, absently biting her lip. "The Admiral didn't make it back till after closing time, and he looked kind of worried. Not sure what's going on but I guess he'll tell us when we need to know."

"He'd better." They work in unison, unstacking chairs and collecting the odd glasses that were missed in the previous night's cleanup. Sometimes people drop money on the floor, the odd coin scattered here and there under tables and booths, but not today.

 

Floors are vacuumed, benches wiped, the morning delivery of milk and cream gets checked and ticked off. Stocktake; they need more oranges, more grenadine, the cinnamon is running low, and Samuel will come by just after opening to retrieve the day's grocery list as he always does. It should be just another day at the Hound Pits, but something is off and it's not just Corvo being paranoid. Cecelia jumps at every single sound, and Lydia and Wallace start up a shouting match in the corridor to the back staircase (Wallace messed the numbers up again, but he refuses to admit that basic math is not his forte; he's paid extra to do the accounting, and Lydia gets nothing for the time she spends fixing up his mistakes). The Admiral doesn't come back, and there's no sign of Callista and Emily. They're presumably having lessons upstairs, where it's quieter.

 

The Hound Pits opens on time, but they're behind schedule as usual. Corvo starts his shift off in the kitchens, scrambling to get batches of muffins baked in time for the afternoon rush. He has flour on his apron, up his arms, in his hair, when Wallace rushes in looking more miserable than usual.

"I did my utmost to convince him otherwise, but I'm afraid sir is being very insistent," he announces with a frown in Corvo's direction. "He wants you, though for the life of me I can't tell why."

 

Corvo gives him a blank look, and goes to wash flour off his hands. This doesn't feel like it'll end well.

"I have no idea what you're talking about, none of our regulars mind who serves them. Some prefer Callista and Cecelia, obviously, but nobody's ever complained."

Wallace closes his eyes and heaves a sigh, as if he can't believe Corvo could be so slow on the uptake.

"Sir has requested you specifically, Corvo, and he should not be kept waiting."

 

Oh no. It's him, it has to be. Corvo was counting on using his break to get the excess flour out of his hair before serving customers, so of course the Outsider would decide to show up now.

"I can't go out like this!" As protests go it's futile; Wallace grabs his arm and drags him out of the kitchen with inordinate force.

"Sir is waiting."

"That's his own damn fault."

 

Sir is indeed waiting. Corvo is pushed out into the main shop by an irate Wallace, and finds himself face to face with the Outsider. He's leaning on the counter with the smallest, smuggest smirk Corvo has ever seen.

"Good afternoon, Corvo," he says almost cheerfully, tapping his fingers on the bar as if to imply that he's been here a while and has waited patiently just for this one chance to ruin Corvo's day.

"It was a great afternoon until you came along. What do you want?"

The Outsider just raises his eyebrows. "Why do you have flour in your hair?"

"Because I was busy. What do you want."

"What if all I desire is a smile from you?"

 

Corvo turns away for a moment to dig around in a container, and comes back with a bar spoon. He holds it up in front of the Outsider's nose. "If you had me dragged out here to smile, I will forcibly remove your eyes with this spoon. So for your sake, I hope you want coffee." He can feel the daggers Wallace is glaring into his back, but the Outsider seems the exact opposite of offended. If anything, he looks happier than ever.

"I will have a large Caffè Vanilla Frappuccino with soy milk, whipped cream, and chocolate flake sprinkles to go."

"Really."

"Yes, I think so."

"Wallace couldn't have made that for you?"

"He lacks your...exuberance."

 

Corvo surrenders. The spoon gets put down, and he starts making the order without a word of complaint. If he keeps his mouth shut, he can't be baited, and he might be able to get this done with minimal annoyance and unnecessary violence. The Outsider leans on the counter and watches his every move with something approaching frustration as he realises Corvo isn't going to mouth off again.

"Are you sure you wouldn't like to lecture me on my poor choice of beverage?" A note of genuine disappointment threads its way through the question, and doesn't make Corvo any less inclined to punch him.

"Nope. Leave me alone." Soy milk. He didn't want that yesterday, so it's clearly not a dietary requirement. The bastard's just trying to be difficult.

"Your complaint is illogical, Corvo. I have only been here twice, you can hardly find my presence that irksome."

He actually has the nerve to look hurt, and Corvo speaks before he can stop himself.

"You were in my dreams last night."

 

"I was?" And yes, that's definitely glee lighting up his creepy black eyes; it doesn't make them any less creepy, but at least now Corvo knows for sure that he can do expressions other than 'bored' and 'ambivalent'.

"Yes, you were. It was incredibly invasive."

"Tell me." The Outsider pulls up a bar stool (and he won't, not in his nice suit, surely not) and then perches on it, materialising a notebook and pen from some mysterious inside pocket. He gives Corvo an expectant look.

It occurs to Corvo that what he said might have been misconstrued a little. "Oh, fu- um, I didn't mean it that way. It definitely wasn't like that." He can feel his ears turning scarlet, which does nothing to help his mood. The Outsider just shrugs.

"Then how was it?"

 

Over his shoulder, Corvo catches a glimpse of Lydia clearing up a table on the other side of the room. She throws him an absolutely filthy look for standing around chattering with a customer (and with his back turned she can't see the Outsider's infamous black eyes; he must look like any other writer, or accountant, or conductor) and oddly enough that's what spurs him on.

"I opened my eyes, and it was the Hound Pits, only there were cracks in the ceiling..." Corvo finishes making the Outsider's drink, hands it over without a fuss, and then spends the next fifteen minutes leaning against the bar answering questions and trying to dredge up the most minute of details from his memory. What colour were the lanterns? The roses engraved into the steps, did they have thorns? What of the instruments, did they appear intact? Fully functional? And the strange blue world-

"The Void," the Outsider murmurs, his eyes fixed on the notebook in front of him.

"Yes," Corvo says. "That's... actually a really good name for it. The Void."

 

He feels drained when the questions stop, but it's not the usual post-shift exhaustion with its accompanying aching muscles and head. The emptiness is not torturous. This is more like the way he used to be after a successful rehearsal, or a performance; accomplished, and even somewhat at peace. A good feeling. One he'd almost forgotten.

"A moment," the Outsider says to Corvo as he straightens and makes to leave. "I am sure you are aware of who I am-"

"The man who comes in to drive me half mad and ask me strange questions, yes, I know."

The Outsider gives him an oddly intense look, reaches into a pocket of his coat, and pulls out a business card. He gives it to Corvo.

"I am the Outsider, and this is my mark". His lips twitch. "My gift to you, in apology for the trouble I have caused."

 

There's an odd mark embossed on the stiff card; swirls and spiky bits, without any accompanying words. Corvo frowns down at it, trying to work out what it stands for. Initials? Or just a nice logo? Whatever it means, the shape is oddly hypnotic.

"Thank you, but what does it-" he looks up, and the Outsider is gone. Not vanished or anything, because his empty drink container is right where he left it (despite the various bins scattered around for everyone's convenience), but he apparently didn't feel it necessary to say goodbye. Honestly, Corvo would have expected nothing else from him. The man's come in exactly twice, but he has a gut feeling it won't stop at two; the Outsider is going to become a regular of theirs, and there's nothing he can do about it.

 

"What's that you got there, Corvo?"

Kindly blue eyes and a weathered smile; Corvo looks over to see Samuel approaching the bar and responds with a smile of his own. It's not something he can do for many people any more, but this is a daily ritual they've formed.

 

Stressing in Samuel's presence is impossible; even Cecelia calms down a bit when he visits. Samuel is one of those rare people who don't suit anger, to the point where Corvo can't imagine him losing his temper. Nothing seems to worry him in the slightest.

"I'm not sure, you take a look. Can I get you anything to drink?" He knows without needing to ask, because it's always the same thing. But the asking itself is part of their ritual.

"Just tea if you have it. I'm too old for anything complicated." Samuel gives the time honoured response, and Corvo sets about brewing him tea in a pot (leaves, not teabags. Samuel is wonderfully old-fashioned), and setting out a cup, saucer, strainer, and a little jug of milk on the side. No sugar, but there are always a few spare pieces of fresh shortbread from the kitchens.

"No need to go to all that trouble, Corvo." Samuel raises his eyebrows. "You trying out a new hairstyle?"

"What- oh, the flour? No, I was in the kitchens earlier."

"I see." Samuel lays the Outsider's card aside gingerly and pours himself a cup of tea. "It's so hard to keep up with the fashions these days that for all I know it could have been some new-fangled actor's thing. Seems just about normal for you people."

 

"Oh, ha ha." They make small talk for several minutes, while Corvo takes the few orders that come in, and tries to ignore the way the customers giggle at his appearance. Samuel doesn't believe in hurrying; if something's really important, it's worth taking the time to think and make sure you understand it properly before doing anything rash.

 

Corvo isn't sure what Samuel did before coming to the Hound Pits. He doesn't work there permanently; most of the time he drives an old, battered taxi around the theatre district, picking up tourists and theatregoers and ferrying them to their various destinations. As far as Corvo can tell, he actually enjoys his job; something about being able to hear everyone's stories, and the way each day is different to the last. Samuel loves a good story, as much as he loves retelling his favourites in the quiet moments at the Hound Pits.

 

Eventually the conversation returns to the most pressing matter at hand. Samuel spends a good minute eyeing the strange mark, before admitting he can't make heads or tails of it.

"I'm sorry, Corvo, I just don't recognise this symbol. Never seen anything like it."

"Thanks. Any idea what I should do with this?"

Samuel gives the card back carefully. "Frame it," he advises. "Your attic's a little on the dingy side, if you don't mind my say so; this could pretty it up nicely."

"Funny." They both stare at the card in Corvo's hands. He tilts it this way and that, and the strange mark changes colours under the lights.

"You know, the Admiral'd probably like to see that," Samuel says. Corvo looks up at him sharply and finds...nothing. No judgement, no warning. He's noncommittal, with a side of friendly old man who means no harm. It's hard to know which one is the lie, or if there's any lie here at all.

"Are you going to tell him?" Corvo asks.

 

Samuel just shrugs, and goes back to staring into his tea. "Not my place to do so. That thing's yours, Corvo, fair and square. The way I see it, if that strange young man had wanted our Admiral to have one, he'd have made sure to give it to him. He didn't, so it's yours."

"Right." Corvo takes a deep breath, then lets it out slowly. "I'm keeping it."

"That's your right."

The card gets tucked away in the breast pocket of his shirt, safe under his apron. Whatever mystery it stands for, he'll just have to wait until the shift is over to decipher it.

 

An odd sound emerges from one of Samuel's pockets; he gives a resigned sigh and digs out his cellphone. An old model, as these things go, with buttons in place of a touch screen.

"HELLO," it announces. "My name is SAMUEL."

"Much as I've tried, I just can't seem to make it change that noise." Samuel shakes it slightly. "Does it whenever I get a message from someone."

Corvo gives him an odd look. "But you must have recorded that in the first place."

He gets an agreeable nod in response. "So I did; had the Admiral's help with that one, and I thought he was just testing to see if it'd record. No idea what witchcraft he had to perform, but it's not something someone like me has business fussing with."

 

There's something almost tragic about the resignation in Samuel's voice; he can't believe something as small as a phone can defeat him without even trying.

"I could fix it for you," Corvo offers, mostly out of pity. "It can't be too tricky."

"That's kind, Corvo, and I thank you for the offer, but I think I'll stick with this. I've had it long enough that it'd be like changing someone's voice. Unnatural-like. And at least however old I get, I won't forget my own name."

 

If the world ends tomorrow, Corvo thinks, Samuel would be the last one standing, the only one not screaming, and the one who’d looks around and say, "Well, we had a good run of it," in the seconds before the fires consume him. If the Admiral is a whirlpool, spinning them all into shapes that please him, then Samuel is the anchor that keeps them all from drifting, or the life raft holding them afloat. He comes by several times a day, takes a shopping list of necessities and the Admiral's credit card, and comes back to restock and gossip. Some days he'll take a break from all his tourist-ferrying and spend the evening at the bar with a glass of whiskey and a seemingly endless well of anecdotes; the Admiral will join in, and they'll spend pleasant hours trying to one-up each other for the amusement of their audience.

 

"Look sharp, Corvo," Samuel says. "You've got company."

He does, too. Standing at the counter is a man with the wildest beard Corvo has ever seen. If it weren't for the obvious quality of his clothing and the arrogance in the way he holds himself, he might easily have been homeless. As it is, he resembles a large, grumpy bear.

"Uh- hello. Can I help you?" Corvo asks, and receives a dismissive look in return.

"I was expecting a better quality of service, given the esteemed patronage this...place enjoys." The bear-man stares around him, at the rows of coloured flavourings, the scuffed wooden floor, the flickering lightbulb over one of the tables that nobody's had time to replace.

"Were you?" Corvo does his best to sound pleasant; he has a feeling this man won't let him get away with the kind of behaviour the Outsider allows.

 

"I was." Bear-man raises his impressive eyebrows. "Young man, I am Anton Sokolov, writer extraordinaire, renowned critic, and interested in verifying certain, shall we say, rumours, regarding your clientele."

It takes a moment to decipher that, partly because Corvo keeps getting distracted by the sheer amount of beard on display. "Oh, you mean the Outsider? He's only been in twice, how did you-"

"A man of my standing has his sources." Bear-man Sokolov gives the shop one last dismissive look. "But alas, it seems he is absent."

 

It's going to be a contest, Corvo can feel it. Does the Outsider annoy him enough that he'll tattle on the guy to an obsessed fanbear, or is Sokolov's arrogance just that bit more offensive? In the end, he decides his least favourite will be whichever one of them is currently annoying him.

"Yes, I'm sorry," Corvo lies. "You just missed him, and I don't think he'll be back today." Please, he thinks, let this bastard just up and leave without ordering, and then never come back. Though if he does order it probably won't be something from the Other Menu; Sokolov doesn't actually seem like a coffee guy. Expensive brandy or fine vintages, maybe champagne when he has company, but not coffee.

 

As usual, Corvo doesn't get what he wants.

"But you cannot accurately predict the schedule of a genius; in such an area, I find myself eminently more qualified. He may well return, and my patience is quite legendary. Yes," Sokolov nods to himself. "I will sample a beverage from this establishment, and endeavour to polish the last act of my newest play. Arc Pylon, I'm thinking of calling it, quite an extraordinary work if I do say so myself..."

"What. Can. I. Get. You," Corvo says through gritted teeth.

 

"Hm? Oh, I will have one of these... mocha things."

"Great. Good." A mocha is fine, Corvo can make one of those. "What kind of chocolate would you like in it?"

Sokolov looks at him as if he's insane. "Chocolate? Are you deaf, by any chance? I have no interest in chocolate, I asked for a mocha."

 

In the end, Corvo takes his money and makes him his drink without another word. It's no longer a contest; if the Outsider comes in tomorrow, Corvo will warn him to run for his life, because nobody deserves to be stalked by someone like Sokolov.

 

The day was shaping up badly, but it's only the calm before the storm. Just before the first rush is due to start, Admiral Havelock comes charging through the entrance like a rhinoceros. He looks angrier than Corvo's ever seen him.

"What happened-" Corvo starts to ask, and is silenced by something resembling a growl coming from the Admiral's throat.

"That fool Martin," Havelock snaps as he storms past. "He's gone and got himself arrested. They're holding him in Coldridge Prison as we speak."

 

After that bombshell, everything else seems trivial.

Chapter Text

If the theatre district is the gem of the Isles, then Dunwall's legal system is a fake pearl necklace, bought in ignorance and then kept out of stubborn pride. To the inexperienced eye it seems fair enough, and certainly no worse than the Serkonan merchant councils (and it functions, unlike Morley's system, which nobody really understands, but plenty will riot over all the same). A closer look, however, will reveal all manner of flaws and inconsistencies; any citizen with sense knows that their system is corrupt. Money and power are the strings that pull their puppet Watch guards, and the courts all dance to the tune of individual wealthy benefactors. It's all lights and sparkles for the tourists, and nobody mentions that all the other Isles abolished the death penalty decades ago.

 

Corvo is well aware of just how lucky he is to have been released from Coldridge Prison.

 

It looms over the city, a giant concrete block with no apparent redeeming features; the only good thing to be said about it is that you can't see it from the pleasure district. Which doesn't mean Corvo can't sense it, in the slow times on shift after midnight, when his back aches and his feet hurt, and it's been a long time since he last ate. Those are the moments in which he'll catch himself staring off through the south wall.

 

His cell had filthy walls, stained plaster cracked with age and the weight of their inmates' loathing. It'll be a long time before Corvo forgets those details. Longer still, because he's about to relive them.

 

"Tell me again why my company is necessary for this?" he asks the Admiral's back. Havelock doesn't break stride, gives no discernible reaction to Corvo's question, and in the end it's Pendleton who replies.

"Captain Curnow is known for his dislike of the Abbey and its associates; he's also unfortunately morally sound, or whatever passes for it in this hellhole. He won't accept a bribe to release Martin, but he may be a little more inclined to listen if you're there to plead his case. He likes you. And are you sure we haven't time for a spot of fortification? I had Wallace place some of our best brandy in a flask-"

"We do not." The Admiral's shoulders seem very broad, even in the shadow of Coldridge's square concrete. His step does not falter as they approach the entrance, though perhaps he has less to fear than others present. "And as I explained to you before, Corvo, the good Captain's word may be what sets Martin free. These are dangerous people we're playing against."

"He's Callista's uncle, not mine," Corvo argues, and is ignored once again.

 

He understands the Admiral's reasoning, in the part of his mind that isn't shrinking back from stone arches and the glares of prison guards. He understands.

 

For all the time and money (all he had, and he's still paying for it) Corvo poured into trying to secure his own release, it was Curnow's involvement that got him set free. Free from Coldridge, the courts and the lawyers, but not free from the silent accusation in the eyes of so many, every time he leaves the pub. Still, the man did his best, and Corvo is incredibly grateful for his dogged insistence on dragging the truth out of the grave where someone else tried to bury it.

 

The man is also Callista's only living relative. They're understandably close, and Callista grabbed him as he was being hustled from the bar earlier, straightened his collar and asked him to say hello to her uncle for her. Probably an effort to make this whole adventure feel a little more normal, a little more safe, and in such a way that he wouldn't take offense to her concern. Sadly, it does nothing to change Corvo's awareness that he is back in Coldridge, and there are still trace amounts of flour in his hair.

 

He can't remember the last time he had a good day.

 

Martin is easy enough to find, when it's the Admiral doing the hunting. The man has no tact whatsoever, and probably wouldn't recognise it if it tore down the Other Menu and broke it in two over his head. He's blunt about the things he wants, but he's blunt with bribes, and that goes a long way towards making up the deficit. Corvo just trails along behind him and tries not to look around too much (but he counts the steps to the exit, and the more there are the more his stomach roils), and Pendleton keeps taking surreptitious sips from his flask, though his subtlety decreases each time he does. Altogether, they make a fine rescue party.

 

"About time," Martin says when he sees them. He's sitting in an interview room, his zip-tied hands resting on the table in front of him, and the dark shadows under his eyes do nothing to detract from the arrogance in his smirk. "The decor was starting to depress me. Also, be so kind as to tell the guard Jasper that I think he's a rude twat."

"That would be counterproductive," the Admiral tells him over Pendleton's background giggle. "I need you out of here in one piece, and a little cooperation would be greatly appreciated. Where is Curnow?"

"Right here. Afternoon, Havelock, Pendleton. Corvo, what in the nine hells are you doing back here?" Captain Curnow comes in alone, shuts the door behind him and sits at the desk opposite Martin.

 

Geoff Curnow embodies the role of Good Cop, right down to his stubborn belief in fighting for the wrongfully accused underdog. How he hasn't been assassinated yet is anyone's guess, because he annoyed a whole lot of important people by getting Corvo released.

 

Detective Curnow listened when nobody else would, long after the trials and interviews that should have seen Corvo released only got him further into trouble. He remembers the way numb defeat became such a constant companion that when a detective came to visit him in his cell, he barely blinked an eye. Just another curious spectator, come to ask the same questions and draw the same conclusions. They'd told him he was guilty so many times that it had started to seep into his skin, like some kind of incurable disease. Perhaps he was guilty after all. He hadn't stabbed Jessamine, but he hadn't saved her either. Was it all the same thing, in the end?

 

Curnow disagreed. He listened, took notes, asked new questions, raised new objections. And then he left to investigate, and did it so thoroughly that no amount of bribe money could silence the cold, hard facts. Corvo was released, and Curnow received a promotion that felt more grudging than grateful.

 

If that bothers him at all, he's yet to mention it. Callista says her uncle is very pleased with his new position. Apparently he asks after Corvo's health a lot; that kind of thing seems to run in the family.

 

"I have no idea what I'm doing here, but it would be nice if I could leave as soon as possible," Corvo tells him, ignoring the glare Havelock sends his way. This is insane, they shouldn't be here; Curnow is not a stupid man, and if he arrests the lot of them for wasting his time, it'll be no less than they deserve.

Curnow opens the folder he brought with him and glances at it. "There was no need to bring backup, Havelock. You're wasting your time." He raises his eyebrows at Corvo's thin form (scrawny, the word is scrawny, but kindness runs in the Curnow family, so he'll never use it), at the way Pendleton is pulling increasingly ghastly faces in front of the one way mirror, and his expression says it all. Some 'backup' they are.

 

Havelock folds his arms. "And why would that be? I can't seem to find anyone who can tell me exactly what Martin has been arrested for-"

"Because he hasn't been arrested," Curnow interrupts. "We've held him in lockup for the permitted 24 hours, and now that time is up. Had you simply waited he would no doubt have come to see you himself."

"...Oh." The Admiral stands there, speechless, while Martin smirks and Curnow leans over to cut his ties.

"That's interesting to hear." Martin rubs at his wrists where the ties have chafed. "I was under the impression that I might never see the light of day again. Nice to see Dunwall's famous justice system in action."

 

Curnow frowns down at something written in the folder, and for a moment it seems he isn't going to answer. When he does, his tone is cautious. "There were certain...complications, I will call them, certain interested parties that were mistakenly convinced- but all that is irrelevant now, and I have shown them the error in their assumptions. Teague Martin, you are free to go."

"That's kind of you, Captain. I only hope it doesn't come back to bite you."

 

Corvo has to agree, though he keeps his expression as neutral as possible. Curnow is new to his position, and already he's annoying people he'd be better off obeying. It can only be a matter of time before he's found dead in a ditch somewhere; no doubt the Watch will call it suicide, or an accident resulting from intoxication. Something shameful, to kill the reputation as well as the man.

 

"Come by to the Hound Pits sometime," Corvo finds himself saying. "Callista would be pleased to see you, and I'm sure we owe you a few drinks for the help you've given us." He can see the Admiral nodding slowly out of the corner of his eye. Havelock always knows which people are best kept close, and if Curnow somehow manages to avoid being forcibly ousted from his place, he could be a useful friend to have. And maybe Corvo can find a subtle way of warning him to watch his back.

 

"Are we finished then?" Pendleton drags himself away from the mirror to take another sip from his flask. "I asked Wallace to dig out something appropriate for celebrating Martin's return, and he assured me he had just the thing...Shall we?" He wanders out, and they trail after him, though the look on Curnow's face suggests he's fighting down a lecture on inebriation in the middle of a prison. Thankfully, he chooses to stay quiet.

 

"Give my love to your wife, Jasper" Martin says cheerfully to the guard standing outside as they pass him. "I'll be seeing her soon enough." The man's hand twitches towards the gun at his waist, but a look from Curnow seems to quell any further retribution.

 

Samuel is waiting where they left him, reading the newspaper in his battered old taxi, blissfully uncaring of the fact that he's illegally parked outside the largest prison in the Isles.

"Well, hello there," he says to Martin as they all pack into the vehicle. "Good to see they let you go."

"Good indeed." Martin rubs his wrists again, an absent-minded gesture he can't seem to stop. "It was a close thing; I'm afraid we've annoyed some serious people, and this won't be the last we hear from them." He meets Havelock's eyes in the rear-view mirror. "But perhaps that's a story for later."

 

And Corvo knows he should ask. He should press until either Havelock gives in out of irritation, or Pendleton lets it slip without realising (there's no way Martin would fall for that kind of thing, not after a mere day in lockup). But he's sandwiched in the middle of the back seat, and behind them Coldridge Prison is becoming more distant by the second, and he just doesn't care. He wants to stumble up to his attic bedroom, close his eyes and never wake up, except then Havelock will ruin Emily's life, and Corvo will have failed to save yet another member of the Kaldwin family. So he stays awake and smiles at Samuel's good-natured jailbreak jokes, and tells himself that he's enthusiastic to get back on shift.

 

If the Outsider comes back in before tomorrow, Corvo silently vows to create the most violently coloured milkshake in the history of Dunwall, and throw it all over the man's nice suit.

 

It's late evening when they return to chaos.

 

The shouting is audible even before Havelock marches through the main doors with a face like thunder, and it's not nearly as dramatic as he would have liked, because he has to duck around fleeing customers. Luckily, most of them are staggering and laughing as they do so, which may reduce the chance of complaints in the morning. Not so lucky is the shattered glass spread halfway across their scuffed wooden floors, unidentified liquid slowly dripping off the edge of the bar, and Lydia screaming at Wallace to put the damn fire out, right now, before the Admiral comes back and sees.

 

They've managed to set light to what appears to be the bar's entire stock of teatowels; on the opposite side of the room a horrified Callista is trying to drag Emily away from the mess. Predictably, Emily herself is delighted with the scene. There's no sign of Cecelia, but Corvo's always thought the was the wisest of them all, so perhaps she's packed her bags and run off to start a new life in Serkonos.

 

Broken bottles, their contents leaking through gaps in the floor down to the basement (they're going to have rats, on top of everything), and it looks like someone took their entire collection of champagne flutes and threw them at the wall by the door. Glass crunches under Corvo's shoes as he enters in Havelock's wake. Behind him, he can hear Martin's mutter of, "may all the spirits have mercy on us," and Pendleton doubles over in the doorway and dissolves into giggles.

 

The Admiral gives a strangled howl, and their few remaining customers take one look at his reddening face and run for their lives. Hatters, Corvo notices, and quite possibly the same ones he served the previous evening. He has an inkling they might have come back for a repeat performance of flaming drinks (and Wallace, ever blind to his own shortcomings, will have insisted on attempting them), which means this mess may be partly his fault. Wonderful.

 

Havelock achieves the implausible task of putting the fire out through sheer shouting. He shouts Lydia and Wallace into the kitchen, and shouts them back out with fire extinguishers, then proceeds to stand at their shoulders and shout until the danger has been dealt with. Martin just shakes his head at the whole mess and wearily makes for the back staircase; in the ringing silence left by an absence of Havelock's voice, Emily decides to comment on how "it looks like it snowed on the bar! Look, Callista, snow! Indoors! Can we make snowmen with it?", and it's a marvel the Admiral doesn't combust on the spot.

 

In the end, Wallace is sent to help Pendleton to bed and sort out a room for Martin, while Lydia (who is still favoured for her long service, despite her role in the catastrophe) gets to mop up whatever liquid has spilled through to the basement. Corvo, Callista and Cecelia are tasked with setting the main shop to rights, however long it takes. Admiral Havelock seizes a bottle of whiskey from a shelf and marches out; they can hear his footsteps all the way up the stairs, and the slam of a door as he reaches his room. Nobody is stupid enough to protest.

 

There's silly string draped all over the Admiral's beloved neon hound sign. Corvo stares at it in bemusement, until he feels someone grabbing his hand.

"I did that," Emily tells him proudly. "Lord Pendleton's always saying we should make this place more exciting, so I thought I'd help out a little."

When Pendleton says that, he means strippers more than silly string, Corvo thinks, but he looks down at Emily, and she's smiling in a way he hasn't seen in such a long time; he can't find the heart to scold her. "I think it's wonderful," he says instead. "Very...bright, very creative. I like it very much."

"But the Admiral doesn't." She sighs, and scuffs a shoe across the floor. "I guess I should clean it up."

 

Corvo knows the right thing to do would be sending her to bed. It's late, there's glass everywhere, and it'll be a while before they get things clean again. But the thing is, they haven't talked all day, and he's spent maybe an hour with her this week. She's wearing decent shoes, the glass is on the other side of the bar...Corvo is only human.

"It is your mess, Emily, so that makes it yours to remove. Start on that, I'll clean up the bar, and you can tell me about your day while we do that. No reason we can't enjoy this a little, is there?" She brightens up at the prospect of company, and more so when she sees Callista and Cecelia return with brooms, mops, and buckets.

 

In the end, cleanup isn't as bad as it could have been. Emily chatters, all about her lessons and how she can name the four Isles, knows the basics of the Morley Insurrection, and ran three laps around the Hound Pits yard before she had to stop for a breather. By this time she's done with the silly string, so Corvo gives her a notepad and she starts doing a stocktake of supplies (it's simple, but time-consuming, and it'll save them a lot of effort tomorrow, while at the same time keeping her away from the glass on the other side of the bar). Emily marches up and down with her chest puffed out, prodding at shelves importantly and announcing a sad lack of limes and orange juice.

"And we also need more... fran-jelly-co. Frangelico. This fancy bottle here, but I don't know what it is."

"Hazelnut liqueur," Cecelia tells her patiently, and then they have to move to bottle out of reach when Emily goes to taste it, and Callista starts an impromptu lesson on the laws regarding drinking age, which Emily is already familiar with; Pendleton is incapable of grasping the concept of keeping alcohol away from the child, so by now it's a speech they all know off by heart.

 

The spill is cleared and most of the glass has been carefully packed into rubbish bags by the time Corvo notices that Emily is leaning on the bench and hiding her yawns. It's late; long past her bedtime, but the mess is about as clean as it's going to get, and Callista sends him off the first time he asks.

 

He puts Emily to bed and even tells her a story (a watered down version of Twelfth Night that he censors as he goes; she knows what he's doing, but doesn't complain), and Emily hugs him before he leaves.

"Callista says I mustn't go to sleep angry at people, or leave people angry at me," she whispers into his neck. "I'm sorry I bothered you while you were working yesterday, and I'm also sorry I hid when you came to find me. I was a bit angry, but then I just felt bad."

Corvo's glad she can't see his face; it takes an immense effort to keep his voice level as he tells her, "And I'm sorry I haven't seen much of you recently. I've missed seeing your drawings."

"But that's okay, Corvo, I kept them all." She sits up and eyes him solemnly. "So tomorrow you can see lots, instead of just one, and it'll be like cookies."

"...Cookies?"

"Callista and Lydia only let me have one. But if I bother Wallace enough, he gives me the whole jar to make me stop, and that's even better. Like that."

"Right. Exactly like that." Corvo makes a note to hunt Wallace down and lecture him on the health risks associated with giving a child an entire jar of biscuits. Or rather, he'll mention it to Callista and she can do the hunting and lecturing. "I promise tomorrow I will look at your drawings. If you come down while it's quiet I'll make you hot chocolate, like I used to do."

"Deal."

"And the working thing...I know the hours are ridiculous, and that isn't fair to you. But it won't be forever. Be patient with me a little longer?"

"Yes, Corvo." She rolls her eyes dramatically, and Corvo can feel his lips twitch. "But it's hard when you won't tell me what I'm waiting for."

 

He wants to. He really, truly wants to tell her, and not just because it'll give her some sort of finish line to envision, a goal to make the patience that much easier. Sometimes it feels like the Hound Pits is built on a foundation of secrets, and the effort of maintaining his own is making him less stable every day. Callista knows some of the plan, and approves of it entirely, but there's a small, mistrusting part of him that lives in the back of his mind, in a fort made from faded white Coldridge concrete, and that's the part that keeps things from her, and from Emily. He's all too aware of what a few accidental words in Havelock's hearing might do.

"I can't just yet," he says instead. "You'll just have to trust me."

 

"Fine." It's funny how much she resembles her mother when she pouts, nose in the air like a true actress' daughter. "Will I get to go back to school? I miss my friends, but the Admiral says it's better here. He says I'll get a better education if it's just me, but I don't really like it. I hate being alone."

Corvo pats the top of her head gently, and stands up to leave. "The Admiral's in charge here, you know that. Be good and do as he tells you, for now."

"But not for always." And she may be ten years old, but she's ten years old and a Kaldwin girl, and Jessamine was nobody's fool. Emily's eyes are as sharp as Lydia's best kitchen knives; she watches Corvo  retreat with an uncomfortable level of understanding. "Okay then. Goodnight?"

"Sleep well."

 

He closes the door behind him, well aware of the risks he's taking in letting her deduce this much. Things are only going to get worse, especially if Martin is planning to be around a lot more (and the man is like a snake; nobody hears him approaching, and nobody is really sure of how much he sees, but somehow he seems aware of everything that's going on), but there's nothing to be done about that except worry. And he already does.

 

Corvo climbs the stairs slowly; it's his second early night in a row, but somehow he feels more exhausted than usual, and it's not helped by the fact that tomorrow he'll come down to the main shop in daylight, and see all the little bits of mess they missed. It's going to be another awful day.

 

He tosses between his scratchy sheets for several hours before finally falling asleep; if he dreams of the Void, it's not a dream he remembers.

Chapter Text

Corvo wakes five minutes before his alarm is due to go off feeling like he hasn't slept at all. The sun streaming through his threadbare curtains does nothing to ease the pounding headache he hasn't done anything to deserve, and he almost rolls over and goes back to sleep. But that will only make things worse. The only thing he can hope for is that the Admiral overindulged and won't be getting up for another few hours. Given the disaster of the previous evening, it doesn't seem like too much to ask.

 

He almost falls on his face several times on the way to the kitchen, and Cecelia's already there when he arrives.

"You actually are a robot," he tells her in dazed bemusement, and she smiles shyly.

"I'm out to exterminate the human race, one puny person at a time. Doughnut? I got plenty." And she did too. A large box of various assorted flavours is sitting open on one of the benches. Corvo takes three, and almost cries when she also hands him a steaming mug of coffee.

"I'm all in favour of replacing the human race with robots, if they're all as perfect as you. Thank you." When she found time to sort out either is beyond him; Cecelia shrugs his thanks off and goes to scrub at one of the benches.

 

Out in the main shop, things aren't as bad as expected. There are scorch marks on the bar, and Corvo hasn't the faintest idea what to do about them (he wonders about claiming they were intentional, to add a little character to the place; some of the less sober customers might actually believe it). They seem to have removed all the spilled alcohol, but he sees glass on the floor and goes to find a broom with a resigned sigh. The Admiral is going to be furious; they have no champagne flutes left whatsoever, and their various stocks of cocktail glasses are severely diminished. Samuel's going to have a mission buying replacements, if Havelock will even authorise it. The Hound Pits is struggling. Can they afford the expense? Corvo tries not to think about what it'll mean if they have to start making cuts, because he's fairly certain staff are the first to go in this situation.

 

Callista comes out to help him, and her posture is as perfect as ever, but she has dark shadows under her eyes that rival his own.

"Didn't sleep either?" he asks her, and she shrugs.

"No. It was the worst of luck, I had some of my designs left on one of the benches last night. I know it was stupid, but the Admiral wasn't there, and I wanted to edit a costume..."

Corvo pictures the bar as they found it upon returning from Coldridge. Fire and liquid everywhere. "How many did you lose?"

Callista ties off the rubbish bag they've filled with what is hopefully the last of the glass and straightens, rubbing at her back. "Everything I had out; I just didn't realise it until I was about to go to bed last night. A month's work, at least. I can't believe I could be so stupid."

"Sorry," he tells her helplessly, and lays a hand on her arm which she promptly shrugs off.

"Just...drop it, Corvo, alright? Leave me alone."

 

He drops it, and Callista grabs the rubbish bag and storms out. Corvo can't bring himself to hold it against her, because as wonderful as Cecelia's coffee was, it appears to have had no effect whatsoever. He makes himself another and drinks it in gulps as he sets the chairs out, and before he knows it the doors are open and the customers are coming. Callista is hiding out back, but thankfully it looks to be a quiet afternoon.

 

Corvo serves an order for a triple Espresso to a young woman with dark, slicked back hair (Delilah, she tells him to put on her takeaway cup, and it feels familiar but he's too tired to dredge up her identity from the endless list of starlets on which she no doubt features; she meets his bleary farewell with a knowing, "you and me both, you poor bastard" and leaves without attempting further conversation, thus making her his favourite customer of the day). The next one shows him no such courtesy. Another young woman, probably someone's secretary, much too chirpy for this early into his shift, and he tunes out half her cheerful gossip in the name of self preservation. She asks for her usual, and Corvo gives her a blank look until she takes the hint and spells out that by 'usual' she means a Peppermint Verde Hot Chocolate.

"I just can't cope with more than one coffee a day, you know? Start twitching like a squirrel, and then Mister Galvani frets- he's so good to us all, a really great man, easily the best choreographer I've worked with. You should come and see us perform, we're just down the street-"

"Right. Sure, maybe I will," Corvo says automatically. His tone clearly doesn't register, because she gives him a glowing look and leans on the counter.

"You know, I've never been able to find another place that makes my drinks as perfectly as you do here, and believe me, I've tried a few! Is there some kind of secret ingredient you add?" She winks, and a small part of Corvo's soul shrivels up and dies.

"Loneliness," he tells her. "Broken dreams. That'll be four coin, thank you."

 

There's nobody else behind her in line so he makes the drink himself instead of calling for Callista, and tries not to hate the woman too much when she slips him her number on a serviette before leaving. He's in the middle of tearing it up with unnecessary violence when someone talks to him.

 

"Is that some kind of ceremonial practice? Are you trying to bring in good luck?" Corvo glances up and the Outsider blinks at him curiously. He looks as dapper as always in his well-fitted suit and perfect hair, but today Corvo is too tired to entertain thoughts of punching him for the fun of it.

"Yes," he says instead. "I tear it up and imagine it's the face of my least favourite person to come in so far. That way I get to feel better, and they get to live."

"I see. You have not enjoyed your day so far?"

"You know, I'm really beginning to understand why they call you a genius."

 

The Outsider doesn't even have the decency to look offended by Corvo's tone; he tilts his head and frowns down at the bar. "Something to do with these scorch marks? They were absent yesterday."

"Wallace nearly set the Hound Pits on fire," Corvo says, and for no explicable reason the evening seems a little funnier in hindsight. "Also, I had to go back to Coldridge Prison to help bust out one of the Admiral's friends, it was traumatic as f- it was very traumatic, and in the end it wasn't necessary because they were going to let him go anyway. I'm in danger of stabbing someone, don't come too close if you'd rather it not be you."

"Coldridge." The Outsider's eyes narrow slightly. "I have been told you spent some time there yourself, after-"

"After Jessamine was murdered, yes. I hadn't forgotten. Do we really need to go there?" His hands are still steady, Corvo notices distantly. Odd, because they'd shaken plenty while he was in Coldridge, but maybe fear and white, hot rage affect him differently.

"No." Something odd distorts the Outsider's usual monotone; Corvo looks up to see a flicker of...sadness? Regret? Maybe even sympathy, in the way his lips turn down slightly at the corners. He seems as confused about it as Corvo himself. "The Empress, they called her; a title she well deserved. Is there anything more wasteful than an early death?" He sighs. "I never saw a more accomplished Turandot."

Corvo smiles; it's only slightly bitter. "She was amazing in that, I managed to catch her on opening night."

"As did I. "

There's a moment of quiet between them, which has happened before, but for once it doesn't consist of Corvo glaring daggers, and the Outsider smirking at him. He aches, as he does whenever Jessamine comes up in conversation (and they say the grief is lessened over time, but Corvo can't help but feel that it'll be a long time indeed before this particular hole is filled), but he feels a measure of pride blooming underneath it. She was beautiful that evening, he remembers. The audience clung to every note she sang, and the applause must have lasted a good ten minutes before she was able to leave the stage.

 

It's not a memory he's spent much time in, as with all his memories of Jessamine; easier not to think of her at all. But he remembers being happy then, just as he remembers being proud, and there's something to knowing that he's not the only one who saw her as exceptional that night. Corvo wonders where the Outsider was seated. They might have been metres away from each other. Did he stand with the rest of the audience when Jessamine came out to take her bows?

 

Doubtful. That kind of thing is probably beneath him.

"So what can I get you today?" Corvo asks, and tries not to cringe and the Outsider turns to eye the Other Menu speculatively.

"What is the cookie crumble topping?"

And so it begins. "It's cookies. Crumbled. Shocking, I know, I mean there's no possible way you could have guessed that just from reading the menu."

"But what kind?"

And because Corvo's feeling a little more well-disposed towards him than normal, he doesn't scream, What does it matter, you heartless bastard?, and his tone is barely hostile at all as he says, "Depends, You can have chocolate chip or plain chocolate. I guess if you wanted gingersnap I could do that-"

"And these cookies, do you buy them elsewhere?"

Corvo is burning through his good will faster than the Hound Pits goes through chocolate syrup. "No. We make them. Because we have a kitchen. You saw me covered in flour yesterday, what did you think I was doing with it?"

"I wouldn't have the slightest idea." The Outsider shrugs. "Bathing, potentially. I will have a Mocha Cookie Crumble Biscotto Frappuccino, with cream and also extra caffeine."

"You mean an extra shot of espresso?"
"Do I?"

 

Corvo writes the order down, the tip of his pen almost tearing through the paper as he does. "Yes. That's what you mean. And what kind of convoluted cookie topping can I make for you?"

The Outsider just blinks at him. "I have no preference. You choose for me, Corvo."

"You're feeling merciful today, I see. Five coin for the cookie atrocity, thanks so much."

 

It's not until Corvo starts making the drink that he realises he hasn't once thought about the Coldridge-shaped hollow in his stomach since the start of the conversation. He hasn't even considered the fact that Martin is currently one floor up discussing some kind of devastating secret with the Admiral and Pendleton. Corvo's no closer to working out what they're talking about, let alone how he can keep Emily as far out of it as possible, but somehow he feels a little better now. There's a problem, he'll find a solution. If he can deal with the Outsider he can deal with anything.

 

And that reminds him.

"You vanished yesterday without telling me that you hope I have a good day," Corvo says conversationally, bringing the cookie abomination over to where the Outsider has seated himself. He has his notebook out again, and is frowning down at a blank page as though it has somehow personally offended him.

"What?" He takes the drink and places it off to the side, uninterested.

"You're supposed to say something trite like, 'have a nice day'. You know, when you leave. I'd even settle for 'bye', I'm not fussy." Corvo folds his arms and hovers over the Outsider. Too much to hope that maybe he can teach the man a few manners through sheer insistence, but he's not leaving until the drink is touched. That drink took time.

 

The Outsider just looks blank. "But no amount of wishing on my part could improve your day. That rests entirely in your own hands."

"It's called being a decent person."

"I think I might be exempt from that." The Outsider goes back to staring at his notebook, forehead slightly furrowed.

"No you're- look, forget it." No doubt he already has. Corvo wonders if being obnoxious is some kind of requirement, something you have to do to before society allows you the label of 'genius'. Between him and Sokolov, Dunwall probably can't handle any more before it collapses under the weight of sheer pretentiousness. "What I meant was, you left without explaining the card to me. That strange mark means something, doesn't it?"

"It means you interest me." The Outsider finally reaches for his drink, sips it absently, and puts it back without the slightest change in expression. "That in itself comes with a variety of strings attached, but don't let it discourage you. There are also advantages. Any theatre in Dunwall is now open to you. The playhouses and backstage rooms, all their secrets and scandals...my mark will grant you access to wherever you may wish to go. I would advise you to use it wisely, but that rather defeats the purpose."

 

Corvo pictures the strange symbol, its whorls and points. "You mean...it's basically an all-access pass?" It can't be true. There's no way anyone would go around handing that kind of thing out, and least of all to Corvo.

"It means you interest me," the Outsider repeats. "And I must compliment you on your impeccable timing; I was very much in need of a new muse for my talents. I rather think you will do nicely."

 

It's really incredibly lucky that Corvo isn't carrying anything right now. Cliche or not (and he's seen it overused on stage before, usually in farces or small shows that don't know better; never in anything serious), he really would have dropped it.

 

Nobody really knows the Outsider's criteria for choosing a new muse. And 'muse' is an accurate term for the fortunate souls he scoops out of obscurity and pushes into the limelight. Unknowns, always, or at least unknown on stage, and they could be anyone at all. He'll do...something to them, work some kind of genius magic and find the very essence of what makes them...them. People say the Outsider writes his plays in black ink tainted with a drop of his muse's soul.

 

Which is insane. Souls aren't liquid. If anything, Corvo thinks, they'd be a kind of gas, which would explain ghosts. But there's no arguing with the gossipmongers, and they do have a kind of point, though their delivery is convoluted. The Outsider finds a muse and writes a story with them at the centre, and then has them star in it. A leading role in one of his plays is a step in the door to immortality, if you play your cards right.

 

His last muse was Daud. Corvo tries not to think about that.

 

He clears his throat, hoping to ease the tightness in his chest. "So you've started a new play?"

"I think so, yes. You have spared me from my current state of dreariness, and the endless social events I am made to attend when I cannot claim to be otherwise occupied. You will do nicely, Corvo."  

"But what do I actually need to-"

A strange whispering sound comes from one of the Outsider's pockets; he pulls out a slim black phone and frowns down at the screen. Whatever's on there can't be good news, because the frown becomes a glare, and the phone gets shoved back into place with unnecessary violence.

"Excuse me, Corvo, I'm afraid I must leave." Notebook and pen vanish, and the Outsider grabs his drink, leaving the shop at a brisk pace that isn't quite a run, because that would be beneath his dignity, but definitely says in a hurry. Corvo stares after him incredulously.

 

Apparently he just became a muse. What that entails, he's not entirely sure (but he knows Callista will have several things to say on the subject, starting with "Corvo, be careful", and ending with, "and keep your clothes on at all times, we are not that kind of desperate"). Something tells him it might be better not to mention it to Callista at all. She won't know what it means any more than he does, and she worries plenty as it is.

 

He gives the table a cursory wipe for the sake of looking busy, then goes back to the till. It's quiet, which doesn't bode well; possibly word of Wallace's misadventures last night has spread, in which case they have a serious problem. Ducking behind the counter, he pretends to be checking on their supply of plastic takeaway mugs, and takes a few deep breaths. It's much too soon to be worrying about his work situation; they've managed so far, and they'll continue to manage.

 

The front door opens, and Corvo stands up a few seconds later to find a face that is more than half beard frowning at him.

"What on earth were you doing?" Sokolov demands, then carries on as though he doesn't actually care. "I was informed that a certain esteemed personage was in this building not ten minutes ago. And yet it appears he is absent."

"Uh...yes. He just left." But how did he know to leave? Corvo entertains himself briefly with the possibility that the Outsider is having Sokolov stalked, for the sole purpose of never being in the same room as him. He has to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the idea.

 

Sokolov doesn't seem amused. "But he may return, may he not? After all, he cannot possibly be ignorant of my latest success; Wall of Light broke records! Critics raved! There has been talk of adapting the performance for theatres in the other Isles! Surely he must be aware of this."

"Honestly, I have no idea," Corvo says, though he has a feeling the Outsider knows perfectly well, and just doesn't give a damn.

"No, of course you wouldn't. A man of his intelligence would not waste his time with the dregs of society, after all; his is a higher calling, far beyond anything the masses might appreciate."

And one of these days, a member of the "masses" is going to set Sokolov's beard on fire, Corvo predicts silently. He's pretty sure it would go down very well with the audience.

 

"Look, fine," he says instead. "I don't know what the Outsider is planning, and frankly it's not my problem. Can I get you anything to drink?"

Sokolov glances around suspiciously, as though they might be hiding the Outsider behind one of the doors, or maybe under a table. "Yes, I suppose so. This is an establishment he seems to favour, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he may return. Make me..." He frowns at the menu, clearly baffled, and Corvo doesn't make any effort to help. "A Hazelnut Macchiato."

"Right away, sir," Corvo says. He can already envision disaster; Sokolov hasn't the slightest clue what he's ordering, and customers who base their choices on what sounds the most exotic are the absolute worst.

 

Corvo brings the drink out to the booth Sokolov's taken over (as far from the counter as possible, but that was predictable), and some small, cruel impulse makes him pause before leaving and say, "Good choice of drink, by the way. The Outsider's a big fan of that one." He leaves before Sokolov can start gushing, and for once it's a shame the Admiral isn't around, because Corvo feels he deserves a bonus for that kind of manipulative behaviour. If he keeps it up too much longer, he's going to turn into a right bastard; the Outsider himself would probably approve.

 

"Corvo?" Cecelia appears at his elbow; he almost jumps out of his skin.

"Don't do that!"

"Sorry." She ducks her head and stares down at the floor. "But the Admiral wants to see you now. He's in his room with Martin and Lord Pendleton. Not sure why, but it sounded kind of...urgent. Sorry."

She scares so easily. It's not like they're strangers; they make a good team, and between them they've dealt with emergencies and bad days, personal problems and more bad days... Cecelia was there when Corvo started working at the Hound Pits, some years back (and it was only ever meant to be temporary, just to keep rent payments up until his big break, and wow, look at how that turned out). She's listened patiently through script recitals, helped him choose outfits for auditions, celebrated when he got roles and commiserated when he didn't. Corvo counts her among his closest friends, though he'll be the first to admit he has no idea what she's thinking most of the time. But he's certain she knows him perfectly well. It doesn't seem to stop her from flinching when he talks too loud.

 

"It's fine, don't apologise. Can you take over my station until I'm done with whatever Havelock wants?"

Cecelia nods, and maybe her shoulders slump a little at the prospect of watching the shop on her own, but she doesn't complain. Samuel will be around soon anyway, Corvo thinks. He'll make sure she isn't bullied.

 

The Admiral lives at the Hound Pits, in a large room on the first floor. It's easily the biggest one they have, which is a slight Pendleton sulks at when he's sober enough to remember, but the Admiral's at least twice his size so it never goes beyond sulking.

 

It's always dark in Havelock' room; almost dingy, even, but Corvo supposes that if they don't have money to advertise the business around the theatre district, there probably isn't money for renovating either. Still, the wall of books is completely unnecessary and just makes the room smell musty (and when has he ever seen the Admiral read anything that isn't the accounts, or his day planner?), but it's probably there to hide whatever the wallpaper looks like behind it. Very logical. Just the Admiral's style.

"Ah, Corvo, there you are. We've been waiting."

 

Havelock, Martin, and Pendleton are standing around the desk with grim expressions; Corvo feels something flutter in his stomach, and it's not hope.

"Sorry, I had a customer to serve. Mister Sokolov came back." He's sweating. For a moment Corvo thinks about wiping his hands on the front of his apron, but Martin is watching him, and those sharp blue eyes miss nothing. It's not safe to show weakness around Martin. The Admiral is loud and brash and dangerous, in the same way that a bull is dangerous, but Teague Martin is all serpent, despite the white collar at his throat.

 

The Admiral shuffles the papers on his desk, picks one up and reads it with a frown. "Did he? Good, good. We need to make sure he enjoys the experience, he's a very influential man..." The words sound absent-minded, which is so out of character that Corvo doesn't know what to think, except that something terrible has happened. Normally Sokolov's presence would be cause for celebration. And Havelock hasn't asked about the Outsider, though he's been in three times and shows no signs of not becoming a regular. Yes, there was the disaster last night, and maybe some customers got a bit upset, but surely it's something they can fix?

 

The silence drags out beyond the point of awkwardness; Havelock reads his sheet of paper, Pendleton won't look Corvo in the eye, and Martin sees too much. Something has to give, and it won't be one of these three.

"Look, is someone going to tell me what's going on?" Corvo asks at last. "Because I left Cecelia on the till by herself, and that's not really a good idea."

"Cecelia? Which one is that?" Pendleton seems honestly perplexed, which is insane, because he's been around long enough that he can't claim a bad memory for faces, and Corvo knows for a fact that he habitually tries to grope her after too many glasses of wine.

"She works here, you see her all the time."

"Lord Pendleton has other things to think about than the staff, Corvo," Havelock rumbles, and finally puts the paper down. "We all do. Now, you're aware that Martin was briefly incarcerated in Coldridge Prison..." He trails off, and Corvo nods stiffly, and doesn't point out that he was there. "Good. Well, he's been doing some investigating for several months, looking into suspicious events that have occurred, not in the least of which is the attempt to keep him locked up...though of course, Captain Curnow thwarted that."

Martin shifts slightly, folds his arms and eyes Corvo warily. "Get to the point, Havelock."

"We've uncovered a conspiracy," Pendleton butts in, drawing out the final word with something approaching delight. "Involving certain, shall we say, high profile members of society, and a rather shady attempt to seize ownership of the most profitable businesses in Dunwall..."

"They're out to own the theatre district," Havelock says, apparently sick of Pendleton's waffling. "Not all that surprising, given it's one of the top money-making areas in all the Isles...a lot of people are surprised to hear that, but the fact are there, if you know where to look." He nods at Martin, who smiles slightly. "Obviously the gangs siphon away the gambling money, and probably a good chunk of what's made in prostitution; Martin's heard rumours of payoffs from the Golden Cat, though they're just rumours at the moment-"

 

Corvo's had enough. He's standing there with a killer headache, and the way these three men eye him is worryingly reminiscent of hounds eying a cornered cat. Clearly there's something not being said, but he's not in the right frame of mind for sifting through the trash for real meaning.

"Where are you going with this? The conspiracy sounds almost plausible," because it's a well-known side effect of living too long in the theatre district. Everyone's life starts being that much more melodramatic, or what's the point? All the writers are insane, dancers moonlight as prostitutes, nobles throw money away on huge parties, the actors are all addicts, and one of the most prestigious theatres is run by priests. "But I don't understand how it concerns me. You three have all the influence, what am I supposed to do?"

The Admiral nods to himself, as if Corvo said something that pleased him. "Well, the fact is-"

 

The door opens suddenly, and conversation cuts off as Callista appears with a tray of drinks.

"Wallace said you might like some refreshment?" The tray gets dumped on the desk and unloaded with curt, irritable movements. She must have carried it up the stairs on her own; a long black for the Admiral, espresso for Corvo, a glass of scotch for Pendleton, and Martin's peculiar Morlish coffee (added whiskey and sugar, unwhipped cream on top. Corvo's tried it before out of curiosity, but it must be an acquired taste). Havelock nods at her and turns away, but Martin moves around the desk to take his glass personally.

 

"Have you become a whole lot more attractive recently, or have I just spent too long in lockup?" He eyes her in a way that would have resulted in a slap had he been anyone else. Sadly however, despite her intelligence Callista has a certain inexplicable weakness for Martin's odd brand of humour. Corvo has asked her about it several times, to the point where she's threatened to put ice in his bed if he does so again. He's tried putting the question to Cecelia instead, but she just shrugs and says something about the magnetism of a dangerous man, whatever that means.

"If by 'too long' you mean a single day, then you're less of a man than I thought," Callista retorts, and the smirk fades somewhat. Martin keeps forgetting that Callista isn't one of the Abbey's divas, and she is only too happy to remind him. It's nobody's business but their own, really, which doesn't stop Emily from drawing a range of exotic wedding gowns and pointedly demanding Callista's opinion of each one.

"I missed your wit, all alone in my cell; you could have taught the guards a thing or two about insults that cut. And I'd have appreciated the sight of you in cuffs."

Don't let him get away with that, Corvo pleads silently. He's not sure he'll be able to cope if they ever decide the flirting isn't enough; it's Callista's business, certainly, but he feels like someone should be a voice of reason in this matter.

 

Corvo keeps his mouth shut, and Callista doesn't break Martin's jaw.

"I'll cuff you if you keep on like that," she tells him, but there's no heat in her words. Martin just raises his eyebrows and doesn't even bother to make a pretence at innocence.

"Will you? I rather think I'd enjoy that."

"I'm sure you would." She turns to leave, and to hide her smile.

"You know where to find me, Callista."

 

In the theatre this scene would be played for laughs, Corvo thinks. Pendleton is staring intently at the Admiral's framed collection of medals (a stage prop, stolen from who knows where), and Havelock himself has gone back to frowning at something on his desk, and they're all trying so hard to pretend they haven't noticed a thing that it's only a matter of time before someone strains a muscle.

 

"Priest" doesn't mean much in Dunwall, and vows of chastity aren't actually serious outside of the opera.

 

Callista leaves, the Admiral harrumphs, and Martin doesn't look embarrassed in the slightest.

"I believe we were about to inform Corvo of the rather unfortunate conspiracy I-" he glances at Pendleton and shrugs, "we have uncovered. The one that was responsible for Jessamine Kaldwin's murder, and Corvo's extended incarceration. Mine too, of course, though it was brief by comparison."

 

And it's a very, very good thing he isn't smirking while he says it, because that would have been the last straw. Corvo clenches his fists; the room suddenly seems very distant, and his pulse is pounding in his ears, because this is everything he's been wanting to hear ever since that night but at the same time-

he's been dreading this.

"Tell me," he says, and is distantly surprised at how calm it sounds.

Havelock shuffles the papers again. "It's a group. You've heard of them all, they're very high-profile; significantly more so in recent months, but that was their plan all along. As far as we can tell, the ringleader is Hiram Burrows-"

and that makes so much sense, but in no way does it improve the situation-

"...but he had help. Thaddeus Campbell, proprietor of the Abbey, a wealthy woman whose identity we don't have yet, and-" he glances at Pendleton, who is still staring at the medal. For the first time, Corvo registers how jerky his movements are, the way he grips the lapels of his expensive suit a little too tightly. He's twitchy, and he hasn't touched the scotch Callista brought.

"The Pendleton twins, Morgan and Custis," the Admiral finishes, and Treavor Pendleton still says nothing.

 

Corvo doesn't either. He stares at Havelock's expectant face and has no idea what to say. Oh, he's angry; of course he is. That's the correct response, and the one they want him to show, and he lets them see it because it hides his fear. They want something from him, maybe the same thing he wants from himself, but Corvo isn't certain he can give it.

"What are you planning?" Strange, Corvo thinks. He sounds so collected, so professional, and it's all a lie. But apparently it's good enough for the Admiral.

"We suspect our time may be limited," Havelock says. "They know we're sheltering Martin, and that we have some sort of information, though with luck they remain unaware of its true extent. But they'll be after us, no mistake, and we need to make sure our defences are strong, and our attacks strike true. And that's where you come in."

"I'm a barista."

"With a grudge. They won't expect you, they'll be far too busy watching out for people like myself. Obvious people. We need someone less noticeable."

 

So send Cecelia, Corvo thinks, and immediately hates himself for it.

"What exactly am I going to be doing?"

Martin takes over, his voice treacherously smooth. "Nothing too serious; we don't expect you to kill anyone," and he pauses so they all can chuckle nervously on cue. "We're thinking more along the lines of public disgrace, which has the added bonus of being so much more satisfying. We will create a plan of attack for each member of conspiracy, and inform you of your role in each one as it becomes relevant. First will be Campbell."

"Why not just go after Burrows?" Corvo finds himself saying, and there's still not the slightest trace of hesitation in his voice. He's a lot calmer than Pendleton, certainly; the man is almost shaking with nervous energy. "If he's the ringleader, surely that will make the rest much easier?"

"No," Martin snaps, before moderating his tone to something more reasonable. "Campbell first. Burrows is out of our reach, we need to whittle his strength down before we strike or we risk exposure."

 

For the first time, Corvo wonders just how powerful Martin is. He's always given the impression of being fairly high up the chain of command at the Abbey, but as with anything Martin-related, the details remain hazy. He'll do well out of Campbell being removed, that much is certain.

 

Still, the Admiral wouldn't indulge a mere power play unless it benefitted him somehow, and the same goes for Pendleton. Corvo is inclined to believe them when they say Jessamine's death lies at the doors of these people. They wield the kind of power that could very well organise a convenient death, and the kind of money that could keep the Watch from looking too closely at a man's protestations of innocence.

"So what's the plan?"

"I'm waiting on my informant, Franklin, to provide the last piece to the puzzle. Campbell's rise to power was very sudden, and rumour has it blackmail was involved. I think I know where to find the proof that will ruin him. The problem will be retrieving it."

"Which you need me for," Corvo says.

"It's for the best, Corvo," the Admiral says, and suddenly Pendleton is there at his shoulder, and Martin is on the other side, and it feels a lot like their stares are pinning him in place. "For justice, and to make sure those bastards don't end up ruling us. In the name of the greater good, risks have to be taken."

By me , Corvo doesn't say. He picks up his cooling mug when the other three grab their drinks, and looks to the Admiral for guidance.

"To Jessamine Kaldwin," he says, and they all echo the sentiment, lifting glasses and cups of half-drunk coffee in her name. And if Corvo is a little quieter than the rest, nobody notices.

Chapter Text

Sometimes in life there are people who seem to exist for no better reason than to make life itself unnecessarily difficult. Granted, Corvo thinks this of a vast majority of his customers, but Samuel tells him he's too jaded for his age.

 

Despite his almost infinite patience, even Samuel won't argue when it's Hiram Burrows being discussed.

 

There exists a hierarchy in the Dunwall theatre district, one not solely restricted to the playhouses themselves. Times are hard and business is slow. Rivalries can become fierce and that's even before taking into account the volatile personalities and wildfire tempers of most proprietors (and Havelock is no exception, but nobody dares tell him that). Fights between employees have been known to break out in the middle of the street, and the tourists love them but it means congestion and people showing up late to performances, so the Watch does its best to be discouraging.

 

Rumour has it the Pearl didn't burn down all on its own, but there was never any evidence found, and Madame Prudence of the Golden Cat got off scot free; her business doubled after that.

 

Hiram Burrows owns the Regency Black, which lurks at the other end of John Clavering Boulevard like a particularly malevolent spider, and somehow manages to make more money in a week than the Hound Pits does after a month, even with Lydia's best efforts at cutting corners. The Admiral takes his rival's success very much personally; mention Burrows around him, and the twitching starts. To him, it just isn't logical. They both sell coffee, alcohol, various foods, and a place to sit down and leech off someone else's Wi-Fi. Neither store is more advantageously placed but somehow the Hound Pits is struggling, and the Regency is not.

 

Corvo thinks it might have something to do with their uneven floorboards, scruffy leather seats, crooked signage, and general decrepit atmosphere, but he's just a barista, and therefore not in a position to discuss this kind of thing. Havelock doesn't want to hear about the Regency's classy exterior (and they have fake marble columns around the doorway, their windows are always sparkling, and some poor employee gets paid bare minimum to stand outside and call out the day's specials), but it's no wonder he was quick to jump on the idea of Burrows being involved in a conspiracy. Corvo wasn't around the few times those two met in person, but he's heard the stories.

 

People refer to the Regency staff as "The Whalers", and nobody remembers why anymore, but they're all bastards. Daud is the worst of them.

 

"You worked with him, didn't you? Daud was your last muse." Corvo pauses in the middle of writing down the Outsider's latest gamble with diabetes to frown at him. He's back at his normal time, leaning on the counter with his arms folded, just like any other day. To him it probably is. Corvo's the only one who got a bombshell dropped on him the evening before, and spent most of the night staring up at the attic's rotting wooden beams in a numb haze. Come to think of it, he can't remember the last time he actually got a full eight hours of sleep, which might why he's been struggling to remember people's orders.

 

The Outsider gives him a searching look and pulls out the ubiquitous notebook and pen. "Why the interest? Is it a matter of jealousy? Competitiveness? An impulsive curiosity with regards to a man you perceive as your rival?"

"Rival?" Corvo has to laugh at that. "People say working with you ruined him. He's never acted since that thing you put him in, The Knife of Dunwall, or whatever you called it."

"He has taken certain...unaccredited roles, shall we say, but I do not consider it my duty to ensure the success of my muses. He ceased to interest me. The rest is his business." The Outsider stares at Corvo with the pen poised over his notebook, and waits.

 

It feels a little like a job interview. He must be looking for character traits, quirks of personality, all the things that make up the sad mess that is Corvo Attano. Unfortunately, a lot of these aren't things Corvo is happy to share.

"So you won't tell me about Daud," he says instead, and goes back to writing down the order. The next question needs to sound casual, but he did once have an acting career, and some things aren't easily forgotten. "Is there a general ban on talking about your work, or is it Daud specifically? Or the people he works for?"

 

"Am I an informant now?" The Outsider's voice is expressionless, as usual. He certainly doesn't seem offended. "Interesting, I mistook myself for a customer."

"Don't act like you're not flattered," Corvo tells him. "You know everyone, why not take the opportunity to show off your superiority? More than usual, I mean."

"You're very rude," the Outsider says with unmistakeable approval.

"Only because you allow it."

 

Something gets scribbled down in the notebook, maybe along the lines of barista is snarky when encouraged, resist temptation to punch him. Or perhaps not. He'd probably hire someone to do the punching for him.

"Ask your questions then, Corvo," the Outsider says as he writes. "Were they about Daud I would answer freely, but they are not, are they?" He raises his eyebrows at Corvo.

Apparently Corvo's skill in deception is a little rusty. "Not exactly," he admits. "I was...kind of hoping you could tell me about the Abbey. More specifically, about Thaddeus Campbell." It's a very odd request, and he knows that, but the Outsider doesn't come across as someone who'd feel any moral obligation to warn Campbell. It's not like they're friends or anything.

 

For some reason that was never really made clear, the Abbey has flat ban on anything Outsider-related. They won't allow his plays on their stage, or any kind of homage to his work; they've gone so far as to turn away any actor who has worked with him in the past. Something went down and it can't have been pretty, but even Martin isn't sure of what, or why. He still hates the Outsider on principle though, because it's become something all the Overseers just do. Corvo wonders if he's complained to Havelock about the Outsider's patronage of the Hound Pits. Probably not; Martin will turn a blind eye to pretty much anything, if he can use it to his own benefit.

 

"I have very little to do with Campbell," the Outsider says slowly, and Corvo could have guessed as much. "But if you really want information, you could always find it for yourself. My Mark will open many doors, as I told you when we last met."

Corvo makes a disbelieving noise. "Sure, the Abbey's just going to let me in if I wave your card around."

"The Overseers will not, but they do not run the Abbey alone. Others will be more accommodating, I think you will find."

 

And that's an interesting thought. The Overseers themselves are... Well, they're not priests, though they wear the white collars, and gang doesn't quite cover it. If anything, they're a kind of society; heavily exclusive, big on secrets, incredibly wealthy. They run the Abbey, and probably a lot more besides; Corvo's pretty sure they control a decent part of the Tower. But the Outsider has a point. Most of the stage hands won't be Overseers, and hating the Outsider isn't a requirement for working at the Abbey. The people lower down are smart. They know their jobs aren't permanent, and maybe one day it'll be the Void they're building set for. He could get away with...something. And he might just need to.

 

"It'd be quite a risk," he says casually, and the Outsider's eyes narrow in approval. "They're not big fans of yours over at the Abbey."

The Outsider just shrugs. "Sometimes the Overseers seem to function solely as a cult, dedicated to loathing me," he muses, and then Corvo leans across the counter and whacks him over the head. Not hard, because he doesn't actually want to go back to Coldridge for attacking a man, but he does succeed in mussing the Outsider's short hair.

"Would you listen to yourself?" he demands, and the Outsider just stands and stares at him. His black eyes are wider than usual; it's incredibly satisfying. "I swear, your ego is larger than Sokolov's, and you don't have the beard to pull it off. Nobody is going to form an anti-you cult. Campbell and the rest of the Abbey hate you because you're obnoxious, invasive, and unreasonable, not because you're some kind of threat to them. I realise this is quite the revelation, try not to get too upset about it."

 

He could never have done this to another customer. Honestly, even Cecelia wouldn't have let him get away with venting like this, but for some odd reason (and it's either an extreme dedication to his craft, or he's just creepily masochistic) the Outsider waits patiently for Corvo to finish, and then starts scribbling in his notebook.

"You are nowhere near as passive as you believe yourself to be," he murmurs. "Interesting. What could have prompted such an outburst, I wonder?" He doesn't actually seem to expect an answer, and Corvo doesn't offer one. He does however feel a bit bad about the way the Outsider's hair is sticking up now. Fixing it seems out of line though, even for them.

"Sorry," he lies instead, and rings up the order on the till.

 

The Outsider follows him as he makes the coffee, eyeing his movements with curiosity and taking the occasional note about...something, body language maybe. He doesn't ask questions for once, about where the sudden interest in the Abbey came from, or anything besides, and Corvo finds he doesn't like the silence. Too much time to think about Martin and Havelock, who are currently upstairs planning and waiting on Martin's informant. Corvo's been taken off shift this evening, and apparently nobody knows why; he got an earful from Lydia earlier, until the Admiral stepped in and told her it was for Hound Pits business, and he'd compensate her for the loss of her day off. Something's going to happen, and the more he wonders the worse he feels. He'll take any kind of conversation whatsoever at this point. The Outsider doesn't seem inclined to provide it, so Corvo does.

 

"So who calls themself the 'Outsider', anyway?" He reaches distractedly for the caramel sauce; they're almost out, as usual. Corvo's never understood the mentality required for someone to want caramel in their coffee, but it's one of their most popular flavourings. And it's not the barista's place to judge his customers, no matter how honestly he may believe that they have shit taste in beverages. "I don't see why you can't have a normal name like everyone else."

 

"Normal." The Outsider's lips twitch slightly, an almost unnoticeable shift in expression that somehow leaves him looking more alien than ever. "Consider your previous statement, and I think you'll find it answers the question most adequately."

"You have a strange name because you don't want to be normal?" Locate clear plastic takeaway cup, begin to administer caramel sauce. Soothing movements, and he divides his attention between them and the Outsider's response.

 

"My line of work is such that I cannot afford the restrictions imposed by banality. Everything I do must be different, interesting, or I risk boring myself into a vegetative state, and thus depriving Dunwall of its main source of intellectual amusement." He stares off into space over Corvo's shoulder, with that odd head-tilt of his that apparently means he's deep in thought. "I took the name 'Outsider' as a way of distancing myself from the average crowd of buffoons and charlatans, and it serves well enough that I feel no need to change it. But of course, you yourself must be aware of the distinction attached to an unusual name, Corvo."

"Uh-"

The Outsider shifts his gaze to the cup in Corvo's hands. "Should there be that much caramel?"

 

He's right; there definitely shouldn't be, and if Havelock was around Corvo would find himself scolded at best, and on probation at worst. Only he wouldn't, because then they'd have to find someone else to risk their neck on behalf of Martin's ego. The Admiral is upstairs, anyway, and aside from a few customers in the booths and Cecelia cleaning the ash from their woodburner in the corner, it's surprisingly quiet.

 

Corvo isn't normally one for pranks. His job is worth too much, and nobody can afford to offend such an important customer in these trying financial times, so his usual course of action would be an apology, and maybe an offer of a free drink for the next visit. But 'normal' clearly doesn't apply here; he looks at the Outsider, with his irritatingly expensive suit and irritatingly perfect complexion, the way his hair is a mess and still looks as if it was styled that way intentionally, and thinks of all the times he's been irritating in his requests for beverages that fall on the wrong side of messed up. The urge is just too strong to ignore.

 

"Oh, absolutely. It's a secret method, we're very careful about our quantities and such. Technically I shouldn't actually be letting you watch me do this." He makes the drink, and goes overboard with everything; too much whipped cream, an extra four squirts of vanilla flavouring on top of the usual, chocolate sprinkles, cinnamon dusting, and a final drizzle of caramel sauce to top the whole thing off. It's a monstrosity. He should be fired for making it, let alone serving it to a customer, and if it's actually drinkable he'll be pretty damn surprised.

 

"Here we go. One Caramel Dolce Vanilla Frappuccino with added cinnamon and chocolate sprinkles, and light whipped cream to go." He hands it over with a big, fake, smile, and sees the Outsider's eyes narrow fractionally. The man's not stupid. He knows Corvo never gets this enthusiastic about anything customer-related. But he's also arrogant enough that the thought of a  lowly barista having fun at his expense never once occurs, and he takes the plastic cup with a vague nod of thanks.

 

The look on his face after the first sip is so far beyond priceless that it falls into fantasy territory, which is to say that Corvo will be using it as his feel-good fantasy from now on. The Outsider actually chokes a little, and Corvo folds his arms, leans his hip on the bar, and looks the bastard dead in the eyes.

"You have a nice day now, sir," he says sweetly.

 

The Outsider just looks...lost. Pathetically so, like he can't understand what he did to deserve this kind of treatment; Corvo's smile becomes a lot less fake, and he even manages a cheerful wave as the bastard leaves. It feels like victory.

 

He jumps when someone jabs in the small of his back.

"What?" he snaps, and Callista rolls her eyes.

”Help me put these out." Corvo takes the tray of croissants she hands him (they have various fillings, but the apricot is definitely best, and it's a good day when he finds one or two left over and has to dispose of them) and obediently carries it over to the food cabinets. She seems a little less tense today, though there won't be an apology. Callista is as proud as she is disciplined, and probably feels worse about snapping than he does. That's fine. Corvo's in no position to lecture her on keeping her temper in check, and especially not after he let loose on the Outsider.

"Rule one," she says, keeping her eyes fixed on the croissants she's carefully transferring into the cabinet. For a moment Corvo wonders if he heard her correctly.

"I'm sorry- what?"

"Rule one," she repeats, and this time she puts her tongs down and actually looks at him. "I was watching you both, and I'm serious. Corvo, you need to be careful."

 

They have these... rules they made up a long time ago, back when Jessamine was around to keep everyone in check, and they all had shining careers ahead of them. She wanted to know that they were alright, that they were being safe in the pursuit of fame and fortune, because she was young, but not stupid. Dunwall isn't as glittering as its outside may suggest, and Jessamine knew as well as the rest of them that the Watch clears corpses from the back streets nearly every day. She cared for their safety, so she made them the rules.

 

It's been a while since he and Callista talked about Jessamine. Maybe they haven't at all, which makes it all the more inappropriate to bring this up now. But she looks at him with concern and he can hear the ghost of Jessamine in her tone, because this is the kind of thing Jessamine would have lectured him about. Except she's got it all wrong.

 

"That's...really irrelevant, it's nothing like- Why would you-" He must look sufficiently horrified because Callista nods, and gets back to arranging croissants.

"It's just a warning. Remember when he first came in, and we both panicked because we thought we'd offended him? The Outsider is not a good man, and I don't think you realise you act... Just don't forget his reputation. He's ruined people."

"I'm already ruined," Corvo says dismissively, and ignores the frown she gives him. Callista is lovely, and she cares about Emily, but she's so far out of the loop that he wouldn't know where to begin explaining things to her. She doesn't know about the conspiracy, or the Outsider's Mark, or even that Corvo may have accidentally landed himself a role. What help could she possibly offer?

 

"Why are you out here, anyway?" He watches her close the food cabinet with undue care, her shoulders suddenly straighter than ever. "Aren't you rostered in the kitchen today?"

"I am, it's just-" She wipes her hands on her apron unnecessarily. "Piero's here; the Admiral asked him to make us some kind of fancy light display for the bar, and he's brought it around. Lucky he didn't come a few days earlier I suppose..." Callista trails off, and Corvo raises his eyebrows when she doesn't move.

"I thought you liked Piero?"

"Well, yes-"

"He appreciates your designs, doesn't he? You once spent two hours in one of the booths talking about costumes with bits that glow in the dark, for dancers, I remember. Lydia was furious, she couldn't tell you to get back to work with Piero there." Corvo folds his arms and waits for Callista to answer.

When she does, her cheeks are flushed. "Yes, and he's a brilliant man. I told him I'd love to see more of his designs, because the attention to detail is just- Corvo, he's brought me designs."

"I don't think I see the problem here," Corvo says.

Callista glances around and then leans in close to answer. "No, I mean designs. He made...things as part of a commission for the Golden Cat, and he brought the plans in because as a woman," her voice takes on a strangled note, "As a woman I should have an appreciation of his lovely inventions."

 

Corvo snorts with laughter. He can't stop himself, and Callista's mortified expression does nothing to help. "So he's trying to seduce you with the blueprints for-"

"Don't you say it, Corvo, don't you dare." Her ears have turned a violent shade of scarlet. "It's not funny!"

"I think it's hilarious," Cecelia says from the doorway, and raises her hands when Callista turns to glare. "I'm just saying. It's funny."

"It is," Corvo agrees.

"He also brought you samples," Cecelia adds with uncharacteristic glee. "He calls them prototypes, but they're all for you, and he promises they're safe. You want them, right? Because if not, I'll have a few."

"I don't-oh. You will?" Callista blinks at Cecelia in surprise, and Corvo starts trying to inch his way out of a conversation he's no longer welcome in.

"Absolutely. He's got this amazing back massage thing, I think I'd kill for it. And I was wondering about some of the odder ones, maybe we could hide them in Pendleton's room to scare him when he's drunk."

"That's highly inappropriate," Callista says, but her lips twitch with mischief. "Though...perhaps the purple one."

"Definitely the purple one," Cecelia agrees. "Corvo you should see it, it's this really ridiculous shade, and huge-"

"I have a customer," Corvo says, and runs for it.

 

The day goes on. Sokolov comes in again, his beard bristling with irritation, complaining about how some gang member slashed his tyres in the night and made him miss a very important meeting. Corvo has an inkling the meeting might have been with a certain black-eyed customer of his, which means the slashed tyres probably aren't all that coincidental. He has to wonder at the lengths the Outsider will go to avoid Sokolov; surely it would be simpler to just meet him and do whatever he did to irritate the Abbey so much? Though by now he should know better than to expect the Outsider to function like a normal human being.

 

It's early evening when Wallace finally shows up to take over Corvo's station. "The Admiral, Martin, and Lord Pendleton will see you now," he says, and makes a point of glaring at Corvo's stained apron. After four hours on shift (because Lydia is trying to teach Emily long division, Callista is stuck in the kitchens keeping Piero away from anything electronic, and Cecelia can only cope with so many customers before she has to find somewhere quiet to sit down and breathe) the criticism seems unfair. Sadly, Wallace isn't likely to listen to his laundry list of woes, so Corvo just nods at him and walks out as tersely as possible. Maybe he'll set the bar on fire again, and Corvo will be spared whatever thing he's about to be pressured into.

 

No such luck.

 

"It should be a simple matter," Martin tells him, but everything Martin says should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, it sounds simple enough, but what they're really talking about is trespass and theft, both of which could land Corvo back in a cell for a very long time. Curnow won't interfere if he's actually guilty.

Pendleton chimes in. "When you think about it, it's just like a delivery done in reverse." He seems inordinately proud of the observation, and frowns when Martin cuts in again.

"Campbell spends his evenings with dignitaries, or fellow Overseers, and he makes sure to attend every opening night at the Abbey. This evening it's a new performance of Salome-" Lord Pendleton sniggers, and even the Admiral manages a huff of laughter at the news. Martin just smiles worryingly. "Yes, the performances that have been popping up since Campbell took over management have been...bold, to say the least. And you can be sure he won't miss a second of this one."

"Time is on your side, Corvo," the Admiral says, and if he's even slightly worried about the risks involved in sending Corvo on this venture, he doesn't show it. "There will be no one anywhere near his office, which Martin's informant says is where he keeps his 'black book'. We need you to retrieve it."

"Remind me again why someone else can't go?" Corvo's well aware of the futility of arguing now the Admiral's made up his mind, but he tries anyway; stubborn irritability seems to be all he has left these days.

 

Havelock just rubs the bridge of his nose. "Corvo, there is nobody else that can be spared-"

"So nice to be expendable," Corvo interjects, and over in the corner Pendleton sighs.

"Do you want to avenge Jessamine or not?" He seems more interested than the glass in his hand than the actual question, and then Martin takes over, which means the argument is lost before it began.

"The risk is almost nonexistent; I would go myself were it not for the fact that Campbell will most likely have people looking for me specifically. Havelock is much too well known, as is Pendleton-"

"But of course," Pendleton says smoothly, and Martin nods to him before turning back to Corvo.

"Everyone else lacks your...special brand of motivation, shall we say, with the possible exception of Emily Kaldwin. And I'm sure you'd agree that sending a child out on the streets alone is unwise in these difficult times." He smiles again, and they all laugh dutifully. Corvo is aware that he's about to be dismissed.

 

"Check your text messages," Martin tells him. "I've sent you instructions for locating Campbell's office, and a description of his black book. Be quick, and it shouldn't take you longer than half an hour."

"Good luck to you, Corvo," Havelock says. "Just remember who you're doing it for. I know Jessamine would be proud of you."

She wouldn't, Corvo thinks. She'd have been worried out of her mind, and done everything in her power to prevent him from leaving the safety of the Hound Pits. But then again, it's been more than six months and her face in his dreams is blurring. He can no longer be sure what Jessamine would have thought.

 

"Right. Wonderful. I don't suppose there's any chance you'll come and bail me out of Coldridge if this goes wrong, is there?" He doesn't even bother to wait for an answer. Corvo's almost out of the room when Martin speaks again.

"May all the spirits guide you, and may our enemy's head hit the floor without you taking a scratch." He laughs at Corvo's horrified expression. "Just an old saying from Morley. If you see Callista, would you tell her I asked about her day? I'll be around if she...wants to talk about anything."

 

Havelock's door closes behind him, and it sounds eerily like a cell slamming shut.

Chapter Text

The road to the Abbey is paved with cobblestones, old confetti, and discarded food; it's no wonder Dunwall has a rat problem. With the amount of garbage lying around, barely concealed in alleys and shadowed doorsteps, they're lucky not to have worse. Dunwall's Minister of Health warns constantly of the risk for disease (and people laugh, because words like "contamination" and "plague" belong on the stage, not in their daily lives), but who has time for fearmongering in the theatre district?

 

Corvo often wonders where all the people come from. Every day he sees new faces, and while he's never possessed Jessamine's almost supernatural knack for recognition, a forgetful barista doesn't last long. Different people every night, and they seem to come from all over the Isles. Is their tourism industry that strong? He ducks around a couple from Southern Serkonos, standing in the middle of the street discussing...something in what sounds like a dialect. And Corvo is originally Serkonan (enough that he can fake the accent for a larger tip, when money is especially short), but there are dozens of dialects and lingual varieties, and he's heard more of them here in Dunwall than back in Bastillian. Callista says that's just how their world works: people are more cosmopolitan than they used to be, and Dunwall is a magnet for the exotic.

 

He saw Callista on the way out, and made a point of not passing on Martin's message. She accepted his vague excuse for disappearing ("Delivery to one of Havelock's friends, not sure how long I'll be"), and Wallace just frowned dolefully, which left Cecelia to glance at him sideways as he left. Corvo has to wonder how much she's managed to work out. However careful Martin thinks he's being with this plan of his, Cecelia has ways of knowing that rival his. She's quiet, and she watches. It's a shame she's not the one with a score to settle; Corvo would have appreciated her undemonstrative cunning.

 

She might even have been able to understand the diagrams Martin sent him. They don't make any sense, probably because he's not an architect, and building plans mean about as much to him Havelock's account books do to Wallace. They depict the Abbey, and he knows this because Martin's message says so, but aside from that it's pretty much indecipherable. He'll have to work from memory, and a lot of luck.

 

Of Dunwall's three main playhouses (and there are more than three, many more, but the truly pretentious will only ever acknowledge the ones that matter), the Abbey is most easily accessed by the everyman. Corvo's been there a few times himself in the past; on one memorable occasion, he sat with Jessamine in half-decent seats and tolerated a poor adaptation of The Litany on the White Cliff, until she lost patience and began mocking it in a low voice. He remembers laughing until his sides hurt, while on stage various "heretics, wretches and thralls" died melodramatically, and fake blood rained down on those unfortunate enough to be sitting in the front row. It was a good evening; he'd almost forgotten it.

 

(Corvo is more familiar with the Tower, both from his own roles and the free tickets Jessamine would sneak him to see hers. He's never been to the Void; his stomach turns over at the thought that, if the Outsider finishes his newest play, he'll be up on the famous blue-stained wood before a larger crowd than the rest put together, and even Jessamine didn't quite manage that).

 

Now is not the time to develop stage fright.

 

The crowds grow thick as he approaches the Abbey; Corvo can barely see where he's going. He doesn't get out as much as he used to, but it seems ocean colours are the theme for this season's fashions. Blues, greens, purples; silver beading on bodices and hats, pearls and abalone shell on jewellery. It's actually nice, for a change, or at least better than what he's seen in the past. There was a winter a few years back, the hundredth anniversary of something depressing he doesn't recall, when people dressed in black and grey, and painted tears on their faces to dramatic effect. Samuel was particularly upset by that, Corvo remembers. Something about how all these young people should be celebrating, and it was impossible to enjoy the theatre district, when near everybody looked like they were weeping.

 

The year before that was devoted to appreciation of distant Pandyssia, though nobody really knew what it meant. Lots of feathers, not much actual clothing; sometimes it's nice to have a work uniform, Corvo thinks.

 

He finds the Abbey mostly by following the tide as the crowd moves, until its billowing banners and open courtyard come into view. The doors have just opened, and no one's in a hurry to enter; there'll be fancy snacks and drinks before people find their seats, because otherwise what's the point of dressing up? At least the more garish costumes headed off in other directions. Here, there are plenty of people in more normal clothing and Corvo doesn't stand out in his jeans and white shirt. He could be a local come alone to see opening night, or a young man meeting his date, or a delivery boy, and it's not hard at all to blend and drift, until he sees a side entrance labelled "STAFF ONLY".

 

There's a guard outside, all in black and leaning against the wall with a bored expression. None of which really matters; what interests Corvo is the thing he doesn't have, which is a white Overseer's collar. Just a guard then, probably paid minimum wage to do the job no member of the Abbey's elite club wants. Perfect.

 

Corvo walks right up to him before his nerves make him hesitate, willing his hands to stop shaking as the man gives him a glare.

"The hell do you want?"

"I have business with an Overseer," Corvo says as calmly as possible. Unsurprisingly, the guard just sneers at him.

"Main entrance is that way, 'less you got some kind of official invitation, and nobody said nothing about that to me."

"No, they wouldn't have," Corvo agrees. He sees the guard's eyes narrow and decides against trying to sweet talk him; time to take a risk.

 

The Outsider's Mark seems to shine slightly, though there's not much of a light source nearby. Still, it's visible, and apparently very recognisable, because the guard takes one look and raises his eyebrows.

"That real?"

"Yes," Corvo says, feigning irritation. "You think he tolerates people misusing this kind of thing?"

"Guess not. Uh. Yeah." He looks around, rubbing the back of his neck, and Corvo knows he's in. "Look, I know the Overseers wouldn't be too keen on seeing that-"

"But it's one of them I need to see," Corvo interrupts smoothly. "As quietly as possible. We'd rather word of this meeting didn't get out until we're ready, if you catch my drift." He can't tell if the confidence he's projecting is a product of his skill as an actor, or something generated by the guard's reaction to the Mark, but it sounds impressively genuine.

"Right. You got it, I'll keep my mouth shut." The guard moves aside, positioning himself between Corvo and the courtyard. "Just don't cause trouble."

"I never do."

 

And just like that, he's in.

 

Behind the scenes, the Abbey is all long, silent corridors and nice carpets which muffle Corvo's footsteps in a satisfying way. He starts wandering, trying not to look suspicious as he does so, but there really doesn't seem to be anyone about. Opening night must be a popular thing at the Abbey, or perhaps this performance is especially attractive.

 

Corvo starts looking for signs, any kind of indication as to where Campbell's office might be located. He's distracted, and the quiet makes him complacent, until suddenly there are voices approaching from around a corner. Loud, and irritated, but Corvo isn't really in a position to worry about that. He grabs at the nearest door, finds it unlocked, and ducks inside.

 

Some kind of storage room, from the looks of it. He flinches back from a row of creepy busts that seem to be staring directly at him, and ducks behind a large roll of velvety purple material as the voices go past.

 

"The High Overseer will be pleased with this information," someone is saying. "I'll ensure he receives it as soon as the performance is over."

"You do that." It's a woman's voice this time, terse and impatient. "We're not running a charity, and you really don't want to keep us waiting."

"Duly noted. Good evening, Ms Lurk."

"It'll be better when my payment is sorted." Their voices fade as they leave, still arguing, and Corvo relaxes slightly.

 

Seems like Martin was right. That's a relief, because a small part of Corvo has been wondering incessantly if he's doing something really stupid. The only proof he has that Campbell was part of Jessamine's murder is the word of a man he knows is manipulating him. It's one thing to be told, and another to hear for himself, but apparently Campbell really is up to something. Corvo leans out into the corridor and finds it empty; he closes the door on the strange busts with no small amount of relief.

 

The office is easily found in the end, because someone was kind enough to stick a large "HIGH OVERSEER'S OFFICE" plaque on the door, with big gold letters that are visible from halfway down the corridor. It's also unlocked, and empty. Either Campbell is trusting to the point of idiocy, or Martin's accomplice decided to be helpful, and Corvo isn't going to complain. He ducks in and locks the door behind him.

 

The Overseers aren't priests, however conservative their dress may be, and Campbell's office makes this very clear. He has Golden Cat pin ups on the walls, the poster-sized ones they sell to the tourists who prefer 'erotica' to pornography. Apparently a few scraps of lace make all the difference between the two; Corvo can only assume Campbell doesn't entertain guests in here. There's also a sizeable liquor cabinet, several expensive-looking leather couches, and a bookshelf of classics that don't appear to have been touched. Why does he even bother?

 

That's not why Corvo is here, anyway.

 

Campbell's slim black netbook is sitting open on his desk. Corvo actually pauses for a minute, his fingers hovering over the keys, and wonders about the luck he's had so far. It just makes no sense. An unlocked door, the laptop sitting right there, and no sign of anything resembling security. Is this normal? No wonder Martin has no trouble getting all his information, if so, because it seems like anyone could waltz right in and help themselves to anything that takes their fancy.

 

He's almost relieved to find the machine requires a password. Not that it matters. He's not here to read anything, and the wisest course of action would be taking advantage of his ongoing good fortune and make a break for it. Let Martin sort out the password. There's a small carry bag sitting on the nearby leather couch; he could be out in five minutes, and back at the Hound Pits in fifteen.

 

Some instinct makes Corvo pause. If the Campbell really is as careless as he seems, there's a chance...

 

He's digging through the desk's drawers before he can stop himself, looking for something that resembles a password. He has an inkling it could be nearby, in the same way that Wallace keeps the password to the Hound Pits' computer taped under the desk. He can't remember it otherwise, and genuinely believes it's safe where he's left it. Campbell may feel the same way.

 

It doesn't end up being much of a hunt; taped to one of the sides of the top drawer is a wrinkled post-it note with a series of random numbers and letters. Corvo types them out one by one, and sighs when the password is immediately accepted. Looks like someone more security conscious set things up, only to be defeated by Campbell himself.

 

The emails are open (and Corvo winces at the sheer number of toolbars on display before him), but his estimation of Campbell's abilities is dropping by the second. Martin implied that Burrows is the brains of this operation, which explains a few things, but Campbell's incompetence is worrying. Though if the man's a blackmailer maybe he has no need for actual skill in this job. Corvo flicks through the messages idly; he isn't looking for anything in particular, but it's still with a start that he realises he knows a lot of the names. Powerful people, famous people, very, very rich people, and all of them in touch with Thaddeus Campbell. He sees demands for payments and the responding pleas for discretion. Threats, quickly smothered, and a lot more personal information than he ever wanted to know.

 

Corvo sits back in Campbell's chair and rubs the bridge of his nose. He needs to leave. Time is passing too quickly, and if he waits much longer there'll be trouble. On the other hand, if he packs up now and hands the netbook over to the Admiral, he'll never see it again. Martin will no doubt put the information to a use he deems as good, whatever that means, and while Corvo doubts Campbell will benefit he still has to wonder. Is this the vengeance they sent him to get? Would Jessamine approve of a theft in her name?

 

Will he be able to look Emily in the eyes and tell her she is safe, and her mother is at peace now?

 

Corvo acts without thinking, because if he stops to think then the doubt will catch up and he will be finished. He clears his mind and focuses on a single thing, as he'd focus on a character and not the watching audience. One by one he finds the messages sent in response to doubts and threats, the ones in which Campbell offered proof of his knowledge. Scans of documents, cheques, receipts, emails, letters, and photographs he tries not to look at too closely. One by one he forwards the worst of them to Captain Curnow's work email. He loses track of how many are sent, but this is the only chance he will get, and he will not leave the Captain short on evidence. Such a small act to leave him feeling electrified with an energy the likes of which predates his time at Coldridge and Jessamine's murder. He's alive, for the first time in so long.

 

In the end, Corvo forces himself stop. There are many more emails he could be sending off, but he catches sight of the time in a corner of the netbook's screen and almost panics.

 

The black book is closed and shoved into its case, and he flees out into the corridor without checking for people; it's empty, so his luck must be holding. Corvo makes himself to slow down and walk to the exit at a brisk, even pace. The guard at the door hasn't changed, and he nods as Corvo goes past.

"Enjoy your evening, sir," he says, and Corvo has the presence of mind to smile, and respond in kind. He doesn't run down the steps, or even on John Clavering Boulevard, though the crowds have cleared significantly. Instead, he keeps an eye on the shadows, and ducks into the first alleyway that presents itself.

 

There in the shadows, he closes his eyes and draws a deep, calming breath. It's almost over.

 

Almost.

 

"Sorry, Martin," Corvo hisses through gritted teeth, then takes the netbook out of its case and slams it against the brick wall. It's a matter of minutes to reduce the thing into a pile of scrap; he goes so far as to take advantage of a nearby flooded storm drain (and now he's grateful for Dunwall's inability to dispose of trash correctly. If the netbook survived brick and pavement, it won't live through being submerged in sewage water). He relishes the effort it takes to force the misshapen wreck back into its case, and duck back out onto the main street.

 

Coming back to the Hound Pits feels like triumph; more so because it's not on fire this time. Callista nods at him from where she's handing over several Caipirinhas to a young couple, and Wallace frowns again. It's fairly quiet, what with everyone indoors watching the evening's performances, and Corvo climbs the stairs to Havelock's room in silence. He's still buzzing slightly, exhilaration making his fingers shake and his heart beat too fast, but it's too late now.

 

They're waiting for him.

 

"Corvo! Did you succeed in your mission?" The Admiral stands from his desk, and it's the first time Corvo can remember the man actually looking pleased to see him. Mostly it's a sort of resigned frustration.

"No problems, I trust?" He didn't hear Martin approach from behind him, but that's to be expected. Corvo doesn't flinch; he meets those calculating blue eyes full on as he hands over the netbook in its case.

"It's done," he tells them; over on the couch, Pendleton gives a little start and sits up from his sprawl.

"Wha- Something going on?" He peers at Corvo as though unsure of who he is. Apparently it's been a long evening. Corvo wonders if they worried, here in the Admiral's room, with no way of reaching Corvo and no way of knowing if the next steps up the staircase would be his, or those of the Watch.

 

"Success then! I knew we could count on you, Corvo." The Admiral strides forward to clap him on the shoulder, and then suddenly Martin is hissing with barely contained rage.

"What is this? What did you do?" He hold up the netbook's remains, and Corvo is amused to see that his knuckles are white around its edges.

"Jessamine would not have approved of a blackmailer, that much I know." He holds in a smile. "I sent copies of the most incriminating information to Captain Curnow; he'll find it in the morning, unless he's pulling a late shift, in which case he may have seen it already. There's certainly enough to arrest Campbell."

"And the information that was stored on this? You didn't think that might be of use to us?" Martin's eyes are stone-cold. Corvo still doesn't look away.

"I don't like blackmailers, Martin. There was no other possible use for those files, so I got rid of them." He shrugs. "And brought you the netbook as requested, though what you planned to use it for, I have no idea."

 

Corvo's made an enemy; he'd stake his life on it, and in fact may have done just that. Pendleton barely knows what's going on, and the Admiral restricts himself to huffing disapprovingly and turning away, but Martin...Martin is angry. It's all the proof Corvo needs that this was a personal thing, less about Jessamine and more about whatever it is Martin stands to gain from Campbell's disgrace. Well, that's fine. Corvo has nothing against advancement. But he'll do it without blackmail, or not at all.

 

"Drop it Martin," the Admiral says abruptly. "What's done is done. We know Curnow is the stubborn sort, he'll make sure Campbell gets what's coming to him, and that the extent of his crimes is not silenced. He'll be branded a blackmailer for life. That kind of stain never leaves a man," Havelock's eyes are distant, but there's a satisfied tilt to his mouth that says he's not displeased with the outcome.

Corvo relaxes somewhat. "Is it over then? You won't be needing me again, surely?"

 

Martin's snake-smile is back in place, though his eyes remain unforgiving. "Oh, I wouldn't be too sure about that. One conspirator down, but four remain in his place. Those plans are not yet set in stone, but given your success this evening..." he trails off. Martin is not a man who believes in stating the obvious. And Corvo isn't all that surprised by the outcome. Some part of him was expecting this; an even smaller part had hoped for it. Yes, he was afraid, alone and without hope of rescue, but he was also alive.

 

He leaves without wishing them goodnight, and climbs the stairs to his attic. It's not so late that he couldn't go down to help at the bar, but he hasn't slept well recently, and frankly he deserves a rest. If every newspaper headline screams Campbell's arrest in the morning, Havelock won't begrudge Corvo an early night.

 

He barely remembers to get ready for bed; sleep comes almost instantly, and its form is blue and endless.

 

"Not again." Corvo sits up and stares around his not-room, with its cracks and flaws and odd light filtering through each one. "I'm happy just sleeping, could you...put me back, maybe?" There's no change whatsoever, and he stands with a groan. Two steps to the doorway, sidle around the broken remnants of a chandelier, and papers that crunch under his feet. Curious, Corvo reaches for one of the discarded leaflets and turns it over to find an advertisement for the Abbey. The date is blurred, but they're showing Salome, and at the bottom of the page is the proprietor's name. High Overseer Martin.

 

"Some subconscious I've got going," Corvo mutters, and lets the leaflet fall. Another step forward and the staircase materialises, as black and ornate as it was before; this time, he climbs it with more resignation than urgency.

"Hello?" he calls before he reaches the top, but there's no response until he actually arrives.

 

The Outsider is waiting with his arms folded, and a small smile playing around the corners of his lips.

"Corvo. Back from the opera, I see."

"Hm. I didn't think much of it, to be honest. Backstage was more interesting."

"So it was."

Corvo folds his arms in imitation of the Outsider's pose, and stares at him. He's...different here, in the same way that Corvo's room is a warped reflection of its reality. His eyes are too shadowed, and his skin looks more waxy than it should. He's still floating.

"Last time I came here you wanted to play the deity. Maybe that's a mental thing, because you were so untouchable, and I made you...odd here. But I know that wasn't entirely accurate." He thinks of his childish prank with the caramel, and smiles. "I know better. So what now?"

 

The Outsider's smile widens a fraction; it makes him look no less alien.

"Now your choices interest me. You had your orders, to steal the secrets of High Overseer Campbell, and this you accomplished. And then you warned Captain Curnow, and disposed of his carefully-gathered information, knowing the price your leaders might have paid to see it." He shakes his head wonderingly, and those eerie black eyes don't leave Corvo's face for an instant. "I've seen so much of human behaviour, and I was so sure I understood you..." He reaches out to touch the base of Corvo's chin, tilting it so he can read Corvo's expression. "I could be older than the rocks this place is built on, but even then I wouldn't have seen this coming."

 

Corvo stands still as the Outsider leans in to kiss his forehead lightly. He should be moving. He could be; there's nothing holding him in place, and the grip on his chin is not forceful. If this is all in his head, he could make it stop at any time.

 

He doesn't, and feels the Outsider smile against his skin.

"Wake up, Corvo," he says gently, and dissolves into a haze of white, like snow, or dust, or...

 

Corvo blinks at the sunlight flooding through his curtains, rubs sleep from his eyes and then checks the time on his phone. He's late; he must have forgotten to set an alarm when he got back. On cue, someone taps at his door.

"Corvo?" Cecelia calls tentatively. "Are you alright? I brought you coffee, and food, but you need to hurry or we'll be late."

"Just a second," he tells her, and the day is begun.

Chapter Text

The day starts out quietly enough; Callista has the chairs already set out by the time Corvo shows up, and ties his apron with quick, practiced movements while he finishes his second coffee, thus sparing him a lecture from Lydia. She's hopping mad again, something about Wallace being more distracted than usual and making an extra mess of the accounts. Corvo isn't really paying attention. He brings out trays of muffins and brioche with half an eye on the door, waiting. If there isn't any news soon... though perhaps the Watch will keep quiet for a few days, before making their move? He doesn't know, and he can't ask Callista without revealing himself.

 

They open on time and there's still no word. There is however Anton Sokolov, hovering outside the main doors and glancing pointedly at his watch.

"You are late," he informs Corvo as he steps inside, and coming from him that's almost a greeting. The man must be cheerful today.

"We're two minutes early, actually," Corvo says, and is predictably ignored.

"I don't suppose a certain esteemed customer of yours has made an appearance?"
"We just opened," Corvo snaps, but it's only half as irritated as it would normally be; he glances over Sokolov's shoulder at the street outside, but there's no sign of a riot, or any kind of scandalised crowd. Granted, the mob is more likely to gather at the Abbey than here. Which is good, because the Hound Pits doesn't need flaming torches being waved around; they have Wallace, and that's bad enough.

 

"What will you be ordering this afternoon?" Sokolov is already frowning at their menu, his forehead furrowed.

"My appearance today is unprecedentedly early, I am sure to see him...But how to make an appropriate impression? He must see me as a man of class, of good taste, as of course I am..." He stands there muttering for a good minute while Corvo rests his hands on the counter and waits, Hopefully the Outsider's spies have warned him in advance; Corvo isn't about to. And even if he was so inclined, he isn't sure how to contact the man.

 

"I will have a Cappuccino," Sokolov decides at last, and Corvo doesn't bother asking him if he'd like chocolate or cinnamon dusted on top. He's learning how to deal with this bear-man, and it involves keeping him as far removed from the decision-making process as possible.

 

He's just brought out Sokolov's drink when Martin comes charging down the stairs like he's being chased, except the gleeful tilt to his smile suggests he might be the one doing the hunting.

"Corvo! Excellent news, one of my contacts just informed me that they've arrested Campbell. No official statement about what he's being charged with, but there are rumours going around about blackmail...and a nice attempted murder charge on the side." He smiles at Corvo as though that last part is also his responsibility, and Corvo isn't really sure how to respond. He's been waiting for this, the vindication of his decisions last night, and now it's here and he has no idea what to do. They succeeded. He succeeded, and he did nothing that Jessamine might not have liked. Maybe he even saved someone, if the attempted murder charge is accurate.

 

"Interesting," he makes himself say. "I always thought he was a pillar of the community."
"Oh, we all did, Corvo. We all did." Martin's grin could put sharks to shame; he straightens his collar and makes for the door. "I'd better get in touch with the Overseers, see who's in charge right now...I wonder if they've started talking about his replacement yet?"

"Wasn't Campbell only just arrested?"

"We're very efficient at the Abbey. No restless hands for us, and I'd be very surprised if the discussion hasn't already begun... Have you seen Callista, by any chance?"

Corvo resists the urge to sigh. "Upstairs with Emily, Overseer. Where she's supposed to be." Callista wouldn't be all that impressed to find him so unhelpful, but he's not about to encourage Martin. It's none of his business anyway.

 

Martin just shrugs and turns away. "Well, if things go as planned this afternoon, perhaps I'll be sending her flowers. Roses are always appreciated, I find."

"I don't care," Corvo says, but Martin's gone already, marching out with the stride of a man who is set on being High Overseer before the day is done. He'll probably manage it too, and none of the other Overseers will ever be able to work out how.

 

Things get hectic after that. Havelock rushes past, pausing only to smack Corvo across the back in what is no doubt intended to be a gesture of congratulation; it almost causes him to spill someone's Strawberry Primavera Hot Chocolate down Lydia's back. Disaster is averted by some quick reflexes on Corvo's part, and Lydia remains totally in the dark about why her customer suddenly dissolves into laughter at something over her shoulder. Corvo hands over the drink (Abigail, the cup says, and her calloused fingers don't match the order at all, but he's learnt not to try and guess people's drink preferences based off appearances), and earns himself an unexpected tip in the process, tucked into a flier about some workers' strike happening next week. He bins the flier and keeps the money.

 

Good things are happening; clearly disaster is about to strike.

 

Corvo spends the next few hours tensed up, waiting for the inevitable and irritated when it doesn't manifest itself. The customers are unusually decent, too busy gossiping over Campbell's rumoured arrest, and the increasingly wild reasons behind it. There hasn't been a scandal this big since that public shouting match between Arnold Timsh and his niece Thalia in the courtyard of the Tower. Nobody remembers to be rude to their barista, and the tips flow in as coffee flows out; it's past mid-afternoon when Corvo realises he hasn't seen the Outsider yet. He glances over at the furthest booth, tucked away from the rest of the Hound Pits. Looks like Sokolov's still around.

 

He leaves Lydia on the till under the pretext of cleaning up some tables and wanders over to find the man hunched over an expensive-looking laptop, frowning and hammering violently at the backspace key. He's clearly tense, and keeps glancing around every time the front door opens.

 

"Why do you bother?" Corvo pauses in the middle of removing his empty cup; the third this afternoon. "He writes his own scripts, everyone knows that. He finds people who interest him, and he writes them unforgettable roles, then he directs their story. He doesn't need a separate writer."

 

Sokolov turns his head slowly, as though he can't quite believe he is being addressed by a member of staff. "I assure you...Corvo," he raises an improbably large eyebrow at Corvo's nametag, as if he hasn't come here often enough that by now the name should be familiar. "If the Outsider has never worked with a writer, it can only be because he has not found one of a, shall we say, sufficient calibre. He'll read my work soon enough, and then we shall see. Why, if you're very lucky, our initial introduction may even occur in this very establishment. You might be a witness to history in the making, young man!"

 

Corvo turns away before he catches hell for rolling his eyes in front of a customer. Instead, Lydia sees his expression and frowns at him, as though he might be unaware of how desperate they are for Sokolov's patronage. The man has all the social skills of a rabid chimpanzee, but he's a paying customer, and his name carries a certain weight in all the right circles. Corvo's not about to start anything. The only person who lets him get away with that is currently AWOL, and probably slunk off to get his coffee elsewhere. It's such a tragic thought that Corvo almost feels sorry for him.

Emily is standing in the middle of the shop when he turns around, her hands clasped behind her back as she eyes the new lighting fixture Piero put in for them. It runs lengthwise along the front of the bar, an odd design that looks a lot like waves; they won't be able to see it properly until it gets dark, but knowing Piero it'll be exceptional.

"I like this," Emily says, and Corvo checks for Lydia (gone on break, and Callista rolls her eyes at him from the counter, which means she has him covered). He goes to stand next to Emily with his tray of dirty mugs, and looks at the lights with her.

"You'll like it better this evening. Piero's a genius at this kind of thing."

Emily tilts her head at him. "Callista says he sees people as things. She says he'd be a much nicer man if he realised that she's a lady, not a machine, and stopped treating her like something that needs fixing. I don't know what that means."

"It's an adult thing," Corvo says. Also none of his business, and in this matter he really, truly does not want to know. "I wouldn't worry too much, Callista can take care of herself."

"She sets me so much homework. I just want to play, not read 'the classics'. They're all boring, and I wish they'd been burnt."

 

She scowls, and refuses to cheer up until Corvo lifts her onto a bar stool and brings her a hot chocolate, with extra whipped cream on top. After that Callista is the one scowling at him, but that he can handle. At least Emily is happy. She sits at the bar with a whipped-cream-and-chocolate moustache on her upper lip, charming all their customers with her impertinent questions.

 

"You're a butcher? Do you see lots of blood? I love blood, but Callista says I'm too young to read Macbeth because there's too much of it."

 

"I like your hat, can I try it on? I can? Corvo, look, isn't it great?"

 

"What's the Golden Cat? Is it nice? I've never been there, could I visit while you're at work? I'll be quiet, I promise!"

 

It's Sokolov who shoos her away, in the end. He comes up to the bar with a face like thunder, and announces that he has urgent meetings to attend, but he'll be sure to return tomorrow. As he goes to leave, he spies Emily in her chair.

"What is a child doing in this establishment? Is it perhaps lost?"

"I'm not an it! My name is Emily," Emily tells him, and is ignored.

"Children are a pestilence, and agents of chaos and mayhem; you would do well to remove this one from the premises." He bristles at Emily, and she sticks her tongue out at him.
"Nobody's removing me, I live here! And anyway, you're a big stupid, and you look like a bear, so there." She slides off her stool with as much dignity as an eight year old can muster, and flounces out. Corvo makes a mental note to bring her something nice as a reward for being an excellent judge of character.

 

He regrets her absence several minutes later, when the front door opens and the Outsider comes in. Setting Emily on people generally leaves him feeling slightly guilty, but in this case he can't help but feel both sides would be evenly matched.

 

His money would still be on Emily, if he had any to spare.

 

"You again," he says, and the Outsider nods.

"A little later than usual, but it cannot be helped."

"Would it kill you to just talk to Sokolov?

Corvo finds himself on the receiving end of a scowl to match Emily's. "I fail to see how that's any business of yours," the Outsider informs him coolly, and Corvo sends up a quick prayer to any mildly benevolent theatre god that, when the confrontation finally occurs, it does so in the middle of the Hound Pits while he's on shift. He want to watch this, even if it means spending the rest of the day cleaning up the resulting mess.

 

"I'm a little surprised you came back," Corvo says casually, and the scowl turns sulky. "After yesterday-"

"I have chosen to pretend that yesterday did not occur. The details of your...error have been erased from my script, and therefore might as well not exist. You may feel free to never speak of it again." And the thing is, he doesn't look angry. A little hurt, maybe, but also curious. Chances are people don't normally play tricks on him. He's so clearly out of his depth that Corvo takes pity on him just this once.

"Fine. I promise today you'll get what you ask for, and in the proper amounts. What can I make you?"

"I will have an iced Vanilla Fresco Dirty Chai with three...shots, skim milk, and whip. And cinnamon on top." He rattles the order off and looks Corvo in the eyes the whole time, as though daring him to object. It's not going to work, however, because by now Corvo's learnt the rules of the game. Smile, act friendly, give him exactly what he asks for instead of what he wants.

 

"Absolutely," Corvo says; maintaining his cheerful grin is becoming painful. "And seeing as it's later than your usual time, can I interest you in something to eat?" He waves a hand over at the food cabinets, and the Outsider frowns.

"I don't know," he says slowly, eyeing the pastries and panini warily. "Is any of this gluten free?"

"No," Corvo tells him firmly. "The Admiral doesn't believe in that kind of thing, so we don't cater to any intolerance whatsoever. You want gluten free, go somewhere else."

The Outsider tilts his head and frowns at him. "They make gluten free food at the Regency Black. It doesn't seem to cause them any bother."

"Really. You go there a lot?"

"When it suits me to do so."

Corvo puts his notepad down slowly. "Are you cheating on me with Daud?"

 

"An inaccurate accusation. Last time it was his apprentice who served me... Billie, I believe her name was. Not as interesting as him, but an adequate substitute."

"But you're cheating on me. With Daud." He's actually, honestly offended by the news, far more than is reasonable. In some way he'd started to believe that he might actually be some kind of special. Stupid, stupid to get his own hopes up. There's no reason for this to feel like betrayal. It's just coffee, and this man is well on his way to becoming Corvo's least favourite customer. It shouldn't matter.

 

"Corvo, listen to me." He does, like an idiot. "Daud's story is completed, and yours is just begun. Why mourn something so beautiful when it has barely shown its first few blossoms? You and I have adventures ahead of us, and wherever they lead I can at least promise you will not find the journey dull."

And like an idiot, Corvo doesn't just ring up his damn order; instead he takes the bait.

"And this journey, it ends when you get bored of me, right? One day you'll just up and leave, and that'll be the last time I ever get to see you?" He registers the phrasing too late to do anything about it.

"My dear Corvo." A thread of warmth creeps into his usual monotone, and Corvo could swear the Outsider's eyes soften slightly. "Nobody gets eternity."

 

Oh, he's not falling for that. He really, truly isn't.

"At least tell me my coffee is better," Corvo says, because apparently he is falling for that; he can almost see another wisp of his self-respect detach itself and float off to start a new life somewhere less shit than here.

The Outsider actually reaches over the counter to pat his cheek, and Corvo freezes like a startled deer. "Your coffee is vastly superior," he says. "And you don't shout at me if I order difficult things, as Daud does. He is...temperamental."

"I can be temperamental," Corvo objects, and the Outsider just gives him a patient look.

"But you are still my favourite."

"...Really?" Corvo deflates somewhat, and wishes more than ever that he'd kept Emily out here with him. Honestly, he'd even settle for Pendleton, because while the conversation would end up awkward, it would still be better than this.

 

"It's strange," the Outsider says as Corvo makes his drink. "Campbell's arrest. You asked me about him yesterday, did you not?" He pauses, but doesn't seem too bothered when Corvo says nothing. "And my sources inform me of a discrepancy in usual proceedings during last night's performance. A young man entered the building using my Mark to get past the security." Corvo almost drops the plastic takeaway cup.

"I can explain," he begins, and the Outsider shakes his head.

"I believe I already know the facts; your interpretation of them can wait for another day, though I have no doubt I will find them highly diverting."

"You already did," Corvo tells him resignedly. "I dreamed the...the Void last night, and you were there. Apparently I'm interesting, and I do the unexpected." The Outsider's eyes light up in a way that's nothing short of disturbing; Corvo isn't sure why outright happiness doesn't suit the man, only that he seems safer when he's detached.

"Your subconscious appears to have an excellent understanding of me, Corvo. Congratulations are in order."

"It's still pretty damn intrusive."

 

He gives the Outsider his drink, and tries not to jump at how cold the other man's fingers are. Is it really that chilly? Maybe he's just accustomed to working without heating.

"See you tomorrow?" he asks unintentionally, and the Outsider tones his smile down to something a little more manageable.

"Of course," he agrees, and leaves Corvo alone to wallow in self-disgust.

 

He gets about five minutes worth of wallowing done before the Admiral shows up with an unusually steady Pendleton in tow.

"Corvo! Just the man we were looking for."

"It's not like you had to look hard," Corvo says. "You make the roster."

"Humph. Yes." The Admiral disapproves of cheek from the rank and file on any given day, but the situation is a little different here; apparently he's willing to overlook minor insubordination if it means Corvo will cooperate.

 

Pendleton doesn't say anything, which is unusual. He may defer to the Admiral more often than not, but he's still very much aware of his own social status. It's odd to see him standing back, frowning at the wall over Corvo's shoulder. His eyes look slightly red, but that's probably the alcohol.

"What is it this time?" Corvo asks. Havelock folds his hands behind his back and stands a little straighter.

"You are of course aware that Campbell wasn't in this alone; he had assistance, and from several powerful figures-"

"You're sending me after the Pendletons?" Corvo hazards, and Treavor Pendleton twitches.

"My brothers are not the most upstanding of citizens, of that I can assure you." His voice is stiff, and he still doesn't look Corvo in the eyes. "They're horrible men, cruel beyond words, and share a close friendship with Hiram Burrows. They must be removed."

Corvo folds his arms. "I'm not killing anyone for you, so I hope you've got some other kind of 'removal' in mind."

"Yes, of course." It's Havelock again, and while he hasn't quite mastered Martin's brand of smooth reassurance, he does his best. "You've given us a glimmer of hope, but with Pendleton's kinsmen in our way we can't make a move against Burrows, the man responsible for Jessamine's murder. Now, I have an...acquaintance, a man with unique connections, and he has expressed an interest in our problem."

"We need you to go and find out if he agrees to take the job," Pendleton says stiffly. "He says he can solve this without undue fuss, and I for one would appreciate it. I have my family's name to think of."

"So I'm just a messenger?" Corvo asks warily. "That's all?"

"That's all," Havelock says in a tone probably meant to be soothing. "We can't be seen hanging around his base of operations, we're too well known, but you're a different story. You know where Bottle Street is?"

 

"Here now," comes from over by the door, and Corvo turns to give Samuel a terse smile. The man looks at Havelock with raised brows. "That's not a place to be sending your employees, Admiral. What business has Corvo got in gang territory?"

"It's necessary," Pendleton snaps at him, and Havelock nods.

"You won't need to be there long, understand. There's a building that used to be the Dunwall Whiskey refinery before they moved, you can't miss it. Find the employee's entrance; my contact said that if he accepts the job, there's be an empty bottle of Old Dunwall left directly outside the door. Look for it, then come back here to let me know how things stand."

"Your 'contact' is it, Havelock? Sounds like you might be getting yourself into things you'll regret." Samuel frowns, and now it's not just Pendleton avoiding his gaze.

"That's none of your business," Havelock says gruffly. "No danger in it at all, and it won't take him long." He leaves with unusual haste, Pendleton trailing at his heels like a trained hound, and Corvo sighs in frustration. Looks like 'no' isn't going to be an option, yet again.

 

"Going on an adventure, Corvo?" Samuel's blue eyes are unusually sombre; they follow the line of Havelock's back as he leaves the room. "That's exciting."

"I hate this," Corvo says quietly. "He's using me, like he's using Emily, and maybe he thinks I don't notice...Has he always been like this?"

Samuel shrugs. "The Admiral's a single-minded man. Stubborn-like. He doesn't believe in obstacles that can't be overcome; though I've never seen him as fixated on something before, so what do I know?"

"I'm nearly certain he's keeping half his plan from me."

"Well, he wouldn't be the only one with secrets now, would he?" Samuel's eyes are much too sharp; as sharp as Cecelia's, Corvo thinks with a start, and just as good at pretending to be harmless.

"That's different," Corvo argues. "That was a gift, and I don't think he's trying to manipulate me."

"No? You weren't so keen on him last time we talked."

"I changed my mind. A bit." It's true, Corvo realises. He still finds the Outsider irritating beyond measure, but there are many worse things to be. A murderer. A blackmailer, a manipulator, a cheat. "Honestly, I'd trust him further than Havelock. He's rude, but I know how to deal with that. He's not my enemy."

 

Samuel stretches slowly, as though he has all day to do so, and nowhere particularly important to be. When he finally looks back at Corvo, his face is expressionless. "You know best, of course. But if you'll take some advice from an old man..."

"Don't I always?" Corvo asks, and Samuel smiles.

"That you do. Well, Bottle Street's not so far from here, and if you were wanting to walk a few minutes further, you might find yourself outside a little tea shop. It's a bit tucked away, but your eyes are sharp. Don't think it has a name of any kind, or none that I've ever hear of anyway."

"Why would I want to go to a tea shop?"

"Oh, it's not tea you'd be looking for in there. But the lady who runs it, she might be able to answer some questions for you." Samuel looks away, folding his arms uncomfortably. "Old Granny Rags is mighty familiar with the Outsider. Might be she'll change your mind about him."

 

Granny Rags. Nobody's really sure when they started calling her that, but these days it's the only thing she's called. Once upon a time she was an aspiring actress from a wealthy family, adventurous in her roles and dismissive of her various admirers. Her name was Vera Moray, Corvo thinks, or something similar. He never actually saw her on stage, but he's heard the stories, like everyone else. Even by theatre standards, they're disconcerting.

 

He finds the tea shop with some difficulty; as Samuel said, there's no sign, and his phone can't locate it on the map. Bottle Street isn't the safest of places to be wandering around; it's filthier than John Clavering Boulevard, and more often than not the trinket shops and bars are boarded shut. Corvo asks around and navigates by heading in the direction people refuse to look when they claim not to know what he's talking about. As strategies go it's a bit suspect but it gets him to where he wants to go, and that's when he decides that maybe he didn't want to go there after all.

 

The place is...Well, "dingy" would be a kind way of describing it, as would "abandoned" and "probably better off knocked down and replaced by a hotel". The door creaks ominously as he enters, there's dust on every surface, and though the sun is blazing outside it seems to stop short of actually lighting up the shop's interior. Is this place actually open for business?

 

Corvo starts wandering, pushing between mould-flecked shelves and the various wares they display. Teapots, cups, saucers, a whole variety of porcelain objects he can't begin to identify, and doesn't feel inclined to touch. The whole place smells odd, a sort of stale-sweet that leaves him feeling vaguely nauseous.

Corvo clears his throat. "Hello?" There's no answer, but he rounds a shelf to find himself standing at the counter, smeared and piled high with boxes of tea leaves. The smell is even stronger here; he almost turns and runs for it, but a faint sound makes him freeze.

"Here now, little birdies, isn't that nice? A treat for my birdies, yes." A woman's voice coming from the back room, and it's followed by a sort of strange rustling and several wet thunks. "That's nice. Nice and fresh is always best, oh yes." The woman tutts, a shockingly eerie sound that snaps Corvo out of whatever trance has kept him rooted in place.

"Excuse me?" he calls, and the noises stop suddenly. "I'm looking for Granny Rags?"

 

"Well hello, dearie."

Granny Rags wanders out into the main store, and Corvo realises several things. First, the old lady is blind, which may explain why her store is in such a shambles. Second, she looks every bit like a witch he'd expect to see on stage mumbling something about how fair is foul, and foul is fair, with possible deviations into a monologue about bubbling cauldrons.

 

Third, she scares him witless.

 

"Uh, hello. I'm...I was sent here, someone said maybe you could... My name is Corvo." It all comes out much too quickly, the words running together in a way that would have made his vocal coaches cringe, but Granny Rags apparently has excellent hearing. She comes right up to the counter and rests her hands on it, her face turned exactly in his direction.

"'Corvo', is it now? Such a lovely name for a handsome young man. You are handsome, aren't you? My eyes aren't what they used to be. What can Granny do for you, dearie? Is it fame? Fortune, perhaps?" She licks her lips, and her voice turns sly. "A young lady, perhaps, who doesn't know you exist? I've just the thing for you, oh yes, and she won't remember a moment of it..."

"No," Corvo snaps, horrified, and Granny cackles.

"A mystery, is it? How lovely and lively, or deadly, perhaps? Is that the thing? Two drops and they'll sleep, dearie, and sleep forever while we all grow old and dreary..."

"Tell me about the Outsider," Corvo says in a rush, and Granny's smile turns coy. She rests a hand over her heart; the nails are filed to knife-like points.

"Well now, that's a different thing. Asking about the black-eyed groom? Naughty, naughty."

"You knew him, didn't you? You were his muse." Corvo fights the urge to take a step back from the counter, away from Granny's unseeing eyes and the overpowering floral scent of her perfume. She's wearing distinctive makeup, violent purple eyeshadow and implausibly well-applied lipstick.

 

Granny sighs, and clasps her hands together on the counter. "Yes, yes, I know him well, better than all the world and its boring, humdrum wastes of breath."

"Better than Daud?" Corvo asks before he can stop himself, and Granny hisses scathingly.

"Better than the Whaler? Oh yes, indeed, better than him, and that common baker's girl who fancies herself an artist. No one understands him quite like Granny does."

 

And yet, he's never mentioned you, Corvo thinks. Something about the hunger in Granny Rags' expression is familiar, though he's accustomed to seeing it under a lot more beard. She performed in the one of the Outsider's plays, among the first of his successes, and Corvo wonders how long it's been since Granny saw her "black-eyed groom."

"What's he like?" Corvo asks, and she titters like a much younger woman.

"Oh, lovely, like the sea and the moon and the stars; they just don't make them like him anymore. Such a shame. He's so very devoted, you know."

"Devoted?" Obsessive, Corvo might have used instead, and he's starting to suspect the devotion might not have been about Granny as much as it was about the play she was starring in.

"Devoted, dedicated...All for the Art. That's very important, you know, making the sacrifice for art. And Granny gave her share, of course. Just for him."

 

Something cold settles in the base of Corvo's stomach. "What do you mean? What did he make you do?"

Granny laughs again, clapping her hands together like Emily does when given a sweet, or a new crayon. "Don't be silly dearie, there's no making. It's all about the choice, and I made mine! Such a surprise it'll be for him, and won't he be proud?"

"Proud of what?"

"Shh," Granny says, and beckons him closer, turning  her head this way and that as though checking for other people. "You won't tell him, will you dearie? You won't spoil it for Granny."

"No," Corvo agrees, and takes a step closer, though his instincts scream for him to run. "No, I promise I'll keep quiet."

"Such a good boy." Granny's tone turns fond. "The Outsider, he wrote me a role, such a lovely thing, about a lady with choices; so many choices I had. All those handsome, wealthy men, all lining up to dance with me, but I chose none of them. How sad they were! And then there were adventures in Pandyssia, magic and miracles, and then the girl in the play, she gave up her eyes to see better. Such a clever script..."

"But that was a play," Corvo says quietly, and he can't seem to stop himself from staring at Granny's milky, unseeing eyes. "You weren't actually blinded."

"Not at the time, no." She taps her nails on the counter, and it sounds like the scuttling of mice, or rats maybe. "But after the performances were done I was left all lonely, and however I looked, I just couldn't see him! But then...Then I remembered the girl in the play. She gave her eyes, and she saw much better. How clever he is. But hush," she says suddenly, and Corvo flinches back. "Don't you go telling him. He'll be around any day now to visit his dear Granny, and won't he be pleased, to see what she's done? All for Art. All for him."

"I...Right." Corvo takes a step back, and then another when Granny doesn't seem to notice. "Well, I'll be going, just in case he arrives. I don't want to...steal your thunder."

"Oh, that's kind, what a kind young man you are." Granny smiles and waggles her fingertips in farewell. "If you see him on the street, tell him I have a surprise. He'll like that."

"I will," Corvo says, and makes for the exit as fast as he can without breaking into a run. He can almost feel Granny breathing down his neck, her sickening perfume suffocating him.

"Come back soon now, love," she calls after him. "Don't forget some seed for the birdies; they're always so hungry when the days turn cold and weary."

 

Corvo runs for it after that. It's not really safe to be seen frightened in a place like Bottle Street, but quite frankly Corvo will take whatever the local gangs can throw at him, so long as he can do so far away from Granny Rags.

 

The woman is insane. He's seen the glint in Sokolov's eyes, the obsessive desperation that makes him spend hours in a place he despises, drinking coffee he can't stand, just on the off-chance that he might get to meet his idol. That's creepy enough, but Granny takes it to a whole new level.

 

One muse mad, another who hasn't acted seriously since starring in the Outsider's play. And who was it that Granny mentioned, a baker's girl? Corvo doesn't know, and doesn't want to know, except there's a small, incredibly morbid part of him that does. What's going to happen to him? Why was he chosen in the first place, out of everyone in the theatre district? If he takes this role, what happens to Emily? So many questions, and he's not sure he'll have the guts to ask the Outsider any of them.

 

Corvo remembers to detour past the old refinery; the employees' door is easily found, and he doesn't have to get very close to see the glass bottle sitting in the dirt in front of it. Even from a distance, the Old Dunwall label is clear enough; looks like Havelock has his solution, whatever it is. Corvo doesn't quite run back to the Hound Pits, but he makes no further detours.

 

Havelock is pleased with the outcome, though he gives no sign of what it actually means. He receives Corvo's report alone for once, making no comment on the lack of Martin or, more unusually, Pendleton, and sends Corvo off to his night shift with a rare amount of praise. Corvo hesitates in the doorway to Havelock's room as he's dismissed, considering turning back to ask about the empty bottle. Left in the middle of gang territory; there was something sinister about it that he can't quite put his finger on, and he's still too shaken by meeting Granny Rags to focus on it too closely. Should he be worried? What exactly did he do?

 

In the end, Corvo leaves without a word, dons his apron again, and gets to making drinks like he's paid to. Enough is enough; he's had enough madness for one day.

Chapter Text

The next day starts a little differently; this time it's not Sokolov standing outside, waiting for the doors to open.

"Afternoon, Corvo. I hope you're well?"

"I- yes, I'm fine, come in." Corvo steps out of the way so Captain Curnow can enter. "Does Callista know you're here?"

The Captain crosses over to the bar and pulls up a stool. "She doesn't; I know she's normally teaching at this time-"

"I can get her," Corvo offers, and Curnow shakes his head.

"I'd rather she not know I visited, if it's all the same to you. Havelock said he'd be around, and I was hoping to have a word with him. You too, if you have a moment to spare. I know you're busy."

"Not at the moment," Corvo says, and moves to the other side of the bar. "What can I get you, while we wait for the Admiral? Everything's on the house for you, so go wild."

"Oh, I couldn't-"

"Nonsense," Havelock says from the back room. He's alone again; perhaps Pendleton's hangover is unusually severe today. It would explain his absence the previous evening. "Even if we didn't owe you for what you've done, ensuring Martin and Corvo weren't imprisoned unjustly, you are Callista's uncle. Family of employees get privileges." And that's a rule Corvo's never heard before, though he himself has no family to try it out on, so perhaps it doesn't matter. He doesn't say anything, and gets to work making Curnow's Long Black when it's asked for.

 

"So what's this I've been hearing about Overseer Campbell?" Havelock asks bluntly, and Curnow gives him a tired smile.

"It's that I was wanting to talk about. Now, this isn't strictly procedure, so I'd be grateful if word of my visit didn't get out-"

"Of course, of course," Havelock says. "We're all friends here, no need to worry about our discretion."

"People are saying he was charged with attempted murder, is that true?" Corvo brings Curnow's drink over to him and leans on the bar next to Havelock. Captain Curnow raises his brows in bemusement.

"Beats me how these things get out so quickly. Yes, it's true; he was going to murder me-" He's interrupted by disbelief from Corvo, and outrage from Havelock. "Calm down, he didn't succeed. Bastard sent me a bottle of Tyvian red as thanks for freeing Overseer Martin. Now, after we received...an anonymous tip-off regarding his illegal behaviour, I had it tested on a hunch."

"Poisoned?" Havelock asks, and Curnow nods wearily.

"Oh yes. And I'm here because we investigated his home and office, and found evidence that he'd been planning to try a repeat performance on a few other victims. You were one of them."

"Hm." If the news worries the Admiral at all, he doesn't show it. If anything, he looks slightly flattered; Corvo's always thought that Martin might be the mad one around here, but now he has to wonder. "Now that is interesting. Looks like I'll have to be more careful."

"You see anything suspicious, tell me immediately." Curnow finishes his drink in one long gulp and stands, wincing. "Sorry not to stay longer, I'm technically on a patrol break. Just thought you should be aware, because it'll be a while before you're told officially, if at all. Nice seeing you again, Corvo," he adds.

"And you, Captain," Corvo tells him. "Come back soon, maybe when things are a little less...potentially lethal."

"That I will," Curnow laughs, and nods to them both before heading for the door. As it closes behind him the Admiral's friendly expression fades in to a frown.

 

"Assassination attempts, eh? Looks like we have them bothered. Good." He straightens and turns to Corvo. "That makes today's task all the more crucial. I need you to head out again, and this time you'll be making a delivery. Payment for a job well done, and my friend is expecting to receive it punctually."

Corvo tries not to think about what the 'job' may have entailed. "You want me to deliver this payment into the middle of Bottle Street? Seriously?"

"No, no." Havelock waves a hand dismissively. "He'll meet you outside the Golden Cat. I take it you know how to get there?" He doesn't wait for Corvo's response before continuing. "He knows what you look like, you just have to be there. Hand him the money, he'll give you something in return. Pendleton's asked for his brothers' signet rings, and you're to bring them straight back here. It's simple enough."

"Simple?" Corvo stares at the Admiral incredulously. "You want me to meet a- a hitman, and you think that's simple?"

"There's no danger involved; he's an old friend, he won't hurt you." Shrugging, Havelock  turns to go. "I've got all the instructions written down for you; might not be around myself to see you off, I need to get hold of Martin and let him know about Curnow. Though he may already know. Either way, I'll show you where the case for delivery is being kept." He grabs Lydia in the corridor as they go past, and sends her off to mind the shop. Not that there should be much to mind; it's early, and the first rush won't start for another hour or so.

 

Corvo follows the Admiral up to his room, stands by and nods obediently as he's given the safe code ("It's temporary," Havelock says pointedly, "I'll change it as soon as you're done."). The idea of protesting is becoming less and less plausible; clearly he's been made a co-conspirator, whether he likes it or not.

 

And it's not like he'll be the one 'removing' the elder Pendletons from the picture. A delivery is simple, Jessamine wouldn't hold that against him.

 

It's around ten minutes later that Havelock decides he's gone over Corvo's instructions sufficiently and lets him get back to work. Stepping out from his room and into the corridor feels like a breath of fresh air, and Corvo lets his shoulders slump a little. The Admiral has never been the easiest person to be around, but these days he's...worrying. It's hard not to tense up around him, and harder still to silence the voice in his head that screams that he's got himself involved in something really serious.

 

Corvo heads back down to the main shop.

 

Cecelia's on the till again, though he knows he told Lydia not to allow it because customers can and do inadvertently upset her. She's talking to one now, her head bent to write down the order; Corvo starts moving in to stage a rescue, but then Cecelia looks up and smiles, and he stops. A second later, he recognises the customer. Delilah, possibly, with her slicked back hair and chiselled features. Apparently the woman is some kind of barista whisperer, because she left Corvo kindly disposed to her, and now she's busy laying the charm on Cecelia.

 

He gets a little closer, and they're talking about gardening, of all things.

"I have an interest in less than tame specimens," Delilah is saying. "Foxglove, Belladonna, Hemlock, Monkshood, all sorts."

"Those are all poisonous," Cecelia observes. "You like dangerous things?"

"I like beautiful things. And people, of course. One should never confuse the two." She smiles at Cecelia; Corvo quietly sneaks the order from between his co-worker's unresisting fingers and leaves them alone. It's not his business who talks to Cecelia, if she's happy to talk back. He will admit to being somewhat disappointed in her though; they're supposed to be in league against the customers, united in their agreement that the world is out to get them, and anyone who comes through the front door is automatically the Enemy. As far as he's concerned, this counts as letting the team down.

 

They've moved on to portraiture when he gets back with the coffee. It's funny, because Corvo is only just realising he knows nothing about Cecelia's hobbies; she always listens when he or Callista go on about their obsessions, and he just assumed it was either chronic shyness, or she genuinely regarded cleaning as an interest. Finding out this isn't the case makes him feel all kinds of awful.

"-and I saw your exhibition at the Eminent Domain," she's saying. "Not normally my kind of place, but the poster outside was just so...I don't know, I'm sorry, I just can't describe it. Hypnotic, I guess."

 

So Cecelia likes art. That's news to Corvo, and he wonders if Callista is aware. They're supposed to be like family, but apparently one of them got left behind at some point, and it's an uncomfortable thing to realise.

"I'm flattered that my work left such an impression," Delilah says. "That exhibition almost didn't happen, what with Timsh being a tasteless, exploitative pig."

"I've heard that about him," Cecelia agrees, confirming Corvo's suspicions about her frankly astonishing ability to know...pretty much everything. "But the art was worthwhile. Not like anything I've ever seen before; I mean, I was just looking, and then suddenly I'd been there for two hours. How do you do that?"

"Magic," Delilah tells her. Corvo finds he's run out of reasons to stay out of the way; any longer and the coffee is going to get cold.

"One double Espresso for Delilah," he says, and pretends not to see the wounded look Cecelia gives him. She's not supposed to like customers. She's definitely not supposed to tell them things about herself that she doesn't tell her own co-workers, though they've known her years, and this lady just walked in ten minutes ago.

 

"Thank you." Delilah takes the cup with a reverence that says she really needs it. Up close, the shadows under her eyes are worse than Corvo's; the artist's life must be pretty damn cutthroat. "I have work to do, sadly, though I've enjoyed the brief human contact." It's Cecelia she's looking at.

"Well, come back soon, and maybe get some actual sleep in the meantime," Corvo says, and he'll probably pay for that one later. Cecelia holds quiet, unpredictable grudges.

"Rest assured, I will. And I have another exhibition opening in a few days, this one a display of sculpture. Some of the marble pieces are quite experimental, if that's something you might like to see..." She talking to Cecelia again, and this time Corvo surrenders and backs off before he can hear the reply. Not his business. Quite frankly, he gets plenty of strange customers on his own; if Cecelia wants to steal a few of them, he shouldn't complain. Unlike Sokolov or the Outsider, Delilah doesn't seem like she'd be inclined to tear someone's skin off and wear it for Art.

 

He's wiping the bench a few minutes later when Cecelia clears her throat behind him.

"Look, I'm sorry," he says before she can lay on the guilt. "I wasn't sure if she was bothering you or not."

"I know." Cecelia's just full of surprises today; she doesn't seem even slightly annoyed. "And it's nice being looked after like that; nobody's done that for me before."

"You don't have to be afraid of anyone here," Corvo says, and she shakes her head.

"But that's not true, is it? We both know it's not." She takes the cloth from him, and starts cleaning the bench far more efficiently than he could have managed. "I saw Lord Pendleton earlier, and it looked like he'd been crying. Might've just been the alcohol, but I don't think so somehow. Wallace is all jumpy, which never happens, and the Admiral and Martin are always whispering about something. And then there's you."

"I haven't done anything," Corvo says automatically, and Cecelia shrugs.

"You haven't been here much recently. And I don't just mean when you go out, wherever Havelock sends you, I mean here, in your head. That's bad, Corvo." She finishes with the bench and tosses her cloth into the bucket of things that need washing. "You go too far, and then maybe you can't come back again. And I know it's been like that since Jessamine died. I know. But it's worse now, for whatever reason, and if you're not careful you'll get lost."

 

If you're so wise, why not help? Corvo doesn't ask her. Talking is of no use to me; if you know the Admiral's plans, tell him you'll do his 'jobs', so he stops pressuring me. He wonders if he's always been an awful person, or if that particular flaw is a recent development.

"I'll be careful," Corvo tells her, as reassuringly as possible. Cecelia doesn't look even slightly convinced, but then the front door opens and new customers start coming in; she mumbles something about fetching Lydia again, and flees.

 

The day goes unreasonably slowly. Corvo works right through his break; Wallace doesn't show up to replace him, and Lydia won't say why, other than something about Lord Pendleton not feeling very well and needing looking after. It must be quite the hangover, Corvo thinks sourly.

 

Sokolov shows up at some point and installs himself into his usual booth (and apparently he's decided a Cappuccino is to his liking, because he has three in quick succession, grunting in Corvo's direction every time he brings a new one over). He also tries one of their Tyvian pear tarts and pronounces it 'adequate', which annoys Lydia no end. Corvo tries not to let his omnipresent pretentiousness become a distraction, or to feel too disappointed by the fact that it means the Outsider won't be showing up. Exactly when that became a source of disappointment, he's not entirely sure, but he'll take anything if it means Sokolov stops lurking like a disgruntled bear.

 

Wallace makes an appearance just as Corvo is starting to fret about the time.

"Lord Pendleton says he can spare me for a short while, and you should not delay in completing the task the Admiral set you." He sniffs, and glares at Corvo as if it's his fault that Pendleton has to manage on his own for a few hours. "I trust you know what is required of you?"

"I know." Corvo removes his apron, tosses it at the washbasket with unnecessary force (and he misses, which will annoy Cecelia, but she'll cope somehow) and marches up the stairs to Havelock's room. The man himself is absent, no doubt meeting up with Martin somewhere shady to plot the further removal of their enemies. Corvo really couldn't care less.

 

It's dark outside and the lanterns are lit. People wander past, alone and in small groups, but it's around the time that most of the tourists will be indoors with their choice of evening entertainment. Now is the hour for the street performers and salespeople to take a breather and count their earnings in case there's enough to call it an early night.

 

These days, there never is.

 

The Golden Cat sits on John Clavering Boulevard, closer to the Abbey than Bottle Street, which makes sense given how many of its patrons are rumoured to be Overseers. It's all class on the outside, with rose gardens, sculptures and cobbled paths tucked inside the tall metal gates that keep the common folk at bay. Not that they're totally exclusive; Madame Prudence isn't stupid, and she'll take money over social class and empty promises any day. Corvo can't claim to be all that familiar with its plush interior (though the Hound Pits is the scruffy mutt to John Clavering's sleek pure-bred establishments, and anything looks plush after an afternoon behind the till), but he wouldn't be totally lost. Still, it's been a while, and even Pendleton's frequent descriptions are no substitute for a map.

 

The iron gates, with their twisting ivy and rose decorations, are wide open and welcoming, and Corvo's not the only one entering. He is however the only one with a briefcase that feels a lot more suspicious than it probably looks, and once he's standing in the middle of the courtyard Corvo realises he doesn't know what to do next. He doesn't know what Havelock's friend looks like, though it seems fair to guess that he won't be one of the Golden Cat's workers.

 

"Here's a villain, if I judge your looks right. The Admiral knows his men, that's for sure." Corvo turns to find a stranger at his side, matching his pace up the cobblestones. "Might be we have some business to discuss, off the beaten path as it were."

This man looks shockingly out of place amongst the roses and carefully trimmed topiary. His moustache alone would have Sokolov bristling, and there's something of a resemblance to an old hound about his thick eyebrows. The pink checked pants must be left over from some mad fashion trend that Corvo had the good fortune to miss out on, though even they don't make the gun holstered at his hip any less worrying.

"Yes, I'm...from the Admiral," Corvo says. The stranger nods and grabs him by the elbow.

"This way, then."

 

He leads Corvo off the main path and into an empty side courtyard. The place looks made for faux-assignations, that additional bit of fantasy that Madame Prudence exploits to charge extra. Not Corvo's kind of thing, but Pendleton whines about it often enough.

 

The stranger ambles over to marble bench and sprawls across it like a grizzled hound by his fireplace.

"Shame not to see the man himself, though what with all this business about the High Overseer, not such a surprise after all. Blackmail, murder...no telling with anyone, these days." Corvo just nods, and perches on the opposite end of the bench. He's not here to chat, and there's something cold in the man's blue eyes that reminds him too much of Martin.

"I suppose not," he says neutrally. The stranger just snorts.

"Don't try playing the innocent with me, boy. You're a man with potential. Slackjaw always knows the wolves from the sheep."

"I'm just here as Havelock's delivery boy," Corvo insists.

 

Slackjaw rolls his shoulders, his bones clicking loud enough that Corvo can hear them; he tries not to shudder.

"That so? Well then, delivery boy, let's see what you've brought me." He takes the briefcase from Corvo's unresisting fingers, flicking the catches and opening it up an inch to peer inside. Whatever it is (and Corvo knows, of course, but he'd rather not think too much about the amount involved, because that would lead to questions about where it came from. They don't have money at the Hound Pits) prompts a satisfied grunt, and the case is closed with a snap. "Looks about right to me, and I'll trust the Admiral not to try cheating. That one's a smart man; knows about having friends in all the places that matter."

"You can say that again," Corvo mutters before he can stop himself, and Slackjaw gives a rasping chuckle.

"Now, I believe I'm still owing something to you. Slackjaw never goes back on a deal, and proof was part of ours. This ought to cover it." He reaches down by the side of the bench, and Corvo cringes back instinctively; he knows it's noticeable, though Slackjaw makes no comment. He produces a small plastic container and hands it over with a smirk.

"Delivery for the delivery boy; hope the Admiral tips you well. If not, there's always work for a man with the inclination to ask. You know where to find me."

Corvo thinks of Bottle Street, with its piles of trash and unidentifiable smears on random walls, the way people glare at strangers and wear pistols openly, as if the Watch won't care. And maybe they won't.

"Yes," he says. "I know."

 

He doesn't move as Slackjaw rises, and doesn't flinch when the grizzled man claps him amicably on the shoulder as he passes.

"Give my regards to the Admiral," Slackjaw adds, then vanishes down another path, whistling something vaguely familiar. He's perfectly on-key, Corvo thinks irritably. Somehow it seems like the worst of injustices.

 

The container he's been given is strangely cool; Corvo frowns down at the black plastic. It seems too big for what it should hold; granted, he's never seen a signet ring outside of stage jewellery, but he can't imagine why they'd need chilling. He lifts the box of and tries to see through the opaque plastic, with predictable results. What exactly is he handing over? It feels there's ice inside, and judging from the weight Havelock's 'delivery' is more than just rings. Drugs, maybe?

 

Corvo acts without thinking, flicking open the plastic catches on the side of the container, glancing around to check for unexpected company. The coast looks clear, and it's not as though he'd be in any serious trouble, but...

 

He was right about the ice. It's in cubes and sealed in two separate plastic bags, packed in as close as possible. The signet rings are right in the middle, but they're not what catches Corvo's eye. He prods at a plastic bag with a fingertip (which doesn't shake in the slightest, and later he'll look back on that and wonder, about sheep and wolves and what the hell is wrong with him), straightens it out so he can make out what's staining the ice cubes pink inside.

 

It's a tongue. Corvo nudges the signet rings out of the way; he should be feeling...something, there should be some kind of reaction unfolding inside him, but all he can do is stare down at the stained plastic, the slow seep of blood tainting the melting ice cubes, and the two tongues. They're each in their own bag, and it's only now that Corvo notices the white labels stuck to each one. Morgan, he reads on the first, then tugs the other one into view so he can read, Custis.

 

How thoughtful, he thinks numbly. This way Treavor won't have to wonder which is which. How tidy.

 

There's something seriously wrong with him. Corvo stands slowly, fitting the lid back in place. Everything seems oddly distant; he has little memory of leaving the courtyard and making his way back out to the Golden Cat's main entrance. Nobody tries to stop him. On the street, people move around Corvo like he's invisible, brushing past with unseeing eyes. It's fitting for the frightening pit that's opened up in his stomach; empty, and shockingly heavy. He wonders how easy it would be to just sink in and stay.

 

Back at the Hound Pits Corvo stumbles up the steps to Havelock's room, ignoring Lydia's queries and Wallace's rebukes as he passes them. Oh, he knows they're talking, and they're talking to him, but somehow the words themselves don't register as anything coherent; he just keeps on walking.

 

Havelock is waiting, and he's not alone. A very pale Treavor Pendleton sits perched on the edge of the couch staring down at his hands. He glances up sharply as Corvo enters, his eyes a little too wide.

"Ah, Corvo. Come in." The Admiral beckons him inside, and Corvo does as he's told. He makes a conscious effort not to look Pendleton. "I trust there were no problems?"

"Nothing whatsoever," Corvo says expressionlessly. "We made the exchange, and Slackjaw sends his regards." He registers the way Havelock's eyes narrow slightly at the name. Did he think Corvo would be meeting a lackey?

 

It doesn't really matter anyway. Corvo hands over the black plastic container, and makes no comment about how cold it is, or how disproportionately sized, given that it should only contain two rings.

"Good. You do not fail to impress." If Havelock is aware of what he's just received, he gives no sign of it. "We thank you for your work."

"I don't know if I can," Pendleton says abruptly. "My own brothers..."

"Who were terrible men, as you yourself can attest to," Havelock tells him. "Things will be very different now; I expect you'll have sole control over the estate by the end of the week, including your childhood home, and family fortune."

Pendleton snorts, a little shakily. "What's left of it, anyway." He offers Corvo a slightly wan smile, and doesn't seem to notice when it isn't returned. "And of course, that leaves us one step closer to avenging Jessamine."

"Of course," Corvo echoes, and pretends he actually believes they give a damn about Jessamine Kaldwin. "If you'll excuse me, I should be on shift. Callista has the evening off, I don't want to leave them short staffed."

 

It would be simpler, he thinks, if they'd just leave her out of it. He could have completed Havelock's tasks just as well if he'd been threatened, or blackmailed somehow; why bring Jessamine into it? Did they think it would make him more loyal, less astute in seeing right through their pathetic lies about...conspiracy, and assassinations? This plan is about power for Martin, money for Pendleton, and for Havelock...

 

Corvo's finding it hard to focus. He needs to think, if he's going to find a way to take advantage of this game they have him playing, but it feels like trying to catch butterflies in his bare hands. Everything is fluttery and incorporeal; nothing makes sense.

 

He works through the rest of his shift in a sort of heavy fog, dazed and unable to concentrate; Lydia shouts at him several times, but he forgets what she says the moment she turns away. It's a familiar feeling, though worse than the last time. Getting the news about Jessamine's murder from armed Watch members was bad enough, but at least he didn't hold himself responsible. That came later. Now he has the shock and the guilt, intermingling in his stomach and weighing him down until he has to keep checking to see if the floorboards are starting to collapse beneath him. They're probably half rotten; if he breaks through them, would the fall to the basement be enough to snap his neck?

 

There's no early night for Corvo. He cleans up on autopilot, ignores Cecelia's repeated, "Corvo? Are you alright?" until eventually she stops asking, and settles for shooting him frightened looks every couple of minutes. It hurts, but it's good, in a way. He doesn't deserve her trust anymore.

 

Corvo gets ready for bed just as mechanically; change, shower, brush teeth. He barely even registers sitting down on the edge of his mattress, until his wrists start to ache and he realises he's had his head buried in his hands for the past...anyone's guess really. His cellphone is a few meters away, and he doesn't feel like reaching for it to check the time.

 

He needs...Someone, anyone, in a way he doesn't remember ever needing, and it feels like swallowing a glass of acid when he realises that Jessamine would have been his first choice. She's gone, though, and Emily is sleeping. Callista, Cecelia, even Samuel; Corvo can't justify waking them, when they don't get enough down time as it is.

 

Corvo is part way through digging in the pockets of his coat before he realises what he's doing, and even then the need outweighs his embarrassment. There's someone he knows who might not be sleeping, who probably doesn't sleep anywhere near as much as the normal human being, by virtue of probably not being all that human. And maybe he'll milk every second of entertainment that he can from a desperate call at past four in the morning, but Corvo couldn't care less.

 

The Outsider's card is exactly as he remembers it, all clean, thick white card and the distinctive symbol that he still can't work out. It doesn't matter though, because it's not what Corvo is looking for. He turns it over, and on the back is-

nothing. It's blank. Corvo tilts it, trying to see if there's something printed, maybe in silver ink, so only the card holder can see it. No luck. No cellphone number, not even an email address. He has no way of reaching the Outsider, and in the vacuum left by a sudden absence of hope, Corvo asks himself why he wanted to in the first place. What could the man have possibly offered? If he has a single kindly bone in his body he's yet to exhibit it, which means sympathy is out of the question, and he probably wouldn't understand the meaning of being comforting if Corvo smacked him over the head with a dictionary.

 

No. It's late, and sleep is the best option. Corvo's well aware that he can't live off caffeine; he puts the card back in his coat pocket, careful not to damage its crisp edges, and huddles under the covers. Sleep comes eventually, though he's not really sure when. One second the room is dark, and then it is blue, and Corvo is blinking up at a ceiling riddled with gaps.

 

This time, he doesn't protest before rising from the bed and leaving the confines of his attic not-room. It makes sense, in a way; he wanted to talk to the Outsider before he slept, and his subconscious has provided.

 

Glitter crunches under his feet as he approaches the base of the metal staircase; there's a hat stand off to the side, feather boas hanging off its arms, and torn fragments of paper lie scattered over the first few stairs. Against his better judgement, Corvo picks up a few.

 

And Fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling-

and,

-told me to tell you he won't come this evening but surely tomorrow.

and,

Un gelo me serpeggia nel sen-

 

He tosses them aside and starts taking the steps two at a time, silently cursing his own mind for being so damn difficult. Would it be impossible to build in an elevator? Does the platform have to be quite so high up?

 

Corvo reaches the top step and discovers that he's alone. Also, naked. How it escaped his notice before now, he's not sure.

"That never happened before." He tries to keep his tone light, as if the sudden exposure isn't making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. It's not cold in the...Void, and it's not even a real place, so it shouldn't matter, and yet-

shivering slightly, Corvo wanders across the platform to stare off the edge. Up, or down? He still can't tell; the blue doesn't seem to change in tone whatever direction he looks in, and for the first time he acknowledges just how oppressive it is. If he jumps, will he wake? It worked once, and this isn't real. Why should he be afraid?

 

"Baring your soul to me, Corvo?" comes a soft voice behind him, and Corvo spins around fast enough to pull muscles in his neck except, of course, he doesn't.

 

The Outsider is watching him with a slight smile, his hands clasped behind his back; he floats about an inch off the ground, his feet almost touching the weathered wood beneath them. Corvo fights the urge to cover himself.

"Not much point in secrets here, is there?" He gestures around himself, and the Outsider's smile widens slightly.

"Not from me," he agrees. "You cannot hide yourself from me. Come, Corvo. Won't you tell me about your success today? Let me praise you, and flatter you, as no one else will... How are our friends, the Pendleton twins?"

"I don't-" Corvo swallows, tries again. "I'm not telling you what you already know. Havelock hired someone to get rid of them, I delivered the payment. I'm just a messenger, I didn't kill anyone."

 

The Outsider looks him in the eye and flicks a shockingly pink tongue over his lips. "Didn't you?" he says softly, and drifts a little closer. "But they were bad people, cruel people, and their passing will not be mourned. Why should you suffer guilt? Revel in it, Corvo. Your enemies fall, one after the other, and you tower over their broken bodies and take trophies as your reward."

"I never-"

"Campbell's black book. The Pendletons'...rings." The Outsider- except it's not, this is not him, because he's never been so predatory that Corvo can recall- licks his lips again, and Corvo finds he has no room to back away from his steady approach. "What will it be next? Burrows has a financer, a woman; what trophy will you claim from her?" He reaches out to cup Corvo's chin, stroking a thumb over the line of his jaw with fingers that are just a little too cold. "I await your next move eagerly," he breathes, and his lips are colder than his hands, colder still when he licks Corvo's mouth open, drinks in his heat with a terrifying hunger.

 

His hands drop to Corvo's sides, grasping his hips, and if his grip doesn't leave a mark then surely the ice of his fingers will- or would, were they actually real. And this is not. The tongue that flicks across Corvo's lower lip renders him pliant in a way that it never could in the waking world, and it doesn't matter how soft his short, dark hair feels under Corvo's fingers, it's still just a dream.

"Leave, then." The Outsider eases back enough to look Corvo in the eyes; he strokes his thumbs over Corvo's hipbones; the gesture shouldn't feel as good as it does. Distantly, Corvo registers the way his own breathing quickens. "If this displeases you, leave."

"You're not real," he says, and doesn't move as the touch turns exploratory.

"No," the Outsider says (it's not him, Corvo thinks, he wouldn't-). "And how wonderful, when you consider all the options available to us in this place...You could have anything, Corvo."

"I don't-" he shivers, his hips instinctively pushing up into the Outsider's hands. "If you're me, then why bother asking?"

 

The Outsider laughs; his teeth flash very white, like marble, or milk, or-

"Why indeed," he says, and kneels.

Chapter Text

"How do I look?"

 

It takes Corvo a moment to fully understand the question; granted, he hasn't really woken up yet. "What do you mean?" Coffee at his elbow, and a leftover apricot pastry from yesterday, slightly stale but nonetheless edible. It's a start.

 

Cecelia wraps her arms around herself, a protective gesture that seems a little more jittery than usual. "I mean, do I look okay? Do I look nice? I stole Lydia's straighteners but I'm not sure I used them right, and you can't even tell once my hair's up anyway." She flushes a deep pink at Corvo's raised eyebrows. "I knew it, I shouldn't have bothered. Nobody notices me anyway; what a waste."

 

She's halfway  out the kitchen door when Corvo calls her back.

"Cecelia, you look lovely," he tells her, and tries to make it as reassuring as possible. He's the last person she should be asking about this kind of thing, given that he lives in his work uniform, or in clothes that haven't fitted properly for months. Still, he tries. "It makes a difference, it's really...good. Though I thought you didn't want people noticing you?"

 

Cecelia kicks the edge of a cupboard, frowning down at it so as to avoid looking at Corvo. Though knowing her, she could just as easily be checking for a scuff mark she'll have to clean later.

 

"I don't, not really. But I just wondered...You know, if she comes back in, it might be nice- oh, what am I even doing?" She shrugs, a little bitterly. "This is stupid, but I can't help it. Whatever Callista and Lydia say about having favourites, I'd still be a bit happier if I got to see her for a bit. I guess you know all about that, huh, Corvo?"

 

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Corvo tells her, trying not to feel too offended. He understands what she's implying, and he'd tell her all about the different ways she's mistaken, but that would require actually enunciating this...slander. "And you've met the woman once, for all you know she's an axe murderer."

 

"Or worse; straight."

 

Someone's got it bad.

 

She trudges out, shoulders slumped. Corvo shakes his head and turns back to his coffee. Opening time is an hour away but he's running early for a change, and doesn't feel especially suicidal, which is also pleasant.

 

Morgan and Custis Pendleton are a constant presence in the back of his mind, faceless bodies lying in a ditch somewhere; he doesn't actually know what they look like. Treavor might have a picture, but Corvo imagines that particular conversation and shudders. Better if he doesn't know; maybe they'll fade more quickly.

 

Did he dream of them last night? Corvo stares down at half a glazed apricot and finds it has no more answers than he does. If he dreamed at all it's been long since forgotten, and that might be for the best; he prods the apricot with an idle finger and wonders if its texture resembles that of the Pendletons' tongues. Another mystery that Treavor might be able to clear up. What has he done with the things? What does anyone do with the severed tongues of their elder siblings? Corvo imagines them mounted like butterflies somewhere on a wall at Pendleton Manor, and laughs into his coffee.

 

Thank all that is holy that the Admiral doesn't require sanity in his employees. Corvo gets a few of his regulars actually enquiring about his health for the first few hours on shift; apparently he's smiling more than usual, and they find that a bit worrying. Corvo is in agreement with them, but the alternatives are a lot less pleasant, and however concerned Griff, or Darion are, they're probably not willing to stand around while Corvo vents at them.

 

Sokolov is late, or maybe the Outsider's had him kidnapped; Corvo's favourite unnerving customer appears without ceremony around mid-afternoon and makes his way over to the counter. For once, he passes the Other Menu without a glance in favour of eyeing Corvo reproachfully.

 

"You weren't here yesterday," he says, and his tone is as empty as ever, but Corvo gets the distinct impression that his absence was a major inconvenience. It's...flattering.

 

"Errands to run," he says casually; apparently the Outsider's 'sources' aren't as omniscient as they should be. "But it's not like nobody else can make you the messed up things you order; they'd probably do it with less complaining."

 

"That may be so, my dear, but I would still consider the finished product to be inferior. It has to be you."

 

"Wait," Corvo says. "What did you just call me?"

 

"One Iced Ghiacciato Green Tea with whipped cream and those strange bubble things. And maybe a shot of vanilla-"


"I'm not putting vanilla in your green tea," Corvo snaps, and starts ringing up the order. There's an itching in the back of his head, the faintest sense that there's something he's forgotten; some kind of déjà vu, and Corvo can't work out if it's referring to the coffee shop, the drink, or the Outsider himself.

 

For once, the Outsider doesn't hang around to chat while Corvo makes his drink. One second he's there behind the counter, and the next Corvo looks over to find him seated in a booth with a slim black laptop, tapping away at the keys with his long fingers. He must be confident of Sokolov's continued absence, if he plans to stay for a while. Corvo wonders if he should ask about that, before deciding it's best he doesn't know; Sokolov could be lying in the same ditch as what's left of the Pendletons, and it still wouldn't be Corvo's business.

 

He's still thinking of the Pendletons as he brings the Outsider's drink out, weaving around the empty tables and unused chairs that only highlight how deep the Hound Pits has slumped. Where did everyone go? What happens if the money runs dry? They have Emily, of course, and Corvo doesn't know exactly what her inheritance is worth but it must be a significant sum; Havelock may fire staff to cut costs, but he'll be sure to keep Emily near.

 

When Martin has his influence, Treavor his family money and house, and the Admiral's rival is brought down, what will they do to Corvo? Surely by that point he'll know too much?

 

He places the Outsider's vivid green drink on the table, well out of elbow reach.

 

"I don't think you can rely on me to be your actor," Corvo says abruptly. The Outsider looks up to give him a decidedly unimpressed stare.

 

"Why, exactly?" His tone is frosty; Corvo wonders if anyone's ever refused him something he wants before. He glances around, but Cecelia has taken over the till and there aren't any customers as it is.

 

Warily, Corvo sits down opposite the Outsider. He only means to give a brief explanation, some kind of plausible-sounding reason for the mysterious disappearance he sees looming in his future. Certainly he doesn't intend to get into the details of the thing. Unfortunately, this is not Wallace he's trying to bluff; Corvo opens his mouth, and suddenly discovers that lying in the face of a pair of unblinking black eyes is a lot harder than it should be.

 

"I may or may not have gotten myself involved with some kind of gang hit," he says before he can stop himself. "And if I'm really honest I don't regret it as much as I should, but that doesn't change the fact that I was there, and I'm expendable- why are you writing this down?"

 

He actually is. The Outsider's fingers fly over the keys of his laptop, his brow slightly furrowed, apparently unconcerned by the prospect of Corvo's imminent execution.

 

"It's interesting," he says absently. "An unexpected twist to the story, when I thought I had predicted all possible futures. I can only guess at where this will lead, but the results will surely be worth watching."

 

 Corvo clenches his fists under the table. "Interesting? I know too much! How long until they kill me off?"

 

"Be reasonable, Corvo." The Outsider's tone is even, relaxed. His black eyes dart between the screen of his laptop and Corvo's face. "You have proven yourself useful in carrying out the Admiral's requirements, and there are yet two conspirators to remove from the picture. Add that to the fact that Emily Kaldwin remains inordinately fond of you, and that you and I have developed an obvious rapport...From a narrative perspective, it makes no sense to kill you just yet."

 

"Oh, you think so?" Corvo hisses at him across the table. "How about from a real life perspective? And even if you're right, they're still going to kill me!"

 

"They may try, yes."

 

Corvo throws up his hands in frustration. "Brilliant. I'm on break soon, so I'll just go out to the back yard and start digging my own grave for them, shall I? Would you consider that pleasing to your narrative?"

 

"An intriguing thought, but ultimately it veers too far into the melodramatic. I prefer to leave that sort of thing to Sokolov and his ilk."

 

That seems to be Corvo's cue to get up and storm off. He'll get no help here. The sinking feeling in his stomach stems from a combination of his own helplessness, and the subconscious hope he's been trying to deny: that the Outsider might lower himself to the level of mortal men, and actually be useful for once. Though why Corvo would even consider that is a mystery. They haven't...bonded. They're not friends. Even co-workers seems generous for what is, in the end, a ridiculously unbalanced relationship. He stands slowly.

 

"You have time, Corvo," the Outsider says quietly. His eyes don't leave his laptop. "A protagonist who scales the fourth wall and finds himself in the unique position of being able to see his own death scene approaching... what does he do? How does he act? Simple enough to read the script he is handed and a different thing entirely to improvise his own, but I would not go so far as to call it impossible. Use the advantage your foresight grants you, and plan accordingly. Build defences, isolate enemies, identify allies. You are not yet written from the story, Corvo."

 

It's possibly the longest speech he's made in Corvo's presence, and he delivers it in a monotone without once looking up to see if he's being listened to. His fingers don't move on the keys; Corvo has the distinct impression that this exchange, whatever it is, will not be appearing in the final draft. They're talking between the lines, and he's not sure what rules apply here.

 

He takes the plunge.

"And what are you? An ally?"

 

"The narrator," the Outsider says. "A paragon of neutrality, charged with the twin tasks of observation and documentation."

 

"But will you help me? If I can't... if I need you." I'm afraid, Corvo doesn't say. Two people may be dead, and I know they helped with Jessamine's murder, but I also know I'm not a hero. I couldn't protect her, and this isn't some revenge story. It's not a game. I'm terrified. He says none of this, and folds his arms in case his hands are shaking.

 

The Outsider sighs and finally looks up at Corvo. "If I agree, will you promise to stop complaining about my orders?"

                                                                                                                             

"But you like me complaining," Corvo argues to cover the way his shoulders slump a little in relief. It's not a spoken agreement, but he never really expected that. It feels honest; he'll sleep a little easier for it.

 

"I suppose I do." The Outsider turns away, reaching for his drink for the first time since Corvo brought it to him. "Your co-worker appears to require assistance," he adds without looking. Corvo glances over his shoulder to see Cecelia looking hassled, and a queue of five increasingly impatient customers. Exactly when they appeared is uncertain, but he'd better go help out.

 

"Right, I have to go. Thanks." He says the last part quietly, hoping it comes across as fervently as he means it.

 

The Outsider just shrugs. "Good luck Corvo. And whatever happens, know that I will be watching with great interest."

 

Corvo rushes off to save an increasingly shaky Cecelia, fielding orders and enquiries about their new cherry flavouring ("Delayed, we're having a bit of trouble stocking it right now, what with the dock workers striking, but we'll keep you posted), and the usual inane questions ("Is your coffee real Serkonan? Do you import it yourselves? Which region does it come from?"), and by the time he's done the Outsider is long gone, with only his empty takeaway cup left to show he was ever there.

 

Corvo goes to clean up the table, replaying their conversation in his mind as he does so. He's not stupid; the Outsider hasn't offered to protect him, or Emily for that matter, and he hasn't offered to intercede on Corvo's behalf if things get...bad. But he also hasn't tried to distance himself, though he knows about the plot-

 

I never told him about that, Corvo thinks, pausing mid-way through wiping the table. He knows how many 'conspirators' there are, and that we're getting rid of them. Does he know they had Jessamine killed? He remembers the Outsider's oblique sympathy the one time they discussed her, what feels like a long time ago. He must know, or at least suspect. But of course, he'd never do anything to change the way things are; if the Outsider were to seek vengeance, he'd do it by proxy, and nobody would ever see his hand in the resulting chaos. Corvo shakes his head as a new thought occurs.

 

He knows about the Pendletons.

 

Knows, but doesn't judge. He didn't cringe from Corvo, the way Corvo cringed from his own reflection in the mirror that morning. Is this something he's familiar with? For the first time, Corvo regrets missing the performances of his past works. They might have told him a lot about the way the Outsider works, but there's no changing that now. He finishes cleaning the table and heads back to his post behind the till.

 

Later, things are quietening down a bit and Corvo's considering taking a break, maybe going to see Emily for a few minutes, when the door opens and Daud walks in.

 

Though 'walks' is generous; the man has a strut to match Martin's, and what he lacks in charm he makes up for by being a domineering bastard. It's said he's the real power behind the Regency Black, however much money Burrows pours into it, and all the staff jump when he gives the order. How a barista manages that is a mystery, because Corvo is lucky if Cecelia does what he tells her, let alone Lydia or Wallace. As usual, Daud is wearing the distinctive red jacket that became an inseparable part of his reputation, after the Outsider immortalised it on stage; red to hide the blood of his enemies.

 

He's so famous he doesn't even need a second name. There's only one Daud in Dunwall.

 

On the other hand, this is also the muse who no longer interests the Outsider; for the first time in his life, Corvo finds himself in the position of being the 'other man'. He'd be lying if he said it didn't leave him just a little smug, somewhere underneath the sudden fear for his own life.

 

"What do you want?" Corvo makes himself stand still behind the counter, though all his instincts scream for him to run for some kind of knife from the kitchens. Daud has that effect on people. "Has Burrows finally kicked you out? Because we're not hiring, though if you want to try begging I won't stop you."

 

Daud looks him up and down impassively, and as usual Corvo is left with the distinct impression that he's failed some kind of test. He clenches his fists, and the other man shrugs.

"Funny; I hear this place is a few months from going completely broke."

 

"We're fine," Corvo lies, and Daud smirks.

 

"And I'm next in line for a duchy in Serkonos. Nice to see you're not going down without a fight though; nothing fun about an easy victory." He makes a show of reading the Other Menu, eyebrows slightly raised as if he can't quite believe it's a thing that exists; Corvo is left to cringe behind the counter. He's being judged, he can feel it, and it's not like he can argue the fairness of it. They're both originally Serkonan. He knows as well as Daud that much of what the Hound Pits sells is an insult to the name of coffee.

 

The silence is like a knife to the stomach, and Corvo's had enough.

 

"If you could get off your high horse long enough to order something, I'd appreciate it. I'm supposed to be on break."

 

"Understaffed, are you? That doesn't inspire much confidence." Daud's eyes come to rest on the list of potential toppings, and Corvo watches them widen slightly as they take in Pendleton's idea of a 'good selection'. Crumbled candy cane, a variety of cookies, chilli flakes, freeze-dried berries of all varieties, dried banana, shredded mint leaves, rose petals, toffee pieces, liquorice, chocolate chips (dark, milk, or white), cinnamon dusting, flaked coconut, crushed hazelnuts, almond slivers, and he still hasn't got to the section for the sauces.

 

Please just leave, Corvo wants to say. I've had the worst week imaginable, I don't need you trying to assert your superiority. He says none of it; the number of people he's willing to waste words on is diminishing by the day, and Daud was never one of them to begin with. If he'd just choose his damn drink-

 

The front door opens again, though their new visitor makes it about two steps inside before freezing in place.

 

"Oh no, not you." For the first time in living memory, Corvo finds himself grateful for Martin's unexpected appearance. Something for the record books, but he's desperate for a break from Daud's cold grey stare.

 

"Teague Martin. It's been a while." Daud turns away from his perusal of the Other Menu to scowl at the Overseer. Or to scowl back, because the look on Martin's face is nothing short of vicious.

 

"Not long enough, you treacherous son of a bitch." He's rattled; Corvo isn't sure what to make of it, except that anything that leaves Martin so unguarded can't be a good thing. A wiser man might turn and run for it but Corvo gets the feeling that if he leaves there'll be a murder- and he's had enough of murders to last him for a long time. He stays.

 

"You're one to talk about treachery-" Daud begins, and Corvo decides he's had enough.

 

"Hey. Hey, you two." It's a mistake, he realises almost immediately. Now he has two sets of piercing eyes giving him the death glares they'd previously reserved for each other. There's going to be a fight. Daud's red jacket could be hiding pretty much anything, but Corvo would bet on Martin carrying some kind of weapon. A knife, most likely. Something subtle, utilitarian, something that wouldn't be seen until it was too late.

 

Corvo wonders when he started entertaining the idea that he might be employed by some very bad people, and isn't surprised to find it's been creeping up on him for some time now. He has to get Emily out of this place, and soon. Whatever it takes.

 

They're still looking at him. Corvo wields his notebook like a shield, and wishes he had something sharper on hand than his ballpoint pen with which to defend himself if things get ugly.

"This is a coffee shop, not the setting for another Insurrection. Have your little fight, but have it over coffee, or have it outside." There must be something vaguely authoritative in his tone; both glares turn thoughtful, and there's a moment of silence before-

 

"An espresso. And if you put anything else anywhere near it, I'll have to gut you," Daud snaps, though Corvo only catches about half of it through Martin saying, "A Morlish coffee, extra strong. I'll need it, with him here."

 

"Great," Corvo says to both of them. He's about to try and wrestle through the logistics of charging Daud, but not Martin, when suddenly they're both at the counter, side-eyeing each other and handing him coins before he so much as opens his mouth. Corvo takes the money mutely, and rings their orders up together. He doesn't quite fumble with the keys on the till, but it's a close thing; you could cut the tension in the air with Martin's probably-existent knife.

 

It's a relief to move away from them and behind the protective bulk of their coffee machine. Corvo gets to work on the orders, ears pricked for the first sign of trouble. If they end up setting the Hound Pits on fire, again...

 

"I see your tastes haven't changed, Overseer. Strange; I've never known you to be predictable." Daud's voice is a sandpaper rasp, dripping acid all over Martin's smoother tones.

 

"I have a preference for the classics, as you well know. Also, it's High Overseer as of this morning; some things do change." Martin's smug superiority is clearly audible, though Corvo's crouched behind the counter reaching for takeaway cups. The news isn't really a surprise, of course. If anything, Corvo is shocked it took Martin this long to supplant Campbell.

 

"So now you'll be even less tolerable than you were before," he hears Daud say, and Martin barks a laugh.

 

"I'd trade being tolerable for being influential, any day. Though speaking of influence...I hear you haven't acted since the Outsider dropped you for a newer model. How does failure taste to the beaten man, hm, Daud? Have to say, I think it suits you. Some people just aren't made for greatness."

 

"I have no use for greatness, unless it comes with a large sack of coin and the sure promise of more after that." Corvo peers over the counter to see Daud, arms folded, not glaring at Martin. In fact, it seems like whatever fight was simmering under the surface of their pointed jabs has somehow... Defused itself. Daud isn't the easiest man to read, but Corvo would swear there's something closer to bitterness than anger in his expression.

 

"You always were narrow-minded," Martin says quietly. "What wouldn't you do, for your own greed?"

 

"Put up with you, for starters," Daud retorts, and the thread of amusement in his voice prompts Corvo to bring their drinks out to the counter while it's safe. Daud accepts his with a nod, but Martin's eyes flicker to Corvo as if he'd forgotten all about him.

 

"Ah, thank you, Corvo. I trust we haven't been bothering you...Catching up, for old times' sake. We knew each other a while ago."

 

"In better times," Daud says, taking a sip of his coffee. He makes no comment on the quality, though Corvo knows damn well it's exceptional, but perhaps that in itself is a compliment.

 

"Interesting times, certainly." Martin's eyes are fixed on Daud, the usual calculation mingling with amusement. "I trust you haven't lost your skill with a blade?"

 

"Trust, Martin? Coming from you? I don't believe it." Daud's smirks are as terrifying as his glares; thankfully, this one isn't aimed at Corvo. "Come and try me, if you're not too busy." He doesn't say goodbye before turning to go, though Corvo's not sure why he expected it.

 

Martin snorts to his retreating back. "Only if I get desperate." His eyes follow Daud out of the shop, wariness mingling with something a lot more worrying. Whatever went down in those mysterious 'better times', Corvo doesn't want to know. He tries not to notice Martin's white-knuckled grip on his coffee cup.

 

"The Admiral's upstairs, I think," he says as neutrally as possible, and Martin nods a little vaguely.

 

"Yes, of course. I have news for him, and plans to set in stone...We are making progress, what with the Pendleton twins out of the way...Yes. Right." He's rattled, in a way Corvo's never seen before, and never wants to see again. An off-balance Martin can only mean disaster; Corvo can almost forgive him the flippant attitude towards the elder Pendletons, given that he's clearly not thinking straight. Almost.

 

'Staircase is that way," he says sweetly, and just like that Martin's eyes snap back to their usual cool blue.

 

"Thank you, Corvo, there's no way I could possibly have known that myself." Martin pushes past him and out into the back corridor, and Corvo just makes out his muttered, "bastard," as he leaves. Whether that's a reference to Daud or Corvo himself is anyone's guess.

 

Cecelia makes an appearance soon after that, wearing a ragged jacket in place of her usual apron, and the grey cap she dons whenever Havelock isn't around to make her remove it. Dinner break, presumably; Corvo checks the time and realises with a start that it's late afternoon. He's not really sure where the day went.

 

"I'm not going out long," Cecelia says, coming over to the counter on her way out. "Sorry about leaving you to deal with all those people before; I don't suppose-"

 

"No," Corvo tells her, because she doesn't normally initiate idle conversation, and he can only think of one thing Cecelia might really want to know. "She didn't come in while you were gone. Guess we'll have to wait for tomorrow."

 

"Right," Cecelia agrees, disappointment written across her pale cheeks. And that's when the phone starts ringing, making them both jump.

 

Corvo had almost forgotten the thing existed. It sits under the counter, tucked behind the takeaway cups, straw refills, and boxes of sugar sachets. Havelock had it put in one ambitious afternoon, when he was still keen on the idea of people being able to phone ahead and have their coffee waiting for them when they arrived. Sadly, someone (and Corvo doesn't like to think of himself as prejudiced, but he's pretty sure it was the Whalers from Regency Black, probably acting on Daud's orders) abused the service, and they wasted a horrifying amount of supplies on drinks that were never collected, before Havelock irritably changed the number. Corvo doesn't actually know the new one; presumably it's in the phonebook somewhere, but nobody's ever used it as far as he's aware.

 

He picks the receiver up when it becomes plain that Cecelia isn't going to. "Hello, this is the Hound Pits Coffee Shop and-"

 

"Do you deliver?" It's a woman's voice, laced with impatience and caffeine deprivation. Corvo's fairly sure he's heard it before.

 

"You want us to deliver your coffee?" Corvo meets Cecelia's wide eyes across the counter, and that's when something clicks in his mind.

 

"I know it's a bit strange, but hear me out," Delilah says in his ear. "My exhibition deadline was pushed forward, and the only way I'll be able to meet it outside of witchcraft is by foregoing sleep. It's nothing new, I've done it before, but I can't spare the time to come and fetch the necessary amount of espresso, and my sisters are all working on other things. I'm done with humanity. Tell me you deliver."

 

Corvo grabs for his nearby notepad, scribbling a large, "Don't go just yet," which he holds up for Cecelia to read. She opens her mouth to protest, then closes it again, nodding in resignation.

 

"Sure we can deliver to you," Corvo says, and watches Cecelia start waving her hands, mouthing protests he can't quite make out. "Cecelia was just going out, I'm sure she'd be happy to make a detour."

 

"The hell she would," Delilah says. "But I see no other option, if the deadline is to be met. Make me the largest size you have, and make it strong enough to wake the dearly departed." Corvo waves Cecelia over and hands her the phone, watches as her terrified, "Hello?" turns into "Oh, it's you," and starts making the strongest coffee he can.

 

By the time he's finished it, and placed the takeaway cup inside two others to keep it warm, Cecelia's taken down Delilah's credit card details and they've moved on to chatting about the finer points of baking focaccia. How this is a thing anyone needs to chat about is something Corvo doesn't understand, but Cecelia is all smiles, so it must be fairly entertaining.

 

"I'll be right over," she says as Corvo places the order in front of her. "No, it's fine, I won't get lost. Don't worry about me, get back to work." She hangs up, her cheeks slightly flushed. "Don't say anything, Corvo, please. I'm just being silly-"

 

"You're never silly," he says patiently, and it's true. The only person at the Hound Pits who could potentially be referred to as 'silly' is Emily, and she's excused by virtue of being eight years old. "Aside from Callista, you're the most sensible person I know. Does she live that far away?"

 

Cecelia smiles at the compliment, and Corvo makes a mental note to give her a few more of them. "The old Brigmore Manor, she said. I know where that is, it's not so far. And she says they're getting an entire truckload of pizza delivered for dinner, so I'm welcome to stay if I have time-"

 

"You have time," Corvo says before she can ask. "I'll cover for you if the Admiral asks, it's fine." It's a little selfish as well, but he can't tell her that. An evening without Cecelia will be busier than usual, which means an evening of being unable to concentrate on anything except orders, and then hopefully a night of being too exhausted to dream. Though perhaps 'selfish' isn't the word, not with Cecelia almost skipping out the door, the coffee held out in front of her like some kind of holy grail. It's more of a mutually beneficial arrangement. And at least one of them is happy about it.

 

The night is a quiet one in the end; Corvo wonders if news of the Pendletons' disappearances has started spreading yet, or if the gossip columnists are still agog about Campbell's arrest. Whatever the reason, their usual rush of post-performance cocktail connoisseurs is more of a quiet trickle, and even the Hatters aren't out in force. No giggling young men or women, and very few couples; Corvo's rarely seen it so dead, and Lydia only complains about Cecelia's absence once. After a while of total silence, she just sighs and goes to fetch a book. A romance novel, Corvo can't help but notice; she catches him looking and smiles.

 

"Everyone needs a little entertainment. Mine just happens to be the Young Prince of Tyvia."

 

"Did he actually exist?" Corvo asks, not so much because he actually wants to know, as he'd rather not stand around in silence. It's not often they have opportunity for anything resembling a friendly conversation. "I've heard of the books, of course, but was he based off someone?"

 

Lydia puts the book aside with a laugh. "You ever meet a Tyvian like Prince Kallisarr? I think the sequel gave him Serkonan ancestry to try make it more believable, as if anyone cares. Pure fiction, but I'm not too fussy. Might go see the play they're making, if I can find the time, and get away without the Admiral knowing. Can you imagine his reaction?"

 

Corvo snorts with laughter, and then the door opens to let in a few customers, Watchmen coming off shift and gathering for a quick whiskey before heading home. He sorts out their orders, waving away Lydia's offer of help; she goes back to leaning against the counter, her nose buried in what looks to be an especially riveting encounter.

 

They close early, in the end. It's just past midnight, but everyone's left. Outside, a steady mist of rain is starting to fall, and Cecelia creeps back in while Lydia's back is turned; she's not quite fast enough to hide the big smile affixed to her face. It suits her, Corvo thinks, just as it suits Lydia. In the time since Jessamine's death, it feels like he's forgotten what everyone's smiles look like.

 

"Quiet night," Lydia says to him as they get the kitchen tidied up. "It's a shame, we could have used the money."

 

"Is it that bad?" Corvo gives his bench a last wipe, and tosses the cloth into the laundry basket. That's something Lydia would normally tell him off for; this time she just sighs.

 

"You have no idea. We're sinking, Corvo, between Wallace's mistakes, and all of Pendleton's exotic ingredients, and there are whole chunks of money I just can't find; they disappear, and the Admiral says not to worry about it, but I do. I have to." She gives him a tired smile. "I know I'm taking it out on you and the girls, though I try not to. I'm just worried about us all, and what we'll do if I can't keep us above water." Her shoulders slump as she finishes, as if this is something that's been on her mind for a while. Of course, Corvo knew, or at least suspected, but the least she could have done is tell them.

 

"Nobody said anything." He tries not to sound too accusing about it, but Lydia's smile turns apologetic.

 

"Havelock made me swear not to tell. I wouldn't be now, only it's getting really bad, and you have a right to know. Might be time to start looking around for other places, though I'd appreciate it if you did so quietly. No need to make a fuss."

 

"Right," Corvo says, as though it could actually be as simple as going out and finding a new job. He appreciates that nobody here believed the Watch's story about his guilt for a second; they're not a family, or at least not all of them, but at least he was accepted. That won't be the case elsewhere.

 

Lydia rests a hand on his arm. Corvo turns to find her...close, closer than he'd expected. She's wearing some kind of perfume, something flowery he doesn't remember having noticed before.

"I could do with some distracting, if you have nowhere else to be." She raises her eyebrows at Corvo's surprise. "Is it much of a shock? You're a good looking man, Corvo, and I'm not after anything with strings attached. Just if you're interested, mind."

 

"I-" Corvo struggles to get his head back together, gently removing Lydia's hand from his arm. "I'm sorry, I can't." He's never been all that good with tact, or any kind of sensitivity, and it doesn't help that he can't put to words the feeling in his gut that says he's not available. It's irrational, he hasn't made any promises to anyone, but somehow it still feels like cheating. "Not that I don't find you-"

 

"I thought that might be the case somehow," Lydia interrupts him easily. "Ah well. You don't ask, you don't get."

 

"Sorry," Corvo says again, and she waves it away.

 

"I wouldn't worry; you'd make the night a little less lonely, and I know you better than some stranger, that's all. A girl wants company every now and then, but she doesn't need it." She shrugs and tosses her apron into the basket of things that need washing. "Now, I have a date with one Prince Kallisarr of Tyvia, if you'll excuse me?" She laughs off his obvious embarrassment. "Night, Corvo. Don't stay up too late."

 

He doesn't, though his mind should be buzzing with the day's events. So many questions he can't answer, relationships he doesn't understand, worries he can't wrap his head around. Guilt, still boxed up neatly in the back of his head; he'll have to deal with that at some point, but given he still hasn't worked out how to cope with the guilt of Jessamine's death, maybe it's best left where it is for now.

 

Corvo stares up at his ceiling and wonders if it would be so terrible to just ask the Outsider for some means of contacting him, next time they meet. The man wants to know Corvo, to get inside his head and see what makes him tick; surely the long, guilt-ridden nights are a part of that. Maybe he'd listen for a while.

 

Unlikely. Corvo imagines the Outsider's condescending smirk, the way he distances himself from things that happen around him. It's not worth the humiliation for a few brief minutes of respite. Turning over in his scratchy sheets, Corvo closes his eyes.

 

He dreams of knives, abandoned cups of bright green tea, and a phantom phone that rings and rings, though he can't find it to answer.

Chapter Text

It says a lot about Dunwall's nobility that, even in the wake of two important disappearances and the arrest of a powerful figure, nobody so much as considers cancelling the annual Boyle masquerade.

 

Corvo had forgotten all about it. There are always parties on in the theatre district, and he can barely remember what day it is anyway; the biggest social event of the year is a little low on his list of worries, and more so because he's never been to one of them. Invite only, and the Watch are viciously happy to enforce that rule, for the bonus it'll earn them. The closest most people ever get to a Boyle party is the gossip, and the scandal. It's a bad year when there isn't at least one murder, public humiliation, and unplanned pregnancy by dawn.

 

Jessamine went to a few, at the height of her career; they weren't so bad, she'd said, so long as you laughed at everyone's jokes and didn't start any duels. And of course, the outfits alone made it worth the effort. The party is tomorrow, and almost every one of Corvo's customers has had something to say on the subject, whether or not they have a hope of attending.

 

At least everyone will get to see the midnight fireworks.

 

It's been a quiet week at the coffee shop, though thankfully the nights have picked up somewhat, and neither Martin nor Pendleton have been around at all. The former is busy tearing down Campbell's network, severing the weak links and replacing them with his own allies, probably cursing Corvo's name all the while; Campbell's black book would have made the job much easier. Corvo doesn't lose any sleep over this.

 

Pendleton is probably still in the Hound Pits somewhere, because that's where Wallace is, and Lydia keeps having to note down missing bottles of alcohol during the stocktake. His brothers are only missing, of course, and unless the bodies turn up soon he's in for a bit of  wait before he can move back into the family manor without raising inconvenient eyebrows. Even Dunwall tends to frown on blatant fratricide; subtlety is preferable in family matters, apparently.

 

None of this affects Corvo in the slightest, except that it means Havelock hasn't been able to finalise his plans for Burrows, or even for working out who his financier is.

 

"Hitmen aren't cheap," Havelock grumbled when Corvo asked pointedly if he even knew there was another member to the conspiracy, or if he proposed to just kill off someone who inconvenienced him and pretend it was relevant. "Burrows doesn't have that sort of coin. He controls most of the Tower these days, but it's a serious drain on profits to keep the place running. No, somebody else helped with the financing. May still be helping, if Martin's heard it right."

 

"Oh, of course. Because Martin can never be mistaken," Corvo said, and went to see if Emily wanted to show him her latest masterpiece.

 

In the calm before what will no doubt be a storm of disastrous proportions, Corvo has found himself with more time than usual for Jessamine's daughter. With Wallace off looking after Pendleton they're short staffed, and Callista hasn't been rostered as often lately. Nobody's seen her for more than a few hours at a time, and any questions are met with a shrug, and a "Sorry, ask the Admiral. I can't talk about it."

 

She's also been taken off her duties as Emily's tutor, which means Corvo is spending outrageous amounts of time inventing milkshakes and chocolate-related beverages, and trying to remember his Serkonan grammar, and the history of the whaling industry. Some of his customers have taken pity on his plight, and done their best to pitch in.

 

"...and then they lift the whale up on a harness and cut it open so all the goopy bits come out the bottom, and it's still alive. Did you know that, Corvo? I bet Callista didn't know that. And because whales are smart, they know what's happening, so they sing a special dying song and it's really sad. Isn't that interesting?"

 

Corvo hands over a glass of orange juice, having fought and won the argument in favour of restricting Emily to three hot chocolates a day. "Interesting isn't the word I'd use. Where is all this coming from, exactly?"

 

"Your friend." Emily eyes the marshmallow jar thoughtfully, and Corvo moves it onto a higher shelf before she decides they'd go well in her juice. "The one with creepy black eyes. He says he went to the slaw- slot- the place where they get the whale oil for our power, for research he was doing, and he saw it all. He says it was tragic."

 

"He'd better not say too much more, or he'll give you nightmares," Corvo snaps, glancing around the shop. There's no sign of the Outsider, but he doesn't always stick around unless he wants to interrogate Corvo, and Emily's constant presence lately has made that difficult.

 

Somewhat disappointingly, she seems to like the man just fine; possibly because he doesn't bother to censor out the blood in his stories, Corvo thinks wryly. He's going to have a hell of a time explaining this to Callista, and that's just assuming Emily doesn't start repeating some of the words she's been learning from their Hatter customers.

 

"I drew you another picture," Emily adds. Corvo accepts it with no small amount of trepidation.

 

Something has...changed about her drawings, the colours she uses, the subjects she fixates on. She'll sit behind the counter with her schoolbooks shoved off to one side, watching their customers come and go; some she watches a little longer, before reaching for her crayon box. And where once there'd have been unicorns and butterflies, now there seem to be an awful lot of weapons. She's going to need some new red crayons soon; Corvo noted it on the shopping list this morning, and Samuel raised his eyebrows, but accepted it without comment.

 

Campbell was the first one Corvo recognised; she must have seen his face in the newspapers, where it's been splashed across the front page for most of the week. But no picture he's seen had Campbell's face as a mess of red lines dissecting his features like jagged fence wire. Apparently they were meant as burns. The revelation doesn't help things in the slightest.

 

"They branded him," Emily says reasonably. "That's what the Admiral says."

 

Then there's her puppet Pendleton, slightly cross-eyed and held together with precisely drawn stitches; the black silhouettes surrounding him could be people, or maybe just artistic liberty. Emily had no explanation for that one, aside from having dreamt it at some point. And there are others.

 

Abigail, the anti establishment worker who comes in to leave fliers, and brief lectures on injustice in Dunwall's labour laws, drawn with a match in hand and burning buildings lined up behind her. Delilah in an odd dark green dress, thorny vines climbing her arms and neck. Customers whose names he can't remember, trails of blood sliding down their grey faces. Emily must be getting some of her inspiration from the outdated fashion catalogues Callista has lying around, but Corvo has to wonder. Is she dreaming all these things too? Should she be?

 

"Who did you draw this time?" He takes the picture and immediately recognises its subject. "Oh, I see. You realise he's smug enough as it is, without people making pictures of him?" The background is a light blue, drawn in swirls around him, and he's never told Emily about that-

"Why is the blue there?"

 

"He said it should be," Emily says. "Because that's where you dreamed him, and he thought it was very appropriate."

 

"The Void," Corvo says quietly, and Emily giggles.

 

"He named it just like his theatre! Didn't you notice?" Corvo stares at her in disbelief, mentally kicking himself. How could he not have noticed? Is it any wonder he dreams of the Outsider, when the man is making a dedicated effort to dig himself a place in the loneliest corners of Corvo's mind? He's subtle, more so than anyone Corvo has ever met, and the thought would be worrying if Corvo hadn't resigned himself to the Outsider's oddities a while ago.

 

"He wasn't floating last time," Corvo says absently, touching the crayon shadows under his feet. "I'd forgotten, he-" but the dream is blurred, myopically fogged by guilt; he hasn't dreamed of the Void since, and whether that's because Havelock and company are leaving him alone or because he's succeeded in blocking out the fate of Treavor's brothers, Corvo doesn't really care. It's not like he doesn't see enough of the Outsider as it is.

 

As drawings go, Emily's done happier. Corvo stares down at the blank eyes and dispassionate expression and decides to be grateful for the lack of blood in this one.

 

"I need a new blue crayon," Emily says, and Corvo hands her back the drawing, promising he'll put it on the shopping list. Then he's off break and back to making Strawberry Amore Hot Chocolates for a group of young art students. No soy for this lot, which makes a change, and Corvo dusts chocolate hearts over the foam with gratitude. They're cheerful, chattering about the Boyle party none of them will be attending with uninhibited enthusiasm. It's the same with most of their customers; the existence of the event itself seems to be enough, to the point where people are having parties to celebrate that it's happening.

 

They live in strange times.

 

"Hello, Admiral," Lydia says a little later; it's all the warning Corvo gets before a large presence leans itself against the counter at his elbow. The Admiral is unnervingly quiet when it suits him.

 

"Lydia. I trust everything's sailing smoothly?" He doesn't look in Corvo's direction, staring down Lydia with his usual single-mindedness. To her credit, she doesn't flinch, and never has.

 

"You've heard my thoughts on that, sir, and if you could just give me a few minutes in your office with the account books, I could explain-"

 

"Wallace's job is the numbers, Lydia, you know that. Treavor assured me when we took him on that he'd be capable. Why are those muffins running low?" Lydia just shrugs, resignation in the slump of her shoulders, and  leaves for the kitchen to find more muffins. This isn't the first time he's heard fragments of this conversation, Corvo thinks. It's only now Lydia's told him about the depth of the problem that he really notices.

 

"You're sure you can't give her a few minutes, just to set her mind at rest?" The Admiral is not a tall man, shorter than Corvo by a few inches, but he expands when he's feeling threatened. Fills the room with unspoken threat like a beast pawing the ground before a charge.

 

"That is no business of yours, Corvo," Havelock says. "Stick with the things we value you for; you won't go wrong with loyalty, or discretion." He stares around the shop, eyes lingering on unused tables, and the food they haven't been selling. The muffins are the only thing running low. "Slow day?"

 

"Normal day," Corvo says, folding his arms to keep his fists from clenching defensively.

 

"I would have thought the Outsider's presence, not to mention that of Sokolov, might be enough to bring in a new crowd." The Admiral has a knack for instilling guilt into people, an unspoken implication that the object of his disapproval has somehow let the rest down. Corvo fights it off as best as he can; if customers aren't coming in, that's not his fault.

 

"Not exactly. The Outsider doesn't make a big thing about visiting, and he's not the friendliest celebrity around. Sokolov's worse. If anything, they're scaring people off."

 

"Hm, well. It's Sokolov I wanted to talk to you about, actually. I've had a message from Martin-"

 

"You mean he's actually found time to remember us? Funny, I'd have thought once he made it to High Overseer, everything else would become secondary." He should keep his mouth closed, Corvo knows, but he can't help himself. He hasn't seen much of Callista over the last week, but she does a poor job of hiding the way her eyes flick to the front door each time it opens. Martin used to visit every day; Callista is unaccustomed to feeling neglected, and it shows. Just one more reason to dislike the man.

 

"Watch that cheek, Corvo," the Admiral snaps. "I may tolerate it, but the customers will not, and least of all Sokolov, if what Piero tells me about the man is correct. Do you see much of him?"

 

Corvo winces. "Too much. He's in every day looking for the Outsider, though it's not going to get him anywhere. Orders whatever sounds the most unusual to him, never tips, and Cecelia refuses to serve him anymore. What do you want from him, exactly?"

 

"Unaccommodating? That's a shame." The Admiral drums his fingers on the edge of the counter, a steady, military beat that raises the hackles on Corvo's neck. Too much like Coldridge, like boots on white concrete. "Martin's done some digging, and it appears Burrows commissioned him to paint someone, an unidentified woman. We think this could be the one we're looking for."

 

"Sokolov paints?" Corvo asks, though it probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

 

"Yes, of course. Drab things, in my opinion; nothing like a good naval scene to rouse the spirit, but Sokolov prefers portraits. He painted Daud while the man was still acting for the Outsider. No accounting for taste. The painting Burrows commissioned is recent, and hasn't been delivered yet; we need the identity of the woman it shows."

 

"I'm not breaking into Sokolov's house," Corvo says, and Havelock nods, as if that had ever actually been an option.

 

"His security might be too much for you, I agree. So if we kidnap him temporarily," the Admiral begins bluntly, "blindfold him and keep him in the old shed while we ask our questions-"

 

"We're not kidnapping Anton Sokolov," Corvo says, horrified. Havelock is insane, and Martin and Pendleton too; he's working for madmen. No wonder Emily's started drawing odd things. "The very least we'd have to worry about afterwards is legal action, and that's assuming he isn't creative about getting revenge."

 

"You have a better solution?"

 

"Have you considered just asking him?" Corvo immediately regrets speaking up, because he already knows who'll be sent to do it. Still, it can't be any worse than having to deal with Sokolov on any given day, and he probably has a better chance of getting results than the others. "Or sending me to ask, as the case may be."

 

It doesn't take all that much convincing; the Admiral is sane enough to acknowledge that kidnapping was never going to be an ideal solution. Maybe he doesn't want to have to deal with hiding Sokolov's body too.

 

It's difficult to predict when Sokolov will show himself these days. The Outsider must know, and seems to make his avoidance into a kind of dance, or a game maybe. Sometimes they miss each other by a matter of minutes, and Corvo finds himself wondering how long they can keep it up. In slower moments he imagines an endless cycle of watching them not meet, day after day, Sokolov growing more frustrated each time. Perhaps he'll eventually descend into madness, like Granny Rags. That would be worth sticking around to see.

 

He appears in the end, laptop case under one arm, and the disgruntled expression that has become almost perpetual over the last week or so fixed in place behind his beard.

 

"Delayed again," he snaps, when Corvo asks him how his day is going. "Some error with my access card to the studio, apparently it was wiped overnight. Ridiculous, and most of the day gone in trying to sort it out."

 

The Outsider must be getting creative, or maybe just desperate. Corvo shakes his head in disbelief, and humours Sokolov's request for a Spirulina Shake. He's going to hate it, but that's none of Corvo's business.  It's not like Sokolov gives him a chance to explain anyway; he hands over the required coin (no tip, as usual) and marches off to set up at his usual booth. Corvo takes great pleasure in making the shake as green as possible, and the horror that dawns on Sokolov's face as his drink is placed at his table is truly a thing of beauty.

 

"A Spirulina Shake, as ordered," Corvo says, a little smugly. "Another of the Outsider's favourites." Another blatant lie; the Outsider has strange preferences, but at least they're all caffeinated. If he knows they make other drinks, he's never said anything.

 

"Most...exotic," Sokolov says dubiously. "Though there must be some appeal, however much it may resemble the dredged sewage one finds on the Wrenhaven's banks at low tide. Perhaps there is some merit to its flavour. Why are you still here?" He stares imperiously up at Corvo, fingers resting pointedly on the keys of his laptop.

 

Corvo gets straight to the point. "I hear you painted a woman for Hiram Burrows recently?"

 

"I may have done. I paint many people. What of it?" Sokolov's eyes are cold beneath the bushy brows. For all his obsessive bluster, the man is a genius; it's an easy thing to forget, and Corvo can't afford to.

 

"Who was she? Someone important? Someone he knows? Seems a bit strange to pay for her portrait otherwise-"

 

"Fishing for gossip, are we?" Sokolov asks with bruising scorn. "Like all your kind, you have no concept of propriety, or privacy. I could ruin you for this impertinence, you know."

 

For a moment Corvo's fingers twitch, and he thinks of the rectangular card he hides in his shirt pocket. A gift. It would solve all his problems and shut Sokolov up immediately; could he offer it in exchange for the Admiral's information?

 

He flinches from the idea, nausea settling in his stomach as he imagines handing the Outsider's Mark into Sokolov's hands. It feels like the worst of betrayals to even consider doing so. No, there'll be another way to finding the mystery woman's name. If he could just be a little more subtle, a little more creative-

 

"You could just tell me," Corvo says, as reasonably as possible. "How would it affect you?"

 

Sokolov shakes his head. "No, I'm afraid I don't recall. I paint many people, you see, as an exercise to keep my mind honed. I can't possibly be expected to recall every sordid little detail of my subjects."

 

Corvo changes tacks. "You painted Daud, didn't you? While he was still acting for the Outsider. Why'd you do that?"

 

Sokolov shrugs. "I had hoped some small demonstration of the scope of my talents...perhaps it might have been used for the promotion of his play, and I made sure to paint the man in costume, as a precaution. But perhaps it did not suit his vision. I understand vision, you know, as very few people do, and far be it from me to question that of the Outsider."

 

Corvo had thought as much. Daud isn't the kind of man you'd approach in the street and ask to paint, and he can't have made the experience an easy one. But there's an opening here, the old weakness that should have been shored up a long time ago, and hasn't been. There's one sure way of making Sokolov talk, and it's not something he's too happy about, but it beats kidnapping the man.

 

"And Granny- Vera Moray, you painted her too?" And aged her down a lot, I'm guessing, he thinks.

 

"Oh yes, I do recall that work; even in his earlier days, the Outsider's talent was a thing of exquisite genius. I sought to immortalise his dream-"

 

"You know he's writing a new play, don't you?" Corvo interrupts. "With a new muse, and a new...vision. He's dedicated, I'll give him that." Also intrusive, intentionally difficult, and somehow still someone Corvo looks forward to seeing each day. He'd rather not think about when that happened.

 

Sokolov looks up at him with narrowed eyes. It's possible his beard would be bristling, if there weren't so much of it. "I have heard the rumours, yes. Did he let something slip to you? Not out of the question, I suppose, that he might become somewhat familiar with the staff-"

 

"I'm his new muse," Corvo says flatly. "That's why he's always in here, he comes to talk to me. I can't get rid of him. I can't get rid of you either, though your stalking is frightening to watch and frankly I think you need help. But I expect you're too self-obsessed to realise that." He can hear the words spilling out, watches Sokolov's expression changing with a sort of vaguely horrified glee. With a steady hand, he withdraws the Outsider's Mark from his pocket and holds it up for a couple of seconds. Sokolov turns beet red, and Corvo knows his point is made.

 

 "You're not stupid though, and maybe you've worked out that I have one heck of a lot more influence with the Outsider than you do. If I tell him you're not worth his time, he'll believe me."

 

No need to mention that the Outsider is already bored with him. Corvo doesn't begrudge people their dreams, though his own have been trampled beyond recognition. He tries to rein in the urge to gloat; that's not who he is, and never has been, however much Sokolov aggravates him. It's enough to see his shock, and the way he looks at Corvo with new eyes. Like a person, not a piece of furniture

 

Maybe now he'll finally learn Corvo's name.

 

Sokolov sits there speechless, his mouth working uselessly as if he's trying out words for size and finding none of them fit. A pathetic sight; Corvo folds his arms and waits.

 

"Lady Boyle," Sokolov chokes out at last.

 

"Really?"

 

"Yes, really. I recall the portrait well; it was commissioned during the last stages of my draft for The Elixir of Immunity, a trying time, during which my muse fluctuated like the fickle creature she is... Yes, Burrows has a poor sense of timing indeed, though the patronage was, as ever, appreciated. He desired a painting of his mistress, and I provided. How you knew of its existence I cannot begin to imagine."

 

Martin has his sources, Corvo thinks. "None of your business," he says coolly. "Which Lady Boyle, exactly? Lydia?"

 

"Esma. The socialite. An odd choice for Burrows, but I suppose love transcends all boundaries of taste and sanity."

 

Interesting. Also incredibly worrying; the three Boyle sisters are celebrities, constantly surrounded by bodyguards, reporters, groupies... What on earth is the Admiral going to do about that? More to the point, what is he going to make Corvo do?

"That's...helpful, thank you," Corvo says. He takes pity on Sokolov, and doesn't just walk off without another word. The Outsider would, but Corvo is better than that. "I'll be sure to remind the Outsider about you when I next see him. It's just a matter of time before he appreciates your talents."

 

He watches Sokolov puff up, and feels a little guilty for the manipulation, pitifully easy as it was.

"I would be most appreciative-" he begins, and Corvo decides he's had enough.

 

"Don't bother. Your plays are very...uh, original. Dramatic. The crafting is...very good. Fascinating." It sounds utterly fake to Corvo's ears, but Sokolov receives the acknowledgement well; it wouldn't have been this way five minutes ago, but apparently now Corvo is someone of Consequence. Sokolov laps the praise up like a happy puppy.

 

That wouldn't have worked on the Outsider, Corvo thinks wryly. He doesn't need to be told how incredible he is; the bastard already knows.

 

He leaves a happy, slightly stunned Sokolov behind, and tries not to think too much about how the Outsider will react when he finds out. Is Corvo supposed to be a secret muse? Is the new play itself a secret? He may have just jeopardised his own future on the stage, and his chance to live out a slightly tarnished dream. Perhaps even the odd relationship he's formed with the Outsider. What they have is a fragile thing, when held up to the light for inspection; easily smashed by some careless action like Corvo's.

 

But he needed the name. For Emily, he needed it.

 

Havelock is lurking in the corridor, throwing irritated looks at Lydia's back as she serves, when Corvo returns to report.

 

"I know her name," Corvo says as he opens his mouth to ask. "Esma Boyle. The Esma Boyle, and don't ask me what to do about it. I don't know. I'm not killing her."

 

Havelock huffs a sigh, folds his arms and stares out at the main shop. Impossible to know what he's thinking; Corvo waits, and hopes Lydia doesn't need too much help with the customers. Cecelia is in the kitchen baking, he knows, and Wallace has vanished again. No word from Callista, and he hasn't seen her in two days-

 

"Well, that settles it," the Admiral says abruptly. "Good thing I set Callista to making preparations for Plan B. Lady Boyle's party," he explains to Corvo's frown. "We knew the financier had to be a powerful figure, and I planned around the assumption that they'd be present at the masquerade. If we hadn't discovered her identity by tomorrow night you would have attended to question people, once the alcohol started flowing. As it is, you will be attending anyway."

 

"I'm not killing anyone!" Corvo snarls, and even the Admiral's face registers shock at his tone. It's not one Corvo has ever used before, but he needs to be heard, and he needs to be understood. "Whatever plan you have for 'removing' Lady Boyle, I don't want it to include me as your assassin. I did as you asked for the Pendletons, and I'll play messenger again if I have to, but that's it. I won't kill for you, or anyone, and don't try to tell me it's what Jessamine would have wanted."

 

He's breathing too quickly, staring down a man who carries a title he never earned- except that maybe, in another world, he did: something dark and unpleasant flickers in Havelock's small eyes, and Corvo knows without a doubt that it wasn't Martin who ordered the death of Pendleton's brothers. Havelock has killers calling him their friend, he's vanishing sums of money from the Hound Pits ledgers for who knows what, and he's got his claws digging deep and invisible into Emily. Invisible, but not to Corvo.

 

He can't afford to upset the Admiral.

 

"Sorry," he says, forces himself to sound reasonable. "I didn't- Sokolov threw me off a bit."

 

The Admiral nods slowly; Corvo feels the tension in his spine ease up a little. A train has passed, inches from his nose, a half-second from crushing him and painting the walls in his blood. It missed this time; next time he may not be so lucky.

 

"Understandable, from what I've heard of him," Havelock says. "But we must put such petty distractions behind us now and focus on what is important. Callista has been occupied with making you a costume all week, and I commissioned a mask from Piero around the same time, which he delivered yesterday. Go talk to her on your break, see if it all fits. I have some calls to make with regards to Lady Boyle."

 

Lydia just sighs when he tells her he might need a slightly longer break than usual. Once he'd have expected to dodge the inevitable hailstorm of her anger, but she's toned things down over the past week. Frustration has morphed into resignation, and it's not actually all that much of an improvement. He can feel her radiating worry, helplessness, all the way through their shifts, and it might be easier if she'd just shout at someone so things could feel a bit more normal.

 

"Admiral's orders, huh?" Lydia rubs the back of her neck and eyes the front door. Closed; it looks like the brief rush is over for now. "Get it over with, Corvo, while we're still quiet. I'll call Cecelia in if things get rough, though really she's only good for menial work. Too jumpy. Any idea how long until we get Callista back?"

 

"Day after tomorrow, I think," Corvo says, and Lydia smiles tiredly.

 

"About time, too. I don't think the Admiral has the faintest clue how to run this place, I really don't. Stealing our staff, mismanaging the books... I'm doing my best here, and still we're barely afloat."

 

Corvo leaves her standing at the counter in her apron and sensible shoes, and hopes someone will come along to cheer her up. They have a few customers like that, with infectious smiles and a steady supply of hilarious gossip. Lydia could use someone like that, from the looks of her. Though at least she has Emily, still sitting quietly behind the counter, absorbed in her rainbow of crayons and the chocolate chip cookie Corvo definitely didn't give her.

 

Maybe she'll draw Lydia a unicorn; Emily's unicorns are the stuff of legend at the Hound Pits.

 

He finds Callista in one of the upstairs rooms, commandeered from its usual use as a guest bedroom and turned into her closest approximation of a dream studio. Sketches and fabric samples pinned in meaningless patterns across the faded wallpaper, lengths of ribbon in silvers, satiny whites and blues, and Callista bent over her sewing machine, but it's the coat he sees first. Draped over her dressmaker's dummy, deep night blue and gold-embroidered around the edges.

 

Corvo wanders over to touch one of the gold buttons on the sleeves.

 

"So this is where you've been all week," he says, and doesn't hide his awe. Callista's work has always been exceptional but this is something else entirely. He could wear this among Dunwall's nobles and wealthy socialites and they're never know he wasn't one of them. "This is...it's incredible. How are you still at the Hound Pits, you should be making costumes for Adelle White, or hired full time at the Tower-"

 

"Thank you, Corvo." The sewing machine stops and Callista turns to smile at him. There are dark shadows under her eyes to match Lydia's, or Corvo's own, and her hair falls untidily into her eyes. "I won't tell you it's been easy, that wouldn't be true, but it's been worthwhile. I love this. Though I'm sorry you've been short staffed without me, the Admiral was very insistent that I get this finished in time."

 

"Did he tell you what it's for?"

 

"The Boyle party, yes, he said. Though not much else." Callista stretches slowly, wincing as her neck cracks loud in the room's stillness. "I know something's going on, you've been so miserable lately. I'm guessing you can't talk to me about it?" Corvo just shakes his head. "Well, it was worth a try. He has an invitation for you; it was Pendleton's, but apparently his brothers have gone missing or something dreadful like that. He won't be going."

 

Corvo's throat feels tight all of a sudden; he swallows,= and finds it hasn't helped. "I'm sure they'll turn up soon," he says. It sounds utterly false to his ears, but there is no accusation in Callista's expression. She doesn't suspect.

 

"I hope so, for his sake. I've tried to be supportive when I see him around, but he's taking it badly, poor man." She reaches across her work desk and shifts fabric aside impatiently, uncovering something grey and vaguely oval in shape. "This is for you. Piero dropped it off, he said the Admiral paid him to make it. Frightful thing; you'll leave quite the impression."

 

Skull-like dull metal, wires like thread, like tens of tangled puppet strings, stretched across the mouth in a horrifying carved-open grin. The eyes are no better, blue-tinted lenses and more wire; the nose is completely absent. A half-rotted face, Corvo thinks, turning it in his hands. A dead thing dug up, when it should have been left buried as deep as possible. He'll have to make sure Emily doesn't see it; Lady Boyle's party guests will be very pleased. The macabre never goes out of style.

 

"I'm going to fit right in," he murmurs; Callista chokes out a laugh, maybe the first she's had in days.

 

"That's the plan, yes. And I want to get the full outfit finished before you try it, but I'm confident it'll fit. I've taken in enough of your clothing to have the measurements learnt off by heart." She reaches for a container of pins behind her sewing machine, tugging the fabric she's working on straight. "You'd best get back to work; I doubt Lydia is too pleased about being left on her own. She says Wallace isn't helping as much as he could, either."

 

"No," Corvo says, laying the mask back on her table where its blue lenses catch the light and blink malevolently. "But Pendleton was always his first priority." He clasps her shoulder before turning to go, the closest he can get to solidarity when there are so many secrets between them. It never used to be this difficult to trust.

 

"Hey, Corvo?" He turns in the doorway to meet Callista's anxious eyes. Her posture is impeccable, as it always is, but her hands twitch restlessly in her lap. "Remember what I said to you about the Outsider, and being careful?"

 

He nods stiffly, preparing himself for another lecture.

 

"I've changed my mind," Callista says quickly. "I'm just- I'm concerned about some of the things I've seen happening around here, and some of the things I think might be happening. I don't think we're safe here. And that's bad enough if it was just us, but there's Emily too, and I worry the Admiral might be planning something. I still can't afford to quit, let alone look after her, and I'm guessing you can't either."

 

"I'm working on it," Corvo says, and Callista gives him a small smile.

 

"I know you are. Cecelia might help too, if we approached her the right way. But that doesn't lift my concerns about the Admiral. You know he has guns? I saw them a few days back when he called me into his rooms for an update, and now I can barely sleep for worrying about why." She shifts her gaze to the floor, as if the answer might lie in the warped woodwork. "I just think it might not hurt if we had a few friends outside of the Hound Pits. People who might be able to reason with the Admiral if something happens. The Outsider could be one of them, I don't know."

 

"He might be. He thinks I'm- interesting." It sounds so much worse when he puts it like that, but telling Sokolov the truth was bad enough; Corvo still can't be sure that Callista could keep that kind of secret from Havelock. So he holds still, watches her consider the implications, and doesn't try to explain himself any further.

 

"Well...alright then," Callista says at last. "Honestly, it's a relief to know there might be other people we can turn to. Just- be careful, Corvo? Don't do anything you don't want to, because you think you have to. I'm sorry, that made no sense, I meant-"

 

"I know what you meant," Corvo tells her. "And I'll keep it in mind."

 

"Do."

 

He can feel her eyes on him as he leaves, worry radiating from her clenched fists, and the way the sewing machine doesn't start up again while he's still in earshot. Tension upstairs and tension in the shop, with Lydia on edge, and Cecelia bringing drinks out to customers in frightened silence. They don't bother with small talk for the rest of the shift; even the customers seem to sense that there's a problem.

 

The shop is muted that day, dulled like the metal mask left lying on Callista's desk. Hushed orders at the counter, coins clinking as they pass between hands, the coffee machine's background hiss, and the scrape of Emily's crayons as she draws yet another nightmare.

 

Tomorrow night may well be Esma Boyle's last party.

Chapter Text

Piero's mask is no less unnerving when he tries it on the next day. Sunlight streams in through the windows of Callista's converted studio, warm and dancing with dust motes, and still Corvo tries not to look at himself in the full length mirror.

 

"Hold still, please," Callista says at his shoulder. "I need to see how the coat falls; though if it's crooked, I really don't know what I'll do. Why the Admiral insisted on waiting until now before letting me tell you about this, I have no idea."

 

"It looks...fine," Corvo says, wincing under his mask. It distorts his voice into an odd rasp he finds distinctly unpleasant, and not at all like himself. Clever of Piero to achieve that effect; shame he won't be the one wearing the thing. Corvo supposes he should be grateful for the anonymity it'll grant him.

 

Callista makes her way around him slowly, face thoughtful. "It's not terrible I suppose, especially considering I didn't have you to measure from. The sleeves might be a bit long."

 

"Too late now," Corvo says, and she sighs.

 

"Obviously, yes. But I don't know if I'll ever get this kind of opportunity again. Working with fabric of this quality, and no restrictions on how much I could spend... I just hope it's worth the money, whatever the Admiral means for you to do." She turns away and Corvo removes his mask, grateful to breathe properly again. He lays it back on her desk where it leers oddly at the ceiling, until Callista makes an irritated sound and dumps a pile of fabric scraps on top of it.

 

"Can't have Emily seeing that accidentally," she mutters. Corvo just nods.

 

A sharp rap at the door, and Wallace enters with his usual long face; he resembles nothing so much as a bloodhound, Corvo has always thought. If he's at all capable of smiling, it's never happened at the Hound Pits. He pauses in the doorway to frown at Corvo, or rather at his clothing.

 

"You wear that well," Wallace says, eyebrows drawn together in surprise. "Is it possible you have a drop of noble blood in you? The way the Serkonans breed, I wouldn't be surprised." It's hard to tell if he means the sentiment as praise or criticism, but that's Wallace all over.

 

"Thanks Wallace," Corvo says wryly. "Something you wanted?" He tugs his collar a little straighter, though it's unnecessary fussing, really. Callista knows what she's doing.

 

"The Outsider is here for his daily coffee, and requests your presence, as ever. Sir should not be kept waiting."

 

"Dressed like this?" Corvo asks, but he's moving for the door anyway. The Outsider won't care how he's dressed, or how inconvenient serving him might be right now. And anyway, Corvo wants to know what he thinks of the outfit; chances are he has more experience with high class parties than the rest of them put together.

 

"What madness are you making me concoct today?"

 The Outsider's usual composure falls away for a fleeting second as Corvo enters the shop, surprise flitting across his pale features.

 

"Going to a party, Corvo?" There is nothing friendly about the question. Jagged edges, something unpleasant lurking under a thin veneer of civility. Corvo's smile slips.

 

"I- yes, the Boyle party. I thought you'd be interested." Corvo suddenly feels a bit stupid, in his gold-embroidered coat and new leather boots. At least he left the mask upstairs. How could he have expected to find any of it appreciated? Or forgotten the reason for which he's even dressed this way in the first place? "Never mind," he says hurriedly. "It's nothing important, what can I get you?"

 

The Outsider's impassive mask is back in place. "Not important? The care I see in these clothes suggests it's very important indeed. And of course, the Boyle party is a good place for making connections, and forming new relationships..." Never mind impassive, his voice drips scorn, and Corvo can feel himself shrinking back.

 

He doesn't deserve this.

 

"It's just a party," Corvo snaps defensively. "I'm not trying to- make new connections, if that's what you're worried about."

 

"Is that what you dreamed of, all those months in Coldridge Prison while waiting for the executioner?" The Outsider has a dismissive sneer to match Martin's. "Wealth, beautiful women in the latest fashions, laughing and drinking Tyvian wine?"

 

"Serkonan," Corvo retorts, irritation finally overtaking shame. The Outsider's eyes narrow.

 

"What?"

 

"Tyvian is packaged nicely and expensive, that's all it has going for it. Serkonan is best, and yes, I'm looking forward to whatever the Boyles provide. It'll probably be better than the rubbish Havelock grudgingly shells out for."

 

"You don't deny the rest of it," the Outsider says pointedly, and it takes Corvo a moment to recall what 'the rest of it' actually was.

 

"Is it any business of yours?" he asks, and the Outsider shrugs.

 

"I would consider it relevant to the story I am telling, yes. What of the host, Lady Boyle? Waverly is playing that role this evening, I believe. She's beautiful now, but that won't last; someday soon her fine clothes will wear into tatters and her silken hair will get dull and grey."

 

"Right ray of sunshine this afternoon, aren't you," Corvo says. "Just order your drink, and go ruin someone else's day. You've done plenty of damage here as it is." He grabs his notebook and pen, and glares aggressively across the counter until the Outsider rattles off something suitably convoluted (something something Apricot Albicocca, extra cream, crushed hazelnuts, twice the usual amount of chocolate, Corvo isn't really paying attention; it's not like the Outsider will even know once the drink is made).                                                 

 

He nods stiffly when Corvo shoves the finished order at him. "I'm sure you'll have a memorable evening. Half the city will see the lights from the party, and dream of the delights inside-"

 

"-and I don't belong there, I know. Your point is made."

 

"Nobody will be able to tell," the Outsider says, staring at the drink on the counter like he can't remember what it's doing there. "Dressed as you are, there is nothing to distinguish you from the other guests, in all their glamour and physical perfection. I hope the evening doesn't prove to be a disappointment, Corvo." He takes the drink and leaves Corvo standing behind the counter trying to sift through his words for actual meaning.

 

"'Physical perfection'?" If the Outsider hears him, he doesn't deign to offer up a response; the front door swings closed behind him with a pointed finality.

 

"That's sweet," a voice off to his left says quietly, and Corvo turns to find Cecelia on her knees behind the bar, scrubbing out one of the fridges. When she got there, he has no idea.

 

"What is?"

 

"He was trying to apologise." She frowns and scrubs vigorously at something inside the fridge. "People like that never apologise, and he's not very good, but he tried anyway. It's sweet."

The girl is mad, or possibly drunk. He's never known Cecelia to resort to alcohol to get her through a shift, but she's so quiet it's possible nobody noticed before.

 

"He doesn't care if he offends," Corvo tells her. "What I think of him matters about as much as... as what Sokolov thinks."

 

"Oh, Corvo." She sits back on her haunches and smiles up at him. "Of course it matters. I thought you knew."

 

"Well I don't."

 

"Now you do." Cecelia rolls her shoulders, wincing, then turns back to her cleaning. "I think he might be a little jealous. You're getting all dressed up to go have fun with important people, and he can't come with you."

 

The sleeves on his coat are a little too long, Corvo notices, shrugging irritably. "He could, I bet he was one of the first people invited. He can go to as many of these stupid things as he wants. Why would he be jealous?"

 

"Because he doesn't fit in." Cecelia's voice is slightly muffled by the fridge. "In that outfit, you look like you could be one of them. I mean, you look good, and you're good at blending in. He's not. Fancy parties with gossip, and everyone talking about how much money they have, he hates that."

 

"When did you learn to read minds?" Corvo asks, and Cecelia gives a short, utterly uncharacteristic giggle.

 

"I didn't. Delilah- I mean, Ms Copperspoon knows him, she's told me a few things."

 

"She does? How-"

 

"I think the Admiral's looking for you," she says hurriedly, and Corvo surrenders. He'll never out-evade Cecelia, and she won't forgive any attempts he makes to pin her down.

 

Havelock is waiting in his room as usual, hands clasped behind his back as he stares out a window at the street below. He's alone again; if the lack of support from Martin and Pendleton bothers him, he doesn't show it.

 

"Corvo. I am sure you're eager to hear the instructions for the evening. Must be quite the event for you; a real chance at greatness, if you play your cards right." He eyes Corvo's clothing with a critical eye, taking in theblue and gold contrast of his coat and nodding appreciatively. "Callista knows her craft, I see. Good, good..."

 

Corvo resists the urge fold his arms; he'll have to ask Callista about doing that, in case he risks damaging anything. Instead he clasps his hands behind his back and doesn't say anything. They're past the point of protests, if the Admiral has been planning this for a while, and he has nothing else to add to the conversation. Why bother, when the choices are already made?

 

Havelock turns back to the window, his breath fogging the glass. "Given the circumstances, and the target's position in society, some kind of staged accident is out of the question. Her sisters would spare no expense on the investigation, and bodies are messy. Unpredictable. Impossible to know what the Watch might find on hers. Added to the fact that Martin's sources suggest she is no longer particularly close to Burrows; she gives him his money to shut him up, from the sounds of it."

 

Corvo shifts his feet slightly, the new boots biting into his heels. Havelock doesn't move from his place by the window.

 

"I have made arrangements to take Lady Boyle out of the picture, somewhere safe. Outside of Gristol, of course. A man named Lord Brisby is an especial friend of hers, and very concerned for her safety here in Dunwall, now Burrows knows his secrets could be revealed at any time. He has volunteered to undertake the most difficult task of spiriting her away during the party. Your job is to lead Lady Boyle to him."

 

"A kidnapping?" Corvo asks at last, and the Admiral shrugs his massive shoulders.

 

"Think of it more as a rescue. She knows this man Brisby, apparently, and will not object too strenuously once her danger here is explained. She'll be out of the way, and Burrows will be open for a direct attack before he knows what we've done. It's a simple job, Corvo, but a vital one."

 

"How will I know what he looks like?"

 

"Lord Pendleton has the details, he's actually met Brisby a few times. It's about time the man did something to make himself useful around here." Turning to give Corvo a pointed look, the Admiral nods towards the door. "He should be around the kitchens, I told him to meet you there. Corvo, if you do this tonight, we'll be able to strike at Hiram Burrows himself. It will be a very great day for Dunwall."

 

"Whatever you say," Corvo says, and leaves obediently for the kitchens.

 

He finds Pendleton sitting at the large table, a bottle clasped between limp fingers. It doesn't look like anything from behind the counter, but Corvo thinks he can smell the brandy they use for fruit cakes. Judging by the liberal scattering of flour spread over a good half of the table, someone was trying to bake, and fled to avoid Pendleton's company. Might explain Cecelia's sudden bout of fridge cleaning, now he thinks about it.

 

Pendleton looks up blearily as Corvo approaches. "So you're off to the Boyles' little bash tonight. I've been instructed to give you my invitation..." Pendleton sniffs, and digs a sheet of embossed paper out from a coat pocket with clear reluctance. "Put it to good use, won't you? I certainly would have. Oh, and I've sent Brisby a picture of your mask so he'll know how to find you; he thinks that'll be easier than having you look for him."

 

Corvo reaches for the invitation, raising his eyebrows when Pendleton doesn't immediately release it. "Anything else you're meant to tell me?"

 

"Well...yes, actually." Pendleton clears his throat. "I have just a tiny favour I'd like to ask you. Could you give this note to Lord Shaw? You'll know him; a rather brusque man wearing a wolf's mask. In fact, he may be looking for me..." He lets go of the invitation and pulls out a sealed envelope from another pocket. There is no name on the expensive-looking white paper.

 

Corvo takes it warily. " What is this?"

 

"Oh, nothing of great importance, I assure you," Pendleton says quickly; there's sweat beading on his forehead, Corvo notices, though it really isn't that warm indoors. "Just a...message of sorts, I shouldn't worry about it too much if I were you. Though do make sure you deliver it after dealing with Lady Boyle, won't you? The Admiral's task should come first."

 

Shrugging, Corvo takes the letter and shoves it into one of the various convenient inside pockets Callista saw fit to give him. On the way back to her workroom he wonders what will happen to the clothes. Depending on how the evening goes they may be too dangerous to wear around, but it would be a shame to burn them; Corvo doesn't have a decent coat for the colder months. He gives the outfit back to Callista with no small amount of reluctance, taking his time about changing back into work clothes. For a while, it had felt exactly like a dress rehearsal.

 

The rest of the day passes peacefully enough, though excitement seeps in through the Hound Pits' front door every time a customer opens it, and the orders get wilder and more colourful as evening falls and the lanterns light themselves. Corvo ends his shift around ten, and is spared Lydia's complaints when Callista shows up to say she'll be taking over, once she's done a last check of the outfit.

 

Maskless, he looks himself over in Callista's full length mirror once last time with satisfaction. She's done an awe-inspiring job of hiding of how thin he still is, and even managed to fill out his shoulders somewhat. The large leather belt she gave him as a last little detail sits comfortably around his waist, the buckle carefully centred-

"And don't you dare let that slip, Corvo, it'll look ridiculous if it's off to one side. Keep checking."

 

"How vain do you think I am?" Corvo asks, and Callista rolls her eyes, pushing him towards the door.

 

"Do it for me then. That's my work you'll be showing off, I'd appreciate it if you could keep things looking their best. No...running around, or sword fighting, and if you're going to have a wild encounter with some random woman, have the decency to remove the outfit carefully."

 

"I don't plan on any-"

 

"Enjoy your evening, Corvo," Callista says with no small amount of amusement, closing her workshop door in his face.

 

Corvo half expects to find Havelock waiting pointedly in the corridor, but it seems he's confident enough not to bother. No sign of Pendleton either, though he popped into the shop a few times during the day, ostensibly to request that someone make him a drink, but more likely so he could hassle Corvo about delivering his letter to Shaw. It's probably something to do with money, and Corvo didn't bother to ask about details. Compared to his other task for the evening, delivering an envelope is downright mundane.

 

He checks his pockets one last time; Pendleton's letter and his invitation sit together, and there doesn't seem to be any point in bringing money, even if he had any to spare. Equally important is the Outsider's Mark he transferred from his work uniform to another coat pocket while changing; if something goes wrong, as it probably will, Corvo may need to use the proverbial ace up his sleeve.

 

Ducking out the Hound Pits' back door and into the trash-strewn yard, Corvo takes a moment to check the directions on his phone. The Estate District isn't too far from the theatres; just enough that the wealthy don't get tourists wandering through by mistake, but not so far that they find it inconvenient when seeking an evening's entertainment. Samuel offered to drive him right up to the gates, but it's a nice, clear evening, and Corvo knows he'd be costing the man earnings if he accepted.

 

The streets are buzzing, packed closer than usual and bathed in rainbow highlights from the swaying lanterns up above. Mask in hand, Corvo follows the tide of people in their glittering jewellery and furs, the class of dress a little higher than usual, in honour of the occasion. He blends right in with the blue hats and deep aubergine cloaks worn by the more conservative, at least as long as he doesn't wear the mask.

 

Once inside the Estate District itself, the crowds thin out, replaced by gilt-covered, impeccably restored carriages and fancy cars in all shades of black. Corvo attaches himself to the tail end of a giggling group that emerges from a limousine, masked and dressed in silk and diamonds. And it looks like Piero did his research on the evening's likely fashions; the group contains several zombies, a flayed face, and someone sporting impressive, bloody makeup that makes his cheeks look half carved out. Corvo pauses to slip his own mask on before rejoining the group, and is immediately grabbed by a woman with a shrunken, mummified face.

 

"Ooh, scary mask! Where's your date? You don't have one? Well, you'd better stick with us then, we're going to try and scare the doorman; won't that be a joy?"

 

She doesn't seem to mind when he just nods in reply, and Corvo doesn't try to shrug her off. He feels a little safer as part of the group, less like the ubiquitous Watchmen might target him for having arrived on foot. His group makes their way to the gates of a large mansion, lit up with fairly lights and fake torches like it's the Fugue Feast come early. There is music playing somewhere inside, and even out on the street Corvo can make out laughter, the voices of hundreds of guests.

 

They don't end up scaring the doorman; he gives their group a weary, "Invitations please ladies, gentlemen," and doesn't even bother reading the squares of card they hand him. "Go right in; the Boyle ladies welcome you to their party." His voice carries the total lack of enthusiasm that says he's been rostered on tomorrow morning as well, probably to help clear out the guests who wind up unconscious in the rose bushes.

 

There is a courtyard before the main doors, thrown open to reveal a large hall, confetti and glitter drifting lazily down from the ceiling over the arriving guests. At least, that's what it looks like from a distance; the crowd is packed tight by the doors as people hand over excess shawls and coats to the overworked servants, and stand chattering right in the entrance way. Corvo's group of guests all groan in unison, shouting complaints over the heads of the other people waiting.

 

He's not going to get anywhere quickly.

 

Corvo glances around, spotting a path to the gardens off to one side. Several guests break away from the queue and wander down it, apparently in no hurry to get inside, and Corvo detaches himself swiftly from the mummy-woman and follows them. It won't get him any closer to Lady Boyle, and Brisby is probably waiting inside too, if he's even here yet, but Corvo is already starting to feel a little claustrophobic. Maybe if he wanders around for a few minutes, someone more efficient will come along to get the line moving.

 

The garden is predictably ostentatious, sporting more half-clothed mythical women than the one outside the Golden Cat, the carefully manicured topiary twisted into ocean-themed shapes. An octopus, a whale, a dolphin and, somewhat mysteriously, what appears to be a walrus. Perhaps the gardener has a sense of humour.

 

Corvo stops by the walrus topiary and thinks, the Outsider would love this. He probably would have enjoyed the various unnerving masks on display as well, even if he found the people underneath too boring to bother with. They could have come together and spent half the evening mocking the guests; it might even have been somewhat bearable. Corvo turns away from the walrus in disappointment. Should he have asked? Though he hadn't understood the Outsider's irritation until it was too late; is that really his fault?

 

Rounding a fountain in the shape of a selkie, carved mid-way between naked woman and reclining seal, Corvo finds himself face to face with a tall man in a wolf's mask. The stranger bristles as Corvo narrowly avoids walking into him.

"Step back, sir. I don't believe we're acquainted."

 

Corvo does as he's told, only now noticing the man's companions, men in similar masks; a fox, a hound, a lion. And as for the wolf-

 

"Are you Lord Shaw?" he asks, and all conversation ceases amongst the group. They turn to face him haughtily, as if he's wasting their time with his very existence.

 

The wolf-man nods slowly. "Yes, I am he. What is you want, stranger? I'm afraid I don't recognise you beneath that mask."

 

Corvo reaches into a coat pocket and digs out the unmarked envelope. Technically he shouldn't be doing this now, not before meeting Brisby and working out a plan for Esma Boyle, but it seems a shame to pass up the opportunity, while he's here.

"This is a note from Treavor Pendleton."

 

"Pendleton? What's he got to say to me?

 

Shaw takes it from him stiffly, producing a small, sharp knife from somewhere inside his costume and slitting the envelope in a practiced motion. Corvo resists the urge to bring a hand up to cover his own throat; there is something a little too graceful about the way Shaw uses the knife.

 

He's just wondering if it might be a good time to go and check the queue, maybe try and slip inside alone, when Shaw makes an incoherent sound of rage, and Corvo freezes in place.

 

"Treavor Pendleton is a gutless, lying sack of shit," Shaw snarls, shredding Pendleton's letter with quick, vicious movements. "Sending a substitute- I never heard of such a thing!" He turns to the fox-masked man and jerks his head; the stranger grabs a wooden box from the lip of the fountain, and carries it over to Corvo.

 

"Wait," Corvo says. "A substitute for what, exactly? I'm just the delivery boy, I'm not-"

 

"Right then; to the death it is." Shaw turns away stiffly. "Grab a gun, turn, march ten paces, shoot when told to. Didn't even tell you the rules, did he, you poor bastard. I hope he's paying your family well for this."

 

"Now wait just one second." Corvo stares down in horror at the case being held open by the fox-man. Old-fashioned pistols, the kind he's seen on stage; he had no idea they could actually be used. Though knowing Dunwall's legal system their age probably makes them permissible, never mind that they're still guns. "I'm not duelling anyone, and I'm definitely not doing it for Pendleton. Put them away, please."

 

Shaw's mask hides his expression, but Corvo can hear the frown in his voice. "You showed up with a letter nominating you as Pendleton's substitute. If you'll excuse the crass expression, you're it."

 

"I don't work for Pendleton," Corvo retorts, and he's had about enough of the lot of them; the open case still hasn't been removed, or even closed, and inside it the twin pistols stand out vividly against their blue velvet backing.

 

"You must do," Shaw insists. "You brought the letter."

 

Nobody seems inclined to listen. On a hunch, Corvo sizes Shaw up. Well-dressed in the season's fashionable blue, emerald cufflinks and a silk tie to match; a rich man, and therefore influential. Knows everyone of importance. Corvo pulls the ace from his sleeve, and hands it over.

 

"I also brought this." He almost wishes he could see Shaw's expression; the sudden straightening of his shoulders is plain enough as he stares mutely down at the Outsider's Mark. It must have been the last thing he expected to see, especially from someone Pendleton sent to get himself out of trouble. Corvo almost feels sorry for the man; he gives the card back carefully with fingers that only shake a bit.

 

"I...see. Well, this changes things somewhat." Shaw coughs, gesturing for his fox-masked friend to remove the case of pistols. "It seems there will be no duel tonight after all."

 

"What a shame. Hope this hasn't spoiled things for you," Corvo says, not bothering to hide the biting sarcasm creeping into his tone. "And if you're going to hunt Pendleton down at some point, don't do it at the Hound Pits. We've got enough trouble there as it is."

 

He turns his back on Shaw and walks off quickly back the way he came, and if the man has any reply to make, Corvo doesn't hear it. Apparently Pendleton just tried to get him killed in an old-fashioned duel with pistols. Corvo would like to say that stranger things have happened to him, but he's currently drawing a blank on exactly what those stranger things were. And what on earth did Pendleton do to get himself involved in this kind of thing? Steal Shaw's best scotch? Raid his wine cellar?

 

Corvo isn't going to bother asking.

 

Back in the courtyard the crowds have cleared. Corvo walks right in through the front doors, shaking his head at the servant who comes to take his coat. He might get a little warm, but he likes the way the material distorts his shape. It's highly unlikely anyone would recognise him as the quiet barista from a struggling coffee shop, but he doesn't want to take any risks.

 

The party is in full swing inside, and it actually is a mixture of glitter and confetti falling from the ceiling; Corvo tries in vain to brush miniscule fragments of sparkling blue and silver from his shoulders. Callista is going to throw a fit if he comes back covered in the stuff, but there doesn't seem any way to remove it. He sees glitter caught in people's hair, being trampled underfoot and stirred into miniature dust storms in the wake of long gowns. It does add a certain exoticism to the setting, he has to admit. Too bad for whoever will have to clean it up tomorrow.

 

Crystal chandeliers, rainbow streamers dancing in the light breeze from outside, guests strutting like peacocks. Corvo makes a point of avoiding the dining hall, though he can make out in passing a golden champagne fountain, clearly the star of the show. It's too crowded to see what kind of food is on offer, and much too bright as well.

 

 He passes a woman wearing a horrifically intricate fly's face, deep in conversation with a whale-masked man.

"-are you playing Lady Boyle's guessing game? They think they're being so very original, it's quite tiresome. Still, that prize might be worth a little-"

 

Snatches of other conversations, melding together into an oppressive haze.

 

"-they've discovered crystals on their lands, the lucky things-"

 

"-do love a man with poor judgement-"

"-from that rather stunning Sokolov play, oh what was it called...The Tall Boy, that's it."

 

Corvo can feel the tension building in his shoulders, finds himself jumping each time someone laughs too loudly, and too near; he hates it here already. The greatest party of the year, and it's nothing more than a gathering of the city's most arrogant people, come together to sparkle at each other and leech off the free drinks.

 

"It's you isn't it? The man who was sent to assist me?"

 

Corvo flinches at the voice in his ear, turns and feels his heart lurch yet again at the masked face in front of him. Sackcloth, though it's been dyed flesh-coloured somehow, and decorated with clusters of what appears to be spiky grey hair. Empty black eyes and a too-large mouthful of sharp teeth; possibly it was intended to resemble a rat. Corvo knows immediately that he'll be seeing this face in his nightmares.

 

The man glances around, then turns back to Corvo. "Well, are you him?"

 

"Lord...Brisby?" Corvo asks tentatively, and the mask nods.

 

"Ah, good. We should talk in private, follow me."

 

Brisby ducks through a side door and Corvo follows him, finding himself in a library. There are guests around, gathered in small groups to talk quietly, a stark contrast to the raucous cacophony in the dining room. Brisby leads him to stand by a window, far enough away from the other groups that they won't be overheard.

 

"I'd wondered if you might be delayed, what with the crowds; but you are here now, and that is what matters." Brisby twitches as he speaks, glancing around constantly to check for people. "I'm a friend of Pendleton's. I know the Admiral's plans, and the fate he would prefer for Lady Esma Boyle, but...how to say this. Your target is the woman I love." He shudders as he says it, as if it physically hurts to admit. Corvo tries not to inch away. "I have proposed an alternate solution that will see her safe from the damaging influence of Hiram Burrows; you can't possibly understand how unhappy it has made her."

 

Corvo stares out the misted window to avoid looking too closely at Brisby's mask, and tries to understand exactly what he's being told.

"So she knows you?" he asks. "She agreed to your plan, to go wherever it is you're taking her?"

 

"She is...unaware that the plan is being enacted tonight," Brisby says, jerking suddenly as a waiter passes by with a tray of empty glasses. He waits until the man is well out of earshot before continuing. "But what with the disappearances of the Pendletons, and Campbell's arrest, Burrows may be driven to drastic action sooner than she expects; Esma's life is in danger, and we cannot wait any longer. It must be tonight."

 

"And the plan is...?"

 

"Nothing complex," Brisby assures him. "I'd do it myself, but I have last-minute preparations to make. Just bring her down to the docks, the end farthest from the party; my boat is moored there, and nobody will witness our escape." Brisby grabs Corvo's hand before he can pull away, shaking it enthusiastically. "I cannot thank you enough for your assistance in this matter-"

 

"It's fine," Corvo says, tugging his hand free. "But you'll have to tell me what she looks like, I've never met her before. Or is she masked?"

 

"She has chosen to dress in black tonight; perhaps a subtle farewell to her life in this unhappy place. A large hat shaped somewhat like a jellyfish, and her mask has the shape of a woman's face. Her two sisters are identical, save for one being in red, and the other in white; I believe there is a sort of contest being run, a guessing game for their guests. But I would know my Lady's lovely shape anywhere." Glancing around again, Brisby lowers his voice. "Be gentle with her, I beg you. She has suffered, but will not need to for much longer; I will keep her safe with me. Forever."

 

Corvo is backing away before he can stop himself, unnerved by the note of pure joy in Brisby's last pronouncement. Where did the Admiral find this man? More to the point, can he be believed when he claims Esma Boyle has agreed to run off with him? Between the mask and the constant twitching, Corvo sees nothing to inspire confidence in the man's good intentions. And yet-

 

Why does it even matter? If Esma Boyle is truly in danger, and Corvo sees no reason not to think she is, then this is better than leaving her to vanish one day, surely. And if she is not, if she had a direct hand in Jessamine's death... What does Brisby have planned? It bothers Corvo more than he thought it would, and he pushes half-heartedly through the guests into some kind of ballroom, hoping Esma won't be there.

 

What happens if he can't find her? Or if he can't get her to follow him? Maybe that's for the best; the Admiral can just go after Burrows directly, and they can leave Esma Boyle out of this. How is he meant to identify one woman, dressed in black, among this sea of colours, billowing capes and towering hats?

 

I'll tell them I couldn't find her, Corvo thinks. Brisby will have seen how busy it is, he can just carry out his rescue some other day, without involving me. There's no way I'll be able to work out who she is in this crowd-

 

He hears her voice long before he sees her.

 

 "The party is going to be so fabulous. I shall bed the first man to ask for it. And the second after that! I am so sick of these dark, awful times. Every day is as dreary as the one before. Well not tonight! Tonight is for the living!" A high voice, carrying over the muted music, chatter and rustle of clothing.

 

"Do be quiet, Esma. Our guests don't need to know how much of a whore you are, at least until they're too far gone to remember it tomorrow. Drink your champagne and try to keep your mouth shut, there's a dear."

 

Two women, tucked into an alcove just ahead, and maybe that was meant to give them a little privacy to talk, but the one in black can't seem to keep her voice down; she laughs in her sister's white-masked face and steps back out into the room. Ducking around the people standing between them, Corvo manages to put himself in the black-clad woman's way. She turns and almost walks right into him.

 

"Sorry," Corvo lies, stepping back. "Are you-"

 

"Oh, hello handsome." Smooth, glassy features, tilted as Esma Boyle eyes him with what sounds like curiosity. How she can breathe in it is a mystery, but this close Corvo can make out fine black mesh stretching across her eyes, allowing her to see; from a distance, it looks solid. The mask is a piece of art, and he shudders to think what she and her sisters paid for theirs.

 

He dispenses with further apologies; she clearly doesn't care."I think I know your name," Corvo says instead.

 

"Really. Who am I, then?"

 

"You're Esma, right?" She claps her hands gleefully.

 

"In the flesh. You really are a clever one, aren't you?" Esma steps in close, reaching up with a black gloved hand to touch the wires covering Corvo's eyes. "My word, that mask is terrifying. I love it." Her giggle has a practiced sound; Corvo is very familiar with drunken laughter, and this is not it, not yet. He wonders if she's trying to convince him, or herself.

                                                                                                                                                           

Snap-crackle explosions outside, and thunderous applause drifts in through the open doors. It's as good a diversion as he's going to get.

"Come and watch the fireworks with me?" he offers tentatively, and tries not to flinch when Esma grabs his arm, tugging him towards an exit.

"Darling, that sounds wonderful. Outside with the stars and the night air...you're quite the romantic, aren't you?"

 

He is...doing the right thing, isn't he? Brisby swore that they were friendly, but Corvo can't convince himself that any of it was true. What exactly did the Admiral ask this man to do? And as for the woman clinging limpet-like to his arm, where is he leading her? She seems frail in the lantern light outside, slender in her form-fitting suit, and there is nothing of the murderer in the gossip she whispers to him. Not like whoever stabbed Jessamine. She leans in close to tell him about the people they pass, and he can hear the smile behind her mask.

 

"...Ramsey thinks he's being so subtle; shame Adelle White doesn't give a damn for secrecy. Those two are the worst at hiding things, I expect even the thugs down in Bottle Street know about Ramsay's dire financial straits." Esma knows everyone, it seems, and her interests lie mostly in the details of their various relationships. The ubiquitous giggle doesn't let up, but Corvo is almost certain she's nowhere near as drunk as she pretends. Why pretend at all, then? With the mask on, he can't work her out.

 

Corvo spends several worried minutes trying to work out how to get them both away from the main party; up above the fireworks rise, split and sparkle in kaleidoscopic hues, but crowd's packed-in heat is oppressive, and he has an appointment at the docks very soon.

 

In the end, Esma solves the problem for him.

 

"How about we find somewhere a little more private?" she whispers, and it's the simplest thing to suggest a walk along the docks, by the flickering light of streetlamps and the floating river buoys. Yachts float moored every few metres, masts looming like trees stripped bare; the atmosphere is nothing short of sinister, and Corvo wonders how it is that Esma even agreed to the suggestion. There is nothing even faintly romantic about this walk, as far as he can tell. Perhaps it's not too late to turn back-

 

Brisby's silhouette is barely visible up ahead, shifting restlessly from foot to foot as he stares out across the silent Wrenhaven River. The party's raucous sound is faded here, though fireworks still ring out every couple of seconds, to distant applause.

 

"Seems we're not alone after all," Esma says. She isn't laughing now, hasn't been for a several minutes, Corvo realises, but she doesn't pull away from him. Does she suspect? Could it be too much to hope for, that this 'rescue mission' might actually be the real thing?

 

Corvo tries to imagine explaining this to Callista, Cecelia, Lydia, Samuel. He tries to imagine himself leaning on the Hound Pits' counter, describing his thoughts and actions as the Outsider takes notes.

I led a woman away from her home, and gave her to a stranger. He said it was a rescue, and that she knew him. I believed it.

 

Did you, Corvo? Did you really? In his mind the Outsider's voice is ice, mocking disbelief that allows him no excuses.

 

"Friend of yours?" Esma asks as Brisby notices them and waves. Corvo meets her black eyes, and finds he has no deceit left to use.

 

"No," he says quietly, urgently, as they approach the masked man. "This is a mistake, don't let him near you. We need to go back now-"

 

"My dearest Esma! How good of you to come!" Too late; Brisby approaches with his arms extended. In the shadows his mask is a thing of nightmares, a ragged monster's face with its sewn-up smile. Esma releases Corvo's arm and steps towards him.

 

"Do I know you?"

 

I was right to worry, Corvo thinks. What has he done?

 

"Oh, you will, my dear. Someday you'll learn to appreciate me; after all, you will have your whole life." Brisby steps in close, laying his hands on Esma's shoulders. His masked face tilts in Corvo's direction. "If you would assist me?"

 

"No," Corvo hisses, "I will not. You told me you knew her, that she'd agreed to leave, and I'm not seeing that. Let her go." He wishes he'd taken one of Shaw's pistols when they were offered; they looked ancient, but it's too dark to tell, and if Brisby is armed-

 

From behind the grinning rat mask comes a soft oof, and Brisby slumps slightly in Esma's arms.

"I don't understand," he mumbles. "What have you- oh."

 

He slides to the ground without her support, and as Esma steps back she is lit in a streetlamp's dim glow; her hands drip red liquid.

"Thank you for the invitation, but I'm afraid I must decline." Esma reaches up to remove her ornate hat and toss it aside; it's joined by her mask a second later. Underneath it she looks...normal, Corvo is startled to find. Fine brown hair falling loose just past her ears, and her makeup is nothing extravagant. If anything, she just looks tired.

 

Brisby makes a soft gurgling sound on the wooden planks, and it's only now that Corvo notices the knife buried deep in his abdomen. Something dark and glistening pools out underneath him; Esma steps back as it approaches her shoes.

"You killed him," he says numbly, and Esma laughs. The sound is unpleasant this time, a ragged thing that seems like to come from a different person entirely.

 

"Well aren't you a clever one. I'd do you as well, if I thought you two were in it together. As it is, I just think you're stupid. Irritating, but people shouldn't die for such a common failing." She stares down at Brisby's still-twitching form, her face blank. "What did he promise you? Was it money?"

 

"Nothing," Corvo says, trying to get his thoughts in order. He shouldn't be speaking to her, not when she's the enemy, and how the hell is he going to explain this to Havelock? "He dealt with- someone I work for. I was just supposed to bring you here. It's about the money you've been giving Hiram Burrows." Without the mask, her eyes are a deep, accusing blue. "I swear I didn't know what he intended."

 

She snorts at his response, sneering with what Corvo supposes is justified scorn.

"You're getting yourself into deep trouble, and you have no idea what's going on. Useless man. I can't believe I was going to fuck you."

 

"You weren't." It's a surreal conversation to be having, with the yachts bobbing a rhythmic roll on the Wrenhaven, fireworks above and Brisby bleeding out at their feet. Corvo wonders if they should do something about that; toss the body into the river, perhaps, or hide it aboard his yacht. He knows he should be feeling something, some kind of panic, or nausea at the very least, but after the Pendletons...

 

Corvo can't help but feel that Brisby had this coming.

 

"I'm sorry," he says at last; it's not aimed at the dead man. "We should do something about...him."

 

Esma shakes her head at him. "Someone is using you, poor fool. " She's back to laughing, and he can't tell if  the amusement is genuine, or some kind of reaction to having just stabbed a man to death. "You run around like a kitten chasing dragonflies; you'd be adorable in a collar. Ever tried that? Maybe a leash too, both in leather."

 

"I'm fine, thanks," Corvo snaps, suddenly sick of the woman; she's not blameless here, and the death he can lay at her feet concerns him more than maintaining a veneer of politeness. "And you're one to talk about being used. Burrows used your money to have Jessamine killed!"

 

Esma Boyle gives him a long look, then gestures at Brisby's unmoving form. "Help me with the corpse, won't you? I'll take his legs." That's a tone Corvo is very familiar with; he's obeying before he can stop himself, with Lydia in the back of his mind snapping, Can we get a move on, please? Brisby is heavier than he looks, dragging down against Corvo's hands as if he'd rather just be left to lie on the worn wood.

 

"I just gave him money," Esma says abruptly. "For the theatre, because I loved him. And then when I didn't love him, so he'd leave my family alone. Whores or hitmen, it didn't matter to me what he did with it. I was looking for a way to get free of him as it was." If she's struggling with her half of the corpse, she doesn't show it. Her face is serene in the street lights' shadows. Corvo doesn't say anything, and she seems to take it as an invitation to continue.

 

"So it's a woman, hm? Always is, with men like you. They take your lady away and you use that as your excuse to actually do something with your worthless life. And you change her in your head, pretty up her memory so she's perfect, and hate the world for stealing her from you. Did the perfect Empress Kaldwin even like you?" There is an uncomfortable understanding in her large blue eyes, an incisive clarity made all the sharper by the blood still staining her hands.

 

And she's right.

 

"No," Corvo admits. "We were friends, but she had a lot of friends; people liked the way she cared so genuinely. We'd plague her with our problems, and she'd make them go away for a while. But it was never more than that."

 

They lug the body over to Brisby's yacht, roll it into the deck with an implausible effort for so thin a man.

"That happens," Esma says absently, rubbing her back. "They go all heavy, and then they stiffen up for a while. Pain in the neck, but that's people for you. Good for fucking, maybe a little sympathy sometimes, and deadweights the rest of the time." She climbs over the railing and gives Brisby a vicious kick.

 

"What will you do?" Corvo asks. He wonders if he should offer to contact her sisters somehow; they're both still at the Boyle Manor with their guests, and probably haven't even noticed Esma's absence. "Is there anything I can-"

 

"Tell your masters that Brisby got me," Esma interrupts briskly. "Last you saw, I was tied up and set for starting my new life as his favourite sex doll. I'll ditch his body when we're away from this hellhole." The polished tones she used with her sister, and with Corvo earlier, lie in shreds, tossed aside with the mask and hat. He almost likes her better this way; she seems more real. She'd probably stab him for saying so.

 

"Headed for where?" he asks instead.

 

Esma sighs. "You're not very good at this, are you?" She bends and yanks the knife from Brisby's body, turning to hold it up in Corvo's face. "The thing about money is, it makes you a lot of friends. I could go anywhere I chose; sunbathing in Serkonos, skiing in Tyvia, off to visit my daughter at her school, maybe. None of that is your damn business, and don't try to make me another of your 'motivations'."

 

Raising his hands in surrender, Corvo steps away from the yacht's railing. "I won't", he says. Esma tosses the knife down by Brisby's body and wipes her hands down the front of her black silk trousers.

 

"Good," she says. "Now leave. And think about your lady friend, the one whose memory you're tainting. Think about the people using that to make you dance for their fun, or their ambition, or whatever it is this time. Stop being so damn pathetic and make your own choices, for fuck's sake." She turns away.  "And kindly do not offer to help me; I know how to sail these things, I've been on plenty of them. Just me and the stars for a while, and I'm going to make the most of it. Nice night to be free."

 

She doesn't look at him again, and after a moment Corvo turns to leave. The walk back along the docks is a long one; he considers returning to the party and getting drunk off the free Serkonan red, but it's just not worth the effort. A lonely wander back to the Hound Pits beats spending a second longer among the masked and perfumed money. The theatre district isn't so safe this late, but Corvo has the advantage of Piero's death mask. The city's gang members are as superstitious as its actors.

 

Corvo walks, and thinks. Someone's using you, she'd said; that's hardly a surprise, he isn't blind to the things Havelock, Martin, and Pendleton all stand to gain from his 'revenge'. And is it revenge anymore? He is past the point where he could justify any of this as being what Jessamine would have wanted. He doesn't know what she would have wanted, because for all the tears, complaints, and problems she soaked up from other people, she never really let on her own worries.

 

Corvo doesn't know what she would have wanted. All he can do is guess, and that's just not good enough.

 

Why is she dead, anyway? Who killed her? Perhaps Burrows will tell him, but Corvo is no longer sure what to do with the information. Oh, he knows what Havelock would say, but Havelock is not a man to be trusted.

 

The Outsider might have a few ideas.

 

There are still lights on inside the Hound Pits, and Corvo enters without needing his key. All the customers are long gone, the chairs turned up on the tables, and the floor sparkling clean. Cecelia is sprawled across the counter, her head on her arms. It seems cruel to leave her; Corvo makes sure to remove his mask before shaking her shoulder gently. She wakes almost immediately and blinks up at him.

 

"You're back."

 

"I am back, yes," Corvo replies quietly. Everyone else must be in bed. He wonders if Havelock ordered Cecelia to wait up in the shop until Corvo returned.

 

"Good party?" Cecelia's yawn creaks her jaw. Corvo goes to find the light switch as she slides drowsily off her bar stool.

 

"Boring." He likes the Hound Pits in the dark; stillness and faint moonlight through the fogged windowpanes, yeasty smell of beer, sultry coffee, the polish Cecelia uses for wood. It's so much better like this, when he's not stressed half out of his mind, or being eaten up with cankerworm guilt. This is how things used to be. "I left early."

 

"You should have asked the Outsider to go with you," Cecelia says from somewhere by the doorway, though he didn't hear her move, as usual. "I think that's what he wanted."

 

"I think we should both be asleep," Corvo tells her, because it's much too late to argue about something so ridiculous. "You go ahead, I have to talk to Havelock, if he's up."

 

He is, seated at his desk in an old white t-shirt, writing in a thick journal. The Admiral has never been all that comfortable around technology, and it's not like anyone would dare to read his diary. He'd probably shoot them with the guns Callista says he has.

"Ah, Corvo," he says, looking up as Corvo enters. "Back early I see. What news?"

 

"It's done," Corvo says quietly, mindful of Pendleton's room next door. "No problems, and last I saw Brisby was taking her away someplace safe. " He finds it easier to lie in the name of protecting someone; his voice doesn't even tremble. "She's out of the way now; Burrows won't have access to any more Boyle money."

 

"You've done us a great service, Corvo. Very great indeed." Closing his journal, the Admiral stands and stretches slowly. "I can see the light at the end, for all of us. A final effort on your part, Corvo, and you will be able to tell Emily that you avenged her mother's-"

 

"Good night, Admiral," Corvo says firmly, avoiding the proffered handshake, and leaves without another word.

Chapter Text

Swirls of blue behind his eyelids, the colour of that backdrop he once helped paint for a performance of Twelfth Night. They'd been running behind schedule, three days from opening night and still missing a good chunk of scenery. He remembers the entire performance being a disaster; backers pulled out, Viola went a bit mad under pressure and threw a vase at her understudy, and their Duke Orsino was drunk half the time. Jessamine had been there, the only one to respond to Corvo's urgent plea for help. She painted dainty clouds at his side for half a day while he struggled with lines and toxic co-stars, and then showed up at his dressing room with flowers after the first performance.

 

Maybe not quite the same shade of blue; the one he remembers is lighter, a happier hue. This one feels too much like drowning.

 

You could have anything, Corvo.

 

He floats in an endless cerulean sea, where the clocks hang upside down and tick relentlessly backwards, and a chandelier drifts slowly by, shards of crystal glinting. Up above, banners stream implausibly, red, white, and black fabric twisting in currents he can't feel. He's suddenly aware of solid ground under his feet, wooden boards like the ones at the Hound Pits, like all his favourite theatres.

 

His breath hitches, fingers tightening reflexively in the Outsider's hair; dark eyes look up at him through dark lashes with wicked amusement, and Corvo is falling-

 

and lands on his back, the sheets knotted in his hands. He takes a slow breath and tries to slow his pounding heart, to find some semblance of calm before Cecelia or Callista comes by to wake him up. They can't see him like this, not when he needs to be at his most capable, when Emily is counting on him remaining focussed.

 

He can still feel the hum of the Outsider's laughter; it's a wonder he ever forgot.

"What is wrong with me?" he asks the ceiling, but there is no reply forthcoming.

 

All is quiet downstairs. For a moment Corvo thinks he might be the first one up, but movement at the corner of his eye turns out to be Cecelia digging around in one of the pantries.

 

"How are you up already?" He goes to hold the door open for her, and suddenly finds himself juggling four different food colourings, bags of icing sugar, flour, and Lydia's vanilla-infused white sugar. Cecelia gently places a container of baking powder on top of the pile.


"Put that on the bench for me? Thanks, Corvo."

 

He does as he's told, then goes to get some coffee started for them both; he saw the shadows under his eyes in the mirror this morning, and they matched Cecelia's. "Making something special?" he asks, tightening the base of the stovetop coffeemaker. "I thought today's muffins were meant to be chocolate?"

 

"They are." With the coffeemaker slowly heating, Corvo finds himself pressed into service again, this time receiving a large tub of butter and more cocoa powder than anyone should ever need."I'm just making them a bit more exciting."

 

"Rose water?" Corvo reads off the bottle she hands him. "Is there any point in asking what it's for?"

 

He almost drops everything when Cecelia shuts the pantry door with a sharp crack. "I want to make buttercream roses, I'm going to do it, and if you laugh at me I'll- I'll dye your apron pink too!"

 

"I wasn't laughing." The butter and cocoa go on the bench, and Corvo turns to fetch their coffee. It's while he's getting mugs down that a thought occurs. "Is someone we know a fan of roses?"

 

Cecelia's ears are mid-way to a lurid red when he hands her the mug. "They're her favourites," she says miserably, staring at the pile of ingredients in front of her. "And she's been so stressed, with the exhibition...I thought I could do something nice to make her smile. Please don't laugh."

 

"Never," Corvo tells her as gently as possible; he is a great many terrible, terrible things, but he tries to avoid hypocrisy when he can manage it. If Cecelia wants to go and get attached to a customer, then Callista can be the one to warn her off, while Corvo stares stonily into space and pretends he can't hear the wisdom she's spouting.

 

There is something seriously wrong with me, he thinks with no small amount of resignation.

 

But it need not remain that way. Corvo yanks open the nearest fridge and gets to work on cooking them both a cure-everything breakfast that consists mostly of bacon. It's the least he can do.

 

The silence between them is a comfortable one, broken up by bacon crackling in the pan, and Cecelia taking an electric beater to her ingredients. It all feels so normal. One more day just starting up like all the rest; any minute now Lydia will be down with a list of things that need doing, and Wallace will come by to take half the bacon for Pendleton. They'll eat together and pretend they have things to talk about like an actual family would, and then Corvo and Cecelia will put the chairs down and do a stocktake. They'll open on time, and none of the customers will come in whispering about the pool of blood someone found at the docks by the Boyle Manor, and how nobody can get hold of Esma Boyle, or even knows where she is.

 

He didn't dream of Brisby, which is both a blessing and a worry. It should be...bothering him, surely? A man died while he watched, and his blood may well still be staining the dark gloves Callista gave him to go with his outfit.

 

He leans on the counter, closes his eyes for a second or two, and then opens them again as Cecelia jabs him in the spine with a wooden spoon.

 

"You're burning the bacon," she says accusingly. "I hate black bits on mine."

 

"Sorry." He scrapes at them, though by now it's futile to even try. "I was going to do a few lots anyway. Pendleton can have this one."

 

"That's Lord Pendleton, Corvo, and unfortunately he doesn't have time for breakfast, given his urgent appointment with Lord Shaw in twenty minutes." Corvo narrowly avoids burning his hand on the pan as he turns to find Pendleton in the doorway, glaring daggers in his direction. His hair is dishevelled, and he shrugs off Wallace's attempts to fix it and straighten his waistcoat. "I take it you didn't deliver the letter I gave you; he claims nobody approached him last night."

 

Oh, Corvo thinks. Brisby's death completely overshadowed the rest of the evening, but he can't believe he'd forgotten that Pendleton tried to have him killed. Somehow it just seemed less important than making sure Havelock believed his story. Like Pendleton himself, overshadowed by the more obvious threats- but still a dangerous man. Underestimating him was a bad idea, and surviving that particular mistake was mostly down to luck, and the Outsider's indirect assistance.

 

If Shaw didn't rat him out, Corvo isn't about to get into the details of the encounter. "I couldn't find him," he lies. He catches a flicker of movement under the table and finds Cecelia sitting cross-legged on the floor where Pendleton can't see her, buttering her muffin trays. She lifts a finger to her lips in mute appeal. Corvo meets Pendleton's beady gaze again. "There must have been a thousand people, and I saw several wolf masks, none of them answering to the name 'Shaw'. You never said it was urgent."

 

"No, that's true." Pendleton shifts from foot to foot while Wallace tugs anxiously at his collar. "A mere...personal matter, which has been made somewhat awkward by your oversight- but I wouldn't call it urgent, no."

 

"Sorry." Does Havelock know what you tried to do? Corvo turns his back on Wallace's scowl and Pendleton's poorly concealed nerves. Let him fight his own damn duels if he's so keen on them. Bailing inebriated nobles out of their crises is not in his job description, and the sooner they leave the sooner Cecelia can come out of  hiding and get her muffins into the oven. They're always impeccable, and Corvo's feeling like he might need to steal a few before shift starts, possibly accompanied by something alcoholic and highly inappropriate for this time of day.

 

The kitchen door slams violently closed behind Pendleton, and Corvo clenches his fists reflexively. "I hope Shaw cuts out your lying, treacherous tongue," he says quietly; from under the table comes a soft clatter.

"I'm sorry," Cecelia whispers from the shadows. Corvo sighs, and goes to help her clean up.

 

It's opening time before he knows it, and in the end neither of them gets any bacon.

 

"Soy latte, extra foam."

 

Burn in hell, Corvo thinks, ringing the order up and then handing it over to an increasingly irate Lydia. "Won't be a moment, we'll bring it out to you." He tries not to count the number of people queuing up behind the customer with an Overseer's pin and no apparent knowledge of coffee. They've had a few recently, and it's probably Martin's doing; Lydia might welcome the extra coin, but Corvo is tiring of the way they look at him. As if they have any right to judge where he works, when Campbell's trial has been front page news for the last week.

 

He serves a couple of ballerinas, a journalist who'd rather chat about the Boyle Party he didn't attend than actually settle on an order, and a woman who gives him a conspirational smile and hands him a post-it note.

 

"I have special dietary requirements," she says, "I wrote the instructions down for you.

 

Corvo just blinks at her. "We aren't in a position to cater for anything...odd," he begins, and then she leans across the counter and whispers, "I'm allergic to water."

 

Lydia looks liable to stab someone when he hands her the order, and then out of nowhere Callista descends like an angel from on high and plucks the piece of paper from her fingers.

"Go take your break," she says firmly. "I'll handle this, maybe I can... use some sort of milk, I don't know. Just go, before we have an accident."

 

"She's losing it," Corvo says out of the corner of his mouth. Callista stares down at the order, brow furrowed, and sighs.

 

"She's not the only one. If only Samuel wanted to start up a new career in the coffee industry; I've asked but he keeps telling me he's too old, though I'm certain he'd be of more use than a lot of people here. Wallace isn't even on the premises. I'm not sure where he went, but Cecelia is sitting in the kitchen piping about a thousand buttercream rose petals. I don't suppose you know what that's about?"

 

"No idea."

 

"Just...Cecelia being herself, then. I left Emily there to help her; she's very keen, for once. If only she'd muster up that kind of enthusiasm for her lessons..." There is a reproachful note to her tone, as if Emily's lack of interest for history and basic math might somehow be Corvo's fault. Though maybe it is. Callista's been busy all week, and it would take a better man than Corvo to run the coffee shop and Emily's lessons simultaneously. He let her get away with drawing when she pleaded, knowing full well he should have locked her crayons away. Callista would have, that much is clear.

 

"Have you seen the Admiral?" he asks her when their next customer leaves with their nice, sensible medium Mocha. "Is he going to let you keep that outfit you made for me?"

 

"Not exactly. He says he'll hold onto it, just in case something comes up and you need it again." Callista folds her hands at her waist and stares around the coffee shop, her disappointment plain. "Why you would I have no idea, but the Admiral's never been exactly forthcoming about anything."

 

"No," Corvo agrees. He can feel his heart sink slightly at the implications behind Havelock wanting the outfit around. Esma Boyle may be safe, but he can't count on being so lucky next time. Hiram Burrows isn't going anywhere without encouragement; what happens if Martin can't come through with a clever plan, and Havelock hands Corvo one of those pistols he keeps in his office? The Outsider's Mark won't magic all his problems away.

 

"But I shouldn't complain," Callista says abruptly. "So long as he pays me for my time, it can all go towards rescuing Emily. He promised I'd receive industry rates for that sort of work and I'll hold him to it. I need to leave this place."

 

"Don't we all."

 

There is a subdued air to the customers today, as there always is the day after a Boyle party. The coffees are ordered stronger than usual, the smiles are in short supply, and their tip jar sits sadly empty and almost universally ignored. Several people appear to have passed out at their tables; Cecelia tiptoes around them, clearing up empty mugs and wiping the tables as best as she can. They try to be understanding on days like this, and it's not exactly restricted to the Hound Pits. The inertia is spread all over Dunwall. Half the theatres won't bother with opening their doors this evening; they're in for a quiet night.

 

Corvo is restocking the chocolate muffins (Cecelia's rose decorations look surprisingly professional, and she got better as she went; Emily's never made it past the kitchen, which might have been her intention all along) when the Outsider arrives.

 

He wanders over to the counter in his usual impeccable suit, blinking up at the Other Menu as if he hasn't seen it before. At the rate Pendleton keeps adding new and increasingly suspect options, every day may well be a surprise to him, and anyone else for that matter. Today they have nutmeg dusting; Corvo tries not to think about tomorrow.

 

"Hello," he says cautiously. The Outsider gives him a brief nod and turns his attention to the food cabinets, watching Corvo carefully slide each rose-topped muffin into place. "I wasn't sure I'd get to see you today."

 

"You were mistaken." The Outsider points to the lemon yoghurt cake, his finger hovering a centimetre away from the freshly cleaned glass. "What is this?"

 

He doesn't tend to take any interest in the food, quite possibly because there isn't much he could order that would irritate Corvo. But the question seems genuine enough, and Corvo refrains from pointing out the sign sitting in front of the cake; at least they're still talking. He had wondered- but it doesn't matter. Of course they're still talking. They have a business relationship, a professional relationship that doesn't allow for unimportant things like minor squabbles, or dreams that Corvo can't seem to-

 

"Lemon yoghurt cake," he answers hurriedly. "Pendleton likes to reserve the "exotic" foreign names for the coffee, so it really is exactly what it looks like. There's a sign," he adds with a little more force than necessary.

 

The Outsider peers through the glass with as much interest as he gives the Other Menu, or Corvo himself. Finally, he shrugs. "But is it vegan?" He eyes Corvo expectantly, and it takes a very real effort not to reach over the counter and smack him. Instead, Corvo settles for gripping the edge of the bench until his knuckles turn white and smiling through gritted teeth.

 

"No, but you're not a vegan, so I don't see why it matters."

 

The Outsider tilts his head and blinks slowly. "How do you know?"

 

Because you swallow, Corvo thinks, and feels himself begin to turn a bright, mortified scarlet. Predictably, the Outsider notices.

 

"Are you feeling alright?"

 

"Fine," Corvo says through gritted teeth.

 

"You've gone red."

 

"It doesn't matter, do you want the cake or not?"

 

He doesn't in the end; what he does want is the Vanilla Cherry Amarena Frappuccino, with chocolate flakes and their new Serkonan cherry sauce on top of the whipped cream. To his credit, he lets Corvo talk him out of throwing on a dusting of nutmeg, on the grounds that it's just insanity, and he really doesn't need to try all the new things at the same time. It almost seems they might both be able to act like adults for the entire encounter, until Corvo leaves for a few seconds to grab the cherry sauce. When he returns, the Outsider has come to join him behind the counter, leaning against a nearby bench as if he has every right to be there.

 

"Really?" Corvo asks pointedly. He surrenders when the Outsider just blinks at him. "Just...don't touch anything."

 

"Of course not." He seems fascinated by the shelves upon shelves of liquor, maybe planning a return trip some evening to see what kinds of mad cocktails Corvo will make him with enough bullying and unblinking black-eyed stares. "What is that one?"

 

"Don't touch the absinthe."

 

"I have not touched anything yet. But the colour is very pleasant."

 

Corvo nudges him aside with a less than careful elbow so he can dig out the chocolate flakes container. "Are you ever going to tell me how much of this you do just because you enjoy being a right little... nuisance?"

 

"I never reveal all my secrets, Corvo. If people knew everything they would cease to entertain me."

 

And speaking of people knowing secrets...he's been dreading this, but it's better than waiting until Sokolov does it for him. If he can just explain his reasons with some semblance of logic- and with that, Corvo spills several spoonfuls of chocolate flakes all over the bench. He mutters something highly Emily-inappropriate under his breath.

 

"I told Sokolov about us," he says abruptly, and the Outsider raises his eyebrows.

 

"Us?" he asks innocently, and Corvo almost drops the entire container of chocolate flakes and storms right out in humiliated rage. Today is not his day. To be fair, it's never his day, but today is worse than usual. He just can't seem to stop.

 

"Don't even- No, alright, just no. Not in a thousand, million years," Corvo says, though all he can think is that it's a bit late now, because as far as his mind is concerned they already have. "I mean, I told him about your new play, and about-me. I'm sorry, but I couldn't think of any other way to make him reveal Lady Boyle." He shouldn't be saying so much, this is not something he should be admitting to anyone outside of the Admiral's rooms, but Corvo doesn't care. The Outsider will find out eventually, and maybe sooner rather than later, if Sokolov has his way. It's better he hears it from Corvo.

 

"Of course you told him," the Outsider says carelessly. Corvo just blinks at him. He'd expected anger, a measure of betrayal, because that's how a normal person would react. By now he should know better. "I expected no less of your character. How was the party?"

 

"I wish you'd been there," Corvo says, relief seeping into every syllable. "At least I'd have known there was someone having even less fun than me. And I know we've been through this before, but you realise I'm not a character, don't you? I exist outside of your script." He fumbles in one of the cupboards for a cloth to clean up the spilled chocolate flakes, and narrowly avoids upending the container with his elbow.

 

The Outsider reaches over and gently moves it out of danger. "I know, Corvo. Believe me, I am very much aware of this. For all the people who have come and gone so fleetingly, serving as minute scraps of inspiration for my stories, I do not think I could have conjured you from thin air. At every turn you oppose me; I find it intriguing."

 

"I- well. Glad to hear it." Corvo casts about for a less...unnerving topic. Something less likely to make a reappearance when he tries to sleep tonight. "Did you know the Boyles have a walrus topiary?"

 

It's the first time he's seen the Outsider lost for words. "I was...unaware of that," the other man says eventually, when it becomes clear that Corvo isn't going to explain any further.

 

"It seemed like the kind of thing you'd appreciate." Corvo adds the requested drizzle of cherry sauce with more care than usual; the stuff sticks like glue, and today he's liable to get it all over himself. "They had all kinds of creatures. A dolphin, a whale-"

 

"I would have liked that one best," the Outsider says. He unfolds his arms and goes to fetch Corvo a clear plastic lip with surprising obedience, then hovers at Corvo's shoulder as he fixes it to the takeaway cup. "The whale is a truly extraordinary creature; too few people appreciate its majesty."

 

"I was more impressed with the octopus frankly, but each to their own." Majestic whales, he thinks as he hands over the order. The Outsider pushes at the boundaries of what he considers eccentric, and is well on the way to stepping into just plain mad. Majestic whales and nutmeg on his Cherry Frappuccino. Callista, send me an intervention. "See you tomorrow." It's no longer a question, but the Outsider gives him a small nod as he leaves.

 

Havelock makes an appearance just as Corvo is surreptitiously experimenting with drawing whales in the foam of a hot chocolate someone ordered and then changed their minds about. In itself this is nothing to be ashamed of, but Corvo finds himself pushing the cup aside where Havelock is less likely to see it.

 

"Admiral," he says. Havelock gives him a distracted nod; he has his cellphone in hand, and his eyes dart from Corvo's down to the screen.

 

"Good day Corvo. I see everything is in order here; all ship-shape and sailing smoothly, as it were."

 

"A bit quiet, but after the Boyle party-"

 

"Yes, yes, I am aware. Is there a reason you're drawing whales in perfectly good coffee?" The Admiral frowns down at the offending cup as if it somehow personally offended him.

 

Corvo makes an effort to keep his tone civil. "It's hot chocolate. They look completely different. Also, it's...for Emily, to cheer her up a bit." He doesn't point out that the Hound Pits has been open for years, and it's about time Havelock learnt the difference; Lydia's made an effort to teach him a few things, but at the end of the day it was about as effectual as teaching Wallace, who still requires a firm hand and constant supervision.

 

Havelock makes an approving sound. "I will take that up to her in a minute; she's been telling me all about her lessons, and the progress she has made under Callista's careful tuition. She misses you, of course, but I have explained that you are much too busy to be caring for a child not of your own blood. She is a burden to you. I'm sure she will come to understand that."

 

Corvo nearly throws the cup at him. "You've been telling her- why? Emily knows I've never considered her a burden, never-"

 

"Be that as it may, Emily has a future that we need to begin thinking of, and it would be unfair to allow a continued attachment with someone who will only hold her back. Your reputation-"

 

"I was found innocent!"

 

"Of course you were." Havelock places a large hand on Corvo's shoulder with what he must assume resembles sympathy. It feels like he's trying to force Corvo to the ground. "But there will always be people who question, and it would be unfair in the extreme if Emily were to be disadvantaged by something she still does not fully understand. This is for her, Corvo. For her future. The girl is very precious to us all, and we want what is best for her." He reaches past Corvo's still frame to take the warm cup, with its pathetic smiling whale decoration.

 

Corvo closes his eyes for a moment. He should have seen this coming. It was futile to hope that the Admiral wouldn't notice who Emily runs to with her favourite drawings, her most interesting new facts, the best gossip she picks up from kindly customers. Impossible to instruct an eight year old in subtlety. Havelock has been distracted recently, or maybe he'd have acted sooner.

 

This isn't the end. Maybe Havelock thinks a single warning will be enough to make him give up on playing a part in Emily's future, but he's wrong.

 

It shouldn't hurt as much as it does.

 

"Was there something you wanted, Admiral?" he asks when he can trust his voice not to give him away.

 

Havelock glances down at the screen of his phone again. "Yes, as a matter of fact. One of Martin's lines of inquiry into Burrows came to a dead end, and we're struggling to find alternatives. The situation is not yet desperate, but it seems we may have to act more quickly than I had anticipated. We need you to speak with Daud."

 

"What?"

 

Havelock's eyes dart to the screen one last time before he tucks his phone away with a disgusted look. "Yes, well. It would have been preferable to have Martin do it; that man could talk hagfish into nets if he put his mind to it, and getting information out of Daud won't be much simpler. Unfortunately it seems they have- a history," his frown deepens. "And from what I gather, a very recent disagreement- well, that's unimportant. He's refusing to set foot into the Regency Black. I'd thought Martin was above such petty things, but apparently that is not the case; my hands are tied. It has to be you."

 

Of course it does. First Sokolov and now Daud; Corvo wonders why he expected Havelock to give him a break after the Boyle party. It's clear he wants Burrows dealt with as soon as possible, and with Pendleton still away wherever he went to meet Shaw, and Martin having decided to be unhelpful, Havelock's allies are dwindling. Corvo is a safe bet.

 

"I'll do it," he says resignedly. There was never any other option. It shouldn't be all that much of an effort; he'll get there, Daud will laugh in his face, and then he can leave again. It's not as if the man could possibly lose any more respect for him. They're already at rock bottom.

 

Corvo has to wait until Callista returns from her break before leaving. Havelock might want his information now, but unless he plans to stand behind the counter and take orders himself, there's nothing else to be done. Wallace still isn't back, and Cecelia comes out periodically to restock food and glow with pride at the rate her muffins are vanishing, and then does a disappearing act of her own.

 

Lydia spontaneously took the afternoon off, after a week of struggling in Callista's absence. Hardly characteristic, but nobody said a thing about it. She's earned the break as much as any of them.

 

Corvo tosses his apron into the kitchen washbasket and goes to leave by the shop's front door, only to find Callista gesturing mutely for help at the counter. In front of her stands Sokolov, his back turned to talk to Piero Joplin.

 

"Excuse me, were you going to order anything?" Callista says as Corvo approaches, giving him a helpless shrug when Sokolov ignores her entirely. "I'll just stand here then, shall I? There isn't anything else I could be doing with my time."

 

Sokolov just keeps talking. "I will confess, I found your work on Spiritual Remedy to be quite superior to anything I have seen outside of my own plays. I would go so far as to say that some of your more brilliant innovations even exceed my own. It's such a shame you are restricted to following the whims of incompetent directors and sub-standard thespians, when alone you might shine."

 

"And where am I to find the funding?" Piero's response is dry, but not openly hostile."I cannot afford to create my own company complete with writers who will shape their works around my whims, and the freedom from budgetary constraints that you yourself enjoy. But it's forced me to explore different areas of stagecraft to achieve-"

 

"Yes, of course, your rather ingenious solution to the Tower's inadequate stage lighting. You reinvented the whale oil lamps that so many had assumed to be obsolete-"

 

"A labour of many days, and too little sleep, I am afraid. Still, it's refreshing to converse with someone on my own level, who appreciates the difficulties involved in my work." Over Sokolov's shoulder, Corvo sees Piero gesture to the lighting instalment he put in a few weeks back. "I have made many discoveries through the necessity of having to branch out in what services I offer. You might say that my restrictions have been a blessing in disguise; my work in the Tower's new performance of Faust tomorrow night is the unique result of such researches."

 

"Ah yes, I thought the style was familiar! I should have recognised your work immediately." Sokolov turns to admire the lighting fixture, and finds himself face to face with a politely furious Callista. "Do you mind, madam? We are in the midst of a discussion you would surely find beyond your comprehension."

 

Corvo sees Callista's eyes narrow dangerously, and steps in before she can give Sokolov a piece of her mind. He'd deserve it, certainly, but it'll leave her irritable for the rest of the day, and Lydia won't be pleased if they drive off an important customer.

 

"Have your discussion somewhere that isn't right in front of the counter then," he says firmly, giving Callista a gentle nudge. She throws her hands up and moves over to check their stocks of cheesecake brownies, hunching over slightly so Piero won't see her and whip out some kind of new design she absolutely has to look at. "We have plenty of tables, and a wide range of drinks I could bring out to you. Feel free to order something."

 

Sokolov's eyes widen slightly at the sight of Corvo. "Corvo! Good to see you. And I see you have met Piero; somehow it does not surprise me to find you so very well connected, what with your position-"

 

"Can I get you anything?" Corvo interrupts, lifting his notebook pointedly. Over Sokolov's shoulder, he sees Piero frowning at the Other Menu with a total lack of comprehension, mumbling something involving the words "cinnamon" and "flammable". It's probably best the Admiral isn't around to hear that.

 

"As a matter of fact, I wished to inquire about that curious green beverage you made for me the last time I was here." Sokolov strokes his impressive beard, a gesture he probably practices in the mirror each morning. The thought is an amusing one, if Corvo wasn't busy trying to get his head around Sokolov's question.

 

"The Spirulina Shake? You mean- you actually liked it?"

 

"Hm? Yes, of course. It had a most curious flavour I could not identify."

 

"Algae," Piero says over his shoulder, and Sokolov turns to stare at him. "Highly rich in protein, several vitamins, antioxidants, and therefore highly popular with health fanatics. I have seen it offered most curiously in tablet and powder form, though I confess I lack the courage to try something so violently...green."

 

Corvo has to agree with him there. He drank the stuff once, because the Admiral is a firm believer in his staff being knowledgeable in the things they're selling, but it's not an experience he'll willingly repeat. "Tastes like pond scum" was Cecelia's gloomy verdict.

 

"Ours comes in powder form," is the best he can offer. "You're welcome to experiment with it, so long as you promise not to set anything on fire." They have far more on hand than they can use anyway, and if it'll get them away from the counter and out of Callista's hair, he'll let them have the whole lot.

 

He ends up bringing out two Spirulina shakes, a cupful of the powder on its own, some boiling water, and the promise that Callista will deliver whatever odd things they might need in their pursuit of higher knowledge. Sokolov actually thanks him, which is a novelty he's not sure he'll ever get entirely comfortable with. Piero just stares down at his shake with resignation.

 

"Well, I suppose cowardice never resulted in any significant measure of success," he mutters, dipping a dubious finger into the green mixture.

 

Corvo leaves them to it, waving goodbye to Callista as he heads for the door. Outside, the clouds are gathering; it's going to be a miserable evening, though probably not as miserable as his trudge to Regency Black. He can't even take his time about it in protest; Callista will need a hand at some point if Wallace doesn't come back, and he suspects Cecelia will be wanting time to visit the Brigmore Manor with a box of rose cupcakes if her favourite customer doesn't make an appearance in person soon.

 

The Regency Black is an eclectic collection of crooked pillars, tall windows, and a highly polished marble floor that shines under blue and green bulbs, giving the place the illusion of flooding. The thick curtains carefully tied up on either side of every window are a murky green in support of this, and for reasons known only to Hiram Burrows the staff all wear a variation on an old-fashioned Whaler's uniform. Blue coats and hoods that hide what parts of their faces aren't concealed by black gas masks. Elbow length gloves, pinstriped pants, and neat white aprons tied on top, in case people forget they're actually the wait staff.

 

Havelock once toyed with the idea of having the Hound Pits staff dress in a quirky uniform, given how popular Daud's people are, but dropped it when Jessamine efficiently organised a protest strike. Corvo had forgotten all about that; it's a good memory.

 

One of the Whalers is stationed outside the Regency Black's imposing exterior, enticing people with the day's specials and handing out leaflets advertising their most popular choices. The masked face turns in Corvo's direction as he approaches.

 

"Hey there. How's your day going?"

 

Corvo raises his eyebrows at the casual greeting. If Lydia heard him saying something similar...and he can't imagine Daud is all that easygoing with his staff.

 

"Fine, I suppose. You seem cheerful." He takes the leaflet the Whaler all but shoves into his hand.

 

"Beautiful day not to be indoors with Daud." Even muffled, the Whaler's tone is infectiously cheerful. "The boss had a bitch of a morning and Lurk's gone to hide all the knives. If there's screaming when you go in, prepare to duck. I'm not warning you again."

 

"That's encouraging." Corvo eyes the Regency Black with apprehension. The old stone walls are intended to be impressive; it was once an old bank catering to the aristocracy, before its subsequent abandonment. Burrows bought the building and had it remodelled to suit his own incomprehensible tastes, and now it functions as a high class coffee parlour and restaurant. The Hound Pits never stood a chance.

 

"Lurk will keep him sane," the Whaler says. "Hopefully. If all else fails, try leaving him your number," he adds as Corvo reaches for the door handle. "His ex boyfriend dumped him again, and now he's desperately, tragically single, and he keeps muttering about disembowelling someone. Not sure who, don't care so long as it's not me. Take one for the team, yeah?"

 

"Don't count on it," Corvo says, and braces himself for the worst.

 

Inside, the Regency Black is bustling in ways the Hound Pits can only dream of, and certainly far too busy given that everyone should still be suffering from post-Boyle party hangovers. It's too early for the dinner service, but apparently this is the place to be for late afternoon tea; at least two thirds of the tables are filled, and nobody here looks like they've been on the receiving end of disembowelment threats. Presumably Daud is exercising a measure of self-control.

 

There is no queue at the counter, but behind it a good-looking woman leans impassively, her Whaler's mask sitting at her elbow. She looks Corvo up and down with dark eyes and jerks her head in greeting.

"Something I can help you with?"

 

"I was hoping to talk to Daud."

 

"Were you?" The woman's eyes narrow. "Well isn't that nice. Sadly for you, Daud isn't interested. Order or leave, I don't care which."

 

"Hassling the customers again, Lurk?" comes from behind her, and the woman immediately straightens, unconsciously tugging the collar of her red coat a bit less crooked. Daud looks over her shoulder to Corvo and freezes in place for a moment, his scowl deepening. "Though I may give you free reign with this one. What do you want, Attano?"

 

"Wait, you mean this is-" Lurk begins, while Corvo says, "I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. Do you have a moment?" He's not sure why he bothers with civility, except that the doorman's warning sticks in his memory and there really don't seem to be any knives in sight.

 

Daud eyes him speculatively, before giving a slow nod. "Guess I could spare a few minutes. I'm not surprised to see you here; just wasn't expecting you quite so soon." He reaches for a notebook lying on the counter and writes something down, handing it to Lurk. "Can you handle things on your own, or should I hire you all a nanny? Where is that damn fool Thomas?"

 

"Out back feeding sparrows, like he always does on break. And Rulfio is on dinner prep this afternoon." Lurk crumples the paper in her fist, her lip curling slightly. "You should know, old man, seeing as you write the rosters.

 

"The lack of discipline in this place never ceases to astound me. Get to work before I look into hiring replacements." Daud gestures tersely for Corvo to follow him, leading the way past tables and their fashionable diners, up a flight of stone stairs and over to an empty table by a window. Corvo spares a glance for the view outside: clouds, tiled rooftops, the theatre district's haphazardly coloured banners dancing in the breeze. Home.

 

He drags his attention back to Daud's impassive face. In all honesty he hadn't expected to make it anywhere near so far, and starting a conversation with Daud is a bit like chatting up a block of solid granite. A particularly weather block, with an old scar carved deep into one side of his face, and the lines at the corners of his eyes thrown into sharp relief by the light from the window.

"Who was that outside?" he settles for asking. A muscle in Daud's jaw twitches.

 

"Rinaldo, most likely. I won't bother asking why he left an impression; it's likely I'd rather not know."

 

"Probably not."

 

A Whaler arrives with a tray and places two small espresso cups in front of them, both filled to the brim with steaming liquid. He gives a short bow and retreats without a word. It's nothing short of unnerving; even Cecelia has more of a spark to her. Corvo reaches for the cup, taking a slow sip of the coffee with appreciation. Serkonan, and excellent quality. Just what he'd have expected.

 

Opposite him, Daud's grey eyes are sharp. "Let's not pretend this encounter is something either of us is enjoying, and skip right to the questions, shall we?" He takes Corvo silence for assent, and continues. "If you're here to ask about him, I have nothing for you but advice you don't want. Get out now, if it's not too late. That black-eyed bastard toys with people's lives, with their memories and their dreams of the future. Turns them cancerous."

 

"Is that why you quit acting?"

 

Daud gives a stiff shrug. "Something like that. You reach a certain point in your life where all the choices you've made come back, and come back biting. Our choices always matter to someone, somewhere, and I didn't like how mine looked. I found myself new dreams to work toward; dreams he never had a chance to tamper with. Nor Burrows for that matter. It's time for a change of scenery and frankly I anticipate the day I bid this rotting city goodbye for good." The venom in his tone is startling, if only because Corvo had assumed he'd be a permanent fixture in Dunwall. A thorn in his side, and in Havelock's; it feels like things have always been this way.

 

It's funny, now he thinks about it. They've only known each other for a couple of years; three at most, and it was antipathy from the start. He doesn't even know why.

 

"It's Burrows I came to ask about," Corvo says. He doesn't comment on Daud's other advice. Easier to just dismiss it than to look too closely at the reasons why it repulses him. "I know we've never been friends, and you have no reason to even listen-"

 

"Ask your questions." Daud toys with his espresso cup, tilting it this way and that as if the liquid might contain whatever dream it is he's fixated on. "Anything you want to know; chances are I have the answers, and I'll demand nothing in return. Just that you leave when you're done, and don't come back."

 

"I... That seems fair. If you mean it, that is."

 

Daud looks up from his cup, the corner of his mouth twitching. "You're asking yourself why I would just hand over my employer's best kept secrets. Maybe it's a trick, or I'm trying to make you look like a fool in front of your Admiral. In front of him."

 

"It's possible. You don't have much reason to like me." They've been rivals for too long, on-stage and off, and it's a bitterness Corvo doesn't expect to disappear any time soon. He's not stupid enough to take Daud at his word without knowing what it is that caused this sudden schism with Burrows.

 

"It is possible," Daud agrees. "But not the case here."

 

"But why?"

 

He holds the scarred man's gaze for what becomes an uncomfortably long time. In the end, Daud looks away first.

 

"I hear Lady Boyle is missing," he says quietly, and Corvo feels a chill settle in his stomach.

 

"Is she?"

 

"So they say. Just like the Pendleton twins, which is a stroke of remarkably good fortune for the younger sibling. Treavor, isn't it? From what I hear, he's sunk a lot of family money into that business of yours. Or Havelock's, as the case may be." He pauses for a moment, and continues when Corvo doesn't say anything. "There is also the mysterious arrest of Thaddeus Campbell; someone stole his stash of blackmail material and sent it on to the Watch. That's a remarkable thing to do, in these trying times. Nauseatingly altruistic, you could say."

 

This time it's Corvo struggling to meet his eyes. "I don't know what that has to do with me."

 

"Don't you? Well, maybe it's just an old man's imagination. Though it would be nice to know what happened to Esma; Burrows thinks she eloped, of course, but the woman never struck me as the kind to run from a life of luxury without a better reason than infatuation. She knows that's only ever temporary, while money lasts a good deal longer. No, if she ran it wasn't willingly. And maybe she didn't run at all. Easier to hide a body than a living woman, however good your connections are. I hear they found a sizeable puddle of blood on the docks outside the Boyle Manor-"

 

"No," Corvo says before he can stop himself. A flicker of surprise crosses Daud's face.

 

"She lives, then?"

 

He can't take it anymore. "Alive, and off on an extended holiday far from Dunwall. She didn't say if she'd be back, but I doubt it'll be until Burrows is out of the way. The blood...belongs to someone who deserved to lose it." It's a weight off his chest to finally tell someone, though the renewed silence that falls between them in the wake of his confession is...well, it doesn't matter. Corvo sits and awaits judgement, in whatever form it comes.

 

"I see why he likes you," Daud says at last. The admission sounds forced, every word torn from him. "Your choices are not what I would have expected, but maybe it's time I stopped expecting you to behave as I would. So tell me. What do you plan to do about Burrows?"

 

"I know he paid to have Jessamine Kaldwin murdered." Corvo's sees Daud's eyes widen slightly; could it be he didn't know? "And there's something about a shady conspiracy to take over the theatre district, though I can't help but wonder if that's just an excuse for Havelock to remove a whole lot of inconvenient people. But the murder is what I'm concerned with."

 

"You should be." Daud is back to staring at his empty cup. "She wouldn't be the first he's had done away with. And I wouldn't laugh off the conspiracy so quickly; Burrows certainly believes in it, though I can't speak for his allies. Not that they matter anymore."

 

"No," Corvo agrees. "And whatever Burrows has done, I don't want him dead. Maybe that's what the Admiral would prefer, but if I have a say in the matter I'd rather see him arrested. Let what's left of the justice system take care of it."

 

"What do you need?"

 

"Proof. Anything to show he was behind Jessamine's- behind all the deaths he ordered. I know it's a lot to ask, but-"

 

Daud holds a hand up for silence, and beckons to one of the Whalers hovering around the store. And they must have some sort of sign language, or maybe Daud's mastered telepathy, because the masked man immediately brings Daud a notebook and pen before moving gracefully back out of earshot.

 

"Here," Daud says, scribbling something down into the notepad and tearing the page out. "His login details, and those for his Skype account and email. You'll have to do some hunting, but I know for a fact that he keeps audio recordings of his conversations with his assassin. He thinks it makes him safer. Of course, he's also not entirely sane, but I often think everyone in this place is mad."

 

He hands the piece of paper over to Corvo, who stares at it in disbelief. It's all there. Everything he needs to see justice done. If he went to Captain Curnow with this right now and gave his most convincing arguments, they might be able to do it all legally- but then again, maybe not. He needs to tread carefully.

 

"How do you know all of this?" he asks, flicking a corner of the page. "He just...leaves his passwords lying around, and tells you he's having people assassinated?"

 

"Not exactly." Daud shrugs. "And I never agreed to answer any questions about myself. You wanted information, and now you have it. It's the only thing on the table."

 

"Right." Corvo stares at the messy black scribbles and imagines trying to convince Curnow of their importance, without somehow bringing Campbell, the Pendletons, and Brisby into it. Not surprisingly, he draws a blank. "I don't suppose you know anything about Burrows' schedule?"

 

"Don't bother trying anything tonight," Daud says briskly. He reaches across the table to tap the piece of paper with a finger. "This is of no use to you unless you can guarantee a good amount of time alone with his files, or at least time to steal them, and you won't get that tonight. Do it tomorrow."

 

"Tomorrow? What's-" Corvo pauses, trying to remember the Tower's schedule for tomorrow evening. Piero mentioned it earlier, he thinks, something that required a significant budget. Something expensive enough that Burrows will have to attend, so people know he's the one responsible for whatever miracles Piero conjures up for him. "Opening night at the Tower, of course. Faust, isn't it?"

 

"Something like that. He'll be in his private box during the performance, and socialising with his sponsors in the intervals. You'll have all the time you need to do whatever it is you have planned. Try not to fail as spectacularly as I expect you will."

 

"Good to know you're still feeling like yourself." Standing slowly, Corvo tucks the note into the same pocket as the Outsider's Mark. "I won't waste any more of your time." Daud follows a half step behind as he weaves through tables to the exit, maybe to make sure Corvo doesn't try any sabotage as he leaves. Every Whaler mask he passes turns to follow him, though none of them say anything. There is no sign of Billie Lurk.

 

"For what it's worth," Daud says behind him, and Corvo turns with one hand on the door handle. "I regret that you ended up in this mess. If I could go back and change things I would, but we both know that's just idle fantasy. I never thought it would end up like this."

 

Corvo frowns, opens his mouth to ask what he's missing here, and something behind Daud's eyes shuts down, like a door being slammed in his face. "Now get out, and don't come back. I have better things to do than answer your useless questions."

 

"Thanks," Corvo settles for, and leaves without another word.

Chapter Text

"She liked them," Cecelia says over breakfast the next morning. Her cheeks are flushed and she prods at her only slightly burnt bacon with a marked lack of interest. "She said they were the- the most charming things anyone had ever made for her, and she ate one while I was there, and didn't even get icing everywhere. I don't understand how she did it. She's so elegant. I don't know how she can bring herself to look at me, I'm so dull by comparison."

 

Callista reaches over to gently remove the fork from Cecelia's fingers before she can accidentally stab herself. "I might have guessed this was the reason for all those buttercream roses. None of that, now. I'm sure she finds you very interesting indeed. I do know for a fact that she keeps coming to us for coffee no matter how far out of her way it is, and she's certainly not here to see Corvo. Unlike certain customers I could mention-"

 

"Who only come in to annoy me. It's not the same thing." Corvo reaches for a piece of Cecelia's bacon, though he waits for her distracted nod before transferring it to his own plate.

 

It's just the three of them for the moment. Lydia popped in for long enough to grab a broom before heading for the basement muttering something about having found rodent droppings in the corners, as if they need any more problems. And Wallace came in to take the first pot of coffee Callista brewed. Apparently Pendleton survived his encounter with Lord Shaw, but went and drank himself to sleep as soon as soon as he returned.

 

Emily is shut up in her room studying long division- alone. There was a note attached to the pinboard by the work roster when Corvo returned from Regency Black last night:

In the interests of her own safety, Emily Kaldwin will no longer be permitted to wander the coffee shop during the day, as I understand she has become accustomed to doing. This precaution will be disagreeable, but rest assured that it is temporary. Your cooperation is much appreciated. -Havelock.

 

"Temporary?" Callista murmured when she first saw it. "That's ominous. Where else does she have to go?" What now? hangs unasked over the coffee, eggs and bacon, and every now and then Corvo finds himself catching Callista's eye. Maybe he hopes to find some kind of solution there, some spur of the moment stroke of genius that'll solve all their problems, but it looks like she's drawing as much of a blank as he is.

 

Cecelia doesn't even notice Callista helping herself to her fried tomato, which says a lot about how much use she'll be in rescuing Emily. An uncharitable thought, Corvo is well aware, but they're running out of time and Havelock is at least two steps ahead. He'll wait until Burrows is disposed of, there's no doubt about that, but afterwards...

 

There's a loud banging from out in the main shop; they all jump in their chairs.

"Open up!" someone hollers. Cecelia picks up her plate with what remains of her breakfast and makes a run for the largest pantry, leaving Corvo and Callista to go and see what all the fuss is about. For a few moments Corvo feels his stomach clench. Why was he so free with his words around Daud? Admitting he knows about Esma Boyle's disappearance to an enemy, like an idiot. Is it the Watch? Geoff won't stand up for him if he's actually guilty, even if the woman is alive. Her sisters have deep pockets; if they know he was involved in an abduction attempt-

 

"Corvo," Callista says quietly as they reach the glass front door. "I didn't sleep very well last night, and I just might be hallucinating but- are you seeing this?"

It's not the Watch. Outside, a furious woman hammers on the door with unnecessary force and shouts for them to open it right bloody now.

"Is that a ballgown?" he asks. Callista hurries to undo the locks while the strange woman rests her fists on her silk-clad hips. "And...she has a tiara. Callista, wait, don't let her in, we don't know what she wants-"

 

"You shut your mouth before I shut it for you. I just want some damn coffee, if it's not too much trouble." The woman pushes a startled Callista aside and marches into the shop, skirts hoisted to shin height. Not an actress then; her feet are bare under the silk, and absolutely filthy. "I'd have gone to Daud if I thought the bastard would ever let me forget it, but men like that have long memories and no sense of self-preservation. So here I am."

 

"Uh," Corvo says. In his defense, he's a bit busy being distracted by the woman's pointed teeth. Are they fake? They must be, who in their right mind would file their teeth to needle points outside of fiction? As ever, Callista is quicker to recover.

"We don't open for an hour, I'm afraid, so the coffee machine isn't actually- but I'll go and make you some with the stovetop coffee maker, it's just as good. We get our beans from Serkonos-"

 

"Like I care," the woman says. "Coffee. Now. Don't worry your pretty head about quality, I don't care if you dug it up from the bottom of the Wrenhaven. It's no wonder this place is so empty, with service as slow as it is."

 

"We were closed," Corvo feels a suicidal urge to say as Callista runs for the kitchen. The woman turns to give him a dangerous look, and for the first time he notices the scars decorating her face.

 

"Yeah? Well isn't that lovely for you. Meanwhile I'm all dressed up like I have some kind of fancy-ass tea party to go to, on account of fucking Annabelle thinking I'd be too chicken to take her up on the dare. That bitch left me on my lonesome right outside the Golden Cat, but I'm damned if I'll quit before I've finished my promenade down John Clavering. Can't wait to see the look on her face when I show up to claim that finger she'll owe me."

 

"What, you mean...an actual finger?" Corvo asks, morbid curiosity getting the better of him. The woman shrugs and reaches up to yank the tiara from her head.

"Naw, don't look so horrified, it won't hurt her. Much. Hold my tiara, would you?" She shoves it in his general direction and he doesn't dare not grab the thing. Plastic, probably bought from one of the street vendors lining John Clavering Boulevard. Or...maybe not bought. He can't picture this strange woman with her filed teeth and half-shaved head lining up with the tourists to buy herself a plastic crown. As he watches she ducks her head and scratches at her ragged hair like a dog.

 

How's your day going? Corvo thinks of asking. Because I have to go and get rid of Hiram Burrows somehow this evening, and I think Emily is forbidden to talk to me. I got Thaddeus Campbell arrested, assisted in the murders of three different people, and as far as Havelock's concerned I kidnapped a woman and doomed her to a life of sexual slavery. The most famous director in the Isles is stalking me and I'm just now coming to realise that I don't actually mind; I spent most of last night's shift drawing whales on coffee foam just in case he ever orders something normal. And I need to let Callista know that Martin is a cheating bastard, but she shouldn't worry too much because Daud's probably going to end up stabbing him over it. I doubt your life is anywhere near as difficult. Let the unfortunate Annabelle keep her finger.

 

Thankfully, Callista herself picks that moment to return with a takeaway cup and an anxious smile. "Your coffee, ma'am, I hope it's alright." Corvo takes the opportunity to return the tiara; the woman shoves it back on her head, where it perches haphazardly.

"It's fine," she says curtly, and digs out a crumpled note. This she gives to Callista, whose eyes immediately widen.

"But- this is far too much, it's just a coffee!"

 

"I'm filled with love, sweetie, and you both look like you could use a square meal. My piranhas have more fat on them, that ain't right. Go wild."

 

"Thank you." Callista's smile loses its anxious edge, and she actually reaches out with a tentative hand to straighten the woman's tiara. "And if you don't mind me saying, that really is a lovely dress. It's a perfect green for your skin tone."

 

"You know your shit, huh?"

 

"Yes. I do," Callista says with a flicker of pride. "You should get yourself some shoes, something with a heel so your hem doesn't drag on the ground. That's the sort of dress you keep for times when you want to be very beautiful indeed."

 

Corvo goes to open the door for the woman in the hopes that it'll distract her from taking one of Callista's eyes out. Look at her, she's from a gang! Not Hatters, maybe Bottle Street, or that one that robs merchants on the Wrenhaven. Don't tell her to put shoes on!

The woman just gives Callista a thoughtful look and scuffs a bare foot against their floorboards. "Really beautiful, you reckon? Well, I think you might be needing your eyes checked, lady, but if it matters to you that much I guess I could find some shoes. Not heels, though. I'm not putting up with that shit."

 

"Enjoy your promenade," Corvo tells her as she marches out with a wave in Callista's direction. "And...whatever it is you have planned for the rest of your day."

 

"I got some fingers to collect, yeah. It's gonna be an excellent day. See you both again sometime, maybe."

 

Corvo closes the shop door behind her and turns to find Callista shaking with laughter. "That was, um..."

 

"Oh, I liked her. I do hope she comes back." She waves the note triumphantly. "And I'm putting this directly into the Emily fund, if that's alright? Havelock hasn't yet paid me for the work I did on that costume, so I feel no need to put any of it into the till."

It's times like this that Corvo wonders what he would do without Callista. "Don't tell Lydia," he says, because the alternative is something awkward like crying on her shoulder in the middle of the store. "Or...Cecelia, for that matter. We can say it was someone from the Watch in dire need of caffeine. A friend of Geoff's, maybe."

 

"Right. Of course." Callista peers through the front windows, but the terrifying woman in her green silks is long gone. "You know, I never asked her name. That was rude of me."

 

"Not you as well," Corvo says, and she rolls her eyes.

"Certainly not! Where you even got that idea from, I don't know, but I'll have you know I much prefer people in shoes!"

 

"So if she comes back properly shod I need to keep a close eye on you? Duly noted." She doesn't actually punch him for that, however much she may think he deserves it, and instead makes a beeline for the kitchen. Probably gone to dig Cecelia out of the pantry before opening time. Better Callista than Corvo; Cecelia is getting jumpier by the day, when she isn't basking in bouts of ludicrous happiness. Half the time she seems to think someone wants to kill her, and the rest is devoted to...devotion. Definitely a job for Callista's nearly endless reserves of patience.

 

A part of him wonders if he wouldn't be relieved to see Callista give up on Martin in favour of a scarred woman with needle-sharp teeth. At least she doesn't seem the kind to pretend she likes you before she stabs you in the back. That has to be an improvement.

 

It's another strange day at the coffee shop. The post-Boyle party buzz has fizzled out, replaced with more mundane things; new performances, new roles to learn, new tourist attractions to devise. Preparations have begun to erect the floating stage for their annual "Opera on the Open River", though who's paying for it this year remains a mystery. Either way, it sounds like the Kingsparrow stage-island will be set up as usual. It's a reliable source of income, at least.

 

The show must go on, but several customers seem aware that something is not quite right. They get their share of important people popping in for emergency coffee, and the ones with a foot in the door of the nobility. Reporters, mostly; as the afternoon wears on Corvo starts hearing some of the stranger rumours circling as news of Esma Boyle's disappearance diffuses among the local gossips.

 

Some of it is the usual: eloped with a lover, forced into hiding by a second pregnancy, recovering from a break-up that happened during the party.

 

The rest is more worrying. Someone mentions the disappearance of the Pendleton twins, points out that three nobles vanishing in such a short space of time is concerning to say the least. Another person thinks it might be four, because apparently while Lord Brisby is generally not all that reliable, it's not like him to stay away from home for two days straight. A third person starts telling Lydia about the rumour that Esma went off in the company of a masked man, and that's when Corvo drops a plate.

 

Stupid, he thinks when Lydia comes over to ask him what the hell he thought he was doing, throwing plates around as if they can afford to keep replacing them indefinitely. A masked man at a masquerade. Keep it together.

 

He feels a smile forming on his face when the Outsider finally arrives, and doesn't bother with trying to get rid of it. Over at the coffee machine Cecelia whispers, "Now he knows he's your favourite", as if she has any moral high ground whatsoever.

"I'm sorry, which one of us spent most of yesterday piping rose petals?" he mutters out of the corner of his mouth. Cups clatter together, and under the cover of her 'clumsiness' Cecelia strikes a low blow of her own.

"Lydia said she had to tell you off for decorating the coffee foam. Customers complaining about whales, or something like that. Not sure why you'd be drawing whales when it's unicorns Miss Emily is so fond of, but I'm sure you had your reasons."

 

Does she know everything that goes on around here? Doesn't she need to sleep? If Havelock had accidentally hired a robot on, would he even notice? It's quite the conundrum, and Corvo's still trying to puzzle it out when he turns to greet the Outsider.

"You have experience with...borderline crazy situations and the general unknown, don't you? If my co-worker was secretly a machine out for world domination, would you tell me?"

 

The Outsider raises his eyebrows and follows Corvo's gaze to Cecelia. It says a lot that they've got to the point where proper greetings are considered optional. "The young woman is perfectly safe, Corvo," he says after a moment. "Cut her open and you will see she contains blood, not motor oil."

 

"That's not a creepy suggestion at all."

 

"It is however an effective one, I think you will find. Or would find, as the case may be. Some people simply have a talent for being in the right place at the right time...like you, she is capable of the unexpected." He turns back to Corvo with a look that might be mildly accusing. Inquisitive, at the very least. "I did not foresee your visit to the Regency Black yesterday, for example."

 

"You know I talked to Daud?"

 

"I know a great many things. The subject of your conversation, however...Corvo, I hope you realise that if there are things you wish to know about me, you need only ask? Hunting down figures from my past in order to question them-"

 

Corvo has to laugh at that. "You think I'd... Look, I'm sure the idea is an entirely foreign one, but I don't actually spend every waking moment thinking about you."

"No? Then how much time would you say it is? At least half, I would hope," and he lets the silence drag out until Corvo feels his cheeks start to burn before adding silkily, "because I will find your insights truly enlightening when it comes to bringing your story to life on the stage."

"Right. Of course that's what you meant."

The Outsider gives him a slow smile. "I noticed the new addition to your menu-"

 

"No, you didn't. And neither did I. The man in charge of that menu was very drunk yesterday, and any decisions he made in that state of mind don't count."

 

"But it has nonetheless been added to the menu, with what I deem to be a steady enough hand."

 

"He made Wallace do it then, I don't care. I'm not making you a Jelly-Tip coffee. I'm not even sure what it is."

 

"Corvo," the Outsider says gently. "Whatever happened to your sense of adventure? Your hunger for the unknown, for a break from the mundane confines in which you find yourself slowly withering... Why not take a leap of faith every now and then?" He rests a hand on the counter and leans that bit too far into Corvo's personal space. "These are the moments I live for."

 

Corvo shoves him back with an exasperated sound. He isn't going to win this round, but he's also not going down without a struggle. "I'm not making it. But if you promise to forget you ever saw it existed, I'll open the box of rainbow marshmallows we just got in from Tyvia. Nobody's seen them except the staff. I'm really not supposed to, but-"

 

"Favouritism, is it? And yet you make such a performance of your distaste for me."

 

"I-" Corvo starts, and then finds he doesn't actually have the energy to defend himself. There's no-one queuing up behind the Outsider, and Cecelia is nowhere to be seen. He lays his pen and notebook down on the counter. "I have an appointment with Hiram Burrows' files this evening," he says quietly, and sees the Outsider nod slightly. Good. He understands. "If it goes badly I could be back in Coldridge before midnight, and that's assuming Burrows doesn't just have me killed. I don't have much of a plan, and I'm...afraid. If that's relevant to your play at all. Do you want the rainbow marshmallows or not?"

 

"A Raspberry Lamponi Cheesecake White Chocolate Mocha with... whipped cream and rainbow marshmallows on top. And white chocolate sauce, naturally."

 

"Wouldn't have it any other way," Corvo says, and scribbles the order down with no small amount of resignation. "If I'm not here tomorrow, I don't recommend you try this kind of thing on Callista or Lydia. Ask Wallace if you don't mind not actually being able to drink what he gives you. Otherwise, Cecelia is your best bet."

 

"Lord Burrows is unlikely to kill you as long as you carry my Mark," the Outsider tells him serenely. "As for incarceration in Coldridge, I agreed that I would assist you if matters took a turn for the worse. Breaking you out of jail could prove...entertaining."

 

"Or you could just come in the normal way and invent some kind of legitimate reason for me to have been poking around Burrows' things. Something less likely to get us both hanged." The words have no sting to them, however; Corvo feels his smile return. He makes a fuss of choosing a takeaway cup to keep the Outsider from seeing it. A futile effort, but he's not quite ready to let the man see how much his support is worth.

 

He is a bit disappointed though. Against all odds, it would have been nice if the Outsider had ordered something ordinary. All that time spent trying to get whale decorations right. He should have known better.

"I make a fantastic caffè latte if you ever spontaneously decide you want to make my day," Corvo says, digging out the container of Tyvian rainbow marshmallows. "I'd be really, pathetically grateful."


"Dreary," he hears the Outsider sigh. "I much prefer you irritated, I think."

 

"Do we need to repeat the incident with the Caramel Vanilla Frappuccino? I have the caramel sauce right here."

 

"Threats are the last resort of a man with nothing better at his disposal." But the Outsider apparently decides it's not worth the risk, and keeps his mouth shut for the rest of the arduous drink-making process. He does however pull out his notebook and lean on the bench to take his usual mysterious notes. Describing the incomparable contours of Corvo's glares, maybe.

 

Interesting that he doesn't know the details of the conversation with Daud. Nothing else seems to have surprised him, and Corvo would bet he knows exactly what happened on the docks by the Boyle Manor. He may even know where Esma Boyle is now. But apparently his spies don't extend to the Regency Black.

 

Does it annoy him, not knowing what was said? Now there's a pleasant thought.

 

Still, if anyone can come close to deciphering Daud it must be the Outsider, and there is something Corvo doesn't understand.

"Daud was strange," he says as he hands over the cup. "Aside from the fact that he didn't ask for anything in exchange for his help, I mean. He said something about regret, and that he never thought things would turn out like this. Nothing he'd explain, but he sounded- I don't know. Apologetic."

 

"I suppose that makes two of us." There is an odd frown on the Outsider's usually impassive face. Confusion, displeasure...something very similar to Daud's regret. It slips away before Corvo can ask about it, replaced with a distant smile that he probably thinks looks genuine. "Good day, Corvo. I have a feeling I'll be seeing you soon."

 

"Don't you dare try staging a jail break if I get this wrong," Corvo says as he turns to go, and the Outsider gives a soft laugh. This, at least, sounds real.

"Unreasonable as ever. Be careful, my dear."

 

"I always am." A lie, of course; he has no idea what he's going to do when the time comes, but is that really anything new? The things he finds himself almost proud of have all been acts of spontaneity. All he can be sure of is that whatever secrets he finds in Burrows' files won't be secret for much longer.

 

Callista comes to find him as the daylight begins to fade. "The Admiral wants to see you," she whispers, taking his place behind the cash register and smiling at the next customer in line. "He says it's urgent." Corvo turns to go and she grabs his wrist, slipping a crumpled piece of paper into his hand. "Well, go on! Don't keep him waiting."

 

He waits until he's out of the main shop and alone in the stairwell before smoothing out the paper.

 

I can't risk us being overheard, but Havelock's note this morning got me thinking, and I went to find Uncle Geoff during my dinner break earlier. Somehow I can't shake the feeling that Emily isn't being cared for as she should, and I'm no longer certain anyone's making an effort to find her next of kin. It might just be paranoia, I don't know. Those guns I saw in Havelock's rooms were real enough. Anyway, Uncle's promised he'll look into it, and I know he'll exercise proper discretion. I refuse to believe Emily is the last living Kaldwin, and Geoff agrees. Burn this, or tear it up. I just thought you should know.

 

Clever, Corvo thinks, tearing the note in half. And something I should have considered a long time ago. I doubt Havelock made any real attempts to find the Kaldwins, whatever he may claim. Well done, Callista.

 

As usual, Havelock and Pendleton are waiting for him, one flipping idly through a collection of sonnets he has no apparent interest in, and the other perched on the edge of a faded couch with the ever-present flask in his hands. Both look up sharply as Corvo enters, and he finds himself hiding an unpleasant smile. Nice to see how very nervous they both are; for now, they need him.

"You wanted to see me?" he asks, and Havelock gives a stiff nod.

 

"Yes, we did indeed. The time has come, Corvo. Everything we have done, everything that you have done, has served to make this moment possible. With Burrows exposed-"

 

"Must you make a speech about it, Farley?" Pendleton interrupts. He stares down at his silver flask, turning it this way and that. It's his family crest, Corvo realises. He has the Pendleton crest stamped into the metal, and the gleam of it seems to hypnotise him. "Either he knows what to do or he doesn't, and if that's the case we're all done for. Just give the man his instructions and leave the preaching to Martin, wherever he is."

 

”Martin assures me that he remains devoted to our cause. Taking over the Abbey is no easy matter, given the mess Campbell left it in." Havelock's frown says that he believes maybe half of what he's saying, and Corvo is inclined to agree. It's a wonder they ever trusted Martin at all. No surprise he's vanished now he has the position he wanted and they're no longer of use to him. Pendleton's only around because his brothers haven't been proven dead yet; if the Shaw incident is anything to go by, he's capable of being every bit as sly as their friend the new High Overseer.

 

"I have a plan," Corvo says firmly, and they both turn to look at him. "The information Daud gave me should be more than enough to humiliate Burrows like I did with Campbell. Nobody needs to die, and your rival will find himself discredited and jailed."

 

"You are certain Daud wasn't stringing you along?" Havelock asks with a frown. Forget arrested, he wants Burrows dead, Corvo would bet. That's just too bad. "It seems unwise to trust someone with such a vested interest in seeing us fail. Not to mention the fact that Burrows knows something is coming."

 

"He thinks we'll go after him, and we will, if indirectly," Corvo argues. "If he's worried for his own safety it should be easier to get into his files while he's at the performance."

 

"And after that? Do you propose to bring these files back here? I suppose they might prove interesting, and we could decide what to do with them then-"

 

"I'll work that out once I have them," Corvo says. The Admiral's eyes narrow, but he doesn't comment on the interruption. Funny how much more accommodating the man is when he wants something. "Just- trust me with this. I haven't failed you yet, have I?"

 

"That you have not," Pendleton mumbles. He's gone back to staring at the flask, cradling it like something fragile. "Let him do it his way, Farley. The method won't matter in the end. None of this will."

 

Havelock shoots him a disgusted look before turning back to Corvo. "Very well. If you feel you can handle this bloodlessly, then I yield to your judgement. I just hope you know what you're doing, because if you fail-"

 

"I won't."

 

"Hmph. I wish I had your confidence. But if there's no arguing, then I suppose you should be going. Go there and end it for us, Corvo."

 

"Jessamine would be so proud," he hears Pendleton mutter as he leaves. It sounds rote-learned, as if constant repetition has stripped it of any meaning it once had. Did Havelock hand you a list of platitudes to memorise, Treavor? 'It's for the best', and 'This is the right thing to do,' and 'I was never all that fond of my brothers anyway'? Shame you were stupid enough to listen when he first proposed this mad plan. Look where it got us all.

 

He kills the hour before the theatres doors open with a long, hot shower- presumably he's still on the clock, and the alternative is wandering around the Hound Pits and letting worry gnaw him apart from the inside. Simple clothes come next, nothing fashionable enough to get him noticed (as if he actually owns anything like that these days), but not so casual that he'll look odd inside the Tower. Soon enough, it's time to leave.

 

He goes out the back door to avoid Lydia's glares. Whatever excuses Havelock gives for his frequent absences, she clearly doesn't find them convincing enough. But if they're lucky this will all be over soon. If not...it may have only just begun. Corvo tries not to think on that.

 

The 'plan' he mentioned was nothing less than a total fabrication, something to keep Havelock from voicing whatever awful idea he's been mulling over. Chances are he thinks Corvo is ready to do some disposing of his own; it would be cheaper than organising another gang hit, and by this point he probably thinks he has enough in the way of blackmail material that Corvo would have no choice but to obey. If that failed, he would have used Emily.

 

Thank you, Daud, Corvo thinks, and checks his pocket for the Outsider's Mark and the scrap of notepaper with Burrows' login details. He has no plan, but the arguments he mustered to convince Havelock actually make sense. If Burrows is as paranoid as the tabloids seem to think, he must have noticed his allies are dropping off. He'll worry about his own security, not to mention all the networking he must have planned for the opening night of his new performance.

 

Corvo hasn't been to the Tower since that night he left mid-way through Jessamine's performance to go on shift. She died soon after, and for six long months he thought the bleak walls of Coldridge Prison would be all he'd ever see, at least until the bureaucracy decided he deserved the death penalty. And now he's back, climbing the decorative stone steps with all the other patrons and trying not to see ghosts in every swan-necked woman with her hair piled high above her shoulders.

 

After everything that's happened, it still feels a bit like coming home.

 

The Tower was once a small castle, back in the days when Empress actually meant something off-stage. Centuries ago the royal family used it as one of their holiday residences, and it retains a measure of its former majesty even now. Off-white stone and majestic columns, blue flags fluttering in the mild evening breeze. Most of the ground floor has become a museum of sorts, eclectic in its exhibits, which vary between genuine historical clothing and paraphernalia, and odd bits of costuming and props from the Tower's most famous performances. Corvo recalls spending hours just wandering among them, sometimes alone and others not. Callista used to haunt this place. Jessamine too.

 

Corvo keeps the Outsider's Mark in hand the whole time, but nobody seems to notice him peel off from the crowd and duck down a side corridor. He's been here often enough that a map is unnecessary, and while the offices of the administration are less familiar, he can take an educated guess as to where the important people will place themselves. As far from the noise of the common people as possible.

 

He's counting on Burrows being paranoid enough to want what correspondence he keeps with his assassin near him at all times. That means a laptop, something he can take to work with him and keep in an office no-one dares to approach, if the gossip magazines are right.

 

Of course, the door is locked. Corvo stares at it for a long moment and asks himself why he ever thought it would be otherwise.

"Guess Daud thought I'd be able to pick the lock," he mutters, though there is nobody around to hear him. ”If so, he's overestimating my criminal tendencies."

 

Giving up so soon, Corvo? Here you are, within the high walls of your enemy's stronghold, and you find yourself defeated by a simple lock. How disappointing.

I'd like to see you do any better, Corvo thinks irritably, though he wouldn't be all that surprised to find that the Outsider considers locked doors a temporary nuisance. He'd probably just stare at them until they opened sheepishly. Well, that's not an option in this case.

In the end, he kicks the door in. It makes far too much noise and takes longer than it should (and when he tells the Outsider about this, he'll carefully edit out the bits where he trips over his own feet and ends up in an undignified pile on the floor), but it works.

 

Burrows' office is...white. That in itself shouldn't be so unusual, but this is white on a whole other level. White carpet, white filing cabinets, white desk and chair, and a laptop in a white leather case. It all looks bright and new, obsessively orderly, sterile like an operating room. Corvo immediately decides to leave as soon as he can. Whatever this says about the workings of Burrows' mind, he doesn't want to know.

 

He gets past the login screen on his first try, and breathes a quiet sigh of relief. This doesn't make Daud any less of an obnoxious buffoon, but at least he's helpful, and nobody's perfect. The gratitude lasts all the way through Corvo poking through Burrows' documents (everything neatly saved in carefully labelled folders) right up until he loses patience and searches for files bearing the name 'Kaldwin'.

 

He doesn't expect to find the folder, 'Kaldwin, Jessamine', sitting in a neat alphabetical row with various names he doesn't recognise, and several that he does. Powerful people, famous people, and every single one of them dead. Most from natural causes, or so he'd thought.

"All these people. Was it really worthwhile?" He must have gained something from every death, in the same way that Havelock, Martin and Pendleton have benefitted from removing their own enemies. And none of them seem any happier for it.

 

There are audio files inside the folder, arranged by date. Corvo hesitates for a moment, before picking the one dated a day after Jessamine's death. After her murder.

He regrets it almost immediately.

 

I am satisfied, Daud, a man rasps through the laptop's speakers. Your disposal of Jessamine Kaldwin was exemplary, and the Watch was easily persuaded into blaming that actor friend of hers. Masterful, as ever.

 

Yes sir, Daud replies, and Corvo clenches his fists tight enough that his nails bite the skin of his palms. Daud. Daud is the one responsible. He sat across from Corvo only yesterday, and talked about his dreams and his hopes for the future, when Jessamine doesn't have either anymore, because of him. How could he have failed to realise?

 

I hope you are equally satisfied with the payment I have just transferred, Burrows continues. I shall contact you shortly to discuss future assignments. Arnold Timsh grows more arrogant every day, and as for that man Havelock...well, we shall see. Consider yourself dismissed, for now.

 

The recording ends, and Corvo is left staring blankly at the laptop screen. This...he wasn't ready for this. Whatever he'd hoped to find, it wasn't a business-like discussion of his closest friend's murder at the hands of a man he'd just recently felt gratitude towards. Talk of payment, praise for a 'masterful' job. A reference to the fact that in an audience of nearly a thousand, nobody noticed Jessamine die, he supposes. Masterful indeed; Daud must have been so very proud.

 

He chooses another recording at random, this one dated prior to the murder.

 

If I explain, then you will see, I am not at fault, Burrows begins.

 

I'm not interested in your justification, Burrows. Either you want the woman dead, or you're wasting my time.

 

But it is of utmost importance that you understand my motivations, Daud! She has to die, and it is no fault of mine! I have heard from sources- but of course, I cannot name them, I am sworn to secrecy you see! But they are reliable. Oh yes. They whisper secrets to me, plots and plans I would never have suspected! Such treachery all around me. And the Kaldwin woman...well, she is among the worst of traitors! Do not be deceived by her harmless appearance, Daud, the woman is a viper!

 

"No," Corvo says through gritted teeth. Daud's recorded voice gives an impatient sigh.

You put a lot of faith into these 'sources' of yours. Sure they're not all in your head?

 

Laugh all you will, my sources do not lie! The details they provide, the things they have heard...and they tell me everything. Threats to my work, to the city, even to my life! But they assure me that removing Jessamine Kaldwin will be sufficient to neutralise the oncoming danger. Kill the woman, and place the blame on a friend who works with her. An ant. Why, the deed could almost be considered pest control, don't you think?

 

Let's talk price, Daud says wearily, and Corvo stops the recording. He carefully pushes the laptop aside, clearing space on the desk to rest his head on his arms. Dangerous to waste time here; stupid, even, but he can't move. He can't do what he needs to, can't even think when all he hears is Burrows' high rasp playing again and again in his ears. She has to die. She has to die, she has to die.

 

Place the blame on a friend. A friend who works with her. Burrows didn't even know his name- but somebody else did. Knew he was close to Jessamine, that he'd make the perfect target. The same person who wanted Jessamine gone for good.

 

Corvo wonders who was put in charge of contacting Burrows and playing off his infamous paranoia. Martin, probably. The man with the silver tongue. And Havelock would have been right behind him the whole time, counting up Emily's inheritance and congratulating himself on having tricked his rival into paying for the assassin. He must have been so proud of that particular scheme, at least until Curnow started sniffing around and proved Corvo's innocence. And then what? Did he panic? Or maybe he tried to gamble on his good fortune lasting a little longer. Use Jessamine's death and the trauma of Coldridge to mould himself his very own assassin.

 

It might have worked. Without Esma Boyle's scorn and the threat of the Outsider's judgement hanging over him, he might have done it. But Corvo is not the man the Admiral wants him to be, and he is not a murderer.

 

He lifts his head and sees the poster pinned to one of the otherwise plain walls. Perfectly straight, placed in the exact centre of the wall, but that's not what interests him. Faust, it proclaims. A stunning new production only at the Tower, and underneath that, featuring the incomparable stagecraft of Piero Joplin. Just like that, a plan begins to form. It might asking for too much, but there is almost no risk in trying, as long as he makes sure he isn't seen. It might work. And if it does...

 

Corvo pulls the laptop back towards him and selects one of the last recordings. The content doesn't really interest him; the earlier recording should prove more than incriminating enough. But he finds a need for background noise to suffocate his doubts long enough to plan, and Burrows' voice will do nicely.

 

We may have a problem.

 

What is it, Daud? Have the Watch been making enquiries again? That fool Curnow needs to learn to stay out of things that don't concern him.

 

Not the Watch, for once. The Outsider visited again. Dropped a few hints that he might know more than he should, asked some awkward questions. I think he suspects I had a hand in the business with the Kaldwin woman, or maybe more than suspects. He knows how I work. We should lie low for a time, at least until he finds something else to interest him. The man is dangerous.

 

Then we rid ourselves of him! Honestly, Daud, sometimes I wonder how it is that you have lasted this long in your line of work. If the Outsider is causing problems, I will pay for his disposal. I daresay there are many people who would be overjoyed to see him gone.

 

He's powerful. He doesn't flaunt it as much as he could, but I don't think it would be that simple to get rid of him. Just try to keep your head down. If the Outsider digs too deep I'll threaten to kill off his new muse; he knows I'd go through with it. Strange how attached he's become to someone so unremarkable, but it looks like he's human after all. I don't think he meant to let the man's name slip the way he did...Shouldn't have made a point of coming to tell me how much more interesting he is.

 

Corvo stops the recording there. "You as well?" he asks helplessly, but the Outsider has no answers for him. It makes no sense that this should be the harshest blow of all, that it should leave him hunched over in Burrow's chair, fighting nausea. The Outsider knew what Jessamine's murder meant, what it would have meant to know who was responsible. Why didn't he say anything about Daud's role in it? What does he have to gain from keeping Corvo in the dark?

 

Alone with Burrows' damning recordings, Corvo is forced to admit that he may have been wrong to trust the strange man with black eyes who entered his life without warning one day and refused to leave. A distraction, maybe. Something to keep Corvo from looking too closely at all the things going on around him. One more betrayal, and this may be what breaks him in the end.

 

But he doesn't have time to agonise just yet. The performance will be starting soon and he still needs to find Piero.

 

Tucking the laptop under his arm, Corvo shoves Burrows' chair back and leaves the room as it is; no point in trying to hide that the office was broken into, given the state of the door. If things go as planned Burrows won't even get to see it.

 

Several hurried questions to various members of the Tower's considerable stage crew and a brief pause to dig the Outsider's Mark out later, and Corvo is directed to Piero. He could have guessed for himself if he'd been thinking straight; of course the man will want to be where he can supervise his new lighting system. Corvo finds him leaning protectively over a giant lighting desk, twiddling with switches. He is not alone.

 

"-but the 'Hungry Cosmos' monologue is my favourite part, and I am confident the critics will agree. Ahem. 'Once the curtain has been lifted, it becomes inescapable that we inhabit a world adrift in a sea of howling chaos, a terrible maelstrom in which all heavenly bodies orbit a devouring core. Though the trip could take many thousands of lifetimes, all cosmic objects are eventually dragged into this hungry nexus and forever cease to be-' oh, good evening to you Corvo! I was unaware you planned to attend this opening night. I myself am only here by chance, you see, to experience Piero's work for myself."

 

"The experience will be much more impressive if you cease your blathering and let me work," Piero mutters, and Sokolov gives him an approving nod.

 

"Do you see how a mere few hours in my company has improved him? In a day or so he'll be arguing budget increases from sponsors like a professional."

 

Any other time the scene might actually have been funny; Corvo is further from laughter than he has been since...well, since the last evening he spent at the Tower.

"I need a favour," he says brusquely, and Sokolov raises his eyebrows.

 

"Is that so? You will find us both completely at your disposal, whatever the request. Isn't that right, Piero?" The other man gives a distracted grunt, his eyes fixed to the slider he's slowly inching upwards. Close enough. Corvo nods to the incomprehensible switches and buttons.

 

"Do any of these control sound? I need something...broadcast. For the whole auditorium to hear. Unless you can play it through the rest of the Tower as well?"

 

Piero looks up sharply. "You want to- but the performance is due to start in five minutes, the stage crew has already set up! I don't know what kind of prank you have in mind, but now is not the time!"

 

"It's not a prank." Corvo lays Burrows' laptop on top of a board of switches and opens it. "I don't have time to explain, but believe me when I say that it is vital people hear this. If I could find a way to play it across the whole city I would. This is as close as it gets."

 

Piero shakes his head mutely. He must think Corvo's gone mad, and it probably looks that way. He certainly isn't feeling all that sane.

Unbelievably, it's Sokolov who comes to his rescue. "The Outsider has faith in this man, Piero, and we should as well. I am sure he has his reasons. Do as he asks."

 

"Please," Corvo says, and finally, finally Piero gives a reluctant nod.

 

"If it really is as urgent as you say- oh, very well, give it here then!" He snatches the laptop and rushes over to what must be the sound system, fumbling with cables until he finds the right one. "I must warn you though, if this proves to be as foolish an idea as I suspect it is...well, we will all suffer the consequences. Hiram Burrows is not a forgiving man."

 

"So I've come to realise," Corvo says. He tries not to hover impatiently, but it's difficult to do when a tap on the door has Sokolov moving to barricade it with a nearby cabinet.

"Anything for the Outsider's muse," he huffs when Corvo raises his eyebrows. "Do not worry, Corvo, I will ensure this broadcast goes uninterrupted."

 

"It's ready," Piero says at his elbow. Corvo gives him a nod of thanks and indicates the recording he wants played first.

"And then all the rest, at least until they break the door down. If they do. Chances are they'll have other things to worry about."

 

"Oh dear," Piero mutters. "I just hope- but I suppose it's too late for that. Maestro to the pit!" He plays the file, and Burrows' voice booms out across the auditorium.

If I explain, then you will see, I am not at fault...

 

Nobody breaks the door down in the end. For the first thirty seconds or so the audience sits in silent confusion, at least until members of the Watch start standing. The banging on the door becomes frantic, but Corvo and Sokolov get to work on adding chairs to the makeshift barricade while Piero lines up the rest of the recordings to play with a mulish expression on his face. His protests died quickly enough, and it's only now Corvo has to wonder if he ever worked with Jessamine. Many people did. Many people loved her.

 

He has Sokolov clear the barricade only when a familiar voice makes itself heard from the other side.

"Good evening, Captain Curnow," he says as he opens the door to meet Curnow's dumbfounded expression. "Enjoying the show?"

 

To his credit, Curnow doesn't immediately try to arrest him. He lifts a hand to keep the Watchmen at his back at bay, and takes in the scene before him. The scattered chairs and cabinets they'd used to keep the door shut, Sokolov standing proudly nearby and Piero kneeling by the sound system. The Captain's eyes return to Corvo.

"Is this real?" he asks quietly. In the background, Burrows discusses methods with his assassin. Corvo just nods.

"From his personal computer. And it wasn't just Jessamine, there were others he had killed off, and the evidence should all be there. Hope you trust those men at your back, because I don't believe the Watch is guiltless either."

 

Curnow closes his eyes for a moment before nodding. "I'd trust these men with my life, Corvo. Your evidence is safe with me. But it may be best if you aren't found at the scene- and that goes for you two as well," he adds to Piero and Sokolov. "What you did tonight was...brave, if reckless, but it'll be safer for everyone if we take it from here."

 

Corvo leaves him to sort things out with a twinge of pity. Dressed as he is, Curnow probably expected a pleasant evening out with some of his officers. Certainly not having to orchestrate the arrest of one of Dunwall's most powerful men. But he'll handle it. He might even do it with finesse.

 

Sokolov claps Corvo on the shoulder as they sneak out one of the Tower's side doors. He looks absolutely delighted.

"What a reveal! Such escalation of conflict, such tension, and the looks on people's faces... The Outsider chooses very well indeed."

 

"I'll let him know you said that," Corvo says. He pauses under the closest streetlight to dig out his cellphone. "I believe we have an appointment soon. In, say...ten minutes. Assuming he's home." He hadn't actually expected it to be a simple matter of searching the Outsider's Dunwall residence online, but there is an address staring him in the face and it's worth a try. He doesn't know exactly what he plans to say, only that the time it'll take him to get there won't be nearly enough to draft a suitable speech. He's going to have to improvise. And the black-eyed bastard can just listen for once.

 

It's a mansion, of course. Wrought iron gates, and behind them a tall building, all elegant red bricks, dim windows and stone balconies. It's too dark to make out the number of storeys and if anything that makes the place more imposing. Corvo has to wonder if the Outsider actually likes the place; it doesn't suit him somehow, but it would be just like him to choose the sort of house people expect him to inhabit. People who don't know him, that is.

 

Corvo's resolution crumbles quickly, and what fragments of coherent reproach he'd gathered on the way over vanish when he tries the gates and finds them locked. No way in unless he climbs the high stone wall. He won't, of course. If he burned with anger, enough to want some kind of revenge for the Outsider's manipulations, then he might have considered it. A shame all he can muster is disappointment.

 

Corvo leans his forehead against the gates, feels the cold metal press into his skin and wishes it would just cut him into pieces and be done with it. There is no triumph in Burrows' arrest and his own vindication if it comes hand in hand with the Outsider having lied to him.

 

At his side, the intercom crackles to life.

 

"Are you going to come in?" Even distorted, the Outsider's monotone is easily distinguishable. Corvo laughs raggedly.

 

"If you think I'm going to climb over these things, you're mistaken. And given that I'm sure you've already heard about Burrows... Maybe I'd rather not talk to you at all."

 

"I see." There is a brief silence. Corvo steps back from the gates, rubbing at his forehead with the back of a hand, and stares up at the silent mansion. Every window is dark; does the man live alone? He turns back to the intercom as the Outsider speaks up again. "Should you decide that you wish to talk, you'll find climbing unnecessary. I gave you my Mark."

 

"Your-" Corvo fumbles in his pocket for the Outsider's Mark, digs it out with clumsy fingers and stares down at the odd black symbol. A business card, he'd assumed. A sign of favour to get him into places he shouldn't be, and make people help him do things he shouldn't do.

 

My Mark will grant you access to wherever you may wish to go.

 

He holds it up to the intercom and is rewarded with a soft buzz. A small green light flashes three times.

 

The gates open; Corvo steps inside.

Chapter Text

The Outsider's mansion has a dreamlike quality to its interior; shapes and edges blur together, and it is difficult to tell exactly how many other rooms the hallway leads to. Outlines of chandeliers, paintings and indistinct marble busts dot the place haphazardly. Corvo tries not to feel too intimidated. It's difficult though, when he is suddenly aware of exactly who the outsider is here.

 

One foot scuffs against the polished wooden floor, and he winces.

 

"Up here, Corvo." The Outsider's voice comes from somewhere up on the next floor. There is no sign of him that Corvo can see, but a dim, gold glow at the top of the staircase suggests that he isn't going completely mad.

 

He doesn't...really live alone, does he? For every bit of gossip Corvo's found about the Outsider, there has never been anything linking him definitively to people who aren't part of his latest plays. No family or friends. No partner of any kind. Just a lot of rumour and baseless speculation, half of it bordering on the fantastic. Cults and blood sacrifices in his basement, that sort of thing. The Outsider is infamous for the care he takes to keep his private life a secret.

 

There is a light on in the hallway, and several doors branching off into mysterious rooms. Most of them are closed; Corvo heads for the one that is not.

"Hello?" No lights in this room, but the windows allow him to make out a desk, tall bookshelves on either side, and the Outsider standing by one of them. He turns to give Corvo a brief nod, before returning his attention to the books in his arms.

 

"Research," he says before Corvo can ask. "I have been investigating the spread of plague in urban areas, for the play. Rats will be the key, I think."

 

Any other time this might have actually been interesting. Now Corvo finds himself tempted by the thought of knocking the books from the Outsider's hands.

"I just came from the Tower," he says instead. The Outsider still doesn't look at him. A book is placed back on its shelf, and then another, and the silence begins to stretch. "I broke into Burrows' office and found the- the recording between him and his assassin, when they talked about...business. The people he wanted dead, and what it would cost, how he wanted it done."

 

The Outsider returns his last book to its place with deliberate care. "Strange how there's always a little more innocence left to lose," he murmurs. "Though I would hardly consider you sheltered, after the time you spent in Coldridge Prison." Finally, he turns to Corvo. "The discovery was a shock to you, I see."

 

Several feet away, Corvo stops and clenches his fists. Shock doesn't really cover it, but of course the Outsider wouldn't understand that. "He killed her, didn't he. Daud."

 

"Yes." The Outsider's face, difficult to read at the best of times, is hidden by the shadows.

 

"Were you ever planning to tell me?" Corvo struggles to keep his voice even; he can hear it crack, but he won't be goaded into shouting. Now more than ever, he needs to be in control. "When you knew-"

 

"I guessed, my dear, and there is a significant difference between the two."

 

Corvo finds himself speechless. There are things he should, must say, about trust and betrayal, deception, and the part of himself that at some point decided the Outsider would never harm him. How badly he's wanted some kind of equality with this man, a balance agreed to, and affection reciprocated. The extent of his mistake is evident in the way his guts twist, a ghost of what Jessamine must have felt, and a different name on the blade's wielder.

 

"I trusted you," he says quietly. "Was I wrong to do so?"

 

The Outsider spreads his hands, though whether he means to pacify or patronise is impossible to tell. "You are not the first to have attracted my attention. There have been others over the years, all of them brimming with life and possibility. All unique, in one way or another. Daud was one such. I take it you were not aware of his background?"

 

"If you mean the part where he kills people for money, no, I was not aware."

 

"A shame you missed The Knife of Dunwall; one of my finer works, with consequences even I could not have predicted. The assassin Daud, and his curious followers, the ones he calls 'Whalers', hiding the true nature of their employment behind whimsical masks and a respectable front. And Hiram Burrows, a man foolish enough to believe he could keep his killer like a lapdog, trained to come when called. But that was a while ago. Daud's actions after we parted ways were of little interest to me."

He steps in close, rests a careful hand on Corvo's shoulder, tightening his grip when Corvo doesn't immediately shrug him off. "However strong my admiration for the woman they called Empress, accusations of murder are not to be thrown around lightly. The style struck me as resembling Daud's, but he has changed in the time since I worked with him. Still a knife, but dulled with age. I could not be sure."

 

"But you never so much as mentioned-"

 

"Tell me, Corvo, what would you have done? Left alone with a rumour leading you directly to one of the most dangerous men Dunwall has seen in centuries, what would you have done? Think on that, before you decide that I have betrayed you. In all things, I am nothing more than an observer. A narrator. A guide. And it has been some time since I had any interest in playing those roles for Daud." There is a quiet fervency to his tone that Corvo has never heard before.

 

And he believes it. Maybe because he wants to believe it, because the ten minutes he spent making his way here from the theatre, clinging to walls and avoiding streetlamps, felt like nothing so much as being swallowed alive. He needs this trust between them. Needs to feel that the dream-like bond they've come to share is tangible, concrete. If he can just have this one thing, he can handle all the rest. Havelock's machinations, Martin's schemes, Pendleton's half-hearted assassination attempts. Just as long as he doesn't have to do it alone.

 

"What do I do now?" He shrugs helplessly. "You're the one who's been dissecting me, what should I be doing?"

 

"For the moment? Nothing." The Outsider moves his hand to the crook of Corvo's neck, a gesture that could imply possessiveness or an awkward attempt at giving comfort, or a thousand other things. Impossible to tell with him. "The wisest course of action seems to be waiting, at the very least until morning. So many things become clearer by the light of day, so many puzzles solve themselves without the slightest need for effort... I have always thought that the day is for reason, and the night for impulse. Head and heart, as it were."

 

"And I just barged in here on an impulse," Corvo says quietly. Rational thought is starting to return, along with the realisation that he may have overreacted somewhat. Why didn't he go and talk to Callista? Or Samuel, even? It's the middle of the night, but they'd have listened, and then he wouldn't be stuck trespassing in the house of a man he doesn't understand, and cannot begin to predict. "I'm sorry, truly, it won't happen-"

 

"Hush, Corvo." He can hear amusement in the Outsider's voice. "I will forgive your impulsiveness, if you in turn will forgive mine."

Corvo doesn't understand until a cold mouth is pressed against his, and suddenly things are much clearer.

 

The script, when it is done, will say that Corvo goes to ground that night, hiding in some cheap hotel and waiting out the storm that follows Hiram Burrows' night-time arrest. There will be monologues, long and dripping with the fear he feels, alone in the dark with no allies and no promise of success. He will soliloquize at length on the play of moonlight upon the cheap bedspread, the unforgiving blink of the stars and the slow cruelty of the horizon as black fades to pale dawn. No doubt the scene will be a masterpiece; there is no accuracy in it whatsoever.

 

What happens is this:

 

He parts his lips, fumbles at the Outsider's shirt, tracing slim shoulders through the thin material. There's a tongue in his mouth that tastes of wine, some vintage he's unfamiliar with; he sucks on it briefly and is rewarded with a muffled gasp. The sound does things it shouldn't, heat spreading through his aching muscles that burns not unlike alcohol, but doesn't stop at settling in his stomach. More than anything, Corvo likes the brief hint, a crack in a wall, that lets him see the Outsider unbalanced. Deprived of control for  a single second, and he reasserts himself a second later, shoving Corvo's jacket from his shoulders as if it offends him, biting his lower lip that much too hard, but Corvo has decided.

 

He wants this man stripped bare and dripping sweat, muscles tensing as he takes. Does he close his eyes in that blissful first moment of unison, does he gasp for breath like any other man? Will he breathe a curse, a name, into Corvo's neck when he comes? Mysteries, and Corvo is done with wondering. He has to know if this arrogant man, with his purposeful contrariness and black, black eyes, is hiding a living heart under the costly clothes and self-control. A part of him has been wondering since that first disastrous meeting.

 

Hands under his shirt, long, cold fingers that make him twitch as they stroke up his ribs, dragging the material with them. The room itself isn't chilly exactly, but the chill of exposure hits him anyway; Corvo shivers. He feels the Outsider smile against his mouth.

 

"Do you fear me, Corvo?" he hisses, mocking, his breath hot on Corvo's lips. It seems the only part of him that is; ice on the surface, but he burns from within.

 

"No," Corvo says, and allows the shirt to be pushed over his head, tossed aside somewhere in the darkness with an ease that he'll probably regret in the morning-

 

but there'll be a few regrets come morning, he thinks, when reason sets in. Might as well enjoy being impulsive while the night lasts. He reaches in the dark for buttons, small and ridiculously fiddly, and wonders at the point of shirts with half a million minute buttons. Surely the reason for being so very dapper is attracting attention? Why make the clothing impossible to remove, once attention is gained? Bad enough that the Outsider seems set on being unhelpful, his hands resting loosely on Corvo's hips, thumbs stroking over too-prominent bones while he mouths along Corvo's jaw. Feather-light kisses, a display of his self-control. Corvo fights with the buttons, and all the Outsider does is smirk and nip lightly at his throat.

 

"Not planning on being helpful?" Corvo asks; it comes out far hoarser than he'd intended. He swallows back embarrassment, irritation, as the Outsider gives him a smug smile and proceeds to methodically undo the buttons one by one. He looks Corvo in the eye the whole time with an ease that says he knows what this is doing to the heat in Corvo's groin, just like he knows that when he sheds the shirt, he'll be the sole focus of Corvo's attention.

 

"Not in a thousand, million years, you once told me," the Outsider says mildly, tossing the shirt aside. "I see you've changed your mind."

 

Smug, insufferable bastard. Corvo grabs him by the chin and kisses him desperately; it still feels like being permitted. He doesn't get to control here. It's the first time powerlessness has appealed.

 

The Outsider pushes him back with two fingers to his chest and the slightest pressure imaginable. His short hair is wild, spread across his scalp where Corvo must have run his hands through it at some point. In the inadequate light he look like marble, like porcelain, like a drowned sacrifice at the altar of some old sea god.

 

"This way," he says, sliding his fingers through Corvo's and making for another darkened doorway. There's no hesitation; he knows Corvo will go where he is led. They're past protests now.

 

The next room is also unlit. Tall windows and the meagre moonlight they allow offer just a glimpse of spacious surroundings, dark carpets and a double bed. It's sparse for somewhere so personal. Sparser than Corvo's bedroom, if he counts the junk as part of decoration, which isn't what he'd have expected from someone living in a multi-storeyed mansion. The curtains are blue, the bedspread is blue, there are paintings hanging over the walls that add no variation to the colour scheme. Too dark for details, but he has a feeling they'll be ocean scenes.

 

Corvo follows the Outsider to the edge of the bed, stops when he stops, and lifts their intertwined fingers to his lips as the other man turns back to him. Cold; how can his hands be so cold?

 

The Outsider's lazy smile stands out even in the dark. He steps in close, presses their chests together and licks Corvo's mouth open with an unhurried tongue. Control, possession; the Outsider kisses like a man accustomed to having and keeping, and the force of it is weakening Corvo's knees. He is being swept away by teeth scraping over his lower lip, the faintest scent of ocean salt... Shampoo? Aftershave?

 

No way to tell; the mystery is driving him half mad, and sheer want will take care of the rest. He wants, he needs, he is wild with it, tangling his fingers in the Outsider's short hair and returning his kisses like a drowning man desperate for air.

 

Hands on his hips again, firm but not forceful, turning Corvo until the backs of his knees hit the bed. The slightest pressure from the Outsider's thumbs and Corvo releases him, trying to calm his own shuddering breaths. The darkness irks for the first time. He so badly wants to see if those pale cheeks are flushed, to match the way his chest rises and falls a little too quickly.

 

"Strip, Corvo," he breathes, if he'd just order his insane coffees in that voice every day, Corvo would give him no trouble ever again. It's not a request, and he fumbles for the buckle on his belt, unzips jeans and toes out of shoes and socks without protest. There's no erotic way to remove pants that Corvo has ever found, but he can feel the hunger in the Outsider's eyes, in the way he trails his gaze down Corvo's scrawny shape and smiles.

 

Corvo attempts a smile in return, and shakes his head as the Outsider reaches out to stroke his bare chest.

 

"Your turn. I want to see you." He's said the right thing for once. The Outsider raises his hands in mock defeat, lowers them to the hem of his pants and undoes them with the same slow efficiency he flaunted in removing his shirt. It takes all the self control he possesses to stand in place and watch, unmoving, as a whole lot of pale flesh is revealed inch by inch, and with a whole lot more grace than Corvo himself managed.

 

"Happy now?" the Outsider asks, as if Corvo is the one being particularly demanding, obeyed out of whimsy, and not the very obvious fact that he wants this as much as Corvo himself.

I'm going to hate myself so much in the morning, Corvo thinks.

 

"Uh-" he says instead, and then the Outsider places a hand on his chest and shoves him hard onto the bed.

 

The blue duvet cover is soft, a much higher quality than anything Corvo's used to. He sprawls across it, reaches for one of the pillows and tucks it behind his head as the Outsider climbs on top of him with all the grace of a panther. A shark, Corvo amends, because there are teeth on one of his nipples, scraping, nipping, toying with all the ways they can make him shudder. He pushes up with his hips, grinding his cock deliberately against the Outsider's thigh. It's not enough. It's not near enough, when he needs so much, and-

 

He will worship, if worship is required of him.

 

The scent of sea is back, mingling with the bedspread's clean cotton and the faintest tang of sweat. Corvo wraps a hand around the nape of the Outsider's neck and tugs him back up, close enough to lick across the hollow of his throat.

 

"What do you want from me?" Corvo breathes against the taste of clean skin and slight salt tang. He feels his head nudged back, his throat exposed, and a tongue traces his collarbones. He groans aloud, and the Outsider laughs.

 

"What will you give me?"

 

"Anything," Corvo says, and means it. He wants closeness and ownership and surrender; one long-fingered hand slides between them to slowly stroke his cock, and Corvo arches up into it. "I- just, anything, please, I want..."

 

"Tell me what you want, Corvo. I won't guess." Slow movements, just a taste of the friction he needs, but it's the teeth that fasten on his collarbone, sudden and sharp, that drive him to speak.

 

"You difficult bastard, stop being smug and fuck me already."

 

Lips curve against his throat, and then the Outsider moves off him.

"You only had to ask," he says sweetly, and somewhere in the back of his mind Corvo wonders if this hasn't been revenge for that joke with the caramel coffee, what seems like an age ago. Honestly, it wouldn't surprise him in the slightest.

 

"If it's not too much trouble," Corvo retorts. He sits up, rests his weight on an elbow and eyes the curve of the Outsider's spine as he rifles through a drawer in the bedside cabinet. Too dark to count the vertebrae, so Corvo reaches across to touch the nape of his neck, trailing blunt fingernails down his back. He can feel the Outsider shiver under his touch. Ticklish? Something to keep in mind for the future.

 

He's back in seconds, kneeling between Corvo's legs, running a hand down Corvo's thigh. And from where Corvo lies, the Outsider towers, his skin tinged an eerie blue in the dark. He could be a statue, but his mouth is warm where it sucks a kiss into the delicate skin of Corvo's inner thigh. Do the shadows mutate around him, or is it just the night and Corvo's touch-starved mind that deceive him? He doesn't want to know.

 

Cool fingers, stroking, easing, and a hand on his thigh to hold him in place as he twitches. Firm, as though soothing a startled animal. Corvo closes his eyes and fights to allow the breach, because it doesn't hurt exactly, but why the hell did he have to start with two? The sense of invasion unsettles for several moments, then the Outsider curls his fingers, leans forward to lick a long stripe up Corvo's cock, and Corvo shudders.

 

The heat is back, pooling in his groin and growing in urgency. Corvo bucks his hips against the contact, the expert touch that shatters him from the inside even as the Outsider mouths at the tip of him, more in play than anything.

Damn him for being good at this. The man is rude, and distant, goes out of his way to aggravate, and there's no way he should be able to wreck Corvo with such delicate purpose. His fringe falls over his eyes and hides them from view, but Corvo can imagine them, pupils blown wide and wicked by the helpless sounds he draws from Corvo's throat with the slightest twitch of his fingers. Damn him.

 

He pulls away without warning, and Corvo chokes down a protest.

"May I?" the Outsider asks, and this time Corvo can see the smug tilt to his lips, the amusement in his eyes; they watch Corvo's chest shudder with every breath.

 

Corvo gives him a curt nod in response; he won't beg, not unless he has to. There's still a tiny grain of self-respect tucked away in the back of his consciousness, and he'd rather not surrender it to this strange man with black eyes. He grabs for the duvet cover instead, fists handfuls and grips them tight. He will not beg.

 

No amount of control in the world could silence the groan that tears loose as the Outsider eases into him; a patient, unhurried movement, even as he strokes Corvo back to hardness. It's too much, and too soon; the burn is nothing short of glorious. Corvo allows his legs to be nudged further apart, canting his hips up in welcome. This...this is possession. He is being taken, claimed, and he wants it so much.

 

The Outsider shifts, moves above Corvo and nuzzles at his neck, even as he twitches his hips the slightest bit, a promise of what will come. And it's... oh, it's strange, being filled in this way, but the Outsider's chest presses against Corvo's and his skin is warmer now, less marble and more flesh. It's been so very long since Corvo surrendered like this.

 

"Move," he hisses into the Outsider's shoulder, then bites down hard on his own lip when his request is granted with an agonising lack of haste. Slow, incremental movements, and from another partner he'd have mistaken them for consideration, but this display of self-control is meant as torture.

 

There are limits to his patience though; the bedsprings begin to creak with increasing frequency, and what part of Corvo's mind is still functioning finds a moment to hope they really are alone in this house. Not that it matters. Not that he cares, when there are better things to focus on.

 

In the sparse light the Outsider seems more beast than man; he arches over Corvo, weight resting in one hand and the other tangled in Corvo's hair, a bruising grip against his skull. His kisses are biting, rough, a match for how he takes, in swift, violent snaps of his hips that leave Corvo without breath to moan.

 

He tastes blood. Metal on his lips, salt on his tongue when he licks the Outsider's neck. Swallowing down copper-tang, he drags his teeth down a pale collarbone just to see if the grip in his hair will tighten, just a fraction.

 

It does, and the gesture is as passionate as it is punishing.

 

Bluish skin, damp with sweat; Corvo wraps his legs around the Outsider's hips, drags blunt nails across his back and tries to pull him that much closer. That much deeper. For once his mind is silent, free of blame and doubt and hate, and all he can hear are his own gasps as they mingle with the Outsider's ragged breathing. He wants the looming mindlessness, precious pure seconds of nothing, and it's not quite enough, though he rolls his hips to meet the Outsider's thrusts, and each one drives him closer, and it's still not enough.

 

Corvo's heard many things about the Outsider, the usual gossip that stalks in the shadow of a man whose secrets are worth their weight in gold. They say he can take one look at someone and immediately know which turns their life will take; marriage and children, fame and fortune, an early death. They say he knows everything that's going on, all the time, down to a stage hand's relationship troubles, a lead actress' eating disorder, a sound technician's gambling problem. They say he can read minds.

 

Corvo doesn't speak, doesn't ask, but the Outsider acts as if he already knows. His fingers loosen from their painful grip in Corvo's hair, cup his chin and tilt him for another bruising kiss, then slide between them to grip Corvo's cock. The sudden pressure, a sweet friction he's been aching for, draws a low groan from Corvo's throat and he grips the Outsider's shoulders much too hard. Let them both have bruises. Let them both hurt, because Corvo is sick and tired of being the only one in pain.

 

This is too much. Too much of a good thing is fantastic, is perfect, and Corvo rolls his hips up, pushing into the Outsider's hand as it strokes him, quick, measured movements. It's so controlled, and so like him, and that's all Corvo can seem to focus on; how unfair it is that he's sweaty, panting for breath, and the Outsider is still himself. Such control. The exactitude of an artist, a musician, and a gymnast's precision.

 

Heat builds, rises, breaks with startling suddenness, and Corvo buries his face in the crook of the Outsider's neck as he comes, a full-body shiver that has his muscles tightening, hands clenching on much-abused skin. An incoherent moan, loud in the dark, breaks loose and he is long past caring.

 

He's distantly aware of the Outsider's head bowed over his, and his lips brush Corvo's ear with a delicacy that can only be intentional-

"Corvo," he whispers, even as he shudders his way into stillness.

 

Afterwards is hazy, blurred like the paintings on the walls. At some point he must move and settle under the covers; it's where he wakes to the mid-morning sunlight, alone and momentarily disoriented. But first there is the awkward negotiation of space between men unaccustomed to such invasion, the moment in which they decide whether or not they'll even try. Cuddling is out of the question. Corvo is on the verge of offering to leave, at least until the Outsider reaches for one of his hands, kisses his knuckles and threads their fingers together.

 

"You will stay?" he asks.

 

It's probably a bad idea. Corvo tugs the covers a little higher and resigns himself to a lecture from Callista in the morning. "Your sheets are softer than mine," he says by way of explanation, and hears a smile in the Outsider's quiet, "Of course."

 

Cuddling might actually have been an option. Will wonders never cease?

The Outsider is still talking, musing on the play he is writing, and Corvo's role in it. "I struggle with the overall tone," he says, and doesn't seem to mind the lack of response. "Who will you be? The ruthless assassin I had originally planned for is no longer an option but what are my alternatives? If I tell the world you never killed, that you ghosted through the territory of your enemies and left them none the wiser...who will believe it? You have left me with quite the puzzle, Corvo..."

 

If there is more, Corvo doesn't hear it, and when he wakes the Outsider is gone.

 

It's not quite as callous as it sounds; his head left an imprint on the other pillow, and the sheets are still slightly warm where he slept at Corvo's side. Even more impressive is the steaming mug of coffee sitting on the bedside cabinet. There's a note underneath it; Corvo extracts it with raised eyebrows. This...this is almost considerate.

 

"Must've left quite the impression," he murmurs to himself, before focusing on the words.

 

My dear Corvo,

You will be pleased to hear that Hiram Burrows has been arrested for his role in Jessamine's murder, and the unfortunate deaths of several others. Daud has vanished. The Watch believe they will find him; they are mistaken. I hope the news isn't too upsetting to you.

I made you coffee.

 

It's too soon to begin processing the success with Burrows, or to decide whether or not he feels guilt over Daud's escape; Corvo reaches for the still-steaming mug on the bedside table. He sniffs it tentatively, but from what he can see it's just black coffee. A sip reveals no sugar, and contrary to expectations it's good, strong, with a subtle fruity aroma he recognises. One of his favourites, imported from near Karnaca. The Outsider couldn't have known, of course, not unless he'd interrogated Cecelia or Callista, but the coincidence is pleasant.

 

There are a few things to be said about the fact that the Outsider is apparently perfectly capable of making decent coffee, and still chooses to harass Corvo with his mad requests. His orders have always seemed so utterly random that Corvo has wondered if he even cares what he gets. Does he enjoy any of it? He must, because why else would he come in, day after day, and ask for something equally strange each time?

 

Corvo sips his coffee and stares down at the note in his lap. Short, curt, and accompanied by coffee he made himself, for Corvo. It helps somewhat that he appears to have scribbled it on the back of something else. Grabbed off his desk, no doubt, at the urgings of whatever passes for his sense of common decency. Flipping the piece of paper over, Corvo raises his eyebrows.

 

YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER YOU CANNOT SAVE HER

 

It carries on for quite a while. "I'm...not going to ask where you were going with that," Corvo says, and turns the paper back to the side he much prefers.

 

He sneaks back into the Hound Pits in time to meet Cecelia on her way to hang out a basket of laundry in the yard. Her eyes widen a little, but she steps out of the doorway to let him pass, and for a moment Corvo actually thinks he might actually get away with it-

"Enjoying your walk of shame, Corvo?" he hears over his shoulder, and turns back to find Cecelia clapping a hand over her own mouth. "I didn't mean to actually say it," she mumbles through her fingers. He has to laugh at that; his face feels about as red as hers is turning.

 

"How about you don't tell Callista, and I'll cover for you when you need it. Next time you want to run off and...deliver cupcakes."

 

"That wasn't a euphemism, I actually did deliver- oh, you meant that as a joke. Um. I'll just go hang this up then, shall I?" She waves at the laundry basket on her hip. It seems a good time to quit before they both embarrass themselves into comas, and Corvo finds himself backing away.

 

"You do that. I'll be back down soon."

 

"Right," Cecelia says awkwardly. "Did you have a nice evening, at least? I mean- oh no, that's not..."

 

"It was wonderful," Corvo tells her, and makes a break for the stairs while she's still staring fixedly at her feet.

 

Things are almost normal while they get ready to open, except that Cecelia keeps bursting into spontaneous giggle fits and Corvo is half inclined to join her. Wallace has to help with the stocktake when it takes them too long to count the juice cartons, but all his muttered comments about "a disgraceful lack of professionalism" do is make things worse. It's nice in a way, even when Lydia comes in with a face like a thundercloud and adds 'rat poison-the cheapest you can find' to the shopping list in capital letters and storms back out.

 

The laughter doesn't last. Minutes from opening time, Havelock comes down to inform them all that Hiram Burrows is currently sweating in a Coldridge cell, and looks set to stay there for a long time. There'll be a party to celebrate this evening, apparently.

"Just a small staff gathering, nothing like what you enjoyed at the Boyle Manor," Havelock says with an almost-warm smile. "A celebration of our endeavours, and of our hopes for the future, none of which we would have without you. Eat and drink well tonight, Corvo, you've earned it. And Martin has assured me he will see that Daud is found and tried for his crimes. I am sure that will be quite a relief for you."

 

Corvo nods, and makes a show of agreeing. Yes, he'll attend the party. Yes, he feels much safer with Burrows behind bars and Daud soon to join him. Yes, he understands the need for secrecy in this matter, and doesn't feel any misplaced desire to tell someone like Captain Curnow everything. No, he didn't have any other plans for the evening.

"Though I must say, you had us quite worried when you didn't return last night," Havelock adds, and Corvo feels his heart skip a beat. Stupid, of course. Havelock would have waited up for a while, and then made someone else keep an eye out. Wallace, maybe. It would explain the man's foul temper.

 

"Too many Watchmen around," Corvo forces himself to say. "I didn't want anyone connecting me with the Tower, just in case. I stayed- elsewhere. It doesn't matter." He shouldn't feel so guilty about that last part. For all he knows it might actually be true. He'll probably find out later, assuming the Outsider is still inclined to talk to him.

 

The shop opens, and a new day begins.

Chapter Text

"It's Hatter pride, see. Mister Hat has health issues, so we're showing- what're we showing again, Chauncey?"

 

"Solidarity, idiot."

 

"Yeah. Thassit. Solidarity. Means we can't have all the things he can't have, so he don't feel left out. Not his fault he's sick, is it?"

 

"No, of course not." Corvo eyes the list they've given him with no small amount of trepidation. "So you want...ten lattes, but made with almond milk, stevia and organic decaf coffee, all to take away. And "NO CAFFEINE, NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT", I see. And...will you be wanting anything else?" He hopes his voice doesn't shake. Times like this, the most helpful thing in the world is his acting experience, because he imagines that if it were Lydia taking the order in his place there would have been bloodshed by now.

 

Thankfully, the Hatter doing the ordering shakes his head. "Nah. Can't have any of that other stuff. Not that we need it, eh boys?" There comes a mutter of agreement from the group behind him, and it all sounds about as forced as his grin.

 

"Right. Well, that'll be fifty four coin in total, and if you'll all just take a seat, we'll bring your order out as soon as we can." He waits until they're seated before ducking into the kitchen and dragging Lydia and Cecelia out to help. Lydia takes one look at the order and turns a furious red, so it's Cecelia who gets the job of helping to make the things.

 

The Hatters don't seem all that happy to receive their drinks, but they make a brave show of feigning enthusiasm anyway. Corvo hears a muttered, "If Lizzy hears about this she'll piss herself laughing," and something that sounds very much like, "Everythin' in this drink is a lie," but at least they leave a decent tip in the jar. It goes a long way towards sweetening Lydia's mood.

 

"Might cover some of the expenses for the Admiral's party this evening," she says, peering hopefully into the jar. "Though I don't understand why it has to be so very sudden. What do we have to celebrate? If he's come into some money all of a sudden, he's sure been quiet about it. We really can't afford to shut up shop early and lose all our customers, and after I told him I'd asked Piero to come and take a look at our rat problem tomorrow morning."

 

"No luck with the poison?" Corvo asks quietly.

 

Lydia shakes her head, replacing the tip jar. "I had to take it off the list, I couldn't scrape up enough loose change to give to Samuel, and we needed more whiskey urgently. Piero says he'll do it as a favour to the Admiral."

 

"That's good of him."

 

"He's probably hoping to get into Callista's good books, as usual. Guess I'll have to make sure she smiles a bit more convincingly this time. Poor thing. Can you hold down the fort while I do that? I think she's upstairs marking Emily's homework, something like that."

 

"No problem-" Corvo begins, and from over by the food cabinets comes a crash.

 

It's Cecelia. Or rather, it's Cecelia and the plate apricot tarts she's managed to drop everywhere. Pastry and apricot smear the floor between shards of glass, and from somewhere behind Corvo Lydia gives a strangled howl. A few of the customers seated around the shop start applauding.

 

"That was one of our best glass platters! The Admiral's had it for years, someone gave it to him as a gift after a successful performance! Why? Why did you have to use that one?"

 

Cecelia is frozen in place, slumped on the ground where she tripped. She stares at the mess around her with uncomprehending eyes. "I'm sorry, I don't know what happened! I must have been distracted-" She looks seconds away from tears.

 

"It's not that much of a problem," Corvo says as calmly as possible. He's not really sure who it is that needs the most reassurance. "The Admiral doesn't care about plates, I doubt he remembers it exists. We'll clean it up, nobody has to know." The applause has stopped, at least. "Just...don't panic."

 

"Urgh." Lydia strips off her apron and spreads it out on the ground, kneeling by Cecelia's side and pulling her into a bear hug. "Don't look at me like that, I'm not going to hit you. The amount of pressure we're all under these days, I'm surprised nobody's snapped yet. Things break. That's what they do, it's not the end of the world."

 

"I'll clean it up," Cecelia mumbles into her shoulder. Lydia sighs and rubs her back gently.

 

"We'll clean it up. It's not a disaster. Go wash your face, get your head on straight. I'm sorry I shouted."

 

"But I should clean it up, I made the mess-"

 

Corvo checks for waiting customers (none, thankfully) and leaves Lydia to fix things while he hunts down a mop and some newspaper for the glass. He returns to find Lydia alone behind the counter; she shakes her head when he asks if everything's alright now.

 

"I couldn't tell you, Corvo. She's as jumpy as anything these days, but I could have sworn she was fine earlier. Maybe a customer upset her, something like that."

 

"Not that I saw." He starts picking up the larger pieces of glass, one eye on the front door, just in case.

 

"No, I know you wouldn't have let that sort of thing slide." Lydia joins him, and they have the floor looking more presentable in minutes. Havelock doesn't make a surprise appearance to witness the loss of his glass platter, and Lydia has the shards wrapped up and put in the bin before anyone else can either. Catastrophe averted, once again.

 

"There," she sighs when the last errant splatter of apricot is cleaned off a cupboard. "It's good enough that I can send Wallace down to help without having to worry that he'll notice something odd. Cecelia can have her break early, if you're happy to put yours off a bit longer?"

 

"It's fine, I think I can handle the customers."

 

Lydia gives him a grateful smile. "Bless you, Corvo. Shout if you need help, I'll be in the office correcting Wallace's latest atrocities in our account books. After I talk to Callista, and Cecelia as well...honestly, those two. One is in urgent need of a holiday, and the other needs someone to ice her cupcake for her."

 

"Ice her-"

 

"Oh, don't pretend you didn't understand, I noticed you failed to come home last night. Doesn't seem to have done you any harm-"

 

"I think there's a customer that needs me at the counter," Corvo says hurriedly, and pointedly turns to take their order. Is there no such thing as a secret in this place? Would it have killed Havelock to create some kind of alibi for him? There was something very knowing about Samuel's smile when he came in earlier to take the shopping list and share what gossip he'd picked up about the Burrows situation. Or maybe it's all in Corvo's head. Cecelia wouldn't have gone around telling everyone, and there are dozens of reasons why he might not have made it home last night.

 

A little while later, the front door opens and the Outsider enters. Corvo doesn't quite drop the platter of muffins he's bringing out, but it's a near thing. He definitely stumbles a bit and has to resist a sudden mad urge to flee back into the kitchen.

 

Grow up, he tells himself, offering the Outsider a polite smile as he approaches the counter, and going back to restocking the muffins. You're both more than capable of handling this like adults. It's hardly the most worrying thing going on right now. In fact, it doesn't even make the top five. Just...act normal.

 

That particular resolution lasts right up until the Outsider is standing in front of him at the counter. Corvo can't seem to dig up a suitable greeting. Is he allowed to look cheerful? Would that be presumptuous? Rude, even? What exactly is the etiquette for situations like these? He suspects Lydia might have a few suggestions, and it's a shame he didn't think to ask her while she was teasing him-

 

"Hello," the Outsider says at last, and Corvo fixes a neutral smile to his face.

 

"Hello to you too. What...What would you like to order?" He gestures towards the Other Menu, less because either of them need reminding where it is and more to give him somewhere else to look. "I'm afraid Pendleton hasn't been near it today, so there's nothing new on there. And I got rid of the Jelly Tip thing, nobody could work out what it meant." He forces himself to stop talking; a rare thing, that he finds himself babbling, but at least it was better than the silence.

 

The Outsider tilts his head and considers the Other Menu for a moment before turning back to Corvo. "I would like a caffè latte, please. To have here."

 

Corvo blinks at him. "What?"

 

"You told me yesterday that you make..."a fantastic caffè latte" I believe it was. I would like one of those."

 

"With...what else?" Corvo asks with considerable trepidation. "Whipped cream? Cinnamon? Chocolate sprinkles? Caramel-"

 

"Absolutely not. I am not a man inclined towards acting rashly, my dear, but if you tamper with my coffee I can guarantee you my best impression of an infuriated eldritch deity, complete with violent and unnecessary bloodshed." The words seem to rush out, as if they're something he's been waiting a while to say, and it takes Corvo a moment to work out what he's really getting at.

 

"Are you telling me you don't actually like any of that...other stuff? All those strange things you kept ordering, the drinks that took me forever to make? You never wanted those?" He can hear his voice rising and makes no attempt to stop it. "Do you have any idea how close I came to reaching over this counter and choking you? Do you know how many nightmares I've had where you come in and order impossible things, and I can't find the ingredients- and you never wanted them? Why?"

 

The Outsider reaches across the counter and gently pats Corvo's cheek. "I wanted you to remember me," he says simply. "More than any other customer who passes through your door, I wanted to be the one you didn't forget. And it has been a most interesting experience, if occasionally nauseating. I never understood why all the drinks have foreign words in their names. Does nobody realise how idiotic they sound? Why has there not been a mass protest against the policy?"

 

"I don't know," Corvo says. "Maybe because we all wanted to keep our jobs." He swallows and tugs his notepad a bit closer. "So you're serious then? One caffè latte, no tampering or anything? Do you take sugar?"

 

Digging around in a pocket, the Outsider pulls out a scrap of notepaper and frowns at it. "I think I am supposed to say that I would like it...'as sweet as your smile'." He glances at Corvo's face and then back at the piece of paper before scrunching it up. "But in all honesty I would prefer it without sugar. Your smile is, of course, enchanting as always."

 

There are people in the shop. There are people in the shop and any of his co-workers could wander in without warning, or maybe even Havelock if he's very unlucky, and Corvo finds that he doesn't care in the slightest. He leans one hand on the counter and grabs the Outsider's collar with the other, tugging him in for a kiss.

 

He feels the Outsider freeze in surprise, but he recovers quickly enough and slides a hand around the back of Corvo's neck to keep him in place. It's all very messy and dramatic, and it feels like the most natural thing possible.

 

Someone wolf-whistles in the background, and there is a smattering of applause to accompany the giggles. Corvo doesn't pull away until the Outsider lets him. Slightly dishevelled, but he carefully straightens the other man's collar before trying to make himself presentable. The Outsider allows it, a small smile touching his lips.

 

"That was...unexpected," he comments, and Corvo laughs, a little giddily.

 

"Not something I make a habit of, I promise you. But I suppose you're a special case." He rings the order up by touch alone and gestures towards one of the nearby empty tables. "Go sit down, I'll bring it over. If I'm lucky I might have a few minutes spare to talk, I don't know."

 

"Thank you." The Outsider gives him another of those small smiles (affectionate, Corvo realises, it's an affectionate smile and it's directed at him).

 

Corvo considers the warning against tampering as he makes the drink, before deciding that he's probably earnt himself a bit of leeway. It doesn't really count as tampering anyway, and it'll barely affect the flavour. He takes a toothpick and sketches a quick whale in the coffee foam with chocolate sauce. After a few days of practice he's actually not that bad at it; it's recognisable, and that's what counts.

 

He brings it out to the Outsider and receives a bemused look in return. "You drew me a whale."

 

"Points for observation," Corvo says, almost gleefully. "It took a few tries, but I think I've got it about right. For the record, ferns are a lot easier."

 

The Outsider seems lost for words. He turns his cup slightly, straightening the chocolate whale sketch, and stares down at it. "Will you never cease to surprise me?" he murmurs. "Every time I think I understand you... My dear, you are wasted here."

 

"This job wasn't intended to be forever. But they never are." He slides into the chair opposite the Outsider, glancing over his shoulder for customers at the counter. Nobody, thankfully. "And it has its perks. I get to meet the most interesting people."

 

"So you do." The Outsider sips his coffee, and Corvo watches him with something light and warm curling in his stomach. It's such an unusual sensation that he isn't really sure what to do with it. If he needs to do anything. Sitting still and savouring it doesn't seem quite sufficient, but he's not yet sure enough of where he stands to reach over and touch the Outsider on a whim. So he rests his chin on a hand and tries to memorise the feeling for later. If only he could bottle it, keep it safe for future times when he'll no doubt need it.

 

"Havelock's throwing party this evening," he remarks. The Outsider puts his coffee down and gestures for Corvo to continue. "I'm...not sure why. I mean, I know why, but a party seems a bit premature. Not to mention sudden. But he's told us all to show up and enjoy our success, and nobody dares say no to him, so we'll all be there. Not sure if he'll tell the others why we're celebrating or not. They're a bit confused."

 

"A strange thing indeed, for those unaware of your Admiral's plots," the Outsider agrees. "Though perhaps the suddenness has more to do with convenience. High Overseer Martin has taken charge of the Kingsparrow stage this year, I am told. Overseer funds will see it readied, and I imagine he will soon be a very busy man."

 

"That makes a bit more sense. We couldn't possibly have a party without Martin." The front door opens, and Corvo sighs. "That sounds like my cue to get back behind the counter." A glance over his shoulder shows the woman, leather-clad and scruffy, peering at the cheesecakes. She doesn't seem to be in a hurry, so he lingers by the Outsider's table. "If...I'm free in a few nights, would you be interested in going out somewhere?" he asks hesitantly. "To dinner, or a play maybe? Somewhere that isn't me working, or breaking into your house in the middle of the night."

 

"An excellent idea," the Outsider says, nodding. "We should meet and discuss my play, the direction in which I see it going, the as-yet undecided ending, and of course your interpretation of the protagonist I have in mind. I am eager to hear your thoughts on the matter."

 

Corvo doesn't quite roll his eyes, but it's a near thing. "I was thinking of a more romantic context."

 

"The two need not be mutually exclusive." The Outsider reaches out to take Corvo's hand, bringing it up to his lips. Corvo holds very still and silently vows to gut the first customer who wolf whistles this time. But nobody does, and the Outsider releases his hand much too soon. "Your customer is waiting," he says. "And you have a party to prepare for. Rejoice in your success, Corvo. Your story could have gone a great many different ways, had you been a little less kind, a little more vengeful. The narrator should avoid taking sides, but I think...I am grateful you are nothing other than yourself. Very grateful indeed."

 

"I'll see you soon,' Corvo promises, and leaves before it becomes too hard to do so.

 

"Sorry to interrupt you an' your boyfriend," the customer tells him. Corvo shakes his head and tries to explain, but the look she gives him is filled with, "quit bullshitting me", and in the end he settles for asking what she'd like to order. The woman waves a bandaged hand at the food cabinets.

 

"Lizzy says if I bring her somethin' nice for her tea, she'll let me keep the other finger I owe. So what's good?"

 

Corvo stares at her hand with mild horror, but very little surprise. Gang members. The Hatters are the same, and the Bottle Street thugs too; no way of telling if their threats are serious or not, and the best thing is to stay well out of it.  And it seems "Lizzy" doesn't mean to leave them alone. Well, he supposes a customer is a customer.

 

"You're Annabelle, aren't you?" The woman jerks her head and Corvo gives her what he hopes is a sympathetic look. "I think we met your Lizzy yesterday. She's...memorable, I'll give her that. Try the triple chocolate brownies, we make them fresh every day and nobody's ever complained."

 

"Take your word for it," Annabelle mumbles. She watches him retrieve the biggest slice of brownie he can reach, scratching gloomily at her bandages. "An' while I remember, she said to tell 'that pretty lady at the coffee shop' that she got 'erself some fancy shoes, and now she feels like a right princess. She said that would make the lady happy."

 

"It will," Corvo agrees. "I'll tell Callista when I next see her, she loves it when people take her advice. Can I get you anything else? Coffee?"

 

"Nah," Annabelle says, scuffing a foot against the wooden floor. "Don't reckon I 'ave enough coin on me for that."

 

Corvo shakes his head and gestures to the empty tables. "It's on me, you look like you need it. Take a seat and I'll bring you something out. Any preferences?"

 

Her eyes drift to the Other Menu, and she mutters about not knowing what half the things are, but she'd like something sweet, if it's not too much trouble and if he promises not to tell Lizzy. Corvo ends up making her a monstrosity containing twice as much espresso as it should, along with whipped cream, caramel sauce and little bits of toffee sprinkled liberally on top. He's slightly concerned to find that it doesn't annoy him in the slightest. What that says about the Outsider's influence on him is something he'd rather not consider.

 

The man himself is gone when Corvo brings Annabelle her drink, but Corvo hadn't expected him to linger. They'll see each other again soon enough. For the time being he has a job to do and plans to make. Maybe he can corner Callista at the party for a bit of scheming. Havelock has her rostered on Emily duties for most of the day, surely that'll give her time to come up with a few ideas. They'll work something out, foil whatever Havelock's master plan is, and get Emily out of harm's way and back in school where she should be.

 

He's unusually optimistic today, and for once it seems impossible to imagine anything but good fortune in the future.

 

Night falls, and before he knows it Corvo finds himself wiping benches down and sweeping floors, far earlier than he usually would. Behind the bar, Lydia is standing on a chair to arrange the cheaper liquors within easy reach. She wobbles momentarily, and Corvo lunges to steady the chair.

 

"Hiding the good stuff?"

 

"Trying to, at least," Lydia sighs. She stands on tiptoe to wedge their best King Street Brandy on the highest shelf. "No doubt Wallace will be tasked with fetching it down sooner or later, but some of it may survive. The Admiral won't let me lock it away, he says that would spoil the mood. I don't know what kind of business that man thinks he's running, I really don't. Thank you, Corvo, you can let go now. That's the best I can manage."

 

"Any idea who'll be here?" Corvo asks. "Us, obviously, but who else? Martin? Samuel? Any of the Admiral's friends?' For one brief, horrifying moment he pictures Slackjaw showing up at their front door with his knowing grin.

 

"I don't know, nobody saw fit to-"

 

"Corvo!" Emily comes bounding into the shop with Callista at her heels and throws herself at him for a big hug. "I've missed you, why haven't you come to see me?"

 

Corvo recovers from the shock quickly enough, wrapping his arms around her and holding her close. She's much too thin. Should she be this thin? Is the Admiral making sure she eats properly, vegetables as well as sweets? Does he even know what a child's diet ought to consist of?

 

"I'm not allowed to see you," he says over the top of her head. "It's not that I don't want to. I've missed you just as much."

 

"I knew it. That meanie Havelock said you didn't care anymore, but I knew he was lying. When he comes down I'm going to tell him what I think of him, and then he can stand in the corner and think about what he's done until he's sorry."

 

"I don't think that's a good idea, Emily," Callista says hurriedly, throwing a glance over her shoulder. Corvo nods in agreement, carefully extricating himself from the hug.

 

"Listen to Callista," he says to Emily's pout. "The Admiral isn't someone you should be rude to. Just be patient a little bit longer, can you do that? You remember that discussion we had about waiting?"

 

"Yeeeeeees, Corvo. I should be good and do as the Admiral tells me, and you'll make sure it's not forever. I know."

 

Corvo glances over his shoulder briefly, but Lydia has moved off, probably to the kitchens if the loud crashing coming from that direction is any indication. Lucky. He can't be sure what her reaction would be to such blatant mutiny in the ranks, even if it does look like the Admiral is set on sinking them all. Lydia has always tried to be loyal, however difficult the times, and that makes her a risk.

 

"Not much longer," Callista says in a low voice. "And I mean that, I think we might actually have enough money to look into leaving this place. Uncle Geoff's house isn't large, but he says we're welcome to stay while he looks into Emily's family, and he won't charge us rent until we find more work. Corvo, we have a shot at leaving. We should take it. There might not be another."

 

"I like the sound of your Uncle Geoff," Emily tells her. "Will he tell me stories? He's with the Watch, isn't he? Does he get to have adventures?"

 

It doesn't take very long to come to a decision. This is the chance they've been looking for from the beginning, and with Burrows out of the way Corvo realises it's time to leave. If he never has to see the Hound Pits' leather seats and neon sign again, it'll be too soon. Anywhere has to be better than this.

 

"Tomorrow," he says abruptly. "If it suits your uncle, we go tomorrow. Can you be ready?" He directs it at Callista, but Emily nods too, no doubt already cataloguing her dolls and crayons and favourite sketches. It won't take long; maybe they can conjure up some kind of urgent business for the Admiral to attend to while they make a break for it. Maybe the Outsider won't mind causing a diversion. Corvo tries to picture the kind of diversion he might think appropriate, and has to hold in a laugh.

 

The "party" starts in earnest soon after, effectively putting an end to opportunities for extensive scheming. Pendleton appears first, barely swaying as he wanders into the shop with Wallace right behind him, and makes a show of contemplating the various bottles on display behind the counter. It quickly becomes apparent that, however informal the occasion, Corvo and Callista are still expected to mix whatever drinks are requested of them. Well, no surprises there. At least it means they can regulate what goes into Emily's glass (orange juice and grenadine; her eyes light up at the sunset effect, and she doesn't really need to know that it's missing the main ingredient).

 

Havelock taps on the front door with Martin, and Lydia rushes off to let them both in. They've brought Samuel with them; Corvo shoots the man a genuine smile and gets him a glass of one of their best whiskeys. At some point Cecelia shuffles past him, cradling a small glass of wine. If she hears him ask her how she's feeling, she doesn't acknowledge it, or him for that matter.

 

It's a very strange evening. A generally cheerful atmosphere, but not a natural one. It feels as though everyone present is smiling for a different reason, moving in their own bubble of secrecy, keeping their cards close to their chests. Even Emily has a big smile for the departure she's been promised tomorrow, though when Samuel asks what she's so happy about she tells him it's because she doesn't normally get to go to parties. Clever girl.

 

Martin is full of talk about the Overseer sponsorship of the Kingsparrow stage-island he pushed for and won. It'll be an excellent opportunity to win back some public goodwill after the debacle with Campbell, he says, and Corvo has to admit it's a clever plan. The opera on the water is one of the highlights of the year; if the Overseers can organise it properly, they'll find themselves forgiven in no time. Trust Martin to work that one out.

 

Pendleton has news of his own, slurred much too loudly over his champagne cocktail. It seems the Watch found two bodies washed up on the shore of the Wrenhaven yesterday, and he's been asked into the morgue to see if he can identify them.

"Of course, nothing is certain yet," Pendleton says. He shoves his empty glass aside and snaps his fingers impatiently in Callista's direction. "But I trust the Watch were reasonably confident, or they would not have- have dared summon me. And if it is them, the Manor is mine at last. Little Emily would like to see it, I am sh- sure. I'll be a very wealthy man." He points at the cocktail menu and demands that Callista make him an appletini before he dies of thirst; to her credit, she doesn't roll her eyes where he can see.

 

Both Pendleton and Martin make sure to stop Corvo and thank him personally for his 'assistance', several times. He tries to shrug it off, not in the least because the situation is...uncomfortable. They may be grateful, but as far as he's concerned the morning cannot come fast enough. If he is very lucky, he'll never have to speak to either of them after tonight. Or Havelock, for that matter.

 

The Admiral himself doesn't seem to feel the various spirits he's consuming. He keeps up a jovial conversation all evening, stopping only when he notices Emily begging Corvo for her own glass of "that nice sour drink Lord Pendleton let me try".

 

"I think it is time the child went to bed," he pronounces, and Emily is the only one to argue. She quiets down quickly enough when Samuel promises he'll come and tell her a story if she's ready for bed in fifteen minutes. Like Corvo, the older man seems to have restricted himself to a single drink the whole time, despite numerous reassurances that it's no bother to get him another if he wants one.

 

Havelock waits until Samuel leaves to give his promised story before clearing his throat loudly. That should have been the first warning. The second comes in the form of Martin drifting across the room to stand at his side, and Pendleton turning in his seat to give Corvo a bleary smile.

 

They're all looking at him. Three sets of eyes, and though Havelock turns to address everyone in the room, his gaze keeps darting back to Corvo.

 

"No doubt you have all been wondering about the reason for this sudden gathering. Well, after months of requests and referrals, not to mention a fair amount of patience, I am proud to announce that the documentation for Emily Kaldwin's adoption is almost in order. By the end of the week she will have a family." He takes a slow sip of his drink, no longer pretending to be addressing anyone but Corvo. "I greatly anticipate fatherhood, and I am confident that little Emily will make a fine daughter. Certainly worth the effort and...financial investment involved in attaining the necessary official permissions. This evening has been my way of sharing my considerable joy with everyone here, because you have all played an invaluable part in making this possible. I thank you."

 

He salutes them with his glass to a smattering of applause, mostly from Pendleton, Wallace and Martin. Callista has gone very pale, and Lydia is frowning in disbelief.

 

The missing funds, Corvo thinks. She's just realised where they all went, and why. And maybe she's coming to understand that keeping the Hound Pits running was never the Admiral's goal. We've all been thrown under a bus, and it's taken us this long to see the true extent of the damage.

 

He says none of it, meeting the Admiral's gaze over the rim of his glass and giving him a cool nod. Well played. The clues were there and I should have put them together. I thought we'd have more time before you acted. Very well played indeed, Admiral. But it changes nothing. I won't let you take her.

 

"Excuse me," he says, sliding past Callista to place his empty glass on the bar. "I'll be back in a second, I'm going to see where Cecelia went. She vanished a while back."

 

"Oh- alright then. Come back soon, won't you?" Callista is rattled, he can tell, but it isn't something he is prepared to deal with without a moment alone first. They haven't lost. They can't have lost, not when they were so close-

 

At first glance there doesn't seem to be anybody in the kitchen, until he notices the half-open pantry door. Lydia wouldn't allow that. Someone else might, though, and however much he wanted a moment alone... Well, Cecelia is hardly obtrusive.

 

He finds her curled up in the pantry, head on her knees and back resting against the spice shelf.

 

"Cecelia? Are you alright?" She lifts her head and eyes him blearily; for a moment he wonders if she knows who he is. "Do you want me to get you water? You'll regret it if you don't rehydrate, you know that. Come out, everyone else is in the shop."

 

She lets him pull her out and stands by the pantry door hugging herself as he fetches them both glasses of water. But she isn't swaying on her feet; the hand that takes a glass from him is perfectly steady. Corvo peers at her slightly bloodshot eyes and decides they're not alcohol induced after all. "Not sleeping well?"

 

"I can't." She scrubs at her eyes with the back of a hand, spilling water on the kitchen floor. "I'm scared I won't wake up again."

 

"What?"

 

"I'm not stupid; I'd be the first to go if Havelock started culling the staff."

 

Corvo gestures to a couple of chairs by the large kitchen table and they both sit down. "You're worried about him firing you?"

 

"I'm worried about the guns I found while I was cleaning his room."

 

First Callista, and now Cecelia; Corvo has to wonder at how poorly Havelock is hiding the things. Does Lydia know too? Wallace? Unless Pendleton has guns of his own? No doubt Martin does. "It's probably just a precaution. The gangs are getting bolder these days. We're getting different ones coming in, sooner or later there'll be problems-"

 

Cecelia slams her empty glass down on the table. Corvo jerks back; Cecelia never does anything in anger, never shouts at people when she's frustrated, and certainly never slams things. Except that it seems she does. When she meets Corvo's eyes again, her expression is accusing. "Why does Pendleton look like he's crying all the time? Why can't they find his brothers? I heard Martin congratulate him about inheriting the family property, but he can't if his brothers are just vanished. Only they're not, are they? They're dead."

 

"They found his brothers, you must have missed him saying so-"

 

"You're being sent off to parties in fancy clothes, only nobody will tell me why, and you come back at all hours and look like you're sleeping about as much as me. I'm scared, Corvo. The Admiral is really, really happy, and all I can think is that something terrible is going to happen to all of us, and it'll happen to me first. I thought it might have happened to you when you didn't come back last night. What with the guns, I didn't know what else to think." She fiddles with the empty glass in front of her, pushing it around with fingers that tremble. "You know, Ms- Delilah asked me if I was alright a few days ago when I brought her coffee, and I just sat down in the middle of her studio and cried. It was terrifying."

 

Corvo reaches over to rest a hand on her shoulder. This is another thing he should have expected. Cecelia sees everything, knows everything, and it's only surprising that it took her this long to snap under the strain of Havelock's ill-kept secrets. How much is she aware of, exactly? What else is she aware of?

 

With a guilty lurch in his stomach, Corvo realises he never asked her how she was coping with Jessamine's death. The Watch lurked around the Hound Pits for weeks even after arresting Corvo, and things had barely got back to normal before Havelock had to go and start scheming. When was the last time she felt safe her in bed?

 

"I couldn't tell her why," Cecelia continues. "She said I should come and stay at the Manor for a few days to clear my head up. She says there's something wrong with this place, she can feel it."

 

"That might not be such a bad idea."

 

"I think I'm going to do it. I don't want to spend another night in this place, not with those guns under the same roof. Even if it is all in my head. I have some coin saved, I'll get a taxi. I don't think she'll mind. Do you think she'll mind?"

 

"I think," Corvo says slowly, "that she invited you to stay for a reason. You're not imposing. Go out the back; I'll tell anyone who asks that you're not feeling well. Though I don't think Lydia would object to you taking some time off, you work as hard as any of us."

 

"Maybe Delilah will teach me to paint," Cecelia says with a weak smile. "And she has the most wonderful rose garden. I asked, and she says it's because she feeds them the decomposing corpses of all the men who try to stand in her way."

 

"Lovely."

                                                                                 

"They're very pretty roses." She slides off her chair and takes their glasses over to the dishwasher. From out in the shop comes a raucous burst of laughter; mostly Pendleton by the sound of it, though he makes out Samuel's chuckle underneath it. Hopefully Emily enjoyed her story. She may not get another. He should probably go back out and join the group, fake a smile and try to communicate to Callista without words that their plan may still work.  The adoption isn't official yet, and if Geoff can track down a family member first they might have a chance. May. Might. So much he can't be sure of.

 

"Corvo." Cecelia stands in the doorway to the stairwell, wringing her hands. "I don't mean to be... Well, I was just wondering if you could go too. The- the person you were with last night, would he mind? Would he look after you if you needed help? Only, I don't like to think of you still here. Or anyone for that matter."

 

"Callista and I are leaving," Corvo tells her. It's a relief to say it out loud, as if his nebulous plan is somehow solidified by the simple act of putting it into words. "Soon," he adds, and Cecelia nods with open relief.

 

"I'm glad. Goodbye." She turns and vanishes into the dark stairwell.

 

Corvo returns briefly to the party, though it seems a pointless chore when at least half the people in the room are well aware his smile is faked. He doesn't mean to replace his drink, but Pendleton passes him a small glass of brandy with an odd expression, and stares unblinkingly until Corvo takes his first sip. It's the King Street, of course. Lydia shouldn't have bothered trying to hide it, not with Pendleton around. The man has an unerring talent for spotting the highest quality alcohol; maybe his only one.

 

"Thanks," Corvo says awkwardly, but Pendleton shrugs it off. His eyes are bleary, focussed on something just over Corvo's shoulder.

 

"Do not trouble yourself, it was no bother at all. After everything you did for me...well, no need for thanks. None at all. Wallace, why is my glass...where is it?"

 

Wallace steps in to do some damage control, and Corvo finds Martin at his elbow. He tries not to flinch back, but it takes an effort. Martin has that effect, seemingly without actually trying.

 

"Corvo, sorry to trouble you. I don't suppose I could borrow your cellphone? Mine just died, and I have some business that requires urgent seeing to. If you don't mind?" It's an odd request, but Corvo would agree to much odder if it would grant him a swift reprieve from Martin's company. He digs the phone out and hands it over without protest. Martin inclines his head in thanks. "Kind of you. I can't be sure how long it'll take, you might have gone to bed before I'm done. You should do that soon, don't you think? You're looking a little under the weather. Overstressed. Keep an eye on that, it'd be a shame if stress got the better of you."


"I'm fine," Corvo says, and Martin shrugs.

 

"Well, I'm sure you know best. Finish that drink, it might help a bit. Tell you what, if you're asleep I'll leave your phone in your room somewhere when I'm finished with it."

 

Stay away from me when I'm sleeping, you slimy bastard, Corvo thinks, but his tongue feels leaden and the words won't come out. He settles for a noncommittal sound and takes another sip of his drink to hide any disgust that might seep through.

 

Martin does have a point. He feels exhausted, the combined weight of all his various worries weighing his limbs down. An early night is probably best, especially if he means to go through with Callista's plan tomorrow. No point in sticking around. Just the thought of having to climb the stairs to his attic room is intimidating, but he doesn't fancy going to sleep in the shop.

 

Corvo ducks behind the counter and guiltily tips the remaining three-quarters of his brandy down the sink while nobody is watching. He can only imagine what Lydia would have to say about the waste, but there is no helping it. Maybe if everything goes well and he finds himself back on stage, earning decent money, he'll buy her a bottle of the stuff. Until then what she doesn't know won't hurt her.

 

Callista follows him from the room when he announces he's going to bed, hissing a relieved, "Oh good, so am I" in his ear. She waits until they're on the second floor (and the steps are so difficult; they shouldn't be, Corvo knows he shouldn't be more than tipsy, but somehow he struggles anyway) before letting her panic slip out.

 

"Corvo, what are we going to do? If the Admiral takes Emily away-"

 

"He won't," Corvo interrupts. "We stick to the plan. Tomorrow we'll sneak out the back and hide with your Uncle. After that..." He tries to come up with something reassuring, but it feels like wading through the Wrenhaven's swampy shallows. He can't seem to focus. "We'll discuss it then," he settles for. At least Callista seems somewhat convinced, though worry lingers in her eyes and the set of her mouth.

 

"Yes, I suppose that's best. I'll make sure Emily's ready to leave, I promise. We'll both be ready."

 

Corvo bids her good night. At least, he thinks he does; he can't seem to remember. He stumbles up the third floor steps and almost trips on a section of uneven carpet, grabbing the banister for support. This isn't normal. This isn't right. He only had two drinks, he's sure of it...but his memory is shockingly unreliable all of a sudden. Maybe it was more.

 

The last few steps to his room are the worst. His legs obey only sporadically, and his vision blurs as he fumbles for the doorknob. When he reaches the bed, Corvo collapses directly onto the blankets. Undressing can wait. There are more important things. He needs to sleep, so he can wake early and make sure Emily and Callista are ready to go. They'll flee while the Admiral is still sleeping. It will be a simple matter, and everything will improve after that. His life. Emily's. So many things will be better, if he can just...

 

He wakes to sunlight, a pounding headache, and the acrid, choking smell of smoke.

Chapter Text

Corvo sits up in bed and looks around his room in confusion. Grey morning light, weaker than usual; it's earlier than it should be, and he reaches for his phone only to remember that he doesn't have it- except that he does. Corvo scowls down at the screen, but it's only partly irritation at the thought of Martin creeping into his room as he slept. The rest is a reaction to the thumping, pounding pain in the back of his head. This isn't a hangover. He's had plenty of those before, as is fitting for anyone frequenting the theatre district, and this is different.

 

Corvo rubs at his head and considers tugging the blankets back over himself and going to sleep for a few more hours. He doesn't have to be up this early and he'll regret it later if he has a shift as barkeeper in the evening. But the smell of smoke is back and he can't be sure if it's wafting in through the open window or coming from somewhere downstairs. Surely not. If he can smell it in the attic, someone would have noticed by now. The people on the second floor at least.

 

Standing causes the room to spin around him for a second before settling. Corvo grits his teeth and digs around for clean clothing, dressing hurriedly when the smell does not dissipate after he closes the window. His headache fades remarkably quickly, almost gone entirely by the time he's dressed and ready to investigate.

 

The Hound Pits is silent when he opens the door; this in itself is not unusual, but Corvo peers over the banister and sees...a fog, a haze of grey on the ground floor landing down below. Suddenly the situation is a lot more urgent. He runs to find Emily.

 

Her room is empty; Corvo stares around the cramped space in a panic before common sense sets in. Of course she isn't here. She'd be the first person evacuated in case of emergency, even if whoever was sent to fetch her didn't have time to run the extra two flights of stairs to wake Corvo. She'll be safe. Others might not be so lucky.

 

Corvo makes for Callista's workroom. It's closer than her bedroom and she could easily be in either. The usual incomprehensible mess of pattern samples and fabrics scatters the long tables along two of the walls. Callista herself isn't present, but Corvo pauses before leaving, eyes lingering on the uncovered sewing machine. Callista is never so careless with her equipment; she's very aware that she can't afford to replace anything, and that awareness makes her paranoid. So she must have been here and run for it, except-

 

There is a crumpled piece of brown paper sitting in front of the machine, and that's odd. A pattern, but Callista is as careful with her patterns as she is with her pins. They all have to be impeccably folded when she isn't using them, tucked away in their individual envelopes. Corvo moves to the desk, grabbing the pattern and quickly smoothing it out.

 

There are markings on it, scribbled untidily in what looks like blue tailor's chalk. He squints and the marking become letters.

 

Taking us to Pndltn Manr call Geoff. H gone 2 Kingsprrw isl w P to see M. help us

 

Corvo curls his hand around the paper, crushing it in his grip, and sprints for the door. "Callista?" he shouts, but there is no reply, and her bedroom door swings open when he pushes it. Nobody there. Depending on when the note was written she could already be at Pendleton Manor, and given that "us" is probably a reference to Emily...

 

Where is the smoke coming from? Did they forget something in the oven before leaving?

 

It quickly becomes clear that something is very wrong. Descending to the ground floor, Corvo is forced to cover his face with a sleeve, choking on the smell of smoke. The air is hazy, heavy, and he steps into it with trepidation. Has nobody called for help yet? Neighbours or people on the street? He no longer believes he'll find anyone else at the Hound Pits. Pendleton tried to have him killed by Shaw and Corvo wouldn't be surprised to hear that his abandonment in what appears to be a burning building was intentional.

 

The kitchen door is closed, but the smoke hangs heaviest around it. Eyes streaming, Corvo holds his breath and steps closer, laying a careful hand to the door. He yanks it back immediately, spluttering in pain. Hot. Stay back, don't try to enter. Alright. He fumbles his way towards the shop instead. The smoke is thick at head height so he hunches and tries to work out which way the door is.

 

Corvo's boot kicks something soft and he pauses.

 

"Hello?" There is no reply, so he nudges the obstruction again. Stiff as a board, but he is increasingly convinced that it's a person. "We have to get out, I don't know how much longer the fire will stay in the kitchen and if the stairs collapse... Wake up, come on! Don't be-" He kneels and shakes their shoulder, but there is no response. His hands come away sticky.

 

"What-" but it's clearer this close to the ground, and Corvo only has to blink his streaming eyes a few times before they focus on the body in front of him.

 

It's Lydia. And collapsing stairs are the least of her concerns right now, or ever again for that matter. Bile rises in his throat and he turns away, a hand clapped over his mouth. No. No, no, no, this isn't happening. But when he turns back she hasn't moved, hasn't turned her head to demand what he thinks he's playing at, crouched on the floor when there's work to be done. For a moment he thinks he might be sick again, but it passes. And Lydia still doesn't wake.

 

Corvo closes her eyelids with a shaking hand, trying not to get it covered in her blood. It's difficult though. There is a bullet hole straight through the middle of her forehead. Corvo has never actually seen one outside of stage makeup, and he would give everything he owns to have been spared the personal experience.

 

Lydia. How could- Why? When you were more loyal to Havelock than all the rest of us put together, why? He has no doubt that this is the Admiral's handiwork. Looks like the guns were put to use at last. Corvo chokes on something close to a sob and gently touches Lydia's shoulder. He should cover her, but the smoke is thickening and he's having to hunch lower to find breathable air. He can't carry her out with him; she's gone stiff and heavy, and he isn't sure which way the exit even is.

 

"Sorry," he mumbles, a rough sound that hurts to expel. There is a part of himself that watches distantly as he stumbles in what he hopes is the direction of the door, marvelling over how very real this dream feels. And it must be a dream. He'll wake soon enough and drag himself down to the kitchen for coffee. Cecelia will be there already, and Lydia will show up soon after. He'll shock her with a hug he won't explain, and then hand her a mug of coffee. She'll shake her head and complain about the way the world went mad while she was in bed with her hangover.

 

A moment later Corvo almost falls over Wallace's body, face-down with blood staining his favourite coat. Shot in the back of the head. Corvo doesn't try to turn him over. He can't bear to touch the man at all, but staggering away only leads to a run-in with one of the tables, sending the chairs upended on it flying. They hit the floor with a clatter, and in the ringing silence afterwards Corvo hears a muffled shout.

 

"...you hear that, Piero? Perhaps if we shout a bit more loudly they will help us? HELLO? YOU UP THERE, ARE YOU DEAF? HAVE YOU TAKEN LEAVE OF YOUR HEARING? WE REQUIRE YOUR ASSISTANCE."

 

"Anton, I do not believe insults are the most effective way of making our situation understood. Perhaps if you were to try a less abrasive approach..."

 

"We may not need their assistance at all! I stand by what I said earlier, there are resources aplenty and with enough time I should be able to devise a sort of daring escape plan. Such odd things they keep down here. Look at this, Piero-"

 

"Anton that is a crossbow. Put it down immediately and call for help like a civilised human being!"

 

"Oh, very well, if you insist. I APOLOGISE FOR MY LESS THAN COURTEOUS PLEAS FOR ASSISTANCE, BUT THE SITUATION IS BECOMING RATHER DIRE. WE ARE TRAPPED IN THE BASEMENT. IS THERE ANYONE UP THERE? CAN YOU GET US OUT?"

 

Coughing, Corvo kneels and presses his cheek to the floorboards. His first attempt at shouting comes out as a croak. He clears his throat and tries again. "Sokolov? Piero? It's Corvo, can you hear me?"

 

"Ah, Corvo! A timely arrival, as ever!" Sokolov's voice filters up through the floorboards, closer than Corvo would have expected. He must be standing on something. "We were locked down here some time ago, and the smell of smoke is becoming increasingly strong. I suspect things will soon become very uncomfortable for us both if you cannot unlock this door."

 

"It could be worse," Piero remarks loudly. "We could be dead. Treavor Pendleton pointed a gun at my head and threatened to shoot me!"

 

"As if the coward could have actually gone through with it. No, Piero, your brain was never in danger, and for that I am thankful. The things we could accomplish together-"

 

"They shot two people up here," Corvo says. Maybe it's the tone of his voice, or the two men suddenly becoming very aware of how close they came to a similar fate, but the conversation dies down immediately. He's glad of the silence that follows, though it leaves him alone with the smoke and the bodies. Silence is better than casual flippancy. He clears his throat again and asks, "Any idea where they put the key?"

 

"I'm afraid not," Sokolov replies. "They may have taken it with them, which would be a disaster for us both. I can only hope this is not the case."

 

"Agreed," Piero says.

 

Corvo feels his heart sinking. There are several keys to the basement, and chances are it was Havelock's that was used to lock Piero and Sokolov in. If it was, and the Admiral forgot about the copies... No way to reach the one in the kitchen, but he knows of a third and it may well lie only a few metres away.

"Lydia had a copy," he says. "She always kept it on her with the rest, I'll see if I can- if I can find it on her."

 

"Oh dear," he hears Piero say quietly through the floorboards. "I had so hoped those sounds we heard were not gunshots. It's a bitter thing indeed, to find one's worst fears validated. Oh dear."

 

Lydia's keys are where she always keeps them (kept, there will never again be a present tense for this woman and the thought tears bloody chunks from his heart because she deserved so much better), on a ring attached to one of her belt loops. Corvo pries them loose, apologising under his breath half the time and coughing the rest. Keys in hand, he finds his way back to the stairwell and then the back storeroom that leads to the basement.

 

Sokolov is waiting on the other side of the locked door, pounding on it as if he believes Corvo might forget him if he isn't reminded. Wiping his stinging eyes with a sleeve, Corvo forces a random key into the keyhole. It takes him several tries to find the right one, and then the door is swinging open to reveal Piero and Sokolov's relieved faces.

 

"Bless you, Corvo," Sokolov says, attempting to wring his hand until Corvo shoves him towards the exit. "I won't soon forget this heroic rescue, not when you saved us from a potentially very painful death. Pendleton's bullets would have been preferable, but the man has all the backbone of a jellyfish, which is to say none at all. Do you know, he fired two shots into the wall and then left us to our fate? We heard him informing Havelock that we were 'taken care of'. I suppose I should be grateful for the man's ineptitude."

 

They exit through the back door, fighting heavy smoke the whole way and almost collapsing in the fresh outdoor air. Alive, thank the stars. Some of them are, at least. Corvo spares a last look down the corridor to the shop before closing the back door firmly. Lydia was dead when he found her. Risking his neck to retrieve her corpse would have been insanity, and she wouldn't have thanked him for it. Lydia has always been one of the most practical people he knows. And Wallace, who was never anything less than loyal to Pendleton-

 

"Does anyone know what we should be doing now?" Piero asks at last. Corvo stares at him blankly until Anton clears his throat and begins digging around in the pockets of his coat.

"The appropriate authorities must be alerted before the fire spreads and destroys half the neighbourhood. The houses around here are old, there is an uncomfortable amount of wood that would no doubt burn very easily. And I suspect we are all in need of medical attention. The dangers of smoke inhalation, you know."

 

"No," Corvo says dully. "I have to be somewhere. I don't know what I'll do when I get there, but I expect I'll come up with something. If the Watch arrive, will you tell them they'll find Lydia and Wallace in the shop? No point in hurrying though, they're past any help we can give them." He's numb inside, empty where he should be aching. Something to do with the shock, or maybe it's because he knows the story isn't quite over yet. There will be time for crippling grief later.

 

Piero reaches over to pat him awkwardly on the arm, a gesture he'd clearly rather not make but suspects is expected of him. "I was very fond of Lydia," he says stiffly. "Though I think she in turn found me rather...odd. People tend to. But she had the decency to keep it hidden, and she always asked me how my various projects were going. She did that this morning, you know. When I came to test the new rat trap I made. She let us into the basement and left, and Pendleton came down several minutes later to lock us in. And then of course we heard th- the gunshots. Poor woman."

 

At his side, Sokolov curses loudly and gives his cellphone a shake. "Dead. Damn and blast. And I could have sworn I charged it only yesterday-"

 

As if on cue, Corvo feels his phone begin to buzz. He digs it out of his pocket and sees Geoff Curnow on the screen.

 

"Curnow?" he says before the other man can get a word in. "I don't know how you time these things, but we need help-"

 

"By all that's holy, am I glad to hear your voice," Curnow interrupts urgently. "Stay where you are, I just received your message and I'm coming over immediately. Don't do anything stupid, you hear me? You have your entire life ahead of you, and there is still a chance that we can save Emily, if you'll just wait-"

 

"What are you talking about, what message?"

 

"The message you sent me! The suicide note!" On the other end of the line Curnow sounds out of breath; in the background Corvo makes out vehicles honking, and Curnow turning away from his phone to shout, "Important Watch business, I'm in a hurry here!"

 

It must be the poor call quality. That, or his brain is refusing to function under all the strain he has inflicted upon it, because he could have sworn Curnow just said something about a suicide note. "Are you still there?" he asks, and hears a grunt from the other end of the line. "I didn't send any suicide note, I don't know what you're talking about. But the Hound Pits is on fire and we- there are two people dead. We might need an ambulance too, I don't know, Piero and Sokolov were down in the basement for hours- it's all coming apart, I don't know what to do."

 

"Slow down, Corvo," Curnow snaps. "Just- what exactly am I dealing with here? Someone pretended to be you and sent me a fake suicide note? It says you plan to burn the Hound Pits down, don't tell me you actually-"

 

Martin. You snake. "Martin had my phone last night, I don't know what he did with it. I woke up when I smelt smoke, and they locked Piero and Sokolov in the basement. They shot Lydia and Wallace. Curnow, we need help, they've taken Emily." It's only now that he remembers Callista's scribbled note and pulls it out of his pocket. "Callista left me a message, she says she and Emily were taken to Pendleton Manor, and the others were going to meet Martin at Kingsparrow island. Whatever they have planned there can't be good. With those three it never is."

 

He hears Curnow cursing on the other end of the phone. "I'm not equipped for this, damn it all. Sounds like we have a situation on our hands, I'll have to call in backup. You said Callista was safe?"

 

"As far as I know." I didn't stumble over her body. And they'd have needed someone to keep Emily calm- please don't let her have been present for the shootings. Please. She's just a child, she's been through enough. He runs through names in his head, trying to account for everyone. If Cecelia is at the Brigmore Manor (and she must be, she said she was leaving. Don't let them drag a third body from the building) then that just leaves Samuel. Was he in on the plan? Havelock made sure he was out of the room before announcing his adoption of Emily, and it's possible Samuel never had anything to do with this. Then again, they'd have needed someone to transport Emily and Callista to Pendleton's family home.

 

"Alright, I'm getting several squads together. One will meet you at Distillery Dock, you can go with them to the island. Might need you on hand; sometimes a familiar face can make all the difference in defusing a situation, especially if Havelock is armed. And I've got another squad headed for the Hound Pits, along with firemen and an ambulance. Tell...whoever is with you to hold tight. Help is on the way. I'll see you on the island, Corvo, I have to check that Callista is alright."

 

"Thank you," Corvo says fervently. He can't list all the things he is thankful for, but if he tried he would begin with "-for believing me", and "-for thinking while I can't", and "-for not leaving me to do this alone". Against three men his odds of success with...well, anything would have been slim. And this way he's less likely to try something he'll regret later.

 

"Help is on the way," he says to Sokolov and Piero. "Go around to the front of the Hound Pits, they'll take care of things from here. I'm sorry."

 

"Good luck with whatever it is you're off to do," Sokolov says. He grabs Piero's arm and starts marching him towards the side alley that'll lead onto the main road. "Come along Piero, no need for alarm. You can continue telling me about that impressive-sounding display you had planned for Faust. Such a shame the performance was cancelled."

 

"I am not alarmed in the slightest, and while I appreciate the concern there is no need for you to project your fear onto me. And don't think you can distract me from that debacle in the basement; I have never been threatened with a crossbow before, it was very unnerving. But I agree, the display would have been impressive indeed. I had planned for..." and they wander out of earshot, apparently oblivious to the tendrils of smoke drifting out through the first floor windows. Or maybe not oblivious; Piero shoots a nervous glance over his shoulder and quickens his pace a bit, tugging Sokolov along with him. In the distance, Corvo can hear the sound of sirens.

 

He shoves his phone back into a pocket along with Callista's note and feels his fingers brush the stiff edges of the Outsider's Mark. It helps somehow. It gets him moving.

 

The Kingsparrow stage-island goes up once a year for Dunwall's Opera on the Open River, a spectacle that runs for a firework-and-confetti-festooned week before vanishing as if it never existed, dismantled and stored in some unknown warehouse until next year. It floats on the Wrenhaven and plays host to the finest in all the Isles (and the acoustics could be better, whatever the travel brochures say, but half the fun is the atmosphere anyway). This year's performance is still a mystery, as ever, but the show itself won't happen for another few months. Right now all there is to see is the island with its skeletal stage structure. Unimpressive, but if that's where Havelock and co. are, then that's where Corvo is going. He doesn't know what for. Maybe the Watch will.

 

He arrives at the Distillery Dock in minutes; it's down the less touristy end of John Clavering Boulevard, and normally used for offloading shipments for the restaurants and coffee shops in the general area. Today the spaces usually occupied by crates are filled with ten or so Watch officers milling about impatiently. Corvo is fairly certain he's served some of them before. Espressos during shift, whiskey after. Seems to be the only thing they drink.

 

"Ready to go?" one of them asks brusquely, and Corvo nods. He follows them to the patrol boats they have tied to the dock and tries to keep his stomach in check as the ground under his feet becomes less stable. They lurch, these boats, and nobody else seems bothered by it. Corvo wraps a hand around the rail and glares in the direction of the Kingsparrow stage-island.

 

He listens in silence as plans are made around him. It's too dangerous for the Watch to just walk into a possibly dangerous situation, and they know Havelock is probably armed. Martin too, maybe. And while the officers carry guns, they are also loath to use them. It's bad press. They want to avoid casualties where possible. And somehow Corvo winds up being the solution to the problem; a familiar face, one Havelock won't feel threatened by. He can go ahead and negotiate terms of surrender while the Watch wait out of sight. No unnecessary bloodshed, and no officer lives risked. Corvo doesn't know why he expected any different.

 

The stage itself isn't on display to the public right now. Smothered in tarpaulin and metal support structures, it has none of the beauty the final product will. But given how far the construction has to go, Corvo had expected to find workers swarming all over it. He'd hoped for them. The company would have been nice, and they might have given him extra backup at the Watch's urging. But the island seems abandoned. Corvo disembarks warily, and before he leaves one of the officers hands him a gun.

 

"Careful, it's loaded," the man says. "Safety's still on though, so you shouldn't accidentally shoot yourself in the foot. It's mostly in case you need it. Ever used one before?"

 

"No," Corvo says, horrified. "I'm an actor, I work in a coffee shop!"

 

"Easy enough to work out, I've taken care of all the tricky bits for you. Flick the safety off, point and shoot. Use both hands, one to support the other, and your finger stays out of the trigger guard until you mean business." If Corvo's blank expression concerns him, he doesn't show it. "We're hoping you won't need it, but if you do we've got you covered. We'll come running. Captain's orders."

 

I can't kill anyone, Corvo thinks, but Lydia's bloody face swims before his eyes for a moment and he tightens his grip around the gun. Maybe he can. He's never tried it before, how would he know? Maybe he'll be good at it. Maybe he'll end up like Daud.

 

He creeps through the supports and wind-buffeted tarpaulin, listening for any sign that he isn't alone here. Callista's note never mentioned a time; could it be that they've arrived too early? What will Havelock do if he approaches only to find the island surrounded by Watchmen?

 

There is a sound up ahead; someone talking. Corvo pushes aside some dangling plastic and approaches more carefully. They're just around the corner, whoever they are, standing on the stage itself. He freezes when the voice rises slightly in volume. It's Havelock. The stage floor creaks as he paces across it restlessly, but his footsteps are the only ones Corvo can make out. Where are Martin and Pendleton? Are they even here? He hesitates in the shadows, and Havelock keeps talking.

 

"Remember when this was just a dream shared by a few angry, desperate men in the back room of a bar? Treavor, the neglected younger son, bullied out of your own home by your brothers; seeking solace at the Hound Pits because nowhere else would have you. Martin. Such a clever man. Did you think I would not notice how sporadic your contributions to our cause became, after you got your precious title? You couldn't even manage to have Corvo killed off properly; Daud was so offended when you approached him to carry the deed out that he actually helped his would-be victim. Not your greatest success, High Overseer. But I suppose it got us what we wanted. Hiram Burrows gone and all his business ventures left right out in the open. Lucky for us he never trusted his subordinates enough to give them any real power. Luck has favoured us for far too long; even getting Corvo out of prison was a simpler matter than we'd expected. I sometimes think some kindly deity has been smoothing our way for us, turning our dreams into reality. Nonsense, of course, and it seems they've abandoned us now."

 

Corvo holds very still and tries to breathe as quietly as possible. It's difficult; rage has replaced the emptiness, simmering inside him and making him twitch, making him grip the gun with new purpose. Does it matter if there are three of them, if he only really wants Havelock dead? For all their involvement, the other two have been overshadowed by their ringleader, and Corvo has had enough. Is it even worth trying to negotiate? Is it worth the risk of waiting? If he is very careful and very quiet, maybe he can get close enough without being noticed that his no-doubt poor aim won't make a difference. They're not expecting him.

 

Corvo steps around another sheet of plastic and finds himself in the wings. Ahead of him he sees the stage, sunlit and decorated by a table and chairs. They look incredibly out of place among the half-built wooden structures and tools scattered all over the place, but the first thing that Corvo's eyes land on is their occupants.

 

Martin and Pendleton are seated on either side, slumped over the table. They each have an empty glass in front of them; Pendleton's is tipped over, Martin's held loosely between unresponsive fingers. Havelock stands off the side, cigarette in hand, and addresses them.

 

"If only we hadn't gotten greedy, and afraid. If only you'd both been a little bolder, a little more inclined to listen. If, if, if. It's all fallen apart. And we could have had so much. If only you hadn't ruined it all. I'm not sure you can still hear me in there, but if so know this: I feel no guilt for what I've done here. You forced my hand. Didn't Campbell teach you anything? Blackmail always comes back to bite you eventually, no matter how clever you think you're being. It was a mistake to think I'd surrender so easily."

 

"Not your only mistake," Corvo says, stepping out onto the stage. "You should have shot me too, if you wanted to be rid of me. Or were Lydia and Wallace too much for your frail conscience?"

 

"Corvo?" Eyes wide with shock, Havelock takes a small step back. "But how is it that you- ah. I see. You didn't finish the drink Pendleton gave you."

 

"So there was something in there? Did you feed the rest to those two?" Corvo gestures at Martin and Pendleton, lifeless in their seats. He keeps an eye on Havelock's face and reaches to touch Pendleton's neck. Clammy, but still warm. If there is a pulse, he can't feel it.

 

Havelock shakes his head slowly. "No, what we gave you was something different. A sleeping drug, so you wouldn't wake before the fire took hold. The smoke would have taken care of the rest. You wouldn't have felt a thing."

 

"I imagine not. So you had Pendleton drug me, and Martin sent a suicide note to Captain Curnow on my behalf. How was that supposed to work? Callista would have told him I was fine, she'd never have accepted suicide as an explanation-"

 

"Ah, but you've been under a great deal of pressure lately, Corvo. What with the revelation of your...activities, all those things you've done to the people responsible for Jessamine's death, it would not be such a stretch to believe that my adoption of Emily might have caused you to snap. The note Martin sent announced your intention to burn the Hound Pits and everyone in it. Had everything gone according to plan, the Watch need never have known that Lydia and Wallace died from anything but the fire. We bundled Callista and little Emily away as quickly as possible. They are ignorant of the situation, but I had planned to fill them in on their narrow escape later. No doubt they would have been very grateful."

 

"And Samuel?" Corvo asks. He tenses, waits for an answer with bated breath. He can't reconcile the ideas of Samuel Beechworth and the shootings at the Hound Pits as a single image. The man is too kind, too gentle. Too fond of his life and his job, of the odd stories he collects and odd people he meets every day. Samuel isn't ambitious and he doesn't want for money. There is nothing Havelock could have offered him to cooperate.

 

"He knew nothing," Havelock confirms. "I kept the old man as far from things as possible. He's sharp, but too trusting by far. Not to mention too fond of you."

 

And of course, you forgot Cecelia entirely, Corvo thinks. He eyes Havelock carefully, but the man doesn't seem to be armed. It would make sense. If he came here to get rid of Pendleton and Martin without attracting attention, gunshots would have been a bad idea. Sound carries over the Wrenhaven. It's the reason they hold the opera here in the first place. He lays his own gun on the table carefully and tilts Pendleton's head back, feeling for a pulse in his neck.

 

"I wouldn't bother," Havelock says casually. "My supplier tells me it's very good stuff. Death guaranteed within half an hour, that sort of thing. What fools they were. They never questioned why I arrived with glasses and a bottle of our finest; just accepted the excuse I gave them and drank themselves to death. Hah! I find I like them better this way."

 

"You're insane." Corvo moves around to the other side of the table and checks Martin's wrist for any signs of life. There's a pulse there, faint and much too slow. It's not too late. Faced with such helplessness from two of the men who have done so much harm, Corvo finds any desire he had for bloodshed seeping away. They're pathetic. Beaten. He doesn't want to see them dead.

 

"I could give her a better life, you know," Havelock tells him. He tosses his cigarette to the ground and steps on it firmly. "I would raise her strong, brave and clever. Nobody would ever make a fool of Emily Kaldwin; I'd teach her to make them all dance to her tune, and she'd never be helpless again. What do you have to offer? You have nothing. Only dreams, and dreams won't feed a child. Let it go, Corvo. It's better this way."

 

Corvo clenches his fists and resists the urge to throw Martin's glass at Havelock. "Really? Leave Emily with the man who caused her mother's murder? Now there's a thought. Did you think I wouldn't work it out? Burrows didn't turn against her on his own, he was pushed in her direction. Someone was feeding him lies about her being a danger, someone actually went so far as to tell him he could kill Jessamine and put the blame on me. He'd never have known I existed otherwise. And he would have left Jessamine alone. That was you, wasn't it? You started all this."

 

"I have no idea what you mean," Havelock says bluntly, and Corvo laughs.

 

"Lies. This is the end, Admiral. Have the decency to tell me the truth, at least."

 

"Are you going to kill me, Corvo? I'm unarmed. I could never have gotten Martin and Pendleton to relax for long enough to drink with me had I made the mistake of bringing weapons. Shoot me now and it's straight back to Coldridge with you." Havelock's eyes are cold, calculating. What would he prefer? He must be aware that Corvo barely knows how to use the weapon he carries; his chances of actually killing Havelock from this distance are slim.

 

Corvo picks up the gun.

 

"I suppose it was only a matter of time," Havelock muses. "You were bound to snap eventually. Well, have it your way Corvo. Shoot me, and resign yourself to a life sentence in the darkest cell they can find for you. Not that you'll last. I'd bet on you doing away with yourself before a year is up. That's the kind of man you are."

 

"You've never known what kind of man I am," Corvo says. He clicks the safety off, his hands perfectly steady, and fires a single shot straight up into the air. The sound echoes off their enclosed space. Like the slam of a cell-room door. "Enjoy your time at Coldridge," he tells a baffled Havelock. "I hope Lydia and Wallace never stop haunting your dreams. They were unarmed too."

 

Running feet ring out behind him. Suddenly the room is swarming with Watchmen, far more than he arrived with. Corvo puts the gun down slowly and lets them see that he isn't a threat, and Havelock isn't armed. Geoff Curnow claps him on the shoulder as he passes and goes to face Havelock, his expression cold.

 

"Farley Havelock, I am arresting you for the murders of Lydia Brooklaine and Wallace Higgins, though I doubt those will be the only crimes we pin on you. Anything you say can and will be used against you, and by the spirits, if you so much as try to resist I will happily use force. Callista is terrified out of her mind and Emily is no better." He watches two of his officers force handcuffs onto Havelock's wrists with satisfaction.

 

Corvo grabs one of the Watchmen nearby and gestures to Pendleton and Martin. "They're still alive, if we get them to a hospital there might be a chance-"

 

"It's already handled, we're going to airlift them. Everything will be taken care of, sir, just stay out of our way and let us do our jobs." The officer moves off to join Curnow.

 

Corvo wanders into the wings and finds a sturdy-looking crate. He drags this back out onto the stage, perching on it with a sigh of relief. He aches everywhere. Even breathing is painful, and he isn't sure how he failed to notice before now. Must have been the smoke. Hopefully the damage isn't permanent; Corvo doesn't know what his role in the Outsider's play will be, but it'll probably require him to speak. Best not to think about it. He watches as paramedics run by with stretchers and remove Martin and Pendleton from the stage as quickly as possible. It might not be too late. Corvo would very much appreciate two fewer deaths to feel guilty about.

 

After a while, Geoff comes over to him. He's tentative about it, uncharacteristically so, and Corvo doesn't need to see the embarrassment on his face to understand. He holds his hands out.

"Go on then. I won't cause any trouble, but with my reputation I'll understand if you want to take precautions."

 

"Corvo, I'm not arresting you. You're a witness, I need to bring you in to question you, but it's just a formality. A few questions, then you can leave."

 

"Funny. That's exactly what they said last time."

 

"I'm serious, it's just to get the facts straight-"

 

"Interesting," says a familiar voice at Corvo's back. "I've never been in prison before. I expect it will be a most educational experience." And then, more warmly, "You find yourself in the strangest of places, Corvo. I barely left you alone for a day."

 

"How did you-" find me, Corvo thinks, but it immediately seems a ridiculous question. How does the Outsider discover anything? He'd guess witchcraft if he wasn't certain the other man would laugh at him. Maybe it's best his sources stay a mystery. "Never mind. I don't want to know."

 

"Oh no," Curnow says. There is recognition on his face, and he actually takes a step back from the Outsider before getting a hold on himself. "You can't come with him, this is a Watch investigation! Two people have been murdered, and two more may die on the way to the hospital. Explaining it to the press is going to be a disaster, even without you here to complicate things. Get off my crime scene right now."

 

"Of course, Captain," the Outsider says silkily. "I assume Coldridge prison is not included in the crime scene? In which case you can have no objection to my accompanying Corvo. We should of course leave immediately, before the media make an appearance and begin publishing unfounded accusations. How unfortunate that would be. The reporters are arriving already; one was kind enough to offer me transport to the island. I must remember to thank her properly." He lays a firm hand on Corvo's shoulder, and some of the tension in Corvo's belly uncoils. It'll be fine. He's not going in alone this time, and the Outsider's presence guarantees that Sokolov will testify in his favour. The only murder that can be laid at his door is Brisby's, and he wouldn't be at all surprised to find the Outsider has a way of reaching Esma Boyle.

 

"Will you stay?" he asks as Curnow grudgingly escorts them both to one of the nearby Watch patrol boats. "They might want to...keep me there for a while, it might be inconvenient-"

 

"They will release you by morning, my dear," the Outsider says. He runs an inquisitive hand over the boat's scuffed seat. "I've never been in one of these, either. You provide me with useful opportunities for research, it's very considerate of you."

 

"Happy to help," Corvo mutters. He keeps his eyes fixed on the Kingsparrow stage as they depart; looking ahead means seeing Coldridge approach, and that is an experience he never wants to repeat. There is still a small part of him that clings to the belief that all is not as it seems, and if he watches closely enough he might see Lydia and Wallace appear on the stage to take their bows. Cecelia too, if she's around. She's always around. Though knowing her, she'd be hiding backstage, and Lydia would have to drag her out in front of the audience.

 

All he sees is Havelock's distant form, marched out in cuffs between two Watchmen. He staggers slightly as they push him into the waiting patrol boat, and for a moment his eyes look across the Wrenhaven water at Corvo. There may be hatred in his expression; Corvo doesn't try to make it out.

 

"It's over, Corvo." He finds the Outsider watching Havelock's arrest with open satisfaction. "Not the legal proceedings, of course, those will take the usual inordinate amount of time to reach a very obvious conclusion. But your part in this story is done. And done well." Now he meets Corvo's eyes. There is something new there, something Corvo can only describe as pride. "It may not seem so, but soon enough you will come to understand that there was no better conclusion to events. Only worse. And that you managed to avoid. You are not to blame for anything that has occurred."

 

Corvo finds his voice somewhere. "Are you saying that because you genuinely want to be comforting, or because you need me to act in your play and a guilt-induced mental breakdown on my part would be counterproductive?"

 

The Outsider sighs and pats his knee gently. "You hold a truly distressing opinion of me, and I have done nothing at all to deserve it."

 

"I doubt that, somehow."

 

The Watch member Geoff tasked with escorting them to Coldridge gives an awkward cough to attract their attention.

"Sorry to interrupt, but we'll be arriving in a few minutes. Fast sailing today, no wind to slow us down or anything. Makes things simpler."

 

"Such scintillating conversation you provide us with, officer," the Outsider says with a touch of cruelty. "If we are making you uncomfortable, you need only say so."

 

It gets very quiet after that. The wind whistles in Corvo's ears, an unpleasant accompaniment to the splash of water hitting their little boat's prow. He stares down at his knees and tries to ignore the rocking, roiling motion of his seat. At his side the Outsider begins to hum quietly. Corvo thinks about asking him to stop, maybe punctuating his request with an elbow to the ribs to make sure he is obeyed, but he changes his mind as Coldridge's walls begin to loom above them. Suddenly the sound is a comfort. It takes considerable effort to keep himself from grabbing the Outsider's arm in a silent plea for him to stay.

 

He is taken to an interview room and gestured tersely inside. Their first problem makes an appearance almost immediately; the officers refuse to allow the Outsider in with him. For a moment Corvo holds his breath, and the Outsider's eyes get terrifyingly dark. Then something in the air snaps and he shrugs in acquiescence.

 

"But you will allow me to observe the interview when it happens, if not from the same room then through that false mirror you have embedded in the wall. I assure you, my presence will cause you far fewer problems than my anger would. The choice is, of course, entirely yours to make."

 

The officers agree, and then Corvo finds himself alone in the interview room. Someone has the decency to bring him a glass of water and a chocolate chip biscuit before the door is closed firmly behind him. He strains his ears and slumps in his seat when he hears the lock click. Trapped. Trapped again, only this time I deserve some of it. Oh, Lydia. I'm so sorry. He should feel for Wallace too, and he does, in a distant way, but the fact is that they were never truly friends. Lydia is different. Was different.

 

He nibbles on the edge of his chocolate biscuit to pass the time, but it's store -bought and stale, probably dug out from the back of a cupboard somewhere. Nothing like what they serve at the coffee shop. Corvo shoves it aside.

 

How long do they intend to leave him sitting here? He has no way of telling the time; there are no clocks on the plain white walls, and one of the officers took his cellphone when they arrived. Just a formality, he mumbled, while his partner said, evidence.

 

Corvo shifts uncomfortably in his seat and catches a whiff of smoke from his clothes. He'd...not kill, never that, but he'd be very grateful for a shower. It only now occurs to him that he is, effectively, homeless. Probably not much of a Hound Pits to return to, and finding an apartment could take weeks. Where will he go? Geoff may still be able to lend a roof to Callista and Emily, but if Corvo is part of an investigation then it would be highly inappropriate to offer him the same.

 

Curnow himself shows up a little while later, looking more frazzled than usual. He has the decency to knock politely at the interview door before coming in, as if Corvo could actually have denied him entrance. He is alone; that, at least, is a blessing.

 

"So," he says, settling down into the second chair opposite Corvo. "I feel I should apologise for the wait, I didn't expect to be quite so long. Have you been looked after? Nobody tried any funny business? I did my best to make it clear you're in no way to blame for this, but you know how people are, especially in the theatre district. Always jumping to wild conclusions."

 

"What happened to Martin and Pendleton?" Corvo asks dully. Less because he cares than to fill in a few of the empty spaces in his head. "Are they- did they-"

 

"Both alive," Curnow says. "They're in a critical condition, we had them airlifted to the nearest hospital. Not sure if they'll make it. Havelock can't actually tell us what he dosed them with, only that it was Tyvian and supplied by a gang member friend of his."

 

"Slackjaw."

 

"Of course it would be. And I was hoping I'd never have to deal with the man again." Curnow scribbles something down in his notepad before setting it aside and steepling his fingers. "Though I'm surprised you've heard of him. Didn't realise the man ever frequented the Hound Pits, he has a different taste in watering holes. But you seem very sure of his involvement."

 

"It's a long story," Corvo mutters. There is something very sharp in Curnow's eyes that he wants to cringe away from. It borders on suspicion, and suddenly his palms feel damp with sweat. There'll be no denying his involvement in Havelock's ventures. He won't even be able to claim ignorance like Callista, because he wasn't ignorant. He assisted. And that makes him at least partly guilty. "I didn't," he begins again, then pauses to clear his throat. "I didn't kill anyone."

 

"I want to believe you," Curnow says. "Corvo, I'm trying to help but I need you to cooperate with my investigation before Havelock's lawyers can skewer you for his crimes. You need to help me, so I can help you. Do you understand?"

 

And Corvo starts to talk. He tells the story poorly, he knows, and Geoff has to carefully interrupt every few minutes to clarify things he forgets, or passes over. He talks about Havelock and the draw of Emily's inheritance, of all the scrimping and saving he and Callista did in the name of rescuing Jessamine's daughter. Then comes the conspiracy, his reluctant involvement in stealing Campbell's blackmail files ("That was you?" Curnow exclaims at this point. "Those files were a godsend, the number of people we nailed for crimes based off the information in Campbell's black book-") and then of course the issue of the Outsider's Mark comes up and he has to backtrack and explain the Outsider's arrival in his life. And it's strange to look back and say that he didn't like the man at first. Here Curnow gives a wry laugh, and tells him that the Outsider is still behind the fake mirror, noting down the Watch's every move and intimidating officers with his very presence. Refusing to leave Coldridge without Corvo, apparently.

 

Things become a lot less friendly once Slackjaw and the Pendleton twins come up, and it only gets worse from there. Curnow's careful sympathy becomes disappointment, then wariness, then finally his expression shuts down entirely as Corvo describes helping Esma Boyle lug Brisby's body onto the yacht with blood on his gloves and fireworks in the background. Corvo finds himself stopping more often, trying to swallow down the nerves that make his voice crack.

 

"I didn't kill him," he repeats, and Curnow shakes his head slowly.

 

"Maybe not. But you were there, and you helped dispose of the body. Did you never think to call the Watch? There were officers swarming that party, and you know I'd have come immediately had you called me. What possessed you to-"

 

"Have you never been afraid, Captain Curnow?" He interrupts because his hands are shaking slightly and the clang of a cell door rings all too loudly in his mind. "Have you never found yourself in a situation where all your choices were terrible, and all you could do was choose the one that did the least harm? If I'd called for help, Esma would have fled and left me to be arrested in her place. You'd have accepted her word over mine. That's how you people work. And if I'd stopped her from killing Brisby? Nobody would have died, that's true, but I think we can both agree that she'd have been happier dead than tucked away somewhere in that monster's basement."

 

"Carry on," Curnow says. Corvo wants to reach across the table and shake him, but he doesn't. Instead he moves on to Hiram Burrows. The talk with Daud, the way he stole Burrows' recordings and bullied Sokolov and Piero into broadcasting them for all to hear. The party, the fire, the desperate phone call to Curnow while the Hound Pits burned in front of him.

 

"And the rest you know. That's it, I've told you everything." A lie, but one told without malicious intent. He passed over a great many things, little things, beautiful things that have no place inside these Coldridge walls. Sleepy meals with his- his family, gossip and laughter and burnt bacon. Cecelia's rose cupcakes, Lydia's anxious smile. Callista advising a gang leader to find shoes that match her ballgown. Where he went after Burrows' arrest. Frail things that he tucks away from Curnow's piercing gaze; it feels as though seeing any of them recorded as part of his testimony would ruin them all. Corvo isn't sure he'd be able to find the right words for them anyway.

 

The shaking in his hands hasn't stopped, any more than the gnawing guilt-terror combination lurking somewhere in his stomach. Confession hasn't helped in the slightest.

 

Geoff stares down at his notepad, tapping it with his pen. "It's all so much larger than I expected," he mutters. "Not quite on the scale of Burrows and his assassin, but still significant. The sheer number of witnesses we will need to track down, the evidence that needs to be gathered for the trial...though of course you will be credited for the assistance you gave with both Burrows and Campbell. You've cleared up a great many unsolved cases and seen some very dangerous people jailed to boot. I'd be prepared to argue that your heart was in the right place, though Havelock did his best to trample all over it. Should be enough to get you off the hook for the things you did do." He taps his notepad one more time, sighing. "But I won't deny that I am disappointed in you, Corvo."

 

Corvo nods. It's all he trusts himself to do. He understands the reaction, shouldn't have expected anything else, but... It's his own fault. He must have failed to fully communicate the various situations he found himself in, the bone-deep terror and confusion, all the times Jessamine's name was invoked to push him into acting. All the times it worked. If he'd just been a bit more convincing, Geoff might have understood.

 

"I need to get my men on the task of tracking down witnesses before we have any more unexpected deaths," Curnow says at last. "I've a list here of people you mentioned in the course of your account of events; I'll need you to look it over and add any extra details and names you can provide. Anyone who might help clear up this damned mess just a little. Little Emily cannot, at least until we track down a suitable guardian, but I believe I have made some progress on that front. Callista is safe, and Anton Sokolov and Piero Joplin have been instructed not to leave the city until their statements are taken."

 

"None of them know very much. Havelock was especially careful to keep Callista in the dark about his schemes, and the other two still don't really know why they were imprisoned in the Hound Pits' basement. They'll be of little use to you."

 

"So I gather." Curnow runs a finger down the list of names in front of him and pauses at one. "What of the other barmaid, Cecelia? You said she seemed remarkably aware of things going on around her; certainly she had the foresight to flee the Hound Pits before all hell broke loose. I would like to think the departure was timed coincidentally, and not because she knew there would soon be murders in her home. Still, I have to say that the timing is a bit suspect."

 

"She wouldn't have left Lydia," Corvo argues. He has enough energy left for one last defense, it seems, if it's made on behalf of a friend. "A...customer she was close to urged her to take a holiday for a while, and she listened because Havelock's guns scared her. I've told you this already."

 

Curnow nods slowly. "You have indeed. But you've neglected to tell me how I can find her. This...Cecelia. Cecelia what, exactly?"

 

"Sorry? I don't understand-"

 

"Her surname. What is it? I imagine there are a great many Cecelias in the city, you'd be making my job a lot easier if you give me her full name. Might save me from having to keep you here longer."

 

Corvo gapes at him wordlessly, and finds he has no answer. And it's a very good question too, something that hasn't ever occurred to him before...

 

He closes his eyes and tries to remember. Callista Curnow. Samuel Beechworth, Lydia Brooklaine, Wallace Higgins, Cecelia...

"I don't know," he says at last. Something bubbles in his throat, laughter with a bite."After everything that's happened, everything we had to endure. All those hours on shift together. I've known her for years, and I never once heard her last name. Did I- How did I not notice? Did I care so little? Did I-" and at this point the laughter spills over and he covers his face with his hands. Hunched in his seat, choking on sobs he can't smother. There is a note of hysteria in there somewhere, in the laughter that still won't stop.

 

Lock me up, he thinks. Lock me up and throw away the key, it's what I deserve. I never saved anyone. I never avenged anyone. I made nothing better, and I don't even know Cecelia's full name. Please, just make it stop.

 

Corvo is distantly aware of the interview room door swinging open, footsteps on the floor and a gentle hand squeezing his shoulder. Someone speaks. "Enough," they say, or something like it, and their voice thunders like waves in a storm. "This has gone on long enough. You will have your witnesses, Curnow, and if you cannot find them without terrorising this man then you are less than half the officer I have been led to believe." The hand moves to the back of Corvo's neck, rubbing slow circles with fingers and thumb. "You will find Cecelia at the old Brigmore Manor in the care of one Miss Copperspoon. I suggest you send only female officers to speak with her, and do not attempt to enter the Manor's grounds uninvited. Delilah has very vicious hounds, and no qualms with regards to setting them loose on unwanted guests. And now you will permit Corvo to leave this place, before you force my hand. I could destroy you with a single phone call, Captain. Your career, your family name, your dreams for the future. All these things are so much less important than Corvo's wellbeing, whatever value you may place on them. Do not test me."

 

Corvo feels the Outsider move to stand at his back, a hand on each of his shoulders, and breathes. It comes a little easier now, though he can hear Curnow trying to argue in the background. He already knows how the encounter will end. Whatever excuses the Watch try to make, however many lies Havelock may fabricate in court, Corvo has an ally to keep his head above water, at least until the play is done. One person believes his story without question.

 

The Outsider tightens his grip slightly. "Everything will be fine, Corvo," he says quietly. "Of this I promise you. After a season of turmoil comes a time of peace, and we have much to do, you and I. If you will trust me."

 

He does.

Chapter Text

They call the Dunwall theatre district the most famous in all the Isles, and of its innumerable entertainment houses the Void is perhaps the most spectacular. Dreams are made on this stage. Its gold-embroidered purple stage curtain is the stuff of legend, and the blue-stained wooden boards have played host to every performer that matters. They're almost sacred, these boards. This is as close as anyone in Dunwall really gets to religion.

 

Right now there are three people seated centre stage in a loose circle, sharing gossip, doughnuts, and a sizeable bottle of vodka between them.

 

"-so the Tower and the Abbey are a mess right now and Uncle Curnow won't let them open to the public until the investigation is over. The Tower was only really running on Boyle funding anyway though, so I suppose it was bound to happen. I pity all the workers. But on the other hand, it's good news for us. We'll get all their customers." Callista takes a dainty sip of vodka and passes it on to Cecelia with a shudder. "Urgh. I'm no longer working at a bar, so I feel no guilt in admitting that straight vodka is probably the worst thing invented since fried hagfish. We should have brought something to mix it with."

 

"It's not so bad," Cecelia says through a mouthful of doughnut. "Better than what the Admiral used to shell out for, anyway. At least it warms you up."

 

"If you're going to complain you can bring your own next time," Corvo says peaceably, taking the offending bottle from Cecelia. She mumbles a protest but surrenders without too much of a fight. "Relax, Callista. You won't have much more time to do so, once costume work gets started."

 

"I'll have to re-measure you, you've put on weight. Thank goodness."

 

"Could you make me some kind of...I don't know, dwarven mail undershirt? Just in case someone tries to stab me during one of my monologues?"

 

The other two groan, and Callista grabs the vodka for another ladylike sip. Corvo shoots a fleeting glance up at the rafters, past the various lights and scenery, and silently apologises. It's done out of habit more than any real sense that he might have caused offense; Jessamine was always happiest when her friends were laughing around her. She'd have understood.

 

"You're not really worried about your safety, are you Corvo?" Cecelia says suddenly. "I don't think there's anyone left to get revenge. And none of it was your fault anyway."

 

Corvo carefully selects a chocolate-iced doughnut from the large box in the middle. "I doubt Martin will see it that way."

 

"He might," Callista objects. "He's had plenty of time in hospital to think things through, and he isn't a stupid man. As for Pendleton... Well, I don't think we need to worry about any threats from that front."

 

"I'll grant you that, I suppose. So you're keeping an eye on Martin? How is he?"

 

Callista just sniffs. "I am not- I wouldn't know. I haven't spoken to him since...well, it never would have worked."

 

"I'm sorry," Corvo tells her, and in a way he is. For a while there she'd seemed happier, a little less reserved. What happened to Martin is at least partly his fault; he doesn't regret that it happened, but Callista deserves to be happy and he took that from her.

 

"No, Corvo. Don't be sorry," she tells him firmly, enunciating every syllable with deliberate care. "He was a bit of a prick. Pass the vodka, please." He does so and thinks, it was probably for the best. Corvo never did get around to telling her about that charged encounter with Daud, and now he won't have to.

 

The Watch still haven't found Daud. He seems to have up and vanished overnight with roughly half the Whalers, leaving little trace of his presence and the Regency Black woefully understaffed. The remaining Whalers are still around and occupying themselves with trying to work out a use for the place. They'll probably keep it as a coffee shop in the end. With the Hound Pits out of the running, they stand to make a killing in coffee orders if they can find a way to rebrand. Though they'll have to step out from under Daud's shadow to do so, and that's easier said than done.

 

Corvo visited a few days back. It took a while before he could bring himself to do so, but the Outsider has decided to change Daud's role in the events of his play, and the man is on Corvo's mind a lot these days. What happened to him? Where did he come from? Why kill all those people and then suddenly stop? It's far too late to ask these questions, but a part of Corvo's brain would not let him drop the issue that easily. A part of him still believed he could go to the Regency Black and find Daud there waiting, leaning on the counter with a scowl and a knife held loosely between his fingers.

 

And for a moment he actually believed it, because the red coat and scowl were certainly present, but the woman who sized him up and jerked her head in greeting wasn't Daud.

 

"He's gone," she told him when he approached the counter. "But I expect you already knew that, didn't you? The black-eyed bastard must have mentioned it at some point, he's not the kind to leave loose ends untied."

 

"Does it matter, if you've taken over?" Corvo asked. Billie Lurk laughed bitterly and gestured at the empty shop around her.

 

"You tell me. I'd have thought the scandal would just drum up more business, but it turns out even Dunwall's people have their limits. I've had idiots tell me they see the ghost of the Empress' murderer in every corner, if you'll believe that kind of bullshit. Looks like rumours have spread now, and you see where it's left us. The only other fully trained employee who stuck around is Thomas, and all he wants to do is feed the birds out in the courtyard. Never seen a more useless lot of morons in my life." She shoved her notebook forward aggressively and jabbed at it with a pen. "So congratulations, you beat us. I hope it was worth it."

 

He ordered an espresso in the end, one he didn't really want and was forced to drink with Billie hovering over him, arms folded and dark eyes furious. Several Whalers came and went while he was there, polishing the empty tables and tilting their masked heads towards the front door. A familiar sort of hopelessness, but Corvo couldn't find any reassurances to give them. In the end he left, one of the Whalers snatching up his empty cup as soon as he rose, and didn't bother with any promise to return. He didn't find what he was looking for, but he slept a bit easier that night, and in the nights that followed. Daud's people won't cause him any trouble.

 

Corvo has thought long and hard about the situation, and lately he finds himself wishing them the best. Them and Daud too, most of the time. It's not forgiveness and never will be, but maybe peace is something a bit better. He has to wonder if Daud will ever forgive himself.

 

He asked Callista and Cecelia about it; by now they're both very aware of the secrets Havelock was keeping from them, and they have the advantage of being removed enough from events to give him more impartial opinions. Callista stands firmly in support of forgiving and forgetting. What you have now is more important than what you've lost, she says. It is done. Let it go.

 

Strangely enough, Cecelia takes a more vengeful approach. It's not something Corvo would have expected of her back at the Hound Pits, but these days she comes to her cleaning job at the Void with the usual grey cap and a different rose tucked behind her ear every time he sees her. She believes in learning, not forgetting. She tells him to be careful who he trusts, because few are worth the risk. But then, she also smiles more brightly, and the fingers clenched around the handle of her broom show flashes of smeared paint she seems disinclined to wash off. There is a new energy to the work she does.

 

The vodka isn't bad and it hits them all around the same time. None of them will ever be raucous, or even loud, but they are perfectly capable of lively, especially once intoxication sets in. The theatre district is never short on gossip.

 

Emily's great aunt was discovered in a Serkonan mansion, completely unaware of the situation. She has since relocated to Gristol for the sake of raising an eight year old with crayon-stained fingers and an uncanny knowledge of various alcoholic spirits and the things they should be mixed with. The woman is a dragon, but she is also a Kaldwin. Emily will be loved. Better still, she'll be within travelling distance. Corvo and Callista have taken to visiting, equipped with Samuel's latest stories. It isn't perfect; Corvo misses her painfully and suspects Callista feels the same. But it's good. He'll settle for that.

 

Piero and Sokolov have formed a partnership of sorts. Nobody is really sure how it happened, or whether or not the rumour that they share Sokolov's townhouse is true.

 

"I saw Piero a few days ago, when he came in to take a look at a few of the blown out bulbs in our lighting rig," Cecelia confesses, leaning forward as though the news is somehow scandalous. Her eyes dart to Callista and then flutter guiltily away. "Sorry I didn't mention. But I thought, since he didn't mention you, that maybe it was alright? Anyway, he looks different. A bit. I'm not sure how, maybe more distracted than usual, like his mind was somewhere else the whole time. He didn't give me any lectures on circuits this time. But he looked...happy, I guess? A bit less beaten than he used to. Guess I should have been paying more attention, if the gossip is anything to go by."

 

Apparently the fire department has been called out to Sokolov's house several times already, the latest because someone let off what appeared to be a multitude of rainbow fireworks indoors. The neighbours complain of explosions and the smell of chemicals wafting over when the wind blows the right way. If Sokolov gives a damn, he isn't saying anything.

 

Piero and Sokolov aren't the only ones benefitting in unexpected ways.

 

"Whatever else people say about her," Callista begins, a little unsteadily, "Lydia Boyle is a- a fine figure of a woman. People still talk about her sister eloping even after the newspapers printed the truth, but she has her eyes fixed on her career. That- that's admirable." Cecelia hums in agreement, and Corvo just shrugs.

 

"Each to their own," he says neutrally, then winces as an elbow digs into his ribs.

 

"Don't start lecturing on taste, Corvo." Cecelia frowns at him; she's started openly disagreeing with things that irritate her recently, and the change is still a novelty. One more small miracle, in a story that is littered with them. "Yours is absolutely dreadful."

 

"I'll assume you are referring to me with that comment," says a voice from the wings, and then the Outsider steps out onto the stage. He raises his eyebrows at their little gathering, the half empty bottle and doughnut crumbs all over the floor. "Are we celebrating something?"

 

"They demolished what's left of the Hound Pits today," Corvo says. He shuffles closer to Callista so the Outsider can join their circle if he wants to. The other man hesitates for a moment before folding himself elegantly into a cross-legged position at Corvo's side.

 

"Then perhaps a brief interlude is forgivable." He plucks the vodka from Corvo's hands and takes a sizeable gulp.

 

"Should you be drinking?" Cecelia asks. "It's not setting a very good example. I mean, you sort of own this place, right?"

 

The Outsider politely passes her the bottle. "Anton Sokolov has made seven different attempts to contact me today. So far. The situation is becoming dire."

 

"But if you'd just meet him once-"

 

"No, Corvo."

 

Corvo shrugs, resigned to losing this discussion yet again. They've had it before and the end result never changes. He shifts uncomfortably on the floorboards; something digs into his thigh. Pulling the offending object out of his pocket, Corvo holds it up to the light and laughs.

 

"Well, would you look at that. It survived. After everything that happened I still haven't managed to lose it." He offers the slightly battered business card to the Outsider. "Apologies for the damage, but you'll be pleased to hear I put it to good use. I even lived long enough to give it back." The Mark still shines oddly, sometimes silver and others rainbow; Corvo finds he no longer cares what it stands for. Rather, he doesn't need anyone else to tell him when he has already decided for himself. Victory, loyalty, hands clean of blood. This is what the Mark has become for him.

 

The Outsider shakes his head. "It was a gift. And I am no seer; I can weave a thousand futures with words, but I can never be certain. The world is full of surprises, as you have shown me. Keep it close. I cannot promise you will never need it again." He smiles. "I also cannot promise that I will remember to have a proper house key made for you any time soon. That one will serve in the meantime."

 

"Did you completely shut out that talk we had about how it would be more appropriate for me to look for an apartment?" Corvo asks, resigned. He can't claim any surprise, not really, and it's not as though he's in a hurry to leave the Outsider's home. Plenty of space; open, unused rooms with excellent acoustics for line rehearsal; a mysterious cat that fades in and out of corporeal existence depending on whether he appears inclined to stuff it with treats. The house is still too large, too lonely, but Corvo likes to think he helps with that a little.

 

"People are going to gossip," he says half-heartedly. Slightly wobbly, Cecelia reaches out to give the Outsider a mostly friendly shove.

 

"Don't let him bully you, Corvo," she says. "He's being bossy and you need to...to not let him be bossy." She sways a bit, blinking down at the blue floor in confusion. "This is dusty. But I know I cleaned it before. Why isn't it clean?"

 

There is a quiet buzz from Callista's phone, and she pulls it out to squint at the screen. "Oh, that's Samuel. I invited him, he said he'd come when he could. And he's bringing..." she narrows her eyes and brings the phone a bit closer to her face, "Pizza, I think. Kind of him. Can someone else tell him where we are, please, I don't think I can punctuate correctly right now." She tosses it to Cecelia, who fumbles the catch and then throws it at Corvo's head and misses, mostly because she's giggling too hard to aim properly.

 

Corvo scoops the phone of from the floor behind him and sends the required message as best as he can, with only a little of the Outsider's assistance. They pause to argue over the necessity of a semi-colon in a text message; inevitably, the Outsider wins.

 

Samuel had better appreciate the effort that took, Corvo thinks, dropping Callista's phone in among the remaining doughnuts and scattered sugar crumbs. It says a lot about her current state that she doesn't protest, and even more about his own that he thought it would be a good idea in the first place.

 

Bidding a decent farewell to the Hound Pits is by far the only reason for this gathering. Looking around, Corvo suspects they won't be addressing the other one. Cecelia is still giggling in silence, her shaking shoulders betraying her. Callista is trying in vain to retrieve her phone.  Now is not the time for serious topics.

 

Havelock's trial is looming in the near future, and they won't be able to ignore that forever. They'll all be called on to give evidence, and Samuel too; even the Outsider's presence may be required, if only to remind Curnow of the promise he made. Amnesty to Corvo for the things he did, in exchange for any assistance the Watch might require in hunting down witnesses. No names were mentioned, but Corvo would put money on their target being Lady Esma Boyle, if it isn't Daud. The extent of the Outsider's reach still doesn't fail to shock him. "Uncanny" doesn't even come close to describing it.

 

A door bangs shut somewhere off stage, and Samuel makes an appearance moments later, his arms laden with pizza boxes. Far too many, but he still hasn't shaken the habit of buying to feed several more people.

 

Callista waves him over with a bleary smile. "Hello, Samuel! Sorry, we seem to have started without you." Her words are slow and measured; whatever her state of intoxication, Callista will never not be the most sensible-sounding person in the room.

 

"Miss Curnow, you've been drinking," Samuel says, handing out pizza boxes. Cecelia manages to knock her own cap off as she takes one, which starts up the giggling again. "And you as well, Cecelia? Didn't realise stage work was so stressful."

 

"Thanks, Samuel." Corvo accepts his share of the pizza boxes with as much grace as he can muster. "Any complaints can be directed to the man in charge. Also currently the man with the alcohol."

 

"A precaution," the Outsider tells him. "To keep it out of your reach."

 

"Seems to me you're not setting the best of examples for your employees," Samuel says mildly. It's not quite a reprimand, but still more of one than anyone else would dare to give. The Outsider doesn't seem to care.

 

"All work and no play makes for a very boring performance in the end, I've found. And it would be remiss of me not to supervise." He hands the vodka over to Samuel, who looks at it regretfully.

 

"Guess we all need the occasional break from our misfortune," he admits, and takes a generous swig.

 

He's not quite right about 'misfortune', but Corvo can't find the words to contradict him, and maybe it's all subjective anyway. He went to watch the pub's demolishing for a while, Callista at his side and Cecelia lurking behind them, her hands clenched at her waist. It should have hurt to see. In a way it did, but not as much as he'd expected. None of them could ever have returned. Maybe now its shadow will stop following them around.

 

"Delilah says the future looks rosy," Cecelia pipes up, giggling at Callista's groan. "She was so serious about it, I didn't dare ruin her moment. And anyway, I guess she's right. Things are better."

 

I'm hopeful, Corvo thinks, looking around their mismatched circle. Callista's face is flushed, but the anxiety is slowly fading from her eyes. Samuel is losing his guilt, Cecelia her fear. The Outsider wanders around with a semi-permanent smirk fixed to his pale face, and Corvo would like to think he's at least partly responsible for that. Or maybe that's just his default work expression. Hard to tell with him.

 

The new play won't open for several months. They're rushed off their feet already, but the work comes easier and his smiles don't feel like masks anymore. Little things; subtle, wonderful things. A stranger wouldn't notice that the tides have turned at last, but they are not strangers. They feel the difference within their ragged little family.

 

Callista takes a neat bite of pizza and covers her mouth as she says, "Speaking of better, does the play have a proper title yet? Because we can't keep calling it 'the play' forever. It needs something..."

 

"Memorable," Cecelia pronounces carefully. "Something that tells you what it's about."

 

"I suggested The Hound Pits Coffee Shop and Cocktail Parlour, but apparently it's not dramatic enough," Corvo says.

 

The Outsider makes a dismissive sound. "Nobody would bother with something so generic," he says. "A little imagination will work wonders for our ticket sales. And there is also the fact that the play itself has nothing to do with a coffee shop."

 

"But that's where you wrote most of it."

 

"Irrelevant to the matter at hand, Miss Curnow."

 

"And they knocked it down anyway," Cecelia points out. "It's demolished. Gone. They'd better clean the mess up, because I won't." She has the bottle of vodka gripped in a stranglehold, until Samuel reaches over and gently takes it from her. It's empty; he lays it aside with a shrug.

 

"Seems to me the place is better off as a pile of rubble we all forget about," he says peaceably. "Give your play its dramatic name, Mister Outsider, sir, and we'll all stand by it proudly."

 

"He already has a name," Corvo tells them. "He's been holding onto it for weeks and trying to make me ask. It's hilarious."

 

"You are a cruel man," the Outsider says. He's spent weeks saying it, every time Corvo refused to cave in and beg to know whatever genius title he finally settled on. Watching him fume in sulky silence has been a wonderful source of entertainment.

 

Guess it is a little cruel, Corvo thinks, though he suspects the pity he feels is made up of very little sincerity and a great deal of vodka. But he would have given in eventually. "Go on then," he says in resignation, and rolls his eyes at Callista's muttered, "finally." As if she hadn't been the one to suggest his game of wilful ignorance in the first place. "We're all dying to know, you might as well say it. What's the mystery play to be called?"

 

To the Outsider's credit, he doesn't leave them waiting long. "It's a matter I'm giving careful consideration to. But I think I may have a preference for..." he meets Corvo's gaze and smiles.

"Dishonored"

 

Curtain call.