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The Boatman, Crossed by Death

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"In the beginning was the Void – "

"But what made the Void?"

"Emily," Corvo murmurs at the same time Samuel says, "Beggin' your pardon, Your Majesty, but that's the kind of question best left to people more learned than I."

"Go ahead, Samuel," prompts Callista.

Samuel takes a long draught of beer and continues, his voice quiet but steady in the listening silence of the Hound Pits. Samuel's way of speaking had sometimes been the only thing keeping Corvo from slitting open his own throat after one of Havelock's missions, and even now, despite the relative peace in Dunwall due in no small part to Sokolov and Peiro's cure, Corvo feels some of the omnipresent tension in his shoulders loosen.

"In the beginning was the Void, and the Void was the beginning," Samuel starts again with practiced gravity. "Time didn't act like it does now, sometimes flying along like it's got somewhere important to be and sometimes freezing to a complete stop like a ship with no wind. The Void wasn't anything, just light and dark and the space in-between.

"Then a stone appeared in its very center, a wee thing that grew and grew until it took the first breath of any living critter. The first critter breathed in the dim light of the Void and exhaled what we call water, and It grew so large that the belly of the Void burst open while Its body unfurled like a tops'l on a maiden voyage. It was the first time that anything existed Outside of the Void."

"If the Void is everything, how can there be something outside of it?"

Curnow laughs behind his pint, Cecelia smiles, and Corvo looks pained as Callista hushes Emily. Samuel goes on with placid determination.

"The Outsider's body was wide and strong, sometimes shaped like the long plains of Pandyssian deserts and sometimes like the bleak mountains of our dear ol' Gristol. The water that flowed out and over It mixed with Its birth fluids and turned into the oceans, deep and fathomless as the Void. If you've never seen a whirlpool, Your Majesty, consider yourself lucky. They're enough to make a man – "

"Or girl?"

" – or girl feel like a tiny speck in the grand scheme o' things. The oceans rocked with the Outsider's breath, making the waves and currents, and the breath that bubbled up from the deep turned into the winds and storms. A heart the size of the moon beat like thunder, pumping the chaos of the Void through its veins as blood that glowed as bright as the sun."

"Ooh," Corvo hears Emily murmur under her breath, and he hides a small smile.

"But after time had started and stopped and started again, the Outsider got restless. It could see the beginning and the end of time, with all its random fits, and nothing ever changed. So It made things change, with all the power that comes from being the spawn of the Void itself, I've no doubt."

"It grew teeth the size of mountains and bit Its own tongue, and the Outsider's blood spattered all over. Looked like the sea was suddenly full of stars, it did, just like the night sky outside your window, Your Majesty. There was so much of it that it overflowed into the sky, and that's why we see a starry river in the night sky, streaming from east to west like the sun."

Emily visibly has to clench her hands into the hem of her dress to keep the questions inside.

"The stars in the ocean grew larger and larger until they took their first breaths and unfurled their big strong bodies on the back of the Outsider like the Outsider did when It was born. The Outsider named these new beasts whales."

"Not leviathans?"

"There be only one true leviathan, Your Majesty, but it seems to me that there isn't much difference between a leviathan and a whale the way we humans look at it. I knew a few whalers in my time who said they were one and the same. You'd best be asking one of them natural philosophers, though, it ain't my place to say what's true and what isn't."

If Emily decides to take Samuel up on that, Corvo vows to ensure that Sokolov and his obsessions will have suddenly urgent business on the farthest side of the castle.

"The stars in the sky didn't grow like the ones in the ocean. They stayed the same, just wee souls of potential far away, happy to wait until their time came, singing to one another to while away all those long years. The whales in the oceans sang back to their brothers and sisters, and this is why whale-song can make even the saltiest sailor cry. It's also why the stars in the sky can guide us on the high seas."

Red, green, and white dominate the town. Red robes trail in the mud churned up under green banners by dancing feet and melting snow, characteristic of the time that humans have taken to calling the Month of Seeds in their attempt to find order in a world too big for them. No wheels are allowed to turn today, which means the mill stands silent and carts remain unused in the stables. The dancers carry their burden on foot through town: a straw doll built on the plunger of a butter churn, held high so that the bright white of the doll's dress and the red of its cloak break through the day's weak sunlight, its ribbons fluttering through the chill air. Other dancers carry sticks woven together with straw to look like a square stood on one point, more ribbons waving in a way that reminds the Outsider of oil on seawater. People line the streets, clapping their hands and laughing as the dancers whirl past, many of them wearing various ornaments and necklaces of woven straw. It smells like mud, fresh bread, human sweat, and the rotting-seaweed-and-salt of the nearby ocean.

None of them notice the young man with black eyes sliding easily through the crowd, just watching as these people dance and laugh and eat and play in the promise of warmer days to come. In many ways, people are very simple in their motives, but it's the other ways that pull the Outsider's attention like a weaver feeling for knots in the thread, even a tiny knot like the one that's tugging him towards the docks.

There's a father and his two sons hard at work, repairing a boat that had run aground of some rocks, with the younger standing nearest to the end of the dock. None of them wear red, green, or white or anything made of woven straw, and the father's shoulders tense up further whenever there's a particularly loud cry from the town revelers. At one point he waves his hand in the shape of a letter 'C' with a line through it, the layman's version of the sign of the Abbey. He doesn't know that the elder of his sons wears a bone charm under his coat, one that gives him a bit of extra physical strength, and he doesn't know that his younger son looks out at the sea like he could touch the horizon if only he sailed far enough. He doesn't know that his elder son is in love with a young woman who keeps a shrine in the barn in the Outsider's name, who scavenges the bones of sea creatures hauled in and slaughtered by the town fishermen, carves them into charms and spills her blood over them (although, to be fair, neither does the elder son).

The father doesn't know that one day, a few years from now, his younger son will fall in love and buy a ring, and then lose the woman to another man of greater wealth. Samuel will turn away from the Abbey for the sea, and he'll toss the ring into its depths because the sea is the only woman he really needs. He'll see amazing and terrible things, and when he's alone and surrounded by nothing but saltwater and the night sky he'll realize just how mortal he is in the face of an infinite Void. He'll collect the stories that would otherwise be forgotten and get washed up on the Void's shores, and in several decades he'll be the one to ferry the most interesting character of all from one place to another. Samuel will cross the in-between spaces, the hidden places in the sea that no one else knows about, and though he'll never wear the Outsider's mark he will be, in his own way, the human that understands the Outsider best.

But for now, Samuel labors under the weight of his father's narrow-minded faith and his elder brother's blind romance, and his dreams of salty spray in his face and a never-ending horizon will have to wait for him at the edge of the Void.

As a distant cheer goes up in the town, the Outsider holds up a hand and breathes out across his palm. A wind picks up from the harbor, gently blowing salt and mist over Samuel as a promise, and tonight, when Samuel takes a lonely walk along the shore to escape the close confines of his father's cottage, he'll find a bone charm half-buried in the sand. He won't know what it does until the middle of a naval battle, when the admiral will make a bad call that leaves his ship cracked in half, the entire crew dead, and Samuel manages to escape with nothing worse than a broken leg and some fractured ribs. Not long after that he won't notice the group of river krusts until it's too late, but though their acid will leave horrific scars, he'll still keep his life and all his limbs.

The Outsider sees the world as it was, as it is, and all the infinite things it could be, but it never hurts to give a little encouragement now and then.

Samuel pauses to take another drink. No one says anything in the brief silence, reluctant to break the mood that an old man with a weather-beaten face could spin.

"More time passed and the Outsider's flesh was worn into new shapes by the oceans. You've seen the caves over in the cliffs outside Dunwall, aye? The big curve of Its skull became an enormous continent, the knobs of Its spine became islands, and the arch of its ribs the barriers of rock that can sink a whole fleet of ships. More time passed and the whales started making their own little'uns, biting their tongues and letting the oily light of their blood drift out into the oceans like the streetlamps that light up Clavering when it gets dark. These were brand-new critters, nothing we've got names for, anyway, but at least the Outsider wasn't bored anymore. It could see billions and billions of new futures and pasts."

"Why do you keep calling him 'it'?"

Samuel shrugs a shoulder. "I always reckoned the Outsider didn't much care one way or the other about that sort of thing, but people get real funny about men and women and what they do. Not all stories have the Outsider wearing a man's breeches, but that sort of thing doesn't always sit well with an audience and these days we're used to having it one way and not the other."

"Oh," says Emily, and Corvo has the terrifying realization that the next few months are going to push the limits of what he, as a man more accustomed to stabbing a problem through the heart than analyzing it, can say to his overly curious royal charge of a girl. He remembers a soft whisper in his mind (she dreams of freedom, and the decks of whaling ships fast after the beasts at sea, but alas, she is a woman) and makes a mental note to talk to Callista as soon as possible.

Corvo notices Curnow frowning a little over his cup, but thankfully the captain remains quiet.

They call themselves witches. An interesting name with an interesting etymology; what matters, however, isn't a word burdened with connotations but that the thing labeled by such a word lives up to the implied potential.

The Outsider doesn't think that's going to be a question this time. Their knotted bundle of potential futures looks like a weaver's absolute nightmare, and his smile has too many teeth.

"So this next generation had the tails of serpents and the teeth of great sharks, and the fins of fish bigger than the biggest ship, just like the whales. And like the whales, who'd made this second generation, it made a third generation, and so on and so on until fins turned into limbs and tails got shorter and disappeared. The youngest critters were so far from the Void, though, that they only had a tiny spark of the Void's light and could only see their own past and present. These were the first humans, and these tiny sparks are why we don't live so long as the whales, even nowadays with all that newfangled technology coming out of the Academy. Losing their fins and tails meant that they had to live on the islands made by the Outsider's bones, close to the oceans and but unable to live in it anymore.

"Then they started getting uppity, as we tend to do, and it wasn't a full age that passed before war came. It started with the weapons that people taught themselves to make and the first whale that died by them. Whether it was for food or jealousy, I don't rightly know, but whatever it is, a whale was killed and its blood lit up the ocean like a City Watch alarm.

"The whales went to the Outsider and demanded justice. The Outsider didn't answer.

"Then another whale died, and the beasts that lived in the darkest depths of the oceans rose up in all manner of teeth and fins and amazing size. The war shook stars from the sky and filled the oceans with bloody corpses and broken dreams."

"Like the plague?" Emily asks softly, and Samuel nods.

"Aye, I reckon so. Like the plague."

The Outsider sits unseen in a rickety chair while Sokolov places the mangled, naked body of a young girl in front of an elaborate shrine, right in the center of a complicated series of sigils chalked on the damp stone floor. Blood mixed with other obscene fluids paints the ruined body in arcane letters from its forehead to the cradle of its bony hips, where the line splits and the symbols continue down each leg to the big toe. Some of the letters are obscured simply because there's no flesh to paint on.

"Test thirty-three," Sokolov mutters to himself as he makes a few notes in his battered journal. "Body half-consumed by hagfish to establish greater sympathetic resonance with aquarian-based entities." Then he tosses the journal to the side and turns back to the body. A language half-forgotten by humanity rolls off his tongue with passable pronunciation, something convoluted and demanding, and the Outsider idly leans his head on a hand as Sokolov's voice rises to a crescendo that echoes off the walls of the waterlogged cellar.

Before the last note has a chance to fade, he strikes a match and ignites the whale oil cupped in a small bowl beside the body. The oil goes up in a blinding flare like a falling star before settling back to a steady burn, and in its light Sokolov takes out an old, old knife he'd stolen off a dead Pandyssian man. He raises it high, and the blade sinks deep into the corpse with a meaty thunk. Sokolov grunts as he saws wetly at the ribs, obviously unused to the ways of human sacrifice, which is rather amusing when one considers how many people have died (and will die) for all his obsessions.

The Outsider is running his fingers along the hull of a warship heading for Morley, and watching a few of his believers down in Karnaca as they carve his name into bones, and letting himself drift in the ethereal crooning of his whales, when Sokolov finally lifts the front of the ribcage away and exposes the corpse's heart and lungs. The blood's already half-congealed, nearly black, but still warm, and he wraps his blunt fingers around the heart to pull it out with the snapping of tendon and artery and places it on the shrine. Rather unprofessional, but then, this is the first time the man's tried this particular trick.

More words from that half-dead language, more scrawling in the ink made of various bodily fluids. An appeal, a command, as though Sokolov has heard that humans are supposed to be humble in the face of their gods but doesn't actually know how to keep up the pretense. The knife is finally plunged into the heart, so hard that the point bites deep into the wood of the shrine, and Sokolov holds his breath for a long, tense moment.

The Outsider sighs and wraps the Void around himself, already knowing exactly how Sokolov will hiss with fury and frustration, go back to desperately scouring the Flooded District for new inspiration, waiting for the day he'll once again hold favor in court and head back to Pandyssia with pockets full of aristocratic gold. He'll trade for information with Pandyssian natives, and kill the ones who refuse him like the subhuman savages the Abbey claims them to be, and desecrate the old shrines and temples in his relentless fascination.

Innovation is inherent in every man's nature, and so, although Sokolov might possess extraordinary talents, he is ultimately no more unique than the long-ago man who figured out how to kill whales with a pointy stick.

"The whales were stronger and had more of the Void in their bodies than a thousand humans, but there were a lot more humans who thought they didn't have much to lose in the first place." Samuel glances at the twilight outside the window. "People like that get reckless, y'know."

Perched on the cliffs of the largest isle at dawn, leaning lazily against a promontory 300 feet above crashing waves, the Outsider watches the people below on the rocky beach pull a newly-made dromon towards the shoreline.

The ship is just over 100 feet long, broad and tall and arrogant in its sheer power. The people pull it over a series of logs laid lengthways in its path, which let it roll smoothly over the sand and the bodies of 81 still-living slaves tied to the logs. As high as the cliff is, the Outsider can still hear the screaming of mortal terror, dire curses, and pleas to gods that won't answer. Some of those pleas are even in his name.

The men and women who pull the ship, who bound the slaves to the logs, are singing a shanty to keep in time and drown out the crying and crushing of bodies under the ship's keel. They wear bone charms and ask the gods for fine weather and good health on the high seas as blood soaks their rough clothes and stains the ship's wood dark. Some of those prayers are even in his name.

The nature of man, the Outsider thinks without judgment one way or the other. He listens to the bone charms silently thrum away in their constant beseeching for a little of his power, and refuses them, just because he can.

All but six of the slaves will die, he can see, and tomorrow the six that don't will wish they had when their masters, thinking the sacrifices had been rejected, push them off a cliff's edge to dash their bodies on the rocks below. Nine days from now, the new ship will be on a voyage towards the continent and end up smashed on the rocks on its shores, perhaps poetically so; unless the men onboard get too drunk and eat up more of their rations than they can afford, in which case they'll all die when they attempt to harpoon the first whale that comes along and the ship will be crushed under the weight of its broad tail and enraged thrashing.

A slave that will be one of the six pushed to their deaths is one of the last tied to the logs, not far from the waterline, where she watches the boat's relentless approach. She doesn't curse or beg or mindlessly scream, but just stares soundlessly at her nearest captors, eyes narrow as a snake's. The hatred is as visible to the Outsider's eyes as the spark of Void-light in her that shines just that little bit brighter than most. A slave since she was eight years old, stolen from a tiny island in the south and considered a curiosity for the vividness of her eyes. Her life wouldn't have been easy even if she hadn't been enslaved, and her death would have arrived seven years ago already, but the Outsider can see from how doggedly she's fought for the most meager scrap of independence that a short life in freedom is better than a longer one in servitude. A human such as she wearing his mark would be –

Predictable, really. But then, so is a ship's crew killing itself with stupidity.

That night, the six slaves that survived the slaughter of seventy-five others are being kept in a wooden cage, close enough to be watched but far enough away from the bonfires that the ocean breezes leave their miserable bodies huddled and shivering with cold. Only the one slave refuses to curl up and hide from the world, gaze fixed so unblinkingly on the silhouettes of her masters around the fires that her eyes are limned with half-frozen tears. She could die tomorrow, bones broken and organs splattered; or she could die in a month, the leader of a guerilla band of escaped slaves wreaking havoc for a short time in the waters surrounding the region; or she could die in two years, when the death of her newborn child also takes her caution and she ends up spitted on an enemy's blade on the already bloodstained deck of her fearsome ship.

The woman twitches back when she sees him standing just out of reach on the other side of the cage, backlit by the bonfires. Hello, Giuliana, the Outsider says in her native tongue, and holds out a hand. After a long moment she reaches back, manacles sliding back on bloodied wrists, and she whispers, Per favore.

She dies a month later, victim to the ambition of her second-in-command that she hadn't noticed in time, but she uses the fire that had become her special favorite of his gifts to make sure she isn't the only one that goes down. Her body and the bodies of her ship and crew, both loyal and mutinous, get swallowed up by the ocean. Some of the charred timber and a few bones that wash ashore are, purely by chance, incorporated into the odd little shrines that have become increasingly more common in this age.

And that's the end of that.

The sun, which had been just visible over the horizon when Samuel started, is now completely set, leaving the pub lit in the yellow glow of lanterns. It softens the edges of shadows like they're in one of Sokolov's paintings, a blue-and-black landscape that would be cold and barren if not for the homely light shining through the window of a distant building.

"In Gristol, before the Overseers started their witch hunts, they said the war lasted for nine days and nights. In Serkonos, they say it lasted seven days and nights, while in Morley they claim there were seven battles between the two sides and that it don't matter how long it took. Tyvians have always liked their numbers and things, so they talk about the two sides fighting in the three worlds of ocean, land, and sky, and getting their violence all over the four directions.

"However long the war lasted and wherever it happened, the ending sure don't change. The Outsider figured that the whales and humans would slaughter each other and return time to its boring state of one future and one past, so It slowly raised Its head and opened Its mouth wide, so wide that Its maw stretched over the world to block out the stars and form the vault of the heavens.

"Whale and human alike were all nine kinds of terrified, so they all pleaded mercy and struck a deal: the whales would have the oceans and the humans would get the land, which had gotten bigger from the number of corpses piled so high they breached the surface of the water. Kinda like what happened in the Flooded District."

Corvo suppresses a shudder, remembering the slime of bodies as he clambered over them, swimming through water thick with putrefaction, hearing people still half-alive crying and cursing the world. It's a miracle he didn't become one of those plague-ravaged corpses, and he suspects it might have something to do with the mark on his hand that's still as dark and defined as it was on the morning he first woke up with it.

They called it unsinkable. The biggest ship ever built, made of more wood and metal and rope than a hundred smaller ships, named for the oldest mountain in the region that had withstood the ravages of time with an iron footing.

And for two voyages, it remained largely untouched. Third time's the charm, laughed the captain. Not even the Outsider himself could sink it, said the helmsman before his compatriots could silence him.

Pieces of the unsinkable ship get washed ashore for some years after the wreck, and the people who live within sight and sound of the sea add the water-polished pieces of wood and rusted nails to their shrines. To puncture the bladder filled with the hot air of hubris, they say, purposefully scraping their fingers over the rusted nails, smearing blood. Of course, a few of these worshipers die from violent muscle spasms later on, but at least their hearts were in the right place. So to speak.

"Since then, the Outsider stretches open Its jaws once a day, blocking out the night sky, as a reminder that one day It'll finally swallow everything back into the Void. The sun will sometimes rise on a blood-red morning, and that's when sailors know they should stay in the pubs and let their ships alone. No sailor learns to swim because, if he falls overboard and drowns, it's the price we pay for the whales we kill. Human blood used to be spilled over the prow of a maiden ship to ask for her safe passage, though now we use good Tyvian wine. Mermaids are the cursed offspring of a human and whale, and if you ever see one, put your stern to it as fast as you can so it can't lure you back to the Void."

"How do humans and whales have babies?"

Samuel immediately deflects to Callista, whose eyes are as wide as a startled deer's. She coughs and her uncle chokes on a laugh. "Well, magic, I would think."

Emily thinks about this and seems to accept it, which makes the adults around her breathe a silent, collective sigh of relief.

During an unusually cold winter in Serkonos, a pregnant woman in servant's livery dreams of a young man with eyes as black as the deepest parts of the ocean. He shows her strange, horrible visions of a man with a scar down one side of his face, sometimes flitting about like a shadow that's never felt or noticed, sometimes killing indiscriminately with terrifyingly cold fury. In one future the scarred man is cold but not cruel and holds back his sword whenever possible, but in another future he's an avenging angel with a blood-soaked blade and a devil's soul.

The woman wakes up to a flood of wetness between her legs and spends the next 36 hours in labor. She gives birth to a son with only a midwife and another servant for company, and, remembering bits and tatters of an unsettling dream, she names the infant after the large birds that seem to hover around graveyards and watch the world with dark, liquid eyes (though not quite so black as the ocean).

The boy grows up in a wealthy household as the lord's bastard, living in an in-between world that isn't quite privileged but isn't quite servile. He wears fine clothes and is taught his maths and letters, but is left to watch the parties attended by the nobility between the posts of the shadowed, second-floor banister. He takes the whippings meant for his half-siblings until he gets old enough to snatch the whip and turn it against the tutors and taskmasters. The lord of the manor and his family pretend he isn't there half the time, and the servants, barring his own mother, don't seem to know quite what to do with him. He's eight years old the first time he wanders into the guards' barracks and nearly gets his head taken off by a sword in the middle of a sparring match.

"The hell're you doing, kid," one of the guards yells, and another aims a kick in his direction, snaps, "Get the fuck outta here."

"Wait, that's the lord's brat, the bastard," says a third.

"Go back in the house with your gold toilet paper or whatever – "

"'Gold toilet paper,' how would that even fucking work, you choffer – "

"Get going, kid," growls the first guard, but the boy stays unflinching in the doorway. There are spots dancing in his eyes from the glint of light off polished steel and worn hilts.

"Teach me."

It's the first time he's spoken to anyone besides his mother in almost a week. The guards laugh.

"Don't be an idiot, bastard, get outta here before you get your pampered little ass whipped."

"Teach me," the boy says again, already self-aware enough to know what the guards are seeing: a short kid with skinny arms and eyes nearly too big for his narrow face, soft hands that have never seen a full day's work, tea-colored skin with a pale cast from too little time spent outside the controlled environment of the manor. What the guards don't see are the thin welts on his back and thighs, the servant girls who come back after dark with their clothes askew muttering bitterly about how they can't afford to lose their positions, the premature aging of his mother who had very quickly learned to stay out of sight of the lord's wife.

He goes to bed that night with the jeering of the guards, who are too afraid to physically harm a noble child, however illegitimate, ringing in his ears. It happens again the next night, and the night after that, until one day the guards start getting bold and leave him with a bruise on his side from the flat of a sword. His ribs throb and he can't help curling forward defensively, but he bites his lip, keeps the startled yelp inside, and refuses to look away from the guard captain. The guard's expression shifts from sneering to considering as he lowers his sword.

"Get this bastard a blade," he suddenly barks. "A dull one, mind, I don't need any of you choffers losing body parts to the brat's stupidity."

As Corvo curls his little hands around a blade for the first time in his life, feeling like he's found a part of himself that'd been missing all this time, no one sees the young man with black eyes in a corner of the barracks fade away in a thin wisp of smoke.

"Since that parley," says Samuel, "people and whales learned how to keep a balance so that the Outsider won't be snapping his jaws shut anytime soon. It used to be that for every whale we killed, we made sure we used every part of it. Some people figured out that if you carve their bones in a particular way you could borrow a little piece of the Outsider's power. We understood that we all had our place in the world."

Corvo shifts on his stool, and the charms he pretends he doesn't have rattle a little against his chest.

"But the word 'understood' here is the key. Some people say it ain't no coincidence that the plague we used to hear whispered about in old stories came to our shores not long after the Abbey of the Everyman and the natural philosophers started meddling. Not that there's anything wrong with meddling, so long as you know what you're getting yourself and the people you love into. 'The Abbey of the Everyman.' Smart bit of propaganda right there in the title, ain't it?" There's little change in his even, relaxed tone, but something tells Corvo that there's weirdly personal history in those words. "Tells even the most wretched man that he's part of something bigger, even if that 'something' is guided by the kind of people who hurt whores in...er, begging your pardon, Your Majesty," Samuel finishes awkwardly.

"That's okay," Emily says kindly. "The whores in the Golden Cat were nice to me even though Madame Prudence got mad at them for it, that witch. One day I'm going to make it a law that people have to be nice to them, too."

She seems entirely unaware of how extraordinary she is when she says things like that, and it's that unconsciously entitled, generous nature that Corvo prays (not to the Outsider, never to him, except when he does) so hard won't end up as the invisible victim of politics and cynicism. She still has nightmares about her mother's death, Corvo's alleged execution, the Loyalists' betrayal, Lydia and Wallace's deaths – but gods (Outsider), she'd come out the other side with more strength than Corvo had ever had. Jessamine, if only you could see your daughter.

"Remarkable, isn't she?" a smooth voice murmurs into Corvo's ear, and it takes a lifetime of training to keep himself from leaping up and spinning around with his sword drawn. "An empress with whores for friends."

"Why are you here?" Corvo asks under his breath. He's already sitting a small distance from the others, half in shadow, and he automatically leans a little farther back so the others won't turn around by chance and see him talking to someone that isn't there.

"I know all the stories. I know all the beginnings, and all the endings. But it's the telling of them that changes, and Samuel knows far more than he thinks he does."

The mark on Corvo's hand feels chilled as though someone had drawn over the lines with seawater. The Outsider's voice comes from just behind his left shoulder, but he knows that if he tilts back on his stool he won't touch anything but empty space. "Do you talk to him, too? Like you do Piero?"

"I have no need to do so when he already knows the tides of my blood and the shores of my bones almost as well as I do."

Corvo imagines the flesh of dead whales and humans beneath his feet, and the blue sky of a mouth that blocks out the stars every day, and shivers.

"I know your story quite well, my dear Corvo. I know about the times you were a child and waited until you were alone to cry over the injustices you saw around you, and I know that the tears stopped the first time you held a sword. I know that the only other time you've cried since then, even when your father gave you up as a diplomatic hostage and you knew it was just to be rid of you, was when your empress was murdered and you spent that first night in your cold, damp prison cell, knowing deep in your broken bones it was only going to get worse and that you were going to die for it. I know that your character in your own story is one that only exists when it can reflect the light of another."

Corvo doesn't say anything.

"If I wanted to, I could fill you with my own light so completely that you'd be blinded to any other."

"But you won't," Corvo manages when he gets his jaw to loosen again.

"No?"

"No, because if you did, then whatever it is you find so interesting about me would be gone."

Silence, then a soft laugh. "I do hope that there are parts of you that never change, Corvo."

Corvo's willing to bet that that isn't something the Outsider says very often.

The first time she catches his attention, it's not because she's asking for it. Countless people over thousands of years have called, cried, begged, screamed for him, but this young woman, unmarried and unlikely to be anything other than the makeshift teacher of ragged children in poor streets, is looking for something very different than power or vengeance.

Where and when was our species born? she asks. What are stars made of? What shape is the world? Do whales really have a consciousness? Why do good people die in the gutter and bad people find wealth and power?

This young woman holds her class in the ruined cellar of a condemned tenement building, wrangling a group of scruffy, filthy children into some semblance of order to teach them their maths and letters. Many of the children are too malnourished, downtrodden, or traumatized to hope for a future more glorious than working the docks or factories or streets, but the woman is determined that they'll at least be able to catch when their paychecks have been skimmed and to read the letters that come from more powerful people accusing them of terrible untruths. These days, civil war is fought in writing and greased palms.

The difference she'll make overall is negligible, but the stubborn idealism tied in such a way to her cynicism is enough to twang a strand of the Outsider's immeasurable web. Her thin hair is tied back with a faded ribbon, her clothes worn but clean, and though her stillborn child has been dead and buried for the past six months it has left its mark in the lines around her mouth and the weakness that still clings to her body. The father left after he decided he didn't want a woman who seemed incapable of giving him a son. Now she's made a family out of the orphans and half-unwanted urchins that crowd the cellar and look at her with the kind of desperate hope that simultaneously cracks and strengthens her heart.

The first night he visits her, he tells her that one of her students will die at sea, one at the hands of the Bottle Street gang and one at the hands of the City Watch, and a fourth under the knife of a man who doesn't think the sex was worth the money he paid. This is the price of knowledge, he says, and she starts to cry before gritting her teeth and forcing herself to stand up straight under the weight.

The second night, he shows her a falling star, which is a soul that lost hope and stopped singing with its brethren.

The third night, the Outsider crafts her a copy of her heart from forgotten wishes and the rusted nails from old shipwrecks. She takes it with shaking hands, and he gifts her with a smile.

The fourth night, he shows her how a whole civilization was lost to sea and time, then buried under the cobbled streets of Dunwall. Maybe this is why, when one of her youngest students brings her an odd carving made of three pieces of bone that he found near the shipping yard, she accepts it reverently instead of throwing it away. It will be the first step to her downfall.

There is a young man with eyes as black as the ocean without a moon, she tells the children, black as the eyes of the whales that they string up outside the slaughterhouses. He'll show you wonderful things, and things you wish you'd never known, but they will always be the truth. And truth is the most valuable, and most dangerous, thing in the world. People have died to hide the truth and people have killed themselves when they discovered it.

One day, one of her older students carves a tiny whale from a piece of wood nicked from his father's carpentry shop. She doesn't know about it, but the Outsider hears it when the young man takes to talking to it, whispering late at night under his threadbare covers. Today I saw Missy's knickers when I looked down the alley and she had her legs wrapped around Thomas' hips. I overheard Dad telling Mum that the Overseers came to the shop and confiscated some stuff, and now Mum looks terrified. I want to be a sailor, but everyone knows you are what your parents are and Dad says it's time I spent more time in the shop. A thousand little slices of life cut deep into that tiny wooden whale. When the young man dies, ten months from now, it'll be the most interesting thing he leaves behind.

The teacher also doesn't know that one of her other students, in a different future, would've found a place in the Oracular Order, but she gets a good idea of it when the little girl's eyes roll back her head and her child's body collapses to the street, convulsing. It's been three months since the Outsider first appeared to the teacher, and now the little girl is screaming through the foam in her mouth about Void eyes and a blue sky that will swallow the world.

The teacher clings to the copy of her heart when the Overseers come, masks expressionless and the hounds snarling at the end of their leashes, and doesn't fight. She doesn't want to scare the children.

"If people are so terrible, why does the Outsider give them powers?" Emily points out, which is actually something that Corvo himself has wondered.

"I'm not sure any mortal could guess what goes on in the Outsider's mind, Your Majesty," replies Samuel.

"I overheard some Overseers talking about this not so long ago," Curnow chimes in, looking uncomfortable. "They think it's to tempt people into signing away their souls and open them up to all the forces of evil that want to destroy mankind."

"Wouldn't it be more likely it's because he wants to see interesting things happen? I mean, Samuel says he got bored in the beginning, right? I guess he could mark whales instead, but they don't live in cities and stuff like we do."

"Your empress' simple logic is cleverer than the collective learning and paranoia of your Overseers," says the Outsider, neither confirming nor denying anything, and his cool purr spills into Corvo's heart and freezes it. If the Outsider starts to visit Emily –

"Hush, my dear. That isn't something you need fear from me."

Emily asks Samuel about bone charms. She'd been fascinated by the ones Corvo had collected, poking through them while he anxiously hovered and making observations about the way they were carved and how that might relate to their particular powers. If she doesn't one day declare that the Academy has to start admitting women as students with equal status, he'll be honestly shocked.

"They bear my mark," whispers the Outsider, and now Corvo could swear he feels breath against his ear, "just as you do."

But that doesn't seem right; the carvings on the charms are always a little different, and none are like the mark on his hand. The Outsider adds knowingly, "They are all my name, and I have many of them." There's the ghostly touch of fingertips trailing down the back of Corvo's hand. "But only my chosen few wear the one closest to the truth."

"And Samuel isn't one of them?"

"Do you wish him to be?"

"No," Corvo says immediately, more loudly than he'd intended to judge by the odd looks that Curnow and Cecelia give him.

"Is my favor so terrible?"

Yes, but at the same time, no, it isn't terrible at all, that's the worst part, and so Corvo keeps silent. He thinks he can feel the Outsider smile.

"He is a…facilitator, of sorts, the thread that connects two knots rather than a knot himself. He may not wear my mark, Corvo, but that doesn't mean he isn't one of mine. I look forward to seeing which future the two of you will choose before the end."