Anton Sokolov was a sack of brittle old bones wrapped in loose, papery skin, but when he coiled her into a hug, Billie could feel him put all the stubborn strength of his advanced age in it.
"Never thought I'd be seeing you again," Anton said, with a smile more sharp and real than he'd had for anyone in Tyvia since his return. "Nice of you to remember an old man in his twilight years."
Billie would have wanted to protest, 'You'll bury us all, Anton', a chuckle, a smile, anything. When they'd met, she had been Meagan Foster, and he had still been an energetic man, for all his advanced years, with that peculiar robustness that an active life tended to bring some people in old age. His mind hummed along as if on whale oil, and his hands were always busy at their work--writing, sketching, painting, building. Wry smiles, and jokes that could make a sailor blush, and a taste for terrible liquor so potent that Billie could use it to unclog the Dreadful Wale's engine--and had, on at least one occasion.
But Anton returned to Tyvia to die, and there was no pretending otherwise for either of them. Jindosh's caring ministrations had stripped many things from Anton, even if not his brilliant mind. It was hard not to wonder what would have been left of him if Emily hadn't rescued him when she did.
Now Anton had dark circles around his eyes, etched like bruises, never really gone away even in the time since Billie had last seen him. There was still the hum of his brilliant mind, with a bit more rattle and a bit more stuttering, like the Dreadful Wale's engine in her last days, perhaps, but forging ahead regardless.
When Anton turned his attention to the green-eyed boy at Billie's side, any story she had half-formed on the journey to Tyvia fell away. She wasn't sure if she could tell Anton the truth, if she even knew what words to explain it with, but she knew she couldn't lie.
"And who is this?" Anton asked, searching the boy's face.
The Outsider was not looking at Anton--he was more interested in the surroundings, the half-built machinery like mechanical beasts with their guts strewn about--and Billie guessed this was about as much regard as the Outsider had always had for Anton. Oh, Billie knew about Anton's lifelong ambition to meet the Outsider. Anton could be remarkably forthcoming about things that could get him strung up by the Abbey. She also knew the Outsider never showed, no matter Anton's efforts.
"He's... a long story," Billie replied, and only then did the Outsider tear his attention away from the room to look at Billie. His lips were pressed tight to hold back a smile, but it reached his eyes regardless.
A name lost to the ages was no use in the immediate, physical reality, and when Billie called in her last favor with a forger of her acquaintance, Carlisle, the papers that were drawn up had the name Sam Foster on them. The first name, Carlisle's suggestion. The last name, the Outsider's.
They both looked to Billie for approval, and she hummed in acquiescence, and tried to keep her face impassive until she could turn away.
She walked out onto the balcony as the Outsider leaned over Carlisle's shoulder to study the work more closely.
It felt strange, that she had discarded Meagan Foster so easily, and thought that person long gone, as if she had been another one of Billie Lurk's victims, weighed down with stones and pushed into the murky depths to never be found again. But from those black waters, the Outsider emerged with a piece of Meagan anew, recovered and pressed into the yellow-tinted paper of a fake birth certificate.
It stuck pins into her heart her the same way it had to receive the money from Emily, the hefty sum the Empress had sent to 'Meagan Foster' to thank her for her aid in recovering the throne. Despite the fact that their last proper conversation had been Billie's confession. How could you reward your mother's assassin? Billie had wondered.
And then she had carefully kept watch in all of the newspapers for articles about Emily's efforts to rebuild the Empire after Delilah's coup. Emily was right, suffering had a way of twisting people. But it was also like medicine, in that way: too much, and it's bad for you, but a little bit of poison is a curative. Two months scrabbling to survive in Karnaca, and Emily had emerged healed of her complacency.
Billie had spent weeks trying to compose a letter to Emily, trying to find the words that would make Emily take the money back. Meagan Foster was dead, and Billie Lurk was still trying to make up for the suffering of the past; neither one would have wanted Emily's money.
Yet, the weeks passed, and Billie still could not find the words. Too much time passed, and it was like a letter which had gone too long without a reply. Writing now would only bring awkward attention to the length of time elapsed. The last time Billie sat down to try her hand at another draft, she had not even gotten as far as the first line before it turned into a list of chores she still had to do.
The money was spent, eventually. First on the last ditch attempts at repairing the Dreadful Wale, before it became evident that the ship was well and truly done, and then later spread around in her search for Daud, coins stuffed into any pocket that could produce at least a scrap of information about his whereabouts.
Billie turned around, leaning against the balcony railing as she looked into the apartment. In a pool of gilded light, the forger worked, and the Outsider stood behind them, hands gracefully holding onto the backrest of the chair as he leaned over their shoulder.
This was not how the Outsider watched from the Void, she didn't think. The curiosity was entirely too human, and when he reached over Carlisle's shoulder to touch something, he got whapped over the knuckles with a ruler.
"Ink's not dry yet!" Carlisle chided, and the Outsider's face turned insulted as he retracted his hand and rubbed the sting.
He looked at Billie, indignant, Did you see that?, with the weight of four thousand years spent as a deity behind it. Still managed to look like nothing more than a pouting teenager, though, and there was something reassuring in that. There was something human in it. He deserved, if nothing else, just to be human now.
"Don't smear the ink," Billie deadpanned.
The Outsider huffed rebelliously, before turning back to look at Carlisle's work once more.
She took him out of the Void, as promised.
And then she kept him, she supposed. There was no point where she decided this. First she took him away from the Quarry, and then on to Karnaca. It was a string of pragmatic decisions, of immediate necessities--something for him to eat, to drink, a bedroll to sleep on. Less conspicuous clothes, so she traded his soft leather coat for a brown vest and a cap.
He'd emerged blinking owlighly into a new world, and in a way, so had Billie. Without an Outsider to hold the center of the roiling Void spinning around himself, things were going to change.
But for now, things seemed the same. When Billie passed a bottle of pear soda to the Outsider to drink, it was the same drink that people had every day, unchanged. He liked the tart sweetness of it, and gulped it down quickly, and asked if there was any more.
He ate and moved and spoke like a real person. There were still times when people peered into his face curiously, as if trying to place him--he had no wanted posters, though the numerous portraits of him spread out into the world were just as damning--but he was not the black-eyed monster in their dreams anymore. His presence was no longer a cold wound echoing into people's perceptions, and his voice no longer echoed from the depths of the Void. He was... a young man.
He moved differently, as well. He fiddled with his fingers or his cuffs, but he lacked the regal tilt to it that he'd always had, in his portraits and in the short time Billie had seen him walking the Void. Something about the way he twined his fingers together, less the graceful clasp of hands, and more a nervous fidget. He removed the rings from his fingers and gave to Billie to pawn off, and then he'd looked at his palms as if seeing them for the first time.
When Billie remarked on the change, he'd looked at her, surprised.
"That wasn't my body. I was only dreaming my motions then," he explained, and his eyes flitted away nervously. "Now I'm moving my real body, and this is how it moves."
Billie could understand that, for once. People didn't always move the same way in dreams. Sometimes, in her own dreams, Billie glided across rooftops soundlessly, her heel not touching a single rooftop for miles.
But the Outsider walked with his own legs, now, in a shape that couldn't melt to ash on the wind. In a body with muscles and bones, and the still-clinging awkwardness of adolescence. He had knobby knees and sharp elbows, Billie had noticed, and could not help being amused by the fact.
And he still liked perching on things every opportunity he got.
They most often ended up sleeping through the day.
Summer was unrelenting in Karnaca, dusty and choking hot. The light was harsh on the Outsider's eyes, and he teared up and squinted the first time they'd had to walk through Karnaca at noon. His hand had hesitantly found Billie's left sleeve, and though he'd not dared to actually cling, his fingertips kept careful contact as he followed her. She allowed it; the streets were abandoned, everybody indoor for the afternoon siesta, every shop shuttered.
Nighttime suited Billie better, too. Her wanted posters were plastered across Karnaca still, so she took contracts from the black market, and completed them at night. She shied away from killing contracts, though they could be quicker done and better paid. But she haunted across Karnaca's roofs at night, stealing compromising letters, sabotaging business rivals, recovering stolen property--sometimes playing out someone's petty pranks. She had no idea who was so willing to pay five hundred coins to have a Karnacan socialite's talcum replaced with itching powder on the evening of her grand party, but Billie would not turn her nose up at that kind of money.
And the contracts against the Eyeless became more common. Billie suspected that, when she stole away their greatest prize, the Envisioned had been thrown into chaos. This trickled down to the Eyeless, whose infighting turned fractious. They kept making their bonecharms, but now they watched each other with suspicion; hostile and paranoid, and not helped a bit by the fact that one of Delilah's former witches was taking the opportunity to consolidate her power and prepare to take over the Eyeless herself.
Billie pulled out more than one unfortunate soul from their blood-stealing machines, sometimes because a contract demanded it, but often because she was in the right place to help. And she took every contract for stealing or sabotage against the Eyeless that she could find, even the ones she suspected came from within the Eyeless themselves.
During the day, she returned to the attic apartment they had taken over in a condemned building. The second and third floors were buzzing with bloodflies, but the attic was fine, untouched, and opened out onto the roof, where a patio had been arranged. The attic appartment even still had running water, though only cold water, and tinged with rust. They didn't drink it if they had a choice, though they did use it to wash, with no ill effects.
They wouldn't stay in Karnaca forever, but for those weeks that they spent in that apartment, life had been... comfortable, at least.
Billie had always been alone at the darkest periods in her life: after Deirdre died, after she betrayed Daud, after she lost Solokov and Karnaca started going to shit. After Emily left, and the Dreadful Wale's engine started its death rattle. So she had frequently replaced the companionship she'd lost with purpose.
She was not alone this time. It seemed like an inevitability that after she fulfilled Daud's mission, she would be by herself again, another ghost in the criminal underworld, some specter for hire as she scraped the coin together for food and ammo to keep her going. But when she climbed up over the railing and down onto the patio after a long night out, there was a light on for her in the apartment. There was sometimes a plate with food, or a vial of elixir unerringly set out for her on the nights she'd return with an injury. She didn't ask him how he knew, because he was not as all-seeing as he had once been, but he still had more secrets in his head than his guileless green eyes betrayed.
For once, she was not fighting for someone, or against something. It reminded her, oddly, of her early acquaintance with Anton Sokolov. He'd hired her ship for some experiment, some investigation he was making into a peculiar marine phenomenon, and in a few short weeks, Billie had realized with a start that she liked the old man. After his experiments ended, he simply never left the Dreadful Wale, and it was by that point that Billie realized Anton liked her too. Nobility fell over themselves to get the time of day from Anton, and natural philosophers flocked from all over the Isles to hear him speak, and yet he preferred Billie to all of them. When they spoke to each other, they spoke freely, and when they were silent, it was companionable. It was as close to peace as Billie had experienced in her life up to that point.
One morning, she arrived at the apartment at the crack of dawn. The Outsider was waiting on the patio, a thin blanket wrapped around his shoulders against the brisk morning air as he looked over the railing, down to the fruit market. The vendors were just setting up for the day, opening stalls and starting to set up their wares, ready to sell to the workers who would soon be passing on their way to the morning shift.
Billie had spent most of her evening waiting in a tree outside a mark's window, so she was full of restless energy, not ready to collapse into bed quite yet.
"Let's go buy some fruit," she suggested.
"They sell pear soda at the bodega next to the market," the Outsider said hopefully.
"Fruit and pear soda," Billie agreed. Her money pouch was weighing her down, anyway.
He twisted on his heel and all but ran inside. He put on his vest and boots, stuffed a cap on his head, the brim pulled low to protect his eyes against the glare of the sun. Billie was less energetic, but she placed a patch over her eye, hiding the shard of Void and its piercing red gaze, and put her own hat on. She removed her arm, packed it into a case and shoved it under the bed. It wasn't the kind of thing you wore to the market. Given the Abbey's recent activities in Karnaca, it was barely something you wore out at night.
She was hesitant about going out in public during the day, but there was not much of a City Guard presence in this part of the city, and for some reason, over the past few weeks, the wanted posters with her face had disappeared from the neighborhood. No new ones had been put up yet--or if they had, she had certainly not seen them. She had only an inkling of what the Outsider was up to when she wasn't around.
She didn't think it was anything bad, but she had returned early one night to find him speaking in a back alley near their building with a street urchin. She approached quietly, unseen and unheard, but had only managed to catch the tail end of it.
When the Outsider looked up, spotting her even through the pitch black shadows, the urchin had spooked, and turned to look into the same direction with wide, frightened eyes.
"It's fine," the Outsider said, and gestured towards the other end of the alley. "Go, now. Remember what I said."
"I will," the street urchin had whispered, giving a twitching, nervous nod, before running off.
"What was that about?" Billie had asked, dropping down next to the Outsider.
His eyes were not black anymore, but the shadows framed him just so, and Billie felt the cold salt of the Void like an aftertaste on her tongue as she looked at him.
"There are still so many secrets left in the world," the Outsider had replied, "and they're all still worth their weight in whalebone, to the right person."
Then he'd shrugged. Not like a god beyond understanding, but like a teenager gotten caught at something he shouldn't have been doing. All the same, he did not elaborate.
But the next night, Billie noticed her wanted posters disappearing, one by one, torn off walls.
The fruit market always smelled like something sweet and fermented, even early in the day. The stalls were wedged into a narrow alley, between tall buildings which kept them in the shade. Tarps were unfurled between the tops of stalls, providing added protection against the wind and sand, and creating a shaded tunnel all along the length of the alley.
The first stall had already been set up, bananas and grapes and apples stacked in careful geometry. The young woman behind the stall weighed their fruit with easy movements, switching out weights on the scales with a practiced eye.
When she handed the bag of fruit to the Outsider, her friendly smile turned puzzled, and she looked into his face like she was trying to unravel a mystery. Like she was trying to place him. He didn't seem concerned about this. He smiled at her warmly, and she looked away, pink with embarrassment. She ducked her head under the stall, pretending to be looking for something.
They stopped by the bodega for pear soda. They also bought dark bread, because it was fresh out of the oven and the smell was hard to resist.
It was still the cool hour of the morning when they got back, and they sat to eat on the patio, as the city woke up around them. From an open window across the way, an audiograph was playing, a few lilting notes floating to them when the wind turned just right. Billie tasted the Cullero grapes, each one yellow and ripe, and exploding into refreshing sweetness as they were crushed against the roof of her mouth.
"That girl almost recognized you," Billie said. It wasn't a reprimand. It happened, once in a while. Billie was surprised it didn't happen more often, though most people obviously didn't expect the Outsider to be shopping for breakfast foods at their market.
"I used to watch her," the Outsider replied, as he broke off a piece of bread; steam escaped into the air.
Billie's eyebrows rose. The girl had been pretty, dark eyes and strong features like a face made for charcoal portraits. And she knew the Outsider watched a lot of people back in the day, but--
"When Adira was four years old," the Outsider continued, heading off Billie's train of thought, "her mother's apartment became infested with bloodflies, and her mother's belly was filled with their larva."
Billie let out a long breath, and muttered under her breath, "Shit."
"As her mother became a nest keeper, Adira learned to be a very quiet girl," the Outsider continued. "She learned to speak softly and never step on the creaky floor boards, and if she was very good, then her mother wouldn't be mad with her. It seemed to Adira that she lived out entire lifetimes like that. Endless seasons of terror, stepping lightly around the nests, listening to the pitch of the bloodflies' wings to know if they were angry. It was actually only six months, but..." His lip curled into a wry smile. "Well, it's amazing what you learn to live with, when you have no other choice."
"So what happened?" Billie asked. Obviously the girl hadn't died in that apartment.
"She stole food from a fruit vendor," the Outsider said, almost dismissive. "The fruit vendor's sweetheart was a guard in the City Watch, and he happened to be at the stall that day to witness it. He followed her back to the apartment." The Outsider looked off into the distance, as if the events were still playing out in front of him, like a silvergraph projection. "Adira bit and cried when she was taken away, but she never made a sound. It was important not to upset her mother's lovelies." He shrugged, turning his attention back to bread and grapes. "And her mother died in flames that day."
"And the fruit vendor took her in?"
"He was a better man than most," the Outsider said, almost reluctantly. "And he and the guardsman wanted a child to raise as their own. Everybody's selfish desire for affection aligned perfectly that day."
"I guess it works out like that sometimes," Billie said.
He didn't look at her, but shrugged as he picked at his grapes, his ears going red.
"Were you going to give her your Mark?" Billie asked, the question out of her mouth before she could reconsider the impulse.
"She said her mother taught her to never accept gifts from strange men," the Outsider replied lightly, voice drawling with self-deprecation.
They didn't speak further. The morning hued into gold, and as the sunlight crept across their table, it brought out the lighter brown in the Outsider's hair. Billie thought about taking him to Morley, and found herself wondering if she would be happy there as well.
While they did not decide on a destination immediately, they did decide it was time they left Serkonos. Their apartment building was getting condemned. They could have gone elsewhere in Karnaca, or off to another city entirely, but they knew, without speaking of it, that their stay in Serkonos had run its course. Hence, papers for the Outsider, and enough coin gathered up to pay for their passage.
It was Billie who thought of going to Tyvia. Dunwall had spurred to mind first, but she shied away from making that decision yet. She didn't know if she could walk its streets so soon after Daud's death.
She booked passage with a smuggler she knew. Decent sort, not given to excessive risk or to prying questions. He was headed to Dabokva, and it seemed serendipitous to Billie. Anton Sokolov was in Dabokva. She'd get to see his studio. She'd get to see him too, maybe.
The Outsider was not particularly enthused to meet Sokolov, but he did not have any place else to be, and he would have followed Billie anywhere.
She could have left him behind. She could have gone to Aramis Stilton, and there would have been some comfortable job or apprenticeship suitable for a fifteen-year-old orphan to take, and build a life on. She should have, perhaps.
She didn't. When she visited Stilton, it was only to say goodbye.
Incongruously, the Outsider got seasick.
Eons spent in the center of a churning Void, lulled by the song of spectral whales overhead, and the moment they pulled out of port, he was slumped over, spilling his stomach's contents into the waves.
"It'll get better once we get out at sea," Billie reassured, rubbing his back. Probably, she didn't add out loud.
"I haven't been on a ship in four thousand years," he said defensively, still clinging to the railing as he turned to look at her. "Not physically."
"Shh, I know," she said, though she was just now learning it. She didn't know how to quell him, and made soothing noises instead, unable to provide anything but company.
The crew gave them a wide berth, but the captain of the vessel ambled up to them and offered the Outsider a piece of gnarled root.
"It'll settle you," Captain Oswick said. "Chew on it."
The Outsider took the root, but glanced at Billie first, and didn't put it in his mouth until she'd given a fractional nod.
"Doesn't have your sealegs, does he, Meagan?" Captain Oswick asked, laughing soundlessly.
The Outsider made a disgruntled sound, but kept chewing on the root.
Whether it was the root, or the Outsider finally getting his sea legs, the nausea stopped once they were out of sight of land. He was energetic enough, at least, to poke around the ship curiously. Billie came across him perched on the higher decks, watching the sea, and the rats whispered to her about his forays below decks, or through the storerooms.
A few days into the month-long journey, a deckhand delivered the Outsider to her cabin door, holding him by the scruff of the neck like a misbehaving hound pup.
"Now, Miss Foster," the deckhand had said, her lips pursed in disapproval, "we'd all appreciate it if you kept your young brother here out of places he doesn't belong."
Billie was momentarily so taken aback, that she didn't even address the assumption that he was her brother, though in hindsight, they could have reached worse conclusions when she gave the same last name for both of them.
"I'm sorry, he'll stay out of trouble from now on," Billie said, and pulled the Outsider towards her by the arm, drawing him into the cabin and out of sight.
The deckhand nodded once, and briskly walked away.
Billie was careful to close the door and latch it before she turned back to the Outsider. He looked to the floor, the walls, anywhere but at her. There was a stubborn set to his jaw, however, and he didn't look very sorry at all for snooping. He sat on the edge of the cot with his arms crossed.
Billie drew a chair and sat down in it heavily, inspecting the Outsider. He looked, paradoxically, younger than he had in the Void. His hair had gotten longer, dark tendrils hanging over his eyes and down the nape of his neck, and despite his best effort to avoid the sun in Serkonos, he'd gotten a tan anyway, his skin losing the drowned corpse pallor he'd had before. It helped to obfuscate his true identity well enough. She was getting used to calling him 'Sam' when other people were around. When it was just the two of them, any name or title still eluded her tongue.
"You realize people see you now, right?" Billie asked, breaking the silence suddenly.
It was not what he expected her to say, that much was obvious by the way he startled. It was nice that she could still surprise him.
"If you want to spy on people, you'll have to learn to be sneaky the hard way."
He straightened up, and then leaned forward in interest, hands clasped over his knees. The posture was familiar; like months ago on the Dreadful Wale, when he appeared to her for the first time.
Billie let the pulse of apprehension wash through her and away. That was past, and now he was just a kid with too much time on his hands. But then, he'd been the same thing before, too. And oh, the trouble that had gotten everyone into.
"What are you proposing?" he asked, intrigued.
"Lessons in the morning," Billie said. "If you're game."
His eyes lit up.
This was something Billie should have started doing in Karnaca, when she first found out he didn't know how to wield a weapon. Oh, he could flail a knife about as well as any street urchin, that mix of wily and ruthless that kept so many children alive in a world set against them. But there was no art to it.
Not everyone learned, or even had to learn how to use a sword. Entire generations of servants, or workers, or functionaries lived out their lives in comfortable middle class insulation, never having to touch a sword or a pistol, relegating their safety to the thick-necked guards of the City Watch. But society's worst always learned their way with a weapon: the nobles, with gleaming hilts on their hips; the vicious poor, fenced into their overcrowded neighborhoods, mistrustful of each other; the thieves and killers who emerged from that morass. People like Daud, and like Billie.
A sword would not have saved him from the cultists who sank their blade into his flesh, and bound him to the Void. But maybe it could save him from other things.
Billie placed the blade into his hands, and she knew he understood the temptations of violence and power better than she ever did when Daud placed a sword into her own. She could only hope that it wouldn't damn him to a life filled with the same regrets anyway.
After that, they established a routine. They woke, they ate breakfast together in silence, and then they spent the morning training on deck. He picked up the sword drills easily, and as long as she watched him like a hawk, he wouldn't even shirk on his training. The crew still kept well away, but they got used to the sharp yells of "Sam!" coming from the decks when she either corrected him, or stopped him from doing something monumentally stupid and cutting off bits, depending on who you asked.
In all honesty, that was when Billie got used to calling him Sam as well, and the Outsider used to responding to the name. She couldn't very well lapse into yelling 'black-eyed bastard' at him without drawing some scrutiny, but she still needed something to yell when she needed to cut him short. At some point, she'd realize that she'd even started thinking of him as Sam, the name neatly slotting into the empty place that 'Outsider' once occupied, unutterable. So went their mornings.
Lunch usually was brief, salty and dry, seasoned only with memories of ripe Cullero grapes, and then the afternoon was more training, in things other than the sword.
She tried to vary it daily. On this ship, stuck seeing the same faces daily, his worst enemy was the boredom. He'd had the run the entire of reality once, coming and going through places unseen, crawling up from dreams like hagfish through the pipes to peer into everyone's secrets. It was one part of his experience that she suspected he would always miss. In Karnaca, he'd disappear for hours at a time, either when she was out on a contract or sleeping off a night's work, and she still didn't know where to. He'd always disappear when she was least willing to follow him.
So some days, she would hand him a pistol, and teach him to aim and shoot. A wristbow, and teach him the benefits of silence. Mines, all the different kinds, everything they could achieve.
She taught him the light thief's step that would help him sneak, and taught him how to climb, and how to fall without breaking anything. It would take years of training before he was any good, and it would take a better training ground than a ship in motion, but he took to it regardless, probably out of a lack of other things to do.
She, in turn, learned a fair deal about him. He likes the wristbow, enjoyed the snap as it clicked into place, but pistols made him flinch and miss his aim. It wasn't the recoil, it was the noise; it startled him every time. He was sure-footed, passable at climbing. Not very stealthy in motion, unless he took his shoes off entirely, but he had a knack for keeping still in the shadows that was almost unsettling. It was like he knew where someone would look for him, and knew where he would be just out of their line of sight.
The crew watched his training with a sort of indulgent amusement. Oswick laughed in his soundless way, and complimented him on his progress.
The deckhands stopped seeing him as a pest, and gave him fighting tips after dinner in the galley; they knew how to fight like sailors, and that could be useful as well, in back streets or reeking alleys. They taught him how to punch and where, and discovered that the poor boy with the delicate stomach had a surprisingly quick and vicious jab, even though one good hit could lay him out. They found out that last part the hard way.
"The lesson is, don't get hit," Billie told him dryly, once he recovered from unconsciousness. She'd placed a cold compress over his eye, and passed him a vial of Addermire Solution to drink.
"Yes, thank you," he said peevishly. "Obviously I couldn't have deduced that one myself."
She hoped he wouldn't get a black eye out of this (black-eyed bastard indeed), but that Addermire stuff was potent, in its way. Better even than Sokolov's elixir.
"I thought you'd dodge," she said.
"So did Elders," he said, referencing the crewman who'd put him out of commission. "My concentration lapsed for a second." He looked towards the porthole, even though it showed nothing but black skies, like an opaque curtain over the glass. "How long until we get to Tyvia?"
"We reach Dabokva in five days," Billie replied. They should have been there already, but they'd been unexpectedly held up in a Gristol port along the way.
There was, apparently, only so much compounded boredom he could tolerate. He continued to stare sulkily at the porthole, not saying anything.
"Let's go up to the deck," she suggested.
It was cold. It was always cool at sea, but this had the bite of Tyvian winters behind it. They put on heavy coats as they walked the deck, heading towards the prow.
They stopped at a railing, just a step out of the pool of lamplight. A gibbous moon hung in the sky, pale and mute.
"There are no stars in the Void," he spoke, after long minutes spent in silence.
He touched his sore eye, fingers carefully prodding at his cheekbone. Earlier, Billie's fingers had felt along the same bones, checking for any fracture in his cheekbone or eye socket. She still remembered the first time in the Whalers that someone had shown her how to do that, and what to do about a broken bone. First time anyone had cared.
But he was just worrying at his own flesh, and poking would only make a bruise more evident. She grasped his elbow and pulled it down, drawing his hand away from the eye.
"Do you know the constellations?" Billie asked, if only to distract him.
"I... know about the constellations," he said, face tilting towards the sky. "I don't know how anyone can find them among so many stars."
Billie looked up as well. She spotted, at a glance, the Captain at the Helm, then the Vain Duchess. She had always been good at picking out constellations, even in the smog-choked skies of Dunwall, and she couldn't remember a time when she'd looked into the starry sky and seen only meaningless dots, sprinkled at random.
"I can show you," Billie offered. A blade could only cut, and she'd taught him how to use one anyway. But the stars could guide. Why not teach him that as well?
She saw the bob of his throat as he swallowed.
"I'd like that," he said, faintly. Then, in the same voice, "I think I'm starting to forget."
"Forget what?" Billie asked, and in the same instance understood what he was referring to.
She could see the sardonic pull of a smile at the corner of his lips, and he spread his hands out as if gesturing at the whole of creation.
"The long, forced march of time all around me," he answered. "The secrets. The details. The feelings, such as they were. Everything I witnessed, and things I alone ever remembered."
"That may be for the best," Billie said, voice pitched low so that it would melt to the sound of the waves before it reached any prying ears. "Nobody's head was made to fit four thousand years of history in it. Leave the Outsider behind you."
"And be only Sam Foster, with his brains rattled by a well-timed punch?" He turned his face towards Billie, and the way he was lit by the hanging lamp behind him and the gaping moon above, it looked like his eyes were dark pits again. "Sam Foster, who can't pick out the outline of figures from the stars?"
"Who can't sneak a damn if his life depended on it, and can't shoot a pistol for shit," Billie added. "Yeah."
No muscle in his face moved, but Billie could swear his smile turned to something more sincere. Maybe it was a trick of the light.
"Then I'll have to be Sam," he said, propping his forearms on the railing and leaning to look out over the water. "Do you know how to play the piano?" he asked, apropos of nothing.
"No," Billie replied.
"I think," he said, thoughtful, "that I would like to learn."
"I'm passable with the guitar," Billie said.
"Thank you," he said. She got the feeling it wasn't because of any implicit offer of music lessons.
Deirdre had once stolen a guitar from a second-hand shop. Billie had been stuffing her pockets full with any jewelry and knick-knacks that looked valuable at the time, so she hadn't been paying attention, because she would have told Deirdre to put it back. It was a loud and unwieldy object, and neither of them knew how to play.
Not that it deterred Deirdre, of course. She spent days plucking at the strings, determined to torture some kind of tune out of the instrument.
"Maybe you should have stolen a manual, too," Billie had said, pulling a face.
"Oh, okay," Deirdre had laughed, handing Billie the guitar. "You try, smartass."
Billie refused, but two weeks later, she slipped Deirdre a battered booklet, 'Basics of Guitar Playing for Beginners'. But Deirdre's playing did not improve noticeably, and eventually they both grew bored of the instrument. They sold it off.
A few years later, Deirdre was dead, and Billie was sitting shoulder to shoulder with a few Whalers around a fire. One of them, Bennison, plucked at a guitar as she sang a sea shanty. She must have noticed Billie's long stare, because she offered lessons.
Dabokva was a city wedged between stark-white overcast skies, and damp black cobblestone roads. But it burst into unexpected colors between those borders of its existence. The buildings were not as tall as those in Serkonos, at least not in the older district as they came from the harbor. Two or three stories at most, they had garlands of multicolored flowers painted along their walls, around their windows. Red doors and window shutters were affixed into frames decorated with geometric patterns, sharply contrasting against whitewashed walls.
As they advanced into Dabokva's more modernized center, the buildings became more modern, more Gristolian in influence. Apartment buildings shot up to four stories high, their garlands of flowers painted in more subtle patterns along the windows, grayed out by smoke, but their architecture more ornate. Lights were strung on wires over streets, a steady yellow glow even during the day, cables criss-crossing like a canopy, blotting out only the sunless sky. Blackened snow clung to corners, unmelting, and small covered vending stalls hawked a variety of hot foods and drinks, the smells mingling into a heavy, humid presence, with the promise of heat against the frigid air.
Billie paid for two cups of mulled wine from a vendor, as they stopped in Dabokva's Central Square. The Outsider drank the mulled wine cautiously, flinching back at the heat, and Billie watched her surroundings. The vendor, a large man with a shockingly red beard, gave them a yellow-toothed smile; he knew they were foreigners.
The square was built around some statue of nobody in particular. The plaque advised it was paid for by the Tyvian Laborers' Union, representing the spirit of the Tyvian worker. It had replaced, most likely, some statue of a victorious old Prince, removed because of its political inconvenience.
The Outsider confirmed her suspicion, a graceful arc of his fingers tracing the outlines of the statue in the distance.
"Prince Eleodor's Midnight Ride," he said, "immortalized for all of posterity, until poor Eleodor got unhorsed. What is iron and stone, to a dozen determined men and a length of rope?"
Off in the distance, across the square, Billie could see the onion domes of old administrative palaces, in their stripes of contrasting colors. The echo of a heavy bell was ringing, too far away to make out the source, and Billie did not know the meaning. More close by was the clack of a carriage line. The constant murmur of a crowd, rushing by in their fur hats and ground-sweeping coats. She saw more beards in a day here than her entire time in Serkonos, but trimmed neatly, unlike Anton's.
After Serkonos, the whisper of sand and the yellow light of summer, Dabokva felt like a gaudy nightmare, a lurid clash of sound and color, underlined by a bite of frost in the air.
They finished their mulled wine, its heat settling down to their bones, and gave the mugs back to the vendor.
"Come again, come again," the vendor said reflexively.
Somewhere in this city, Anton Sokolov was about to get visitors. Perhaps even visitors he would enjoy receiving.
When they were alone with Anton, in his office, he touched a hand gently to her face, where the eyepatch was hiding her unnatural eye, and then to her shoulder.
"Meagan, what happened?" Anton asked, his expression softening, even as his eyes tightened with concern.
"I..." Billie glanced involuntarily to the Outsider, who was still standing next to the door, leery of Anton's office. Anton almost turned to look at him before she added, hastily, "It's the spoils of a life on the fringes, Anton. You know how it goes."
Anton grunted in his throat, unhappily, but let it lie.
"And the young man with you?" Anton asked.
"Him, too," Billie replied.
Anton hummed, unconvinced. He and the Outsider threw each other matching, scouring looks, before Anton broke off and tottered behind his desk.
"Have a seat, please," he insisted. He punched a button on the intercom on his desk, leaning to shout into the transmitter, "Nikolai! Get in here!"
There was no answer on the intercom, but there was a panicked scuffle of feet, the screech of a chair pushed back, and a young man barged into the room--dark hair and pallid skin of a Tyvian, but clean-shaven, and more than a little whale-eyed. He flung the door open so abruptly, it nearly smacked the Outsider, who was still standing near the doorway and had to make a hasty sidestep to avoid getting hit.
"Yes, Mister Sokolov!" Nikolai stiffened to attention before Sokolov's desk, his vest askew.
"We have guests! Can't you see, you silly boy?" Anton said, face hard, and voice merciless. "Make arrangements for them. The Silver Candle Hotel should do. I'll foot the bill."
"That really isn't necessary, Anton," Billie said. They hadn't secured any rooms yet, but she had enough coin for some modest lodgings in a clean hotel in one of the quieter districts of the city. She remembered spotting the Silver Candle Hotel's sign, its cursive letters looming over the Central Square. Too flashy for Billie's tastes. She still didn't know if there were wanted posters of her face in any odd corners of Dabokva.
"Nonsense," Anton said, in his voice that was still hard. "I have more money than I can spend until I'm dead, and you two must be tired. What are you still doing here, you idiot?" he snapped the last part at Nikolai. "Go get them the rooms!"
"Yes, Mister Sokolov!" Nikolai yelped, and stormed out of the office in just as much of a disarray.
Anton watched stony-faced as the door banged closed.
"They send them younger and younger," Anton muttered.
"...Who does?" Billie asked.
"The Operators," Anton snickered, slouching back into a harmless old man as the steel left his back. He reached into his desk, removed a flask and uncapped it. "Each time I hire a new secretary, it's always one of their agents, trying to keep an eye on me."
"In trouble, old man?" Billie raised an eyebrow. Anton produced a glass and placed it in front of him, pouring her a drink from his flask; something clear, but strong enough to make the eyes water.
"Oh, I show them trouble, all right," Anton said, taking a swig of his flask. "I've run off three of their nosy little minions, before they sent Nikolai. Fresh-faced little shit, I thought for sure he was too young to be working for the Operators, but I intercepted his transmissions one night." Anton made a face. "Good secretary, though. Quick typist. Efficient. Memory like a steel trap. It'll be a shame when I finally make this one crack like a dry walnut under my boot."
The Outsider snorted.
Anton's attention narrowed on him.
"Are you going to prop up that wall for the rest of the night, or have a seat?" Anton said.
The Outsider held Anton's gaze for a moment, before he shrugged, and pushed off the wall, each heavy step bringing him closer to the desk. He sat down in the chair next to Billie, elbows against the arm rests as he steepled his fingers.
"If we're staying at the hotel," Billie said, as Anton and the Outsider exchanged steely glares, "then there's something I need to leave with you."
She wasn't going to leave her arm in some strange hotel, where anyone might rifle through her luggage. Anton's studio was hardly any better, especially knowing the Tyvian government sent Operators or their agents to keep a watch on him, but considering the kinds of things Anton was fascinated with, there had to be some things they either ignored, or Anton hid very well.
Anton grunted his assent, took another swig of his flask.
"Now tell me, Meagan," he said, "what remarkable circumstances bring you here to me, in the Outsider's company no less?"
It wasn't like some chance encounter on the street, some stranger's eyes falling on his face and tugging at some memory from a dream.
Anton Sokolov had spent years and years trying to get the Outsider's attention. He did unspeakable rituals, pored over forbidden texts, once hired the Whalers to wrench the journal of a witch from the Abbey's grasp, because he heard it had sketches of the Outsider's face. Anton studied every account and every drawing of the Outsider that could be accredited to someone who'd seen the god of the Void with their own eyes, and he'd painted two different portraits of the Outsider.
No green eyes, no wild hair, no mild tan was going to conceal the truth of the matter from Anton. He knew the Outsider's face, had made an intimate study of it, had anticipated seeing it for a long time.
The words dried up in Billie's throat, but the Outsider leaned forward, any pretense abandoned.
"Anton Sokolov," he sneered, "how deep into the filth did you sink your hands, grasping at any dark ritual that could summon me to you? How sure you were that you could simply pit your brilliant mind against this problem, and force a solution? And now, in your final days, when your last ditch plan was to glimpse me in the Void as you died, you've already missed me."
"Ah, but I haven't, have I?" Anton asked, his hand shaking as it gripped the flask with white knuckles. "You're sitting in my office, across my desk, and I could keep you in here forever with just a firm lock. Couldn't I?"
The Outsider's fingers dug into the arm rests of his chair, as tense as Anton's. He was still leaning forward towards Anton, like an animal coiled to strike.
Billie placed a firm hand on the Outsider's shoulder, and pressed him back down into his chair. She quelled him with a glance, and looked to Anton.
"Like I said, it's a long story," Billie said.
"And I look forward to hearing it," Anton said, leaning back with an agreeable smile on his face, but a sharpness to his gaze that Billie hadn't seen since before his imprisonment in Jindosh's mansion.
Billie had gotten used to navigating the rain-slickness of Dunwall, and the grit of sand across Karnaca both. She hadn't completely mastered the slippery iciness of Dabokva, or its viciously angled roofs, but in time, she would learn its secrets as well.
She dropped from a roof onto a balcony, then displaced on top of a street lamp, scanning the street through the canopy of cables. From street lamp to street lamp, she made her way across the avenue, and displaced under an overhang, where the shadows of an alley pooled between dumpsters.
Billie adjusted her glove, made a note she needed a thicker one now.
"Ready?" she asked.
A young man now only known as Sam Foster ambled closer, hands stuffed into his pockets, and hat pulled low over his ears.
"Isn't it a bit cold for this?" he asked.
"Is it as cold as the Void?" Billie asked.
A twitch of a smile. "No."
"Then it's not too cold." She gestured sharply to a nearby rooftop. "Meet me up there." She displaced again, up to the ledge she had just indicated.
She waited, resisting the temptation to look down and watch him. But in the midnight quiet of the street, she heard the telling signs of his progress; boots clanging against a dumpster lid, a grunt and a metallic thud as he grabbed onto a pipe, the scrabbling of his hands against the stonework.
She thought of Daud, and discovered it didn't hurt as much as she thought it would.
Finally, two gloved hands grasped the edge, and he pulled himself over, his breaths coming out in white clouds around his head. He stumbled to his feet, with as much dignity as he could spare the energy for.
"You need to build up your stamina," was Billie's pronouncement. He could only have learned so much on a ship, scaling stacked crates. Dabokva would have to be his proving grounds.
"By all means, lead the way," he said with a huff, and then pulled a scarf to cover his face.
She harried him across rooftops, railing, balconies, in a wide arc through the district. She taught him how to watch his footing, and what to do if he lost his footing anyway. He fell, twice harmlessly, and once when she had to catch him so he wouldn't break his neck. She began pointing out the ice patches to him after that, no longer as concerned with sparing him the embarrassment as much as sparing him the broken bones.
He was spotted at least once that he knew of, an angry old babushka smacking him with a broom when she saw him outside her window. There were other eyes on him that night; a man working late in a lawyer's office, who happened to look out the window at just the wrong time; a crying woman, smoking on a balcony, who drew her coat over her face and muffled her sobs. Still, the broom probably drove the lesson home best. He wouldn't forget the humiliation, even after the bruise on his forehead healed. He had to work on not being seen.
They ended up on the same rooftop they started from, sitting shoulder to shoulder, drinking mulled wine from a thermos as they watch a gray sunrise creep across the permanent cloud cover.
She was staring at her right hand, indistinct thoughts floating through her head, when the question coalesced, bubbled up on its own.
"Why did you give me this?" she asked, squeezing the blackened fingers together.
He looked down, gently touched fingers to her palm. He was always less hesitant about touching this arm than her actual flesh and blood one, when he was given to touching her at all.
"It was yours," he said. "It always belonged to you. Then Emily Kaldwin traveled through time and changed the world, and it wasn't anymore. But this arm was ready to bore a hole through time itself to return to you. Powered by the Void, it could have. It could have rent the very fabric of reality, if that was what it took. You saw the cracks yourself."
How did Emily change the world? Billie wanted to ask, but she thought she knew at least a part of it. She still had the sensory memory of her arm torn, rivulets of hot blood down her face, even if the dreams themselves ended abruptly when the Outsider took away those parts of her flesh. She wondered at how easily she got by without a right arm, afterwards, as if she'd already learned once before to rely on her left. She wondered on why it felt more natural than having her original eye and arm.
"You're saying some things are predestined," Billie found herself saying.
"Nothing is really predestined," he replied. "Even with knowledge of the future, we still sometimes don't know what we were supposed to be outrunning until the moment it finally catches us. But other times, we escape it anyway."
"Talking from experience?" She raised an eyebrow.
"Just an observation," he said, with just a hint of defensiveness. "Do you regret not outrunning this part of yourself?"
"I don't have room for any new regrets, kid," she said with a dry snort of laughter. "I am what I am, and I'm living with it."
"Because you prefer to, or because you think you have no other choice?"
"Which one is it in your case?"
He was taken aback by the question, but then smiled.
"I'm learning the difference doesn't matter to me," he said.
"Then you have your answer."