The rocks of Shindaerey are cold, the wind against his face has teeth, and Billie Lurk’s hand on his wrist is an anchor, the only thing that stops him from allowing the familiarity of the Void to swallow him again. The Outsider knows what to do with a chill in his bones and a biting wind; he does not know what to do with sunlight glancing off the sea, stinging eyes that have not seen it in four thousand years.
“Come on,” Billie says, tugging at his wrist again. “I didn’t think that when I dragged your sorry ass out of the Void I was going to have to do it literally.”
“It’s bright,” the Outsider says. He blinks. The expression on Billie Lurk’s face, when it finally comes into focus, is a strange one. Pinched mouth and a kindness in her good eye that her glower can’t hide.
“Let’s sit down a minute,” Billie says. “My shoulder is killing me.”
It isn’t, but it is the soft kind of lie, a comfort, as the Outsider drops like a marionette whose strings have snapped. He presses his palms to the rocky dirt and watches the way light dances across the water on the horizon, following a music he cannot hear, cannot even imagine.
“You’ve been in the dark a long time, haven’t you,” Billie says. The same careful voice she used when she touched his cheek, when she argued one last time with Daud, when she saved a boy so long beyond saving.
“We’ve both spent a long time in the dark,” he says. He pulls up one knee, and rests his cheek against it. “A darkness of our own making, perhaps.”
Billie shoves him with her right arm, a shock of the familiar there and then gone in an instant. “No more of that cryptic shit,” she says. “You’re on solid ground now, which means no speaking in riddles.” She glances at him sidelong, and shakes her head. “We’re going to have to get you something for the sun. Otherwise you’ll be burned to a crisp in no time. Maybe a hat.”
The Outsider feels his brows draw down without his consent, his appearance slipping out of his control for the first time in centuries. “I don’t think so.”
Billie Lurk has never been a woman prone to easy smiles: her happiness has always been hard-won at too great a cost. But now, she laughs at him. “We’ll see,” she says, the smile lingering on her face, settling back in. “So. What now?”
The Outsider turns his head to the north. Billie, with a sailor’s internal compass, follows his gaze with a sigh. “Never thought I’d end up back in Dunwall,” she says, but there is no refusal in her voice, only resignation. She is as strange a creature as any of the Outsider’s Marked. Her mercy stretches ever outwards, the fingers of it beckoning. Dunwall to her is a wound gone septic, still rotting away. Yesterday she wanted to kill him, and today she does not question that she will take him wherever he wants to go.
The Outsider doesn’t know what Dunwall is to him. The place where he was born has long since disappeared into the sea. He has never truly set foot on Dunwall soil, despite how many dreams he passed through there. But it calls to him like whalesong, and in the long path of the life that now stretches out before him, there is no other obvious first step to take.
“I never thought to end up there at all,” says the Outsider. His feet ache, and Billie is right that his skin is going to burn, and his tongue is heavy with the taste of iron and salt. But he is alive. For now, he has a place to go. He is unused to expecting that anywhere will welcome him with open arms. But if Billie Lurk could meet him with an outstretched hand, then perhaps there is more in the world to understand, an ocean uncharted. He shields his eyes again from the sun, but it does nothing to cool the slow and anxious warmth spreading in his chest. “I think I’m looking forward to it.”
Empress Emily Kaldwin does not fidget. But Corvo Attano’s daughter does, on occasion. On the two afternoons she told Corvo about Wyman, both at the beginning and the ending of their relationship, she couldn't keep her hands still. It's the same tonight: her hands flit from her hair to her pockets to her elbows and back again.
“It's alright, Emily,” he says. He reaches out, puts a hand on her arm. “Out with it, or we’ll both be late for Parliament.” He says it gently. Reminding Emily of mundanities usually snaps her out of this kind of nervousness.
She sighs. “It isn't, really, but you're right.” She squares her shoulders. “I've had a letter from Meagan Foster. She says that she needs to meet with you, urgently.”
“Okay,” Corvo says. Waits for the other coin to drop. Emily is looking anywhere but at him. “Of course I’ll meet with her, Emily. She saved your life.”
“She did,” Emily agrees. She tucks a bit of hair behind her ear, gaze unwavering. “But there’s something else.”
Corvo leans back against his desk. “Isn’t there always.”
“I wasn’t planning on telling you this, but you’d just recognize her face anyway. You should hear it from me.” She presses her hands together in front of her, stilling them, and she stands up straight. Schooling her face into the expression she uses to deliver bad news. “The woman who helped me...Meagan Foster was a convenient fiction, for a while. But her name is Billie Lurk.”
Emily is right. Corvo would have recognized Billie Lurk’s face. The wanted posters are more ubiquitous in Karnaca than they are in Dunwall, but Corvo keeps a close eye on Serkonan affairs these days. He knows her. A woman, a Whaler once, with an arm and an eye that don't deign to obey the laws of the world.
Corvo sits down heavily at his desk, and presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. He stares down at the scattered papers he put together for Parliament, unseeing. “I see,” he says. “On second thought, I think we’re going to be late after all.”
Emily leans her hip against the desk, arms crossed. “I didn't know until the end. She told me right before I returned to Dunwall. All of it. That she was there, when Mother died. That she helped. She didn't have to do that. She had the chance to run, and she didn't take it. She let me choose what I wanted to do.” There’s a catch in her voice, well-hidden. But Corvo is very good at finding hidden things.
He wouldn’t shed tears for the likes of Billie Lurk. But he doesn’t want his daughter to be that person. Someone who would take easy revenge. He never wanted her to learn that from him. It’s the harder path. But make enough easy choices, and soon enough you have a city drowned in blood.
Corvo looks up at her. “You did the right thing, Emily.”
His daughter turns her face away.
“I met Daud, you know. When I was looking for you.”
Emily drops her arms, startled. “You never told me that.”
Corvo shakes his head. “You were so young, when it happened, and then, well—never really was a good time to bring it up.”
“I guess not,” Emily says. “What did you do?”
It’s not a pleasant memory. Corvo dreams of it often, of all the different ways it might have gone. Daud dead at his feet. Corvo himself dead at his. “We fought. He begged for his life. I gave it to him. He hasn't been seen in Gristol since, let alone in Dunwall.” He raises an eyebrow at Emily. “Did I do the right thing?”
It was the right thing to say. Emily laughs, shoulders lowering, and she shakes her head. “Of course you did. I'm not saying I would have wept for him. But it doesn't really matter, does it. Revenge. Nothing would be any different.”
“No,” Corvo agrees. His dreams, maybe. But he's never had much luck with those anyway. “The Outsider seemed to appreciate it, anyway. He always did enjoy the unexpected.”
“Void,” Emily says. She sits down in the chair across from Corvo’s desk, elbows on the table. “What did he say?”
“That I was ‘fascinating’,” Corvo says. He sighs. “I wish that you'd never needed to meet him.”
Emily flexes her hand. Corvo knows the Mark is still there, underneath her glove. Someday they're going to have to find a way to explain the Empress’ sudden penchant for covering her hands. Corvo still isn't quite used to going around with his own hands bare, now that there's no longer any reason to hide them. “He helped me save you,” she says. “I can't regret that. Any more than I can regret meeting Billie.” She sighs. “She told me she wished that she could take it back. I wanted to scream at her. Push her into the water. Hold her head under, even. She wishes she could take it back?”
“I’m proud of you,” Corvo tells her.
Emily looks at him for a long moment, and then she closes her eyes. She swallows. Corvo hates it, when he can see her do that: putting herself away, so that she can be the Empress. Jessamine used to do it too.
“Right,” Corvo says. “Well, whatever Lurk wants, it's probably important. I can't imagine she'd want to speak to me otherwise.”
Emily nods. She’s pulling at her gloves, now, fidgeting with the cuffs. “I’ll arrange the meeting, then. And I'm coming with you.”
“Alright,” Corvo says. “Is there something else bothering you?”
Emily doesn't look up from her hands. “No,” she says. “We’re going to be late.”
Emily doesn’t like keeping secrets from her father. If nothing else, it’s practical: the man makes it his business to know everything that happens in Dunwall. He isn’t the Spymaster, officially, but he’d observed, once, that it paid to have someone other than your Spymaster looking into things. He only sounded a little bitter.
It’s about time she told him who really helped her save him from Delilah. He deserves to know.
The Mark is different. Emily doesn’t like bringing it up around her father. He gets this tight look on his face, the same one he wears when they talk about Mother. Emily hates it when he looks like that.
The months after Delilah’s coup have been busy. There’s so much to do, so much to fix, so many things Emily hadn’t even realized were wrong. So she isn’t sure how long it took her to notice that her Mark wasn’t working. That it didn’t respond to her touch the way it used to, a quiet buzzing under her hand when she pressed her fingers against it. A little like a cat, purring.
And when she reached out to the Void one night, ready to leap up onto a roof with its power, nothing happened.
She thought about asking Corvo if he knew anything about it. She’s still thinking about it, all through Parliament—boring, mostly, but necessary, with a few items she’s marked down to give more consideration later—and then during dinner afterwards, and then as she writes out her reply to Billie, naming a time and a place.
If she tells Father, then she’ll have to admit that she misses it. That she was still using it, more than she should have: running across the rooftops for no good reason. No reason other than the fun of it, the sheer breathless joy of the wind in her face and nothing at all to stop her. Not for anything so important as her duty. Just because she wanted to.
It was nice, to have some time to be anyone other than Empress Emily Kaldwin, leader of the people who is only just now unlearning her selfishness. It’s dangerous, Corvo would tell her—what if someone saw? The Overseers are unhappy enough. Don’t give them anything they can use. And it’s a waste of time, a distraction from all the things she’s supposed to be doing. All the things she needs to do.
Useless though it is, her Mark is still there. A reminder of the person Emily has become, with blood on her hands, strength in her heart. She’ll never be able to show her left hand in public. The Overseers will never trust her again.
Emily finishes her letter to Billie, and dispatches it with one of the messengers who knows to be discreet. She starts writing another. Several members of Parliament are happy to support cuts in funding to the Abbey, all for their own selfish reasons, and personal correspondence from the Empress provides the recipient with fodder for weeks of gossip. It’s unlikely she’ll be able to abolish the Abbey of the Everyman in her lifetime. But power, once given, can always be taken away. Another problem she needs to spend more time fixing.
Corvo has work he should be doing when he gets back from Parliament. He does none of it. Emily did a good job of not looking preoccupied at the meeting, and Corvo has had a great deal of practice in doing the same. But during Parliament and afterwards, he is only thinking of Lurk, waiting for them with a secret.
Thinking about Billie Lurk means thinking about Daud, and thinking about Daud means thinking about the Outsider, and the Mark that Corvo no longer has.
The Outsider came to Corvo, a few months past. He wanted to talk about Daud. It was odd. Speaking with the Outsider is always odd, but it was the first time Corvo had spoken to him in nearly fifteen years. Perhaps change was to be expected. But if Corvo didn't know any better, he would have said the Outsider was worried.
He didn’t draw Corvo into the Void, either. Instead Corvo woke, sure he’d heard something at the window. And when he turned, the Outsider was there, leaning against the sill. The window was open. Corvo knew that he’d latched it, before he went to sleep.
“The Knife of Dunwall lives no more,” was what he said. No ‘hello’, of course. No ‘I’ve missed you, Corvo’, or ‘how have you been, since losing my Mark?’ But Corvo wasn’t sure he’d know what to do with politeness from the Outsider, anyway. “My Marked are dwindling, and they will dwindle further.”
Corvo scratched the back of his head, sitting up. “I wasn’t even sure that Daud was still alive.”
“He lived,” the Outsider said. “He nursed his anger and his resentment and his pain. Perhaps he will nurse them forever. It remains to be seen.”
“Wasn’t very happy with you, was he.”
“No.” The Outsider watched him just as intently as he ever did. “And what about you? Are you angry with me, Corvo? It has not been so long since we have spoken, in my eyes. But perhaps you have a different perspective.” He vanished, and reappeared at the edge of Corvo’s bed, hovering. “I promise, I watched you with interest.”
“I don’t know if that’s as comforting as you think it is,” Corvo pointed out. He shrugged. “It’s been a busy fifteen years. And, well. I guess I should thank you. For helping Emily.”
“You wish it had been you, instead.”
“I don’t wish that Delilah trapped her. I can’t even imagine it, thinking that I’d lost her again. But I wish that she didn’t have to know what it’s like.”
“I gave her power,” said the Outsider, folding his arms.
“She had power before. She’s the Empress. And she never had to know what it was like to kill someone. Not really. Not with her hands.”
The Outsider tilted his head. “Perhaps she could have saved you without my intervention. And perhaps you would still be stone, and this city would belong to Delilah.”
“Maybe,” Corvo agreed.
“I did give her a choice.”
A choice he hadn't given Corvo. Not that it would have been much of one, anyway. “My daughter’s been confronted with more than her fair share of hard choices lately. But she’s here, and she’s whole, and I’m not a rock, so I can’t complain. Thanks for the news. I’m not sorry about Daud. Half the time I think I should have killed him when I had the chance.”
“No,” the Outsider said, “you don’t.” He sounded almost fond. As fond as Corvo thought a creature like him could ever be. “Do you want it back?” he asked. He didn’t have to explain what he meant.
Corvo stared down at this hands, callused and bare against the blankets. He hadn’t used the Mark for much, in the fifteen years between saving Emily and Delilah’s attack. But it had been comforting, the way the wrongness of the Void was comforting, the way the shrine he kept tucked away in the small corner of his safe room was comforting: something dangerous, something to be feared, but also something that had saved him once. A weapon that he knew how to use, that was on his side.
He didn’t answer.
“You have always found it difficult to trust me, and just as hard not to trust someone who twice helped save your daughter. It may not matter, soon enough,” the Outsider said. He flickered, and appeared again at the window. “Goodbye, Corvo. I wish you well.”
He was gone. Corvo got up. He went to his safe room and wrote down the encounter in his journal, peering at the shrine out of the corner of his eye, half-sure that he would wake and believe that it had all just been a very strange dream.
When he woke, the window was open, and his room was freezing. But he still wasn’t sure it was real. The Outsider wishing him well seemed as impossible as any of the impossible things Corvo had ever seen.
Corvo rereads the account in his journal instead of attending to any of the matters brought up at the council meeting. He reads it again, and then he breaks open the bottle of whiskey at his desk.
Corvo leans against the same window the Outsider had appeared by, open to let the air in. He wonders what Lurk wants. Whether she knows about the powers his daughter has. Corvo had managed to hide them from the Loyalists, mostly. Samuel always suspected something, but was kind enough to let sleeping dogs lie.
The last time the Outsider told him goodbye, Corvo had just finished returning Emily to the throne. He has no idea what could have been so momentous about that one day a few months ago, unremarkable in Corvo’s mind except for the Outsider’s presence.
Maybe it was nothing. But a visit from the Outsider, in Corvo’s experience, has never been nothing.
The truth is, he had missed him, the way he misses so many relics from his past. Even the ones that hurt him. But he let himself forget that the Outsider never comes bearing good news.
Corvo locks his journal in the drawer in his desk and takes another drink.
The pub that Emily wants to meet at isn’t too far from where they’ve been staying. But that doesn’t take into account how Void-damned annoying it is to travel a distance of more than three feet with the Outsider. Or whoever he is now.
“This place,” he’s saying, about a fucking stall selling fish, like a hundred other stalls selling fish because this is Dunwall, all anyone ever eats is fish, “Vera Moray ate here once. She charmed the owner. He could tell she didn’t belong here, with mud all along her boots, and she—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Billie says. She grabs his arm and tugs. The kid’s put on some weight since stumbling out of the Void, but he’s still lighter than he looks. “We’re late.”
“Oh,” says the Outsider. He blinks at her, with his damn unsettling pale eyes. “I forgot.” He means, he forgot again that he’s bound by things like ‘the normal passage of time’.
Billie doesn’t regret pulling him out of the Void. Doesn’t mean she doesn’t think long and hard about hitting the kid upside the head now and then. “Sure,” she says. “Come on. We’re almost there.”
The Hound Pits Pub is about as nice as any bar in Dunwall can get. Outside is clean, and all the bloodstains have been well hidden. As a rule, Billie prefers places that are honest in their appearances. She’s a bit of a hypocrite that way.
She wanted to get there before Attano, but thanks to the Outsider’s frequent insistence on detours, when she pushes her way into the pub, the Outsider at her heels, he’s already there.
And Emily, too. Billie doesn’t know why she’s surprised. She didn’t want to see her. Not after she told her the truth on the Dreadful Wale. But she deserves it, just like she’s deserved every other knife she’s ever taken to the ribs.
There’s no one else here, not even a bartender. Probably for the best. No one to comment as they all stare at each other. The Outsider’s gone rigid. Emily’s grabbed her left hand like it’s hurting her. And Corvo seems unruffled entirely, stance relaxed, a man used to hiding his reactions. But he can’t hide the look in his eyes. Like his own shadow came around the bar to greet him.
“So,” Billie says, when no one else has the balls to do it. “It’s probably obvious what this is about.”
“Hello, Corvo,” says the Outsider, like this is just another pleasant visit in the Void for him.
“Hello,” Corvo says. He runs a hair through his hair. He looks about as tired as Billie feels. “Great. I assume there’s a very long, very complicated story behind this.”
“There always is,” agrees Emily, recovering with all the grace of the Empress that she is.
They say Attano’s never been a man of many words. Billie can believe it, but right now it just looks like he’s lost them. His eyes never once leave the Outsider’s face. “Fine. Fine. So, then—should I still call you the Outsider?”
“I’m not the Outsider,” he tells Corvo. “But I don’t know who else I could be.” He turns to Billie. “You changed your name, once. Did it help?”
“It changed nothing.” She knows she’s being obvious, but she still can’t bring herself to look Attano in the eye, even as she keeps a close watch on him. The Empress she knows, and Emily she trusts. The Royal Protector is a very dangerous man who has every reason to hate her. “Names don’t tell you who you are. Call yourself whatever you want.”
The Outsider shrugs. She’s seen him do it several times, in the weeks it’s taken them to get to Dunwall from Karnaca, but the motion still sits oddly on him. It’s like he wasn’t built for it. “It will do, for now,” he says.
“Great,” Emily says. She looks between Billie and the Outsider and her father, and then she turns and vaults over the bar. “I think we could all use a drink for this. Preference?”
“Give him pear soda,” Billie says. “Anything else is gonna be a bad idea.”
“I’ll have wine,” the Outsider says, because Void or no Void, he’s still a contrary fucker.
“Soda,” Corvo agrees. Billie can’t help but laugh at the Outsider’s look of abject betrayal.
“So,” Emily says, once they’ve all settled into a booth, the Outsider sipping from a compromise glass of very watered wine. “This is why my Mark stopped working.”
Corvo, next to her, jerks his head around to stare at her.
Emily winces. “Sorry. I was going to tell you.”
“Of course you were.” Corvo sighs.
“Yes,” the Outsider says. “I asked Billie Lurk to kill me. She freed me from the Void instead. The Mark is dead. Consigned to history, like so much else.”
“It was a lot more complicated than that,” Billie says. The Outsider, she’s discovering, is absolute shit at explaining anything. “There was a cult, and a knife, and my arm—”
“Suffice to say,” the Outsider says, cutting her off. “I am now mortal.”
“And he asked me to bring him here, and I’ve done that, on top of everything else he asked me to do, so maybe I can finally get back to—” She doesn’t finish. Well, that is the question, isn’t it. Meagan Foster is as good as dead now. And who is Billie Lurk, anymore?
Emily is staring at her. Right—she hasn’t seen the eye before. Or the arm. She’s probably wondering where Billie got the eyepatch. Attano, thankfully, is mostly ignoring her in favor of watching the Outsider, not a little warily. Makes sense. Word on the street always was that Attano was pretty smart.
“You’re mortal now, and you wanted to come here?” Attano asks.
“Yes,” the Outsider says. “I wanted to speak with you.”
Attano doesn’t look too sure what he thinks about that.
Empress Emily Kaldwin, apparently, knows how to take a hint. “Billie,” she says. “There’s something I wanted to discuss with you.” She jerks her head towards the corridor behind the bar. Of course. No respectable pub in Dunwall is without its own set of back rooms.
Billie finishes the last of her drink, standing up. She spares the Outsider one last glance over her shoulder before she follows Emily up the stairs. He looks almost as calm as he ever did, the few times that Billie met him before he left the Void for good. He’s tapping his foot under the table, though. He’ll have to train himself out of that, if he wants Billie to stop fleecing him for all the money he doesn’t have at cards.
Corvo presses his face against his fist, propped up against the table. The Outsider, heedless of politeness as ever, is watching him. He seems surprised every time he blinks.
He looks so different, with human eyes. Corvo never would have thought it possible.
When the door to the pub had opened, the first thing Corvo noticed was that Lurk wasn’t alone, his guard going up without thought. Then he’d realized who, exactly, she was with, and it was like the tension inside him didn’t know whether to release or coil tighter. Like his heart had started beating one step out of time.
The Outsider was a known quantity, once. He and the Void had seeped into the dark corners of Corvo’s life since the day that Jessamine died. A known quantity with unknown effects. Corvo never knew what to expect. He doesn’t know what to expect now.
“This isn't some trick, is it? A test?”
“I have never been in the habit of giving tests, Corvo,” the Outsider says. Even his voice is different. Or perhaps sound just works differently in the Void than it does here, with the background bustle of a Dunwall street fading in. “I am what I am now. Nothing more, nothing less.”
He holds out a hand. Corvo, not knowing what else to do, takes it. It's warm.
He’s touched the Outsider only once before, just after Emily’s rescue, all those years ago. He woke from a dream of the Flooded District to the Outsider, hand tight around his wrist, pulling him up out of the water and the muck into the Void, instead. His hands were shockingly cold, colder even than the bone-deep ache of the river.
He had asked Corvo, then, if he was happy. It was an absurd question. Corvo told him so. The Outsider laughed, and Corvo woke with it still ringing in his ears. He did not speak to the Outsider again for fifteen years.
The Outsider now, with his warm hands and light eyes, turns Corvo’s hand over in his grip. He inspects the back critically. “You never gave me an answer, the last time we spoke,” he says, sweeping his thumb across the place where his Mark used to rest.
“I didn't,” Corvo agrees. “It doesn't matter now, I suppose.”
The Outsider drops Corvo’s hand, folding his own back in his lap. “It matters,” he says. “There are those who might feel relief, at the loss of my Mark. Others, anger and rage at the absence of their powers. And what did you feel, Corvo? Grief? Freedom? Indifference?”
With a jolt, Corvo realizes that it isn't a rhetorical question. The Outsider doesn't know. “I was afraid, when Delilah took my Mark,” he says, haltingly. The Outsider watches him as he speaks, rapt as ever in his attention. “Confused. Relieved, when Emily broke me out of that rock, and the missing Mark was the only thing that was wrong.” The Outsider leans forward, elbows on the tabletop, as if Corvo is telling him secrets of incalculable value. “It wasn't something I could control. There didn't seem to be any point in missing it.” Just as there had been little point in missing the countless annoyances that made up his time with the Outsider—strange dreams and coy monologues and good luck in unexpected places. Corvo has worked hard, these past fifteen years, to now dwell on things he can’t change.
“Corvo,” the Outsider says, in a tone of admonishment and endearment all at once. “You could have asked for it back. I am—I was always listening. You needn't have found a shrine. I would have heard you anywhere.”
“I'm not in the habit of asking favors from gods.”
“No,” the Outsider agrees. “You never were.” He sits back. “So many futures that were laid out before us, once, now narrowed down to this single thread. I cannot see beyond it. But it is fitting, that we would end up here.” He looks away. The only thing that hasn’t changed about the Outsider is the weight of his gaze. Its loss is palpable. “I need your help.”
Corvo nods. This is familiar territory, for all that the circumstances are unusual. “Is it that cult Lurk mentioned? They sound dangerous. I can set my people to look into it—”
“No, Corvo,” says the Outsider. “The Eyeless are no more. Billie Lurk saw to that. And she brought me here, because I asked her to do so, when she could have easily abandoned me on the rocks of Shindaerey. I would not have blamed her. I would not have blamed her for killing me.”
“I would,” Corvo says, narrowing his eyes. The Outsider has never before seemed like someone in need of protection; it would have been absurd to offer it. But the young man in front of him is vulnerable in a way that makes Corvo’s skin itch. He has no sword calluses on his hands.
The Outsider laughs.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to do until the moment that she did it. It is hard to feel fear, in the Void. But I felt it. I thought that it had been enough. Four thousand years, Corvo. You couldn’t even imagine it if you tried. There simply isn’t enough room inside your head. I won’t be able to imagine it, soon enough. It’s already beginning to slip away.”
“You said you asked Lurk to kill you.”
“And instead she…?”
The Outsider peers out the window, inspecting the blurry view of the water beyond as if it fascinates him. “Instead she found a way to make me human again,” he says. “She carved out a new choice for herself. The way you and your daughter were always so fond of doing. A different kind of freedom than the one I expected.”
“I see. And how is humanity treating you?”
The Outsider looks back at him. “I have returned to a city that was never truly my home, for all that its intricacies and plots held my interest for years, decades, centuries at a time. I am friendless, and destitute, and have no trade. Dunwall is not a kind city. I would not have loved it so if it were.”
The Outsider’s grand speeches are at odds with the simple mundanity of the Hound Pits Pub. “So you want my help with?”
“I was hoping that we might start with a place to stay,” the Outsider says. “Billie Lurk wants to kick me out.”
“You can still tell what she’s thinking?”
“No,” the Outsider says. He leans back against his seat and crosses his arms. For a moment he looks just like he did the first time he ever appeared to Corvo in the Void, if he’d been more the petulant child and less the god. “She told me. With vigor. After the second time we had to move lodgings. Did you know, cooking is very difficult? The flames never do what you tell them to.”
Corvo can imagine.
“Fine,” he says. It is a low enough cost, for all the gifts the Outsider ever gave him. Corvo has lived a long time with the weight of them hanging over his head, sure that one day the Outsider would come to collect. And maybe he has. He’s certainly not a threat anymore.
There’s so little good Corvo can ever do in this city. Maybe helping one lost young man is enough. It’s the sort of thing Emily is always trying to do, the small kindnesses she keeps close to her heart, when the weight of the city around her shoulders threatens to crush her.
It’s the kind of thing Jessamine used to talk about, quietly, safe in Corvo’s arms.
Coming back to the Hound Pits Pub always makes Emily feel a little strange. But Cecilia doesn’t mind closing up shop whenever Emily needs a private meeting outside of the Tower. And Emily still knows every nook and cranny of it from her days of playing hide and seek, driving poor Callista to distraction.
It’s almost nostalgic. They’re easier memories, in some ways, than those from earlier in Emily’s life, the time when her mother still lived.
She leads Billie to a room on the second floor, the place Havelock once used as his office. Emily leans back against the desk, crossing her arms. Tries to watch Billie as well as she can out of the corner of her eye. She’s wearing an eyepatch. She shouldn’t be, not now, not after what Emily did. And Emily can feel in her bones that there’s more than an empty socket beneath it. Her arm is different, too. Billie reaches up to brush a piece of hair out of her eye, and she’s wearing gloves, but when her sleeve slips down, there’s only twisting black underneath. Emily looks away.
Bilie Lurk should never have lost her arm and her eye. Not anymore. But the Outsider shouldn’t be walking the streets of Dunwall, either.
“Nice place you’ve got here,” Billie says. “What’s the story?”
Emily slants her a look. “What, you don’t know?”
“I know half, maybe. Rumors, back when I still lived here. But it’s hard to know more than half of any story. Hanging around him starts to put things in perspective.”
“I can imagine.” Emily shifts to sit on the desk, leaning back on her hands. “So is that really all this was about? Getting the Outsider in the same room as my father?”
“Pretty much,” says Billie. “The Outsider is a little...adrift. I figured I would help him out. Void knows why. Not like he’s done anything to deserve it.” The words don’t have as much bite as Billie seems to think they do. Emily remembers the protective streak she always had, back when they traveled together. For Sokolov, and Stilton, and even, sometimes, Emily herself.
She can’t help but wonder if Billie was ever this protective of Daud. She puts the thought away. It won’t help her. She’s never going to know the answer.
“He helped me,” Emily says. “Just like you did.”
“If that teaches you anything, Empress, it’s that you can’t always trust the people who help you.”
There’s nothing Emily can really say to that. She looks away.
“Here.” Billie pulls a pouch from her pocket, and holds it out. It’s heavy in her hands when Emily takes it. Silver.
“What’s this?” Emily asks, bemused.
“Return to sender,” Billie says. “I never asked for your money. I meant to send it back to you, but—well, things got a little busy before I had the chance.”
That’s right. Emily sent Billie money. It seemed only fair, considering the risks Billie had taken, the danger she’d put her ship in, the basis of her livelihood. All to help a lost young woman who didn’t understand the world as much as she thought she did.
She sent it, and then—forgot about it. Filed it away as another task completed.
She has more sense than to tell Billie that. “Billie, you have to know I don’t need the money. There’s no point in returning it.”
“Keep the damn coin, Empress,” Billie says. “What I did—you owe me a clean slice across the throat. I’m not going to take payment instead. Give it to the kid, if you’re so opposed to taking it back. Void knows he’s got nothing of his own.”
Except for what Billie’s given him. Emily doesn’t say that. She doesn’t ask Billie why she thinks that Emily wants to take money back from a woman who helped kill her mother any more than Billie wants to receive it herself. She sets the pouch down beside herself on the desk. “Alright,” she says. “Do you know what he wants from my father, anyway?”
“I’m not even sure he knows what he wants. I just got him here.” She shrugs. The motion draws Emily’s eyes to her arm. She’s been trying to ignore it, but it’s impossible. It’s practically ringing in Emily’s ears. Billie notices. “Like the new arm?” She strips off her glove and fans out her fingers. It’s like the Void curled itself around her bones instead of skin.
“It’s a gift from the Outsider, isn’t it.”
“Yeah. A ‘gift’. You can tell?”
“The Void...there’s a sound to it. Lower than anything else. It hums.” Emily shrugs. “Your arm, and your face...they sound the same. I can’t not hear it.” And who else but the Outsider could return the injuries that Emily wiped away?
Emily is going to have words with him, once he’s done with her father.
Billie flexes her hand, staring at it. “He said that the world was wounded around me.” She looks back up at Emily, and her gaze cuts. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, now would you?”
Emily closes her eyes. She could lie. Billie couldn’t blame her, for lying. “The Outsider probably understands it better than I do.”
“I’m not asking him. I’m asking you.”
“The Stilton Manor,” Emily says. She looks back at Billie, holding her gaze steadily. “He was there. He gave me something. It let me change the past.”
“He did what?”
Emily wasn’t planning on telling anyone about what she did at Stilton Manor. Not Billie, not her father, not Stilton himself. It was supposed to be her secret alone. But she finds the words spilling out without her consent. “When you first brought me there, when I went to the Dust District—Stilton had been missing for three years. Ever since Delilah’s seance.”
“Missing.” Billie’s words are flat.
“Yes. You’d gone to find him, back when he first disappeared, and—that must be how you lost them. Your arm and your eye. You never told me, but it’s the only thing that makes sense. They were gone, when we met, and then I went to the Manor and I saved him, Billie. He was mad, the Void had torn apart his mind, but I stopped it. Three years in the past. And when I got back, the Manor was alive again, it had been in ruins before. But there were people there, servants, I scared this poor maid half to death before I realized and I had to knock her out. And I got back to the skiff, and there you were. Two arms, and two eyes. You were smoking with a hand you hadn’t had when I left.” Billie’s hands are clenched into fists. Emily wonders if she should be getting into a defensive stance. “What was I supposed to say? You wouldn’t have believed me.”
“I ran with the Knife of fucking Dunwall for half my life,” Billie says. “The shit I’ve seen? I would have believed you. Who gave you the right to—to waltz in and change my life? To take away my choices?”
“You’d prefer it if I’d left Aramis Stilton to rot in that mansion?” Emily asks. “He was all alone. He’d lost everything. I couldn’t give him back all of it, but I gave him something.”
“You can’t change the past, Empress, no matter how much you want to.”
“Well, I did!” Emily know she sounds like a child. She doesn’t care. Billie Lurk is pissed at her for doing the right thing. Emily will yell if she wants to. “You should be thanking me.”
“I expect this bullshit from the Outsider, he doesn’t understand how any of this works, but you can’t just run roughshod over things that have already happened. Otherwise, how are any of us supposed to keep on? How are we supposed to live, knowing that it could all have been different? We have one life. We make our choices. We live with the consequences.”
“Just because you can’t fix any of your mistakes, Billie, doesn’t mean everything should stay broken,” Emily says coldly. “I’m sorry it’s so very hard for you, having killed my mother. I’m sorrier than anyone that you can’t fix it. But I’m not sorry for what I did at Stilton’s manor. I have a job to do. I don’t have time to wallow in my regrets.”
She stalks past Billie, out the door and down the stairs. She’s been getting better about keeping her anger in while it’s still hot, but with Billie, what’s the point?
The Outsider and her father are deep in conversation when she gets back downstairs, heads bent together.
“I’m needed back at the Tower,” she says. Corvo looks concerned at the tightness in her voice. The Outsider merely seems curious. She waves a hand at them. “Finish your business. I’ll be waiting outside.”
The air does her some good. And so does hurling rocks into the ocean, the way she used to do as a child, standing here and wondering when her Father would come back. Never once allowing herself to think that he, too, might not.
Fuck Billie Lurk, and fuck her anger, and fuck the small part of Emily that can’t help but wonder if maybe she’s right.
She told Billie the truth. Empress Emily Kaldwin doesn’t get to linger on her mistakes. She moves forward, always, because she has to.
Corvo, Corvo, Corvo. The name tastes different on his tongue. Everything tastes different, outside of the Void, all of himself forced back into a body too small to hold him. The wine didn’t taste like thousands of years of compounded regrets, mixed in with a smaller portion of joys, of celebrations—it was only bitter grapes, and a warmth in his veins beyond his control.
Corvo. It still feels odd. Corvo isn’t a piece in a game anymore. There’s no taste of that familiar loyalty mixed up with resentment, an entirely different kind than Daud’s. Corvo could hold him, now, could fight him off in a way that he never could before. Could ignore him, could forget him, could cast him out into the street.
Instead he agreed to let the Outsider take rooms in the Tower, until such a time as he no longer needed them. Agreed without being asked to a host of other things: clothes, and a library, there had been mention of a library, and—a name. He promised to give the Outsider a name.
“You don’t have to use it, if you don’t want,” he said. “But you do need one.”
“I had one,” the Outsider told him. “I lost it. Daud—what was left of Daud—he whispered it in my ear, and I left the Void, and I don’t know what he said. I’ll never know what he said.” The fear the Outsider feels at that, at the space on the tip of his tongue where knowledge should be, is a different beast entirely than any terror he can remember. He remembers much. Less, every minute.
He’d feared his death, cold and shivering, sharp like a knife against his neck and just as quick. He knew that it would all end, in his death or his life.
This fear, the fear of not knowing, stretched out before him like a dark and endless road, mud sucking at his heels now forced to remain on the ground. A Leviathan devouring. It would never be sated, never put to rest.
Corvo watched him. “Alright,” the Outsider said. “Give me a name. I haven’t been named in four thousand years. Make it a good one.”
And now the Outsider walks back to the lodgings he no longer shares with Billie Lurk, so he may begin to gather his things. In ten minute’s walking, while he has been consumed by his own thoughts, Billie has not needled him once, staying three good strides ahead of him.
“What are you thinking about?” he asks her, catching up. Billie Lurk can be silent, when she wishes. She has a tendency to brood, as Daud did. But she takes her silences alone when she can. And she finds the Outsider’s own quiet unsettling. She has told him so, many times. And she said nothing, when he said Corvo’s name aloud.
“None of your damned business,” she tells him. Dunwall is growing dark around them, dusk reaching fingers up from the sea, taking over the sky. The Outsider prefers the night. It hides all manner of misdeeds, in Dunwall. It hides him. It is a perpetual discomfort, the inability to be unseen when one wishes. The cover of darkness is as cool an embrace as the Void ever was.
“What did you and Emily talk about?”
Billie sneers. “What me and Empress Kaldwin talk about is—not to repeat myself, I wouldn’t want to bore you—none of your concern, Outsider.”
“All is my concern.”
“Not anymore, kid.”
She isn’t wrong.
The Outsider once thought that he had gotten quite good at it: keeping his interests selective. His Marked numbered only eight, after all, balanced against the thousands upon thousands of lives crowded into the world. He thought himself quite discerning in who and what received his attention. But he had long forgotten what human attention was truly like, how tiny and shallow it could be. A person born in Dunwall would never wonder what the weather was like in Morley that day, and would never feel the loss of not being able to simply reach out and—know.
The Outsider feels the loss like a missed step in a staircase, every time he wonders, and cannot find the answer. He wonders, now, what Corvo is doing—guarding his daughter as they make their way back to Dunwall Tower. Worrying about whatever argument she had with Billie Lurk, perhaps, or wondering again why it couldn’t have been him who had saved her this time. A whole host of utterly common anxieties that the Outsider never ceased to be fascinated by, once, when they lived in Corvo Attano’s mind.
He has no idea at all if Corvo worries now about the Outsider. He never thought overmuch about how Corvo felt about him, while he still could have known it. Corvo was merely himself, distinct and separate from all others. His straightforward strangeness shone in the Outsider’s eyes, a corona of every wretched, difficult kindness the man had ever done without thought. Fascinating, always, the way history warped around him. And however he felt about the Outsider, he knew that Corvo would always listen when he called, quiet and contemplative where his daughter would shift and fidget and make faces at him. It had seemed as unchangeable as anything in the world.
The Outsider knows better, now. He knows how even the most solid ground will shift, given enough time. He wishes, quite suddenly, that he had known it then, too.
“Are you going to tell me what Lurk said to make you so angry?” Corvo asks Emily. They’re taking the long way back to the Tower, hoods pulled close over their faces. Corvo figures that Emily could use the time to cool off.
“Are you going to tell me what you and the Outsider talked about?”
“Logistics, mostly,” Corvo says with a shrug. “Apparently Lurk’s not keen on keeping him around forever. I offered him a place to stay.”
“Can’t say I ever expected that we’d have the Outsider himself as a houseguest.”
Corvo’s mouth twitches. “The Abbey will be thrilled.”
That gets Emily to laugh, her shoulders finally dropping from where they’d been pulled up around her ears. A few guards look up as they pass. Recognizing their employer, probably. Corvo raises his eyebrow at the one who peers closer at him, a reedy young man who flushes and looks away when he realizes who is escorting the Empress.
Corvo will have to remember to ask after him when they get back. It’s good to know that someone’s being careful. After all, he can’t be the only one protecting Emily forever.
Emily is different from Jessamine in so many ways, but she’s always taken after her mother in how long a little bit of silence will go towards getting her to talk. A few more minutes of walking—past the docks, past what used to be the Flooded District, past a row of houses still being rebuilt—is enough to loosen her tongue. She sighs. “I didn’t think it would hurt so much. Seeing her again.”
Corvo thinks, again, of Daud. He’d never expected to see him again, after watching him kill Jessamine. And he certainly hadn’t expected to spare the man.
He felt very cold in the moment he decided to do it. The Wrenhaven running through his veins. He wished, even at the time, that he could make another choice. But he knew that he couldn’t. Not knowing Emily was still out there, waiting for her father.
Used to his silences, Emily continues. “It’s just—I wasn’t happy, on that boat. Of course I wasn’t happy. But I was doing something that mattered. I was making real progress, not—whatever it is I’m doing here.”
“You’re running an Empire, Emily.”
“Me and a hundred bureaucrats with sticks up their asses,” she mutters darkly. “And every aristocrat who cares more about their comfort than anything else.”
“You’re not wrong,” Corvo says. “A blade is usually simpler.”
Emily sighs. “And if the easy thing was always right, my life would be a lot simpler.”
Corvo reaches out to ruffle her hair, dislodging the hood of her cloak. They’re close enough to the Tower now that no one will mind the Empress and her Royal Protector, out for a walk to enjoy the night air.
Emily bats him away, shaking her head. “Everything seemed so clear. And now she’s back, and—I can’t stop thinking about it. All the things I did. Whether they were the right ones. Whether I should have known who she was from the start. Or what if she hadn’t told me at all, and I never realized—”
“But she did tell you.”
“She didn’t have to.”
“I think,” Corvo says, “that maybe she did.” He looks up at the Tower as they approach. He’s lived more than half his life there. He can picture Emily, darting around the streets of Karnaca, face covered and her back pressed against the wall of an alley, knife tight in her grip. He’d always wanted to show her Serkonos. The places where he was young. He’s not sure that he’ll ever get the chance, now. And what would it mean to Emily, who never got to be young the way that he did?
The night before he left for Dunwall, fresh off his victory at the Blade Verbena, he drank himself sick until dawn. The closest Emily had ever come to that was locking herself away in a room with Wyman for an hour, smoking hookah and pretending Corvo didn’t know who had smuggled in the illegal tobacco. Just relaxing for even a moment, like it was a luxury. “Do you miss it?” he asks. “Your time on the Dreadful Wale?”
Emily is looking up at the Tower, too. “I miss the person I thought I could be when I was there,” she says. “I knew it couldn’t last. I knew I didn’t even want it to. But when I wasn’t thinking about you, or Mother, or Dunwall—there was just the sea, and good whiskey, and someone to drink it with.” She sighs. “But all along it was Billie Lurk, and I didn’t even know. I was being a child, thinking I could escape it. All this. Any of it.”
The guards salute her, as they pass through the Tower’s gates. Corvo almost wishes they didn’t.
Watching the Outsider pack is weird as hell, and that’s saying something. Billie has seen a lot of weird shit in her life.
She hadn’t even realized the kid owned this much crap, and they just finished spending two weeks in the same cramped quarters on a smuggling ship. Between Meagan Foster and Billie Lurk and a few other names, Billie has a lot of old friends. Thankfully, over the past fifteen years, Lizzy Stride branched out into smuggling between Karnaca and Dunwall. If there was anyone less interested than Lizzy Stride in asking questions about her passengers and who they might look like, Billie has yet to meet them.
Somehow the Outsider has accumulated bits and pieces from nearly every place they stopped on their meandering journey from Shindaerey Peak to here, a battered boarding house that reminds Billie of the Whaler’s old hideout. A seashell, a book torn clean in half, a leather-bound journal.
“Did you steal any of that stuff?” Billie asks. She’d be impressed, if she never saw him do it.
The Outsider shrugs, which, right: illuminating as ever.
“So how did you sweet-talk the Royal Protector into letting you stay at the Tower?”
The Outsider blinks at her. “I asked,” he says. “That’s all.”
Billie rolls her eyes. “Attano’s getting soft in his old age, isn’t he.”
“Corvo is the same as he ever was,” the Outsider says. He closes his bag with the kind of dramatic finality that would be absurd, coming from anyone else. From him, it’s just to be expected. “He’s useful like that. A mark to measure the rising of the tide against.”
“He’s a person, Outsider. People change.”
“They change, or they suffer for want of changing. I know about human nature, Billie Lurk.”
“You think you know all about us because you watched from the Void, all those years? Believe me when I tell you it’s not even close to the same.”
The Outsider leaves his bag in favor of digging through the pantry. Billie lays back on her cot and sighs. She’s lived alone a long time. Hasn’t had much of stable crew since she ran with the Empress and Sokolov. The Outsider doesn’t make for the best roommate. She’s certainly not going to miss him, or the smell of burnt fish still lingering in her rooms. But there is something to be said for hearing something other than the sound of the ocean, the sound of her own voice.
Mouth full of bread, the Outsider turns back to her. “I was human once.”
“Yeah. A long fucking time ago.” Billie presses her arm over her eyes. The real arm. The eye that she lost, or something like it, is cool against her skin. “Weren’t we all.”
The Outsider sits down beside her, still chewing. The loss of his Void-damned grace isn’t doing him any favors. The cot jostles. “What will you do?” he asks.
“Is that all you ever want to know?” Billie asks. “What will happen?”
“Of course. What else is there to know?”
“Some of us can appreciate the beauty of not knowing, once in a while.” Billie sits up. She grabs the loaf of bread the Outsider is holding, and tears herself off a piece. “Anyway, what are you planning to do, now that you’ve got the Lord Protector all wrapped around your finger?
The Outsider takes the bread back and looks at it, as if it’s gonna give him the answers. Billie knows what it’s like, being set to sea like that. But he’s not her responsibility, and anyway: what business does she have trying to give anyone a purpose? Not like she’s ever had any luck finding one that didn’t come back to bite her in the ass. “I’ll have to see,” he says. “That will be interesting, won’t it?”
He doesn’t sound so sure.
There’s a pile of correspondence on Emily’s desk a handspan high when she and Corvo return. Emily ignores it. Instead, she sneaks into the closet where she keeps the stash of cigars she steals from her father. She lights one, sticks her head out of the small window, and breathes.
The truth—the truth that Emily can’t tell Corvo, won’t tell Corvo, it’s not like he’s told her everything about his time in the Hound Pits Pub, all the things he did his best to keep hidden—is that she had fun, on Meagan Foster’s ship. She put her face to the wind and felt it make a ruin of her hair, dove into the water and dug runes out of the soft mud with hagfish biting at her heels, listened to Meagan’s stories and laughed, not caring that they weren’t true. She never trusted Meagan, not really—she poked through her diary and listened to her audiographs and both of them pretended that Emily wasn’t doing it and that Meagan wasn’t letting her.
It was fun. It meant that Emily wasn’t just someone who had to be protected. Her father needed saving, and she knew she was going to do it. Sneaking around, that was something Emily was good at in a way she’d never been any good at governance. She wasn’t alone. She listened to Meagan’s lies and thought them harmless. And she did think about it, when Meagan told her the truth, how easy it would be to knock her out, to slide a knife across her neck the way Emily had killed a few guards, when she had no other choice—
She’d always had a choice. She had a choice then, and she made it. She chose to let Billie live with her own mistakes, when a week earlier she’d killed a few men because she hadn’t been quiet enough, because there wasn’t enough time. They were only doing their jobs, just like the palace guards that protected Emily every day. Just like Alexi, dead on the floor. And Billie Lurk got to live, because Emily decided that was the right thing to do.
No. Because Emily decided that was what she wanted.
The truth is that Emily liked Meagan Foster. She’d always loved pirate stories as a child, the more vicious the better. And the circumstances were awful, but if things had been different, Emily wouldn’t have minded meeting the handsome owner of a smuggling ship, sweeping her off her feet.
Meagan Foster was just someone Billie Lurk made up; Meagan Foster made mistakes, but none of them killed Emily’s mother. But maybe that was the only thing about the two of them that was different. Two masks hiding the same face.
Emily thought, when she saw Meagan again after Stilton’s manor, that she’d given her a gift. She never told her. She thought that Meagan would never know, that it would be Emily’s secret kindness, repayment for all of Meagan’s help. Except she owes Billie nothing, and if it was a gift, apparently she only ever would have thrown it back in Emily’s face.
Emily trained herself out of thinking too long on her past at a very young age. But she’s not used to having it show up and write her a card.
And instead of doing anything that she’s supposed to, here Emily is. Dwelling.
She never saw the Outsider again, after she saved her father. But she dreamt of the Void, on occasion. There was never anyone there. Just her, and the wind, and the space to run and jump and reach.
She hasn’t been back since her Mark stopped working. It wouldn’t be the same, but she still wishes she could. There are so few places where she can be free.
Meagan Foster never treated her like an Empress. Now, that’s the only name that Billie will call her by.
Corvo comes to collect him in the morning, all the Lord Protector, none of the cloaked figure from yesterday.
“I’m honored,” the Outsider tells him, when Corvo knocks on the door to Billie’s rooms. Billie made herself scarce this morning, muttering only business under her breath when the Outsider asked where she was going. “So newly arrived to this city, and yet already I deserve a state visit.”
Corvo rolls his eyes and walks in. “You’re an apprentice Sokolov picked up in Tyvia and sent back here for further training. Of course, Sokolov is such a dear friend of the Crown that Emily simply couldn’t let him languish at a boarding house by the docks—”
“I’m Sokolov’s apprentice?” the Outsider demands.
Corvo has the audacity to laugh at him. Funny, how quickly he stopped seeing the Outsider as a god, and as someone who could be teased. Humanity is trying.
If Sokolov were not involved, the Outsider would even like it, a new shape for him to fit himself into. “Well, he’s not here to deny it.”
“This works,” Corvo muses. “I bet all of Sokolov’s apprentices hate him.”
“They should. He is hateful.”
“What exactly did the man ever do to offend you?” Corvo asks. “Can’t say I’m the man’s biggest fan. But I don’t know if I fully understand your criteria.”
“You mean,” says the Outsider, “why do I hate Sokolov so, when there are any number of other less savory men in this world to draw my ire?”
“More or less.” Corvo is slowly but surely casing Billie’s rooms, walking around, taking the measure of them. The Outsider doesn’t believe he even realizes that he’s doing it. In all creatures, breathing is automatic, the body’s desire to live inescapable. If they live long enough, people tend to develop habits equally as ingrained, just as impossible to resist as breath. Corvo cannot help but look for danger in every corner.
The question Corvo poses is not one the Outsider ever gave a great deal of consideration. Sokolov was intolerable; there was nothing more to say. His regard itched. All that time spent wondering about the Outsider, and he did not even have the decency to be interesting. “He never left me alone.”
Corvo’s mouth twitches. The Outsider can see the guffaw that would be building in another, less quiet man. “What?”
“Some might say the same of you,” Corvo observes.
Corvo has finished his slow circuit of the room. The Outsider grabs his bag, suddenly impatient to be gone. Impatience itself is a new luxury.
“Not a comparison you like?”
“Let’s go,” says the Outsider.
Corvo really is laughing as they walk out. “To think that it would have been this easy to piss you off. If only I’d tried.”
“You didn’t want to,” says the Outsider, blinking. Of all the days for Dunwall to decide to be sunny. It’s early yet, but late enough that half the city is already awake and shouting. “You were afraid, and then thankful, and unsure underneath it all whether you could trust me. And just as sure that you had no choice.”
“Anyone ever tell you how annoying that is?”
“Billie Lurk has told me many things,” says the Outsider. “Lead the way home, Royal Protector.”
The Outsider is having breakfast with her father in the parlor when Emily finally rouses herself from bed. It was a late night training, wearing herself out enough that she could sleep. And anyway, if her powers are really gone for good, she ought to be able to defend herself. Corvo, despite his most fervent wishes, cannot be everywhere at once.
The Outsider looks so much like a normal man that it’s disarming. There are plenty of dark-haired, hollow-eyed youths in Dunwall, although most of them don’t spend their breakfast peering at her father like he’s a particularly annoying puzzle.
“Hello,” he says, when Emily enters, looking up at her only briefly. He looks back down at his plate with the same expression of consternation he was favoring Corvo with.
“It’s smoked fish,” Corvo tells him. His tone indicates that this is not the first time he’s said it. “On bread. I promise this isn’t part of a long con to poison you.”
“You never know,” says the Outsider. “There has recently been an attempt on my life.” He prods at his breakfast with a fork.
“Was that a joke?” Emily asks, taking her own seat across from her father.
“Unfortunately, I think he’s getting Lurk’s sense of humor.”
“Better than Daud’s,” says the Outsider, the corner of his mouth curling. He looks up and sees both of their faces. “Ah. Was that in poor taste?”
Corvo just shakes his head. “You haven’t changed much, have you.”
Emily sighs. “Just eat your fish,” she says. “I promise we’ve both heard worse.”
The Outsider does. He tilts his head to the side consideringly. “It’s familiar,” he says.
“Good,” Emily says. “You’ll be eating a lot of it, if you’re going to stay in Dunwall.” She pauses. “Are you going to stay in Dunwall?”
“It seems so,” he says. “Your father has offered his assistance in finding employment. He has also found me an identity.” His mouth twists. “For now.”
Emily raises an eyebrow at Corvo, who is thankfully back to smiling. “Has he, now?”
“He’s one of Sokolov’s apprentices,” Corvo says. “The man himself certainly isn’t around to deny it. It seemed sensible enough.”
Emily laughs. “I’ll be sure to tell him in my next letter.”
“You will not,” says the Outsider, and the same time Corvo says, “I wouldn’t.” They blink at each other.
“It might not be safe,” Corvo says. “Lurk says the conspiracy is dealt with, but in my experience, conspiracies have a way of popping back up once you think you’ve killed them. Like river krusts.”
“And he might insist on coming here,” the Outsider says. “Which, I promise you, would be disastrous for all involved. For the time being, I am Mikhail Ilyushin of Tyvia, and I am enjoying the hospitality of the royal family while I find a way to support myself during my time in Dunwall.”
“What are you planning to do?” Emily asks. “The royal libraries are always looking for new scholars.” She can’t imagine what the stern head librarian, who Emily had run afoul of quite often in her youth, would have to say about the Outsider. She’s a little morbidly curious to find out.
The Outsider reaches out and plucks the newspaper that Corvo was glancing over from his hands. “I think you’ll both agree I have a head for ferreting out secrets.”
Corvo shakes his head. “I hate those damn things.”
“The hunger for knowledge is just as strong as the hunger for sustenance. It’s no wonder there were so many tales swirling about in the wake of Delilah’s coup. You can’t blame the newspapers for feeding the masses. The Crown Killer was fascinating.”
“I can blame them for telling lies.”
“You know,” Emily says, “I actually have a friend who might be able to help with that.”
The Outsider looks up at her. “You do indeed,” he says. “How is the printer of the Dunwall Courier? It was a close call, the day you saved him. Delilah’s thugs nearly killed him. All those articles defending your honor could have gone unwritten.”
“And he would have been dead.”
The Outsider shrugs. “He would,” he says. “He must be quite grateful. I would appreciate an introduction.”
“Great,” Emily says. “In that case, I’d like something in return.”
“Anything within my power,” the Outsider says. He spreads his hands. “What little there is left.”
“I need Billie Lurk’s address, and where you think I’d find her at this time of day.”
“A suitable arrangement.”
Corvo raises an eyebrow, still chewing silently. Emily blinks at him innocently. “We have unfinished business to discuss.”
None of the black market shops are in the same places as the last time Billie was in Dunwall. Not too surprising—they’re always moving, changing ownership as easily as coin changes hands. Billie’s never been sure what possesses anyone to want to work in one of the damn places. Half the time Billie buys anything, she has to stop a robbery in progress before she can do any business.
So it takes her a good long while to find the shop that’s tucked away at the edges of the Rudshore Financial District, eerily close to where the Whaler’s hideout once was. Who knows what that building is now. Maybe it’s the Chamber of Commerce once again. Nothing lasts in Dunwall, and the Empress has been working hard piecing the city back together, turning the Flooded District into a place that no longer deserves the name.
Billie buys herself a new supply of sleep darts and does her best not to think about the Empress. But the other options are worse: wondering whether the Outsider has gotten himself killed yet, in a city he has no clue how to navigate, whether the Royal Protector is going to put up with him, or reconsider his sudden bout of ill-advised kindness.
Billie hasn’t reconsidered hers, yet, but the year is still young.
All Billie wanted when she saw Emily again was a settled score. A slate wiped clean. She should’ve known better by now. Slates are never fully clean, and the past is never gone, whether you try to wash it away with gold or with blood. Something always lingers.
She looks over the contracts at the shop. Might as well, right? Not much interesting. The usual: murder, theft, arson. Dr. Galvani’s put a hit out on whoever robbed his bank vault, which makes Billie smile. Someday someone will slip and let Galvani know that the underworld has been laughing at him behind his back for years.
She knows she’s not going to pick any of them up. At least not now. She’s about to tell the shopkeeper she’ll pass when someone taps her on the shoulder.
Billie whirls around, fist raised, and is confronted with a very surprised Empress. Face covered, just like old times.
They watch each other for a moment. Emily’s hand is resting on her belt, like she went for her knife when it looked like Billie might attack her. Good. At least she learned something.
“You shouldn’t sneak up on anyone around here,” Billie says, lowering her hand. “People tend to be a little tense.”
“Sorry,” says the Empress of the Isles, not sounding very. “Our mutual friend said I might find you here.”
“Did he, now.” Billie is going to wring the Outsider’s scrawny neck. “Do you need something?”
She shrugs. “I was wondering if we could sit somewhere. Catch up. It’s been a long time.”
“You said you’d never forgive me,” Billie says. Blunt is the best way to go, with the Empress. She figured that out quick. “And you didn’t seem so interested in catching up yesterday.” Behind her, she can hear the shopkeeper shuffling papers, studiously pretending not to hear anything while probably taking mental notes, in case any of what they’re saying turns out to be useful. “Now you want to chat?”
“I don’t have to forgive you to buy you a drink. And I want to talk.”
Billie smiles. It doesn’t feel natural. Taught, like a springrazor set to go off. “Lead the way, your Majesty.”
Turns out the Empress knows her way around the back streets of Dunwall pretty well. Billie wonders if she always did, or if she’s picked it up in the months since her return from Karnaca. She picks the same bar that Billie would have chosen, the Graceful Talon. Quiet. The kind of place where people mind their own business.
Emily orders for both of them without asking what Billie wants. Whiskey for herself and pear soda and rum for Billie.
When Meagan Foster first picked up Emily Kaldwin, she wanted badly to be able to dismiss her as a spoiled brat. It would have made a lot of things easier. A lot of the things that Meagan Foster never did, but also couldn’t forget. But Emily Kaldwin, for all her faults, for all the bullshit ideas that growing up in luxury had given her, was kind when she thought to be. She saw Billie drink pear soda and rum once, on a cool night up on deck, when Emily had brought back just enough extra coin from Addermire to justify the expense, and she remembered.
Emily, who dragged Billie to stand with her in front of the Jindosh lock while she sat, brow furrowed, pen and paper stolen from the Overseer outpost in hand, determined not to ask for help to crack the code she was sure she could solve herself.
"Jindosh wasn't as smart as he thought he was," she said. "And I'm not helping the Overseers, and I'm not picking a side in a gang war. Karnaca doesn't need that kind of interference. Not from me." Which is hilarious, considering how much interfering she did, in the end. As if letting the imposter Duke reign wasn't doing just that. Billie can't say she thinks there was a better choice, though. If it was up to her she'd probably have killed them all, Paolo and the Overseers and Abele. So maybe it’s for the best it was up to Emily.
The Empress is a lot of things. Naive, though a little less so these days. Headstrong, and rude, and nosy, and kind, underneath it all, the kind of kid who it’s hard to believe would have lasted a second, growing up like Billie did. The kind of person Deirdre might have grown up to be.
That’s the kind of stupid shit Billie thinks around Emily. No wonder she didn’t have the damn sense to keep her mouth shut about Jessamine.
She thanks Emily for the drink and downs about half. She’s pretty sure she’s going to need it.
Emily drums her fingers on the bar for a few seconds. She doesn’t touch her own drink, but she watches it intently. Finally, she raises her eyes to meet Billie’s. They’re striking, with the scarf over her mouth. “I should have told you about Stilton,” she says, steady and sure. “I’m not sorry that I did it. I can’t be sorry. But it changed your life, and you deserved to know.”
“Huh,” Billie says. “An apology from an Empress. Now that’s worth more than all the coin you could ever send.”
Emily flinches at that, looking back down into her drink, which really wasn’t what Billie was aiming for. Billie doesn’t know what the fuck she’s trying to do. Emily shouldn’t be apologizing to her. Not for anything. Not even if she did fuck up, not even if she uncovered things that were better off left buried, not even if she stuck her nose in the Void where it didn’t belong.
“It was the Outsider’s idea, wasn’t it,” Billie says.
“Not to save him. I didn’t even really plan to do that. I was just...there, in the past, in his courtyard, and I realized he was going to get up and leave and lose his mind and I just—I couldn’t let him. I’d been sneaking around his house for hours, I’d seen all his things, I’d been in his rooms. I heard him talking in the present. To no one. To the old Duke.” Emily dips a finger in her whiskey, traces the outline of a circle on the scuffed bar. “Years on, and he was still grieving. He was grieving through the madness, for someone he couldn’t even remember, but still loved anyway. It was the only thing I could do. Maybe the Outsider knew that when he gave me the timepiece.”
Still a little bit naive, underneath it all. Billie doesn’t think Emily realizes that Stilton reminds her of her father.
Billie flexes her arm, feeling the way the Void shifts. Like an itch underneath skin that isn’t even there. “I’m starting to think all of us have been giving that kid too much credit for having some grand plan. He’s not any different than us. Even if he won’t admit it, he’s only ever just been following his gut.” She sighs. “It’s not like you can do anything about it, right?”
“I still have the timepiece, but...it’s cold. It doesn’t do anything.”
“And you wouldn’t go back, even if you could.”
Emily meets her eyes. “No. I don't know if it was right. But I mean it. I couldn’t do anything else.”
Billie has never been sure of herself the way that Emily is. She’s never been able to make her choices with the same conviction, even the big ones—betraying Daud, helping the lost Empress, saving the Outsider. Everything she does comes with the expectation of regret. Must be nice. “Alright,” she says. “It is what it is.”
The corner of Emily’s mouth lifts. “My favorite Dunwall proverb.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Billie raises her glass, and Emily does too, and she finally starts to drink.
“I really do want to catch up,” Emily says, halfway through her whiskey, turning the glass between her hands. “Meagan Foster’s life always seemed so exciting.”
“I remember.” Billie does. Emily, bone-weary and bruised every night, eating poorly cooked fish stew and listening intently to the half-fabricated tales Meagan told. It was obvious that Emily dreamed of the sea, all those days she spent behind stone walls. Safe and sound and bored. “The real stories aren’t so nice.”
“I know,” Emily says. “Still. I want to hear them.”
So Billie tells her. About the Eyeless, about the dreams, as little about Daud as she can get away with, skirting around his name like it’s a pissed off river krust. It’ll hurt her to say it, and hurt Emily worse to hear it. And this is nice, whatever the fuck they’re doing. Might as well stay here for as long as they can. Not rock the boat, until the next storm comes.
Emily listens, and smiles, and throws her head back and laughs when Billie tells her what she found in Jindosh’s bank vault. Billie’s stories don’t scare her the way they probably should. Emily knows what it’s like to skulk around Karnaca, to turn a corner and find a wanted poster with her own face staring back at her. She knows what it’s like to be taken by men who mean her harm, and to get out alive. Meagan Foster forgot that, when she took her first measure of the Empress.
Emily can’t stay forever; she is the Empress of the Isles, after all. Billie figures the Royal Protector will come looking for her if she stays too long, anyway, and that’s a conversation Billie doesn’t feel like having.
“Thank you,” Emily says as she gets up to leave, overly serious in a way that makes Billie itch to go running over rooftops. Anything but standing still and having the Empress look at her like that.
“Anytime,” Billie says. “Guess there’s not much excitement in the Tower, is there?”
“Half the time Corvo won’t even spar with me,” Emily says. She pauses. “You know, you weren’t a half bad partner, back on the Wale.”
Unbelievable. “Seriously? The Empress can’t find a better sparring partner than a beaten up sea captain who is wanted in multiple countries?”
“Wanted, but never caught, which really just speaks to your experience.” Emily says it with a straight face.
Billie shakes her head as she turns to leave. Not the best time to mention that one of those crimes was helping put a knife in her mother’s heart. “Whatever you say, princess.”
Emily laughs, like she’s delighted. Of course she noticed that Billie didn’t say no.
This is what she gets for coming back to Dunwall. This place has always been a breeding ground for bad fucking ideas.
Fine. If the Empress wants an excuse to stick a knife in her, Billie isn’t going to stop her. It’s the least she can do, after everything.
The man Emily saved from a quick death during Delilah’s coup still lives and works out of the same office where his life nearly ended. He does not seem to think it odd that the Empress of the Isles has sent him a young man in the hopes of finding him work. And why should he—he has all the evidence he needs, to know that the Empress cares greatly for the details, for the small lives of every one of her subjects. At least when she isn’t distracted.
She was much like her father in that way, in the days that the Outsider watched her. Corvo, had he not been still stone, would have saved this man too. The Outsider never used to be so sure of things. He is now. His thoughts are already solidifying, the currents slowing. He cannot see thousands of possibilities; but he can believe only one thing at a time.
He knew the possibilities, when he spoke to Billie Lurk. He knew that she might save him, just as she might kill him, just as she might abandon her quest, abandon Daud, run into the wind and choose another name just to escape it.
But now he knows Billie Lurk. Her choice was inevitable. Showing him mercy, the same outstretched hand that Daud had once given her, was the only thing she could ever have done.
The Dunwall Courier’s office smells of ink and dust. It feels right. Even-keeled. Which is all the better: the Outsider did not even think to come here until Emily asked him what he wanted to do, and he could not stomach the thought of having no answer. Billie Lurk had seen him at his worst. He could not hope to hide from her the extent to which he has been cut loose from—everything. But Corvo Attano and Emily Kaldwin have only ever known him as the answer to all things. The Outsider wished to be mortal; the Outsider wished to be free. But he once told Billie Lurk that people are defined by the things they have lost. He has lost much. He has lost all his answers. It soothes the sting, somewhat, to play the steady part for those who will believe it.
Or perhaps that is a lie, and the Outsider was simply tired of being asked the question, and picked the first thing in his sight: the newspaper Corvo looked to, when he found it too discomfiting to watch the Outsider any longer. It is another frustration, another loss: the Outsider’s own mind is alien to him. He acts without thought, and then cannot understand the action.
He is beginning to see why so many humans drive themselves to madness.
The printer is the only one there, setting type with the delicate sort of precision that the Outsider is used to seeing in surgeons. He squints at the Outsider when he walks in, pushing up his glasses. “You’re the one Lady Emily sent.”
“I am,” the Outsider agrees.
“She said you’re a nosy piece of work who doesn’t know when to quit. That sound right?”
The Outsider has long pitied those who fall on the wrong end of the Empress’ sharp tongue. “Approximately.”
“Great,” says the printer. “Emira quit last week, and after the whole Crown Killer debacle, there’s not exactly a line out the door to replace her. You want the job, you have it. Try not to quit the first time you get a door slammed in your face. You ever used an audiograph recorder?”
The Outsider knows the working of an audiograph’s mechanisms intimately. He allows the printer to show him how it works anyway. The theory is quite different than the reality of the punch cards getting stuck and needing to be rewound.
Daud recorded reams and reams of audiographs. The Outsider watched him often as he did so, amused. Daud did not love the sound of his own voice, as many other men did. On the contrary, he rather loathed it, as he loathed so much: the Outsider, himself, all the world, for grinding his hopes into dust.
But not Billie Lurk. Not his last hope to redeem himself.
She listened to the recording of Daud that she kept in her cabin over and over, wearing down the metal. Missing Daud in a way the Outsider could not comprehend, and therefore enjoyed immensely. The knots humans tied themselves into: betrayal and regret, looping over one another endlessly.
Now he cannot even unpick his own decisions.
He gets the hang of the audiograph easily enough. The printer nods at him approvingly, and sends him off with a battered recorder and instructions to return the next morning.
The printer offers, too, the use of the spare room above the office. It belonged to the Courier’s former editor, once, before she fled the city during the coup, and has lain vacant for months. The Outsider intends to accept his offer, and returns to Dunwall Tower with the intention of telling Corvo of his plan, of moving his things once again. Of choosing a place to settle.
Instead, he lingers, and he does not understand why.
It has been a long, long time since the Outsider has chased contentment. He did not even expect to live. But Billie Lurk saved him, and brought him out of Shindaeray, and together they came to Dunwall, each seeking their own sort of peace.
So when Corvo comes upon him, fiddling with the recorder in his borrowed rooms, he does not speak of his plans to leave. Instead, he holds out the machine to Corvo’s raised eyebrows. “It seems I am a reporter now,” he says. “Or at least I carry the trappings of one.”
“I never got the hang of those things,” Corvo says, shaking his head. “Congratulations on your employment, Outsider.”
“Thank you.” The Outsider switches the machine off, both of their voices now trapped, pressed flat into the spaces between the metal, for as long as the metal will last. Corvo dislikes the sound of his own voice, too, for different reasons than Daud did. Corvo merely likes the quiet, the spaces inbetween. He found a strange comfort in the Void that few could ever see. Not Daud or Delilah or Vera, who all saw their own vices there: misery and power and love, all a mirage of their own making. Corvo has always been good at seeing things for what they are.
Or he was. The Outsider might not notice, if he changed now.
He can’t help but wonder what it is Corvo sees when he looks at the man who was once the Outsider.
“It’s not polite to stare,” Corvo says. He sits down next to the Outsider on the small couch, watching as he takes the card out of the machine and feeds in a new one, as he runs his thumbs across the surface of the recording. He wonders if with practice he could learn to read voices this way, to hear with his hands. Machines can always break. Their schematics can always be forgotten, until they are reinvented again. There was a device much like an audiograph, once, hundreds of years ago in Morley, and it was lost. Its inventor is dust, all memory of her gone. Except for his.
But of course, audiographs will not be forgotten in his lifetime. He has a lifetime, now. He presses his thumb hard to one of the grooves of the card, feeling its bite. “So I am told,” the Outsider agrees.
“Of course.” The Outsider sets card and machine aside, still ticking as it listens to them speak. He turns to face Corvo, sitting cross-legged sideways on the couch. “You don’t like audiographs. Not even those recorded by others.”
“Always seemed a bit self-important. I had a few from my father, when I was a kid. Guess I was pissed that they were all I had left, instead of the real thing.”
“So one day you threw them into the sea. Beatrici cried for days.”
Corvo tips his head back against the couch. Closes his eyes. “Was I interesting back then, too?”
“You had potential. Many did. You didn’t keep recordings of the Empress, either. You gave the only one she left to Emily.”
Corvo opens his eyes. The gaze he levels at the Outsider is heavy, full of more weariness than the Outsider thinks he can hold. “Why would I need them? I had her voice with me. You made sure of that.”
The Outsider opens his mouth. Closes it. Finds that what wants to worm its way past his lips is I’m sorry, something he would not mean. He meant the Heart as a gift. And it was. He knew that it caused Corvo pain, to carry it so close to his chest. It hurt Emily in much the same way, to hold it and to destroy it, Jessamine Kaldwin’s spirit finally going free. But it was the kind of pain Corvo would not have refused, if he had been given a choice. The lack of one was a kindness. Or the closest thing to kindness the Outsider could ever have offered.
Corvo rubs at his eyes, all his years weighing down his shoulders at once. He stands. The Outsider watches him as he leaves.
He picks up the recorder again, switching it off. He runs his fingers across the card and feels for Corvo’s words, the hitch in his breath when the Outsider said his sister’s name.
He can only wonder what Daud would say, if the Outsider could tell him that he is coming to the edges of understanding him, the constant war he fought with himself and his past.
Jessamine, in her death, only ever had eyes for her lover and daughter. The Outsider never minded; he had no interest in speaking to her. And now, the first time he thinks to ask her a question, she is beyond his reach. Another missed step in the staircase. Another small loss, the kind he can expect to collect for the rest of his life.
It hurts, the gift that Billie Lurk gave him. He never could have refused it.