Chapter 1: melody, refrain
His brother is given to the Abbey, and Samuel spends the rest of his days wondering if a scowling mask hid a familiar face.
He grows up in a village by the sea, one nearly too small to have a name; he grows up by the sea and watches the nets come in filled with squirming silver bodies, watches sleek dark shapes struggle where they’re hooked on lines.
If his brother had not been taken, perhaps he’d have been content to inherit his father’s boat, to go to sea, to cast his lifeblood out alongside the bait that drew fish in from the waters. Perhaps he would have grown up both cursing and blessing the Outsider, the Leviathan, in the same way his father and his father’s father and his father’s father before him had – but, instead, Samuel’s brother is taken and Samuel is forced to learn about the world outside the muddy footpaths and salt air of his home.
He and his father quarrel. His mother cries. Samuel leaves despite it, leaves with a few meager possessions slung across his suntanned shoulders in a net he’d woven with his own two hands, and Samuel walks to the next town, then to the next town after it, then the next after that, hugging the coast. He becomes a soldier, when he reaches a town large enough that his arrival isn’t heralded with suspicion, and he earns a place on a Navy vessel when he proves that he had been all but born on the waves.
He labors – labors and serves – and if he falls asleep at night with sore muscles to the susurrus of soft whispers and laughter about how he’s a simple country bumpkin echoing through the cabin, well, he’s proud of what he can do with just his own two hands and has learned enough about Nancy to cheat his petty revenge back on those indiscreet voices. They suspect him but cannot prove it in the face of Samuel’s guileless smiles and empty hands, and tension grows until there is a great brawl one night out at sea, one large enough to encompass most of the crew and certainly large enough to keep the ship’s doctor preoccupied for the rest of the journey home.
Samuel is transferred to another Navy ship when they reach port, and then another after that, and another after that. He serves under a young Farley Havelock (though he will not know the significance of this until later, much later), and the solid work that he can do with his own two hands is enough to get him aboard a ship grand enough to dock at the Dunwall ports upriver, one grand enough to answer directly to the Tower and Emperor Euhorn Kaldwin himself.
They are sent to Morley to quell the insurrection, and after Samuel watches the first little fishing town, almost too small to have a name, go up in flame and cannon fire, he refuses to serve any longer. His own two hands had packed that powder, had oiled the cannon, had taken up the scope to confirm the land was Morlish, and for what he refuses to do they put him on a tiny, godforsaken spit of land with a week’s worth of provisions and the clothes on his back.
They sail away.
He is meant to die. Samuel lies on the beach and wonders if his mother and father will know what it means when his stipend stops coming home. If they will care.
He starves. He dreams.
There is whalesong in the depths, and he finds the lines between his waking and his slumber blurred by saltwater into nonexistence. A figure seats itself upon the sand beside him and considers him too-careful, curious, with a gaze like the flat stare of a shark cutting too close through the waves.
“Do you desire death?” the boy asks, and Samuel’s lips are dry enough to crack and bleed when he smiles.
“No, sir. Not at all,” he replies, because this is something like a dream and it seems the natural thing to do, to speak. “But I got here on my own bullheadedness. Don’t seem right to rage ‘bout the consequences when I was the one to cause them.”
There is a pause.
“And what of the men you sailed with? They could have saved you. One word each, to repay the kindnesses and service you have granted them,” the figure remarks.
“Aye. But they didn’t. And so it is,” Samuel answers. “I could have done a lot of things, too – but I didn’t. Could have kept my mouth shut. Could have kept working. Instead, I’m out here marooned and dying.” And it is just as easy as dreaming to say these words, here. Just as natural. “I am, aren’t I?” Samuel smiles his blood-tinged grin. “Dying.”
Samuel opens his closed eyes to void-black deep and blue, endless blue ringing with whalesong. He dares turn his crooked smile to the drowned-pale boy who sits upon the memory of a beach beside him; and it is like grinning into the mouth of a typhoon; and it is like feeling sun-warm waves buoy him up; and the boy that is not a boy leans over Samuel with a curious tilt to his head as though trying to find a bauble obscured in cloudy, silt-filled shallows.
A bead of water wells out of the figure’s sodden hair, tracks down its cheek, and falls upon Samuel’s face like a tear, like rain, like a needle piercing deep. Samuel’s smile grows wider.
“What would you do with power?” the boy that is not a boy asks, and Samuel breathes out long, then laughs.
“Wouldn’t do me much good unless it nets me a way to get off of this Void-damned reef scraping. So, not much, likely. I’d die anyway.”
“Fascinating.” The boy that is not a boy shifts, rocks his weight forward, stands. Pauses, half-turns, and then bends forward slightly at the waist like bowing, offering a hand.
Samuel considers it. Reaches up – his limbs tremor so – and the boy that is not a boy says, as Samuel’s fingers close around his (cold and cool and as smoothed as beach glass), “I am the Outsider,” and then, as Samuel’s weak grip tightens reflexively, in reaction, “And this is a mark of my favor.”
Samuel dissolves, flesh worn away feathering-soft underneath the sweep of the waves; saltwater saturated by moonlight rushes in, surging up like the tide to fill in all his cracks and crevices to the brim. He does not gasp with it – only breathes out like releasing the last of the air in his lungs.
He wakes, and he is surprised to have woken at all.
The night is dark about him. He breathes in and pushes himself upright with shaking limbs, brings his left hand to his lap and rests it there.
The Mark – the Mark is the ripple of water, as softly luminescent as the moon overhead. It permeates him, bleeds out across his stark-standing bones and thin skin, its edges ill-defined, and Samuel knows without lifting his head that it is high tide, that once this spit of rock had been part of a greater chain of islands, that a ship ran itself aground here decades ago in the wake of a mutiny by her crew and left nothing save meat for the crabs and gulls to feed upon.
He breathes out, and whalesong thrums through his bones and rattles his teeth in his skull. He does not have to wait long.
Saltwater plumes upwards – one, two, three spouts, more, as the whales breach before diving back down; the waves are churned into white froth and the silvery light that had flared his Mark into brightness ebbs until it is a soft glow once more. A vast eye – pitch in its depths, too, like the eyes of the boy that is not a boy – rolls to focus upon Samuel as the last whale surfaces, turns upon its side to avoid stranding itself, and settles considering Samuel. Samuel considers it back for one long moment before he inhales and drops both hands to the sand to push himself to his feet.
He wades into the water, cursing breathlessly at the chill, and flounders until he’s deep enough to swim out to the side of the beast. It opens its mouth – so many teeth! - and it takes Samuel a moment to hear, above the soft rushing of the whales themselves, the noises of their blood and breath, a different clatter: humming, rattling, like the grind of bone on bone.
There is something caught in the whale’s maw, and Samuel plucks it gingerly from where it’s lodged, barely has time to see its black sigil, the same shape as the one he now bears on the back of his left hand, before it dissolves underneath his touch. Power settles in his skin like rich brine, pure potential, and Samuel’s whale is not the only one to have a rattling bone; he collects one, two, three more before he feels the bottom of the sea drop out from under him, before he has enough strength to duck his entire head underwater, his Mark flaring moonlight bright.
He kicks out, and he cuts through the water like he was born to it with scales and fin. He breathes in salt, and his head clears. The pod thrums about him like a chorus of voices he can almost understand, falls into formation, and takes out to the deeps.
And Samuel – Samuel follows.
He does not know what he has become – his eyes are useless in the waves like this – but he shadows the whales in the lees of the currents they form, floats underneath their bellies, feeds off of the scraps of fish and flesh they generate with their hunts. In return, he plucks parasites off of their tough hides with his own two hands, surfaces when he hears unfamiliar noises and shakes the hair out of his eyes to tread water, leads the pod away from ships.
He is… he does not know what he is. Not quite a beast. Not quite a man. A heretic, certainly. Abandoned, for sure, marooned by the walking world, and he is content enough to drift like this between sky and sea until the day he breaks the waves and sees an Isle ship flying mourning colors.
He feels his heart stutter in surprise and grief. He knows then that he cannot remain at sea forever.
He says goodbye to the pod out in deeper water as best he may – he thinks they understand but perhaps, perhaps that is self-delusion. He does not know. He dares not hope. He strikes out instead for where he can feel land, and swims.
He surfaces in Morley, and he would laugh at the irony at any other time, but the country is in mourning instead, both for their own dead and for the former Emperor, Euhorn Kaldwin, may the Void damn his soul. Long live the Empress, Jessamine Kaldwin the First; long may she reign.
The country is yet enough unsettled that Samuel isn’t considered with too much suspicion; he is hale enough, if too thin, and he is able to work. He is needed too much for questions, and so Samuel walks inland on legs that miss the sway of the waves, drifting from town to town with little more than what he can carry with him.
(He meets them when looking for work: she, with sunbleached hair and an uneven smile; he, bedbound by a wound from the war. His family had had money once, enough to consign him to a cottage and grounds enough to keep him out of sight; she kept flowers and grew them in the garden visible from his window. Samuel works for food and board, wraps up his hands like a boxer, like a laborer too poor for gloves, and he does odd jobs and repairs and toils in the village fields alongside those able to. He tries to stay out of their way at first, slipping through the edges of their space. They need his help, is all. Another set of hands. They draw him in regardless, and Samuel aches with it deep in his bones.
Samuel knows what runecharms could salve his pain. Samuel knows who it is that works her unfairly ragged. Samuel knows, knows, knows what he could do, and it would be so easy. So simple. Just a touch of power.
Samuel hunts down the wild herbs himself, convinces her to apprentice to the hedgewitch that told him what to look for in the first place. Samuel works harder to make up the difference, and it is worth it to fall asleep at night pressed into his bed that is just a little too small for three. They do not ask about his covered hands, and Samuel does not offer the knowledge – he tells Samuel instead, once, his pale fingers wrapped around Samuel’s roughened ones, that Samuel wakes up facing the coast. That the scent of the sea is ground into his skin. Samuel bows his head over their clasped hands and kisses him, because Samuel cannot put words to the rise and fall of the distant tide and the whalesong he can almost understand in his oil-blue dreams.
When the child comes, Samuel is afraid, so afraid. He is the first to know, attuned to the little sea in each of them. There are things that Samuel could do – there are things that Samuel could do – but Samuel spends a sleepless night instead staring up into the creases and calluses of his own two hands, and breathes out like drowning. He holds both of them and begs them to caution, to the reality of what could occur – sailor’s intuition, he calls it – and they understand his sorrow enough, as close to death as they all have been, to consider his words.
She rests with him, and Samuel works even harder to make up the difference, enough so that his hands crack and bleed anew. They are kind, so kind, and so worried, and they salve and bandage them for him, one on each side, fingers tender from their love. They tell the others in the village, if they ask, that Samuel’s Mark is a tattoo, just a tattoo, nothing more. Samuel has enough ink on his skin from his Navy days that the lie passes muster, an entire pod of whales and waves ground into his shoulders and flanks. They make the best of those days, wire-taut and desperate with it, overshadowed. Her water breaks early, too early, despite it; and she knows as they do and weeps.
Samuel digs two graves. Samuel builds two coffins. Samuel carries him in his arms, a too-light, wavering burden, to the funeral; and Samuel carries him back after; and they spend the night in a bed that is too-large for just the two of them when before it had been too-snug. Samuel plants flowers like weeds in the garden, hardy things as strong as he can find. He is no good with plants. Saltwater flows too strong in his veins.
He does his best despite it, does what he can do with his own two hands, beaten and worn and scarred as they are.
He asks Samuel, one night, if Samuel would resent him if he left him alone, asks him quietly in the small hours of the night while carding pale, shaking fingers through Samuel’s hair. It is only barely beginning to grey despite the months, despite the years Samuel has lived. Samuel cannot say no – because he understands as well. Samuel tells him, instead, that they will be remembered, for as long as he may.
He closes his eyes, smiles. Thanks Samuel.
Months later, Samuel digs a third grave. Samuel builds a third coffin. Samuel carries him to the funeral once more, a too-slight weight in his arms.
That night, Samuel lies awake in a too-empty bed for too many hours before rising, gathering what he wants to keep that he can carry, and slipping away. The cottage will go back to his family. The garden will grow wild with Samuel’s weeds and her roses.
He knows that he will never lie with them in the earth’s cradle. He has promised himself to the sea.
This will have to be enough. It will have to be.)
(Samuel spends his first and last night at the foot of a shrine that eve, keeps the company of whale-fat candles and rotten purple drapes; when he wavers between dreams and wakefulness, the Void rushes in to fill his gaps, unending, unchanging, eternal. “Gentle Samuel,” the Outsider murmurs, and his voice is still so soft and so terrible and so, so sweet. “You ask so little of me. Only for this?”
“What do I have to give? In exchange for your mercy?” Samuel does not flinch even when the Outsider drifts closer, even when the boy that is not a boy reaches down to clasp the wrist of Samuel’s left hand in one of his own. The Outsider lifts it, drags the pad of his thumb over Samuel’s knuckles, and considers how his Mark flares full-moon-bright.
“Nothing.” He releases Samuel, dissolves and reforms behind him. “It is not a boon. Your beloveds sowed no calamity, gave nothing of themselves for you to keep. They returned to the Void, to me, as peacefully as any may. There is no boon to be granted to you here, dear, gentle Samuel.”
Samuel breathes out, closes his eyes, and whispers, “Thank you,” despite it.)
He ends up on a ship. No whaler – a merchant trawler instead, cargo and freight and the rock of her underneath his feet once more. He is glad for it, but it is an empty, thin happiness. He is a world removed from the Navy sailor that had first boarded a vessel bound for Morley, all unknowing of where his life would lead.
Yet his history haunts him in unexpected ways: they dock in Dunwall after a run to Tyvia, and when Samuel goes ashore, swinging by his old haunts for the sake of it, he discovers that he has been searched for. That he has a discharge commission, money yet owed for the time he spent in service to the crown. His old ship had been lost somewhere between Morley and Gristol, and it seemed as though the news of his abandonment upon a desert island had not made it to the rest of the Isles.
Samuel considers the money, considers it and realizes (from his days now spent upon a merchant vessel) that it is enough to purchase a boat of his own. Nothing large or fancy, but enough. Good and sturdy. Enough to sail the Wrenhaven, and enough to take out to sea. He thinks of hardy red flowers grown like weeds and names her Amaranth.
The Wrenhaven is murky, treacherous in many parts. It has a history as storied as Dunwall itself, and he learns her nuances as he sails it. He lives from his boat, fishes from it, takes himself out to sea and lets himself slip into the water. Sometimes there are whales, if he goes far enough. They are growing warier now, more careful, swimming deeper to avoid the hunting boats. Samuel cannot blame them. Some days, he wants to join them once again.
But he celebrates alongside Dunwall when the Lady Emily Kaldwin is born, watches the fireworks from deck and smokes two cigarettes in victory. He earns himself a reputation – a riverman that knows the waters – and he is careful, so careful, to keep it merely that. He does not seek out the shrines, but the runes find their way to him despite it, bonecharms washed up on banks and sigils hidden in fish guts. He does not want the power, but the power finds him regardless, and Samuel sighs and tells the river mists he conjures that they’d best disperse by morning the same as the rest, else the other boatmen will be in for a hard time.
He stays out of the Flooded District. He has heard the rumors about the gang of killers that haunt Dunwall, and he is cautious of them for what they do; but he is wary of them and the ruins they inhabit for the prickle of being watched from the riverbanks and lees of bridges, for how Samuel sights above the waterline to find eyes upon him. For sensing a little sea perched so high be towed away by saltwater and shadow.
They do not suspect him. He is glad of it. They are water as well, but cold ocean depths, men and women tethered to each other by lengths of rope soaked salty-iron red; there is a well at the center of the web they weave, and Samuel has no desire to meet the Marked that commands them. He stays away and gives them no reason to seek him out in uniform, and he is content – more than content – with that.
When the plague comes, Samuel feels the shores of the Wrenhaven fill with rot. It brushes against his heart like tendrils of slime, and he shudders and refuses to swim in the river waters if he can help it. He continues to ply his trade as best he may, keeps an eye on his own condition and takes his allotment of elixir when he can, the same as any other citizen in Dunwall. Sometimes, he goes so far as to tell his passengers to leave the city before it gets any worse. Before things start crumbling. An old sailor’s intuition.
He does not know who listens – he only offers his words. His words, and what work he can do when he guides the Amaranth up and down the Wrenhaven. When he takes her out to sea. It’s enough, sometimes, to forget.
When the Empress dies, her child snatched away, Samuel has to breathe deep of mixed water and air to banish the memory of graveyard soil ground deep underneath his nails. The Lord Protector is arrested for treason, for the murder of Jessamine Kaldwin; Samuel does not believe it. The Flooded District is empty of the Marked that rules it, and Samuel is no fool, knows and has seen too much to trust the new Lord Regent and how quickly he acts.
The Naval blockade goes up. Samuel is, theoretically, as trapped as the rest. In practice, he is nothing such, and word spreads in the right circles that he will take people out of Dunwall if they are desperate enough, if they are willing to pay the price and do what he says. He only ferries those whose little seas ebb and flow clear – he will not be responsible for propagating the plague beyond the bounds of the city – and he rows them to different shores with his own two hands. It gets him in trouble once or twice. It lets Admiral Havelock find him.
The Loyalists are desperate men in a desperate time, but Samuel believes in the Lord Protector’s innocence as well, has watched Dunwall decay underneath the rule of Hiram Burrows from where he stands upon the deck of the Amaranth where she rocks on the waves. It is a gamble. They will be executed as traitors if they are caught. Samuel agrees despite it, because of it, because he believes in the chance the Loyalists represent.
He does not know if he believes in the former Lord Protector enough for the man to survive the plan that the Loyalists concoct, but he waits on the Wrenhaven despite it – and he is surprised, so surprised, at the strength of the little sea that surges from the sewer shadows to meet him. Corvo Attano is bent and broken but not lost, and Samuel welcomes him aboard and does not mention the leery wariness of the man, nor the tension that inhabits his frame, strings it tight. Six months is a long time indeed to spend in the tender mercies of Coldridge, the other’s obvious heartbreak and desperation aside.
Samuel offers him dried fish and a canteen of water from the stores on his ship and focuses his eyes upon the river instead of watching the other man, content for the moment with silence. He only offers information when it becomes salient, clearing his throat to get the other’s attention without startling him before he speaks. He tells Lord Attano of the Hound Pits, of the Loyalists, of how they’re waiting, and docks, ties up the Amaranth, and leaves the other to find his way in his own time. He has no desire to order the man about – there’ll be enough of that from Havelock and his cadre soon enough, he’s sure.
He turns down the offer of a bed within the pub’s walls for the umpteenth time: the Mark gifts him a sturdiness only augmented by his inherent hardiness, and between all his years on the water and all his years at sea and the inherent Void-strangeness of what the Outsider’s regard grants him (and the memories of a house left behind, covered in roses and beloved), it is too unfamiliar to him to not be where he can smell the brine and rot of the ocean. He stands outside on the shore as Lord Attano rests inside, and Samuel does not mind the way the riverbank sucks at his bare toes. The cuffs of his trousers have been rolled up to his knees. (The hagfish don’t dare chance a nibble – they know what he is.)
Samuel smokes pensively, calf-deep in murky water, and he feels the way Corvo goes up in flames, all the wild blue-white roar of a soul igniting like a funeral pyre. It tastes like a crematorium in the back of Samuel’s throat, like hot Karnacan winds and sun-warmed steel. He exhales smoke in a plume, and the boy that is not a boy doesn’t even make the water ripple as he appears between the little cloud’s formation and dispersal.
“Had you always meant to Mark him?” Samuel asks. He tips his grizzled head towards the Outsider questioningly. The Outsider only smiles enigmatically in reply.
“He is interesting,” the boy that is not a boy says, and Samuel shakes his head.
“A blaze like that and he’ll burn out too fast too soon, strength or no.”
“Does it matter? Will his fate cause you to finally utilize your own strength, gentle Samuel?”
“I’m just a boatman,” Samuel replies too-quick too-sharp. The Outsider smiles, and his mouth is full of too-many teeth, a prickling impression of a vast maw and an insatiable hunger. Part of Samuel quails at it, the part of himself that is and always has been a survivor. The rest of him breathes out more smoke and watches the plume’s color deepen, darken, until it hovers about the Outsider, crowning him in filmy shadow.
“Your insistence upon the mundane never fails to fascinate me, gentle Samuel.” The boy that is not a boy takes a single step closer, leans in. The scent of saltwater cuts straight through the smell of the Wrenhaven. “You could have riches. Live in wealth and luxury. Return every unkindness paid you a thousandfold in retribution. Instead you reside in a shack next to a pub that once housed hounds made to fight to the death, like one of the loyal mutts themselves.
“But who is your master, gentle Samuel? Admiral Havelock? The crowned Kaldwin line?” The Outsider reaches out and plucks the cigarette from Samuel’s lips daintily, turns it in slender, pale fingers, and presses the end of it to his own lips. Breathes in. The ember flares.
“I’m content with my lot. What would I do with riches and fine things? I’m a poor boatman born of a line of poor fishermen.” He clicks his tongue disapprovingly, staring at the other. “I would have given you a light.”
“I know.” The Outsider smiles at him all closed-lips seeping smoke and half-lid eyes, content like a cat that’s made off with the cream. “And instead you scold me frankly, use my gifts to help others. I have seen so little of compassion and even less of disuse without fear. You struggle with your own temptations, and yet you persist.”
“Aye.” Samuel leans in when the Outsider motions for him to. “And why would I not? We all return to you and the Void in the end. If I have struggled this far to live, then I may as well see what my efforts have caught. At the very least, when I die, I’ll be able to look back on everything that I’ve brought into the world with the strength of my own two hands and be content.”
The Outsider hums, and it rattles Samuel’s frame like whalesong too close, sonorous. The boy that is not a boy murmurs, “And that is why you are fascinating, dear, gentle Samuel,” before he turns the last of the cigarette about once more in his fingers and presses the end between Samuel’s lips. The paper tastes like salt and blood and a numb blue cold that chills the tip of Samuel’s tongue. He breathes in, and it’s the smoke of a city burning, a land long lost set aflame.
Samuel clicks his tongue once more, lifts a hand to hold what little is left, and exhales plumes through closed teeth, staring at the Outsider all the while. The being smiles back at him, utterly unruffled by the scrutiny.
“Samuel? Where are you: I’ve got work for you!”
Admiral Havelock’s voice cracks through the air like a whip, and Samuel breathes out through his nose, turning to cast a glance at the pub downstream. He shakes his head, shifts to wade out of the water, already trudging towards his boots. The dark-eyed boy that is not a boy is gone, as though he had never been.
Lord Attano looks better simply for a bath and a change of clothes, though the few hours of sleep underneath his belt seem to have only made the shadows beneath his eyes darker. He is silent as he boards the Amaranth, finishing off the tail end of a loaf of bread with carefully ungreedy bites.
There is a Mark on the back of his left hand, uncovered as though he doesn’t care – and perhaps he doesn’t. Who could say? What was the title of heretic added to the removal of Lord Protector and the addition of traitor? Corvo does not talk, lost in his own thoughts, and Samuel ponders the dark lines of the other’s Mark, its edges razor-glass clean, as black as a god’s eyes and hungrily swallowing light like the Void. This close, Corvo is all heat and fire; the man’s stoic expression belies the intensity of the determination that evidently fuels his steps, keeps him upright despite the exhaustion that hangs off his frame.
Samuel takes him to Campbell – a heretic ferrying one of the Marked to the highest Overseer in the land – and watches Corvo’s face disappear behind metal and glass and wire, a frightful visage for the grim work he’ll do. Samuel waits on shore and does his best to stay quiet and small, not solely for the Watch, but also for the distorted specter that he can feel haunting the alleys of the quarter. It’s a familiar aura, all skittering shadows and clinging tendrils of mist like hands and the siren song of the runes, whispers of power that Samuel does not listen to.
He’s never met the owner of that Mark and never intends to: power for the sake of it has never interested him. And there is something grasping about those hands, something desperate and hungry like the Void itself. Samuel may be Marked, but he knows well that the Void has no loyalty to any. All come from it and all return to it in the end. He is no more blessed than that dark mist’s grasping hands, than the deep, bloodstained well of the Flooded District, than the pillar of flame of Corvo, blazing bright in the streets.
Samuel thinks of the Outsider’s smile, wickedly amused, and amends his thought: perhaps the Void played no favorites, but perhaps the Void’s envoy did.
He stays silent, old eyes watching the way the Watch circle. The eventual alarm from further in the sector barely registers to them, undisciplined as they are, and Samuel is fine with that. It makes his job easier.
Corvo, when he appears next to Samuel in a flurry of blue-white light and a hint of sunbaked air, is tense and smells faintly of burnt flesh. His blade is clean, but his hands are both clenched into white-knuckled fists. Samuel doesn’t startle. Doesn’t make mention of it. Merely tips his head back in the man’s direction, looking into the eyes of that ghastly mask, and asks, as mild as milk, “Ready to go?”
Corvo, after a long, tense second, nods.
The trip back is brittle and silent, but Samuel doesn’t press. He lets the space between them be, leaves the unspoken invitation to conversation as open as he can, and pilots the Amaranth. Sometimes, he hums absentmindedly to himself, little snips of shanties underneath his breath from his days on the waves. Slowly, so slowly, Corvo loosens his grip on his blade. Eventually sheathes it with a brusque flip, tucks it someplace away. His Mark is still uncovered, Void-hungry and pitch black, and Samuel tries to not look at it. It reminds him too much of the Outsider’s eyes, and the thought of the god’s favor, attention, upon one man so is enough to make the skin between Samuel’s shoulderblades crawl.
Corvo takes off the mask when they dock, and Samuel does not find out until later that Campbell has been discredited, expelled outright from the Abbey, branded a heretic, a sinner, null and void. Samuel thinks of the faint scent of burnt flesh that Corvo had carried back with him, and breathes out his mouthful of smoke.
When Corvo is instructed to deal with the possibility of Weepers in the sewers underneath the Pits, Samuel waits until there are no more eyes upon him to slip into the water himself, wanting to keep a careful eye upon the other man in case he needs the assistance (it has not yet been that long since Coldridge, after all.) Corvo may be fueled by determination, but even the bodies of the Marked had their limits, and it would not do for the former Lord Protector to run hard into his in the middle of a fight with the plague-addled.
(He does not.)
After, Samuel claps Corvo on the back and thanks him for his service the same as the others, appreciative of the mercy that had been shown.
Samuel ferries him to Kaldwin Bridge, to the Golden Cat, to the Boyle Estate. He watches, from the fringes, the way Corvo softens, the way the fire of himself banks into a protective low roar around the Lady Emily. She is a vivacious thing, a bright thing, a smaller flame, and she smiles and laughs like a songbird. She is, perhaps, too young for it yet, but Samuel thinks that she will grow into her father’s nose and stubborn jaw.
Yet, despite her smiles, the little sea in her is a tempestuous thing; the evidence of the upheavals of her short life are visible through jagged edges like Morley cliffs and the stormclouds that sometimes cross her brow.
Samuel indulges her where he can, charmed by Her Little Majesty, tells her stories when she pesters Callista, shows her how to cast a line one morning before Corvo wakes. They don’t catch anything, but her honest fascination in the act is gratifying. She is not callused hands and green thumbs, red flowers with heady scents, but she will rule one day, Samuel is sure. He rubs at his Mark through his woolen gloves and feels the surface of his skin give like water tension, like waves, and sighs and does not dare hope.
Sokolov is stolen away. The Golden Cat is robbed, Slackjaw’s men gaining notoriety. One of the Ladies Boyle disappears, and the remaining two close ranks, subdued. (And that night Samuel had almost – almost – used his powers to escape. It had been close, too close, the bone-rattling thump of the tallboys and the cutting beams of the searchlights. He had been frank with Corvo with what he needed to navigate the Wrenhaven as his ferryman, but neither of them had expected the way security and paranoia had spiked after each excursion. He had nearly revealed himself. It had been close – too close.)
(After, after, after, and only once, he hears the faintest snip of a voice that had once rung out over loudspeakers, the voice of a woman dead nearly a year now, soft and not meant for him. She says, The boatman has a good heart. And respects you, and nothing more, and Samuel resists the urge to turn to find its source, somehow already knowing. The taste of saltwater fills the back of his throat like bile.
He only moves when Corvo scuffs his next step deliberately loud, the quiet man’s way of announcing himself, only turns then and then only enough to greet him. He catches the tail end of Corvo’s motion, the way something leather brown and metal is tucked away into a breast pocket, but says nothing as Corvo stills beside where Samuel stands on the riverbank with his boots off, calf-deep in muddy water.
“You’ll ruin those nice shoes of yours standing in here like that, sir,” Samuel tells him.
Corvo looks down at his feet, contemplative for a moment, and then remarks, “They could do with a wash anyway,” in a grave voice laced with a thread of wry amusement. It’s enough to startle a bark of laughter out of Samuel’s throat.
He offers Corvo his carton of cigarettes; the man solemnly accepts one, lighting it off of the end of Samuel’s. They stand in the water and smoke, watching the last of the fog clear from the Wrenhaven underneath the rising sun, and Samuel lights his next off of the fizzling stub of his first. They are silent, but it is a good silence, now. Nothing like that first, sailing back from the Abbey. Corvo seems… lighter. Less fraught, less hardened. The little Empress is safe. Burrows’ conspiracy is unraveling. There is little business left but for the traitor himself. Soon this will all be over. Justice will be done.
Corvo leaves when his cigarette is burnt out, clasping Samuel’s shoulder once, squeezing briefly. He goes as quietly as he’d come, wraithlike even with his height, and Samuel watches him depart, graceful despite the wet footprints his waterlogged boots leave.
“What did you do to that poor man?” he asks, tone deceptively mild.
“Nothing,” the boy that is not a boy returns, and Samuel scoffs even as he turns back towards the river.
“Fine then. What did you make able to happen?” Samuel demands. He offers his carton of cigarettes to the Outsider, who gravely accepts one, leaning in after as he winds one arm about Samuel’s neck to hold the man still as he lights the end of it from the cigarette still between Samuel’s lips. The Outsider is cold to the touch even through both their clothes. When the boy that is not a boy breathes in, the end of the cigarette flares metal cherry-red, like a branding iron.
“She desired to help him. To protect him, even though she was slain. And he needed armor, as fragile as he was after the months spent behind Coldridge bars.” The Outsider takes one elegant step backwards, exhales a cloud of filmy smoke. Blue, this time – like whaleoil, like the Void. “They both wanted. And there was one willing to build.”
“I thought you were leaving poor Piero alone. He doesn’t deserve your attention on him like that if he’s not even going to get a Mark for his trouble.”
“He is willing as well.” The Outsider gestures dismissively, trailing smoke and ash that blackens into fragments of hungry void. “He yet has a role to play, if he desires.” Samuel frowns in the face of the Outsider’s little smile.
“So you bound her. The previous Empress. She, what? Tells him secrets?”
“She knows much,” the Outsider answers. “Much in the same way that you know the waves and water so very well, gentle Samuel. In the same way that you know others and those so Marked like you so well.”
Samuel falls silent, brow furrowed up at the figure of the god. “You’ve done a cruel thing to him,” he says, slowly, and the Outsider smiles at him, soft, indulgent.
“Is the sea a cruel mistress, gentle Samuel?”
Samuel thinks of a little cottage in Morley, of a bed suddenly too-vast where it had once been too tight, and replies, helplessly, “The meanest. But the most beautiful of all, too.”
The boy that is not a boy reaches out, smooths the hair that has fallen into Samuel’s face back in to place. It is grey now, all grey, and Samuel’s bones ache. “You did not dare hope. Too serious at heart, too pragmatic even then. You and they prepared yourselves for the worst, for a storm whose warning you did not dare let yourselves ignore.
“You did not dare hope, and so neither did they, gentle Samuel. And so they returned to me; and so you returned to me as well, upon the waves, to forget.” Samuel’s Mark thrums, sympathetic, to the Outsider’s touch, ocean water like blood in his veins. Part of him, now, will always belong to the sea and the Void, something that all his years on land are unable to deny. It was an exchange – a deal willingly, wholly made.
Samuel breathes out, closes his eyes, and murmurs, “Yes.”)
When they come to him with poison in their hands and smiles, Samuel’s heart stills in his chest. He looks back at the Loyalists – at what the Loyalists have become – and nods, smiles back, mute. He is a boatman. Only a boatman to them, and they are watching, and there are so many lives within the walls of the Hound Pits Pub, so many little seas all unknowing –
He only gives Corvo half, sick with it; the rest he spills down his sleeve, a small slight of hand like a card trick, like cheating at Nancy. He has no time, and Cecelia, Callista, Lydia, Wallace, Emily. Poor Lady Emily. Samuel pours half the poison down one sleeve and the water of his Mark swallows it, makes him sick at heart. Burrows has fallen, felled by his own hubris, and Samuel can feel the Loyalists’ eyes on each other as Corvo downs a poisoned glass, too trusting, too kind, too soft now with his caution cracked all open under camaraderie.
When Corvo swoons in his rooms, Samuel is only glad that Emily is not here to see it. He tries – tries to warn the others. Tries to tell them that things are ending. That none of them know what is coming next. That they should be thinking about what will happen now. An old sailor’s intuition.
It’s not enough, he knows it is not enough, but he, even Marked, can only do so much, and his powers are –
(He sets Corvo adrift, knowledge heavy in his head that the currents will take the dingy to the Flooded District. He does not want to send Corvo off into that den of red ropes and deep, still waters, but it is the only place that he can think of to keep Corvo out of the Loyalists’ reach. They have no dominion in the realm of Daud and his Whalers, and Samuel can only hope that it will be enough.)
He uses the time he makes, does not tether the Amaranth to the dock as he should – an innocuous-enough mistake to anyone watching, to the Loyalists. They let him come back, let him slip about their periphery because they believe that he will be culled as well; Samuel sets up the flare in the folly instead, and when the Watch and the Overseers flood into the pub and the shouts and shots start filling the air, Samuel leaps –
He does not want to die. He had said as much to the Outsider so many years ago, and so did it still hold. Samuel does not want to die, and the Hound Pits is no safe haven now, and so Samuel leaps from the tower into the Wrenhaven when they come for him.
They must think him surely dead one way or another. There are no safe landings close enough for a man to swim to, and the Amaranth is lost, cast adrift. He is a boatman, merely a boatman, and everyone knows that sailors do not swim. He is an old man. No threat and easy enough to catch besides. Dead one way or another, even if it will only be from the chill the Wrenhaven will give him.
Samuel cuts into the water and his Mark flares like moonlight; he breathes out and then in. It tastes like gunpowder and plague rot, but it suffices. He chases down the Amaranth. He feels Havelock’s ship set out into the waves, feels them slip out far, far, all the way out of the mouth of the Wrenhaven and into the sea. He surfaces close enough to shore to see, and watches as soldiers drag Callista to the folly. Emily’s little sea is off with those of the Loyalists. Wallace’s and Lydia’s are red, splashed out too-broad across land. Cecelia is – safe. Afraid, but safe. Sokolov and Piero – alive, but agitated. Corvo –
Corvo is ferocious. Furious, grieving, betrayed and sick with it, and Samuel cannot blame him, can only mourn as he feels the man surge towards the pub.
Samuel does not wait for Corvo to appear. Returns instead to where he’d tied up the Amaranth and hauls himself over the edge. He is soaked to the bone, but he does not feel the chill; he seats himself at the helm instead and trains his eyes towards the Pits and waits.
“Granny Rags returned to me this morn,” the Outsider murmurs. He is as drenched as Samuel himself, seated across the Amaranth with his legs daintily crossed at the ankle. “Though perhaps you knew her better as Vera Moray.”
Samuel does not flinch. “Lady Vera Moray. Her name and tales of her beauty were fading from the lips of others even when I was a young man. She’s lived a long time if she’s only come back to you now.” He keeps watch.
The Outsider hums soft, a whisper like a wave. “She had her ways. And her ambition, always ambition.”
“And you? What role did you play in it?”
“I only gave her power. A means that she could use as she saw fit. I do not direct my Marked, gentle Samuel. I only observe.”
“You interfere when it suits you, and you know damn well you do,” Samuel returns. He remembers skittering hoards and clinging, cloudy mists, and cannot help the shiver that thrums down his spine.
“She was a beautiful lady. One eternally enamored by fire. But she flew too close in this and caught aflame. For all of Corvo’s mercy, even to the man who slew the Empress, he denies her.”
Samuel thinks of the blazing pyre of Corvo, shakes his head. He does not bother reaching towards the Flooded District. He knows now that all he will find will be the tattered remains of a red web torn through. The waves slosh against the sides of the Amaranth.
“Will he catch you ablaze as well, gentle Samuel?” the Outsider muses, and Samuel, for once, bares his teeth.
“I have nothing for Lord Attano to ignite. I am a boatman, water and the moon hanging high against Void black. I am not Lady Vera Moray, to be banished by the heat of conviction, or the assassin Daud, his shadows lit up bright. I am a boatman, Samuel Beechworth, nothing more and nothing less. I am afraid, and only, merely, human, but – ” A flare spirals out into the sky. Samuel starts the motor. “ – this is what I can do. With my own two hands and a touch of power, because the stakes are far higher than only myself, now. This is all I can do to make amends. I betrayed him, too.”
And when Samuel looks back to where the Outsider had sat, he finds only seawater-slick metal. He shakes his head and turns his gaze forward, resolute.
He has broken something in Corvo, Samuel sees when the man appears upon the Amaranth in a whisper of power; Samuel’s bones ache with it in a sympathetic pain like whalesong, resonant. He tells Corvo that Havelock and the Loyalists have gone to Kingsparrow, Emily in tow. Corvo does not ask how he knows, nor does he ask about why Samuel is still dripping river water; Samuel, in turn, merely looks up at the other man and asks, “Ready to go?”
Corvo says, “Yes,” and Samuel can hear the teeth in his voice.
Samuel nods, waits for Corvo to settle, and then turns his gaze out towards the river, towards where he can hear the ocean singing, and breathes out.
It leaves his lungs heavy and solid, a wall of mist – fog, truly – that rises into life from his lips and the waters of the Wrenhaven. He doesn’t need to look back to sense the way Corvo’s stiffened in alarm – not when his ear catches the rasp of steel on steel as the former Lord Protector unsheathes his blade.
“I am just a boatman. Nothing more, nothing less. And these are dire times. For a good cause. Nothing more, and nothing less,” he says without turning. He steers the Amaranth as though the air were clear, his eyes closed as his heart and Mark slosh with the waves and guide him.
“How long?” Corvo demands, and it is a harsh, unrelenting thing, like the insistent press of a razor edge to the fragile flesh of Samuel’s throat. Corvo keeps his feet admirably well for one born to land when he slowly, carefully stands. Samuel doesn’t look at him.
“I served in the Navy during the Morley Rebellion,” he replies instead, voice low and as mild as he can make it for the seriousness of the situation and their circumstances. “And lost my place in it for the same, for what I refused to do. The old Leviathan loves to come to those at the ends of their ropes, those who’re desperate but could be something more. Reckon you know something about that yourself, sir.” The mist does not dissipate, dogs them in their journey. If Samuel looks into it, perhaps he’d be able to catch glimpses of old, familiar faces – people long gone in his wake. “I’m just a boatman. I run the Wrenhaven out to the sea and keep to myself. Try to live quiet as best I can. But times like these are when a man puts his foot down, takes a stand. I can’t get Lady Emily out of that tower, but I can certainly get you there in one piece to try.”
“You have – power. Who else knows?”
Samuel hums soft and thoughtful. “Just you, likely. You, me, and the Outsider himself.”
There is a weighted pause. “He – talks to you?”
“Shows up every now and again. He thinks I’m funny. Real interesting.” There’s a note of wry amusement in Samuel’s voice when he forms the word. He does not feel the chill. “Most Marked, from what I gather, like the power. Use it well. One more tool in their hands.”
There is a short silence. Then, “And you?”
“I never did believe in cutting corners, Lord Attano. What good is something I’ve made if it didn’t even come from the strength in my own two hands? The power’s lent to us, the same way we’re lent to live – for a time, until the hungry Void comes calling.” Samuel sways where he sits, shifts the Amaranth’s prow around a freighter stalled out in the water, navigating the complicated series of eddies it creates in its intersection with a tributary. “But times like these with so much on the line? Alright. It’s not just me hanging on anymore. You need the help, and I can give it.”
Another pause, longer this time.
“He still speaks with you. How – how does he address you?”
Samuel laughs, low. “Gentle Samuel. For my sins.”
And at that, Corvo stands, taut, for only a moment or so longer – before he folds his blade back up and sinks, slowly, back into his seat. “Your hands were always covered. But you were standing in the river. Slept outside in winter. You know the Wrenhaven like the – ” And here Corvo barks out a crack of harsh, humorless laughter. “Like the back of your hand.”
Samuel takes his left hand off of the wheel, pulls off his glove and wrappings with his teeth. Opens his eyes and extends it in Corvo’s direction, knuckles up. His Mark shimmers even with the thick haze that surrounds them. “The cold out here – it’s not much compared to the deep ocean. I’ve swum through harsher depths than Dunwall winter.”
Corvo’s dark eyes linger on the pattern of water and night for a moment longer before they flick up to Samuel’s. “You never told anyone.”
“What was there to tell? Havelock hired me for my sailing, not my connection to the Void.” Samuel pulls his hand back, returns it to the Amaranth. “He didn’t know part of it was one and the same, and I wasn’t inclined to tell him. The Abbey passed me by even as it took my brother, and I know enough about the way the world runs to steer clear of that risk. Don’t tempt a hunting hound.”
Corvo is silent for a long moment, the only sounds the thrum of the Amaranth’s motor and the slosh of the water they cut through.
“If this is another trap – ” Corvo starts “ – then, powers or no, I will hunt you down.”
“Emily is alive. I can feel it,” Samuel tells him. “My power is not like yours, sir. Yours lets you surge through the city like the tide, inevitable and unstoppable. Mine lets me turn the water into a home like the battlefield is for you. I told the old Leviathan, long ago, that I wanted to live, and he took me at my word. I’m only sorry that meant I couldn’t take any others into safety along with me.”
Corvo falls silent once more, and Samuel lets him be. He has his task, his destination. It is enough.
Yet when they slide into a hidden place enough to dock at, Samuel can’t help but look up at the other man, terrifying and grim as he is, garbed in a skull-faced mask like Death itself come. “It’s been an honor, sir,” Samuel tells Corvo. “Good hunting. Set off another flare if you need me; I’ll be right here by the time you come back.”
And Corvo, for all the stoicness of the mask, pauses long enough to clasp Samuel’s shoulder in one hand, his Marked hand, squeezing reassuring before he disembarks. Samuel watches him disappear over the rocks in a flurry of cloth and Void power, then coaxes the Amaranth’s engine enough into life to pull away into the waves.
“The seeds of a golden age are planted here,” the boy that is not a boy says. A bead of water wells on the curve of his upper lip before falling, caught by the downwards pull of the earth. Samuel dares cast a glance up towards the spire of Kingsparrow Lighthouse.
“Truly?” he asks quietly, bold in this because he knows in his tired bones that it will not be a future that he will live to see. It is a future that will be built by Lady Emily, safeguarded by Corvo’s watchful eyes – and there is no place for one old boatman in it. Not without defying the rule of the world.
“Yes,” the Outsider says.
“Good. Good. It’s the least they deserve.” Samuel turns his face away, focusing on the water and avoiding any uncertain Watch patrols. They won’t catch him, but it does not do to be unwary.
When the flare spirals up from the highest point of the lighthouse, Samuel turns the Amaranth back. Emily throws her arms about his neck tight, so tight, when she boards, and for a brief, breathtaking moment, Samuel thinks of what could have been, a little cottage in Morley all overgrown in roses and one more voice to chase away the lifeless dust from the corners.
He breathes out. Lets it go. Tells Emily, “Your Majesty – I am so very glad you are safe.”
He takes them to the Tower. It doesn’t sit with him well, to leave them in this concrete garrison dreamt up by a paranoid regent, but the line of Corvo’s spine is straight, refuses arguments, and the way he looks at Emily with such a vicious, protective pride… Samuel thinks they will survive this, too, without too much damage sustained.
He slips away. That is alright, too. The fancy clothes and concealed knives of court are not for him. He is a boatman, only a boatman. He is content with this. It is enough.
Dunwall welcomes their lost Empress back with open arms. Piero and Sokolov find a cure for the rat plague. Callista goes to the Tower, taken on at Emily’s orders as an official tutor, governess. She moves back in with her uncle, saved by Corvo’s hand. The Wrenhaven slowly clears of rot. Samuel receives the deed to the Hound Pits one day, and spends a long moment staring at it in the light of dawn, smoking pensively and feeling the ache of the river and sea all in his bones. He folds it away in his little lean-to and takes the Amaranth out into open water to slip into the waves.
(The deed, eventually, goes to Cecelia. He has no family by blood. Only those bound to him by the pain of the betrayal of the Loyalists’ potential. The good that they could have done. Samuel drags in drums of seawater for the floor, pours a half-vial of whale oil into each, slices open the palm of his Marked hand through the calluses and scars and bleeds into the faintly luminescent water. The bloodstains, ground deep and dried hard, wash out.)
Life goes on. Samuel still sleeps outside, even during winter. Sometimes he will entertain one extra shadow, the Royal Protector shedding his titles and responsibilities and mask to travel across the Wrenhaven for a pint. Sometimes Emily is with him. Sometimes it is a different shadow altogether, one that smiles with pitch-black eyes.
One night, the Void comes to him in a different way, in a way it has not for so long, opens blue and piecemeal about him. There are whales – he can hear them, feel them in his bones like the ache that lives in them wholly now, that is eased only when he breathes in saltwater. It is only he and the whales and the echo of song – he, the whales, song, and Callista.
He knows. Knows in his heart what this is; she whirls to him when he clears his throat as he comes to a stop behind her on the little spit of broken shipboard. Her hair flares out all about her like a halo, dreamlike, eased slow. There are new wrinkles that frame her mouth, but the furrow between her brows that had been so deep the last time Samuel had seen her has eased. He smiles at her.
“Callista. Long time no see,” he says, and she smiles back.
“Samuel. Oh, you’ve gone all white since last we met,” she replies, takes a step towards him, graceful as a dream. Samuel clasps both her hands in his when she lifts them as though to touch. He smiles at her even as his heart breaks.
“Aye. So I have. How has the journey been?”
Callista lights up. Breathtaking in her joy. “Samuel, oh Samuel – how could you have ever left the sea? It’s so beautiful. Fierce, but I have never felt so…” She trails off, lost in her recollections, and Samuel gently pulls her back by chuckling low, soft.
“Aye. That’s right. I understand. But I was needed on land.” He shrugs, slow. “But the sea will never leave me, not really. I’ve given myself to it. Carry it in the marrow of my bones, now.” Callista nods as though she agrees, understands, and Samuel aches. He smiles, wry.
“Callista,” he says. “Would you like to go for a swim? In the waves – down as deep as you can go.”
And Callista answers, “Yes,” without hesitation, caught in the hold of the Void, in the place that man walks in their dreams; and Samuel replies, “Alright. Then let’s have a swim. Like I love to.”
He breathes out and then in, and he isn’t surprised when saltwater fills his lungs. The memories of land, of the patchwork world that had been dreamt into being by Callista fall away from below them. Samuel feels his Mark flare moonlight-bright. He kicks out, and the wavering blue light of the Void is like sunshine through water, and Callista goes with him, gasping in delight. She is not afraid. Not in the slightest.
Samuel rises with her, almost close enough to breach the surface, and then curves down down down to dive, the water turning dark and enveloping about them. Samuel’s Mark flares moonlight-bright, and he closes his eyes briefly, hoping, reaching for the distant thread of whalesong. Callista squeezes both of his hands so tight and squeaks out, “Samuel – Samuel! Whales!”
He opens his eyes to grey and tendrils and fins, giant dark eyes like the old Leviathan, and miles of earned scars. The pod surges up from underneath them, spiraling out synchronous and curious as they slip through the water, trying to see –
Samuel lets go of one of Callista’s hands to reach out, stroking against the tough hide of one of the beasts, feeling its pulse underneath his fingertips. “I can’t believe it, Samuel – whales! So many, an entire pod of them,” Callista breathes, and she does the same as he, reaching out to touch.
“Real beautiful aren’t they?” he replies, and then kicks off, up, rising once more. The whales do the same, flanking them in a spiral, resonant songs caught, echoing, in their throats, and Samuel says, “Callista,” as he picks up speed. “It was so good to see you one last time.” He surges with her through the water up up up –
“You, too, Samuel – ” she starts, and then laughs, nearly shrieking, giddy with it as Samuel flicks them into a tight roll, corkscrewing them through the waves as they lighten with the sun. “Samuel! You, too! Thank you – thank you – this has been such a lovely dream…”
And Samuel squeezes her hand tight once – only once – and flares himself out, fins and legs and Mark dragging in the water to halt his ascent; and he throws Callista skywards with what Void-blessed strength and momentum he can manage; and –
Callista breaks the surface. Her form slips through aquamarine light, a flurry of silver bubbles as the water closes in after her, and all around Samuel the whales breach as well, flinging themselves out of the sea to briefly gleam in the light before thundering back down, one after the other. Samuel waits, unafraid even in the froth of their descents, the songs shared and the clicks and whistles of a tongue he knows like the way the currents flow. He is not surprised when Callista does not fall.
He hangs just underneath the waves, until the last whale schools with its companions, its kin, until they slip away into deeper water, until he feels the touch of cool fingers stroking over his nape.
“Thank you,” he says, gaze fixed on where Callista had passed through.
“She was to return to me. In due time, as all things must,” the Outsider returns.
“I know. But not all of them are granted safe passage. Joyful passage. Not like this.” Samuel closes his eyes. Breathes out.
When he opens them again, he stands with a gate to a garden full of roses and amaranth at his back, with a boat tethered in water that begins just past where his toes rest in the dirt. The Outsider sits in it, knees drawn up enough to prop his heels on the seat he’s perched upon. He considers Samuel with a small tilt to his head.
“Gentle Samuel,” he says, “The boatman. He who ferries lives and their great and little fates alongside them.” He unfolds himself, reaches out to Samuel where he stands. “What is one more life? One more life, personally conveyed back to me?”
Samuel bends into the being’s touch. Lets him wipe saltwater away from where it collects in the gulches and valleys of his face. He is getting old. His bones ache. His hair is white. The Leviathan tells him, quiet, “This is no boon, gentle Samuel. You owe me nothing.
“Come, now. There are things yet to by done with our own two hands. There are yet lives to touch and ferry.”
Samuel breathes out, shaky; and he steps down into the boat; and he wakes.
Geoff cries at the funeral. Emily weeps as well, free to do so in her commoner’s clothes. Corvo attends her as a somber shadow, and the funeral is subdued for the lack of a body to bury. After, there are drinks at the Hound Pits, long into the night; when the last glasses have been drained and those who needed a place to rest for the night have been tucked upstairs, Samuel wipes down the bar. Turns out the lights.
Corvo finds him on the quay, working at a length of wood with a whittling knife. He seats himself next to him, lights a pipe, smokes it in silent counterpoint to the smoldering stub between Samuel’s lips.
“Cecelia told me you weren’t surprised when the news came,” Corvo says, quietly. Samuel exhales smoke, raises the wood in his hands to sight down the length of it. It’ll be rough. He’s not so used to this sort of work. His hands are no longer as strong as they used to be.
“The Void came for me. Or he did. Hard to say, sometimes. Let me see her off, gentle. Smiling. She was laughing when she went.”
“Your power extends so far…?” but Samuel is shaking his head even as Corvo speaks.
“Gifts that aren’t gifts. Work. Work that I could do with my own two hands and a touch of power. Sent her off dreaming. Just – eased the way a little, for what I could do.” He flicks a curled spiral of wood off of the flat of his blade and into the water. “So I knew. In a way. Had a feeling when I walked through that part of the Void. Did what I could in exchange.” His bones ache in an ebb and flow like the tides. Samuel carefully shaves another sliver of wood away. “Does it ever worry you? That she’s been left behind here by so many already?”
“Of course.” Corvo breathes out, a plume of smoke as dense as fog. “But all I can do is be there for her. Try to teach her that it’s not her fault. That it’s the world – but to do so without breaking her. This is what she’ll inherit, after all. All these many pains and joys.” Corvo stares sightless out across the waters of the Wrenhaven. “I have years left. Yet, maybe not, for how I could give my life in service one day. I have tried – am trying – to ready her for what could come.”
Corvo falls silent. Samuel reaches out, clasps fingers about Corvo’s shoulder around the knife in his hand, and squeezes reassuringly.
“We do what we can. Everything that we can. But there are always things out of our control. Better to teach her how to think on her feet as well, for all the times you can’t be there to shield her.”
“Yes. I know. May she never have to use it.”
Samuel gifts Emily a carved whale for her birthday. Time passes. He thinks that she’s growing well. That she will age to resemble her mother – though the marks of Corvo’s presence are there, too, for those who know to see. He dares hope that Dunwall will continue to love her. That she learns her father’s lessons well.
Samuel wakes in the Void seated outside his lean-to in the yard of the Hound Pits.
He brushes off his clothes, then sheds woolen layers. Peels off his gloves and wrappings to bare his Mark. Sheds his shoes and socks, bends to roll his trousers up to the knees. He sighs at the touch of cool fingers against his nape.
When he rises, he is standing on the wharf of his childhood, the boards worn from generations of fishermen silky underneath his bare feet. He takes a step, and it is the Navy dockyards. Another, and it is a port in Tyvia that he had spent a week offshore at. Another, and it’s the boat lock of the Tower.
Samuel walks his way to the sea, following the call of it that he can feel in his bones, filling them deep. The Void settles on a god-forsaken spit of land, barely more than a few yards of beach. The water is cold as it laps at his toes, in and out. He does not feel it.
Samuel breathes out and dives. His Mark flares into life, moonlight-bright.
“Gentle Samuel,” the Outsider murmurs. “Precious, gentle Samuel.” His arms briefly go around him, weak and pale like another’s so long ago, here and gone again. The Outsider takes both of Samuel’s hands, holds them gently. Presses chapped lips to his brow. They dive.
“She will treasure that carving for the rest of her life. Store it away with a hundred other little, worthless valuables. Memories as dear to her as gold, unbefitting Empress Emily Drexel Lela Kaldwin the First, long may she reign – but dear, so dear, to little Lady Emily. To Emily Kaldwin. She won’t understand the instructions you gave for your wake. Why you wanted a burial at sea until later. Much later.
“Corvo will. Dear Corvo – he’ll raise a drink to you at the Pits every year for as long as it stands and as long as he may. His ferryman. Merely a boatman and yet something so much more.
“All those little lives you touched with the work done with your own two hands. Families rescued from plague. Sailors spared death on the waves. An ear to listen to a hundred stories more and a shoulder to lean on, to borrow strength from, as constant as the rush of the sea.” The Outsider smiles at him, soft. Indulgent. “Never in all my years have I seen my power so sparingly used. Done so to help, selflessly. Yet there is no fear in your heart of that strength. Only joy for what has been loaned to you, and a desire to ease the way for others. A consummate boatman even in this.”
“It’s not that grand of an accomplishment,” Samuel returns dryly. The Outsider’s smile only widens, eyes crinkling in amusement.
“Oh precious, gentle Samuel – it is. And you will never know how rare and beautiful of a thing it is. But that, too, is fine, in your eyes. The way of things.” Samuel isn’t even surprised when the whales rise up from the gloom, dancing about them in their descent. They sing. Samuel rings with it. Full to the brim.
“This is for you, precious, gentle Samuel. Marked by my power and yet kind, so kind in it.”
It is like sinking into a too-small bed at the end of a long day’s work, pressed between two bodies that love him. It is like the stillness of the Wrenhaven just before dawn. It is like the lull in conversation at the Hound Pits, when Samuel can look across the room and see familiar faces laughing and smiling and celebrating. It is like being wrapped up tight by the fireplace, small once more, when the world was simpler, when the pleasure of the heat and the sweets on his tongue were an all-encompassing joy all their own.
“Welcome back,” the Outsider says.
And Samuel breathes in the Void-dark water about them; and for the first and last time, he drowns.
He is not afraid.
He is home.
Chapter 2: coda
It is cold on the deck of the ship. Their company is few, and they huddle together for warmth. Some have steadier sea legs than others. Emily’s nose is red.
Samuel is small, so small in the coffin. Hardly any weight at all, somehow, as Corvo lifts what is left of him from the confining wood. He does not know how deep the water is here save ‘very’, but it is alright. The stones tucked into the pockets of Samuel’s coat are heavy. Heavy enough to almost make him believe –
Samuel’s Mark glimmers in the fading light. Its surface roils like the waves about them. Corvo stands, feet sure on the ship’s deck despite their sway, stands with a too-slight, heavy weight in his arms before the water, and breathes out as the last of the light leaves the sky.
He gives Samuel back to the ocean that he’d loved, that he’d returned to in his times of need: a comfort and a release all its own. There is a faint splash. Corvo breathes in.
He thinks, for a moment, that the whalesong is something from a dream. Something self-conjured to ease the pain. Instead, it swells louder, louder and mournful and echoing with the memory of dark, dark depths and drowned-pale skin; they are all pressed up against the railing now, just in time to see the first whale breach by the light of the moon.
Emily gasps because it glows, softly luminescent blue like whale oil all along its flanks like stars, and it is only the first, quickly followed by a second, then a third, then a fourth. The waves rock the ship, make it sway, and Corvo clasps Emily’s hand even as he watches, entranced, as the whales breach and fall and sing.
And below – far, far below, there is the glimmer of something like the echo of moonlight. Something like the gleam of a Mark.
And in the even further deep, the ship heaving up wholesale upon the wake of its passage, there is something more. Something cast with pale skin and dark, dark eyes as black as pitch, as black as a starless night, as black as –
Corvo clenches his left hand into a fist and feels the stark lines of his Mark flare, smoldering. Thinks he sees an answering surge of embers down below, there and gone again, before the moonlight sliver underneath the waves dissolves, disappears.
The giant – the Leviathan – slips away like waking from a dream. The whalesong ebbs, quietens, fades, until it is nothing, until there is only silence and the hush of the sea and the wild-eyed mutterings of the ship’s crew: The Leviathan. The Leviathan Itself.
Corvo breathes out.
Then he smiles. Murmurs, “Thank you,” and does not think he imagines the press of cool fingers to his lips, nor the clasp of a callused hand around one shoulder, squeezing reassuringly tight, there and then gone again.