First time you see Corvo, he is what you expected, and he isn’t.
Oh, he’s a mean lookin' sonofabitch, to be sure, blood splatter on his boots and hollow cheeks and flat-black eyes, but there’s something-
Gentle, about him. Delicate. He’s smaller’n thinner than you thought the royal bodyguard would be, and there’s something well-bred about him, when you look past the black eye and the broken fingers and the prison clothes.
For a moment, you see him as he must have been- all in royal robes and standing by the empress’s side at one grand ball or another, no markings of torture on his skin, you can almost hear the music. Almost see the people dancing.
Then he says, in a voice that creaks like screen door,
“You’d better get moving. I think they’ve found the bodies.”
And the moment dissolves and he is frightening again. Matted hair, twitchy fingers, scar tissue.
The second time you see Corvo, he is clean and fed and well-rested, bandages soothed over the worst of his cuts.
He is not what you expected.
Pacing the ground around the Hound Pitts, you suppose he was the Royal Protector, know his job was to check that the area was safe for the empress (assuming, a course, that he didn’t kill the empress). You know as well as anyone that old habits die hard.
But there’s something odd about him. His restless patrol of the pub, the waterfront, the rooftops.
Now bright and lucid, those dark shark’s-eyes of his never rest, darting from place to place like a prey animal’s. Scan, blink, repeat.
You always find him in the strangest places, perched birdlike on rooftops, rifeling through dumpsters, someone had told you once that Corvo means something like Crow.
You don’t doubt it for a second, watching him, this twitchy assassin, this magpie of a man. He is always secreting away small shiny things into his coat, long bony fingers grabbing buttons and feathers and copper wire and tucking it away into his pockets quick as you can blink.
He’s always crouching or hunched over, like a raven, like a man who’s got something to hide, you imagine him perched on the edge of rooftops like a gargoyle, like something about to take flight.
You watch his coat billow and imagine him in a cloak of feathers.
Much later, waiting to take him home from a mission, you hear a gunshot and the chatter of crows, and remember they are carrion birds.
Next time you see him, cleaning out his gun with precise, steady fingers, you feel a shiver go up your spine. Like someone walking over your grave.
The first time you see Corvo smile, it’s coming back from the Golden Cat with a girl in his arms.
She’s talking animatedly, clothes dirty and torn, rust smeared over the bridge of her cheekbone.
Corvo shifts her from one hip to the other, and you think probably she’s getting to old to be carried, but you don’t say anything. Aint your place.
When he sets the girl- your empress, if all goes well- down in the boat, he bows low to her, takes his mask off with a flourish.
Kid giggles at him, and Corvo’s smiling like she hung the moon, those black eyes of his shining in the sunset.
You never thought the rumors were true, about the old empress and Corvo, about who Emily’s father really was, but you think you can see his high cheekbones under her baby fat, and you think-
Even if Corvo and Emily aren’t blood, she’s sure’s hell his daughter.
After that, you see him skitter across the bridge to her room at all hours, always bringing a new treasure to show her- beach glass and bluejay feathers, marbles and lace. Objects he’s found out on his missions, shiny worthless things that caught his eye.
She makes him nervous, you think, like he’s worried she won’t like him, but one day he gets in your boat looking kindof dazed, and when you ask what’s wrong, he shakes his head.
“Look what Emily drew me.” He says, voice creaking like and old boat in a storm.
He pulls a bit of paper out of his coat, passes it to you with hands you’ve never seen shaking ‘till today.
It’s a passable portrait of Corvo done in crayon, and the word ‘Daddy’ is scrawled overtop in child’s hand.
Corvo takes the picture back, tucks it in his breast pocket, just over his heart.
When you pull out from the docks, he watches Emily’s tower ‘till it fades into the river fog.
The first time you really see Corvo is after the Boyle’s party.
He drops into your boat and rips his mask off, tosses it into the hull with a heavy thud and a hollow ringing.
“Everything alright, boy?” You ask, feeling out of your depth.
“I don’t know if I did the right thing.” He says, and you think maybe his voice is always gonna scrape like that.
You pat him on the back anyhow, tell him ‘go on,’ and he tells you how he’s trying not to kill anyone, so he sent Lady Boyle off with some guy, ‘stead of ringing her neck and tossing her body to the rats, like he’d been ordered to do.
You say, “sounds like a good thing,”
And he’d gone on about how the guy he’d sent Boyle off with was crazy, and it was like sending her off to prison, and hadn’t he been in prison for so long, and wouldn’t he have rather died, and what if she was tortured or taken advantage of, or-
You pull up close to the docks at the Hound Pitts before he can finish, and he puts his mask back on so Havelock can see what he’s paying for. You can see his hands shaking.
You never liked that damn mask, anyhow. Makes it easier for Havelock and the other rich bastards to see Corvo like a weapon, but he aint.
You seen him step in and outta your boat enough times to know there’s a soul under that steel, you watched him play hide’n seek with his daughter, watched him smile when Calista got a letter from her uncle.
Watched him, bags under his eyes, celebrate when Emily slept through the night for the first time since the Golden Cat. (“She has nightmares,” he’d told you, “But I think she’s going to be alright.” He’d been damn near crying).
Them in their pub, they can look at that mask and turn him into a dagger, a gun, a fist, but you know there’s a scared man under all that.
Weapons don’t feel remorse.
The first time you see Corvo falter, it’s sunset. They have him running two, three missions a day now, and you can tell it’s wearing on him.
There are dark, bruisey shadows under his eyes, and his cheeks are getting hollow again, like when you first saw him.
But- put a mask on and no one needs to know you need a break, right? (Weapons don’t need breaks.)
That evening, he steps from your boat and stumbles.
It’s a small thing, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and he catches himself almost right away, but you see.
Watch his feet draw for a second as he walks off.
When he jogs into the city, he’s only a fraction slower than usual, but you can’t help feeling like you’re sending him to his death.
You actually do send Corvo to his death about a week later, dump poison into his drink on a night that should be for celebrating.
You only put in half, but you watch him float down the river half-dead and feel like a murderer.
The next time you see him, he is so tired.
His hair is loose and messy, his nails are ragged and clogged with dirt and blood. There’s this wild, feral look in his eyes, and his steps are uneven and loud when he walks, like they never have been. The shadows under his eyes are dark as the river, and you think his nose is broken, and there’s fresh blood smeared over his lip.
He says, “I wanted to kill him so bad, Samuel.”
You don’t know who he’s talking about, but you know Corvo well enough that you know he didn’t do it.
You set off towards the lighthouse wondering how you ever thought this man might’ve killed the empress.
You drop him off at that lighthouse feeling like you’re sending your own son off to the war, and you give him a long speech about how it’s been an honor to serve with him because you aren’t ready to leave him here to die.
You think, he’s survived worse, but you feel like you’ve just given up the last good man in Dunwall, and you remember the smell of the poison.
He comes back. Emily in his arms and the mask crushed against the rocks, he sits in your boat and tells you, “It’s time to go home.”
You watch Corvo stand at Emily’s side at her Coronation, dressed all up in fancy clothes with his hair tied back neat, and you remember that first time you saw him, remember thinking he belonged in court.
You where right, you think. Corvo was born to do this, his sharp, crow’s eyes are at home here, robes like a cloak of wings.
You all get drinks, after. Toast to a new empress and a new age, you watch Corvo when you take your first sip, the way he’s perched in his chair, eyes still for once, watching the party with a smile on his face.
There’s a fiddler playing in the corner, and you can just hear the music above the din. You watch Calista and her uncle dancing along, laugh when Emily tugs Corvo off his stool for a waltz, standing on his shoes.
You listen to the music, watch the people dance, and you think-
We made it.
Years later, old and gray, you will die in a bed in the palace, surrounded by family, and you will know you were right.