For a while after they first crowned Emily, Corvo expected trouble. There was no way they could place a child on the throne and not run into resistance, and he knew he was not the only one concerned.
“She’ll need advisors, you know, and soon.” Callista told him again the day before the coronation, pushing her frazzled hair behind her ears after she finished talking with some of the servants. “Maybe not a Lord Regent, after everything, but the people aren’t going to trust a ten-year-old to lead on her own, rightful Empress or not.”
“Can I choose my own?” Emily piped up from her place at the table by the window, bent over with some paints she had wrangled from Sokolov. Callista glanced at him in consternation, but the unmistakable crash of someone dropping something delicate in the next room had her moving off to investigate. “Only, mother’s advisors were so boring. I want somebody exciting. Maybe some sailors, or some of the watchmen!”
Her hands danced as she spoke, splashing dots of color across the paper as the paint splattered off her brush. Corvo smiled at the disgruntled noise she made when she noticed. “You can help choose, but I’m afraid most of your choices are going to be noblemen and a few dusty old scholars.”
She pouted at him for a moment and then sighed. “Well, I’ll figure something out.”
“I hope you told her no!” Callista called out from the doorway, apparently too far away to hear them clearly.
“He said maybe!” There was a giggle hidden in Emily’s voice and even as Callista fussed at them both, Corvo felt truly at ease for the first time in what felt like years.
And so in the weeks that followed there were the usual court politics, as dull as he remembered them to be; nobles jostled for position and eventually Emily ended up with a full array of advisors, all of whom Corvo had personally checked (any remnants of the Pendleton and Boyle families were conspicuously absent).
But beyond the hazards of court, there were no assassination attempts, no revolts stirred up or contenders for the throne attempting to use Emily’s youth against her. The city was too busy trying to keep itself alive and they spent next few months desperately trying to help wherever possible, treading water as they tried to keep the city from sinking until finally – finally – there was a cure for the plague. Sokolov and Piero had retained their unlikely friendship, with it achieving what neither could have managed alone.
With the end of the plague in sight, the city could actually begin to heal; the healthy started the long, slow process of rebuilding – burning the dead and sweeping out the city’s state of decay. When Corvo discretely checked, the talk amongst the people about their new Empress was overwhelmingly positive, buoyed by the general air of hope and relief. The trouble he had expected seemed ever more unlikely.
In fact, the most dangerous problem they were currently facing was the weepers.
Sokolov’s and Piero’s cure for the plague was the miracle they’d all been praying for, but while the healthy took it with much relief and celebration, the weepers were another story entirely. Plague-mad, wild, and dangerous to even approach, rounding them up and forcing the cure into them was a slow and risky process and it turned out there were far more of them than anyone had realized.
“I’m not saying we should just leave them,” Curnow confided to him one day, after delivering another report, “only suggesting that we focus our efforts on aiding the healthy first. It takes a great deal of time and men to safely handle the weepers, and we’ve very few men to spare.”
Emily didn’t agree when he passed the message along.
“Every day we leave them out there, more of them die.” Emily’s jaw was set and her chin up, face filled with a serious determination that seemed less childish by the day.
Corvo sipped a glass of whisky, watching the fire accentuate the angles of her face in the evening gloom. It was a new tradition of theirs, mirroring one he used to have with her mother; meeting in the evenings to drink and talk, since I’m-almost-eleven-now-Corvo was apparently too old for him to tuck in at night anymore. (He refrained from telling her that he still checked in on her sometimes, when the nights were too quiet and his own heartbeat too loud in his ears.)
Emily frowned at him mulishly over her glass of warmed ox milk, as though he had argued with her. “I talked to Piero, you know, and he says they’re still people. They’re just sick, and we can fix that now. It’s my job to help them now, even if it’s hard.”
“I know,” he told her seriously. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
She settled back in her chair, appeased but still thoughtful, and the echo of her mother in Emily had never seemed stronger than in that moment. Hadn’t some of Jessamine’s last words been the same? They’re my citizens and we will save them from the plague if we can. All of them. He had to look away, blinking hard as the dull ache of loss flared fever-hot for a painful second.
He almost startled when a small hand touched his own. He looked down to find her watching him, her eyes solemn and too knowing. Her voice was quiet as she asked, “Do you think…do you think mother would be happy? With what I’m doing?”
He grasped her hand tightly for a second. “Yes. She would be so proud of you.”
He was so proud of her. But Curnow was also right.
Between the ravages of the plague, the naval blockade that the other Isles had yet to dissolve, and a recent purge of the most corrupt of the City Watch, they were spread far too thin in a dangerous time.
He turned the problem over in his mind, trying to ignore the thought that had been growing in his mind for quite some time now. But the fact was that he was starting to feel a bit…well, useless.
Jessamine had been an active Empress, often holding court or walking down in the city among her people, which had kept Corvo’s days very busy indeed. Emily, though she shared her mother’s love for her subjects, had none of the experience or knowledge that a young Empress needed, and so, aside from the occasional appearance in court, her days were spent in the palace attending lessons. Even her free days were mostly spent dragging adults into her favorite games in the gardens.
Emily remained safe behind the walls and guards of the Tower, and the Lord Protector was relegated to mostly scheduling guard patrols and collecting reports and complaints for when she had time to read them. He’d already destroyed several practice dummies trying to take the edge off, and he sometimes liked to imagine that the rooftops were covered in footprints from the evenings where he would Blink all over the building to keep his skills sharp and tire himself out. He was nothing, but thankful that Emily’s rule was beginning as a peaceful one, but with nothing to distract him he was restless; confined in a place that had once felt like home.
He managed a few more days of restive busywork before he gave in and approached Emily with an idea.
“You'll be safe,” he reassured her, still not entirely sure whether he wanted her to agree or not. “I’ll still be here for any court appearances or trips into the city, but you'll be with your tutors or the advisors most days, and the palace guards will always be there.”
She listened quietly as he explained, chewing on her cheek the way she always did when she was anxious, but when he finished all she asked was, "Are you sure?"
No, he really wasn’t, but…
“I think I can help,” he told her honestly, “but if you want me to stay, then I will.”
“No.” She shook her head, though her eyes were wide and worried. “If you can save people, then you should do it. But I’ll still get to see you, won’t I?”
“I’ll come back every night, I promise.” He would make sure of it, for her if nothing else. Emily had already lost enough.
“Okay.” Her face was still uncertain, but her voice was strong. He reached out to her and she wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly and abandoning her poise in an instant. He squeezed her back just as tightly and repeated his promise to himself.
He would always come back for her.
He showed up at Curnow’s office the next morning, a handwritten note from Emily already prepared which he shoved into the man’s hands before he could even open his mouth. Curnow blinked at him in mild surprise before he turned his attention to reading. His eyebrows rose with every line and the look he gave Corvo at the end of it was blatantly incredulous.
“You want to help round up the weepers,” His dubious look did not shift at Corvo’s firm nod. “Leaving aside the strangeness of anyone volunteering to get near them, you’re willing to leave the Empress unguarded for this?”
Corvo bristled a little at the slightly accusatory tone. “She’s not unguarded, or do you have so little faith in your men?”
But an argument would get them nowhere, and so Corvo tamped down on his indignation and continued, “You helped me pick her guard yourself, and she feels safe enough with them to agree. I’ve personally blocked off any…less conventional entrances to the Tower, so no one will be able to just sneak by them.”
Nobody except possibly Daud and his men – and there was an uncomfortable subject that he hadn’t touched upon since a very strained conversation with Emily a few nights after Kingsparrow. But no matter his conflicting personal emotions regarding the assassin, the same feeling that had stayed his hand in the Flooded District told him that Emily would at least be safe from that quarter and he’d long ago learned to trust his instincts.
(And the last time he’d ignored them, he’d ended up betrayed, poisoned, and cast away).
Even so, he’d done his best, and after weeks of work, several new guard posts in certain areas, and a small mountain of dead rats he’d used to explore, he was confident that finding alternate routes into the Tower would be far more difficult.
Curnow thought his explanation over with a slight frown before sighing and warning him, “Well, we could use the help, especially from someone with your skills, but you’ll have to work with a team. I know you’re used to working on your own…”
“I’ve worked in groups before,” Corvo protested, and he had. It wasn't his favorite, but his preferences didn’t come into duty. “And I likely know quite a bit more about weepers than any of your men by now. They’ll fall in line.”
It was a very slight reference to his time under the mask, and though they’d never taken the time to talk about what had happened in the Abbey, Curnow acknowledged it with a small, reluctant smile and a tilt of his head. “Alright then. If you’re determined, I’m certainly not going to object. Come on, I’ll introduce you to the next patrol.”
Corvo’s days of fighting and avoiding weepers during his frequent visits to Dunwall’s slums and sewers paid off; armed with more sleeping darts than the Watch could afford and a now-ingrained habit of sneaking up behind people, it wasn’t long before the patrols he was sent with stepped back and let him sweep the apartments first, following behind him to drag out the unconscious bodies he left in his wake.
He was effective and he kept the watchmen he worked with safe, and if occasionally he stepped outside the realm of human possibility, moving just a little too fast or jumping a little too high, it earned him nothing more than sidelong looks and occasional whispers. Witchcraft or no, the Watch fared much better with his help and with the Abbey still in some disgrace – something he couldn’t bring himself to feel guilty about – they seemed content to discuss the matter discretely amongst themselves rather than cry heresy to the Overseers.
Perhaps, considering this, he shouldn’t have been surprised to find himself in the Distillery District a few weeks into his new activity, eyeing an unfortunately familiar apartment with suspicion.
“There have been complaints, now that people are starting to move back into their homes,” Curnow had told him the evening before. “Strange lights, loud noises and laughter at odd hours of the night, and one woman swore she saw rain running up the side of the building.”
Corvo couldn’t stop his shoulders from stiffening and Curnow stopped, raising an eyebrow at him. Corvo shook his head; he couldn’t even begin to imagine explaining the Outsider’s odd penchant for reversing the flow of water, though the expression on Curnow’s face should he try would probably be entertaining to see.
“It’s probably just weepers making the noise, but the men can be a bit superstitious and between that and your…reputation, I thought it might be best if you took a look first,” Curnow finished delicately. He could have been talking about Corvo’s reputation as a fighter. They both knew he wasn’t.
Corvo made his way over first thing the next morning, leaving the guards who accompanied him at the entrance to Clavering Boulevard by the now deactivated Wall of Light with a fabricated story and a promise to fetch them when he was finished. They were already mingling with the men posted on watch there as he walked off, exchanging information and lighting up cigarettes.
Of course. It had to be this one. Corvo crossed his arms and glared at the rotting wooden door as he reached the address. He’d seen no sign of Granny Rags since their tussle down in the sewers, where he’d left her sleeping off the drugs from a dart to the neck.
He sighed and shook out his tense shoulders as he approached, drawing out his crossbow. He could only hope she hadn’t decided to return to old haunts, that the rumors were just rumors this time. He had no desire to find out whether or not she had forgiven him for stealing her prey – among other nightmares, he occasionally still woke up from dreams of blinding mist and rats trying to eat him alive.
The apartment didn’t look much different than the last time he had been there; the barricades were down, but the old mattress and the pile of trash that Granny Rags had been tossing into the street were still rotting on the metal balcony. He pushed the flimsy wooden door open with a foreboding creak from the rusty hinges and stepped into the dim hallway, shifting his eyes into Dark Vision.
Nothing moved within his field of vision besides a pair of rats in the kitchen, and a quick check up the stairs revealed nothing, but the scribbles on the walls and the strange, hanging boat that still reminded him of a giant, sinister rattrap. He still didn’t relax. The stove in the kitchen was still warm, dying embers providing the barest amount of light, and the air didn’t hold the musty stillness of a building long abandoned. He had to be missing something.
He pushed open the door to the back alley, prepared for anything and found...nothing, again. The shrine was intact, but empty when he peeked his head around the corner and he stepped out into the bend of the alley, tense and frustrated.
He grew more uneasy the longer he stood there, but nothing popped out of the shadows – no rat swarms, no mist, no sign that Granny Rags had been there at all. He turned, ready to leave the house entirely and not look back, when something rustled and cracked under his boots. He glanced down and stopped short; he was standing off-center in a circle of painted symbols, the dull color almost blending into the stones of the alley. Some strange mixture of bones and dark feathers was scattered beneath his feet.
He bent to take a closer look; the bones were all too small to be human, but what he'd taken to be brown paint had a red undertone that looked suspiciously like...
"So you came back after all," Granny Rags’ voice startled him and he jumped, raising both gaze and crossbow to the doorway. She looked older, her wrinkles more pronounced and her back heavily stooped, but her unseeing eyes were fixed unerringly on him and his stomach grew cold in dread.
She didn’t move from the doorway though, and he allowed a small flicker of hope that perhaps she had forgiven him; perhaps this wouldn’t become another fight.
“And after you were so rude last time too,” she tutted at him, sounding like nothing more than a scolding old matron, “Gentlemen these days, so uncouth. They just don’t understand how to treat a lady.”
And then she vanished, reappearing directly in front of him to fling a handful of powder at his face. Corvo reared back in shock, firing off a sleep dart that went wide and wiping frantically at his watering eyes.
“It just won’t do, dearie.” Her voice had turned slick and poisonous, and he spun around, trying to find her through watering eyes, but the ground suddenly dropped out from under him. He looked down and swore violently. The circle of runes was burning, sending black smoke and coppery fire billowing upwards around him. The smoke and fire had twined into ropes of brightness and shadow that had snared his legs and torso and held him immobile in midair. Granny’s voice sounded like it was coming from all sides now. “And you had such potential, too. Well, don’t worry. I’ll make good use of you.”
He struggled against the magic, but he might as well have been pulling against chains; his arms and legs were now almost completely immobile and the fire was spreading quickly. Granny was mumbling and laughing to herself, but he couldn’t hear her over his own pulse thundering in his ears as the magic snaked higher and higher up his body. He pulled in one last gasp of air, determined not to breathe in as the fire reached his face, and then his vision was obscured with flames.
It was only then that he realized that the fire wasn’t burning or wounding, instead buzzing against his skin the way Void power did whenever he used it to Blink. He let out his breath in relief, closing his eyes against the dizzying blur of light and darkness, and then strained uselessly against his bonds, unable to find a weak spot. He kept trying to move, trying to do anything but hang there uselessly when the fire just…vanished, disappeared as though it had sunk into his skin. The force holding him in the air released him, letting him fall to his knees in the still smoking circle of symbols.
He blinked down at himself in bemusement. His eyes were blurry and stinging from the smoke and whatever Granny had thrown, but he didn’t feel injured, and the flames hadn’t so much as blackened his skin. As far as he could tell, nothing had happened.
Confused, but relieved, he thought quickly and drew his pistol out of his coat as an idea struck. He scrambled up, looking around wildly and found Granny Rags standing in front of the shrine, her face reflecting the same confusion he was feeling.
Granny Rags stood motionless for only a moment before her face twisted into a snarl and her hands curled into claws, but her moment of hesitation was all he needed. Squinting through the smoke, he fired, aiming for one of the miniature oil lamps scattered around the shrine.
Though smaller than the usual tanks, the size of the explosion was more than enough, catching the other lamps nearby and starting a chain. A billowing wave of light and heat knocked him off his feet and he slammed his eyes shut, pushing himself backwards until he hit the wall. He heard Granny Rags shriek in pain, though it sounded high and distant around the ringing in his ears.
When the brightness behind his eyelids faded, he opened them to find himself alone in the alley, with no sign that Granny Rags had been there at all other than the thick haze filling the air. Even more smoke curled upwards from the still-burning curtains of the shrine and the blackened parts of the walls – the marks of the explosion reached almost to his position and he could only count himself lucky that it hadn’t been any larger.
He dragged himself to his feet, coughing. His skin felt warm and too tight, though not quite burned, and shivers were crawling up his spine. His head swam unpleasantly as he stood and stumbled out of the smoke-filled alley, dragging his hand along the wall for balance. He stopped in the kitchen, checking himself over.
There was still no obvious harm from whatever Granny Rags had attempted, just a lingering sense of strangeness throughout his body that was likely from the explosion. His head had stopped swimming, but his vision seemed too bright, the dull colors of the dark apartment suddenly sharp and abnormal. He blinked rapidly, trying to shake it off and made his way back outside to sunlight and company.
By the time he’d reached the Boulevard, he already had a story prepared should any of the men ask about the explosion – one that did not mention witches or magic. He’d pulled quick fingers through his hair and could only hope his face wasn’t covered in soot. The watchmen straightened and loosely regrouped as he approached, apparently far enough away that they had neither heard nor seen anything of the fight. One of the older men – Oliver, Corvo thought his name was, but the patrols switched too often for him to be sure – called out, “All done in there?”
Corvo was about to answer when the whale oil tanks by the Wall of Light caught his eye. He stopped, eyeing them suspiciously. The color seemed closer to purple than blue, wavering oddly, and he could have sworn for a second he’d seen the light rising up –
“Lord Attano?” Corvo flinched in surprise as someone touched his shoulder. The group had moved closer while he was distracted and a few of them were now eyeing him with concern. “Is something wrong, sir? Was there trouble?”
He gave the man an apologetic smile and shook his head, though his head ached ever so slightly with the quick movement. “I took care of it. You can check it over now.”
“Yes, sir.” The patrol moved off to the house. Another glance at the oil tanks found them as blue and quiescent as they had always been and Corvo slumped against the nearest wall, breathing deep and trying to relax.
“Lord Protector?” It was one of the younger Watchmen, fuzz just barely beginning to grow on his cheeks, who was trailing at the back of the group. “Are you sure you’re alright, sir?”
“I’m fine.” His throat itched and he coughed harshly to clear it, waving the boy off to join his comrades in checking the rest of the house. However odd he felt, he would be fine soon enough anyway. This wasn’t the first time a battle had left him itchy and off balance and whatever Granny Rags had tried to do, it clearly hadn’t worked.
He remained unsettled for the rest of the day, everything around him seeming too loud or oddly colored or just slightly off. He had to constantly force himself to focus and he knew some of the Watchmen were watching him with concern. Luckily, none of the other buildings they searched contained any weepers and the patrol sent him off early in the evening.
He skipped dinner when he returned to the Tower, making only a brief detour to locate and say goodnight to Emily. She frowned at him in concern, but accepted his excuse of exhaustion and kissed him on the cheek. He made it to his room and fell into bed only half-undressed.
It probably was just tiredness, he decided. Exhaustion and nerves and the unpleasant shock of seeing Granny Rags again after everything.
He’d feel better after he slept.