He is the most terrible dancer she’s ever met. It’s rather endearing.
She’s gotten to know the candidates quite well over the past several weeks. They are a smart, bold, charming group, handpicked by her father and his advisors; they have shown off their skill in every contest imaginable and she doesn’t doubt that any one of them would defend her admirably. They are the best, the brightest. The finest Gristol has to offer.
And then there’s Corvo.
Corvo isn’t charming. Corvo isn’t bold. Corvo isn’t even from Gristol. Corvo is a quiet, serious young man who, as far as Jessamine can tell, is fond of beautifully tailored dark clothing and not smiling. That he’s here at all is a miracle — her father had balked at letting a Serkonan so close to the inner workings of the Empire, but Burrows vouched for him. Something about fostering good relations by allowing the boy to try.
“After all,” he’d said, “it’s not like we’ll actually select him. It’s just a matter of politics. Everyone knows that. Let Serkonos show off a bit. Apparently, the lad’s something of an impressive swordsman.”
Corvo’s not bold. Corvo’s not charming. But oh, can he fight. Without a sword in his hand, Corvo is awkward and uncomfortable, like he has no idea what he’s doing in Dunwall and isn’t sure he approves. He either doesn’t know about the distinctions among the nobility, or he doesn’t care. He’s said maybe five words in total to Jessamine in the past three weeks, and three of them were, “Greetings, your Ladyship.”
But with a weapon…! Jessamine couldn’t take her eyes off him during the first day of the Trials, and she hasn’t stopped watching him since.
The Trials are over now. Tonight is the dance, where all the candidates have one last chance to impress the throne and make their case, and tomorrow is the official Choosing. Jessamine has been brought so many drinks by potential Protectors that she’s started leaving them on the tables when no one is looking, and she’s danced at least twice with just about everyone.
Corvo brought her a glass of sparkling cider about an hour ago, turned bright red when she thanked him, and stalked off with hunched shoulders and a muttered, “You’re welcome.”
That’s seven words now, Jessamine thinks.
He has not asked her to dance.
Her father favors Orin. Dunwall-bred and noble-born, trained with the finest swordsmen in Gristol. Wide smile, clever eyes. Knows exactly which fork to use during the second course. Burrows prefers Marietta. Originally from Whitecliff, Marietta is as sleek and beautiful and deadly as a dagger wrapped in silk. She has a wicked sense of humor, and Jessamine likes her enormously.
No one expects her to choose Corvo. No one wants her to choose Corvo, including — she suspects — Corvo himself. He has made a good showing for Serkonos. A safe showing. The nobility is impressed with his swordsmanship and laugh behind their hands at everything else. It’s obvious, someone says near the banquet table, that he doesn’t belong in court.
And Jessamine watches the way he carefully schools his face, flattening out his momentary flinch of shame and hurt because he’s trying, it’s so obvious that he’s been trying this entire time, and so she crosses the room and holds out her hand and smiles.
“Ask me to dance,” she says.
He does. And he’s awful.
“Isn’t Serkonos renowned for its dancing?” Jessamine says. The way his cheeks light up makes her want to tease him for the rest of both their lives. “Were you out sick that day?”
“I—” He clears his throat and shifts his hands from her waist to her shoulders to her waist again, like he has no idea where to put them. “I mostly focused on swordfighting?”
Jessamine drapes her arms over his broad shoulders and grins up at him. “Let me guess. No one told you there was going to be dancing.”
The smile that cracks through his expression of mild terror is small and startled and sweet, like the sun breaking through the clouds after a long storm. “Exactly,” he says. “No one told me there was going to be dancing.”
I’m going to kiss him, Jessamine thinks. She is nineteen and no stranger to kissing young men, but there’s just something about his shy, genuine smile and the way he keeps almost stepping on her feet. The way he’d moved with a blade in his hand. She wants to kiss him, and she wants to keep on kissing him, and she doesn’t think he’d object.
“My dancing master claims that dancing is nothing more than swordplay without the sword,” Jessamine says lightly. She spins, taking Corvo with her. It takes a very skilled dancer to lead as a follower, and Jessamine’s been dancing for a very long time.
Corvo actually snorts. “Then that guy is a liar,” he says, “and probably terrible at fighting.”
“True on both counts,” Jessamine says. She ruffles the ends of his hair, where it’s unruly and brushing the collar of his severe coat. “You know, no one expects me to pick you.”
“I know.” He frowns, concentrating as he moves them in a clumsy but passable two-step. “It’s okay.”
The ease with which he says this bothers her. Like he knows, just as much as she does, how political the whole thing is. “But what do you think?” she presses.
“I think,” he says carefully, “that you’re going to be a wonderful empress.” His cheeks are brick red, and before she can stop herself Jessamine pushes up on her toes and kisses him once. His lips taste like cider.
“And whoever you choose is going to have their work cut out for them,” Corvo finishes, sounding distinctly more strangled than he did a moment ago.
“And if I chose you?” Jessamine says. She can feel her father’s gaze burning on the back of her neck and she doesn’t care, doesn’t care, doesn’t care. “What would you think then?”
“I think a lot of people would be very angry,” Corvo says.
“That’s not what I asked,” Jessamine says. “I asked what you thought.”
His hands tighten on her waist. The look on his face is suddenly serious, no trace of his earlier fumbling or embarrassment, and Jessamine remembers what he was like with a sword, a crossbow, quiet and fierce and beautiful.
“I would protect you with my life,” he says in a low voice, “from the time I draw breath until whatever deity sees fit to take my soul.”
Wow. When he does talk, he definitely doesn’t hold back. Just for that, Jessamine kisses him again.
“Well, then,” she says. “I guess you’ll just have to show me.”