The first time you see Corvo Attano, you are young, and he is younger.
You, growing into your body and your kingdom at the same time. Him with long, dark-messy hair and a smile that flashes the gap in his teeth.
Choose a Lord Protector, they'd said, and you choose this scrawny Serkonos boy with every bone in your body, without quite knowing why.
It raises quite the fuss back in Dunwall, that you've chosen some foreign teenager for the role, but you don't care. They can make you wear starch-collared shirts and play nice with dignitaries, but you are a teenager, too.
You can afford yourself a little rebellion.
It goes like this:
Corvo is presented to you as an oddity, an exotic assassin from hot Serkonos, a boy with dark-wavy hair and darker eyes, young and deadly, gifted to you like a well-bred horse might be.
Your captain of the guard tuts, over this, at the strange ways of the Serkonians, and you are suddenly, vibrantly determined to like this beanpole of a boy.
“So what can you do?” You ask, and Corvo tilts his head to one side, a little, like one of the shiny-feathered grackles that roost outside your window.
“What would her majesty like to see?” He has the faintest accent- it curls the edges of his words in, like seasalt on parchment.
“Whatever's your favorite to show off,” you say, without thinking, and the grumble your guard-captain gives is worth it for Corvo's bright, cheek-splitting smile.
In an instant he has all but vanished. You cast about for him in the nearby shadows, but-
a cheery whistle sounds from somewhere above you, and there Corvo is, bare feet swinging in the sun, flashing you a cheeky smile.
“The boy's half monkey,” your guard captain grumbles, and you beam.
“I like him.”
The whole of your stay in Serkonos is dull, but for Corvo.
There are endless dignitaries to shake hands with, to tell you “congratulations” on becoming Empress, as if you'd had to work so hard at it, as sole heir to the throne.
The monotony is broken only by him. Only by Corvo, still growing into his limbs, the only person your age you've gotten to talk to in what feels like forever.
The dignitaries show you Serkonos's baronies and courthouses, its marble and polish.
Corvo shows you the rest.
He sneaks you from your room each night, helping you out through the low wide window and into the humid Serkonos night, laughing his wildman laugh.
You laugh along, running barefoot beside him down cobbled streets, your feet slap-slapping against the stone in offbeat rhythm with his, your carefree laughter gusting away on the seabreeze.
Corvo shows you- he shows you everything.
The riot of colours and smells and sounds that make up the Serkonos fish markets, this tapestry of sensation that has you itching to taste-see-hear-touch it all.
He shows you the wharves, full of stoop-backed sailors, their fingers rough with scar and callous.
He buys you fish fresh out of the sea, battered and fried while you watch, dripping grease and smelling fit to make you drool.
You eat the fish with your feet dangling in the ocean, pants rolled up, saltbreeze in your hair.
Corvo grins over at you with juice dripping down his chin and fish grease on his fingers and you want, abruptly, to run away with him.
But you cannot, because-
He shows you the poor, the desperate, all those who slipped through the cracks, crowding the streets your official guides steered you gently away from.
Corvo shows you down streets of beggars and pick-pockets and forgotten people, and does not react except to walk a little faster.
When you ask your host the next day, about all the desperate scraping by on his streets, he at first looks uneasy, then tells you that it is simply How Things Are, like he is not one of the few who can actually change things.
You vow, there, in the vast marble halls of a Serkonos brewery, your shiny-black shoes scuffed from the cobbles, to be the sort of empress who changes what needs to be changed. The sort who does not allow handlers and advisors to steer you away from the truth.
You will go to your people- all of your people, and you will ask them what they need, and you will give it to them.
You tell Corvo this, one night, breathless with excitement, with the thrill of it, with knowing for once what being the empress means- what you want it to mean.
Corvo gives you a serious look, one you will grow familiar with, his dark eyes bottomless under the stars. “Your royal bodyguard better be good at their job,” he says, eventually. It is the first time you see him half so solemn, and you remember with a start that he is not just a teenager with a gap-toothed smile and pretty cheekbones.
He is a a spy, of some sort, or an assassin, who can vanish into the shadows and scale buildings and, presumably, kill.
That is where the idea begins to grow.
On the night before you leave for Dunwall, Corvo takes you for a walk along the pier.
You sit, together, on an old dock, long-abandoned, the wood starting to rot back into the water. The sky is clear and wide overhead, the bright uncountable stars shivering up at you from all directions; from the velvet-black of the sky, from the mirror-calm of the oceans, from the pinpoint reflections in the dark of Corvo's eyes.
“I'll miss you,” he says, in that birdsong voice of his.
You have been trying to work up the courage to hold his hand all night. You inch a pinky closer;“I'll miss you too,” you say. Corvo shifts, maybe unconsciously, and the warm of his hand presses up against yours.
Your heart might burst out of your chest. You wonder if Corvo can hear it, beating nervous-quick behind your ribs. “I'll write,” you manage to say, and link your pinky with his, pretending nothing unusual is happening.
“I'll write back,” Corvo says, mouth slanting sideways into a crooked smile. His pinky tightens around yours.
Your sit there, for a while, fingers interlocked, then huff, shoving yourself upright. “You wanna keep walking?” Your pinky comes unlinked from Corvo's, but you offer a hand to pull him up, and he keeps hold of it once he's standing.
“Sure,” he says. His smile is so bright in the tan of his face, his hand warm in yours.
You feel like you have gotten away with some great heist.
Corvo leads you down to the beach, hand still linked with yours (and if your palms are sweaty with the summer heat, you don't much mind).
“Come with me,” you say, abruptly, as Corvo goes to kick at the surf. He stops dead, turns to you with his head cocked sideways.
“To Dunwall,” you clarify. “If- you want.”
He blinks. Your hands sweat. Your heart crawls nervous into your throat, and you maybe wish you had never spoken in your life.
“I-” Corvo frowns. “I don't think they would like me to come along.”
“I'm the empress,” you remind him, “So they'd have to. But I don't want you to just- come along.”
Corvo waits, the both of you ankle-deep in the low tide, hands still linked.
You realize, suddenly, how close you are standing to him, how you could count each of his faint sun-freckles, if you wanted.
“I'm offering you a job,” you say. Straighten with every inch of your growing spine. “Corvo Attano, would you be my Lord Protector?”
As if on instinct, he drops to one knee, head bowed. Your hand falls back to your side, unheld.
“I-” Corvo looks up at you, lower lip caught in his teeth. “Are you sure?”
You nod, suddenly incapable of speech.
“Then I-” He clears his throat. “I would be honored. My lady.”
The words sound strange and stiff in his mouth, and you giggle, helplessly. Corvo looks up, brows low, but you just laugh again, overwhelmed with-
with him, coming with you, with the good news of it- soon Corvo is smiling, too, and he reaches a hand to be pulled upright.
You take it still grinning, and Corvo instead tugs you down into the surf with him.
This starts you laughing, again, the warm ocean water soaking through your shirt, and Corvo laughs along, the both of you swept up in the bright, coming future.
Flush with sea air, with the good news, you dart forward and peck Corvo on the cheek, feeling bold.
He ducks his head, cheeks pink, and reaches out to take your hand again.
“I think,” you say, cheeks aching, “That this is going to work out wonderfully.”