"What is this."
It wasn't phrased as a question; the Outsider's usual monotone was broken by something harsh and unimpressed.
Fighting off a sudden wave of guilt that he did not deserve, Corvo didn't turn to face him. "What are you referring to, exactly?" The air seemed still, somehow. They weren't in the Void, and the soft ticking of his pocket watch told him time hadn't stopped, but it was definitely getting colder.
"This. It appears to be some kind of poem, praising the...skill of your blade, the virtues of your dedication to the Empress, and the considerable attractions of your body."
"There's your answer then." The temperature in the room plummeted steeply, and Corvo found himself breathing steam over the letter he was failing to write.
"Who sent it to you? Why?" There was bafflement in there with the irritation; it appeared someone had just discovered displeasure, and wasn't sure what to do with it. The thought was both amusing and horrifying in equal parts.
"Well, it's unsigned, but the writing looks like that of a noblewoman, and I assume she sent it because she'd like to court me." Suppressing a shiver, he carefully replaced the lid on his ink. The hour was late, but he'd meant to catch up on some correspondence; the messages were piling in, sympathy and assurances of support, enquiries after his health... parasites, the lot of them, but he was obliged to reply. He hadn't factored in a surprise visit from his inhuman benefactor, or that the Outsider would be in such an odd mood.
"That you can find time for...courting, between serving the new Empress and maintaining my interest is nothing short of astounding." That last word was rumbled, incoming waves on unmoving rock, and very definitely not a compliment.
Corvo shuffled the papers on his desk idly, mind racing. Delicacy seemed appropriate, if the Outsider was set on being possessive. He could laugh the letter off, tear it to pieces and throw them into the fireplace... a wise man would have avoided a confrontation he couldn't win.
It had been a long day, however, mostly spent looking for something to improve a life he knew he'd once enjoyed, and which now struck him as tiresome. He'd never made any claims to wisdom, anyway.
"You do realise I'm human, don't you? And I'm not mad, like the old rat witch, and maybe Daud's soul is made of stone, but mine isn't. Sometimes I need do things just because they make me happy." He tossed the papers aside before they ended up in the fire. That too would please him. "It might seem silly, or purposeless, but adults need games as much as children. Courting is a game we play."
No need to add that he hadn't actually intended to locate the poem's author, though clues had been left in the unusual perfume that scented it, and the carefully chosen wording that his mystery admirer would no doubt slip pointedly into their next conversation. It didn't matter that he hadn't cared before, because teasing the Outsider might not be the most sensible game, but it was a game nonetheless.
He turned in his chair to look side-on at the young man with black eyes. Perplexed black eyes, narrowed as they read through the offending missive a second time.
"And you, Corvo, you enjoy courting? It entertains you." Staring into the Outsider's eyes was never comfortable; at the best of times it was like being caught in the beam of a spotlight, if the spotlight cast a nothingness that ate at its surroundings. The worst of times came when he was curious, when he asked a question he genuinely wanted answers to, and that was a little like staring straight into the Void's unending expanse, the whispered draw of eternity that just said, jump.
Corvo blinked, and tried to put his thoughts back together. "I..." he cleared his throat, started again. "I suppose so. Sweeping romantic gestures are enjoyable just as they are, whether or not they stand for anything more than just the gesture itself. People are vain, we live for praise."
The Outsider's frown deepened as he weighed Corvo's reply. "So being courted makes you happy," he asked pointedly.
It was an effort not to roll his eyes, to remember that this creature had very little concept of time, and longevity didn't necessarily guarantee a comprehensive understanding of human mating rituals. Perhaps they'd never interested him before.
"Yes," Corvo said firmly. "As long as they mean no harm by it, and don't feel entitled to reciprocation, then yes. I like courting." He rose stiffly from his chair, pulling a face as his back protested. Too long spent on those vile letters, and sitting in futile council meetings in silence, just to show the important people that Emily had his support. "Don't you have anything better to do? Because if you're just curious about...romantic pursuits, the library has plenty of books. There's another meeting at dawn tomorrow, and I need to sleep."
Once he'd have looked on his own flippancy with abject terror, but he rather felt that he'd earned the right to small rebellions, after everything that had happened. And he really was tired, if tired was the right word for the bone-deep exhaustion that plagued him these days. An unhealthy mix of cynicism, justified mistrust and plain boredom, and he'd yet to find any kind of cure. Emily's innocently blatant hints ("Corvo, Callista seems lonely these days. You should bring her flowers, then she'd smile more and maybe forget that I didn't do the homework she assigned me") weren't helping.
The Outsider cast one more disgusted look at the letter, before disintegrating it with a terse gesture.
"This is interesting," he announced. "I will think on it further." Without a word of farewell, he vanished. Shaking his head and trying to fight back laughter at the thought of the Outsider burying himself in the library's worst erotic novels, Corvo went to bed. For once, the dreams did not disturb him.
He forgot the incident entirely over the next few days. 'Troubled' didn't begin to describe the situation in Dunwall, and for every seemingly obvious solution there were a thousand hesitating bureaucrats to stop its progress. Sokolov and Piero were still hunting a plague cure, demanding more live subjects every day, and showing no progress for all the Weepers Corvo sent them. The Abbey was a mess, the combined shame of two successive corrupt High Overseers tearing the institute apart from the inside.
At least Campbell's diary was safe, locked in a chest in Corvo's rooms. He'd take it out occasionally, eyeing the coded pages thoughtfully and wondering if he could force stability (in Emily's favour, of course) by unravelling its secrets. He hadn't succumbed yet, but they could not go on like this for much longer. The Empress must have the Abbey's support, and so far they hadn't so much as decided on a replacement for Martin. Factions, in-fighting, ambition. Useless bastards, the lot of them.
Financing the military was a nightmare: the plague had killed an awful lot of taxpayers, and the nobility were totally disinclined to make donations to pay for soldiers, let alone charity for plague survivors. He knew for a fact that the two remaining Ladies Boyle still threw extravagant parties for their friends, but all his pointed hints about the money being better spent elsewhere fell on deaf ears. And for all that Emily had banned the practice, guardsmen were still dumping living people into the Flooded District along with corpses.
The Whalers had vanished entirely after Corvo chose to spare their leader. He couldn't decide if that was good or not; on the one hand, it was one less headache to deal with. On the other, he should've had the foresight to trap Daud into swearing fealty to Emily. They could have used a well-organised gang of eminently trained men for all sorts of things, but it was too late for that.
"-Corvo? Are you angry with me?"
He blinked, then looked Emily in the eye. "No, of course not. I never am."
She scowled at him, unconvinced. "But I was talking to you, and you weren't listening. Isn't it illegal to ignore the Empress?"
"You didn't even look at my drawing." Her lip was wobbling; guilt bloomed heavily in the base of his stomach. However nightmarish his problems seemed, Emily shared them and more besides. Ten years old and expected to pull miracles from thin air, trying to make herself heard over much louder adults, trying to understand when people would not explain. He could have kicked himself for his own idiocy.
"I'm sorry, Emily, that was wrong of me. Will you show me your drawing again?"
"Will you actually look?" She was mulish when she wanted to be, as stubborn as her mother.
"I'll have eyes for nothing else, I promise." He took the roll of paper she offered him, spreading it out over the table she was working at.
She'd drawn them both, walking hand in hand down one of Dunwall's cobbled streets. Emily's other hand was wrapped around what appeared to be Sokolov's. There were colourful banners stretched across their heads, and cheering people on the sidewalks, and in general everyone appeared ridiculously happy.
It was a nice image, and he told her so. Emily's eyes lit up at the praise.
"See, it's a celebration. You're with me because you're my Royal Protector, and Sokolov's just cured the plague so I'm honouring him by letting him hold my other hand. And all the people are plague survivors, and they're cheering us for saving them, and they like me being Empress so they've promised to stop robbing and murdering."
Corvo held in a laugh that might have been misconstrued as mocking, ruffling her hair gently. "It's wonderful. I like it very much."
She nodded in satisfaction. "Good. I'll tell him that."
"Who?" He racked his brains, trying to work out if it was a reference to the conversation he'd missed. "...Sokolov?" he hazarded.
Emily rolled her eyes. "No, silly. Him. He said you were looking sad, and I should draw something to cheer you up." She pointed at the picture, and that was when Corvo noticed that what he'd taken for another bystander was actually a young man with black eyes, and a smug smile. It was quite a good likeness, but that wasn't the point.
"He's been talking to you? When? How often? What kind of behaviour has he been encouraging?" He could hear the horror rising in his voice. Emily just shrugged carelessly.
"He's a bit scary, but he doesn't..." Frowning, she tried to mimic his voice. "Encourage behaviour unsuitable for an Empress." She giggled at her own attempt, then continued in her normal voice. "I see him around sometimes, and he bows to me and asks me how the Empire's going. Once he told me all about whales, and then I told Callista and she was very pleased that I was taking an interest in Dunwall's industry." This time, it was her tutor being imitated.
Corvo stepped firmly on the fear rising in his stomach, forcing it back down. It didn't sound harmful, and he was almost certain she was telling him the truth. Maybe the Outsider just liked children. Whales were supposed to, weren't they? Sokolov might know.
Emily was still talking. 'He asks about you a lot."
"Does he?" That seemed odd. Why bother asking, when he could simply observe Corvo whenever he pleased?
"Yes. He says you look sad a lot of the time, and he doesn't like it, but he's not sure what to do. He's right, too," she said with a reproachful look. "You don't smile much anymore, even though I'm Empress now and you should be happy for me."
Well. That was unexpected. "I am happy for you. Of course I am."
Emily didn't appear convinced. "Then why don't you smile?" It was a valid question, and he considered various answers before replying.
"I suppose I worry about the people who are sick, or can't afford enough elixir, or who lost family and mourn them. I'm sure I'll smile more once we've solved their problems."
"Like in the picture." It seemed she'd accepted his explanation.
"Exactly like that. Although," he pointed at the bearded man who was supposed to represent Sokolov. "You know it couldn't actually happen this way. You've gone and snubbed Piero."
Her eyes widened. "Oh, I forgot him! That's bad, isn't it? He'll be upset."
"I should think he'll be very upset indeed."
Emily grabbed the picture and rolled it up in quick, frustrated movements. "I'll have to draw it again. This one won't do at all."
Corvo's lips twitched. It was moments like this, small though they were, that told him she'd grow into one of the greatest rulers the Empire had ever known; her innate sense of justice and childish attempts to be fair, to be good, were a pleasure to see. Jessamine would have been proud indeed.
That thought was a small joy in the space left by her absence. It didn't help enough, but it helped. "Perhaps Piero could have my place, just this once," he suggested. "Since it's a special occasion, and he's just cured the rat plague."
Emily gave him a grateful smile. "You don't mind?"
"Not at all. Just put me in the background somewhere."
"You could stand next to your friend, then you wouldn't be lonely." It took him a moment to grasp who she was talking about.
"...He's not really my-"
Her eyes turned mischievous. "Maybe he'd hold your hand instead."
Knowing he'd lost the battle, Corvo sighed and acquiesced. "Yes, I'm sure he would." He didn't remember Jessamine displaying such a devout interest in matchmaking. Perhaps it was just a phase. He could only hope it passed soon, because while Callista was one thing, the Outsider was another entirely. They weren't even the same species.
And besides, he probably wouldn't find that kind of thing interesting enough.
The next afternoon found Corvo standing at his writing desk, fists clenched and eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"It just appeared, I have no idea where it came from. There's no note or the like; I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. Some kind of cleverly disguised assassination attempt, perhaps?"
At his side, Captain Curnow gave the porcelain flowerpot a slight prod. "You don't think you might be overreacting a bit? It's not even ticking suspiciously. Quite pretty, actually, if you like that kind of thing." He glanced at Corvo's face and turned away, hiding his laughter behind a cough.
"Be reasonable, Corvo. Who would try something so ridiculous?"
"The very fact that you dismiss it as ridiculous is what makes it so clever!"
Shaking his head, Curnow laid a hand on Corvo's shoulder. "I wonder if you aren't getting as much sleep as you should be, seeing as how you're accusing flowers of trying to kill you. I can't order you to take a few rest days, you're not one of my men, but you might want to consider it."
Corvo glared at the pot, which continued to sit benignly in the exact centre of his desk. Curnow...had a point, he conceded, and not solely because of a lack of suspicious ticking. The servants hadn't seen anyone entering his rooms, but they were as busy as anyone, and some kept longer hours than Corvo himself; he couldn't expect them to be constantly on guard outside his chambers. And then there was the possibility of bribery.
"There was... a woman, some days back. She sent me a poem anonymously, and she's yet to reveal herself." The perfume on the note had been costly, though any perfume was costly with the blockade still in place in the harbour, and a noblewoman who could afford that would have no trouble paying for a servant's silence. Corvo had done little to ingratiate himself with the staff, as it was; if Emily was to be believed, most of them were terrified of him, and the legends that had bloomed in the wake of Emily's safe return.
There was something oddly random in the arrangement of the flowers, in the way they'd been shoved into the soil with an almost amateurish enthusiasm, that seemed at odds with the poem he'd received. But it must be the same admirer; he wasn't so vain as to assume there might be more than one person trying this kind of thing. "I suppose this could be a continuation of her attentions."
That last bit was forced out through gritted teeth. There was a certain abnormality to the situation, but it didn't justify Curnow's loud guffaws of laughter. There was nothing funny about this. He'd called the man about a potential threat to Emily's well-being, and while it appeared he'd been mistaken there was still no need for levity. The vase could have been dangerous.
Curnow took a steadying breath. "I see. Romantic pursuits, is it?" His lips twitched. "If that's the case, you should talk to Callista. I hear it's the fashion among nobles to send the objects of their affection flowers with hidden messages...different flowers stand for different things. That's nobles for you; just outright saying what they mean would be too common. Ask my niece, she likes that kind of puzzle, strange girl that she is."
"Hidden messages?" Well, it wouldn't be the oddest thing he'd heard of. He vividly remembered the Boyle party, the guests as hungry for scandal as cakes, each vying for the prize in 'least tasteful mask'. They'd looked at his, at the wire and metal and horrifying mismatched eyes, and talked about how quaint it was, how daring. They'd tittered, and whispered, and taken macabre pleasure in fearing him. One lady had gone so far as to offer herself to him, if he would agree to keep the mask on in her bed.
Yes, hidden messages disguised as flowers sat on the tamer end of the scale, if a noblewoman was involved.
He did wonder, though.
"Then how do you explain the asparagus?" The flowers and greenery were lovely, and likely their colours and positioning loaded with significance, but that didn't explain the stalks of asparagus that had been shoved haphazardly in amongst the rest. Nobles could be odd, sometimes for no better reason than their own whims, but this was pushing things a bit.
Curnow gave him a serious look. "Some kind of innuendo, perhaps?" His lips twitched again. "I'll just be going then, if the threat's been neutralised. Well done, Corvo, you didn't need my help at all."
"If I hear your Watchmen mocking me about this, there will be consequences," he said to Curnow's retreating back, resigning himself irritably to being their joke of the week.
"When I find out who sent this, we will have words, and none of them pleasant." Corvo tucked the offending pot under his arm. He'd planned to ignore it, but now things were personal, and he had a reputation to uphold, as Royal Protector.
Callista was in the library with Emily, her lesson just drawing to a close.
"Do you have a moment, Callista? Hello Emily." He dumped the pot on the table between them, silently hoping it would crack on impact. As with so many other things, it proved a disappointment.
Frowning at him, Callista brushed an errant smear of dirt off her notebook. "Is there a reason you've just destroyed Miss Emily's homework?" She nodded pointedly at the paper under the pot, while opposite her Emily cheered.
"It's ruined! Corvo ruined my homework! That means I don't have to do it, right?"
Well, at least someone was happy.
"Forgive me, Callista, I didn't realise." She shook her head at his apology.
"I suppose our Empress can have a break, just this once. She does work hard." And while that hard work hadn't diminished Emily's natural enthusiasm, Callista herself was looking worn out. He knew she worried, about her uncle's safety, and whether Emily's lessons were giving her the preparation she needed to rule, but grey-faced exhaustion was becoming the standard expression for any of Emily's advisors. Corvo had all but stopped noticing it.
"I can come back later-"
"No, that's really not necessary." She reached out to stroke one of the clustered purple flowers. A small smile tugged at her lips. "Heliotrope," she said, almost to herself. "Garden variety, but still pretty. Are you trying to grow it, Corvo?"
He pulled up a chair at the table, obediently passing Emily a box of crayons as she gestured for it.
"Not exactly. It appeared on my desk earlier. Apparently there should be some sort of hidden message in there somewhere? Captain Curnow suggested I ask you."
"Oh, you have an admirer?" She didn't seem bothered by Corvo's scowl; it had been a long time since Callista had shrunk back from him in fear. A combination of his treatment of Emily, rescue of her uncle, and refusal to kill where it could be avoided, meant she treated him more as a younger brother than anything else. Some days it grated, but pleasantly so. Jessamine had been much the same.
"I'd appreciate it if we could pass over the teasing; your uncle has that in hand already. What does it mean?" He lowered his voice, glancing over at Emily to check she wasn't paying attention. Her sketches usually absorbed her, rendering her deaf to anything else going on nearby, but someday soon she'd learn to exploit that assumption.
Predictably, Emily noticed the hushed tone, and immediately looked up.
"Why are you whispering? Is this about adult things?"
Callista sighed "Of all the places they could have hidden her... no, Empress, we're discussing the language of flowers. Corvo would like me to tell him what these ones are saying."
"But they're not talking. They don't say anything." Throwing the pot a disgusted look, Emily seized a purple crayon and started sketching flowers.
"No, but they have meanings nonetheless. Actually, this could be a useful lesson for you; someday you might receive flowers of your own, and need to know their meaning. Perhaps I could set a test..."
At the word 'lesson', Emily's attention visibly waned. She turned back to her drawing, dismissing their conversation as uninteresting.
Corvo raised his eyebrows at Callista. "Clever," he said, and she smiled.
"Devotion," she replied.
Plucking one of the small, purple flowers, she held it up to show him. "Heliotrope means devotion, I think. It's been a while since I... well, since I thought such knowledge might be useful. And this," she pointed at a branch of spiky green leaves and blue berries. "This is juniper, it means protection. An odd sentiment, don't you think? Protection for the Royal Protector."
"A little ambitious, maybe," he said wryly. Not to mention late. Where had his benefactor been when he could have actually used their help in getting Emily home?
If Callista noticed the derision in his face, she chose not to comment on it. Instead, she lifted a branch of small, fuzzy yellow flowers. "Acacia. This isn't native to Gristol; they imported it from the Pandyssian Continent when I was a child. Since it was so rare, you wouldn't just see it handed over in broad daylight, or left where just anyone might find look. Obviously, people started using it to convey secret admiration."
Corvo processed that in silence for a moment. "So someone is... fond of me, but in secret. They're devoted, and they think they can offer protection," that last bit was tinged with more bitterness than he'd have liked. "How charming. And the asparagus? How do you explain that?"
"I don't. I've never heard of it being used in this manner." Callista stood abruptly. "But I can't not know, not when the rest of it is so strange. It just doesn't seem like the usual collection of sentiments. Roses and lilies and daisies, those are all common, but you don't have any of them here. And asparagus..." She turned and marched out of the room, as straight-backed as her uncle, muttering to herself.
Corvo considered waiting for her to return. Doubtless it would be interesting, for Callista at least, and though flowers weren't generally the sort of thing he had time for, they made a nice change from patrol schedules and weapon stock takes. It wasn't as though he could be accused of shirking, not with Emily sitting at the table next to him. Yes, there were guards outside, and several in the library itself, disguised as scholars. He knew them all by sight. He wasn't needed, but it still wouldn't be frowned upon, if he took a few more minutes away from his more pressing duties.
Smothering a groan, Corvo stood.
"I'll see you at dinner, Emily. Or... possibly after. I'll certainly come and wish you a good night before you sleep." He hadn't missed an evening yet, and didn't intend to start now.
Emily gave him a vague wave, absorbed in her artwork. "Bye Corvo. Are you going to do something fun?"
He wasn't, and he told her so.
"Oh. That's a shame." She looked up from the paper to smile at him. "Will you leave the flowers behind? I haven't finished yet."
He left her to it. Whatever the sender's intentions, at least Emily got some joy out of the gift.
Callista returned a few minutes later, her nose buried in a large book.
"It says here that asparagus- Corvo?"
"He's gone." Frowning at the vase in front of her, Emily reached for the purple crayon. "I think he said something about needing to shout at Piero some more, in case it makes him cure the plague faster."
Callista flushed slightly. "I'm sure that's not necessary, Piero is trying his hardest, I know; he looks so tired these days." She stopped abruptly. Emily didn't look up from her paper.
"I wish he'd hurry up, I want to throw a ball to celebrate curing the plague. Though Corvo says that's a bit selfish. Do you think that's a bit selfish? I just want people to smile more."
"It seems a little callous, Empress, though I doubt anyone would object, if it meant the plague was cured. Don't do that," she frowned at the crayon held between Emily's lips for safekeeping. "It's ill-bred, and it looks silly."
Emily pouted at her. "Piero does it."
"I don't care what Piero does." She glared unblinkingly until Emily removed the offending crayon and put it aside demurely.
"Did you find out what it's for? Is it something exciting?" Emily reached for the green crayon and began to draw long, pointed sticks in among the flowers. "They look like spears. Maybe it's a threat to Corvo's enemies? That would be useful, since all of Corvo's enemies are my enemies."
It took a moment to decipher her meaning. "What-oh, the asparagus? I don't think it's meant to be like that, the book just says 'asparagus foliage'; do the stems count as foliage? Anyway, I presume Corvo's mysterious someone didn't understand the instructions. It's supposed to mean "fascination", apparently."
"Oh." Emily gave her picture a disgusted look, and pushed it aside. "Boring. And I can't draw the stems properly, so it's ruined."
There was a time for lessons, and a time for encouraging patience and hard work; Callista couldn't help but think that now was not one of those times. She held a hand out to Emily. "Well, seeing as nobody sent us flowers, I rather think some consoling is in order, Empress Emily. What say you to scrounging pastries from the kitchen?"
Emily took her hand, glancing up at her suspiciously. "Won't I spoil my dinner?"
Even if Piero had enough time to think about such things, he probably wouldn't bother to learn the language of flowers just to please Callista. After all, flowers didn't have cogs and switches, and they didn't make sparks or smoke when you prodded them.
"I don't care," she announced. "We need consoling, and that takes precedence."
They left hand in hand. Behind them, the abandoned vegetation glowed luminescent blue for a moment, before drooping sadly over the side of the pot. A thin line of spiderweb cracks appeared over the porcelain.
Ten minutes later, a maid retrieved it, and threw it into the rubbish.