Whatever people say about the Admiral, (and Corvo says many things, though he's careful to keep the less complimentary ones safe in the depths of his own mind), he's quicker on the uptake than a tabloid journalist on scandal, and a council of war is called before the evening is out. Of course, they can't actually shut the Hound Pits down early in the middle of one of their busiest times, so in the end the Admiral and Lord Pendleton cluster awkwardly around the bar and try to keep their voices down, and Corvo alternates between answering the same questions over and over again, and serving customers while trying to look like he's happy to be there.
"Tell me again, Corvo. He said he liked our menu?"
Corvo keeps his head bowed over the champagne cocktails he's fixing for a group of giggling young socialites. They've gone to sit at one of the booths, but he can hear their tipsy laughter and feel their eyes on his back. It's as bad as being scrutinised by the Admiral; both at once is just unfair.
"He said he was interested by the variety; I've told you this. I don't know when he'll be back, or if he'll actually be back at all."
"He is notorious for mind games, I'll give you that." The Admiral leans against the bar, glass of whiskey in hand and forehead furrowed in thought. "And I'm very disappointed to hear you insulted his choice of drink."
"An implied insult is as bad as a spoken one, Corvo, and I expected better of you. It's a crew effort to keep a ship afloat and sailing; one weak link can ruin everything."
You've never been on a ship, Corvo thinks savagely, digging out the maraschino cherries for a garnish on the drink. "He surprised me," he says instead. "I reacted badly, and I'll be better prepared next time." Hollow words, whatever the Admiral wants to hear.
"Wallace could have done a better job of it," Lord Pendleton says unexpectedly. He's swaying slightly, his glass of wine sloshing as he waves his hands around. It's not yet midnight; someone's started early. "I can vouch for his superior manner in dealing with more...distinguished personages. After all, he's served me faithfully for long enough that he is accustomed to dealing with the social elite." He smirks and downs the rest of his wine in a single gulp. The glass gets placed on the bar, and he shoots Corvo a significant look.
"Won't be a moment, I just have to take these out to the customers," Corvo says, and gets a filthy glare in return, which is pretty much on par for normal. Wallace is out, delivering flowers to some up-and-coming soprano on Pendleton's behalf, Thalia something, so Corvo is the next best thing. The bastard's drinks are on the house, too, so he'll never tip.
Lord Pendleton comes from an old family. They were rich, up until his two brothers inherited the estate and started a competition to see who could throw it all away fastest. Parties, hookers, costly jewellery for starlets, a thousand other petty things Corvo can't even imagine. With that kind of money he could have an apartment, a studio even, somewhere professional looking to film auditions and practice lines. He could give Emily a proper home.
But the thing about the Pendleton siblings is they're all money without business sense, which is how Pendleton ended up here, drinking their cheapest vintage and buying the Admiral's lies about its "foreign origin" and "oak undertones". He also bought the spiel about the Hound Pits being a profitable venture, well worth the investment, sure to result in spectacular profit; that was a few years back, and so far there's no profit to be seen, and no sign of Pendleton ever leaving. Most nights he's too drunk to find his way back to the family mansion. There's a room permanently reserved for him on the second floor, and Cecelia has the unenviable job of removing the miscellaneous empty bottles and glasses every day.
It's nice to have a Lord around, Havelock says. Adds a certain something to the place, a certain amount of... class, that counteracts the obscurity or, in Corvo's case, notoriety, of its employees.
The women are happy to see him, and happier to see their drinks; he ducks away from their flirty smiles and attempts at groping him with resigned practice and a feeble attempt at humour. Jessamine would have handled it so much better.
"Then we're agreed," the Admiral is saying as Corvo returns with his empty tray. "In the interests of not annoying him any further-"
"Someone else can serve him if he comes in?" Corvo asks wearily. "Fine. Good. I couldn't care less."
The discussion turns to strategy, which is neither the Admiral nor Pendleton's strong point, but Martin isn't around right now so they have to make do. Corvo tunes them out and gets to work on his next order, this time for a group of semi-sober young men. They're all wearing top hats, so they're either gang members or just stupid, and either way there's the possibility of a decent tip; Corvo plays nice when they ask for shots, and "something with fire, man!"
Some parts of this job he can actually live with, and he won't deny getting a thrill from setting alcoholic beverages alight. There's probably some kind of unhealthy subconscious venting going on there, but isn't venting meant to be better than bottling things up? He gets to layering Kahlúa, Baileys, and Cointreau in heat resistant shot glasses. Wallace couldn't handle something like this; Corvo's seen him try, and he's better off sticking to coffee and doing Pendleton's laundry. Pouring the second and third layer in slowly with a bar spoon seemed to escape him completely, and all they ended up with was a mess. Luckily Pendleton was too drunk to care.
He adds a thin final layer of rum to help with the burning, and sets the shots alight one by one, to raucous applause from everyone near enough to watch it. They burn with a small, satisfying intensity, throwing strange shadows over the faces of those leaning in to watch. There's something about fire that brings people together, Corvo thinks. It's hard to take his eyes off it.
"Nicely done, Corvo." Callista comes by to hand out metal straws to their daredevil patrons and take their payment, and Corvo is suddenly overwhelmed with requests for drinks on fire. It's a part of the evening that he actually likes, and he spends a good hour handing out flaming Lemon Drops, Backdrafts, and Pumpkin Pies, and the tips start to come in at a decent rate.
Callista, Cecelia and Corvo have group bartending down to an art, and the evenings they're all rostered on are some of the more tolerable ones. Lydia is in charge of putting Emily to bed, and the three of them get a production line going, with Callista taking money, and Corvo and Cecelia on drinks. The air soon smells like alcohol and burnt cinnamon, the customers start to blur together, and they move around behind the bar like they can read each other's minds.
At some point in the night there's a short lull, and Corvo leans on the bar for a rest, swiping at it half-heartedly with a cloth in case the Admiral comes by. His back aches, and there are two hours to go until closing. Damn.
Someone's standing behind him.
"You actually met him?" Cecelia whispers, and Corvo jumps a little. Nobody ever hears her coming, and it's caused accidents on more than one occasion. Not intentionally; as far as he knows, there's not a harmful bone in Cecelia's body. She's just allergic to loud noises. Or any noises, for that matter.
"Sadly, yes," he replies out of the corner of his mouth, so as not to be seen 'chatting' while on duty.
"You didn't like him? What was he like?"
Corvo snorts. "He was nice until he opened his mouth. Then he was just like all the rest of them, only with a slightly better suit."
"Oh." She has this habit of wringing her hands absently when she's talking to someone, as if she can't justify the time spent not working. At least, Corvo hopes it's a habit, and not because she's genuinely afraid of him. He's been around long enough that she should know he's incapable of hurting anyone.
Even if he knew who Jessamine's killer was, he'd be unable to avenge her. That's a source of shame that'll follow him around for the rest of his life; one day Emily will want to know who, and why, and he will have nothing for her but his own weakness.
"Corvo, go to bed." Cecelia gently takes the cloth from his unresisting fingers; he's been staring down at it for the last...who knows, but apparently it was long enough to worry her.
"Go to bed," she repeats, moving behind him to start unfastening his apron. "Pendleton's passed out already, and the Admiral left a while ago to find out where Martin's got to recently. And I checked on Wallace and Lydia during my break, they're asleep."
"Cecelia, I can't, I need the money from this shift." The Admiral's kindness doesn't extend to rent-free accommodation, and everyone living in the building pitches in for power, gas, internet, the communal food fund, plus a little extra for Emily's meals... and he needs new clothes. What he has isn't going to work for auditions; with the amount of weight he's lost recently, nothing fits anymore.
"Go," Cecelia says, the closest he's ever heard her come to forceful. "We'll pretend you were here all along, nobody needs to find out otherwise. And I know that look. You need to sleep before you collapse."
He leaves in the end, with nothing more than an approving smile from Callista. It’s much too late to go and check on Emily, but Corvo lingers outside her closed door anyway. Around him, the Hound Pits creaks and groans, old wood settling in for the night, and the distant racket from the downstairs bar still audible despite the distance.
She's quiet. Is she alright? As much as it would tear at him, he almost wishes to hear her crying softly through the solid door. It would be a reason to approach, a reason to offer comfort; he worries constantly that they're drifting apart. She spends so much time with the Admiral. How can he possibly explain that the man isn't to be trusted when he has nothing but gut instinct to go on? They were so much closer when Jessamine was around. In those days it was Corvo who babysat and helped with homework. Once upon a time she'd sit at the bar and he'd make her hot chocolate, just so Jessamine could have some time alone in her apartment to rehearse. He isn't Emily's father, but he'd tried to fill the role of Dad when she needed him to. It had all felt so natural.
Now he sees her maybe twice a day, and all he can offer her is disappointment. His own failure is eating him alive.
Corvo's room is located on the highest floor of the Hound Pits. "Room" is a charitable term for what should honestly be referred to as an attic; the peeling paint, rotting wood, and scattered debris of all shapes and sizes mean it resembles nothing so much as an abandoned construction site. In his darker moments, Corvo lies back on the lumpy mattress and imagines that he lives in the middle of a rubbish dump. He’s surrounded by useless junk; it's no wonder he fits right in.
Self-pity again. That won't get him anywhere. As he gets ready for bed, Corvo tries to focus on the positives. Work is one, however much he hates it. He has a job, and he also has a slowly growing savings account. Sometimes it feels like watching a snail move, but he still checks it every week and makes sure to never touch so much as a coin of it. That's the way out, for him and Emily, and maybe Callista too, if she's done with the Hound Pits and wants to try her luck in a new place. Wherever it happens to be doesn't matter, but he needs to get Emily away from here with her fortune intact, because he won't let anybody own her. She has a future that he lacks; he'll make damn sure she gets to make the most of it. Away from the Hound Pits, into a new, clean apartment, and back to school. Dunwall's bureaucracy is notoriously awful, but if it comes down to needing to swear he's Emily's father, he'll do it. There's nothing he won't do for her safety.
Corvo is asleep before he knows it. He has to be, because when he opens his eyes, the room is very different.
Blue light shines through new cracks in the ceiling; he stares bemusedly up at it from the bed.
How did I never notice that before, he thinks. You'd think when it rained I’d... But it seems the cracks have spread to the walls, large, jagged gashes through the ragged paintwork, and more blue light emerging from the gaps. He sits up, and finds the attic is suddenly a lot smaller than it used to be. Where an empty doorway usually leads to an unused storage room is now only a blank brick wall.
Huh. Guess the Admiral will have to start charging me less rent. I can work with this.
Corvo stands and moves towards the door, because his room has shrunk for no apparent reason, and if he tells Havelock immediately he might be just in time to negotiate before this week's rent is due. He forms a solid plan in the space between his bed and the exit, something to do with being firm but fair, and refusing to back down from his demand, and then the door is opening without his touching it.
The Hound Pits has disappeared. In its place is...blue, in every direction Corvo looks, unending and unchanging. There are odd bits of debris floating through it; unattached chandeliers, plush theatre seats, random pillars and archways that look to be stage props instead of the actual thing. Lampposts stand in mid air, and ropes of lanterns hang upside down, drifting above the hooks holding them in place. They sway slightly, though there's no breeze that he can feel. Corvo isn't really sure what to make of it all, but an ornate spiral staircase materialises in front of him without warning-
Materialises? No, no, it was always in front of him. He simply didn't see it. Trailing a hand over the banister, Corvo climbs it, slowly at first, then increasing his pace. By the end he's almost running, around and around and around, though what he'll find he isn't sure, only that it'll be important and that if he doesn't get there in time he might miss it. Step by step, black metal etched with roses flashes past under his feet.
He reaches the top without warning and finds it empty, until it's not.
"Hello, Corvo," the Outsider says quietly. "Your life has taken a turn, has it not? The Empress is dead, her precious daughter Emily is becoming lost to you, though you know not how, and you will play a pivotal role in the play to be written. For this, I have chosen you."
If he's too pale in the real world, he's even worse here. The bluish tone around the edges of his skin gives him a drowned look, and dead dark shadows under his eyes are either the result of an overly enthusiastic makeup artist, or he really needs to consider replacing his caffeine intake with actual sleep.
"Where am I? What is this place?" Corvo gestures to the rubble, the odd debris that floats lazily past. He glimpses a grand piano, sparkling with polish, and then a music stand. Bouquets of roses, a crumpled tapestry; all things he's seen before in Dunwall's various theatres and opera houses.
The Outsider seems happy to just float about a foot off the ground and stare at him wordlessly, so Corvo wanders to the edge of the platform they're standing on and looks down. It's...strange. He expected some kind of implausible drop, and the inevitable vertigo associated with leaning off the edge of somewhere very high up, but apparently nothing works as expected here. The blue (air? Water? But how can he breathe?) expands in all directions, and for all he knows he could be staring up instead of down.
Corvo turns back to find the Outsider exactly where he'd left him, arms folded and head tilted oddly, as if he can't quite work something out.
"What are you doing in my dreams?" Corvo asks him. "I've met you once, I really didn't like you, and if the Admiral has anything to say about it I'll never be in the same room as you ever again. I approve of that, by the way. So you have no place invading my dreams like they belong to you."
"You think so?" The Outside blinks slowly, his eyes never leaving Corvo."If this is truly your dream, then it stands to reason that you invited me in. How else could I appear, and in such an odd manner?" He gestures at himself, at the way his feet don't touch the ground and the air seems to warp around his shoulders.
"I didn't invite you," Corvo says, and the Outsider smiles unpleasantly.
"Yet here I am, and you have made me so much more than mortal... Tell me, Corvo, why am I like this? Do you fear me?"
He starts to drift closer, and Corvo backs towards the edge with an instinctive apprehension that he can't quite explain. Something in his bones says that he should leave, that this is not a safe place, and may not even be his dream. He's performed in enough Shakespeare to know that tampering with the supernatural is a Very Bad Idea.
"I'm not afraid of you," he says firmly, though his heel has reached the edge of the platform and behind him lies only endless blue. "You can't ruin me. Someone else got there first."
"No?" The Outsider stops moving a few feet away. He unfolds his arms and opens them wide, as though offering an embrace. There’s no warmth in those dead black eyes. "Perhaps you'd like to worship me instead."
"No," Corvo snaps, and makes the mistake of stepping back. He's out of ground, out of footing, and he snatches desperately at the edge of the platform as it passes, but the wood seems to slide through his fingers like smoke, like water, like-
sheets. He sits up to find them tangled around his hands where he gripped them in his sleep, and the thin duvet tossed onto the floor some way away. A quick look around confirms that the roof has mended itself, the only light coming in through the dusty curtains is a normal, sunny colour, and the brick wall is once again a doorway. Looks like he won't be getting that decrease in rent after all.
Time to get up.