Meagan? She can be trusted, to a point.
Emily doesn’t remember it, but on the morning of the fifteenth anniversary of her mother’s death, she had a dream. In her dream she was running through the royal gardens, white rose petals falling at her feet. There was a muffled voice in the distance that was following her; she could hear it counting down from ten. Then suddenly she found herself inside the Tower, running down the red-carpeted halls, then through an empty, winding cobblestone street. Nine... eight... Then it was not stone under her feet but the flat tiles of a rooftop—seven—and as she ran they clattered, but she did not lose her balance. Six... five... Then the tiles dissolved into sand and she felt the shoreline of the sea lapping at her ankles, still running, never once stopping. Four... three... And as she ran she stumbled over something half-buried in the sand, and when she bent down to take a closer look, she saw it was a small, hard thing crafted cleverly from sharp bone and string, and it beat in her hand like a heart. Two... one! And time was up, so she curled herself into a tight little knot and lay in the sand with her eyes shut, and she made herself into a small, hard thing like the charm clenched safe in her fist; and she pretended that because she could not see what was looking for her, they could not see her, either; and she hid.
And the charm she held whispered a secret into her ear. It said, in a rasping voice full of wicked glee: I CAUGHT YOU!
The Empress is a strange girl. But then again, these are strange times.
Billie eyes her up and down and tries to connect the dots. The blood splashed onto the hem of her coat: probably the most normal thing about her. The slight tilt of her head, brow furrowed, as though listening intently to some distant rumour: less so. The fidget with her signet ring, fingers twitching, almost squeezing the air: a nervous tic, ultimately harmless. The faint shine through the back of her left glove: a dead giveaway.
“So what’d he tell you?” Billie says, leaning back against the wall with arms crossed.
Seated at the table, tearing into a hunk of bread, Emily startles.
“What do you know of him?” Emily asks, and that isn’t a reaction of discomfited surprise but a curiosity that makes her look unsettlingly younger.
“Enough.” Billie’s voice is grim. “We’ve got our work cut out for us—it’s never a good sign when the Outsider shows his hand.”
“You’ve met him before, then.” Emily leans closer, a slight but distinct movement, eyes keen.
“No.” Billie’s caught off guard by her own vehemence. She backtracks evenly: “Not personally. But I’ve seen what comes of his influence.” Felt it, too; there isn’t a shadow in Dunwall she hasn’t travelled through. How she used to revel in what she could do, too proud to realize the power she held was secondhand. A mere shard of light refracted from its source. She was never the recipient of a gift but the inheritor of a debt—one she has run from all these years only to be now staring in the face, guileless and open.
“Without the Outsider, I would be dead,” Emily says. “Corvo wouldn’t have been able to save me, back then. I would have lasted maybe a few months as a puppet on the throne before Burrows got rid of me.” Her lips tighten in a smile; there’s wry humour in it. “Supposing there was even anything left of Dunwall to rule, that is, other than the rats.”
How odd it must be, to speak of personal events in your own life so freely, knowing that they have already become public knowledge, belonging to a larger history. And yet how very practiced. Perhaps the point is to make it seem as though something has been voluntarily given, when the equivalent information can be gathered from any glossy-bound book, language perfunctory and impersonal, penned by a publicist’s hand. No matter—Billie has too many secrets of her own to fault anyone else for holding back.
“And now...” Emily flexes her hand, pulls it into a fist. Around it, the air shivers. “It’s my turn.”
“Careful,” Billie says, the word a warning, a nick of the knife. “The Outsider—his gift is advantage. Tips the scales in your favour. But everything always has a way of balancing back in the end.”
“Don’t worry.” Emily’s tone is still light, if level, but there’s an edge to it now. Unmistakable in how it straightens out her shoulders, her spine, the imperial line of her neck. “This is the one chance I get, to make things right. I won’t waste it.”
Of that, Billie has no doubt. Nor is it what she had meant. In his day Daud had taught her a great deal many things: how to hold power, how to wield it, and in the end, how to fall into it like a blade. But above all he also taught her that sometimes all you can do is watch, so she holds her tongue and does exactly that: pays careful attention to the girl helping herself to the last tin of jellied eels on the ship.
This feels dangerous. She doesn’t need anyone to tell her that, though she can hear the voices chorusing in her head: Daud’s chiding criticism, Deirdre’s pitying laugh. Oh, Billie. What have you gotten yourself into, now?
She already knows this is going to cost her. But isn’t it high time she paid her dues? Is this revenge, come fifteen years late to collect? After all this time, Billie doesn’t believe in coincidence. She doesn’t believe in very much at all.
Under her father’s tutelage Emily had prided herself on being an excellent pupil, but in practice she now finds herself having to adjust for a steep learning curve. Sparring against members of her own guard has hardly equipped her for strategically mapping her way unseen through all the officers and overseers of a foreign city. Back home, a mistake meant a slap on the wrist with the flat of a sword and an outstretched hand to help her up. Here, to err is to risk losing everything. She learns this the hard way when she painstakingly chokes out guard after guard, only for the one she missed to spot her stashing their unconscious bodies in a trash bin and raise the alarm.
She strikes before she even realizes. Her blade sinks into his throat with startling ease. Blood sprays messy over her mask; she recoils backward. Footsteps clatter, drawing near, and pure instinct is what tightens her left hand into a fist and yanks. Lifts herself up onto a lamppost, then a line of piping, then a rooftop. To safety.
Emily takes a deep breath, then another. At this height she can no longer make out the face of the man lying crumpled in the street, only the guards swarming his body like flies on a corpse. She looks beyond it at the horizon instead, where all along the Karnacan coastline the ocean is calm and the waves lap lovingly against the shore. But what stirs in her heart is not reverence. Only a cold-running resentment for all it is not: a skyline choked with smog, roads stained blue from the river and the rain, the chill of the air against her teeth. A dignified beauty that isn’t paraded obvious through streets baked gold under the sun but kept secret, shared in precious glimpses and worth all the more if you only know where to look. If you only look.
She imagines her father at her own age: thrust into a web of political intrigue in a nation that was not his own, grappling with new duties he could not afford to fail, taking to the slow and arduous task of proving his worth. Falling in love—her lips quirk up at the thought. How romantic the story had seemed when it was happening to someone else. Now she mirrors him in eerie inverse, having infiltrated his own home city with few allies on her side, embarking upon the next chapter of her life with the weight of an empire bearing down upon her. After all these years and everything he’s done, no one can accuse Corvo of being a poor father, but in the end, maybe that was what had kept him from being a better teacher. If he had just told her more of the truth about what was at stake—about what it would cost, to fight for what you love—then maybe Emily wouldn’t be hiding now on a rooftop, waiting for the patrols below to disperse. She returns her gaze to the pool of blood seeping between the cracks of the cobblestones, and though her gut tightens in guilt, she can’t help the quickening of her pulse. Leftover adrenaline, or perhaps excitement at the evidence of what she can do, laid clear in red for all to see. This mark upon the world she’s made.
What’s done is done. She can’t change the past. She can only promise to be better; to make up for all her mistakes in kind. No more childish carelessness—from now on, everything she does will be with intent. Crouched on her perch, Emily takes inventory. A bloodfly bite swelling angry red at her wrist. Her nails, once elegantly manicured, now torn ragged from hoisting herself over sills and balcony railings. A paltry supply of crossbow bolts—they keep breaking; her aim is not as exact as she remembers—and a concerning lack of Addermire Solutions.
Emily purses her lips at the bottles clinking empty in her pouch. She’s growing dangerously reliant on the powers the Outsider has granted her—but how can she help it, when they come at so low of a cost? A handful of whalebone, a momentary expense of energy: mere trifles in contrast to the speed with which she can now flit through windows and over rooftops, evading the watchful eyes of her enemies. It feels exciting. Even familiar. Like a game she used to play.
And that’s another lesson you still haven’t learned, she rebukes herself in her father’s tone. Just what will it take for her to grow up, once and for all?
Continuing to rifle through her pouch, Emily pauses to pick up the heart. It’s an ugly thing, torn apart and fused back together after the fact, a mess of wiring and cold flesh. But it beats, slow and sure, and whispers things to her in a gentle murmur none else can hear. As though it were made to fit in her hand. She squeezes it now, and feels a voice like a caress on the back of her neck.
Don’t despair—there is goodness here, too.
A wave of inexplicable shame washes over her. She finds herself blinking back tears. The mask that hides half her face makes it hard to breathe in the salt-heavy air; she longs to tear it off. To stride freely through the streets like any other citizen, as is her birthright, and bask in the light. Instead she skulks in the shadows, forced once again to hide at the mercy of her own subjects’ plotted schemes. She digs her nails into her palms. No Empress should have to find herself in such close company of the rats.
Fine—maybe she was never so good at being Empress. She can concede this now, after having had her throne snatched away from her, a coup and a smear campaign brewing under her nose, Alexi bleeding out in her arms. Then she can be good at this, at least: staying a secret thing, taking apart the empire piece by piece and putting it back into its place. The world as it should be. Just like how her father had done fifteen years ago, back in his day.
Emily places the heart back into her pouch, and with it, the soft touch leaves the nape of her neck like it was never there. She shivers. How odd. She almost misses it.
Over the horizon, the Institute looms. She starts toward its direction, and no longer looks down at what she leaves behind.
When Billie picked up a runaway empress she thought she knew what she was dealing with. The archetype seemed straight out of a storybook: spoiled rotten with a bleeding heart, insultingly naive in her earnest ideals, stubbornness in spades. She’ll admit that she underestimated her—forgot that Emily has survived the sharp end of grief’s blade, that she has already played this game as a pawn in the palm of somebody else’s hand, that the Outsider himself plucked her out of history and marked her apart from all the rest. But even still Billie can hardly believe it when Emily emerges from the Addermire Institute after less than a day’s worth of work with a disoriented Doctor Hypatia steadied on her shoulder, alive and well and looking no worse for wear.
She keeps her surprise to herself, of course. Powers up the skiff as though it were no less than what she was expecting, and asks: “Are you ready to leave?”
“Please,” Emily says, gently arranging Hypatia beside her. Something’s off about the doctor, that much is obvious; her eyes are distant, cheeks sunken. There is blood dried under her fingernails. But some of the weariness lifts from her brow as they glide further out over the waters, away from the shadow of the Institute. Her expression clears, eyes regaining some of their sharp focus, the keenness of a scientist’s gaze. She watches the sea as though a heavy fog is thinning, slowly letting the light back through.
Emily is coy with the details, but she seems proud. Smug, even. She should be. It’s all very befitting of an empress: eliminating the Crown Killer, saving a brilliant mind whose compassion and medical expertise are both equally needed in this time of infestation, and—most impressive of all—doing it all with no blood on her hands.
“Well,” Emily admits. “There were a few guards who caught me by surprise.”
Billie lets it pass without comment, only a knowing silence. There are always surprises. There are always excuses.
Not that Emily looks like she has any regrets. Billie steers the skiff and quietly reevaluates. Tries to reconcile the scared child she remembers with the grim satisfaction on the Empress’ face. Let’s hope your father taught you well, Billie had said when they first set out for the docks of Karnaca, but turns out she hadn’t given her enough credit. How much of Emily’s competence is inherited from the Royal Protector, and how much of it is her own response to familiar circumstances? Surely the Golden Cat and the Hound Pits Pub were her first training grounds; surely she learned just as much at the hands of Burrows and his fellow conspirators as she has from Corvo Attano’s example. And then, of course, there’s the teacher she and Billie both have in common: Daud’s old, rusted blade. What lesson did they learn from being on opposite ends of the knife? Billie looks at her slantwise from the periphery of her vision and cannot help but wonder: how much of you is what we made you?
“Here,” Emily says, as though she’s heard everything. She holds out a beaten-looking pouch. Billie stares at it.
“Come on,” Emily says, an air of impatience now. No doubt she isn’t used to repeating herself. She drops the pouch onto Billie’s lap: the unmistakable clink of coins. “I took everything they had.”
Billie keeps her voice level. “The Empress of the Isles, a petty thief?”
Emily laughs. “It’s the least I can do for you.”
“I’m not doing this for any reward.” An edge slips out unbidden in her tone. With some horror Billie realizes she’s set herself up for the obvious question: then why are you doing it? She has no idea of the answer. Why had Daud shadowed Delilah in secret to save Emily’s throne after having stolen it from her in the first place? Why is Billie choosing to follow in the tracks of that very same wheel, still turning fifteen years later? Could it really be something so commonplace as regret, worthless as atonement? Or else something more selfish, in the end: the need to step free from her own past self into a possibility previously undefined, but taking clearer shape around her with every passing moment, every choice she makes. Like the Empress herself, who watches closely but doesn’t ask, leaving Billie feeling as though she’s gotten away with something.
“It’s not a reward,” Emily says instead, wrinkling her nose like the word offends her. “More like compensation. I know what you’re risking.”
The pouch burns in Billie’s lap: the accrued weight of all she owes, rising ever higher like water up to her neck.
“Or you can just think of it as my thanks,” Emily adds, and Billie’s hand clenches around the tiller, bringing them to an abrupt halt alongside the Dreadful Wale.
Emily gets to her feet, heedless of the waves rocking the boat. Her hair is coming undone in the ocean winds, and she’s taken off her mask to reveal the smile beneath, disarming in its sincerity. Another surprise Billie didn’t see coming: here in the middle of nowhere with nothing to her name but a mark engraved on the back of the same hand that bears the imperial ring, Empress Emily Kaldwin looks alive.
“I’m starved,” Emily says, and begins to climb aboard.
The Clockwork Mansion is made up of a million moving parts, but it is a dead thing at heart. It bores, rather than delights: the rooms and halls that unfold perfectly like a child’s miniature dollhouse, the skeletal machines that gaze eyeless through hollow machinery crafted in the shape of bird skulls, and, above all, Jindosh’s ever-constant, ever-irritating commentary over the loudspeakers, tracking her progress like a rat through a maze. After Ramsey’s betrayal, Emily’s exhausted her patience for men who think themselves clever.
As Jindosh taunts her, as she climbs her way through the cracks of what he’s made, she can’t help but let her mind run wild with all the ways she itches to shut him up, once she gets her hands on him. Yet in the end she finds that he’s given her the answer himself. How considerate; the Grand Inventor really has thought of everything. Emily straps him into the chair, nudges his chin to fit his head into place between the electrodes, and watches every idea he’s ever had fade from the world. After his body shakes still, she wipes the sweat from his brow with a gentle, gloved hand. A final benediction from his Empress: she has not only spared him, but set him free.
Down in the assessment chamber, Anton seems more frail than she remembers. But she’s hardly the same girl in his memory, either. His gaze focuses and unfocuses like a glass lens in a mask.
“Emily?” he rasps.
“Shh,” Emily soothes. “It’s okay. I’m here, now.”
She hefts his unconscious body over her shoulder and believes her job finished.
She is wrong. At the station, there are witches. She is not prepared, and has to cast Anton aside to draw her sword, wincing at the thump of his body hitting the ground; another ache for his old bones, no doubt. Then a monstrous vine is clawing its way up through the cracks in the pavement, and she has to far reach for a lamppost to avoid getting her eyes gouged out. She escapes, just barely—a thorn grazes deep into her thigh, and she hisses at the spark of pain.
The witches have branches growing into their hair. They bleed black. “You should have stayed in your boring little world,” one of them snarls at her, and Emily remembers it: sitting idly and listening to her advisors fight over the scraps of what she owned, never once knowing the world was bigger than mere points on a map. These witches seem both immeasurably old and impossibly young, caught forever in time, and Emily has no doubt they’ve seen more, lived more than she ever has. The powers they draw upon, their bodies contorting to pull dead things up from where they’re buried in the earth, their eyes carved deep with hatred—they captivate Emily far more than all of Jindosh’s soulless inventions.
The Outsider, these witches; strange sights in the dark. This realm she thought she ruled over. How did she not know? How are there still so very many things she does not know? And as Emily darts back from the whip of a vine at her neck, it is thrill that sings in her pulse, wonder that brings down her blade. Like a child again, sat attentive at the knee of an old teacher in a small room overlooking the river, as he explained to her the pulse of an electric wire. Careful, so careful she had held the vein of copper in her palm, not out of fear, but in hopes he would be pleased by the gentleness she could be capable of. Slowly the thing in her hand would unravel, would become knowable, as he told her story after story; as together they waited for her father to return from his own.
Now the story belongs to her, and she reclaims it with every enemy that falls at her feet. But as Emily stands over the silence of their corpses, she feels a pang of something like sadness. Their fingers outstretched as though reaching for one another, even in death; their eyes rendered hollow marbles that will never blink again. Something precious has been lost from the world, by her own hand. She feels a white-hot shame, and rising against it, childish, insistent: there was no other way.
Lying forgotten by the side of the street, facedown against the cobblestones, Anton stirs weakly in his sleep. Emily rushes forward to gather him back up in her arms. She can’t afford to get distracted now. Everything is waiting for her: Meagan on the Dreadful Wale, Corvo set in stone, Delilah sitting on her throne. Her empire, and her story. Was this how her father had felt fifteen years ago, remembering her face at the end of every mission as he sheathed his bloodied blade? She’ll have to ask him all about it, everything he saw and felt, those years ago when she was still too young for the truth. There’ll be no more secrets, nothing kept from her any longer when she returns home and retakes what is hers, which will naturally, of course, include what is his.
There is something gravely wrong with the Royal Conservatory. Billie can feel it all the way from the skiff. She could write it off as a superstitious sense, but she remembers all too well what Delilah’s magic feels like; how it had once held her heart like a fist. Even now it sings to her, plucking on phantom strings, a suggestion tugging at her sleeve. She ignores it. Stands vigil with arms crossed, and pretends to be unmoved.
Surveillance, stakeouts, watch patrols; Billie has done her fair share of waiting, has diligently honed her patience into a weapon of its own. But as the oil lamp burns low she finds herself struck by just how much of her life she’s spent alone. She was never a solitary creature, no matter how good at it she has become. From her childhood days of running with her street gang—she can’t remember any of their faces but Deirdre’s, but she can still hear the sound of their laughter as they raced down the alleyways with pockets full of pilfered coins—to all the late nights playing cards in the Whalers’ quarters, and how everyone accused her of cheating but could never catch her in the act. Even Anton, muttering to himself as his brush made unhurried strokes across the canvas, or tinkering with the mess of bolts and wires at his workstation, or snoring during his daily afternoon nap; company as quiet and steady as the waves rocking her ship.
And now she’s brought back into the orbit of another group that once would have swallowed her whole. How close she had come to surrendering herself to Delilah’s relentless gravity. Billie dislikes being so near to something that knows her name. It’s dangerous, this proximity; it reveals her. Prodding at scarred-over skin to uncover the tender flesh beneath: a weakness, a wound. She grinds her back teeth and turns away from the ghosts of her past to watch the water instead.
Emily seems cagier than usual when she finally returns, so late into the night it may as well be morning. Billie can feel her gaze pricking into her back as she steers them to the Dreadful Wale.
“What did you do with Ashworth?” Billie asks, more out of obligation than interest. She can already guess: Delilah’s howl of rage had swept clean through the city, a storm that left glass shattering and hounds barking in her wake.
“She won’t be a problem anymore.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“I didn’t kill her,” Emily says, sounding almost petulant. “I just cut her off from the Void. She’ll never use magic again.”
Billie doesn’t bother to state the obvious, which is that Breanna would much prefer the former option to the latter. Possibly Emily doesn’t know, or possibly that’s exactly what factored into her decision. Does it matter? Hasn’t Billie herself played the long game of cruelty, in her younger years? Either way, Emily hardly looks concerned with whatever fate she’s granted Breanna, and why. Instead she peers intently at Billie through the fog of the open waters as though seeing her for the first time.
“Did you know her?”
“Ashworth?” Billie regrets the clarification as soon as it leaves her mouth; it gives away more than she intends. In any case, know is a tricky word. Billie once feasted at the same table as both Delilah and Breanna, ate the honeyed figs they fed her with sticky fingers, but Meagan Foster has never even met a witch. Something keen in Emily’s gaze holds her tongue, and she opts for something that lies muddled between two truths. “We may have crossed paths once or twice.”
“Hmm,” Emily says, and doesn’t say anything else, and that’s the end of that. Or so Billie believes until the next morning when she enters the cargo hold and finds a new painting hung up on the wall, her own face staring back at her through a seething wave of colour.
“One of her better works,” Emily says, materializing from nowhere beside her. Is it her powers, or just a trick of the light? It suddenly seems vital that Billie know the difference. “She got your eyes right. Or at least, the one you still have.”
“From her earlier years, no doubt,” Anton comments from the table, because he can never resist an opportunity to show off what he knows. “A time when her palette was much less restrained and more... passionate.”
Billie shoots him a look. He shuts up.
“Interesting,” says Emily. “I found it in the Conservatory’s archive.” She studies the painting. “You know, I’ve never had the proper temperament to sit for a portrait myself. But maybe my patience has grown since.”
“I can test it for you,” Anton offers, a crafty glint in his eye.
“Look,” Billie interrupts. “Fine. Okay. I should have told you. Yes, I did more than cross paths with Breanna and Delilah. I bought into their bullshit, which brought me down a bad road. It was a long time ago, which doesn’t forgive it, but I did things I’m not proud of.” She pauses. The gaps in her story are glaringly obvious even to herself. The weight of all she fails to convey. She presses on, despite it, against it: “What I’m trying to say is—there are things I regret.”
Emily doesn’t look angry. She doesn’t even look suspicious. It’s fascination that darkens her eyes. She tilts her head to one side, as though taking in both Billie before her and the woman in the painting at once. Pinned beneath her gaze, Billie feels exposed as an insect speared into two: herself and the shadow she can’t escape, doggedly following after her for fifteen years, loyal to the bitter end.
The moment drags on by point of blade.
“Okay,” Emily says simply, like every bone in Billie’s body isn’t tensed tight as wire. Like that was all she wanted. Like that was all—
Emily pulls out a chair and sits down. Plucks an apple from a plate and sinks her teeth in. Leans back, hoists her feet up onto the table—how many times has Billie told her not to do that?—and turns to Anton.
“So just what’s it gonna take, to kill Delilah?”
Her teeth flash white between bites. Her mouth full.
There is no life left in these parts of the Dust District, but things still move. Windmill blades cut idly through air. A bloodfly’s wings buzz as though scratching an itch. Even the ground cracks underfoot, unearthing buried pieces of the world, patches of dead grass and dried sand. Emily closes her eyes and envisions herself at the edge of a vast precipice. She can hear both her hearts beating. A cool breeze lifts the curl of her hair at her chin, fluttering against her cheek, and she imagines it to be a touch from the Void.
“It’s all gone to shit,” Meagan says.
Emily opens her eyes. Meagan’s leant against the crumbling frame where a door once stood. She gazes out over the deserted street like she’s not even paying attention. She is, of course. Emily confirms this by taking a step closer, and sure enough Meagan shifts minutely in response.
There is little Emily knows about Meagan Foster, but these few things are consistent: she hardly ever seems to sleep, she cheats at cards, she laughs with her mouth closed. She never keeps her back unguarded, nor does she hide the fact that she watches Emily right back. She scoffs at Emily’s moneyed background but otherwise doesn’t act like she’s an ignorant child or a helpless princess, treating her instead like she’s capable of what anybody else is capable of: being threat, or ally. Emily likes it, maybe because it’s the first time she, too, is also realizing what she herself is capable of.
It’s slow, this process of familiarizing herself with a stranger in close quarters; an entirely different game from your typical court intrigue. Emily’s only a novice and Meagan’s an old hand, but the rules are being made up as they go, which puts them on an equal sort of playing ground. She’s read pages of Meagan’s journal, listened to her mutter to herself from behind closed doors, wrung her mother’s heart dry of secrets, and still everything Meagan gives up is grudging, pried from closed fists. Which only makes it worth all the more.
“It’s kind of lovely, though,” Emily says.
Meagan shoots her a disbelieving look. “Are you kidding? Everything here is dead.”
“Exactly,” Emily says. “It’s dead, and the power of what remains is so strong that nothing can ever live here again. Nothing will grow from the bones buried here. Nothing should.”
“I think that makes it even worse,” Meagan says at length.
They are standing in a collapsed house. Emily wanders its halls as though trespassing through sacred ruins: something once lived here. Their dreams linger in the air. She can still hear them breathing. Most of what was left behind has been eroded by dust and time, but there are surprises to be found: unsent letters, the odd coin, even an old silvergraph that once must have been treasured and now rots mildewed in its frame.
“Look,” Emily says, nodding at it. Their faces are long obscured, but the shape of three figures is still visible, their arms around one another. “They were a family.”
“They would still be a family if it wasn’t for the Duke’s corruption.”
“There would still be a lot of families if it wasn’t for a lot of things.”
Meagan’s face pales, for some reason. “Emily. I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t worry about the Duke,” Emily says. “He’ll pay for what he’s done.”
Meagan does not look reassured. Emily has the urge to reach out and wipe smooth the furrow from her brow with her finger. Trust me, she wants to say, but she knows she has to do better. It has to be earned.
So she sets out to do exactly that.
Jindosh proves to be a nuisance even after he’s out of the picture, his convoluted riddle a last laugh echoing from the clockwork skeleton of his mansion. Emily has to trawl through the entire district just to piece together the solution. She sprints through the cover of dust storms, breaks into the black market, walks the fine line between the Howlers and the Overseers and indiscriminately kills both. She sees no difference between them: they’re both gangs that have brute-forced their way into taking more power than they deserve, and they’ve done nothing for the people who still cling to life here against all odds. Their petty territorial war is as ultimately meaningless as the squabble of hounds over a bone. She hunts Paolo down in his lair and stamps him out over and over until it finally sticks; she adds Byrne’s name to the ledger of the dead. She wonders if Meagan is watching. She hopes so.
In the ramshackle apartment where her father grew up, Emily sits at the edge of the broken bedframe and tries to imagine her life if she had been born here instead of the gilded halls of Dunwall Tower. Who would she be, now—a housewife, a maidservant, a Howler? Would she have died young and hungry? Or would she have schemed and plotted to take her rightful place on the throne—just like Delilah? She shudders at the thought. Here in the stillness of the empty room Emily can sense all her alternate selves, as though just on the other side of the wall. They strain at the plaster like branches of a wild tree, trying to break through. She leaves them there in all their endless possibility, and in all their endless ruin.
The lock combination clicks neatly into place under her fingers. The doors swing open. Delilah’s last secret beckons, and Emily steps over the threshold to claim it.
It’s the night before they’re going to kill the Grand Duke of Serkonos, and spirits are high. Emily clinks her glass against Anton’s and laughs at his drunken stories, asking questions in all the right places, and Aramis watches in amusement, chuckling around his pipe. Their plans are laid, the path is clear, and the Dreadful Wale is livelier than it’s ever been. Billie nurses her own glass and wonders how this happened. Even a fool stumbles upon something like happiness every once in a while, she supposes, and takes a sip of the expensive brandy Emily lifted from some aristocrat’s house in Cyria Gardens. It’s bitter, but it’s all they have.
Every once in a while Emily will glance up in the middle of conversation straight at Billie and smile secretly, almost to herself. Billie raises an eyebrow back at her. Emily’s been acting strange—well, stranger than usual—ever since she returned from the manor. She seems... pleased, somehow. And why shouldn’t she be? The mission was another success. Billie’s old friend Aramis has agreed to help them out; they’ve discovered at last the means of Delilah’s downfall; they’re about to accomplish what Billie would have scoffed at as an impossibility mere weeks ago. Edging ever closer to the odds stacked against them.
All of it has lulled Billie into a familiar sense of comfort: she’s mired in the secret shadow of history once more, pulling the strings of an empire under the cover of night. It rings like an eerie echo from her past, resonating through fifteen hollow years. How she’s missed the sound it makes. The call she answered back when she was Daud’s second in command, when she pulled off impossible things every other day with the rest of the whalers. A flock of blackbirds scattering from the scene of the crime: officials with their throats slit in their beds, nobles found facedown in their dinner plates, gang leaders sunk to the bottom of the river with pockets full of stones. And what was it that had been their crowning glory—
Billie’s mouth sours. Nausea claws up her throat. She ducks out for air.
Up above deck the night air is crisp. The moon white as a river pearl. Billie leans forward against the railing and drags in a slow breath, then another.
“Anton’s getting soft in his old age,” Emily says beside her.
So am I, Billie thinks unbidden—she hadn’t even heard her follow. She doesn’t mean to turn her head to look, but the Empress’ presence compels. She’s loosened the knot of her hair and the line of her collar is relaxed around her throat. Her eyes are bright. Through the glove on her hand: a faint suggestion of light.
“He should be resting,” Billie says. “He’s still not well.”
Emily shrugs. “I left him arguing with Stilton over miners’ rights and the necessary working conditions for optimal silver output. A bit of lively debate is healthy for the heart.”
Sounds like a valuable conversation for an Empress to participate in, Billie thinks, but doesn’t say. She looks back out over the waters. “You should be resting, too. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Emily joins her by the railing. She’s close; Billie resists the instinct to shift away, and something in Emily’s smile widens, like it’s pleased her. “Aren’t you going to wish me luck?”
“You don’t need luck. You’ve got something far more valuable on your side.”
Emily glances down at the makeshift glove on her hand like she had forgotten it was there. “What, this old thing?” she says with a laugh, and tugs at the strips of black cloth until they unravel. Billie’s breath hitches—she’s seen Emily use her powers, but the bare Mark itself is a rare sight. How it glimmers as though from underwater, its light breaking apart across waves.
Billie pries her gaze away. “Careful with that old thing—if Aramis sees it, you’ll have a lot of explaining to do.”
“It’s just us here,” Emily says, and the pointedness of it sets Billie on edge. “And I have to say, you’ve taken it awfully well so far.”
“I’m used to strange sights,” is all Billie says, tight-lipped. “What about you? Hardly the kind of life you tasted in Dunwall Tower, is it?”
Emily waves a hand dismissively. “Oh, you know—political intrigue and assassination plots, it all comes with the territory, really.”
“Still,” Billie says. “You’ve been touched by the Void itself. That doesn’t happen every day.”
There is an abrupt moment of silence broken only by the slow, steady rock of the ship.
“So have you,” Emily whispers.
Billie goes cold all over, as though doused with seawater. “What?”
There is an intent sheen in Emily’s eyes. She takes Billie’s right hand in hers, but the gesture is not one of tenderness. She traces over Billie’s knuckles, her fingerbones, the lines of her palm. Her thumb finds the pulse point at Billie’s wrist and presses down. Like she could just dig right through to what beats inside.
“Emily,” Billie says; it takes everything in her to not draw her arm away, to keep her voice level. “What are you doing?”
Emily keeps one hand circled around her wrist and lifts the other to Billie’s face. Billie’s instinct is to startle backward, but something in Emily’s gaze keeps her still, though she knows her pulse must be quickening wildly out of control under Emily’s touch. She holds her breath as Emily’s thumb sweeps over her brow, then rests at the divot beneath her eye, just shy of where bone meets socket.
“Like it’s always been there,” Emily murmurs. Funny: she doesn’t seem to be speaking to Billie at all, but to something through her.
Emily’s fingers are elegant and slender, but her palms have new callouses, nails worn down thin and ragged. The edge of her ring juts sharp against the skin of Billie’s cheek. At this proximity, Billie can feel the Mark humming with an energy that crackles like static. She can feel Emily’s breath warm against her lips. She can feel the two of them standing on the verge of something poised to swallow them whole.
“I’m right here,” Billie says, low, and Emily’s gaze blinks back into focus, straight on her.
“You can’t see it, can you?” Emily’s voice is hushed with awe. “The lingering traces of the Void. It follows you everywhere, now. It won’t let you go.”
Billie’s tired of being left in the residual shadow of somebody else’s power, caught in the peripheries of a world crafted by somebody else’s hand. The paths she follows after like a wild animal begging for scraps. The choices that never seem to fall to her, in the end. Just once she wants to be the centre that burns. To forge forward, unyielding, and not back down at the last minute. Just once—to reach out and take what she wants.
She leans deliberately forward, so that the thumb resting beneath her eye now presses firm, even painful. Emily’s grip tightens around her wrist. Billie doesn’t blink.
“I won’t let it go,” she corrects.
Surprise blooms over Emily’s features, then delight. She lets out a laugh.
“No,” she agrees, “you won’t,” and she lunges forward, closes the distance.
In her head Billie hears the great thundering wingbeats of birds taking flight.
Emily knocks clumsy against Billie’s lips; teeth draw blood. Her hand still cups the side of Billie’s face. Her mouth is greedy on Billie’s own, and Billie returns it with biting force. All hers for the taking. This stolen minute with only the sea as witness, black and knowing in its reflective gaze. The night drawing deeper around them: a void through which they could just fall, and fall, and fall.
Billie breaks off violently. She jerks backward, away, but Emily’s still got her by the wrist.
“The others—” Billie starts.
Emily’s mouth is swollen red, her hair a tangle in the wind, face luminous in the moonlight. Her grip is forgiving. She watches, eyes dark, and Billie falls silent.
“I know there’s more you haven’t told me,” Emily says after a while, her voice low, scratchy. “You’re not telling me.”
Billie tenses. A surge of something like fear in her throat, or else stark relief.
“That’s okay,” Emily says, and smiles. Her teeth white. “It’s more interesting this way, don’t you think?”
Billie doesn’t know what to say in response. Emily doesn’t seem to be waiting for one, anyway. She runs her palm against Billie’s one last time, then slips her out of her grasp.
“Emily,” Billie means to say, but she’s already gone, melted into the shadows of the ship, only a shiver of air left in her wake.
Billie stays where she is for a long time. The ship and the sea both so silent, she may as well be the only thing that still breathes in the world.
She imagines whales gliding through the water beneath the ship, too dark and deep to see, but they are still there. They have always been there.
Emily makes a game out of the Grand Palace. She leaps from chandelier to chandelier on pointed toes, taps maidservants on the shoulder and nicks valuables from under their noses, dines at the banquet table with the bodies of guests and guards arranged in the chairs around her. Her knife and fork scrape noisily against her plate as her assembled company watches in silence. She lifts a slice of cold meat to her mouth and considers this practice for when she is queen again.
The musicians left all their instruments behind when they fled. She runs her fingers lightly over the strings of the harp; feels them tremble under her touch.
She takes the Duke apart so easily she wishes someone could have seen it. Meagan—I did what you wanted; Corvo—I’ve made you proud. Then she remembers the weight at her side. Of course. She retrieves the heart from her pouch and squeezes it, gentle, over Luca Abele’s dismembered corpse.
I ask nothing of you but to always remember who you are. And who you can be.
“Don’t worry, Mother,” Emily says. “I will.”
But deep in the Duke’s vault, before Delilah’s effigy, Jessamine looks far from pleased. She looks like barely anything at all. The light leaks through her like a cheap silvergraph. Emily has to squint to try and make out any familiar detail: the solemn arch of her brow, the pinched lines of her gaunt face. Her lips are blue, not unlike those of the drowned partygoers Emily left floating in the palace pool.
“My daughter,” Jessamine says, voice bare of warmth or tenderness. “You are becoming everything I fought against.”
“But I did it for you,” Emily says, confused. “To keep your throne. For our legacy—yours and mine.”
Jessamine reaches out a hand, and Emily eagerly takes it in hers. But it feels like skimming her palm against the surface of an ocean. Something vaster, deeper, that lies below; eludes her grasp.
Her mother leans closer. At first Emily thinks she intends to press a kiss to her cheek. Instead, she whispers as though sharing a terrible secret:
“I love you, but let me go.”
Emily reels at the two blows in quick succession. She blinks to see that Jessamine is fading, pieces of her flaking away, skin sloughing from a carcass.
“No,” Emily snarls, and tightens her grip on her mother’s ghostly hand. But she slips through her fingers like water, until the light bleeds out everything. Last to go is her gaze: fixed, unblinking, eternal.
Then it’s just her memory, and Emily clutching a dead thing in her hand.
Or not quite.
“What’s this?” comes a sneering voice. “The heart of my half-sister?”
Emily stares down at the twitching heart with disgust. “Delilah.”
“My dear niece,” cooes the tiny, wretched soul she holds. “You will never gain back what you lost here.”
“You’re just a leech,” Emily hisses. “You always have been. Even now, you cling to my mother’s remains. You corrupt her. You’ve emptied everything from her and taken it for your own.”
“Oh, Emily,” Delilah says, in both pity and glee. “Isn’t that just what it means, to be family?”
Emily digs her nails into the flesh of the heart. Had it still been alive, she would have drawn blood. Instead she’s left only with the echoes of Delilah’s laughter as she climbs her way out of the vault and back into the world.
The view of the Karnacan coastline from Duke Abele’s private dock is a salve upon her wounds. She watches the sun set in regal colours of dusky blue and mulberry, darkening the waters as though stained by imperial ink, and feels herself settle back into something like satisfaction, even triumph. She’s headed straight for Dunwall Tower from here. She’s so close to winning. She’s gotten everything she wanted, so far—almost everything.
On the horizon, a silhouette appears over the cresting waves, and approaches.
Meagan has scarcely steered the skiff alongside the dock before Emily is surging forward to claim her mouth in a hungry kiss. She can taste the startlement on Meagan’s tongue, and she laughs, finding it all the sweeter. Meagan’s hands—both of them, she has both her hands, and that’s another one of Emily’s victories—come up to brace themselves on Emily’s shoulders.
“I take it the Duke is dead, then?” Meagan says when they break apart, her voice dry with humour.
“Not just him,” Emily says. “Everyone.”
Something shifts in Meagan’s expression. Not the revealing of a discernible emotion like surprise, but a reconfiguring of structure, as though somewhere a door has closed.
“Everyone?” Meagan repeats. “As in, the guards? Or everyone in the palace?”
“They deserved it,” Emily says.
Meagan doesn’t say anything for a moment.
“Everyone gets what’s coming to them in the end,” she says eventually, and Emily grins. Finally—someone who understands.
“Let’s get out of here,” Emily says. Her heart feels fit to burst. “All that’s left to deal with now is Delilah, and then we’ll be free of all of this.”
Meagan tilts her head slightly as she looks at her. “One way or another,” she agrees, and starts to steer them home.
In the morning Billie fixes a leaking pipe in the engine room. She checks in on Anton and takes him his breakfast. Tidies her quarters, the storage room Hypatia moved out of, the galley. She studies the maps and the clippings and the silvergraphs pinned to the board in the cargo hold; the red threads that bind them together. She climbs up above deck, leans against the railing over the waters, and waits for Emily to come find her.
She doesn’t have to wait long.
“There it is,” Emily says from behind her. “Dunwall Tower, just as I left it.” A smile curls on her lips. “Home sweet home.”
She had crept up on Billie without so much as a sound. She could have just as easily announced her presence with the sharp end of her blade. But she hadn’t. What is that called, Billie wonders distantly; trust, or mercy?
“You left your back unguarded,” Emily tells her.
Billie looks at her, level. “From what?”
Emily looks back at her. “Nothing,” she says, after a moment. There is something curious in her gaze, but she’s too distracted by what lies in their sightline to pursue her line of thought, Billie can tell. Before them, the spires and rooftops of Dunwall rise from the open waters, chimneys flooding the sky with smoke, every inch of it as dark and uninviting as it is in memory. Something in Billie’s chest aches at the sight of it, all the same.
Billie turns back to Emily. “You know how you’re going to deal with Delilah?”
“I’ll do whatever’s necessary.”
Billie nods. “All right. Be careful. Delilah’s dangerous—you know that.” The uselessness of her words, she knows, only draws further attention to what she is trying to avoid. What she is trying to hide.
“I know,” Emily says, and then she does something far worse than draw her sword, run Billie through: she reaches out and takes her hands in hers.
“Come with me, Meagan,” Emily says, her breath silver in the fog of early morning, the chill of Dunwall from which Billie can never escape. “After I kill Delilah, I’ll be Empress again. You could stay at the Tower. Anything you wanted, you could have—anything at all.”
Her face is shining. The most radiant thing in all the morning, the muted air, the clouded skies. She is so young. She is so cruel.
Billie had been that, once, too. Some part of her still stirs; remembers satisfaction in showing restraint and ruthlessness at her own discretion, by her own decision. But the years since have twisted her into something unrecognizable to her own self. If she could just show her, Billie thinks, the crashing wave of it a sudden and unintelligible impulse; if Emily just knew what it felt like, to be backed down a dark corner by everything you hold dear, and to be granted absolution instead of a blade through your ribs—what that does to you. How it destroys and reconstructs you from the inside into something new, something forever changed. And what kind of pain it is, and what kind of power.
But Emily is too young; she burns with a grief too recent, and at this age it is still compelling to do the cruel thing. All the wonder and thrill of the wrath she has learned from this world. She doesn’t know—but if she could just know—if Billie could somehow let her know—
“I have to tell you something,” Billie says.
Emily blinks at her. She looks almost—disappointed. Like Billie’s deprived her of something. “What?”
“My name isn’t really Meagan Foster. It’s Billie Lurk.” The words taste like ash.
“Billie,” Emily repeats, like she’s testing it out, the shape of it on her tongue. She says it again: “Billie. Huh.” A tilt of her head. “I like it. It suits you.”
Why is it that no matter what Billie does, it always feels like being taken apart? She swallows past the awful nausea spidering up her throat. “Fifteen years ago I lived in Dunwall, just like you. I ran with a mercenary gang. We were paid to kill people. Some who deserved it, some who didn’t.” She doesn’t bother with any embellishments, any unnecessary detail of fact or sentiment; in about ten seconds Emily isn’t going to appreciate any of it. “Our leader was the assassin Daud. And our last big job together...”
Billie has been keeping careful watch on Emily’s expression this entire time. At first, her anticipatory indulgence, waiting to see what the takeaway will be. A flare of interest at the mention of Dunwall. Then the uncomprehending impatience; and it is on this her expression freezes, for so long that Billie is sure of its opposite: she knows.
Moments pass, perhaps even minutes. Billie has no way of knowing. Only the waves that steadily rock against the ship, without end or beginning.
“You killed my mother,” Emily says at last.
It was Daud’s hand that held the blade, not Billie’s. But she doesn’t voice this distinction aloud. She knows it means little to either of them.
Emily’s face is blank. It unsettles Billie more than any other reaction would, so when it finally does twist savagely into emotion, the outburst catches her off guard. The abject misery and hatred pouring forth from where there had just been nothing at all. The hurt from a wound.
“All this time, you knew,” Emily says, “and you just sat back and watched and let me play the fool. And here I thought—”
But what it is she thought, Billie will never know, because she chokes off abruptly. The next instant, Emily’s sword is pressed up against Billie’s throat, her grip white-knuckled around the hilt.
The blade’s edge rests clean against skin. Billie breathes against its pressure, quick and shallow. It would be so easy, to lean into it, but she keeps herself still.
“I’ve lived a very long time wishing I could take that day back,” Billie says. “But I can’t.” She doesn’t know where her calmness is coming from. Perhaps the sea, shifting beneath them, as it always has, and as it always will. Fifteen years ago Daud had done the unthinkable: at the end of the rope he’d tied around his own neck, he had the gall to ask for his life. Even harder to believe: he’d received it. Here and now, Billie knows she isn’t going to ask for anything. She’s only going to face what she’s made.
“Why did you help me?” Emily hisses. “Delilah had me in her greedy little hands, and you gave me an escape, a way to take her down. Why? What are you planning?”
“Nothing,” Billie says, voice steady. “You have no reason to believe me, but it’s the truth. I helped you because I wanted to. It was my decision, just as how I made decisions before that. I can’t take back what I’ve done, the choices I’ve made—I can only stand by them for what they are. For who I am.”
Emily leans closer. What a privilege it will be, Billie thinks distantly, to die by the Empress’ blade.
“And when you let me kiss you?” Emily says, her voice very low.
There’s no real way to convince her that this isn’t a conspiracy, not with all the betrayal Emily has faced in her life, not with the one she’s facing now. But there’s nothing else left for Billie but the truth, and how it strips them bare.
“I wanted that, too,” Billie says, and watches the flicker in Emily’s eyes: shock? Disbelief? Revulsion?
“You’re a liar.” Emily snarls the word. “A con artist. You always were. And you’re a coward, too. Look at you. You’re not even fighting back. You want to die.”
When she’s run out of offenses to name, it’s just the two of them left with each other. There’s nowhere else for them to go, from here: either Emily will take back what she’s owed with blood and reclaim her empire with an iron fist, or she will tear herself from the path she’s laid, set the precedent for a merciful rule. The choice is hers to make, and Billie’s to bear. Pinned by the throat, waiting once again for whatever judgment finally comes for her, as it had fifteen years ago.
Emily wrenches back, sword lifting from Billie’s throat. She can still feel it, though, the ghost of its sharp edge under her chin.
“You don’t deserve it,” Emily says. “A quick slash of the throat, or even bleeding out in agony. All you deserve is to live with what you’ve done.”
But her fury looks like a blade pointed inward: to herself.
Billie watches her with a steady gaze. All of the Empress’ grace has left her; she is hunched over, breathing heavily, an animalistic silhouette to her frame. Can you feel it, too? Billie wonders. What has been done to you, and what you have done, changing you forever inside? For everything, Billie is sorry: for everything, but this.
After all, Billie has nothing left to lose. But Emily is young, yet.
“Emily,” Billie says. She means to say something; what it is, she is not sure. Emily, her hair blowing ragged in the sea wind, her expression in clear disarray, struggling to gather up the scattered pieces of herself back into a creature she can name. Emily, I know what this feels like: your humiliation and your hatred, the loss of something you can never regain, certainty of the ground under your feet, bone under your skin. Emily, I know now what I didn’t before: this, too, is out of love.
But Emily no longer wants to hear it. “Don’t you ever let that name spill from your mouth again,” she says. Billie had thought she would straighten her back, raise her chin, retreat into the cool composure of a monarch, but she descends in the opposite direction instead, her body melting into shadow, a monstrous thing that crawls into the darkness and stays there.
Billie absently touches a hand to her throat. Her fingers come away with the slightest trace of blood. A small, clean cut; hardly even a graze. It would heal in no time and not even leave a scar, like it had never been there at all.
Some time later, she hears the skiff powering up. Heading away, for Dunwall. It’s only long after she’s lost its sound that she finally realizes: she’s survived.
Billie has betrayed everyone she once loved. What’s the difference? Maybe this is just what the word means. Maybe that’s just what closeness is for: finding that soft tender spot in which to sink the knife. Billie herself is still standing, perhaps because she’s never once brought down her guard enough for anyone else to lay claim, or perhaps because she has no softness left, no part of her that isn’t hardened as one of Delilah’s lifeless statues. Cold as the stone inside.
Her fists are clenched around the railing. She forces herself to let go, and as she shifts, something strikes her—a lightness at her side.
The key to her cabin is missing.
The shock of it whites out everything for a single moment like a flash grenade. Then reality splinters back into focus. You left your back unguarded. Emily must have treated it like a game, holding the upper hand in secret. Whatever Billie was hiding, Emily couldn’t have expected this—and couldn’t have expected her to tell it to her face. No wonder she had looked disappointed, when Billie threw the rules to the winds and surrendered her truth instead of dealing it in scattered pieces to be discovered. As though some intimate ritual between lovers, coquettishly feeding bites of poison to each other at the dinner table, flirting with what would have eventually choked them both.
Billie heads down to the cargo hold, where Anton is applying the finishing touches to his portrait. She holds steady against the urge to recoil from Emily’s impassive, unblinking face.
“What do you think?” Anton says. His unruffled normalcy grounds Billie. She lends his portrait a scrutinizing eye.
“There’s something missing,” Billie says.
He snorts, unimpressed. “Isn’t there always?”
Even staring it in the face, Billie has a hard time saying what exactly it is. The expressive glint in Emily’s eyes? The smirk playing at the corners of her mouth? The movement she’s capable of: the rise and fall of her chest when she breathes, the slight tilt of her head when something catches her interest, the gleam of her teeth when she breaks into a smile? Her hand, reaching out to touch?
She leaves him there to mull it over and enters her cabin. The door has been left unlocked.
Inside, the wanted posters for Daud and Billie Lurk watch her from the walls. Her notebook lies open. She imagines Emily rifling through its pages. Taking anything she could from her, the coins and the bonecharms and everything that would fit into her pockets. Some kind of revenge; some kind of remembrance. Billie ghosts a finger across her own inked scrawl on the page, as though to feel the places Emily had touched. All the empty traces she had left behind.
She sets the audio log playing, and Daud’s weary voice fills the room. She sits at her desk and allows herself the space of time until it finishes.
Those were my choices. I’m ready for what comes.
The audiograph clicks in the player. Silence seeps back in. She’s left only with herself, once again.
Billie flips to a fresh, blank page. It’s time to chart a new course.
She starts writing.
Dunwall welcomes Emily home with a cold embrace. She makes the walk to the Tower with broken glass and rubble crunching underfoot, corpses littering the side of the empty road. She pays them hardly any attention. It seems fitting, that this is what she is reclaiming from Delilah: an empire so destroyed it has no choice but to be remade entirely.
Hatters have moved into the territory, taking advantage of its collapse. Parasites pecking at rotted flesh. Emily watches them from a rooftop over their heads. Where once she would have felt rage, she registers only a distant sort of recognition. It’s all they can do, to cling to life by feeding off the dead. They’ve tasted nothing else, and never will. What a meaningless existence, and yet with its own kind of hard-won dignity, in their exchanged jokes and laughter and the way they gather close around the warmth of a fire. Thieves of happiness in a world that has forgotten the meaning of the word. Emily watches for long enough to realize the kernel of discomfort itching in her gut feels like jealousy. She raises her hands then, loops threads through their minds until they’re interwoven in shimmering gold.
Like this, she can see them for what they are: a web of delicate connections, invisible to the human eye. The lives they’ve cut down for fun, and in turn, the lives that feed from their hands. And Emily, perched above them, the last link in the chain. Will she tear it apart, or keep it running, powerful as a wire in the pumping machine heart of the city?
She walks away, leaving the bonds to fade out of the air. She doesn’t care to be defined by the answer, not now. Not yet.
The hounds bark up and down the avenue as she approaches. Emily walks along the exposed skeletons of ransacked buildings, balancing high above the street, a faint wind in her hair. In the sky, the clouds drift like whales in the sea. If anything haunts this city, it is her.
She finds a shrine in a secret room, and picks up the runes.
The world splinters around her, and the Void rushes through to fill up the cracks.
“Welcome home, Your Majesty,” says the Outsider. His black eyes glint with something Emily swears is amusement. “Has it changed, or have you changed?”
Emily ignores him; she isn’t interested in riddles. She looks instead at the blackness around her, an ocean drained of colour and light, and wonders if it will remember her.
“The Void,” she says. “It used to be beautiful, didn’t it?”
Something stirs in the Outsider’s expression. “The Void is what it always is,” he tells her. “It is outside of time. Change cannot touch it.”
“Delilah could,” Emily says, a touch more snide than necessary.
“She’s waiting for you,” the Outsider says. His head inclines ever so slightly, as though to beg the question: what are you waiting for?
Emily runs her thumb over the grooved surface of the rune in her hand. It thrums against her skin. “You’ve done an awful lot to help me keep my throne,” she says. “I’m just another puppet to you, aren’t I?”
“You do have quite the experience when it comes to that, don’t you?” If the Outsider ever smiled, Emily thinks, it wouldn’t be a particularly pleasant sight. Bloodless lips drawn back over the grinning teeth of a skull. “Your history from fifteen years ago, the year that made you what you are. Is that what makes you believe the story you’ve told yourself? That you’re just following the strings held in somebody else’s hands?”
“No,” Emily says. “I’m not a child anymore. I know what I’m responsible for.”
All the same, she remembers the web she’d made, the golden threads in the air. How free she once thought she was, gliding through the world unmoored to anybody but herself. Now she knows the truth, has seen it with her own eyes, can feel inside her the tangled snare of all who have come before: her mother, her father, the trail of broken bodies she’s left behind. The witnesses who watch on after. The web of things they’ve done to one another, growing roots she can’t cut off, only carry with her everywhere she goes.
“You haven’t shed any blood since you stepped foot back home,” the Outsider notes. “Is it love for your subjects that stills your blade? Loyalty to an image of a benevolent ruler? Remorse for what you’ve done?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“Or...” The Outsider leans imperceptibly closer. “Did you embark upon your journey believing yourself willing to take back what’s yours at all costs, only to discover the limit of your own capabilities? Tell me, Emily: when you struck the whole world with your sword and heard the clang echo back to you in return, did you balk at the sound?”
I can’t take back what I’ve done, the choices I’ve made. I can only stand by them for what they are.
“I thought you’d be more interested in what I’m going to do to Delilah,” Emily says.
The Outsider settles back into himself. “Isn’t it the same answer, either way?” he says, a hint of self-satisfaction in his voice, like he already knows what it is.
There’s no warning, no goodbye, as usual. But as he and the Void dissipate, light bleeding back into Emily’s vision, she gets the sense that this is the last she’ll see of him in a long while. Something else she’s lost, or perhaps never had to begin with.
On her way into the Tower she sneaks past everything: the gravehounds dozing in beds of dead grass, the bloodbriars snaking out of trees, the witches who gather in corners and whisper to one another. Their spells and secrets and dreams. Emily leaves them to it, spinning magic out of the air, passing it along like the most precious treasure of all: these moments they share. Gone is the vindictive triumph with which she would once have torn their hearts from their flesh. It isn’t that it would be too easy; it isn’t even that she’s grown bored of blood. She thinks instead she’d like to go unseen a little longer. A surprise no one saw coming—the Empress veered off course from her predictable path and slipped through history’s all-knowing hands. It feels a different kind of powerful.
Then again, maybe it’s only one more thing that Meagan—Billie took away from her. She took everything from her, even who she thought she was, the face she’d seen reflected in the waters, gazing back up at her. Now Emily doesn’t know who it is that crawls past the witches in the courtyard like a spider along a branch. All her victories old and new feel hollow, tainted by the touch of those who have shaped her from outside in.
In the gazebo, her mother’s memorial stands serene. Emily can’t think of anything to say that doesn’t sound weak. Lacking. Delilah’s spirit fills in the silence for her.
Every time you drew your blade, a part of her died, it whispers from her hand.
Funny: Emily always thought that with every cut of her sword, she was tearing down the twisted overgrowth of years that lay between her and her mother, fighting to get closer to her side. But even after all her efforts she still was never granted clear sight of her, stuck at a distance that only seemed to grow murkier through the veil of time.
“She was already dead,” Emily replies, crouching down to run a hand over the cold, smooth marble. In all the ways that mattered, even memory. She wonders if she, too, is to blame for this.
Her Tower is an open wound left to fester. The glass cabinets and chandeliers are smashed, the fine carpets and furniture taken over by growing decay. Vines have burst through the crumbling walls, weeds entwining themselves into the bones of the brickwork. What great fun it had been back in Karnaca, to break things simply because she could, but now that she’s come home, she feels only weariness instead. How long it will take to be able to live with the mess they have made.
Emily crafts a corrupt rune in the chapel, even as she itches for the simpler thing, to bring this all to a swift end. But she’s done taking shortcuts, missing what lies right under her nose. She’ll bide her time. Here, so close to the end, after all she’s rushed through, she can afford it.
Only when she finds Delilah in the throne room, poring over her new painting, does Emily finally walk out of the shadows, shedding them like an old coat she’s outgrown. Delilah’s face lights up when she sees her; not from surprise, not fear, but recognition. Emily wishes she didn’t know the feeling, but she does: the unique satisfaction and relief of being seen by somebody bound to you by blood, whose closeness is a twisted vine none else can understand. As though catching the eye of your own opposite reflection in the glass.
“What do you think?” Delilah says. The absurdity of it doesn’t escape Emily. This could be any family reunion, aunt and niece discussing fine arts over afternoon tea. “Do you admire the brushwork? It’s the subject matter that counts. The World As It Should be, rendered by my own hand.”
Something about the name strikes as familiar. Emily humours her, perusing the portrait before them. “It lacks a certain subtlety.”
“Of course you’d miss the obvious, my dear. There’s no place in it for you, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“I think you’re missing something, too.”
Emily pulls out the heart; feels it tug towards Delilah with a starved yearning. She tightens her grip around it. At the sight, Delilah’s eyes widen.
“You’ve brought me back my spirit!” She laughs, and there’s real delight in it, the glitter of her darkened gaze. “How good of you, and how desperate. All you’re going to do is make me even more powerful.” Her eyes flash. “You’re going to make me myself again.”
Emily looks down at her clenched fist. She thinks about everything she’s held onto, all manner of ordinary things she had believed in: the heft of her blade, the dead hollow of her mother’s heart, the hand of another who had held on right back. She lets go.
In the aftermath of blinding light and hissing smoke, Delilah hovers before her painting, bathed in a livid red glow. Crackling with power. A halo of pure energy burns over her head in the shape of a crown.
She steps into the painting, and leaves a path for Emily to follow.
But first, Emily presses the corrupted rune into place at the foot of the throne.
When she enters the painting, it parts for her like curtains of silk. Inside, the crowds are wiped faceless, upturned heads chained to Delilah in their worship. She can hear Delilah humming a tune; it rings vaguely familiar, as though one of the songs Jessamine used to sing to Emily in her sleep, cradled safe in her arms. Just another heirloom passed on through the family. Emily follows the sound to the last other living Kaldwin in the world, and finds her waiting with a dozen replicas by her side.
“So naive, dear Emily,” they chorus in unison, and they set upon her like wolves.
They’re crafted in Delilah’s exact image, but Emily can tell the difference. Their bodies don’t have enough heft for their frame, flung about like weightless dolls. When she runs them through with her sword there’s no resistance of flesh and bone. They smell of river silt and dirt: rough things belonging to the earth. They don’t even breathe. They are not of her blood.
When the real Delilah finally reveals herself, her fury is unmistakable. She seethes in it, roiling, a maelstrom that reels in everything around her. There’s no way to match that level of destruction with anything but violence. Give her what she wants, Emily thinks—slit her across the throat, deep enough so that she bleeds out fast. Dies staring at the world she carved into existence, drinking it in to the end.
Instead, Emily pours herself at her feet in darkness pulled pure from the Void. Rises behind her like a second shadow and slams her to the ground. Delilah’s mouth opens in the beginnings of a wrathful cry, but her eyes roll back, unseeing, before she can make a sound.
Emily looks down at her unconscious body. Curled up like a child in the cradle of what she’s made.
“I found you,” she says quietly.
She sits Delilah upon her throne. Watches her choose the fantasy of her own artistry over a reality governed by others, outside her control. When the smoke clears, her figure is immortalized on the canvas, her face rendered by her own brushstroke. She gazes outward with eyes fervent: the closest Emily has ever seen her to loving.
Delilah will finally live forever, having made herself into timeless being, never knowing the perfection of her world isn’t the real thing, perhaps never caring. Maybe this makes Emily cruel. Maybe this makes her merciful. She is no longer so sure of the difference. She’ll know the answer from the history books when they write about this, in condemnation or in praise.
In the dust that settles, Corvo is waiting, his expression patient. Emily wakes him from stone. Watches the colour seep back into his hair, his face, the flicker in his eyes. He groans, hand to his chest, and collapses to his knees. Emily goes down with him.
“Father,” she says, knelt by his side. She feels all hollow inside. Like there’s nothing left.
He blinks. Sees her. Raises a hand and rests it against the side of her face.
“Emily?” he says.
Something in her chest gives. The pinpoint pressure of tears gathering at her eyes. Not quite nothing, then.
“I’m home, Father,” she says, and feels the weight of it for the first time.
“Emily, what happened?”
Emily leans forward and draws him into an embrace, tucking her chin over his shoulder, like how she used to when she was young. He falls silent, then. She can feel the thump of his heart, the steady beat of blood that connects them both. After a moment, he brings up a hand to rest on the small of her back, a belated comfort.
She holds onto all that remains, and in the wreckage of what she’s built, she believes, she has to: it is enough.