On Wednesday morning the sky is bruised with colour and frost clings to everyone’s doorstep. There is a distinct chill in the air, breath coming in small puffs of fog, and some might call it cheery for the season, if not for the black pools of oil and water in the gutters, and the gang graffiti lining the alleyways.
However, the café is not too poorly located, not as bad as the Hound Pits Pub, which is nestled in the watery depths of the truly downtrodden city centre, somehow still managed on deaths door by Havelock and his compatriots. Or the Golden Cat, which could barely be called a café in the first place. By comparison, The High Sea, owned and somewhat-operated by Samuel Beechworth for the past twenty-odd years, came off as high dining. At the very least, it contained comfortable seating, bookshelves crammed with second-hand pieces Samuel had picked up over the years (101 Harpooner Songs, Timeless Children’s Rhymes), and a bustling and halfway-professional group of staff. The coffee, in fact, was the cafés primary drawing point.
On Wednesday morning only a minute past eight, a lithe figure steps out of an alleyway – or perhaps its shadows – and steps up to the café stoop just as Cecelia is turning the enamel sign from CLOSED to OPEN. It is a credit to her training that when she glances up through fogged glass and meets a deep, black gaze, she only jumps a little. Then she smiles, somewhat strained, and pulls open the door.
“Good morning, Outsider,” she greets primly, and then sets the door open so she can take his heavy woollen coat.
“Good morning, Cecelia,” the man replies smoothly, pauses, and then adds, “you’re sleeping better, I see.”
Cecelia’s flush disappears under the rim of her woollen cap. “Yes, sir. That apothecary you recommended did me wonders.”
The Outsider’s smile cannot exactly be placed as unnerving or comforting, just somewhere in the middle. Behind the counter, where she is prepping the coffee machine, Lydia’s frown is disapproving. The apothecary in question, Madame Moray (or ‘Granny Rags’ as the kids down the lane jeer after her), is certainly capable of wonders, but also capable of much more dangerous things. The Outsider, after a moment of Cecelia rambling about persistent nightmares, had taken a black calligraphy pen out of his suit jacket and jotted down the woman’s address in thin, slanting lines on the back of one of the cafés business cards.
(“I’d avoid the soup,” he added somewhat quizzically, and Cecelia had nodded so frantically Lydia half expected her head to fall off.)
“A tall black, I presume?” Lydia calls, and there is a muttered curse, before another figure appears from the kitchen doorway.
The man leaning out from the back room is all shadows. A sweep of dark hair, a sad brow, dusky skin and deep eyes. He’s dressed all in blacks and greys, soft fabrics in knits and cotton. He has baking powder on his hands. On his lapel a cheery yellow sticker proclaims him the ‘WORLDS BEST DAD!’ He takes one look at the first customer of the day and then disappears in a flash, the sound of rattling cups and saucers giving away his panic.
“Ah, yes,” the Outsider says, “and a good morning to you too, Corvo.”
The coffee machine hisses loudly, drowning out Corvo’s reply. Whatever it is, it makes Lydia blanch, and throw her tea towel at him. Cecelia continues stacking pastries as if she hasn’t heard anything, but her pinched lips and red cheeks give her away.
“Something new to eat today, sir?” She asks brightly. “We have some scones, fresh out of the oven. Corvo’s experimenting with pomegranates, at the moment.”
“Is he now?” The Outsider croons. “Well, in that case, how can I refuse?”
“Hand me one of those, Cecelia,” Corvo suddenly speaks from the kitchen, “and get me some rat poison.”
“Corvo,” Lydia snaps, and then, frantically adds for the Outsider’s benefit, “We don’t have rats!”
“I think the window seat, today,” the Outsider ignores this comment, angling his strange half-smile towards the back room, where Corvo is pointedly showing his back, “and the morning paper, if you have it.”
“Of course sir, right this way.”
The Outsider is seated at the best window seat, with its iced window panes and holly-wreathed hatching. A paper spread out before him, he waits patiently as Cecelia brings him one perfectly sliced scone. A few moments later, Corvo surfaces reluctantly, and a tall black coffee is brewed to perfection. He makes Cecelia bring it out, too. When the glass saucer clicks against the polished tabletop, the Outsider raises black eyes pointedly to the flyer board, where a colourful child’s drawing of an Orca playing in the waves sits above a bright banner asking the cafes patrons to save the whales.
Corvo catches his eye, scowls, blushes, turns away.
“And a Merry Yuletide to you, sir,” Cecelia says, placing a bonbon beside the coffee before scurrying away.
The Outsider smiles to himself, and turns his finger. The spoon in his coffee cup stirs all by itself, lazy circles against the porcelain, and the newspaper pages fan gently until they fall open once again, on the comics section.
Several months prior to this chilly morning, the city of Dunwall had gone into euphoric fits upon the announcement that the Outsider was in practice again. Magic being an already salacious subject for idle conversation, what with its practitioners being limited and eccentric as they were, the Outsider held a special appeal as being one of the more withdrawn of the gifted, retiring from months to years at a time to who-knows-where, before resurfacing, looking the same as he ever did, wandering the dripping streets of Dunwall with his customary listless expression and black, black, eyes. There were many who were desperate for his tutelage in the Arts, and yet he almost always kept to himself, save for a few rare exceptions. But Daud and his crew had wandered far from Dunwall and had not been seen in many years, and any secrets bestowed upon him by his smirking superior had clearly never been shared.
Which had made it all the more strange, that when Corvo had found himself bleeding out mere metres from The High Sea in the wee hours of dawn after stumbling upon an inter-gang dispute on his way to opening shop and trying to play a hero of all things –
He had been sprawled out on the cobblestones, one hand clutching the wound in his side, steadily dripping blood between his paling fingers. It had been raining, although he barely felt it, fat water drops on his face, pattering against his drenched shirt. Someone had left the lights on in the café – not Lydia, of course, she would have a fit – and he focused on them as his vision wavered, focused on the lights and their calming, golden aura. He was drifting quite pleasantly on the cusp of unconsciousness when the rain abated – or, no, someone had extended a broad umbrella over the breadth of his body.
“My goodness,” a low voice had murmured, and Corvo could feel it all the way down to his fingertips, “What have you done, Mr Attano?”
“Nothing,” Corvo retorted instantly, or at least tried to. His throat didn’t seem to want to agree, it was all dry and sore, like he had been screaming – or whimpering – in pain, for a very long time.
The shape above him kneeled, and frigid fingertips pried his apart from the wound with considerable strength. The stranger hummed slightly.
“Blood magic is a tricky thing,” he mused lightly, “and not one to be trifled with on a whim. Unless, of course, you did this quite by accident… yes, yes I see now. Too violent, too desperate by far. An amateurish attempt. I do hope you did not do this to protect this fine establishment.”
Corvo blinked, hard, squeezing water out of his steadily blurring eyes.
“There was… a kid,” he tried, and then coughed a little wetly. The streets were still barren, too early by far for this part of town to be bustling yet. For the moment, they are alone. “’s okay?”
A flash of movement between the two gangs, a child struck down, a bruise. A reaction to violence, instinctive. Taking on the onslaught, fighting down the brutes. He is faster, meaner, but the child, he panics, and –
A brief silence, save for the downpour. The pain in his side is easing, cold fingertips tracing strange shapes on his torn skin, some sort of sigil.
“How very curious,” his saviour murmured.
Sirens in the distance.
And two weeks later, when Corvo was out of hospital with a bandaged ribcage and strict instructions from Lydia not to move a step away from the counter, the Outsider stepped inside The High Sea in his dark coat, with his black sweep of hair and black eyes and a black, black smile.
The chilly Wednesday morning.
“Do you think he can hear us back here?” Cecelia hisses to Corvo, once the rest of the morning patrons start pouring in and the café is filled with its usual hum of conversation and clattering cabinets. Corvo is kneading out dough, sleeves rolled up and skin white to his elbows.
Lydia is at peak efficiency behind the counter, all smiles and politeness. Corvo tends to restrict himself to the small kitchenette where he can hide himself from the publics prying eyes. He keeps Emily’s drawings above the prep table, but some of them have trickled into the rest of the café, and there’s one in particular he eyeballs from time to time, only because it seems to have attracted a particular customer’s attention as well.
“Cecelia, honestly,” a voice sighs from further into the building. The small lounge that Samuel had set up for the staff to relax in, and for him to sober up in whenever he returned from sailing abroad. A comfortable nook with couches and a fireplace, the smell of salt and ash. Callista pokes her head around the edge of the door, hair out of its usual bun in a soft tumble over her shoulder. “Keep that nonsense to yourself. He’s been coming here for months, if he could hear us back here he would have said something. Not that there’s anything of use to hear,” she added pointedly, and Cecelia flushed.
“It’s just he keeps looking up at us, at the door,” she hisses, “like he’s expecting something, and I go to him, and I ask ‘would you like something else to drink, or eat?’ and he says ‘not today’, and then he turns back to his paper, and then a few minutes later, he looks up again, and--”
“He’s not looking at anything, Cecelia.” Corvo intercepts swiftly, before she can get started on one of her nervous tirades. The dough slaps against the wooden board.
“He’s been doing it more often lately, as well,” she adds conspiratorially, “I’m telling you. He has.”
“He has not,” Callista says waspishly.
“Has too! I’m telling you, he has. And he’s visiting more often. Three days a month ago, and four days last week, and now five this week, including today--”
“What has gotten into you, have you been reading those novels Piero leaves with Lydia again? You’re so paranoid--”
“It’s not paranoia if it’s true, and I’m telling you--”
“He’s not looking!” Corvo snaps, suddenly, painfully uncomfortable. The dough lands hard, a wet thunk. The women fall silent. And then, the silence spreads and horrified, Corvo leans back to look out of the kitchen doorway.
Lydia, at the counter, turned towards him. The Outsider across from her, cleaning powder off his fingertips with a black kerchief, and a few gleaming coins on the glass top. He smiles pleasantly, all serenity.
“An excellent creation, as per usual, Corvo.” He says, gaze intense. Frozen at the prep table, Corvo twists fingers into the dough and thinks, belatedly, that he’s probably ruined it now. It’s almost as if the girls aren’t there – Lydia prim in her pencil skirt, Cecelia with her mouth gaping like a fish, and Callista, leaning over the side of the sitting-room couch, eyes glancing rapidly between them.
After an awkward moment, Corvo realises they’re all awaiting a response. Lydia’s eyes are communicating a short, but painful message of revenge if Corvo manages to drive away the most loyal and infamous customer The High Sea had ever seen.
So Corvo says, “right,” and then, clearing his throat, “good, then.”
He can hear Callista’s head thunk against the arm of the couch. But the Outsider merely smiles his unreadable smile, and reaches into his pocket. Corvo tenses. Pale hands withdraw, and with it, a shiny coin, which the Outsider places into the small plastic bucket that Emily had faithfully decorated with green paper seaweed and glitter-glue, before placing ceremoniously on the café counter next to a flyer she had scrounged up on ocean conservation.
“For the whales,” the Outsider pronounces solemnly.
“I’ll fetch your coat,” Cecelia stutters.
Neck burning, Corvo hurries back further into the kitchen. The dough is likely ruined, he’s wrapped it too much. Time to start from scratch, then. He opens the freezer, fetching the carton of frozen pomegranate seeds, and then stands a moment in the cool dark room to hold a hand against the scar on his stomach and breathe.
In the evening he returns to his loft apartment, which lately is strewn with drawings and posters of sea animals and the faint smell of brine. Emily is at the age where children tend to jump from fascination to fascination, so as hobbies go, Corvo can’t say he minds the intensity with which she has narrowed in on sea-life and all its threats, and declared herself its saviour. Jessamine, at least, would have approved. Given that she and Corvo had met in the midst of a student protest on magical rights and access to healthcare, she being the unions elected official, and Corvo fulfilling his professional occupation of being in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time. They had, quite literally, run into each other amidst the chaos, Corvo with a bloody nose, and Jessamine with a bloody lip.
Love at first sight, and all that.
But love doesn’t stop psychotic political rivals, and Jessamine was cold in the ground, with only a memory and a short photo album to keep Emily warm, on the nights Corvo stayed late at the café baking into the early hours.
This evening, however, he was home relatively early, with some fresh warm bread wrapped up in his knapsack, and Emily bright-eyed and beaming from her sprawl across the rug in front of the fireplace.
“Corvo! You’re home in time for the new special!” She was referring to the opening titles of a documentary on TV. Whales dipped serenely under light-dappled water, whilst some cultured Tyvian gentleman droned on about rates of pollution in the Dunwall bay in a fairly accusatory tone. Emily still has her school uniform on, the skirts muddy a the hem – oh, lord, what has she done this time – and in her hands she has –
“Emily,” Corvo starts slowly, setting his bag down next to the rug, eyes fixed on the little rose twirling and dancing between her little fingertips. It’s not red or white or pink, but jet black, and small crystal droplets cling to its lips and glitter in the evening light.
Emily is beaming at him.
“I’m getting better at it, see!” She says proudly, “before it was only a blob of a thing, but now if I really concentrate, I can make petals. What do you think, Corvo?”
The rose dances between her hands, caught in an invisible cat’s cradle of childish proportions.
“I think,” Corvo says faintly, “I think--”
He thinks that magic is not a punishable offence, but that it’s rare enough to warrant an obsessive interest in some, and a dangerous interest in others. He thinks of all the articles he reads in the paper about young talented children being stolen from homes to be shipped over to Morley in travelling troupes, never to be seen again. He thinks of the attacks that still occur sometimes, of paranoid graffiti sprayed on the front doors of magical people in the darker areas of Dunwall, of the television reality shows of magical types lined up to be cheered and gawked over. He thinks of what happened to the famous Delilah Copperspoon, rising to fame fast and brilliant like a candle, and dying away just as brilliantly in a whirlwind of madness and intrigue, of the look in the gangs eyes when they had first struck down the child and Corvo had raised dripping red fingertips, sending a swarm of rats to drive them off in screaming hoards –
“Corvo?” Emily puzzles, “you look strange. Are you alright? Do you want to sit down?”
“I think,” Corvo stutters. He takes a few tottering steps, collapses on their rickety lounge.
“I think I need a drink,” he says, and Emily’s pitying face is so much like her mothers, it doesn’t help at all.
Thursday morning, and Corvo is unlocking the door to the café with slightly sluggish hands. There’s ice on the collar of his heavy woollen coat, and melting frost crunches underfoot.
He likes opening early, on his own. When he enters the building the café is cool and soft, the blinds all drawn and chairs upturned on tables. He sets about turning on the various coffee machines and oven in the gentle silence, hooking his overcoat over the back of the lounge in the staff room. Cecelia will light the various fireplaces when she arrives in twenty or so minutes, and dust and mop tables. Corvo instead takes the time to ready himself, right Emily’s drawings where they’ve drooped at the corners, and rattle the charity box on the counter contemplatively. Ten to eight, and Lydia arrives, unpinning her teal woollen shawl with a muffled yawn. She smiles at him, although it is strained. Much of what Lydia does or says is strained, although Corvo does not know enough about her private life to pass judgement on why. If her romantic exploits are anything to go by – though he doubts there’s anything romantic about the feverish babbling and nervous twitching of Piero, the resident mechanic – he can sort of understand.
“And how is Emily?” She asks, passing him to leave her own items in the staff room, dropping him briefly into a cloud of sweet perfume and the smell of toothpaste.
“Magic.” Corvo replies, clipped. He can almost hear the way Lydia freezes, turns to look at him from the staff room, face pale.
“Oh,” she breathes, “that’s. Well, I mean. That’s good, right? Isn’t it? She’ll have so many options, perhaps a better school?”
“Can’t afford a better school.” It is then that he realises he is frowning, teeth bared as he sets out cups and saucers, pokes at the muesli slice left in the fridge to set overnight.
Lydia sighs, quietly.
“Corvo,” she presses, “This isn’t a bad thing, you know. You can make it work, we can all make it work.”
She approaches him at the counter, arms crossed.
“You really think we would abandon her like that, after everything?” Everything being heavy black drapes at a funeral parlour, Emily’s small cherubic face angelic white under the surrounding candelabras, the pastors voice droning as Corvo stares hard at the side of the casket while Cecelia muffles her sobbing in Callista’s handkerchief. After the ceremony, Samuel had slapped Corvo hard on the shoulder and said nothing, but his weary eyes were pink and moist.
“No,” Corvo mutters, grinding his knuckles into his brow, “no, no of course you wouldn’t. I’m sorry.”
She smiles grimly, touches his elbow. “Everything will be okay. It’s not like it used to be, there are lots of laws now protecting her kind, Jessamine made sure of it. At most she’ll be envied, or admired. There are worse things, than being magic.”
Corvo resolutely does not touch the wound on his side. A mugger, he had told the rest of the café staff. Some stranger had surprised them, scared them off. His own frantic abilities had been carefully omitted from his retelling, and every time Cecelia shrieks about rats crowding the basement window again he avoids their eyes and focuses on his baking. If he dreams about rats in the night, and black eyes, he makes sure the images are gone from his mind when he rolls out of bed to prepare Emily for school. The last thing she needs is to see his own nightmares reflected for her to witness.
It’s one thing to be able to conjure flowers and sparkles out of thin air. It’s quite another to be able to twist a man’s blood with his fingertips and control all the grisly rodents of the streets at his every whim. Corvo just hopes Emily took more after her mother in even more respects than she already has. If this was the legacy he was to leave his daughter, he must have truly failed.
Lydia seems to realise the change in his mood, and leaves him be. She sets about opening the blinds, and putting out the pastries, until the front door unsticks again with a jingle and Cecelia shoulders inside, white dusting on her shoulders.
“’Mornin,” she huffs, “I’d hide now, if I were you.”
It speaks volumes of the state of Corvo’s head that he doesn’t blindly follow her direction, only looks up with annoyed confusion, and is therefore trapped at the counter in full view when a slim figure sails past the café windows and steps onto the stoop behind Cecelia, dark hair unreasonably spotless despite the frigid breeze outside.
“Ah,” the Outsider says with all of his bland politeness, “good morning, Corvo.” And then he does that thing he does, where he tilts his head, and smiles oddly, and narrows black eyes, and says:
Corvo is ignoring everyone. He is ignoring Lydia, who is passing him amused looks every time she brushes past him to the counter. He is ignoring Cecelia, who is torn between giggling at his obstinacy and looking nervously to the shadow seated at the closest table to the coffee machine. He is even ignoring Callista, who had wandered in barely an hour before with her arms full of books, worn out from her morning classes and sinking into the staff office with a chai latte and a heavy sigh.
He is especially, especially ignoring the Outsider, who is slumped against the table beside the machine with his black gloves folded next to his pale hands and saying… things. Things like:
“Of course, Daud took particular interest in blood magic. I have no preference, either way. Not all magic has its titles and not all titles can perfectly surmise the full reaches of potential power. But Daud has always been somewhat forthright. I suppose blood magic would suit his aims. It tends to waltz hand-in-hand with destruction and dismay, and so I cannot fathom why it would waltz again with you, of all people, a… bartender?”
Corvo bites his tongue. He is quietly grateful that the Outsider’s voice is mostly lost underneath the hum of general conversation buzzing through the café.
Corvo slides a foamed macchiato down to the corner where Lydia sweeps it up on her next trek past the counter.
Corvo slams his hand down on the steamer, throwing the Outsider a dirty look. He is met only with implacable smiles, and deep black serenity.
“Barrista,” Corvo mutters. “Look, it’s on my apron, and everything.”
“I see,” the Outsider murmurs, although his eyes are fixed on the sticker Emily had stuck to Corvo’s work collar some weeks previously and he hadn’t the heart to throw out. Corvo turns his shoulder slightly, hiding it from view like some over-protective idiot. He is awarded almost five minutes of perfect quiet from the small dark figure by the counter, and of course as soon as he realises that the man starts up again.
“Would it be pointless to warn you of the dangers of blood magic as a long-term occupation? Daud is a veritable threat as an assassin to be sure, but it does not necessarily lend itself to a peaceful lifestyle, especially one involving… younglings.”
Younglings? Corvo wonders, and then, with a jolt:
“Did you just say Daud is an assassin?”
Of course he says it as soon as Cecelia drops behind the counter to fetch a plate of muffins, and she slams her head against the roof of the cupboard and curses a blue streak, before hurrying away. The Outsider merely blinks at Corvo curiously.
“Should I not have?”
“It’s, well,” he struggles, “it’s not exactly the kind of information you share over coffee. I think.”
“This is a chai latte,” the Outsider protests mildly, “and you have already politely informed me that it is warm milk masquerading as a coffee.”
“Because it is.”
“Moreover,” the other man persists, “for this to be a conversation over coffee, you would need to be seated with me, would you not? As it is, you are behind the counter, and I am not.” He adds this last bit in a tone of mild embitterment, and Corvo narrows his eyes at him.
“Is there a point to this?”
“Only that if I am to be your tutor in the arts, it might necessitate meeting sometime outside of your place of employ, would it not?”
Corvo’s hand slips on the steamer, thrusting vulnerable skin under the jet of steam and hissing as he draws it back. He looks around wildly, in a panic, but nobody is paying them any attention. The conversation is too loud, the food too engrossing, and the Outsider’s voice is but a mere hum underneath it all, just loud enough to sing through Corvo’s veins in the worst way.
“It was one time,” Corvo hisses, hunching back towards the machine and hurriedly wiping it down. “An accident. There’s nothing to tutor.”
“I rather disagree,” the shadow hums. “Judging by the friends you have gathered here, as of late.”
On instinct, Corvo glances at Lydia, where she is chatting companionably to an elderly customer, and Cecelia, who is mopping melted ice away from the stoop. But the Outsider’s smile turns mocking, and Corvo realises who he is referring to with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. His friends. His other friends. The ones who spills over each other with swollen grey bellies in a writhing mass behind the café, tucked into broken bricks and drain pipes, squeaking and sprawling with their beady red eyes turning excitable whenever they set their sights on him.
“They’re not--” he starts haltingly, but falls silent under an unwavering stare.
“Why don’t we have a talk, you and I?” Says the Outsider, reaching into his black coat to withdraw a card. It’s a bright, beautiful purple, lined in damask felt and glittering under the light. There is an address printed upon it. No number. He sets it on the counter, and even Lydia’s immaculately polished mahogany is no match for the coloured brilliance.
“Come find me,” the Outsider says.
He stands to leave. Cecelia, re-entering the café, immediately rushes to fetch his coat. While he waits, the Outsider pays for his meal with Lydia, and this time it is two coins he slots into the charity bucket. All the while, his gaze never leaves Corvo’s face. It is not until the man leaves that Lydia approaches him.
“You should sit down,” she advises wearily, “you’re very pale.”
She sends him to the staff room, where Callista obligingly sits up from her sprawl across the lounge, and he sits in front of the fire with a mug of cocoa in his –
A mug of cocoa in one hand, but in the other, a cutting line against his rough palm, the shape of a card, the colour purple winking beneath his white knuckles.