On this night, like any other night, I retire to my chambers. It's been another tiring, awful day. I know I will not sleep well alone; I can predict it accurately now. So, I rely on the valerian mixture to drag me there again.
It's the only way for me now.
I've previously taken a nice volume from the library—I always avoid love stories. The draught comes quickly, the maid accustomed to delivering it. As I drink it, I take a good sip, as much as my tongue can bear. The flavor is more bitter than usual, so much so that it smarts.
Somehow, immediately, I know that something is very wrong.
The unsavory taste lingers in my mouth. My chest twists and contorts, arresting my throat. I wheeze for air, but it does me no good. I try to rise, and I do, but my strength is betraying me. I fall to my knees, hacking and fighting for mercy. And then, it comes out—filthy, dark bile and my finished supper.
And then, I'm overwhelmed by a savage darkness.
I… am such a fool.
How could I have forgotten? Why did I never recall that one, unfailing truth? In this world, torment never lasts forever. It simply comes to a head.
And now, I remember this truth too late. Much too late.
My dreams, my memories, my nightmares—they all come crashing down around me…
I remember my old bed, much too large for me. Even then, it is never wide enough to protect me. I can recall his large hand clamping over my small head, I, too naïve to peel it off. His palm weighs me down, crushing me. I crumble without a sound.
He gives me a toothy grin, as if he has all the righteous care for me in the world—as if I am genuinely his. My young eyes stare up in a reluctant glimmer. His old eyes glare down in a forbidding silence.
"My dear boy," he tells me. "Would you like me to tell you about The Cave?"
I nod my head. I always nod. My many bruises have made me wise. He smiles softly, genuinely pleased.
"You are such a good child!" he declares. "Such a good child…"
His eyes narrow, and his fingers squeeze around the top of my head.
"The opening of the cave is grand and its stones glister of gold," he explains. "But its entrance is pitch black. It's full of sharp rocks that will tear open your feet. Its air is tainted with pernicious, noxious fumes… that will bring you to your knees. And it has lakes, deeper than any you have ever seen before; you must never swim across them, for you will surely drown."
I raise my head, feigning understanding. He nods, completely pacified.
He leans close—his breath burning against my innocent skin—and whispers its name into my ear.
Years later, when my shoulders are broad and my bruises have long faded away, I go to sleep, and I dream. I am standing before The Cave, but I no longer recognize it, nor do I remember what it's called. The sight arrests me—I cannot deny that—but the inside is inky black. I wouldn't dare go in.
But then, a boisterous gale takes me by surprise and blows against my back. I stumble forward slightly—just slightly—and the darkness reaches out and seizes me. I kick and scream, but it's too futile to even be pathetic. I am swallowed whole into the throat of the cave… more obsidian than the worst of my nightmares.
The rumors ring true. She is more beauteous than they say! I can read the man's thoughts through his leering eyes. But the Empress can handle her own persons in a matter such as this.
The envoy is from my homeland, Serkonos, for shame. He shifts precisely with his every gesture, every movement a pretentious pirouette. He speaks bilious words, flavored with honey. I stifle a yawn. Yet, the Empress sups it up in her evening tea, humming as if his blandishments are meant for serious study. Her gentle hand pinches the teacup. Her lips hug the gold-kissed rim. Her eyes dance playfully through the vapors.
The Empress smoothly, prudently replies, her manner kind and unruffled. She lowers her head to sip again, exposing her white nape and those appealing, tiny ringlets. Her brows crease as she reorders her thoughts.
Oh, what would I give to feast on her wits?
She speaks again, with more force than her first decree. The envoy shrivels; his oily prittle-prattle ceases to flow from his fattened lips. I allow myself a sadistic smirk.
As the Empress begins her final say, she graciously gifts him with a firm "I'm sorry".
(Of course, she is not.)
As she finishes up, her eyes briefly fall upon me. I casually turn away, throwing off any notion that my stares were anything but casual. I resolve myself, force myself, implore myself not to smile.
My dreams—when I dream of her—they are filled with her rose petal smiles. Only then do I dare to touch her silken locks, caress her tender skin. If it were only that…
Yet many a night is spent in The Cave, and there is no escape in sight. My eyes are well accustomed to the dark, but I can no longer see light at the end. I have long forgotten the way to the entrance.
My feet are open, lacerated and sore. My body is weary, weakened many times by poisonous vapors. There is a stream on my long path. The water nips at my tattered feet, and I groan in pain. No one will hear me anyway.
Soon, when my soles can take no more, when my body loses its strength, when my limbs finally give out, I fall to the ground. Once again, I resign myself to more injury… in this Cave, with a name I know all too well.
I can't give name to it. I won't name it. I can't bear to name it! Not even in my innermost thoughts.
I always rise far too early, and in the end, all sleep escapes my grasp. I no longer know a week of good night's rest.
And the effects swiftly damage my waking hours. I'm losing focus. My appetite is all but gone. My twisted, dark visions are bleeding into my reality.
"You look dreadful," she observes (as we flee from that derisible blatherskite). "Absolutely dreadful! I don't believe I chose a bodyguard who wasn't capable of getting his proper rest. What will the people think, I wonder?"
I already know that she's noticed—the Empress. Why she hasn't acknowledged before, I can't understand. It was inevitable; she can no longer help but make her usual jab … but she lacks the usual heart in her voice.
"My apologies, Your Majesty," I reply in submission. "I shall put more effort into it in the future."
The Empress frowns at me, disappointment on her lips. We continue to her bedchambers. I am weary for sleep, but I fear the darkness.
Upon arrival, her maid offers her a valerian blend of tisane. She accepts it gladly… and demands that two cups be made. The maid and I go blank with shock, but the maid merely stalls before bowing her head. No one questions the Empress' simple requests.
She leads (drags) me in by the arm. It's the first time, in a long time, that the Empress has ever touched me.
I am compelled to sit with her. No buts. Minutes later, a valerian tisane—laced with other mystifying herbs—is presented to me. No questions. The Empress waits for me to drink first. No excuses.
The Empress watches me over her steaming cup. Her eyes are putting the hawk to shame. Her mien reflects an almost maternal fury… or perhaps, the frustration of having to repair something neglected. She asks me, asks again, and once more again what keeps me from my sleep. Naturally, I evade every query, no matter how upfront or remote.
She sighs tiredly. She expects this out of me. She knows me well… enough.
It should never have happened. It was never supposed to happen.
This was my world.
I am the Lord Protector to the Empress, dutiful, formal, and vigilant.
(I belong to her in more ways than she realizes.)
In the public eye, I was a spymaster's child, well versed in all worldly items. Yes, all those things, and educationally familiar to true emotion, aloof from the warmth of feeling, and estranged to the spirit of inquiry.
She is the Fair Empress of Gristol, cool, professional, and demanding.
(For me, there is always a snarky comment on her tongue.)
The Fair Empress graces us with her presence. She is young, always young. She looks so small as she tramples the stream of carmine, dubbed the royal rug. The feather of her hat flutters in acquiescence. She belongs here, and she always did. Her regal modesty resounds at every step she takes. The royal color of blue suits her best.
Her cape is the night sky, like her hair. And her pin is a star.
But not everyone adores the Empress.
"What a bore!" I once heard a noble lady's chirp. "And so very disappointing. She's too dreary for an Empress! So simple. So vestal. If I were she, my cape would be lined with fur from the Pandyssian Continent! There are mammals in that place, isn't that so? And with a train that drags, a train must always drag long and wide! She holds and shifts her hands in all the right motions, but she strides like general. Some say that she is a man in drag!"
A noble lady of Dunwall is her husband's masterpiece, you understand. She exists in the full spate of his sybaritism. She marvels at her mask, the caricature of a peacock, shining with shattered jewels and many sacrificed feathers. Her painted nails are rounded and pointed; she drags a digit along the mask's delicate lines. Often, she dons a suit of pure, Tvyian silk, with her hair curled and studded with black tears. She wears four streams of beaded champagne that hang from her neck—falling to her hollow belly—and three different rings on each of her cloaked hands.
She never asks for it all, but she always takes. Of course, she does. Anything to supply the man's valuable womb, bought and paid for. And anything for others who borrow it, with or without his knowledge.
Yet, the Empress, she is a polished diamond, larger than them all.
And I am her bodyguard, never her friend. I always endeavor to please.
Whiskers are permissible, but never a moustache. Forget that her advisers say I would look more menacing. For the unseemly habits she scoffs at, I snuff out at all costs. I represent the empire. And I do not carouse amongst female dainties as who bat their lashes. The Empress wishes me to be immaculate, save for my often-crimson fingertips.
I am hopeless, long lost to this unhealthy attachment. I am beyond redemption.
(I am not waiting to break. I've already broken.)
On the night that I first drink the tisane, I dream again… of her. But the dream has transformed.
And it's hot, the world is hot! My throat is dry, and I must drink.
Her hands are smoother than the sea, softer than the wind, cooler than the marble floors of the palace. They're heavy, and I, knowing I should strip them away, do not.
I have evolved, and so has she. She is not the passive reverie of my fantasies, but a possessive chimera that devours me, starting at the feet. Her robe is dark red. All the blood I've shed for her is hugging her lissome body, flowing on the earth beneath me, spilling all over me. Her hair is long and free; her star is not there.
I awaken in my room, breathless, sweating like the mud caked swine that I am. Judging by this recent experience, a brief glimpse into the lowest of my very nature, it is safe to assume that the Empress' tisane does not agree with me.
The benefit? The Cave did not find me.
But much to my distress, I have slept very well, much to the Empress' delight. I must put up with her infernal concoction, with the additional promise of severe penalty... should she ever see another bag under my eye.
Her kindness is a strange comfort.
All the while, she wonders why I pucker my face as she speaks to me.
Does the pit I've fallen in ever stop growing?
(If she were like a mother to me, would this be an Oedipus complex?)
The medicine does its job perfectly, but my true illness remains uncured. My body is whole, but my mind is in disarray. When sleep tries to elude me, I must take the sleeping draught to catch it. And then, that dream—this new and tainted image—it comes for me… in various and universal ways.
A new torture.
The Cave has not haunted me, but I think I may be yearning for it.
The Empress wonders why I hardly look upon her face anymore; "strange that a bodyguard will not glance at his own charge," she says. I deny (lie) that I ever indulged. At the very least, my guilt makes it so easy, so simple to avoid gazing upon her. I can properly fulfill my duty; my eyes search readily for any potential danger.
Anything… away from her.
But my eyes have long lingered too much. I have seen too much of her.
(I am her tool, and I am malfunctioning.)
Even now, she routinely demands that I have eventide tisane with her. I simply obey, as always.
The typical, opprobrious insects are crawling out of the cracks. The maids are whispering, whispering amongst themselves in darkened corners of the palace. Doesn't the Empress know that walls have ears?
At first, it was simply, "How inappropriate for a female ruler to let her male protector into her inner chambers!"
But now, the noble ladies say, "She summons him to her warm chambers almost every night"—not twice a week—"and invites him to her illustrious bed"—not her private dining table—"and he never refuses"—that much is true, but I never tarry for more than half an hour.
Some are in mourning. "Just what we need! An Empress with loose morals after all!"
Others are tittering. "It's high time! I was beginning to believe she wasting a perfectly handsome bodyguard!"
Others ponder aloud. "I wonder if she carries his child… it would be nice to have an heir in these unstable times!"
The whirlpool of contumely never stops!
The Empress carries on as always.
"They are talking, Your Majesty," I say, observing humbly.
"Yes, Corvo, they are talking," she replies with an indifferent laugh. It stabs me, resounds through me.
There is… no escaping her.
But, why do any of these things matter anymore? What difference does it make now…when I'm in a state like this?
The tisane can't protect me any longer, and I am too weak to force myself awake.
The Cave has captured me at last, and it makes up for my long absence. I can no longer stand on my devastated feet, so I fall straight away. But this time, I roll downward, the ground cutting me at every bounce.
Downward, downward, downward… until suddenly, splash!
I fall into a cavernous lake. The water viciously pours into my lungs, dragging me deeper into the abyss. I'll probably rot without ever touching the bottom.
Yes, I know the name of this place. Yes, I had known all along.
No, honestly, I hadn't recognized it. No, I never wanted to enter.
No, it should never have happened.
It was never supposed to happen.
I'm drowning, drowning, oh, I want to drown…
Please, just let me drown already.
When I wake—or I think I awake—all that greets me is a nebulous sky. I have no body, no head, no ears. But it's hot and watery, and I hear voices pushing against me, distant and unclear.
(Perhaps, I can hear the Empress' cries?)
I am tugged between two worlds: this formless dimension and that monstrous lake. Between smoldering heat and biting cold. I drown repeatedly, only to be resurrected, only to die again, only to be reborn again.
Eternity is not some long measure of time. It is simply a state of being. And I'm eternally in agony.
Is this what hell feels like?
I never bother to ask when I'll leave this limbo. I have never asked for anything. I simply concede. As I concede right now.
After all, what else can I do?
Going round and round, never stopping, the lake snuffs me out one more time. I close my eyes, preparing myself for the next stage of the cycle.
But suddenly, something changes. A new kind of eternity picks me up and carries me away.
Now, I'm lying on something soft, softer than clouds. Someone is touching me, gently her running fingers across my face. They're warm.
"Get up… Corvo," a voice calls out to my soul.
A soothing, sweet melody. It sounds like an earnest appeal.
I open my eyes, just barely, to a dim light. And the Empress stares down at me with a forlorn look.
No, this is not the Empress. This is… Jessamine. Dressed in a pure white.
My cheek is caught in her small, curved hand. For the first time, I can feel her gentle breath on my skin, tickling my nose. She sighs and gently plants a kiss on my temple.
"Corvo…" she whispers.
I try to speak to her, but my voice fails me. A strangled half-cough is my pitiful reply. She smiles at my wounded self, her eyes still filled with sorrow. Her face is close, so close. I want to touch her, but I'm too fragile now.
I don't need to try. Jessamine hovers over me, draws herself into me. Her lips brush timidly against mine, and I eagerly join her. I'm not accepting it. I am taking it.
I close my eyes again and let go…
And then, before I can blink, I've been thrown into the lake… to drown again. The surface is far away.
No, I'm sick of this! There is no way I'm going down again!
I call upon a renewed strength and turn myself upwards, towards the above.
(Is this adrenaline? Sheer force of will? Magic?)
I kick my legs, throwing away my watery shackles at every stroke. I can see… light?
I will not lose. I will not fall back.
Finally, I break forth, past the surface, breathing the air. It's not fresh, but I have what I have. Gravity pulls at my legs, threatening to snatch me under, but I fight it. I can see the rocky bed. I swim to it, reaching out for it. Once I take hold, I rest, making the most of the unforgiving rock. I look on ahead.
Yes, there is a light! I can see it now. Why couldn't I have noticed it before? Had the fumes deluded my judgment?
The rocks are still sharp. I don't go back to shore. I keep swimming, towards the light, for as long as this lake will carry me. The water chills my bones, but I persevere. Ahead—I think—the lake flows into a stream.
I have no ground to stand on. Therefore, I'll just float.
When I wake, for the first time in a long time, I'm blinded by a bright light. It's daytime, and the windows must be wide open; I can hear the outside world. There is a scent in the air, as if a rainstorm has just passed. It's sublime, like lavender and savory.
I groan in pleasured relief.
I try to sit up, but it's too soon. My body falls back into bed with a thump. I close my eyes, and with a dry throat, I cough out, pleading for water.
My ears—regaining their keenness—they pick up the sound of quiet footsteps, the sound of clanking glass, and the sound of water being poured. My eyes flutter open again, but I still can't see.
A soft voice whispers to me, "Here."
A pair of small arms takes hold of me. They barely have the strength to raise me up; there are strained pauses in their unknown movements. Soon, I am half-sitting, half lounging in my bed. Everything feels… wonderful. The glass is put to my lips. I grab for it, touching my companion's hands, and drink greedily.
Water is surprisingly sweet.
My bleary eyes adjust at last. The ceiling is dark brown. The bed and this room are not mine. This is most definitely the infirmary.
I turn to my unknown friend, ready to express my gratitude, but she is not unknown. It's… the Empress!?
The Empress is worn and neglected. Her lovely visage is woefully pale. The circles under her eyes are a dusty gray. Her hair, the night sky, is in disorder. Her pin, the star, is askew. My heart dances clumsily at the sight.
"Your… Majesty…?" I question.
The Empress is perched in a regal armchair. Despite her display, she remains unchanged. She is the same as ever, proper and formal. Only now, I can see her efforts, instead of simply… believing in it.
"What happened?" I ask her.
"You were poisoned," she replies. "It has been more than a week. You were between sleep and delirium for quite some time. Your… heart stopped twice during the first night…"
I nod, feeling very fortunate.
"You were poisoned," she continues, "In the tisane. Not meant for you. Some clumsy assassins lacked the sense to tell your serving from mine."
The Empress chuckles in rank disgust. "Such a foolish, short-lived plot. If they didn't have the fortitude to withstand the infliction of pain, they should never have attempted such a brazen plan."
She drops her head in shame. Her eyes are hidden from me.
"But I am the most foolish of all," she murmurs, "to actually think it was prudent of me… to share my tisane with you…"
"This is not your fault, Your Majesty," I counter in peaceful protest. "And unlike me, I don't believe you would have survived it. Just think of it as performing my duty… as always."
The Empress furrows her brow, neat folds of righteous anger. She appears even more fearsome in her tired state.
"I thought I had a bodyguard who valued his life more than that!"
(There is much that she does not know of me.)
"I apologize," I answer, smiling like a dream. "Shall I resign my position?"
"Don't even joke!" she scolds. I sense a disturbed lilt in her voice.
She then rambles her many complaints, giving vent to days of anxiety. I rest my head and simply listen.
"…And I've been insecure ever since you fell… to that unusual cocktail! They put guards around me, but they are so careless and they lack… your talents. There is no one I can trust as my safeguard… other than you."
My spirits sink a little.
"That is not true," I answer seriously. "I'm sure there are a few good men in this realm who can best my abilities. Though, I hope I have done you good as Lord Protector… Your Majesty."
"You have," she says quietly. "You always do. Why are you…?"
"I believe... that I am no longer fit to be your bodyguard," I declare.
I look upon her face and find it dramatically changed. Shock. Pure unadulterated shock. Her eyes glimmer in confusion.
I try to continue, but she stands from her seat. Her form trembles with barely contained outrage.
"What in the name of the Void are you spouting!?" she snaps. "I…you…'Not fit'!? Are you… do you mean to ask for a resignation!?"
I bow my head, submissively low. "Yes, Your Majesty. I humbly and formally request to be released from my duties."
The Empress grows quiet and hard, thoughts flowing once again in that unreadable brain. After a while, she clamps her hand over her eyes and laughs unpleasantly… disapprovingly… hysterically.
(I can understand—this must truly be surreal to her frame of mind.)
"You must be raving!" she cries, exposing her unmovable stance. "Even if I did accede to your request… resign to what? Are you expecting to have me retire you early and become some aristocrat? On a spit of land with a bundle of silver?"
"I would ask for nothing of the sort," I reply almost indignantly. "I would ask… for nothing at all."
"So… you're going to go traipsing right over the horizon? With nothing at all?"
"There are many levels of abasement I'm willing to accept."
I watch her. Something in her plummets down. Her eyes lose their wonted glow.
"You…" she pauses, pursing her quivering lips. "You're actually… resolute on this. I…no! I can't accept that! Not at all!"
She gives me her back, shaking her head, shrinking in a deep spell of melancholy. She doesn't show me her face.
I often imagined, in past days, how she would react if I ever made such a request. I assumed that refusal and lividness would be the most likely to occur… but this is not a reaction I predicted… or ever wanted. I've made the Empress grieve, just as she came for me in my dreams—not as the Empress, but as Jessamine.
I stare at her, quietly wrestling, quietly deciding. If I put my restraints to death, can I shatter this plight once and for all? And at what cost?
I swallow, resolved, and finally, I determine my fate. I smile, and it pains me.
"Can a bodyguard be able to guard his master," I berate myself, "and not be able to guard his own heart? Isn't it a sad day when a charge has to worry over her own shield?"
The Empress does not flinch.
"I've… considered it for quite some time," I go on. "To leave this place behind. Nevertheless, I am enamored with you. I have always been enamored with you, and I honor my duties, so I did not wish to abandon you. And I knew that you would be opposed to it. After all, I have known, always known, that you trust me more than anyone else. I once believed that I could bear it forever, on that notion alone, but I can no longer trust my own judgment. And now, it has caused you to trouble yourself!"
The Empress swings around, and I survey the damage. I can see a confounded fear all over her face. She covers her mouth, as if she means to retch.
There. That is that. The inside of me lies totally exposed. I cannot return.
I shut my eyes, tilting my head back. I'm disenthralled. I can breathe.
"Please forgive me, Your Majesty," I whisper. "And I beg of you… please, let me go."
I open my eyes to the new reality I've created. And yet, once more, the Empress takes me by surprise. She towers over me, closing the distance between us, arms wrapped under her bosom. I can see her shaking.
She is indescribable, more beautiful than any way I have ever seen her. She forces herself not to look at me. Her breath is a strained staccato.
For many years, at many times, I've wanted to hear her mind. It was curiosity at its purest.
But, at this moment, a burning urge drives me to understand her. I can't peer into the murky storm that dwells within her.
(Even still, I have burdened her again.)
The Empress swallows, her throat leaping, and she faces me. Her eyes pull me into a beguiling, dangerous trance.
(Is it just my deceitful imaginations, or she is, in fact, inching closer?)
"C-corvo…" she stammers. "You…I…"
A thundering knock pounds against the door, and we are torn away from each other. The Empress breathes deeply, holding her head high. She beckons the disruptor to enter.
The good Royal Physician bustles in, checking on his patient, me. He ignores her disarray; extremities in extreme situations are always forgiven, especially when the Empress is involved. With wonder and fascination—he asks me many questions, performs many tests, and examines every corpuscle in my body. Apparently, he had set his heart on chronicling my demise and its every detail… but he's now settling for second best.
The Empress quietly absconds. I won't see her for the rest of the day, neither the next day, or the next after that.
The stream continues beyond the Cave. My eyes get used to the light, and I climb out of the waters. The ground is not smooth, but it doesn't harm me. My feet are healed.
Before me, there are two roads. They diverge violently from each other.
On my left, I see a sprawling wilderness, stretching as far as the eye can see. It looks terribly unforgiving, but it gleams under the sun, and its hilly terrain promises many fruits. It seems very tantalizing.
On my right, the second path leads to a towering forest—green and just as untamed as the wastes. It offers something, I know it, but the leaves are so heavy and thick, I can't see it. The light shines through in certain places; how often that would occur, I'll never know. The trees' branches are like a canopy; they hang from the roof of the greenwood. The roads have rocky patches and holes to trip on when I'm off my guard.
I turn around, to see the opening of the Cave for the last time, but it has become a solid wall of stone. The stream spouts through a hole, an ever-flowing fountain.
I have learned my lesson. I refuse to go back into its jaws again. But, it was still a wonderful teacher.
That Cave—I always knew its title. There's no need to name it. That man, who once told me of the Cave, was right to warn me. But in his hostile weakness, in the ignorance of his closed heart, he had mistakenly given me the wrong name.
I am no longer in control. The wind blows in every direction. The road I eventually set foot upon is not for me to make, and it never was. The wilderness looks inviting and logical indeed, but I have a suspicion… a poignant feeling… that both paths wish to claim me. And my next move is less foreseeable than I had assumed.
I'm tired now, from this bout of treacherous spelunking. So, I'll sit on my haunches, at the base where the two paths split. And I will wait, not for long I hope. Perhaps, I'll throw stones along the road, just to stir up an effect.
Rather turbulent, but fresh air has never felt so good.
And slowly, bravely, I open my eyes and wake up to a new day.