“You shouldn’t have taken me on that holiday.”
The Outsider pulls his coat more firmly around his shoulders and turns his face away from the icy wind sweeping in off the river and rushing through the tunnel formed by the narrow street. Corvo rolls his eyes. The Outsider is not quite grumbling, but he’s not not grumbling—which Corvo has learned is, at least half the time, a thing the Outsider does more to jab him in the ribs than out of a genuinely bad mood.
“Why not? You had a wonderful time.”
“That’s the problem.” A particularly strong gust hits him and musses his already mussed hair. “You rented a villa with an entire beach all to ourselves, you reminded me what warm is like, and then you dragged me back to Dunwall in time for the Month of Void-damned High Cold to start, and now you’re insisting on walks.”
“You didn’t have to come,” Corvo points out. “You could be by the fire right now. Hot whiskey. Blanket. Not whining at me.”
“But then I wouldn’t be with you.” The Outsider edges closer to him without breaking the rhythm of his stride, slides an arm through his. It’s as easy as touching him always is now, and more and more often since that day on Kaldwin’s Bridge, there’s been less anxiety between the two of them about what might happen if they show what they are to each other in public.
Probably unwise to provoke the Abbey, being so brazen about such an unnatural coupling on the part of someone inches from the throne. But honestly Corvo is rapidly ceasing to care.
“So,” Corvo murmurs. It’s impossible to keep from smiling, so he doesn’t even try. “If you’re with me I have to deal with your whining.”
“Don’t you always? If you can’t handle me at my whiniest, you don’t deserve me at my...” The Outsider trails off, frowning. “That doesn’t work very well, does it? It’s not pithy.”
“Not so much, no.” Corvo gives his forearm a squeeze. “Seriously, stop it for a while. Pay attention. There’s a reason I wanted you to come out here tonight.”
The Outsider sighs, but falls silent as they turn down another lane. They’re skirting the edge of the Estate District, moving among buildings that are stately without being ostentatious and all quite old even by Dunwall standards. The houses loom into a deepening twilight, touching a sky clouded over and devoid of stars, and looking up someone might get a sense of ominousness. But down here at street level there are lights blazing in every window, and an unusual number of people passing at the pace of a stroll. On a night this cold, they’d tend to be spending as little time outside as possible, attending to the errands they have and then hurrying home or crowding into taverns and pubs. And the taverns and pubs they’ve passed have been crowded, but the crowds are spilling cheerfully into the street, and that air of general good cheer beams from the doors and windows like the light itself.
A few people have given him nods or small bows, but otherwise they either aren’t recognizing him as the Royal Protector or are leaving him alone with his friend. Which is an unexpected mercy.
“I’m surprised you mind the cold,” Corvo murmurs after a while. “The Void always chilled me to the bone.”
“That’s why,” the Outsider says softly. He’s gazing up at the sky. His eyes look uncannily dark.
Oh. A flash of irritation at himself; he should have put two and two together and arrived at a very obvious four. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—We can go back if you really want to, it’s not important.”
“Stop.” The Outsider’s voice is still soft as he draws Corvo closer to him, practically leaning his head on his upper arm. “It’s all right. I don’t want to go back.”
Corvo studies him. The glow from a bakery display window has caught him and chased the dark from his eyes. Once more they’re piercingly clear, about as far from black as they can be. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” The Outsider nods as if to reinforce the answer, gives Corvo a small smile. “You said you had a reason for bringing me out here, I want to know what it is.” He halts suddenly, looking at the window and pulling in a breath, seeming to shake something off. He points. “I also want one of those little cakes.”
So Corvo buys him one.
He also buys one for himself, and they walk on, munching in a silence now much more comfortable. The cakes are full of very sticky sweet cream. The Outsider finishes his quickly, sucks at his fingers—catches Corvo watching him and sucks a bit more slowly as a mischievous gleam comes into his eyes.
Corvo selects a reasonably clean alley and shoves him into it, and there’s something about breathless kissing and a quick grope like a couple of horny teenagers—instead of a horny four thousand year old teenager and a man in his fifties—which is enjoyable on a level he couldn’t explain. The Outsider tastes like sugar and cream, and he groans and laughs shakily when Corvo bites at his jaw.
Later. Plenty more of that later. For now they disentangle themselves and walk again.
Corvo has lost track of the hour, but as they take another turn that angles them back toward the river, the low, tuneful clang of the clock striking echoes over the rooftops, and he mutters a curse and picks up the pace, tugging the Outsider along.
“It’s almost time,” he says in response to the Outsider’s perplexed glance. “We don’t have to be at the river for it, but it’s best there. You’ll see.”
He isn’t the only one with that plan. They’re moving through a denser crowd now as they approach the promenade that runs along the bank—men and women of all ages, plenty of children, laughing and chattering and wrapped up against the cold but clearly not minding it. The Outsider also appears to have forgotten it, and he presses close to Corvo as he maneuvers them up nearer to the edge. With an arched brow he sidesteps three especially merry young men moving in a tight pack, two convulsed with laughter at something the third has just said.
“There’s something happening tonight,” the Outsider says quietly when they stop—not quite in the front, but more than close enough to see the glimmering water and the glowing city on the opposite bank. “Isn’t there? Yes, anyone would pick that up by now, but it’s...”
Corvo looks at him, arching a brow. “You really still don’t remember?”
“I forget things,” the Outsider says, a tad defensive. More fragments of what was thrown into mental disorder when he ceased to be the Outsider come back to him all the time, but the gaps in a mind no longer remotely large enough to accommodate the information it once contained persist. “You know that.”
“I know. I just thought maybe at this point it might have jogged your memory.” Corvo nudges him, nods at the river. “It doesn’t matter. Honestly, I like that you’re almost seeing it for the first time.”
More than seeing. The noise of the crowd is fading around them, falling into an expectant hush. Hands are reaching into pockets, producing something. The Outsider scans curiously around, turns back to Corvo with his mouth opening to ask a question.
“Shh.” Corvo touches his lips. “It’s starting.”
Almost in unison, every light in Dunwall goes out and the dark comes crashing down so suddenly the Outsider gasps.
The clock strikes again—not twelve strokes for midnight but a single long tone that resounds, trembling ever so slightly at its edges, and seems to flow through the streets and avenues and alleys like the wind. Riding on it, perhaps, and Corvo feels it entering through his skin and settling in his bones, a vibration deeper than hearing.
Not the toll of one. This is a null note. This is hour zero.
Not like the Fugue Feast, either. This is something older. Perhaps not as old as the Outsider. But perhaps not so far from it.
As if on cue, the wind drops. Movement all around them. People raising their hands, lifting what they’re holding. Spreading in a rapid wave, starting nowhere and coming from everywhere, tiny lights flicker into being as thousands of candles are lit.
The Outsider is staring, eyes wide and his lips parted in rapt astonishment. His gaze falls to his hand when Corvo nudges it, and he takes the candle Corvo places into it as if he has no idea what it is, passing his thumb along the rim of the paper that surrounds the middle to catch the melted wax. But he manages to hold it mostly steady as Corvo lights it, and its flickering illumination both smooths and hardens the strange lines of his young-old face.
And Corvo can’t quite breathe.
Just as the last of the clock’s tone is dying away, the song swells to replace it.
Nothing looks like thousands of candles in the dark. Nothing sounds like thousands of voices singing. Reflecting off the river, the light and the song, mingling until it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. It’s one single thing, luminous and perfectly harmonized as though it couldn’t not be, as though harmony is knitted into its fabric.
Corvo doesn’t sing. But he mouths words he knows very well.
Rolling downward, through the midnight
Comes a song that calls return of day
’Tis a chorus full of sweetness
Here to chase the heavy dark away
“It’s the longest night of the year,” the Outsider breathes—Corvo shouldn’t be able to hear him over the singing but he does. “Isn’t it? That’s what it is. I remember now. It’s the Night of Candles.”
Corvo only feels for the Outsider’s free hand, takes it, clasps it. It’s warm in his. There’s nothing else he needs to say.
Lift the lights and slay the shadow
In the dawn the winging of the wren
Down the ages sound the echo
Let the bright sun rise again
There are other words. But he forgets them. They sink into the melody and the low brilliance of it all and drift away, and Corvo holds his own candle and the Outsider’s hand as the world steps over the threshold of the darkness and onto the road where it’s a little brighter every day.
He remembers: There was no light in the Void. Or at least nothing that could properly be called light; there was something that allowed him to see, but it came from no single source, bleeding out of the stuff of the Void itself. The Void was devoid of real light, devoid of warmth, of life, and in that vast chaotic nothingness the Outsider walked alone for four thousand years, kept his own unfathomable counsel and watched a world he could never be part of.
Now he’s a boy standing beside Corvo, hand tucked into his, holding a flickering candle and gazing out over the water with shining eyes.
Down the ages sound the echo
Let the bright sun rise again
The last of the song fades like the tone of the clock did. For a breathless moment there’s silence. Then the silence breaks with voices, laughter, people turning to each other and embracing, shaking hands and clapping shoulders, children running and shrieking through the legs of their guardians and waving their candles so wildly they finally flicker out.
But most of them are still shining.
“I always paid attention to this,” the Outsider breathes. He’s pulled his hand free and stepped closer to the lip of the promenade; Corvo moves to him, unable to stop looking at him now that he’s started in earnest. Unable to stop thinking about the first time he saw such dramatically different eyes in essentially this same face—remote, distantly scornful, inhuman. “I remember. I never really knew why. Something about it kept drawing me back, over and over. Centuries. Longer.” The corners of his mouth curl, and he sends the smile in a Corvo’s direction—small and a bit melancholy. A bit tired. “They’ve been celebrating this night in this way for longer than you know.
“The Night of Candles,” he adds, seeming to speak mostly to himself. “Yes.”
Corvo takes a breath, crouches, and sets his candle into the river. Rather than going out, the stiff paper rim keeps it upright and lit, and it bobs away on the water.
Others are joining it.
Corvo reaches up—for the Outsider’s candle, for his hand. “Come on. Make a wish.”
The Outsider lowers himself down, bends above the water. But he doesn’t release the candle into it. He gazes down, his brow slightly furrowed. Not troubled, and not merely thinking; his affect has taken on the absent quality it adopts when he’s traveling back in the memories he’s retained, wandering echoing halls and chambers Corvo can’t even imagine.
“It wasn’t always wishing,” he says finally.
“No.” The Outsider hesitates a moment longer, his eyes briefly closing. Then he leans over and sets the candle carefully into the water, rocks back on his knees. “A long time ago it was about leaving something behind. Letting something go.”
Corvo grazes a fingertip over the Outsider’s jaw. “What would you let go?”
The Outsider breathes a laugh. “Honestly, I’d rather make a wish.”
“Which would be?”
“I can’t tell you. You know that.” The Outsider swats at his arm. “It won’t come—“
He pushes to his feet, pulling the Outsider up as he does and turning: Emily, coming toward them through the crowd, ignoring the double-takes and startled bows she leaves in her wake as the people part for her like the sea cleaved by a whale, a retinue of guards following behind. But nothing about her appearance says Empress; her thick coat is plain blue-black as ever, trousers plain as well, practical low-heeled boots, her hair in its customary unadorned bun.
Her governesses used to despair of getting her to dress formally for special occasions, until finally they gave up. That they had no support at all from Corvo never helped matters.
Emily stops in front of him and shakes her head, her expression all fond exasperation. “You weren’t at the Imperial pavilion.”
Corvo shrugs. “I wanted to come my own way this time.”
“You’re supposed to be protecting me.” But she’s transparently fighting back a grin. “I’ll allow it, this once. Try it again and I’ll confine you to your chambers. And you won’t get any presents.” She pulls him into a rough hug, presses cold lips firmly to his cheek. “Happy Candle-Night, Father.”
The embrace goes on for a little longer than it ordinarily might. He doesn’t let her go, and she doesn’t try to withdraw; he feels her in his arms, the strength of her and the warmth, and he thinks about what a strange journey it’s been from the last Candle-Night to this one, a lifetime’s worth, and how it’s stranger all the time. How he came so close to losing everything all over again, how she came so close to losing far more, and in the end they beat that threat back one more time.
With the tall, odd boy standing awkwardly a few feet behind her, looking as if he isn’t sure what to do with his hands now that he doesn’t have anything to hold.
“You,” Emily says, finally stepping back and turning briskly to him. “You. Hold still.” And before the Outsider can do anything, clearly before he has time to process what she means to do, she’s pulling him in and embracing him too. Not nearly as close or for as long as with Corvo, but Emily no longer does anything in half measures, to the extent that she ever did, and there’s no reticence in her.
The Outsider freezes for a second or two, staring at Corvo over Emily’s shoulder in complete bewilderment. What’s happening?
Corvo rolls a shoulder. It’s called a hug. Deal with it.
The Outsider’s face breaks into a slow, incredulous smile.
“All right.” Emily pushes away and slaps the Outsider on the shoulder. “Let’s get back to the Tower. There’s hot spiced whiskey and candied apples and almond biscuits. And presents. Neither of you deserve them but you can have them anyway.”
The Outsider shoots Corvo a look of faint concern. “I didn’t get you anything.”
“You didn’t remember this was even happening. You can make it up to me next year.” He drags the Outsider against him as he starts to follow Emily back toward the main thoroughfare. Tower Guards pace around them at a respectful distance, pretending not to notice such a blatant display of affection. “Or you can probably come up with a way to do that later tonight.”
Emily turns back to them without stopping, throwing up her hands in exaggerated exasperation—a playful echo of the precocious child she once was, and not so long ago. “Hurry up and stop whispering at each other like a couple of schoolgirls! Biscuits!”
All the lights are coming back on, blinding after the candlelit dark. The Wrenhaven is a ribbon of dancing little flames. Through one of the open tavern doors, a room packed with tipsy merrymakers is singing a decidedly more boisterous song, accompanied by at least two poorly-tuned fiddles.
Stars bless the mistress and the man
Unto your house we bring the wren
Though he's little, his family's great
Come out, come out, and give us a treat
Hurrah, me boys, hurrah
Hurrah, me boys, hurrah
Knock at the knocker and ring at the bell
What will you give us for singing so well
Singing so well, singing so well
Give us a copper for singing so well
“I’m glad you dragged me out here,” the Outsider says happily as the Tower gate comes into view. “In retrospect.”
“But you’re going back to the fire now.”
“Mmhm. Hot whiskey. Blanket. Biscuits, apparently.” The Outsider squeezes Corvo’s hand. “You.”
Corvo draws in a deep lungful of the crisp air and glances up. The sky seems brighter, although it couldn’t possibly be so, still hours from dawn. “See, in the end you get it all.”
“I get more than I should have.” Another squeeze and a smile like a dancing little flame. Corvo looks at it and is instantly warmed all through, even with the freshening wind. “Happy Candle-Night, Corvo.”
They walk through the gate. He kisses the Outsider’s knuckles. “Happy Candle-Night.”
He still has no name to use in return. Yet just now, he couldn’t possibly care less about that.
But there is his wish.