For a tragedy that brutally ripped so many from this world, Cecelia had never felt more alive in her life than during the Rat Plague.
It’s the kind of thing she feels almost-guilty for; the waves of that’s a terrible thing to think and you’re a horrible person for feeling this way barely lapping at the shores of her mind. She knows it’s wrong to clutch the sentiment of a disaster so closely to her chest—but how could she truly feel remorseful when, for the first time in her life, someone had seen past the veil?
The Month of High Cold, 1837. Cecelia steels herself for the arrival of the man they say killed the Empress—and even if he didn't, killed many more besides that.
She’s good at being unseen, and even better if her life is at risk—but the most dangerous man in the Empire? Cecelia buttresses; one by one, she takes each part of herself and polishes it away to nothing, erasing herself the best she can. Forms herself into a shell, a cusp, a safe thing to hide.
Corvo arrives. He is so much bigger than she thought he would be. Angrier, too. So much more threatening, just by existing, large and cold and too focused for his own good. It frightens her, but he has a job to do—and so does she, right? So she keeps her head down.
The distance is not easily kept. She thinks it must be her fault, at first; cleaning his room when he wants rest, taking too long in the washroom. When she blurts out I think you’re the bravest man I’ve ever met she thinks surely she will be met with a gaze to kill, but…
It’s a heartbeat skip, a glimpse into the impossible. And Cecelia smiles, too.
The Month of Hearths, 1837. Cecelia has seen many things, so many things.
It’s what you do when no one else cares to see you. You watch; you wait. These past few months she’s watched death creep over countless bodies. Blood trickling in the sewers. Rats swarming in the brewery. A spectre darting across the rooftops, flickering in and out of sight. Things you wouldn't believe. The kind of things she cradles to her chest like a precious child.
Right now, she is watching her hands, raw and sore, try to work to the metal door in her hidden house. She is watching the door not budge an inch. She is hearing the tallboys outside clank, clank, clanking with each terrible step they take and she is watching her life slip away from her, bit by bit by agonizing bit—
The door slams open. Not the door she is trying to pry from its hinges, nor the thin wood serving as the only barrier between her and the Watch. The back door.
Cecelia turns wildly to whom she thinks must be the catalyst of her demise—and smiles.
Corvo. This masked felon, this stalker in the night, this killer of many, this beacon of protection. Here at her doorstep. A man with blood lacing his boots has never brought her such relief.
The happiness is brief. Corvo tugs his mask upwards, just enough so his voice isn't muffled, and says: “Where’s Emily.”
Cecelia winces, clasps her hands tight in front of her breast, bracing herself for the flood. “I—I don't know. They took her—I don't know where they took her, but she isn't here, and I’m sorry I couldn't stop them, it happened so fast and—,”
Corvo levels both his hands upon her shoulders, commanding in the action but gentle in the motive. The flood won’t take her yet.
“It’s not your fault.” His voice is low, to not alert the Watch. “I trust you did what you could.”
His hands leave her shoulders, but Cecelia feels the phantom of them. Still so solid. She reaches up to touch them.
Corvo motions for her to hold out her hands and, like she hadn't known the best of him for months, she does so apprehensively. He smiles, detaches a bone charm from his belt, and presses it into her palms.
“For luck,” he says. “Thank you.”
He turns and leaves. Cecelia watches.
When she again tries to open the metal gate, effortlessly—against all odds—it clicks open.
The Month of Nets, 1840. Three years and that scene plays in Cecelia’s mind still like a Tyvian opera. How could it not?
For luck, he’d said. For luck. For luck! Luck hums in her ear and luck wrenched the door free from its holds and luck saw her to safety without a single shine of a Watchman’s gun—she is no fool. It wasn’t just luck.
Whether or not there’s any truth to the myth of a man who lurks in the void and whispers evil into people's ears—that’s not her place to say. But the bones sing. The bones guide her to safety. There are pearls of truth to all legends.
Several months after the interregnum, she takes up residence in an abandoned apartment in the Legal District. It seems like an odd choice; someone who is not high-born will surely be snuffed out soon enough. But hiding in plain sight is Cecelia’s specialty.
As though it was fate that drove her there, there was a charm nestles between the bookcase and the wall. She tucks it neatly into a desk drawer, swaddled in purple silk. The Legal District is a good place to watch people. Which means it’s a good place to collect.
And collect she does. The nobles chatter teeth to throats and pass each other too-carefully wrapped gifts. No one suspects the mousy girl with the big grey eyes. No one even sees her.
It’s risky business, truly, but the charms keep her safe. The more she has, the safer she feels; every charm is a piece of the man who leapt across rooftops and warped time itself and slit throats to protect those he loved and—saw her.
He saw her. The only one to see the ghost.
Cecelia plucks a two-pronged charm from the pocket of an unsuspecting lawyer and slinks a smile back into the shadows. That night she adds it to her carefully-curated shrine in the cabinet of her bedside table and slips into a sleep she could have never dreamed.
She arrives in a place that is there-but-not-there, something immaterial, something between the betweens. It uncannily resembles the earth she knows, but two steps to the left. Hand mirrors floating upwards, lanterns still in midair. At first she thinks it is a dream—a vivid, lucid dream—but no dream has ever made her neck hair stand on end, or left her shock-still from the striking coldness.
She’s about to call out when she hears him:
Whipping around, she comes face to face with a young man with eyes of midnight and feet that don't reach the ground.
Dumbly, she says the first thing she thinks. “You're real.”
The Outsider—the fucking Outsider— tilts his head, looking amused.
“All those charms, and even a few runes,” he says, “and you didn't think I was real?”
Cecelia stumbles over words she doesn't even have. What is she meant to say to this mythical being she did not acknowledge until only now? There are no etiquette classes on how to speak to a god. Even less ones you almost ignore.
“I didn't care,” she says, without deciding to say it. She feels herself recoil, but she keeps going. “It didn't matter. The Void… was there. The magic worked.”
There is a suffocating silence. The Outsider is imperceptible.
“That was all that mattered. You,”—she visibly cringes at her own phrasing— “are… incidental.”
Cecelia lilts her tone at the end like a question. The Outsider exhales.
The Void crackles.
“You think…” Cecelia’s voice is lighter than air. “I’m interesting?”
The Outsider smiles.
“I’ve been around for a long, long time,” he says, walking on nothing. “And it is very, very rare that people find interest in the work, but not the man.”
He crouches above her, looking down. Objects of her life float idly around them, a caricature of reality. “You and I aren't so different, Cecelia.”
The observation sends a shiver down her spine.
“We are invisible to all except to those who choose to look. And we make up for the eons spent alone…” the Outsider takes her left hand in his right. “...by watching.”
His skin is cold as ice. Cecelia looks deep into those black-black eyes and thinks about how long the Outsider has been alive.
To live a life like hers for thousands of years?
When she pulls her hand away, it comes out clean.
“Are you going to mark me?”
The Outsider hums.
“Who knows?” He turns, seeming to weigh the options. “I am not so free with my gifts, but I do like you… my dear.” He winks.
He fades first, and then the Void melts around them, leaving only his voice to echo in her ears.
“I’ve left you a gift,” he says. “I know you’ll keep it close.”
And then, with the distance between dimensions:
“I look forward to our next chat.”
Cecelia wakes abruptly in her bed to a buzzing under her pillow and lifts it to find a nigh-immaculate bone charm nestled perfectly upon the sheets.