"These witches are really disconcerting creatures!"
Although he did not take part in the discussion, Corvo approved in petto the Baron Falero's observation. For his part, he would have added that, at least, those of the Lodge were peaceful, but the man simply passed the group of aristocrats, continuing along the corridor, his hand away from the grip of his gun.
Farther away, among clinking glasses, audiograph players, and laughter, the Royal Protector heard a similar conversation, little surprised by the interest the witches aroused.
The evening was still young; the glimmers of the end of the day made the particles shine in the air, mixing silver dust and gold mist, the tables supported huge plates of greasy and heavy food, the pyramids of champagne glasses waited for gourd hands to dismount them, the servants and the guests were not yet drunk, but still: the names of the sorceresses had already bewitched all the tongues.
Because, indeed, what disconcerting creatures they were!
The Lodge's sorceresses, by chance, were very different from their Brigmore fellows: instead of inspiring fear, they preferred to arouse curiosity by using more fascinating than terrifying magic.
In Dunwall, they were also known for their taste for mystery, wearing it as ladies adorn themselves with jewels, and, proud, they colored their lips with red and secrets.
But then, if the witches of the Lodge wanted to be riddles, why could the guests so easily guess their identity at the Boyle's masked ball that night?
The irony had not escaped Corvo whose grin, concealed by his raven mask, became more pronounced as he passed near two women. They were surrounded by a few nobles, all hanging onto every word, unable to see the lips hidden by splendid masks: the first was the almost perfect representation of the head of a magpie, and the dark feathers with marine reflections imitated the delicate silk of the tailor. On the bust, to imitate the chest of the bird, lace was piled up and swelled, soft and rich at the same time, and a long stiff tail lay under the back of the guest, reminding the one of these thieving birds.
Her waist was surrounded by the arm of her neighbor, who was wearing a jacket with bronze puffy sleeves, speckled with white, matching the owl mask of terrifying realism. Feathers covered from her shoulders to her loins, the savagery of the animal mingling with the delicacy of the garment, echoing the perfect contrast of these witches.
Sheala de Tancarville and Philippa Eilhart, as rulers of the Lodge, attracted the young ladies who dreamed to play with spells, so they gathered around these two enchantresses, while the Royal Protector preferred to outdistance.
Corvo had never exchanged more than a few regards with Sheala, as she was so reserved, but Philippa had paid many visits to the Dunwall Tower, but neither Emily nor Corvo were fooled: this witch had a passion almost morbid for politics, and she did not seek the Empress' friendship; she was looking for a place near the throne.
This approach did not surprise anyone, just like the Empress' tolerance of the Lodge, as long as it did not commit any crime; the chapter of the occult was not a taboo subject under the reign of Emily Kaldwin.
It would have been to forget the fact that the Royal Protector himself had on his hand an esoteric tattoo—
Moreover, to prove her peaceful intentions, Philippa Eilhart carefully chose the name of her circle, insisting on the Lodge of sorceresses, and not witches.
Of course, it was not enough to calm the anger of the Overseers, and luckily the attitude of the Empress was not the only bulwark against the Abbey of the Everyman: there were also rumors that ensured that some of the magicians helped the poor for a crust of bread.
As he walked away, Corvo felt over his back the round, yellow eyes of the fake owl for a moment, feeling like a rat full of promise for the nocturnal animal.
Another event had cooled the ardor of the religious, much more important: the magicians of the Lodge were not simple country dweller who stained their fingers with grass and pieces of chalk, they did not use their voice for strange and harmless poems, their potions were not infusions within the reach of any apothecary— Their veins filtered a powerful magic, as had been proved during one evening, when Baron Goya had offended Philippa Eilhart.
Corvo had not attended the scene, but the testimonies were all the same: after an indiscreet question from the aristocrat, the magician's eyes had become enormous and gilded like two cold suns. Brown and gray feathers had begun to grow on her jaw, shoulders and arms, developing with a nervous rustle. The lips then had look slimmer, had advanced to form a beak, and the transformation had only been suspended when the man had asked for forgiveness, perhaps even mercy, with profound sincerity.
This story had reminded Corvo of the legends of women with a body of birds that haunted the seas, able to seduce sailors with their song and their brutal beauty.
Finally, perhaps the authors had simply met the ancestors of the magicians of the Lodge?
Before climbing one of the marble staircases that gave access to the first floor, the Protector crossed a guest with a bust covered with long peacock feathers, so beautiful and gleaming that the absence of jewels was a good choice. Under the mask with the little white gold beak, blond locks had escaped. Corvo thought for a few moments, before remembering the name: Margarita Laux-Antille. Discrete, uninterested in the political world, she had never been to the Dunwall Tower herself, and even tonight, the young woman seemed reluctantly present. Arms crossed, she turned her back to society, to the masses of anonymous costumes. Her silver heels raised her proudly in front of the pictures she was studying, or pretended to study, drawing nearer to the verdant and natural settings so she could forget the hangings of the salons, so heavy they hid the horizons.
Out of respect, Corvo did not seek to divert her from her contemplations and left, but he still perceived, several meters away, the scents of moist hyacinth, as if they haunted him.
His pace was measured, so much so that at the moment of reaching the landing of the floor, Corvo almost collided with a guest much smaller than him. Under the robin mask, a soft voice apologized, but the Protector insisted on the fact it was his fault. Coral silk enveloped the witch's throat, stretching over her cleavage in a prudish way, but this coyness was contradicted by the rich tailor that flattered the hourglass figure. The gray had never been so sensual as it was on this rounded chest, this small of the back— The silver beads scattered, attracting light on the winter fabric, making it warm.
It was Triss Merigold, the one haloed by these rumors of sympathy toward the poorer people.
Emily had already discussed Triss' case with her father, trying to guess if this help was well-intentioned, or if it was a strategy to better betray later. Previous years had taught them to be suspicious, even miserly in confidence. So, even if it was hard to believe that a face so jolly that Triss' could be that of a treacherous woman, Corvo was distant.
In fact, there was only one witch that Corvo did not have the courage to turn down: a woman who carried moonlight on her cheeks and, in her hair, fragrances of spring.
By her strength and her reserve, this woman inspired respect, and since she had helped the family, she inspired the guard confidence.
One day in the Month of Rain, the Empress had received an ivory pendant, a present from the town of Poolwick, who had seen her buildings rejuvenate with Empire-funded work, but the gift had poisoned the Empress' nights, plunging her into farandoles of nightmares, exhausting her, making her sick. Two weeks made Emily weak as a child, skinny as a skeleton, until the sorcerer went to the Dunwall Tower for a request. When she had begun to climb the steps of the hall, the evil magic had pierced her, and Emily's health became a priority. The witch then had studied the cursed jewel, probing it to discover its past, how it had gone from one porter to another, to finally unveil the story of the gift: the real pendant had been replaced by a fake one engraved by an old sailor, who was half crazy because of stories of witchcraft. The piece of ivory had been broken, and its spells had been swept away by others, healthier.
The lady of Vengerberg had not asked for anything in return, and Corvo and Emily had been surprised by this selfless gesture— but also touched.
As he passed the library, Corvo was seized by this memory, by the fragrance of blooming lilac and ripe gooseberries. He closed his eyes and, almost in spite of himself, he inhaled deeply these fragrances of cold sunny aurora.
Corvo knew that he would meet the sorceresses of the Lodge at Lady Boyle's, but to meet this one was a trial: for three successive nights, while he was unable to explain why, the raven woman had haunted his dreams. In the midnight shadows, the unknown body had become intimate and he had called her name so many times. Yennefer.
He had to make an effort to call her Lady Vengerberg, to forget the smell of her thick hair, to forget the groans in her tense throat—
In order to conceal his confusion, Corvo turned slowly, and held back a sneer: his raven mask was now facing a similar, finer, but equally elegant.
"Good evening, Lady Raven."
"Good evening, Lord Raven."
Among the jet-black feathers, purple irises shone brightly; amused with this pretended game of anonymity. Why break the rules of the masked ball when you had such a taste for riddles? Perhaps for the simple pleasure of being marginal. Rules are made to be broken.
The tailor of Yennefer had the color of welcoming nights, those filled with darkness that cradles tired bodies. The sleeves of the jacket were long, brushing the ground like tidy wings, leaving bare forearms. Under the white shirt, Corvo saw the complex black lace that took the shape of the body, as animated by the desire to marry her curves.
Even for tonight, even dressed, the witch had refused to display any touch of color.
Corvo had no will to leave.
As a Royal Protector who refused to dance, Corvo was only patrolling at the same rhythm of the hands of the clocks, languishing in the morning and his bed. Perhaps the hours would pass faster with this other bird?
Yennefer raised her thin hand, and brushed the fluffy texture of the twin face that remained static.
"This mask suits you better."
She was the only guest who kept her hair loose, with provocative loops of freedom. Corvo tried to ignore the torture that was burning in the hollow of his stomach. Cautious, he replied in a whisper:
"You're a lady who has a sense of style, so I trust your judgment— but my enemies don't have that quality, then I doubt they can appreciate this mask."
"That's a shame. Since I don't intend to become your enemy, I can't even do you that honor."
He heard her smile, remembered with ease the thin lips, almost sharp.
Apart from an old baron who was sleeping in a large armchair and two young men talking in an alcove, the library was empty.
"You're not accompanied by a sister? It seemed to me that crows were more sociable—"
"I see my associates twice a week, which is already too much. As long as I don't approach the plates of oysters during the evenings, they leave me in peace."
What's the link with oysters?
"You didn't let your nestling take flight, tonight?"
She knows that the Empress is never invited to Lady Boyle's annual party, does she want me to be the first to break the rules?
"She's a nocturnal bird, it's true, but she still doesn't support cages."
"Then you're no different: I watched you fly from one point to another since the beginning of the evening."
Sure of her, Yennefer wrapped her arm around Corvo's, and walked quietly to one of the big windows, used as doors that gave access to a little balcony.
The sounds of instruments coming out of the audiograph players were getting so distant, the masked faces were already forgotten, and when the window was closed, Dunwall was nothing but a backdrop. The balcony overlooked a few small roofs, insignificant because they were too low; the perch was hoisted only to offer a view of the distant sea.
The horizon was mauve, right above the black waves that were ready to swallow the sun stuck in this tired canvas.
Yennefer pulled out a case of cigarettes and offered one to his companion, who declined, refusing at the same time to remove his mask. He did not understand what this woman was looking for.
"Are you afraid someone will come to spy on us? You're right: the curious are attracted by what frightens them."
The witch suddenly turned and, after a quick movement of the wrist, Corvo heard a clicking from the door.
"There. We can discover our faces."
Her palms were under the edges of the mask and they made it slide. She gradually revealed a mouth covered with faded carmine, long dark eyelashes edging eyelids shadowed with eggplant shades: she had made up as if she knew she would remove her mask before the end of the ball.
Even under twilight, her skin persisted in being livid, seeming cold.
With a sigh, Corvo imitated her and removed his bird face, feeling his cheeks regain colors, the same as those when he still lived in Serkonos, hiding the gray complexion where Dunwall had left its mark.
"Are you sure you don't want to take one?" Proposed the magician again. "Tobacco is mixed with willow sapwood."
Corvo did not know how and why this ingredient was added to the composition, still he preferred to stick to a Cullero cigar.
Yennefer lifted the wooden lid: six white cigarettes lined up under a copper band, just in front of a lock of gray hair tied together with an emerald green ribbon. The fingers were nimble to slide one of the cigarettes, but in her gesture, the witch disturbed the wick that came off the holster.
Before a breeze carried off this relic, the Protector leaned forward quickly and grabbed it. Deceived by the color, Corvo expected the dry texture of an elderly person's hair, but they were as soft as a baby's. It was not an old gray; it was the gray coat of a little mouse.
Yennefer's eyes were wide, stunned, even when Corvo straightened up to give her the wick. A little grimace twisted her lips, then she loosened them with difficulty to articulate:
"It was useless. Nothing can go very far for the witches: there're so many spells to catch what's trying to escape—" She closed her fingers on the hair, and, the treasure safe in the palm of her palm, she added with a sign: "thank you, Corvo. It's something important."
"An amulet of protection?"
"Oh no: there's no magic here, this lock belongs to an ugly one."
Corvo was surprised by this answer, by this sudden melancholy look.
If he had not been there, the witch would have brought the wick to her lips, a ritual she often practiced, as evidenced by the traces of lipstick that stained the ribbon.
"In reality, it comes from a dear little swallow."
In the violent light of dusk, Corvo swore he could see a smile. He was trying to remember a swallow suit, but no one was wearing such a disguise. Now that he thought about it, none of the witches in the Lodge had hair of that hue.
The case back in her pocket, Yennefer tapped the end of the cigarette in the middle of her palm, and the tobacco began to ignite. Then, instead of extending her hand to Corvo and offering her magic to light up the cigar, she leaned forward and shared the tiny but fiery embers. The pungent odor of the cigar mingled with the more discreet smell of the cigarette. The Protector felt the perfume of the witch clinging to the woody vapor, as if lilac bushes had grown on the tallness of hundred-year-old trees, and under the rough bark, syrupy secrets were running, seeking a mouth to plunge the weight of the sap.
Corvo would not have said that the witch was beautiful, only one woman was and would remain beautiful in her heart, yet Yennefer had a certain charm, the same as the heavy storms of Karnaca, both hot and threatening , both soft and dark.
The sorceress suddenly moved the cigarette away, blew a cloud and her mouth remained open, like ready to confess a secret. Corvo was as attentive as if he was expecting the first thunderclap, but she just merely observed:
"It's a good thing you left your bone charms in the closet. You've picked them all over the place, did you not?"
"Yes, I did, during— some trips."
"They were created by clumsy hands, the magic is impure and it'll hurt you in the long run, some of the charms can make you blind, others can make your bones brittle— and it's not the worst you could have."
"And of course, you're the expert."
The handle of the window waved for a moment, then the visitor gave up, letting the two crows chat.
"And I guess you're not going to open a shop? I could be a customer—"
"I don't intend to open a shop, and don't go to see Keira, she's not as skilled as she pretends. But I could make some."
"Why? At what price?"
"Because I need your help."
"Is it about the witches of Brigmore?"
"No, it's about those of the Lodge."
The cigar had consumed itself for several minutes, and now, it eventually went out.
Yes, the witches of the Lodge were really disconcerting creatures: when the flower-covered witches sought favors from their respected Delilah, the feathers-covered one could have words, but for what? To replace Philippa Eilhart? Destroy the discreet Sheala of Tancarville?
"I saw you, Corvo, with your daughter. What you experienced in 1837 is not a secret; for many, you've defended the legitimate Empress, but for some, you've also protected your daughter."
"Does the Lodge plan to attack the Empress?"
"No, not at all. Philippa may try to slip under her sheets, if she can't sit near the throne, but besides it, the Empress is safe." Yennefer plunged her hand into her pocket, and the tips of her fingers caressed the ebony case. "I need you to help me protect an other empress. To protect my daughter."
"Witches can 't have— Excuse me, it was inappropriate—"
Yennefer accepted the apology, including the Protector's surprise.
The handle was shaken again, so the witch raised her chin to one of the roofs of the Boyle's house.
"Can you climb up there?"
"I can teleport myself."
"Same power, different origins." Yennefer observed as she stepped into a golden circle she had just made appear. The balcony was no longer a sufficient summit for the two black birds who found themselves, without the slightest rustle of wings, on a slope of tiles. The stone still held the heat of the day, and Yennefer folded her legs elegantly, sitting near Corvo who was not making so much.
Witnessed by the sky and silent passing birds, Yennefer told the story of the girl who had appeared in her life, the Empress who had left her crown in another world, who had been swept away by her own powers as a drowning person in the embraces of the ocean.
"So Ciri is your adopted daughter."
"I know that Philippa covets her. I told her that Ciri had gone to another world, but this old owl is starting to have doubts—"
Elbows against his knees, Corvo remained silent. He did not know that such maternal love pulsed in this dark silhouette, and yet he could easily imagine this arm, like a wing, resting on shoulders swept by gray hair.
Yennefer was not a talkative woman; a few words expressed her affection for this little swallow, but they were sufficient as they were powerful. With the same brevity, Corvo confessed that he understood, speaking of his own strength that Emily gave him.
As the horizon darkened and the arms of the night enveloped them, encouraging the secrets to be whispered, both parents remembered their love for their respective daughters.
"We'll help you." Finally promised the Protector. "Once Emily and I have met Ciri, we'll think about a solution."
Yennefer thanked him again: influenced by the signs, the witch did not believe in coincidences, and the Protector's quickness to stoop to seize this strand of hair was auspicious.
This man had been betrayed many times, and the bitter taste of disappointment could have filled his mouth, making him drunk with anger, but Corvo had remained faithful to his principles, to his family. His black hair had ceased to hide his face, and his eyes, though dark, bore a reassuring warmth.
Yennefer continued to detail his profile when she asked:
"Have you had strange dreams lately, Lord Protector?"
The burst that shook the huge body was unequivocal, and Yennefer even let out a laugh:
"Excuse me, I think it's my fault: witches' dreams tend to be contagious— Well, I'll only feel bad if they were unpleasant."
Witches were disconcerting creatures.
Draped with secrets, they did not know the meaning of the word 'prudishness': Corvo did not know if it was the words of the woman or the magician who came to plant under his ribs.
The emptiness that Jessamine had left was even greater than an ocean, and Corvo loved his empress so much that he was afraid of hurting her even in death. He knew, however, that the ghost did not want a mourning, which had lasted for a decade already, should not be a heavy ball dragged to the grave.
He could live, he could love with a different way, he could remain faithful to memories, while welcoming new ones.
"Have you really bewitched me?"
"No, I haven't. I implied that I had dreamed 'too loud', which is different."
Corvo did not know what he was exposing himself to: more secrets, more revelations?
"Have you ever had sex on a stuffed ox, Protector?"
"I— must admit I haven't."
"And the idea does not seem to seduce you more than that," remarked Yennefer, almost disappointed, "what about on a roof?"
This new proposition was no less strange, but the roofs of Dunwall had become, in recent years, a familiar environment.
"You're really strange, Yennefer; the dreams I had were happening in a bed."
"Really? So they were only from you."
The absence of magic could have been reassuring, but Yennefer did not believe in coincidences, so she lay on the tiles with a triumphant air, gripping the Protector's sleeve, determined to test his imagination.