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Blood & Bourbon

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Caroline VI, Chapter VI

Yule Gifts

“How might we assist one who has brought us such yuletide joy?”
Abélia Devillers

Thursday evening, 24 December 2015

GM: The Walter Grinnan Robinson House is one of the most beautiful homes in New Orleans. Located at 1415 Third Street in the exclusive Garden District, the palatial Antebellum mansion incorporates a sophisticated blend of Greek Revival and Italianate styles with a Neoclassical cast iron fence adorned in delicate shell motifs. It feels like a throwback to an earlier age of opulence. It’s far from the only multimillion house in the historic neighborhood to feel that way.

Viewed from the street, the house presents an impressive sight. It’s far back on the lot, sideways to the street, with a Palladian carriage house and iron gates. The impressive scale of the house results from its two nearly 16-foot stories of equal height. Double galleries with curved ends, an essential feature of Garden District homes, adorn the façade. These feature Doric columns on the first floor and Corinthian on the second. Cast iron panels in a somewhat heavier than normal pattern link the columns and blend well with the feeling of solidity which the building gives. The southern exposure has double galleries framed in ironwork of a lacy design, which effectively lightens and gives delicacy to the whole of the building.

The snow-white mansion is also one of the largest properties in the city, covering close to 14,000 square feet if one also includes the 1,500 square foot carriage house that likely served as servant quarters when the house was first built.

The spectacular grounds have a beautiful pool. Outdoor features include multiple balconies/porches, a Neoclassical fountain, and formal gardens with weeping willows, palm trees, and vibrant flowerbeds of roses, violets, magnolias, and other sweet-smelling blossoms. Neatly-trimmed green hedges and a wrought-iron fence make the home’s privacy tastefully but abundantly clear. Access in is controlled through an intercom by the gate.

Abélia has even decorated the place up for Christmas. Wreaths hang by the windows and garlands from the balconies.

Caroline also recognizes Jeremy May and Daniel Hayes among the guards stationed outside. They wave the Ventrue and her date on through.

“Oh, geez, this place is beautiful!” Jocelyn gushes as they make their way up the house’s front steps. Caroline can already see the rapture threatening to overtake her Toreador lover’s eyes. “They’ll just have to let me take pictures.”

Caroline knocks on the door. It swings open barely a second later. Yvette, Yvonne, and Simmone all exclaim “Merry Christmas!” and “Joyeux Noël!” and seemingly all want to hug Caroline at once. Simmone asks if Caroline will carry her. They’re almost as thrilled to meet Jocelyn, who seems a little taken aback by the enthusiasm but responds in kind.

“And you are the Jocelyn we’ve heard so much about,” Abélia declares with a wide smile. Caroline could have sworn she wasn’t there a moment ago. Her arms spread wide to embrace the Toreador.

“Uh, yeah, the one and only, Mrs. Devillers,” Jocelyn answers as she returns the hug. “Good things, I hope.”

Abélia smile’s only widens, as if Jocelyn just said something terribly witty.

“Oh, yes. The two of you have sacrificed so much to be together.”

“Yes, with ’er family-” adds Yvette.

“-saying you shouldn’t get to love ’oo you want!” Yvonne.

“Well, more her than me, honestly,” Jocelyn demurs. “She’s the one who’s had to deal with her family disowning her.”

“I’m certain your spirit is no less generous, my dear. You would sacrifice for her, wouldn’t you—give of your own blood and self so that she might prosper?” Abélia asks, her dark eyes resting upon the Toreador.

“Yeah, I… suppose I would,” Jocelyn answers, seemingly a little discomfited, but still seriously.

“Say, Caroline said you’re all from France? I thought kisses on the cheek were how you said hi, instead of hugs?” she asks, changing the topic.

“Oui, that’s normal there-” says Yvonne.

“-but people ’ere would get weirded out by it. Americans are so uptight,” Yvette declares, rolling her eyes.

“So we save fair la bise for each other.” Yvonne.

“When in Rome, one does as the Romans do,” smiles Abélia.

Caroline and Jocelyn take off their coats (the twins want to help them) before setting off into the house with their hostess. Jocelyn hangs by the back, then whispers to Caroline,

“Why’d I call her Mrs.? I thought you said she wasn’t married.”

The house’s interior is no less sumptuous than its exterior. The historic property is large enough to house all seven Devillers in comfort and privacy with seven bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a lavish ballroom, elevator, and foyer with an elaborate winding grand center staircase once featured in the Library of Congress. There are also adjacent servant quarters and a stable for houses separate from the 1,500-square-foot, two bedroom, two bathroom carriage house. The home’s elaborate features include moldings with 22 carat gold leaf, 37 window trim, fine plaster cornices and ceiling centerpieces, marble mantels, custom designed rugs, and 16 ft ceilings both upstairs and downstairs. All the palatial rooms are furnished with choice antiques, many the work of long-dead artisans who were America’s foremost cabinet makers in the 19th century.

The chimney piece of the living room is designed to contain a wooden eagle found at the mouth of the Mississippi after a hurricane. Carved from cypress, it is believed to be the sternboard of a pilot boat built in Charleston at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Murals are painted on the ceilings of the living room, double parlor, and dining room, all painted in 1866 and executed with great delicacy after the manner of Robert Adam. The wallpaper in the dining room is the famous Züber 1834 “Scenic America."

Caroline: Caroline is shocked by the wealth on display. The Malveaux family is wealthy by any objective or subjective measure. Unimaginably wealthy by the standards of most people. But there’s something so impossibly elegant about the Devillers’ house. Something that almost laughs at other attempts to match it.

GM: Jocelyn seems even more smitten. The Rose Clan’s curse seems to overtake her lover entirely as she gushes nonstop about the house’s beauty and snaps pictures without even asking if that’s all right to do. Caroline catches Yvette rolling her eyes, but Abélia only laughs that she “knows well an artist’s passion” and grants her implicit permission without calling attention to it by telling the enraptured (and barely listening) Toreador that her family would love to see all those pictures once she’s done.

“This is a house of plenty, my dears—especially during the Yuletide season,” she smiles contently.

“We’re used to this,” Yvonne whispers if Caroline looks at all displeased by her ‘girlfriend.’ “Maman said you never lived in the Garden District, but everyone ’ere gets tons of tourists all stopping to snap pictures.”

She supposes that explains the hedges around Orson’s house. And they still take pictures of it.

“Dumb tourists,” Yvette sniffs disdainfully.

“Foreigners are this city’s lifeblood, my dears,” Abélia declares. “Many are the fortunes that would evaporate into smoke without their patronage. You may condescend them, but never misvalue them.”

“Ah won’t, Maman,” Yvette agrees quickly.

“Ah don’t like them,” Simmone declares glumly. “Can’t they just leave us alone.”

“You used to love talking to tourists,” Yvette remarks with a faint frown.

“Especially the ones form really far away,” says Yvonne, mirroring her sister’s look.

Abélia only hugs her youngest daughter to her breast and murmurs into her ear,

“Ne vous inquiétez pas, ma douce. Ils ne vous dérangeront jamais. Vous ne les regarderez jamais. Ta maman te protégera toujours.”

(“Worry not, my sweet. They shall never trouble you. You shall never lay eyes upon them. Your Maman shall protect you always.”)

Simmone wordlessly clings to her mother for several moments. Jocelyn, still snapping pictures, doesn’t seem to notice.

“Enough of such glum thoughts! Now is an evening for good cheer,” Abélia smiles. The family patiently wait for Jocelyn to finish snapping pictures before showing her fully into the living room, where there’s an enormous tree heaped high with presents of every shape and size. Shoes rest by the fireplace instead of stockings. The rest of the sisters are there, along with Luke. He smiles when he kisses Jocelyn’s hand, though Caroline notices it’s a little slower and doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

“You must be Jocelyn. It’s nice to meet you,” he says.

Jocelyn gives a little giggle at his old-fashioned manners. “Caroline’s brother, right? Yeah, she’s… I admit I was a little nervous.”

Luke doesn’t touch on why.

Caroline: Caroline does her best to also make Jocelyn comfortable. She does indeed note without surprise that they know of her artistic inclination. She’s also inclined to attend Vidal’s mass, as it’s one of the few occasions she has to see her sire. She asks Abélia when everyone is likely to go to bed.

GM: The younger girls go to bed at about 9 PM, the adults an hourish or two later. They’re staying overnight so they can have breakfast and unwrap presents together come the morning, so no one’s in any real hurry.

Caroline: Convenient. Caroline finds a moment to take her brother aside. She conversationally asks about his plans for Christmas.

GM: Luke says he’s spending Christmas Eve with Cécilia’s family and Christmas Day with his. Otherwise, he says there’s not a lot to talk about. He wanted to keep Caroline in the closet. Keep it a secret only the family would know.

The Devillers aren’t having any of that. Cécilia says they’re going to fight for her to have a place of honor at the wedding.

Caroline: “I know how fiercely Cécilia is also fighting for the wedding,” Caroline admits. She confides to Luke that while she’s deeply touched, she doesn’t want to be the cause of an implosion with either of them, or between him, them, and the family. “If it’s peace with me in the cold, or war, I’d prefer that peace.”

GM: “Peace is better than war,” Luke agrees mildly.

He’s pleasant enough towards Jocelyn over the course of the evening, but also nowhere nearly as warm as the Devillers, who actively seem as if they want to bring her into their lives. Caroline’s brother feels like he’s in an uncomfortable place between disapproving of her romantic choices and remembering all she’s done for his fiancée’s family.

Caroline: Caroline skirts the issue with Luke. She’s grateful that her brother doesn’t make an issue of it. She’s generally apologetic towards him for the headache created by her ‘outing’, though more for the headache caused than her actions themselves. It’s clear that she enjoys Jocelyn’s company throughout the night and is grateful for the way the Devillers have invited her in and been so warm.

GM: Luke skirts the topic of Jocelyn (or rather, seems to preempt talking with Jocelyn) to share how he and Cécilia have an engagement party date and venue decided. In more mixed news, Caroline is invited.

Adeline and Nolan are doing well. She hopes that the French Quarter Response Force will help spur police reform in the wake of the tragedy with her sisters.

Caroline knows all about the twins’ lives. There’s not much to talk about there. It’s their senior year of high school, so they’re essentially just waiting around until college starts. They’re going to Wellesley.

Noëlle’s doings aren’t really of much interest to Caroline since she’s in middle school, but she seems happier around just (mostly) her family than a dinner party with a bunch of adults.

Simmone seems to be doing better too after her outing with Caroline. She’s been able to manage several more in Cécilia’s company, all without Maman. The family is very grateful.

Caroline: Caroline tries to remember to engage with Noëlle specifically, given how left out she was last time. There are so many Devilers girls, though, and they all seem to want her attention as the ‘newer addition’ to the night’s obviously often practiced festivities. She expresses to Cécilia how very happy she is that Simmone is doing better.

GM: Noëlle seems glad for the change of pace to be so engaged. She plays the clarinet. Cécilia is very happy too that her youngest sister is starting to feel safe around her again, and grateful to Caroline for her role in that. She remarks, only half-jokingly, that it was the best pre-Christmas gift she could have asked for.

Caroline: Caroline invites that perhaps Noëlle could play something tonight. Perhaps a piece of Christmas music.

GM: Noëlle gives a lovely rendition of the same Bleak Midwinter that Caroline heard in the car during her ride with Abélia.

Caroline: The girl’s choice of song is enough to bring goosebumps to even the dead.

“I should bring over my violin to the next-together,” Caroline remarks. “We could put on a show,” she smiles at Noëlle. “I’ll have to brush off a great deal of dust though if I’m not just going to be embarrassed by you.”

GM: “Oh, well, Ah can sing too. Ah wouldn’t want to embarrass you,” Noëlle says.

“Good music embarrasses none and betters all, my dear,” Abélia proclaims. “I can attest, as well, that Caroline sings sublimely.

The other girls nod and give compliments as to the same effect. The story has clearly been passed on there.

Abélia smiles only that she “can’t wait” for the caroling they’ll all do together once dinner is finished. Everyone in their family sings or plays some kind of instrument.

She also remarks how pleased she is Caroline and Jocelyn could make it and join them for such happy holiday traditions as caroling, reading Christmas books, watching Miracle on 34th Street, and leaving cookies for Santa—Père Noël in the Devillers household.

“You’ve been very good this year, my dears,” Abélia purrs. “You both have some presents under the tree this year.” It’s hard not to feel the slightest bit like a child under her knowing smile and patient gaze.

Jocelyn doesn’t seem sure of how to respond except with an, “Oh, that’s so nice of you, Mrs. Devillers. I wasn’t expecting any presents.” She then adds, “I mean, on account of how last minute me coming over was.”

Laughter dances in Abélia’s eyes before she responds, “Please, my dear girl. Call me Abélia. Formality has its place, but that place is not among friends and family. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, Mrs-Abélia, I would. I mean, I do agree,” Jocelyn nods.

The raven-haired woman’s smile is radiant as she lays her hand on the Toreador’s. “I’m so glad you could be here with us tonight, Jocelyn. It means the world for my family to see Caroline loved and happy.”

Affirmatory exclamations to the same effect go up from her six daughters. Luke doesn’t look as if he’s entirely on board with ‘loved’, but does at least want to see his sister happy.

Jocelyn seems a bit flummoxed for words. Caroline wonders if her paramour would blush, if her heart still beat. “Well, uh, thanks. We’re… we’re, ah, we’re good together.”

Abélia’s eyes shine as if Jocelyn just said something moving and profound. “Of course you are. Anyone can see that.”

Her gaze expands to take in Caroline.

“Père Noël and I certainly made note of your places on his ‘nice’ list. Good girls like yourselves only deserve presents.”

Caroline: Caroline remarks that despite what has been a rough year for most of the people in the room, it’s had its high notes as well—namely (for her at least) the people in this room, and the many good things they’ve all brought into her life.

“I suspect Père Noël will have a tough time matching your family especially,” she laughs, “but I’ll be happy to see him try.”

The Ventrue quietly indicates to Abélia that she’d like to speak in private at some point during the night.

GM: Abélia is willing to after her girls have gone to bed. The rest of their schedule for the evening will involve dinner (which she promises shall be “sumptuous”), caroling, reading stories, and midnight mass at St. Louis Cathedral.

Caroline: Caroline says she’ll have to leave for another event in a few hours, and will regrettably be unable to join the family for mass, but would be happy to swing back past the Devillers house.

GM: “Splendid, my dear. You can help Père Noël and I distribute the presents,” Abélia declares delightedly, pressing her palms together. “It’s a long task each year, with so many children who are always so good.”

The dark-eyed matriarch’s smile widens.

“You are old enough that I think he’ll let you see him—so long as you still believe. You do believe, don’t you, Caroline?”

Caroline: “It’s been rather a long time since I had much reason to believe in any father,” Caroline replies, “but I still have a hope to.”

Friday night, 25 December 2015, AM

GM: It’s well past midnight by the time Caroline returns to the Devillers family home. Cécilia told her to simply let herself in. The wrought-iron gate silently swings open to admit her. The front door is unlocked. The house itself is silent and still.

No lights are on. The living room is shrouded in darkness—save for the soft white and yellow of the Christmas tree. It was clearly a labor of love for Abélia’s family. Candy canes, strings of lights, miniature gingerbread houses, colored beads, silver tinsel, snowflakes, pine cones, glass orbs, felt hearts, prancing reindeer, and more ornaments run about the tree, along with gold stars set with the Devillers’ girls smiling portraits at various ages. French nutcrackers with wide, oddly flat jaws stare down at Caroline with coal-black eyes that seem to hungrily follow her every movement.

“’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”

Caroline could have sworn the living room was empty. But Abélia Devillers sits—behind her—upon a rocking chair with her hands demurely folded across her lap. She wears a wide-hemmed dress whose midnight-black folds match her raven hair.

She is everywhere.

She is in the family pictures and portraits of her six smiling girls. Her reflection stares back from the windows. From the softly ticking grandfather clock’s glass face. From the ornaments. From the coal-black eyes of the hungrily watching nutcrackers. She even seems to smile down from the so-slightly off-kilter glowing Star of Bethlehem. Even from the creche’s ceramic baby Jesus, she is there, reflected in each of the young Nazarene’s too-intent glass eyes. The family matriarch’s presence seems to fill the house like some monstrously gigantic octopus, whose full bulk is only half-visible in the gloom, whose every shadow might conceal a grasping tentacle. The ‘woman’ seated in the rocking chair seems little more than an avatar, a projection—the merest tendril of something vaster and darker.

Her smile spreads as her gaze slowly settles upon Caroline.

“Not a creature was stirring…”

Mirth dances in those dark eyes.

“…not even a mouse."

Caroline: The Ventrue has seen Cainite elders clash like the demons they are in hateful, furious whirlwinds that reaped lives by the dozen. She’s literally laid her head upon a headsman’s block and faced down her death more times than she cares to remember. She’s sat across from the slipperiest snake in the city and traded sweet little lies.

None of that unnerved her as much as the Devillers matriarch does. This great and terrible darkness and enigma that she’s let poison her soul. Soil her very mind. Whose gravity she cannot seem to escape, or even resist, and whom she’s not even sure she wants to. Whose daughters she might even truly care for in her dead black heart, whatever their monstrous flaws (who is she to judge another monster).

“What mouse might dare in this home?” Caroline ventures. She tries to focus on the mirth and not the sheer dark weight of the ’woman’s presence. It’s like unto only one other she has ever felt. Another so seductive…

“I shudder to think of the price it might pay for the sound of its scurrying feet in these hallowed halls. I should think it would only be caught dead at this hour.”

GM: Gay and fluttering laughter fills the still air.

From everywhere.

From the ‘woman’ seated before Caroline. From behind her. From above her. From even beneath her feet. Abélia laughs, and every reflection, every shadow concealing some further tentacle, seems to laugh with her. The whole house seems to share in its mistress’ yuletide merriment.

“How very flattering of you to say, my dear—even if one such as myself could only but hope to discomfit a mouse," the raven-haired matriarch smiles.

Caroline: Caroline hasn’t been afraid of the dark since her Embrace. Not really. It holds no secrets to her piercing gaze. She doesn’t fear muggers, or rapists, or even killers. Mortal threats to a mortal woman so trivial now. She prefers the dark. She wraps herself in it each night as she flees the dawn each morning. She’s a creature of the night.

But she finds herself dearly wanting to turn on a light. She could tell herself it’s to chase away the black mood the mass left her in—her sire was still absent—but it would be a lie.

GM: “The children are nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums dance in their heads,” Abélia continues benignly.

“And you sans your kerchief, and I sans my cap, may settle our brains for a long winter’s nap.” Further mirth dances in the ‘woman’s’ eyes. All of her eyes.

“What shall we speak of, Caroline?”

Caroline: “Many things, so long as not up from the lawn arises such a clatter, that your children spring from their beds to see what’s the matter,” Caroline replies in turn, finding a seat opposite the French matron.

“You’re the only one, I think, who’s given me any truths. About anything. All these spiders out there spinning webs so deep in so many layers I can’t see my hand in front of my face—or even get it there without getting caught in three of them.”

“For now though, we can begin with the immediate. Your daughters are incredible. Kind, loving, fiercely devoted. But they’re taking me places I can’t go. The Whitney family, back to my own. I appreciate what the twins, and Cécilia, are trying to do, but it’s going to get me… well. Let’s say it’s putting me at odds with Kindred I can’t cross.”

GM: “My girls have been talking about you, Caroline,” Abélia smiles tranquilly. “They adore you, with the whole of their hearts. You’ve become such a role model to Yvonne and Yvette. Especially Yvette.”

“You’ve won them over quite handily. They should only wish to bring you further into their lives… to say nothing of the life of another, dear friend of theirs who also quite literally owes you her life. Sarah must be so hurt and confused to see you pulling away, musn’t she? So are the twins. They’ve speculated around the dinner table, more than once, why you wish to avoid her. And Cécilia, of course, should only wish to involve the woman who is to be her sister-in-law to the wedding. Especially after her family disowned her.”

Abélia gives an almost wistful little sigh. The tree’s branches seem to sag with her. The nutcrackers’ coal-black eyes stare ahead.

“It is, as you insinuate, a most unhappy state of affairs. What would you ask of me, my dear?”

Caroline: “You have a gift for seeing into your daughters’ hearts,” Caroline replies. “And swaying them.”

She folds her hands in her lap. “I don’t want this to be any more painful for Sarah, or for Luke, than it has to be. I certainly don’t wish it to spill out and damage my relationship with any of your daughters.”

“Might you exercise some of that sway to help me nudge them towards less confrontational paths for me with… well… my elders?”

GM: Caroline hears something from the ceiling. Something… rough. Scratching.

Abélia holds a hand to her ear. A slow smile spreads across her face.

“Ah, Caroline, you do hear.”

Caroline: “If I didn’t know better, I’d say something was stirring,” Caroline agrees. “Maybe even a mouse.”

GM: There’s a soft whoosh, then a heavy thump. A vast and bulging sack sits in the fireplace.

Caroline: The Ventrue’s head snaps around at the sound. It’s only by very intentional effort—to control the unease the entire room is causing—that she doesn’t bolt out of the chair. Still, it takes a moment for her to process the sack.

“That’s…” She looks back towards Abélia.

GM: “You half-believed,” she smiles, her dark eyes glinting. “So he is half here.”

Abélia rises from her seat. The rocking chair remains still as her weight leaves it.

“Will you help me distribute the presents, Caroline? I have so many children, and they are always so good… not to mention we have guests this year. Yourself among them. I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish in time on my own."

Caroline: The once-heiress rises with the French matron. “Of course,” she replies in a voice that is just the slightest bit unsteady as she continues to take in the sack. Abélia’s seeming weightlessness is perhaps the least disturbing or unbelievable thing since she’s arrived.

“You’ve done so much for me, how could I not?”

GM: There’s another light and fluttering laugh. Caroline almost expects it to sound from a thousand more places at once, but it does not. Abélia’s dark eyes are smiling.

“Nonsense, my dear. We have but settled accounts… though gratitude, at least, remains. It is the heart’s memory, is it not?”

Caroline: The blonde smiles. “Only the vulgar and ill-bred lack gratitude,” she agrees.

GM: “Is this your first time setting out childrens’ presents, my dear? Please, do go ahead,” Abélia offers, seeming to indicate the bulging sack.

Caroline: “I did it with my parents for a couple years, when my youngest brothers still believed,” she says as she approaches and opens the sack. “They came out of the attic though, rather than down the chimney.”

GM: The sack is packed to bursting with elaborately wrapped presents in every conceivable size and shape. The one Caroline takes out is rectangular-shaped, about the length of a breakfast tray, and wrapped in silver paper with a white bow and snowflake patterns. An attached card reads, Chère Yvette.

“Ah, my Yvette,” Abélia smiles. “Of all my girls, I believe she looks up to you the most, Caroline. There is little she would not do for you.”

She reaches into the sack and produces an identically sized and wrapped present whose tag instead reads, Chère Yvonne.

Caroline hears it this time. The noise coming from within the present.

A light, almost insectile skittering.

Caroline: “We have a great deal in common,” Caroline admits, before turning her attention back to the wrapped package. “There’s something moving, alive, in this.”

GM: “Is there? I wonder what Père Noël has decided to bring her this year,” the raven-haired ‘woman’ remarks contently. Her footsteps are hardly audible over the Persian rug’s deep weave. The hem of her long dress wisps faintly as she strides away from the fireplace’s stone flooring towards the tree.

“So you would have me steer my girls away from sharing Sarah in the joy of your friendship, and away from a place of honor in my eldest’s wedding. Certainly, Caroline, your intentions are…" she smiles, “understandable. But what could one such as myself do? I can love my girls, cherish them, nurture them—but I can hardly steer the course of their hearts.”

Caroline: “Steer is much too strong a word,” Caroline replies affably. “I know given your inclination—nay, propensity, to cave to your heart with them that you’d never take so strong a hand as to steer them. Your touch is always more gentle. But perhaps you might point to, or even accentuate, possible merits such a course.”

“Something subtle. I confess, I’ve never been particularly good at the subtle. Your daughters’ hearts are in the right place. It speaks well of their mother that they are so eager to open them to others, but I’m certain they would be far more bereaved should their well-intentioned efforts lead to a more permanent loss.”

“Just under the tree?” she asks, still holding Yvette’s present.

GM: Caroline looks towards Abélia. The ‘woman’ is gone. There is only darkness. Darkness, she now realizes, whose inky depths even her predator’s sight does not pierce.

Fluttering laughter fills the air.

“I am afraid you overestimate my powers of persuasion, my dear girl,” drifts Abélia’s voice.

“From my daughters’ points of view, there are few merits to such a course of action. And they are not so wrong, are they?” The voice is close, from just by Caroline’s left ear. “Why, if Sarah were not claimed and jealously guarded by another, there is little reason you should not wish to associate with a bright and well-bred young girl who thinks the world of you.”

The voice echoes from the Ventrue’s right ear. Close enough to feel someone’s breath. To hear their footsteps. To feel the simple presence of another human being so close by. Caroline does not.

“I must confess I’m not certain how to help you here, Caroline, much as I would like to. Perhaps we might bring in a third opinion—someone with some fresh ideas?”

Hundreds of reflections of the raven-haired woman smile from the tree’s glittering ornaments.

“Just under the tree is perfect.”

Yvonne’s twin present already rests beneath it.

Caroline: Despite her existence as one of the living dead, despite the supernaturally unknowable she’s seen, despite her past experiences with Abélia, the French matriarch’s discorporation and drifting voice still makes Caroline stand up straighter, makes her shiver, as though someone is walking over her grave. She’s faced down millenia-old elders and literal death, and neither terrify her like Abélia’s casual and welcoming darkness. Every fiber of her being, of what remains of her soul, scream to flee in terror. But in every moment of her Requiem only Abélia has been at all honest with her. She doesn’t doubt that the Devillers ‘mother’ has her own plans for Caroline, that she’s being manipulated. But it makes her no different than any other Kindred in this existence. None of them, not her ‘sire’, not Maldonato, not Savoy, not her elders in clan or covenant, have ever consigned to do more than lie or mistreat her. And with the ‘loss’ of her family, Abélia’s is all she has left.

It doesn’t help that she’s right. Caroline doesn’t want to give up her relationship with Sarah any more than she wanted to do so with her family. It’s just another cost, a cost associated with a goal she doesn’t even recognize anymore. Continued existence, perhaps? Acknowledgement by her ‘sire’? It seems like things get worse every night, like that goal moves further and further away. Presuming it were ever possible at all: she now knows full well that Vidal neither ever wanted her, nor even knows she exists. Those few moments she once thought might hold meaning: his decision to personally induct her into the Sanctified, his questioning before her release, are instead only cynical reminders of her naivety.

Moments she was so proud of that now make her feel as foolish as a child discovering it is her parents putting the gifts under the tree. His absence tonight was just another blow, another crushing reminder that she has no relationship with him, and that even if she succeeds, she doubts she ever will with his pending descent. Those bitter thoughts fight away the existential dread the darkness that is Abélia brings on: a cruel mercy perhaps, but a practical one. The blend of anger, hurt, and the associated self-loathing does an excellent job focusing her, bringing her clarity.

She forces herself to keep moving, to keep her smile on. To fight her atavistic call to terror so at odds with her new existence. She too is a thing that goes bump in the night. Caroline deftly bends to place the gift under the tree and returns her attention to the remaining ones.

“Surely you undersell yourself, as always, Abélia,” she replies, rising to return to the gifts that still await. “But did you have someone particular in mind?”

GM: The darkness smiles.

“Always, my dear. I shall pray your patience for but a moment.”

Caroline finds the sack full of further presents of every shape and size. Tags are written to each of the Devillers children, as well as Luke, herself, and Jocelyn.

Time passes. Abélia neither speaks nor makes her presence felt. Her reflection is gone from the lights and ornaments: the coal-eyed nutcrackers stare silently and jealously ahead.

Caroline: Caroline passes the time looking over the other gifts under the tree, their sizes, shapes, looks. She browses family photos on the walls. Anything but simply waiting alone in the darkness.

GM: Then, in Caroline’s peripheral hearing. Footsteps.

Darkness melts away, revealing Abélia’s pale features. But something is off. There’s fewer lines and less definition to her face. Her hair is blonde. Her dark eyes are not dark at all, but a pale blue. She’s dressed in a white nightgown under a light blue sleeping robe.

“Cécilia, my dear,” drifts a voice from behind Caroline. “Thank you for rousing yourself. I know you and Luke had also settled yourselves in for a long winter’s nap.”

Caroline: Caroline turns to face ‘Abélia’s’ return, but stops in mid-stride. She quickly puts on a mask to hide her surprise—and hide the shiver when she hears Abélia’s voice from behind her again.

GM: “It’s no trouble, Maman. Especially not for Caroline.” The Ventrue’s soon-to-be sister-in-law looks towards her. “I’m so thankful we can now be open with one another. I can only imagine how lonely you’ve felt… how isolated, since your Embrace. I’m so sorry what had to happen with your family.”

Caroline: Caroline’s fear melts away like a snowball in hell when Cécilia uses the word ‘Embrace.’ Shock could not be written any more clearly across her face as the words hit her. It lingers there for several seconds before she finally covers it up, and the awkward silence too.

“I…” she begins, stopping for a moment before she picks up again. “Forgive me, Cécilia.”

She looks upon her soon-to-be sister-in-law in a new light. “It’s been a challenge,” she admits at last, before smiling. “How long have you known?”

GM: “There’s nothing to forgive,” Cécilia smiles back.

“Do you mean how long I’ve known about you? Or… well, everything behind the Veil?”

Caroline: “Both, now that you mention it.”

GM: “Maman told me about your Embrace in September,” Cécilia answers. “I’d wanted to reach out to you, given how you’d only saved my sisters’ lives before you fell off the map. But Maman believed you needed… time. Time to deal with things in your own way. Time to learn how the Camarilla’s Masquerade worked, before you saw the… exceptions.”

She retrieves a shoebox-sized present from the sack with ‘Simmone’ marked on the label.

“I’m not one of you, if you’re wondering, or a ghoul. But I’ve known the truth about the world for some years now.”

Caroline: Caroline offers a wry smile. “So that night, at the theater? And of course, you know that Jocelyn is Kindred too.”

GM: “I did then and do now,” Cécilia nods.

Caroline: She nods back. “Exceptions, you said. Those would be news to me. I presume you mean yourself? A mortal who’s seen behind the Masquerade.”

There’s a sting, even here. That could have been Caroline and her mother. Claire knew about the world’s dangers as well as any kine could, but kept them hidden from her. That pain though is as minor as a bee sting compared to the gaping wound their relationship is tonight. It’s hardly noticeable.

She looks down for a moment, then back at Cécilia.

“I’m glad,” she finally says. And it’s the truth.

GM: “I am, too," Cécilia smiles as she approaches the tree. "If you ever want to talk about anything… well, I imagine it must get lonely, keeping so much to yourself.”

Caroline: The Ventrue looks wryly back towards where Cécilia’s mother’s voice issued from. “Well, now that you mention it, there is a topic we were just discussing that you might weigh in on. I’ve been…”

She pauses while she looks for a word she likes. ‘Ordered.’ ‘Told.’ Both make her feel like a child, or a slave. ‘Asked’ is too mild.

“Instructed,” she finally settles upon. “Instructed to break off all my ties to Sarah, immediately. She’s someone else’s property, as it were. Your sisters seem quite eager to make that process as difficult as possible.”

GM: “Yes…" Cécilia agrees with a frown, setting down the present underneath one of the tree’s lower-hanging glass icicles.

“Maman told me about that. Yvette and Yvonne were friends with Sarah, even before the shooting, but it’s probably no surprise they’ve gotten even closer since then. They’ve brought it up with me, too, how you seem to keep pushing her away. I didn’t really have a good answer for them.”

Cécilia’s form recedes into the gloom. Caroline hears a faint rustling sound from the sack. Abélia’s oldest daughter re-emerges after a moment with another present in hand.

“As I see it, there’s two options… change Becky Lynne’s mind, or tell Yvette or Yvonne the truth.”

Caroline: The Ventrue arches an eyebrow. “I’m sorry, Yvette, I can’t be friends with your friend because a centuries-old monster that has holds over me wishes it not so? I presumed if you wished her inculcated into this world you and your mother would see it done under more auspicious circumstances. And telling one is the same as telling both—I need not tell you that.” She immediately hates that idea.

GM: “I think it may be more Becky Lynne than her sire, actually,” Cécilia holds. “Obviously the Whitneys are his domain, but from what Maman tells me, he mostly listens to her where they’re concerned.”

Cécilia gives a faint smile as she sets down the latest present. “And you’re right, we know they tell each other everything. But this could be an exception, if one of them believed it could protect the other… or it just wasn’t yet time. Maman hasn’t told me all that she has lightly. It’s easy, for people who know what’s behind the Veil to get drawn in too deeply.”

“You’re right that we hadn’t been planning on telling either of them the truth—at least right now. But we have thought about doing it, and these would be under circumstances of our choosing. I’d be happy with any that spared you more grief. You’ve done so much for us, Caroline.”

“It seems like it’s either that or get your clanmate to reconsider, in any case.” Cécilia spreads her hands. “If there were a perfect option, I’d offer it. These are just the best ones I can think of.”

Caroline: The once-heiress holds a closed fist in front of her face in thought, before finally speaking again. “Matheson and Becky Lynne are both very protective of their hold over the family… and as goes Sarah, so goes that family in the broader sense.”

She thinks again. “I understand then, why they’re so… concerned about another Kindred gaining influence over her. On the other hand…” The beginnings of an idea are forming. “Whether we brought one of the twins in on my little secret or not, I cannot help but suspect that pushing Sarah away from me would damage her relationship with them, and perhaps others. More to the point, actively alienating her, as they’ve called for, could drive a significant wedge, especially given how far I think I’d have to go in order to achieve that. I don’t imagine that Yvette in particular would take kindly to Sarah speaking ill of me.” She looks back at Cécilia. “A lever to pull? An awkward one, mind you—to avoid the appearance of undue interest or threatening them with it.”

GM: “If you think that’s the best answer, Caroline,” Cécilia nods. “Just let us know how we can help.”

Caroline: “Honestly, what I really want is to keep this from hurting my relationship with the twins. I don’t have designs on influencing Sarah Whitney,” she replies.

Internally she cynically asks herself: A lie? The response comes: An omission. Doesn’t she have designs on everything, in truth, however hopeless they may be?

“Which is not to say that I wouldn’t rather not hurt her.” She purses her lips. “The danger though is that if they feel that the twins might in turn be a threat to Sarah, I wouldn’t want them to take some rash action there.”

GM: “So you would propose to remain in contact with Sarah so as not to drive a wedge between our family’s daughters and theirs.” Cécilia frowns in thought. “You’re right that lever seems a little awkward to pull. Another Kindred will almost always be seen as a greater threat than two mortals… and they will be off to college in around six months.”

Caroline: Caroline nods in agreement. “And even if it didn’t, it seems too late, honestly. Any attempt to approach the issue will appear as nothing more than meddling, and will simply create more suspicion. If it really didn’t matter to me at all, I’d simply be happy to clear the boon I owe and move along.”

GM: The tree’s lights suddenly wink out, plunging the room into pitch darkness.

“iNDECisIveNeSS DoEs Not beCOME you, mY DEAR giRl!” Abélia’s voice thunders from high above the Star of Bethlehem.

“NOr dOES SuRlinESs,” it bubbles up from beneath Caroline’s feet.

Huge, sausage-thick fingers clamp around the Ventrue’s jaw and work her mouth open and shut like a puppet’s. They feel cold as the December night and oddly… soft.

“N-nor w-weakness,” Caroline hears her own voice falteringly echo, in a high and shaking tone like Meg’s.

A stench like decaying flesh wafts up her nostrils as the too-soft hand seems to shrink in mass, becoming hard and thin like bone.

“i HavE liTtlE patiEnce foR WeaKnesS,” Abélia’s voice whispers from behind Caroline’s ear. The bone-like fingers recede. A huge, sharp-feeling incisor like a vampire’s fang, but the size of a man’s forearm, brushes against her neck.

“sAvE aMoNg mY Own BloOd. I HavE SiX dAUGhteRS tO caRe fOR alREAdy, mY dEAR. IF i dEsIRed a seVEnTh, I wOUlD hAvE fashIoned One.”

A boneless-feeling tendril caresses against Caroline’s sex. A low hiss like a rattlesnake’s shaking tail sounds in her ears.

“OncE Already YOU HAVe entrEATed ME tO RElieVE YOU OF ReSpoNSIBiLiTy fOR yoUR CHOICEs, And to pROducE ANswErs To YOur tRAvAIlS as a stAge maGiCIaN MigHt pRoduce a rABbiT frOm A hABIT.”

The ground seems to drop out from beneath Caroline’s feet. She stumbles, and collides against something cold and vast and wooden-feeling, like a giant-sized nutcracker.

“I AM Not HEre to fIGHT YoUR BAtTLES. I Am NOt hERE tO preEmPt yOur WanTS. if tHErE is a CoUrSe Of aCtion yOU wIsh My FamilY’s AId In, SpeaK iT pLAiNlY.”

A tentacle-like appendage, thick as a man’s chest, also strangely soft and far too cold, loops around Caroline’s waist and casually yanks her away.

“unless We bOTh TIrE of CommunICaTING THRoUgH thE CRUdE expuLsiON oF aIr PartiCLes ThROugH Our ORIficES, anD you wOULd haVE ME REND tHE LIVING ThoughTS fROm YoUr MIND?”

The appendage releases her as three more of those huge teeth stroke the crown of her head.

“i AM gRATefUL iN DisPOSITiOn, geNeRoUs oF sPIriT, aNd CaRE lITtLE FoR CaINiTEs’ peTty unlIVEs… Yet pERhAPS YOU WoULd thinK tO maNIPulAte Us? MY dEar GIrl, yoUr DecEpTiOns ARE aS GlaSS. liTtLe cOloRs tHe soULS OF My dAuGhTERs THat is NOT KNowN tO mE.”

Three seeming tentacles wrap around her legs, chest, and right arm. Softly, gently, inexorably, they begin to squeeze. Movement rustles, as if even more were rising from the ground.

“tHOugH i SuppOSe EVEN MaNiPULatiON ShOWS sOmE amoUnt of sPaRK. tHAT’s SOmEtHIng ThEy migHt LEaRN From. i CaN’t hAVe mY daRLiNgs ASSOciatInG wItH a MoUsE. iT’S a BAD infLUEnCE…”

The perhaps-tentacles pull away as something soft, wet, and thick as a man’s arm laps against Caroline’s neck.

“fORtUNATeLy, eVEn MIcE MAy YeT hAVE tHEiR useS.”

Abélia’s voice seems to waft from the base of that neck, like a tiny devil perched on the Ventrue’s shoulder.

“KNow THAT I aM HUNGRY, my DeAr. I dO not HungER aS yoU Do, bUt MY apPeTITEs aRE gReAt—TREaD CareFUllY In MY lAiR BeFORe yOU mArK YOUrseLf aS prey…”

Groans sound from the house’s walls and ceiling, even as the floor buckles and shifts beneath her feet—as if its mistress were some great and monstrous octopus finally detaching its holds… or if the house itself were clamping shut over Caroline like a fast-closing set of jaws.

“And could you be a darling and help Cécilia with those presents, Caroline? I might have asked you to lend a hand earlier, though I could also be misremembering… it’s not within my character to repeat myself, don’t you think?”

Fluttering laughter peals through the darkness.

Caroline’s Beast, trapped and helpless in that gloom, screams.

Caroline: The Beast screams, and the woman almost does. Abélia is terrifying in her ineffableness. But the senator’s daughter, the prince’s childe, can maintain at least that much dignity. She’s had time enough to think, to consider. That night, that drive, was not so long ago, but it was long enough.

“Are we to p-play this game once more, Abélia?” she replies in a voice that shakes with fear, in a body that shakes in a way she did not know her the dead could. Like a mortal, a kine. The Beast knows, knows the sight of a presence predator. She tells herself that it’s that animal part of her, the Beast, that bears down on her chest and threatens to choke her words, that makes her voice quiet rather than imperious. “Once before you goaded me so. I have not forgotten.”

She looks left, right, for the next nightmare to emerge out of the dark, knowing it’s a useless gesture. The first she feels of Abélia’s touch will be against her skin in the uncanny, unholy, impenetrable darkness. She continues in a meek voice she doesn’t recognize, “You want me to fight them. To lash out against them for Sarah. And you want something of me, or perhaps for me.”

She jerks her head to the other side, too much like a frightened animal, as she continues, “You’re molding me.”

GM: “Maman,” sounds Cécilia’s voice. “Caroline…”

“Of course she does, my dear,” chuckles Abélia’s. “But that is very considerate of you to be thinking of her. I’m so happy you’re no less attentive to your sister by law than your sisters by blood.”

The gloom recedes, like a great beast opening its jaws by a few more inches. The Christmas tree’s lights wink back on. Green, gold, red, and white spill through the darkness.

Mother and daughter stand before the fireplace. Caroline’s night vision still cannot fully make out their shadow-drenched features, but both of the two are pulling presents out of the sack.

“Oh, my dear girl,” Abélia laughs airily as she strides towards the tree with a head-sized, tinsel-wrapped gift in hand. “You or I could wound Alder John and his childe quite easily, and deeply, had we the inclination. There’s no need to pit you against them, if I even could… I’m sure you’d see past any such ploy.”

“But it does pain me to see you…” the raven-haired matriarch’s smile spreads, “discomfited over Sarah. Now that you’ve heard my daughter’s counsel, and remembered your backbone, I can but ask: what do you wish of my family? How might we assist one who has brought us such yuletide joy?”

Cécilia, setting down her own present beneath one of the tree’s hanging nutcrackers, meets Caroline’s eye as she does.

Caroline: The blonde moves forward as much to hide her shaking as at Cécilia’s urging.

“Begging your pardon, Abélia,” she begins, pulling a present out of the bag. “I didn’t seek to imply you needed anything, certainly not help harming an isolated vampire.” The speed with which the Devillers matriarch shifts from terrorizing to perfectly mundane is enough to set her head spinning.

“I rather meant your apparent desire to push me towards certain means, if not ends, rather than anything relating to them specifically.”

GM: “My time is valuable, my dear,” Abélia replies in a chiding tone. “Your speculation is very flattering, but immaterial to our present business.”

She and Cécilia jointly carry a much larger present, the size perhaps of Simmone’s body and wrapped in green tree-themed paper, over to one of the living room’s chairs, where they stand it upright.

Caroline’s present is rectangularly-shaped, perhaps two feet long, and half a foot deep. It’s wrapped with white paper dotted with green holly leaves around red berries. The tag is for Adeline.

The sound of soft weeping emanates from within.

Caroline: Caroline almost drops the present when it starts weeping. She instead uses it to still the shaking in her hands as she finds a place for the present alongside the other ones marked for Adeline.

GM: “Keep some distance between everyone’s presents, Caroline, if you please. Half the joy is hunting for one’s gifts amidst all the others,” Abélia calls. Caroline only turned her back for a moment, but the dark-eyed Frenchwoman is already retrieving another present from the sack—well over halfway across the spacious room. Cécilia adjusts a sagging snowman ornament on the tree.

Caroline: “As you wish,” Caroline replies, moving the last present she put down and going back for another. Abélia’s disappearance and reappearance is the least of her concerns.

GM: A flat, rectangular present wrapped in white paper with silver snowflakes has a tag marking it as Noëlle’s. No sounds are audible from within.

Caroline: The Ventrue is grateful for the silent, unmoving box. She rises with it to find its place in the room.

“Was the move against Sarah and Yvonne an intentional move against you and Matheson?” she asks bluntly, her voice growing more firm and crisp the further the experience with Abélia shifts into the past, but the predatory darkness awakened behind her eyes undiminished. She may not have wished to allow the matron to influence her, but the Beast still stirs within her, and it has a vote too this night, as with all nights.

GM: Fluttering laughter greets Caroline’s question.

“An intriguing supposition, my dear. What might someone have sought to gain from such a move?”

Caroline: “Sarah’s death might have weakened Matheson’s long term hold over the bank by throwing the Whitney family into a downward spiral. Or maybe just destroyed a family he had a long term interest in. That was around the same time that he came to greater prominence, wasn’t it?” Caroline speculates. “As for Yvonne… I guess that depends on who knows about you, Abélia, and what they know. Perhaps a move to bait you into the open?”

“I remember Gettis starting to shoot, out of nowhere, like a man possessed. It seemed like a terrible coincidence that he started with two of the more important, and vulnerable, people in the room. I presume a bullet would have less effect on you, and what was I then but a project, the longest of shots…”

GM: There’s a second flutter of laughter as Abélia pulls a tiny red present bound up with gold thread, no longer than a man’s clenched fist, from the sack. She strokes the ribbon almost affectionately as Cécilia removes a book-shaped one with reversed coloring: gold paper and red string.

“Everyone knows about me, Caroline, vain as that may sound. I am the proud mother of six extraordinary young ladies—young ladies who were extraordinarily fortunate, too, that you were present for that dreadful night.”

She places the tiny present atop Caroline’s most recent one. Cécilia’s outline recedes deeper into the gloom.

“If those events were a move, I must say it was a gracelessly executed one. Gettis has lost everything, and both girls are alive and well. Regrettably traumatized, along with many other bystanders—my poor, poor Simmone in particular. But if Matheson’s enemies benefited from that night’s events, the means by which they did regrettably escape me. Do any occur to you?"

Caroline: The once heiress shakes her head. “Not unless I’ve missed something,” she agrees. “The only ones I could cynically say may have gained from that night were you and I, and I don’t think you so cynical as to traumatize your daughters or risk their lives to do so in such a callous and brutally unsubtle way.”

“But then, I’m not certain that night went exactly how anyone expected it to,” she continues.

“All the same, seems like Sarah has gotten into trouble several times on her own, without any prompting, only to get pulled out of it by myself. Much like the twins.. Maybe that changes Ms. Adler’s view. Otherwise I intend to break with Sarah quite dramatically, and promptly. It’s a matter I’ll see to—I didn’t mean to imply that I desired more than your guidance and counsel of the girls when that happens.”

“There are more pressing matters than my relationship with a teenage girl.”

GM: Cécilia returns to scoop up another present from the still-bulging sack. Abélia retrieves a longer, tube-shaped one with snowman-printed wrapping. Both women seem quite preoccupied with the task of distributing gifts as the Ventrue remains still.

Abélia’s dark eyes twinkle as they maunder across Caroline’s face.

“Very well, my dear. Do proceed.”

She turns to set the long present down on a sofa.

Caroline: The Ventrue remains in motion, looking for a home for this latest gift as she speaks, her voice gaining strength the more time passes.

“I’m moving against Father Malveaux and my mother both. Soon. This time I expect the outcome to be definitive for one, both, or myself. I thought you should know ahead of time, in case someone involved thinks to use your daughters in some way as part of that struggle, or if I suddenly ‘disappear’.”

GM: The next present Caroline procures is also long and slim: about the length of her torso, about as wide as her arm, and wrapped in candy cane-patterned paper with green ribbon.

The tag has her name on it.

“Now we can hardly have you choosing the placement of your own gift,” Abélia smiles. Caroline neither saw nor heard her approach, but the raven-haired woman plucks the package from her hands and leans it against the fireplace.

The next present to emerge from the sack is about a foot wide and deep. A tag with Jocelyn’s name sits atop the striped green and white wrapping paper.

“That’s very considerate of you to let me know of your plans there, my dear. Why, Cécilia, didn’t you have a related matter you’d wanted to discuss with Caroline?”

Cécilia nods as she plucks two fist-sized presents from the sack.

“Yes, her place at the wedding,” her future sister-in-law states. “I can’t suppose Father Malveaux would be happy over her attending.”

She stands still with the presents as she looks at Caroline. Her pale blue eyes are thoughtful.

“I can understand if you don’t see him as family. But, Caroline, your mother…?”

Caroline: Caroline forfeits the gift to Abélia and hefts Jocelyn’s. “What was that Churchill quote, ‘When you’re going through Hell, keep going’?” she replies darkly.

“I’d thought to find another way, to find some balance, but childish naiveté has no place in my world. The wolves have grown impatient, they’ve begun their attack. The only way out now is through, and strikes in half-measures invite disaster.”

She meets Cécilia’s eyes. “There are things that I want, Cécilia. Things that I need. My dark birthright is absolute victory or utter defeat. I will not eke out an existence in the desert nor wander it for forty years—though God knows I’ve tried. I can’t live that way, and I won’t, even if others might let me—and they won’t either.”

She pauses as a darkness moves behind her eyes alongside a cruel smile. “Well, ‘live’.” The laughter that follows is anything but mirthful, however light it may be. “So yes, my mother. Of all the blades assailing me, it is hers at my throat, hers that cuts deepest. And so I must cut away that blade from her, however much it might hurt. However much it might cost.”

She stares into Cécilia’s blue eyes, seeing her again, perhaps, in a new light. “Be careful, Cécilia. Perhaps you will break the cycle, but that’s the way of my family. We hurt those we love. I think it always has been.”

GM: “Not all families are as ours, my dear,” Abélia states, laying a pale hand on Cécilia’s shoulder. The older ’woman’s’ midnight hair and black dress seem to all but bleed into the gloom. Her milk-white skin’s striking contrast makes her arms and face seem almost disembodied, phantasmal appendages floating through the gloom. But when Cécilia looks back into her eyes, Caroline is most struck by the chilling likeness of their facial features: Cécilia looks as if she’s staring into a darkened mirror of herself, twenty years into her future.

“You are right, Maman.” She looks back towards her to-be sister-in-law. “We do come from different families, Caroline. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up a Malveaux, or what kind of relationship you’ve really had with your mother. No one can truly know but the two of you. All I know is that if one of my sisters felt the same way about me… I couldn’t imagine anything more sad.”

“Nor could I, my dear,” Abélia replies, brushing her eldest’s cheek as she smiles at Caroline. “It is tragic that such a relationship should persist between mother and daughter.”

Caroline: The disowned daughter looks upon the two with an expression that might be sadness or envy.

GM: “But it is better to dwell on what can be than what it is not. I do so admire an industrious spirit in the young. And you have said this little affair could involve Cécilia’s sisters… perhaps it’s better if we err on the side of caution.”

Abélia’s hand drops from her daughter’s face. Her other bears a tiny present, perhaps large enough to be a boxed pair of earrings. It’s austerely wrapped in white paper and black trim.

“Go on, my dear,” the midnight-haired woman winks at Caroline. “We shan’t tell Père Noël you opened this one early.”

Caroline: Caroline smiles back as she unwraps the paper and removes the lid.

GM: Inside is a glass sphere the size of a child’s playing marble. No light glints off its smooth black surface.

Abélia’s smile widens.

“Break it before your foes, and they shall know woe.”

Caroline: Caroline accepts the marble and turns it over in her pale hands. “A princely gift.”

GM: That smile doesn’t dim.

“It is the season for giving, my dear.”

Caroline: There’s darkness in Caroline’s eyes as she stares at the marble, into its depths.

“Oh yes, and I have some very particular gifts in mind.”


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