“We are all of us less than we strive to be.”
Monday night, 7 March 2016, AM
GM: It’s not a long drive to Perdido House. But it feels like it is.
It feels like a drive that’s lasted her entire unlife.
It feels like an unlife that’s lasted so much longer than the paltry sum of months it’s really been.
No one talks much on the drive over. No one talks at all, in fact. There’s nothing to talk about. Not right now.
Eventually, Caroline’s car approaches a familiar soaring black and gray steel monolith that surveys the city beneath it like a grim sentinel. Fearsome gargoyles jut from crenelations, baring their claws and fangs to the night sky with muted howls.
Perdido House looks as vast, terrible, and foreboding as ever—a fitting reflection of the master who dwells within. Yet tonight it is not merely those things. Tonight it also seems to hold… anticipation.
Caroline: It seems a constant that every trip to the building is a matter of life and death for Caroline. Or at least, death or undeath. She thinks back to her visit visit in the ‘custody’ of then-Father Malveaux. There’s some symmetry now.
She has nothing to say to Fuller. There’s nothing to say. If she makes a mistake tonight he’ll likely die—as will her other ghouls. If she succeeds… well. There’s a question.
On one hand, a terrifying oblivion she can well imagine. On the other, a future she imagines any neonate in the city might salivate over. One she can still barely imagine.
GM: Driving into the underground parking garage still remains all-too akin to descending into the belly of a great beast, past an iron-grilled jaw filled with checkpointed teeth. Armed, grim-faced, and black-uniformed security guards inquire Caroline’s business. Fuller says something back. They wave the car on through.
The interior lobby is a harshly lit black marble affair whose brutally straight angles and severe, minimalist decor brings to mind the fascist architecture of decades past. Bulky men wearing black suits, opaque sunglasses and ear radios stand in silent vigil, modern palace guards within their master’s castle. Coldly professional secretaries at the receptionists’ desk direct visitors to their destinations. Save for an iron statue of a man on horseback brandishing a sword (El Cid, Caroline identifies), the entrance hall to Augusto Vidal’s court is austerely decorated, yet projects an oppressively inescapable atmosphere of power and wealth.
She talks to one of the secretaries. Says some words. An elevator ride and some walking later, and she’s in the office of Maldonato’s herald, Robert Congo. His skin is deep black and his hair snow-white. He has a deeply lined face, prominent nose, and thoughtful dark eyes. He wears a subdued dark gray suit with gold cufflinks that remind Caroline of his master’s.
“Greetings, Miss Malveaux. What business would you discuss tonight?” the ghoul patiently inquires.
Caroline: The heiress has met the ancient black man before. More than once, in fact, though never informally. Never without a prearranged meeting with a specific purpose. It’s just as well—her purpose tonight is not with this man.
For the first time since her Embrace, she wears a stark deviation from her typical wardrobe. A callback to another time, what seems like a lifetime ago. To her first meeting with the ancient Moorish seneschal who would damn her.
Conservative without being boorish, the brilliantly white gown covers her right shoulder and is pinned in gold, leaving bare her left shoulder and both of her oh-so-pale arms. Framing built into the gown ties it tight around her waist, while the cut leaves it clinging to her legs, framing her form without exposing it lasciviously.
The Ventrue’s pale skin is only a slight shade off from that of her dress, only separated by the lustrous brilliance of the gown her own dead flesh lacks. Even precisely applied makeup can’t hide the Beast lurking ever closer to the surface of the young heiress—though its clear she’s tried. Caroline is as carefully presented as she’s ever been.
“Mr. Congo,” she greets the elder ghoul. Her eyes take in the tiny wrinkles around his eyes that were never so clear to her vision before, the tiny stray threads beginning to peak out of the familiar suit, the tiny abrasions on the edges of his fingernails from when he last clipped them—recently.
“You’ll have to forgive the presumptuousness of this, but some months ago the seneschal asked something of me. It has become somewhat time-sensitive.”
GM: “Seneschal Maldonato has informed me of your task, madam,” the ghoul replies. “Are you here to report its completion to His Grace? He shall receive you but once.”
The words are mild enough, but there is a quiet finality to them.
Once and if Caroline answers yes, she can never go back.
Caroline: But once, for failure shall be met with final death. A threat he has held over her head her entire Requiem. Doubt gnaws at her. Is this the right path?
She doesn’t know. It’s another blade, less final but no less cutting. Doubt. The slow knife that cuts her down bit by bit, cuts at what makes her herself.
It’s too slow tonight.
“Yes,” she replies, the word firmly spoken perhaps a bit more quickly than her last ones. Her own blade striking before doubt can cut her down.
GM: Congo picks up the black STE phone on his desk. He holds it to his ear, then states after a moment, “She is ready, Your Grace.”
There is another pause.
“Very good, Your Grace.”
The ghoul’s deeply-set eyes meet Caroline’s. Then he says something she has never heard an elder’s herald say, or at least not to her:
“He will see you immediately.”
Caroline: The heiress is grateful, for once, that her body is a corpse. For the lack of sweat. For the lack of weakness. The machine-like answer demanded by her mind demands no human weaknesses to betray her doubts.
“Very good,” she replies to the herald. Her voice is flat, trying to conceal the apprehension. The fear. And, yes, the eagerness behind it.
GM: There’s walking. An elevator ride. More walking, down cold and featureless gray corridors. They arrive at a door. Congo knocks lightly against it.
Caroline: There’s no drawn breath. Caroline is as still as a statue.
GM: A single word echoes from behind the wood:
Congo opens the door.
The seneschal’s office is changed from when Caroline last saw it. The Lancea et Sanctum holy symbol mounted to the wall opposite the door is still present, as she suspects it shall always be. The room’s wall paneling remains a dark and somber brown wood interspersed with tall, full bookshelves. The previous palm and Spanish moss bonsai trees have been exchanged for a weeping willow and cherry tree. The blue and white Islamic vases remain, but the orange and black Greek vases have been replaced with red-patterned Chinese ones.
The same two paintings are still present. David Chase’s The Moorish Warrior, and the calligraphic wood carving interwoven with arabesque floral patterns. Traditional Islamic art does not depict the human form for fear of being idolatrous: abstract geometric patterns instead predominate. Caroline, fluent in Arabic, recognizes the characters: La ghaliba illallah, or Only God obtains victory, repeated twice.
Caroline: The Ventrue takes in the office, faintly surprised at the changes. She’d expected that the seneschal would be a creature of habit, wedded to the past and familiar. She also takes it in with new eyes. The Moorish Warrior—fitting for the greatest swordsman she’s ever seen, Kindred or otherwise.
GM: Philip Maldonato sits behind the same Victorian oak desk from which he first surveyed Caroline, at least as one of the Damned. His surroundings have changed, a little, but the elder Cainite himself looks untouched by time. The same tall height. The same mere hint of wrinkles from age around his deep-set almond eyes. He wears a double-breasted gray suit with a navy tie and matching handkerchief in the front pocket. A silver pocketwatch on an attached chain and cufflinks of the same material offer several further concessions to the past. A gold signet ring set with a sapphire and traced with Arabic script rests upon one of his long, slender fingers.
He does not look up from his desk. He already is.
Caroline is reminded of their ‘last’ meeting beyond Perdido House in that timeless garden. He looked as if he could sit upon its bench for a thousand years. He looked as if he had been sitting upon its bench for a thousand years.
He still looks like he’s sitting there. He still looks like he’s waiting.
Time passes slowly among the dead, it seems.
Caroline: She resists turning her gaze to him for as long as she can as she studies the room, but it’s as inevitable as the rising of the sun. He looks the same… but not to her. She doubts he ever will. He’s no longer the seneschal, the gentle but firm hand of the prince. He’s not the same man who accepted her confessions and hung the blade above her neck. He’s not the seneschal holding court.
He’s something else. There’s a shadow to him hidden behind his eyes. A darkness lurking there. He’s a liar and a manipulator. A butcher and a killer. He’s the Kindred who damned her not only to walk among the dead, but who threw her into the world blind to it all, to stumble and fall, and fail, and to suffer in ignorance. He’s the Kindred who brought her into this world, but couldn’t even do so with his own blood. Who chose to make her an orphan and a bastard to her own sire in the same stroke.
And he’s also the Kindred who descended into the Dungeon to save her life. Who risked his own, centuries-spanning existence towards some inscrutable purpose. Who suffered pains on her behalf she can well imagine. Who showed her unthinkable gentleness for their kind as she lay dying. Who gave her a second chance when all others must have been howling for her head.
Her eyes settle on his. Her savior, her murderer, her may yet be savior or destroyer: Philip Maldonato—a name that’s as much a lie as any he’s told.
GM: As the elder Cainite’s timeless gaze meets Caroline’s, she sees little of Antoine Savoy’s geniality and good humor. Its wooden-hued depths seem a veritable forest, grown unfathomably tall, thick, and unnavigable—and as perilous to traipse through as a thicket of sharpened stakes.
Nor does his gaze gloss over hers, as Ferris’, Widney’s, and his own ghoul’s did. They seem to attentively note every detail of Caroline’s new eyes—every bit of blue that once was green.
The moment hangs suspended like a snapshot of eternity corked in a bottle.
Finally, he speaks.
“Please be seated, Miss Malveaux.”
The soft click of the door behind them seems almost inaudible.
Caroline: “Thank you, Seneschal.” The short walk to the desk seems like miles, but it passes in an instant. She pulls out a seat and smooths her dress as she sits, never taking her eyes off of him.
GM: “Time has not been kind to you, Miss Malveaux,” he states.
Caroline: “I don’t expect that you believed it would be, Seneschal,” she replies measuredly.
GM: “Time lays waste to all things, but we fight it for as long as we may.”
Caroline: “You knew, Seneschal, there would be a price to pay for what was asked. I would not lay that cost at the feet of time.”
GM: “Time’s soles may bear many names to those trod underfoot.”
He regards Caroline pensively, then states,
“Tell me of your Requiem since our last meeting, Miss Malveaux.”
Caroline: Caroline bites her lower lip and tightens her grip on the chair’s arms. Tell me of your Requiem. It’s so patronizing, so demanding. Part of her wants to lash out at him. Wants to tell him, you are not my sire, to scream, you lost the right to ask me that when you threw me out.
She swallows that part of herself. She tries to move past the anger and pettiness.
What does he want to hear? How she begged and sniveled before other Ventrue for acceptance? How she crawled around on her knees seeking favors? How she’s ended lives and raped minds, and build her pauper’s throne upon a still-growing mountain of corpses and ruined lives?
“Claire Malveaux is dead,” she finally manages. “As are many of ‘her’ hunters, though not all. Some I have, others are beyond my reach, in league with Mr. Savoy under the influence of a very old ghoul hunter.”
“The most recent name he operated under was Richard Gettis, but he’s had many others. He’s been undermining Prince Vidal’s hold on the New Orleans Police Department for decades by inducting members of the force into his own internal organization with the stated goal of destroying Kindred. ‘Gettis’ and members of this organization were at the heart of Claire’s influence in New Orleans, though not the full extent of it.”
She manages to keep a mostly straight face through the ‘report.’
Claire. Not ‘her mother.’ Just ‘Claire Malveaux.’ Her ‘stepmother.’ Not the woman who brought her into the world. Not the mother who willingly exposed herself and betrayed her secret to Caroline. Not the woman who knew the cost of it, but also that it might save her daughter’s unlife.
GM: Something seems to flicker within Maldonato’s eyes at Caroline’s stoic recitation.
“Tell me of your mother’s death, Miss Malveaux,” he requests.
Caroline: “I planted a trap for her hunters. A lure, to draw them into the open for destruction at the hands of my ghouls,” Caroline recites, her voice flat. “Whether she saw through it, or simply had her own agenda… when I went to visit her that night, she sought to trap me.”
She has to keep her voice flat, has to keep it to facts. Has to maintain her composure.
“I believe her in league with Mr. Savoy—directly or indirectly. Whether simply due to his history with hunters, or due to some other means of influence… perhaps my brother. She expressed her intent to ‘release’ me once Mr. Savoy was the prince.”
She’s rambling, she knows that, but she doesn’t want to think on that night. She doesn’t want to remember her mother consumed by darkness. She doesn’t want to remember murdering her.
“She failed to contain me,” she abridges.
GM: “I am certain the temptation to join Mr. Savoy’s political bloc was great,” Maldonato states.
Caroline: Caroline’s smile is not kind. “There’s a reason he’s winning. Several, in fact.”
GM: “What worth do you then find in Prince Vidal’s cause, Miss Malveaux?” the seneschal inquires.
“Sheriff Donovan has made a place for himself at the side of his sire’s rival. Mr. Savoy was doubtlessly prepared to offer our prince’s childe a similar place, and would have derived no small pleasure from the irony.”
Caroline: The Ventrue pauses in thought for a long moment before giving her answer.
“He tried,” she replies distantly. “Repeatedly, and I expect at some cost. He made overtures, made time, arranged meetings, offered concessions… Claire even ran a scheme, either at his urging or his direction, to push me into his arms under the belief that the bishop was threatening me and had raided my haven.”
GM: “Small reason to begrudge a patron such as he, in the eyes of many. Your treatment at the hands of our prince’s agents has been little kinder.”
Caroline: “It would have been the smarter move,” Caroline replies, still distant within her thoughts.
“The sheriff hates me, the bishop hates me. The prince… well. You know better than I, don’t you?”
The Ventrue turns her head, abandoning for a moment formality with the elder Kindred.
GM: Maldonato rests his steepled fingers upon the desk’s surface.
There’s a look on his face she hasn’t seen before.
Caroline: Her blue eyes bore into his.
“So, tell me, Seneschal, why am I here?”
GM: Malonato doesn’t rise from his seat. One moment he’s there. The next he’s not. He’s standing, an ancient-looking book clasped in his hands. It wasn’t there before either. He mouths an incantation. Caroline doesn’t understand it. It sounds only partly like Arabic. It isn’t loud, but it echoes strangely and makes her ears throb with pain.
The Ventrue’s shadow swells like a constrictor swallowing prey. Swallowing light. The room’s flicker erratically. The limbs of Caroline’s shadow writhe like joint-less, flailing tentacles, then vanish, swallowed into an expanding formless gloom that occupies not two dimensions, but three. It swallows all. Even itself. Caroline’s nightvision can no longer make out anything inside the darkness.
Then, splotches of white. Not light. Not light at all. Formless. Sourceless. The pale underside of some monstrous sea beast’s grasping tentacles, alien flesh that has never felt the sun’s rays within its abyssopelagic home. The gloom ripples and washes over the room like a foul black tide. Lights die. Colors fade. The cityscape beyond the window winks out. The shuddering realityscape seems little more than a glass tank, and its cracking glass insufficient to hold its occupant’s grotesque bulk.
Then the lights are back on, the Islamic vases are blue, and there’s a city past the window. Everything is back to normal. Caroline’s shadow has coalesced into a discernibly humanoid shape. The darkness is a woman’s gown and hair. The whiteness is her milky skin.
“Uthman,” smiles Abélia Devillers. “It has been far too long!”
“I never expected you to receive me again, if I’m to be quite honest… another thing to thank this sweet child for,” Caroline’s new mother remarks happily as she settles her hands on the Ventrue’s shoulders.
“You just bring happiness everywhere you go, my dear,” Abélia continues with a fluttering laugh. “Saving innocent children from tragic ends, and now reuniting me with old friends…”
Caroline: Caroline has the feeling she’s been caught up amid something older, and darker, and more twisted than even the diablerie and matricide she’s committed. But then, that’s what she’s become, isn’t it? She’s made her choices. She tries to relax under Abélia’s hands.
“Don’t be upset, Seneschal. She only confirmed what I’d dearly hoped, but not quite dared to believe.”
GM: Maldonato holds out his hand, from which a curved scimitar now rests. He silently advances upon the midnight-haired woman behind Caroline.
She recognizes that sword. She couldn’t make out many details when she first saw it. But she remembers how the hilt felt in her ruined, blood-crusted hands. She remembers the whoosh as the crescent blade cleanly severed their foe’s head. As the cold steel looms large in her vision, she could swear she can hear the hoary Malkavian’s death scream again, a blood-curdling sound more animal than human.
Caroline: The heiress knows full well what he’s capable of with that scimitar. She knows how hopeless any conflict with him might be.
It doesn’t stop her from standing, from wrapping one hand around her ‘mother’ and ushering her behind her.
GM: Abélia seeps behind Caroline as readily as a flitting shadow—her own shadow.
Maldonato raises the sword high with both hands, his tall frame and long arms bringing it well above Caroline’s and Abélia’s heads, then brings it down.
Caroline: Caroline is fast. She knows how swift she is. Academically, she knows there are probably faster Kindred in the city, but she’s only ever seen one.
Unfortunately, the seneschal is that one. She knows there is no comparison. Perhaps she’ll be able to close that gap one night: Kindred throughout the city would envy her Blood’s closeness to Caine if they knew of it. But she doesn’t know how long away that night may be. Hundreds of years? A thousand? Until then, it’s a contest between a tortoise and a hare, a gap she cannot leap. Not yet.
It doesn’t stop her from trying. She can’t run. Won’t run. Even if her gown and shoes didn’t impede her movement, even if she could run, even if she wasn’t in some twilight realm, she wouldn’t leave Abélia behind.
It’s hopeless. But she tries to catch the blade between her palms as it comes down.
GM: Caroline’s hands snap out, faster than any mortal could see. They clap against air. The vanished blade reappears against Abélia’s neck, stopping far less than an inch short of the midnight-haired woman’s throat.
“The lifeblood of she who denuded your sister stains this blade’s edge, fallen one. Is your thirst for vengeance yet satisfied?”
The words are as hard as the scimitar’s steel, and only scarcely less sharp.
Caroline: Caroline pauses, the moment caught in the balance. If he’d meant to strike to kill he could have done so… and there is much she doesn’t know.
GM: Abélia tilts her nose, smelling deeply of the blade, and then gives a fluttering laugh.
“Oh, my dear Uthman, that’s such ancient history!” she exclaims. “What need have I to dwell on past slights during this time of joy… when I have a new daughter, one for whom I would sacrifice myself… and she so readily for me?”
Abélia’s dark eyes sparkle as they settle upon Caroline’s. She does not move her neck from the steel.
“You are everything and more that a parent could wish of their child, my dear. Claire and Nathaniel hardly deserved you.”
Caroline: The words send a shiver of pride down Caroline’s spine, even as she eyes the seneschal.
GM: “All you ever wished for was love—love to receive, and love to repay in kind. And how you do!”
Caroline: It’s almost taunting. It might be from someone else, but from Abélia the words don’t sting.
GM: They don’t. They sound completely and totally sincere.
Caroline: She opens her mouth, but what is there to say? That Abélia hasn’t treated her like trash and thrown her away? That she’s right? An entire life and unlife of never good enough, until Abélia.
She eyes the scimitar. That close, he’ll have to draw it back to strike. Have to change direction. That will be her moment, when as fast as he is, the seneschal will have to slow to a moment in which it stops.
GM: Maldonato’s gaze remains fixed upon Abélia, unyielding as the steel in his hand.
“Then your thirst remains unquenched, fallen one. Greater is the pity for your daughters. Even your son’s sins might have been wiped clean through their souls.”
Caroline: Caroline isn’t gullible enough to believe there will be no strings attached with Abélia. She doesn’t trust that much, but the seneschal’s words grind on her.
“Don’t be upset that she picked up your refuse and found value in it.”
GM: Abélia’s smile doesn’t fade. But her next words are utterly without mirth.
“I have no son.”
Maldonato’s gaze moves between Caroline and her new mother. Next to John Harley Matheson’s marble-like pallor, the old Moor’s darker skin looks alive enough, but he remains utterly motionless. He doesn’t resemble a statue so much as a snapped picture. So does Abélia. The scimitar still rests against her neck. The three of them seem frozen in the tableau from some surreal drama, all-too obviously inhuman to their audience’s eyes.
“Love holds little regard for truth,” the seneschal intones.
Caroline: “What truth did you share with me, Seneschal?” Caroline asks. “That you made me with your hand and the prince’s blood, like a childe in a test tube? That he doesn’t even know I exist? That you threw me into the world and set me against one the prince’s servants called friend? Into the teeth of the Ventrue, the Sanctified, and the hounds at once.”
She shakes her head without ever taking her eyes off his. “The only answer I don’t have is why.”
GM: “To do otherwise would have doomed you, Miss Malveaux, and seen you slain or stolen as the other heirs to my prince’s throne I have sought and failed to cultivate. Do not mistake your suffering as evidence that its alternative would have been kinder.”
The seneschal’s voice remains as unwavering as his motionless blade’s steel, but his eyes re-fix upon Abélia.
“Truth persists, fallen one, even as love denies and memory betrays. You do your daughters an unkindness in denying their brother. Blood shall always tell.”
Caroline: “Heirs?” Caroline almost spits the word. “A pauper cannot be a prince, Seneschal. Your way beggared and whored me to every petty tyrant Kindred in the city—before it and you destroyed all that I was.”
The accusation lands without venom or anger. Only pain.
GM: “Oh, can you not see the hurt in my daughter’s eyes, Uthman?” Abélia entreats. “The words ‘for your own good’ have brought happiness to few children indeed… happiness as I seek to bring to my own.”
“What happiness has the blood upon your hands purchased? What end has it effected? What good has it achieved and not merely seen slip from your fingers?”
The raven-haired matron gives a fluttering laugh.
“Little wonder, perhaps, that Kant is so welcome to your sensibilities—good intentions are all that matter within that system of ethics, are they not? Why, they say the the bricks along Hell’s road are stamped with those two words: ‘good intentions.’ For my own part, I have always paid greater heed to a journey’s terminus than its beginning.”
“Where one begins a journey determines its terminus, fallen one,” Maldonato answers. “And we are all of us less than we strive to be.”
Caroline: “There’s the seneschal I’ve come to know,” Caroline replies quietly.
GM: There’s another fluttering laugh from Abélia.
“The ill-informed see him as the velvet glove to soften Augusto’s iron fist, don’t they? Ah, they are but different faces to the same coin, my dear. Men of duty, resolved to do what needs to be done. Men who justify their actions through the ever-present specter of a worse alternative. Men unwavering in their convictions, who would sooner break than bend… men who expect the impossible of their children, and punish those children for failures instigated by their parents.”
Abélia’s smile widens.
“They are a perfect match for one another, are they not? And the city’s Cainites declare them so different.”
Caroline: “I wouldn’t know,” Caroline replies softly.
She eyes the scimitar.
“Am I to be slain now, Seneschal, for some failing? Association with some ‘deplorable’ being to your sensitivities? Am I another failed project?”
GM: “Your fate remains within your own power to determine, Miss Malveaux, as it always has.”
Caroline: “No answers. No surprise.”
GM: A frown mars Maldonato’s still face.
“Have care with your words, Miss Malveaux. However much her presence has given me cause to overlook, coarseness of tongue shall ill convince me you are suitable to present before our prince.”
Caroline: “I have ever been transparent before you, Seneschal,” Caroline replies. “What is it you desire? Another mother’s life?”
She can’t keep the bitterness out of that comment, though she tries.
GM: Hurt flickers across Abélia’s face at Caroline’s acknowledgement of that ‘other’ mother.
Caroline: “I have sacrificed all that I was on the altar of your approval, Seneschal. My pride, my dignity, my family, perhaps even my soul. I sold myself out to those that sought to use me as a vessel for knowledge and bowed before my tormentors and licked their boots for approval as a proper Ventrue. Destroyed all that Caroline Malveaux was in the eyes of all but my sisters and mother. I turned from the offers of the prince’s rivals, returned with their secrets both, and killed my then-mother.”
“I stand on a mountain of corpses offered to the Masquerade and demands of your office. Time has not been kind—no, but nor were my duties. Certainly you have lived long enough seneschal to know what you demanded was no easy task—mind, body, or spirit.”
She pauses. “So here we stand, tonight, blade in hand once more.” She gestures. “Genuinely, what more can I offer, Seneschal?”
GM: “More shall always be expected of you, Miss Malveaux,” Maldonato intones gravely. “Your brother-in-blood found your sire’s expectations too great a burden to bear. Mine own hand is far gentler than his.”
Caroline: The Ventrue patiently awaits the seneschal’s next words.
GM: None appear immediately forthcoming.
Caroline: “We were talking, Seneschal, won’t you lower the blade and let us continue?”
GM: The sword lowers.
Abélia’s severed head hits the floor with a gory thump.
Caroline: “No!” Caroline’s shriek is painfully loud.
GM: Black blood spurts from the corpse’s neck as it topples backwards onto the floor.
Caroline: She never even saw the blade move. She sinks to her knees to catch the bleeding corpse, heedless of the blood staining her white gown. Grief spreads across her face and she stares up at the seneschal with hate in her eyes.
The expression lasts only a moment before something much darker overtakes it: pure rage. The monster inside comes screaming out as she throws herself at the seneschal, covered as she is in her mother’s blood. There’s not even a wordless cry, just a blur of unliving flesh as she dives at him.
The Beast doesn’t care about his age. The Beast doesn’t care about the sword. The Beast doesn’t care about the prince. It only cares that the human had a moment of weakness, of pain, and it has a way out.
And the human… the human only cares that for the second time in as many nights she’s watched her mother die—and been to blame for it.
GM: The fury burns like a wildfire: red-hot and utterly heedless. Perhaps it gutters out in an instant. Perhaps it roars and burns for hours. Whenever it finally does, Caroline finds herself seated upon her previous chair. The seneschal regards her solemnly from behind his desk.
“Would you still serve our prince, Miss Malveaux, when a second mother is that service’s price?”
Caroline: The Ventrue looks around, looks down for the body, for the blood. Her heart doesn’t beat, but if it did it would be racing.
GM: Abélia’s head has rolled to a stop by the door, its expression frozen in a ghastly smile that shall never relax. The rest of the blood-streaked corpse lies unmoved.
“I do not desire an heir who answers affirmatively out of fear for her continued unlife,” Maldonato continues. “If it is your wish, you may accept exile from New Orleans and make your Requiem wherever fortune carries you. Those of your sisters who are soon to attend university, I am certain, would welcome your presence at Wellesley.”
Caroline: Caroline stares at the severed head, her voice still low with rage. She wants to demand an answer, knows he won’t give one. She wants to lash out, but knows just how pointless it is. She might as well throw herself against a mountain.
“I think we both know that’s nothing but a dream,” she replies. “Even if you could tolerate my failure, neither the sheriff nor the French Quarter’s occupant could ignore my existence.”
Her fingernails bite into her palms painfully, but she needs that pain to keep clearheaded, to control herself.
“But I have only ever been honest with you,” she replies pointedly.
“You ask if I would trade my mother, the only being who did the same for me in my Requiem, who saved my life, for a prince that doesn’t know of me, to be heir to a crumbling kingdom beset by foes, for a seneschal who was not content to take everything from my mortal life…”
The fingernails bite into flesh as she grinds out the words.
She finally tears her eyes from the severed head to meet his gaze.
“Do what you must.”
GM: “I need do but little, Miss Malveaux, if such a destiny is not to your liking. You have cited many valid reasons you would feel no loyalty to our prince. Should you wish to leave the city, Sheriff Donovan and Mr. Savoy are both beset by more pressing concerns than hunting down a willing exile.”
“Nor do I believe you stand a viable chance at claiming your sire’s throne without his acknowledgement. Blood alone is insufficient to crown a prince.”
Yet, even as the seneschal speaks, a second voice echoes within Caroline. Not within her mind, like Poincare’s telepathy. It thrums through the very blood in her veins, pulsating with instinctive knowing:
he’s just testing you, my dear… all just another test…
Caroline: Caroline tries to keep her voice steady as she looks at the ancient Moor.
“Do you think me so lacking in loyalty or possessed by ambition, Seneschal? A pitiful creature it would make me, to turn my back on anything and everyone for the possibility of power.”
Caroline: “And easier avenues there are too it than through your gauntlet, had I been so inclined. Secrets to shake what is left of this city freely spilled. To throw in with any other faction.”
“God knows your own servants did all they could to encourage it. I needed no prompting from Mr. Savoy and my mother’s hunters to know they hate me, or to be tempted by his promises and offers of protection from the doom you have hung over my head every night of my Requiem.”
“But despite every bullet in the back, despite every petty taunt, despite starting with literally nothing but the blood you put in my veins—despite your ally’s attempt to feed on me like a kine, his beating of me, his invasion of my mind, and your invasion of my home. Despite the sheriff staking me for a lark and the bishop ruining my name among Kindred and kine. Despite the the impossible demand that I raise my hand against Claire—who revealed herself to me knowing it would cost her life—here I am. Despite the lies about who I am and who I was, the questions I couldn’t even ask, here I am, your demands fulfilled, Seneschal.”
“I am who you thought I was, who I have always been.”
“If that falls short your measure, so be it, but I have been and am the best opportunity you’ve ever had and—unless there is some trump card hidden up your sleeve in these nights, Seneschal—I’m likely the best you ever will have.”
GM: “Your second mother yet lives, Miss Malveaux,” Maldonato states. “The destruction of her corporeal form poses little more inconvenience to her than a serpent’s loss of its shed skin.”
Caroline: Caroline looks back to the severed head, her bloodstained hands.
“That was cruel.”
GM: “It was,” the seated vampire concurs.
Caroline: “Did you learn what you wished, Seneschal?”
GM: “I did, Miss Malveaux. I must learn more still, for much I had accepted as given has been called into question. Will you consent to grant me access to your thoughts?”
oh, yes… we knew this would come…
Caroline: “I can’t stop you,” Caroline replies calmly. “But I would ask what it is you hope to find?”
GM: “Fullness of understanding.”
Caroline: “You might wander the desert for forty years if you seek that within me, Seneschal,” Caroline replies.
GM: “Perhaps for longer yet, Miss Malveaux,” Maldonato answers contemplatively. “I do not seek understanding of your soul, however, but of events to which you were witness and participant.”
Caroline: “Better rummage through my mind?” Caroline asks.
GM: A frown creases the seneschal’s face. It’s only a slight change in expression—like that first crack in an earthquake’s yawning fissure.
“I have warned you once against coarseness of tongue, Miss Malveaux. Discourtesy ill becomes the Blood of any prince.”
Caroline: The heiress reaches back out through her blood, grasping for her mother. Asking for help, for guidance, even as she smooths her ruined and bloodstained dress.
“My apologies, Seneschal.”
“And again, for the answer, as much as it may matter, is no. I would not invite you in, Seneschal, though we both know I could not resist you any more than I could prevent your strike.”
GM: sweet child… what aid would you have me grant…?
Caroline: He can’t see it…
GM: “I am afraid your answer matters little, Miss Malveaux, beyond what peace of mind free assent might have granted you. The needs of the archdiocese outweigh your desire for privacy.”
Memories suddenly begin to well within Caroline’s head, like pebbles caught within the ebbs of a fast-flowing current.
“I said I don’t need it, Caroline. It’s just easier-”
“He has to die.”
“God knows I’m not advocating you should trust any of them, Caroline. They’re all just different flavors of poison-"
your flesh is my flesh, my dear… I feel another within us… what would you have me do…?
Caroline: Deception… I need to spin him something else…. drop my own tale for him.
GM: “Now all that’s left is to wait, and watch how the dice fall-”
“You’ve done your part in drawing him out. Generals lead from the rear-”
“Killing him is only the start. I need to frame the scene-”
“I’m not putting you in the same room as my people, Caroline-”
little time remains, my dear… the more we wait, the more our foe sees… I shall not decide your battle tactics for you…
Caroline: Gunfire. Screams of pain. A glare from her mother, shock, outrage playing out across her face. More gunfire being exchanged.
“It had to be this way.” Men dying, betrayed from among their number on screens. “You ungrateful… What have you done!” “They had to die, Mother, for you to live.” Sorcery in Claire’s hands. A trap springing to life. “The stake will be removed when Savoy is prince.” Pleading. More men dying. Gunshots tricking down. “Don’t make me do this…” Darkness. Claire’s horrified expression.
A meeting with Ferris. “Something went wrong, but we mopped them up anyway. Took two prisoners too.” “I don’t think she ever saw it coming.” “The barrier…” “Was going to trap you no matter what you did when you refused to defect.”
“Still have to sell it to the bishop…” “Easier to ask forgiveness from him than permission.” “Partycrashers…” “…be anyone, but my money would be on Savoy. He’s been keeping a close eye on you…”_
A meeting in the rain. “Even loyalty has a limit, Roger. You’re living like a criminal…” “Can’t be bought…” “…To a person or to a job? She can’t do the job you were hired to do anymore…” “We’re done…” “…daughter?” A glare. “Benefits to it. I don’t expect she’s offering that, is she?” “Slave to…”
“Two even have children…”
“She’ll thank you in the end.”
Meetings. Planning. “Gettis is crafty…” “Depends on you on the inside, Roger…” “Frame them for….” All the work that goes into such an operation, just slightly tweaked…
She draws on the worst, most bitter memories of her existence, flavoring in feeling here and there. Drowns her mother’s death in all she felt then, before Abélia appeared, muddies the edges of memory, makes them sharp and painful. She paints with broken glass, and she bleeds along with it.
She tries not to focus on the black tint to the blood.
GM: It’s easy enough not to.
Easy enough, against the soft and pale hands so tenderly guiding her own.
Memories flash through her consciousness, faster, too many to process, like the fast-flowing stream is emptying out into a great lake.
Caroline: Caroline tries to catch them as they go, to tweak each detail that needs to change. She grinds her teeth as the strain builds, trying to keep up, to stay ahead…
GM: Just as suddenly, that strain ends. The flow dies. She is back in Maldonato’s office.
Caroline: She hates it, in part. The lying to him. She hadn’t lied earlier when she made the claim. On the other hand, he’s brought this upon himself by delving into her mind not only without her permission, but in direct opposition to her wishes. She didn’t lie to him. He lied to himself.
At least that’s what she tells herself.
GM: The elder vampire does not immediately speak. His gaze is pensive. Reflective. Even… tired.
“Your mother’s life was forfeit ere her secret was exposed, Miss Malveaux. Yet it was not my wish that she should meet her direct end at your hands. I am sorry.”
Caroline: Caroline says nothing for a moment. Many things come to mind. Petty retorts or taunts, and less pretty recriminations and blame that speak to the very real wound, however well-covered it is by Abélia and her new sisters.
What’s the point, though? He knows what he’s done now better than anyone, and if living it through her eyes did not sting enough no words will.
Finally she settles on the mundane. He didn’t have to apologize, and to refuse it is nothing but petty. “Thank you, Seneschal.”
The words cost nothing. They mean nothing. She’s just numb to it, to all the horror—most of it staining her hands. She’s not even certain it was the worst thing she’s done.
GM: “Do you still consider Claire Malveaux to have been a mother to you, Miss Malveaux?” Maldonato inquires.
Caroline: “That is a complicated question, Seneschal,” Caroline replies.
“Yes, I think so,” she continues after a moment. “We were not close, when I was young. Everyone said I was my father’s daughter. I probably knew her better these last six months than my whole life.”
GM: “For some, the Embrace is a curse and wholesale ruination of their mortal lives. For others, it opens their eyes to aspects of the human condition they would otherwise have never experienced,” Maldonato states. The words are not new ones.
The words are not new ones, until he amends, “For some, the Embrace may do both these things.”
Caroline: “I suppose it was very foolish, to get closer. To believe there might be an ending other than tragedy,” Caroline admits. “To hope. She wasn’t so blind.”
She knows she should feel melancholy. Should hate herself. Should be less calm. It just all seems to distant. It’s only the latest thing she’s lost. And that night, unlike many before, she gained something.
GM: “Some biblical scholars have observed that its cultural prohibitions are not without secular basis,” Maldonato states. “Shellfish, which dwell in the bottoms of marine environments, subsist upon dead rather than living organisms and posed a greater health risk for ancient peoples to consume. Leviticus thus prohibited the Israelites’ diet from including water-born creatures without fins and scales.”
“Kindred scholars have debated many topics concerning the Testament’s prohibition against ‘dwelling among’ mortals. In the modern era, even declared atheists have come to believe in that prohibition’s secular value.”
“So too, it would seem, may even those mortals who uphold the Vigil.”
Caroline: Caroline is contemplative. “I don’t believe I have endured a long enough Requiem to speak intelligently on the matter,” she admits.
“I could say that it was the loss of those mortal ties that cut keeper than any torment another Kindred conceived, but… so too could I claim it was the few that remain that have given me the greatest cause to plow forward each night, to carve out a better Requiem. How much of that is a reflection of ‘youth’ and my particular circumstances, well. As I said, Seneschal.”
GM: “What effect have you observed the continuance of those ties to have upon the mortals in question?” Maldonato inquires.
Caroline: “Varied. When within my control, not definite. When beyond it… never positive.” She looks at him seriously. “As with most of a Requiem, I would observe that God may have Damned us, but it is we that make our existence, and each other’s, hell.”
GM: “The Beast has ever abhorred the company of its own kind.”
Caroline: “We are petty and terrible things,” Caroline agrees solemnly. “Haunted by greatness, I think, more than possessing it. A fitting punishment.”
GM: “In Claire Malveaux, I see a woman possessed of many foibles,” the seneschal begins. “I see a woman whose relationship with her daughter was marred by mutual resentments and words left unsaid. I see a woman whose Vigil and pursuits of power stained her hands red with sin, and made her into what she most feared to become. I see a woman motivated to secure what she considered the best possible life for her children, even at great cost to herself, and by whose sacrifice and mercy her daughter stands before me now.”
“I have seen love drive many souls to folly. I have seen love cause suffering to many for the sake of few. I have seen love drive individuals guilty of the darkest sins to acts of altruism few would have believed them capable of. In Claire Malveaux’s love for her daughter and family, I see perhaps all of these things.”
“Love would seem as complex and multinuanced an emotion as any, and perhaps more so than most. Yet it is a comforting thought that some measure of grace may be found within it.”
Caroline: The words bite at Caroline, tear at her, ripping out bleeding chunks. Her expression sets grimly.
“We all make our choices, then we have to live with them, Seneschal. I wonder which is worse.”
GM: “Only by not mourning what we have lost do we lose it in truth,” Maldonato answers.
Caroline: “Have you ever had to murder someone you cared for, Seneschal?” Caroline asks. “To watch the light fade from their eyes, and to see the terror creep into it?”
GM: “I have, Miss Malveaux. I was alone among my sire’s childer in pledging my sword to the Camarilla.”
Caroline: Caroline nods. “That must have been difficult.”
GM: “It was a difficult time. Yet such may be said of all times.”
“Your mother’s continued threat to the Masquerade, Primogen Opal’s planned treachery, and further circumstances concomitant to your Embrace and Requiem all promise much hardship in the nights ahead. But those battles are for another night.”
Maldonato rises from his seat.
“Come, Miss Malveaux.”
“It is time we saw your sire.”
Caroline: The Ventrue may be dead, but she can almost feel her pulse quicken, feel her senses sharpening, at the seneschal’s pronouncement.
She remembers him not from her ‘Embrace’, not from the lessons any Ventrue should learn from their sire, not from nights spent together. He’s always been something… distant. Grand and majestic.
She remembers the first time she saw him—what seems like a lifetime ago. Sweeping into the cathedral like a god cloaked in night.
Since then—even before—he’s been a mythic figure, an untouchable one, something distant and upon a pedestal. Something to be desired, perhaps even worshiped, but never attained. Even as she sacrificed… everything. Friends. Family. Future. Mother. Father. Even her soul to get here… like a faithless priestess, she never expected to get here. In some ways, it’s more terrible than never making it. She knew the price of failure, knew what awaited her. For the first time she has an opportunity to consider the price of success.
What he will think of her.
What he might say of her.
What he might do with her.
What he might ask of her.
She can’t help but frame him in terms of her own father, of his demands and expectations. Of her failure to meet them. As she was not perfect in life, so too has her Requiem been far from flawless. Her bought education, her modest agoge, her paltry domain. Her failings and debts. She’s seen how he reacted to his last childe. She knows he doesn’t know of her existence. That he might might reject her brings an almost mind-numbing terror for a moment.
She shoves it aside and gathers herself. Whatever comes will come. Whatever he thinks he will think. It’s far too late for regrets now, and doubts are only blades to fall upon. Whatever else she may be, whatever he might think, she’s Abélia Devillers’ daughter. She’s a killer of millennia-old Kindred. Despite all odds, despite everything to the contrary, she’s here now. She has not pulled herself from the gutter to fall to despair now.
She rises to her feet, straightens her back, and holds her head high. Her voice does not waver.
“Lead the way, Seneschal.”
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