“I’m going to make you the luckiest ghoul in New Orleans. If you’ll let me.”
—The Man With The Silver Smile
Wednesday, 13 February 2013, AM
Sterling: It’s a nice place.
It’s nicer, than anywhere her last owner could have stayed. Would have stayed? Doesn’t matter. That monster liked to squat, didn’t see much use for finer things.
This monster has finer things to give away. The apartment in Marigny doesn’t look heavily lived in. It has all the trappings of modern life, all the nice things an apartment is supposed to have; a big, expensive-looking television, what looks like a painting on the far side, sleek hardwood floors, stairs leading to an upstairs loft in the corner, and even one of those sculptures in the corner; the ones that exist contorted into an untenable, unending state.
Just like her.
“Welcome to your new home,” the monster says after giving her a moment to take it in.
“I just bought it. Don’t recall how much it cost. Actually, I don’t think I asked. People make such a fuss about the price, but I saw it and had a feeling I would have a use for it soon. So I said, ‘I want it.’ And then I saw your face, and I knew why. You can decorate it however you like, of course. You’ll be the one staying her, most of the time. And it’s right near my other place, or one of them, so we’ll never be too far.”
He strolls in, brandishing the silver-headed cane he carries about the place. He talks with his hands, vividly, almost ceaselessly, his movements flowing like molten steel that’s been poured into the checker-patterned suit he wears, a contiguous, ceaseless ripple of motion that might spill at any moment and scald. Every once in a while, the foot of his cane strikes the hardwood floors softly, a dull thump that punctuates his more emotive exclamations.
When he reaches the center of the room, he pivots to face her, and smiles the smile that she wasn’t sure she had seen right the first time. It’s a smile too crooked to stay on a face, a smile that glints with cursed silver but hides the teeth she knows his kind keep in their mouths.
The smile is all she knows of him. The man with the silver smile has not given her a name yet, but he knows hers. He asked her owner.
“What do you think, Genevieve? Will it suit you?”
Genevieve: She is more akin to the statue in the corner than she will ever be to this… thing, all smiles and grand motions, incessant movement, ceaseless chatter. She is still. Her movements are minimal. She does not gawk at this new place, all wide eyed and craning necks, but looks instead with a flicker of her eyes.
They’re the only thing that give her away, those eyes, the only color in a field of white. Blue, gray, who can tell. Something soft or stormy. They dart around the room, taking it in, categorizing things into little columns to keep them straight. Her brain does it all without her noticing.
Its attention, though, is on the monster in the middle of the room. The tap, tap, tapping of his cane. Trouble, it says. Danger. Every alarm bell inside her head goes off at that smile.
It’s survival strategy, that stillness, brought on by years of experience. Not just with their kind but the ordinary people as well, the people with color in their skin and hair, the people who point, laugh, stare. It keeps her safe, lets her size them up, figure them out. Who can be mad at a marble carving?
A home. He’s giving her a home. A nicer apartment than she could have afforded before, even with two salaries. This has to be a trick. A joke. Any moment now he’ll laugh at her for thinking this is real.
“Yes.” Sir? Master? Lord on High? What sort of obsequious title does this creature demand?
It’s a yes that tells him to get it over with, to finish laughing, to ask how she could be so foolish as to think she deserved anything so nice as her own abode. Perhaps he’ll put her in a closet somewhere. Or throw a pillow over the softest spot of the hardwood floor.
Sterling: He clucks. “Good, good. If you decide it isn’t, we can always get you another.”
He is very quickly close to her—not blurring like quicksilver but simply too quick to step away from gracefully. Up close, she can look him in the eyes, eyes the color of dollar bills and snakeskins. He doesn’t look so cold as her last. His skin might be greyish, but he breathes in rushed little puffs, and blinks regularly.
He snaps his fingers in front of her eyes, breaking-glass loud and heart-attack quick.
Genevieve: She doesn’t do anything so mundane as stumble. She is too nimble for that, though not so immune to their—his—tricks that she does not react. She flinches. The heels of her feet leave the floor, weight shifting forward. Her shoulders lift a fraction of an inch, though her hands remain at her sides.
She tells herself she was just blinking, but her heart hammers away at her ribcage. Thump-thump. He can see the spot on her neck bounce, racing. It gives her away.
Sterling: “Oh, lovely,” he says simply, that smile returning. He’s positively giddy. “Brilliant. You’re strong. I suppose you must be, if you’ve survived a brute like him for so long.”
He whirls about and before she can regain her breath he’s reclining on the couch, fingers laced behind his head and the cane leaning against his leg.
“Hope it’s okay if I sit,” he says jovially. “You can, of course, join me. It’s your place, after all.”
Genevieve: If it’s her place, can she ask him to leave?
There’s a moment where she considers running. The door is right there. The thought is dismissed as soon as it occurs. She hesitates, eyeing the couch, considering his placement. Sit too close and it’s an open invitation, too far away and it’s a snub. Maybe the couch itself is a test and he’ll want to know what scum like her thinks she’s doing sitting on the furniture. It’s a game.
She hates games. The rules haven’t been explained; she’s off balance and she doesn’t like it.
Five short steps take her across the room to the couch and she sinks onto it as if she hadn’t just been debating the merits of where to place herself. Her feet stay flat on the ground, hands on her knees, back straight. She doesn’t want to look at him so her eyes stare straight ahead instead. She can’t help but think about the changes she would make if this were her place. Swap out the art. Find the support beams to add a hook, then a bar or rings. Pad the floor beneath it…
Dreaming is dangerous. She stops.
She should, she reflects, ask what he wants. What to call him. She opens her mouth to do so.
Sterling: “You could run,” the man with the silver smile says as she opens her mouth. “It would force me to do things I don’t want to do, and which you would enjoy even less. Please don’t. And I think padding the floor is a great idea. And maybe a rug, too. If you need encouragement.”
His voice is different. Before it was garrulous and gay, the voice of a socialite. Now it’s dryer, raspier, the voice of a smoker who started young and kept on smoking as he got older. There’s warmth in that voice, but also amusement.
Genevieve: He’s in her head.
The realization slams into her. She shouldn’t be surprised. He had done it too. Watched her dreams. Found out what would make her break, who he could threaten—her thoughts spin away from her before she can think his name or picture his face.
Her pulse jumps up. She swallows, the sound audible in the otherwise silent room.
“I wasn’t going to run.” She moves on, drowning out the lie with a question. “What do you want with me?”
Sterling: “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he says in that same wizened voice. “I’d think about running, too, if I were you. But then, I’ve always had an appetite for risk.” Those money-colored eyes twinkle. “As for you—I daresay I’ve already done what I want to you. I’ve rescued you.”
Genevieve: Rescued. As if he hadn’t just stuck her into another cage.
“A gilded cage is still a cage. ‘Rescued’ implies freedom.” She looks pointedly at the door.
Sterling: The giggle that greets her words is several octaves too high, and it ricochets about her ears impossibly. The man raises an eyebrow. “And what do you think freedom means for you now, in this city? Tell me, doesn’t a part of you long to seek out your abuser, even now? Long to be fed, even if that feeding is followed by a beating? I can smell sin, Gen—shall I call you Gen? I think I shall— and pain, and you have the reek of an addict. I could no more set you free than I could save a dope fiend from themselves.There is no such thing as freedom for a ghoul in New Orleans, or anywhere else my kind hunt. Not really.”
The dry, scraped voice turns somber. “Your boldness does you credit, though. You really were a prize worth winning.”
Genevieve: A prize. A rescue. That’s what she is now. Something to be won, bartered, traded. Bought and sold to the highest bidder, and she has no say in it.
Slave. That’s all the word ghoul means. A pretty way to say slave, another term for punching bag.
Fetch my meal. Carve it up. There’s a sweetheart.
She wants to deny his addict accusation, but his words ring true. How often had she debased herself for a drop of it? Even now she’s thinking about it. Running back to him. His eyes float in front of her, mocking.
She turns her head to finally look directly at this new one, sizing him up. He’s fast, but is he strong? Cane implies weakness. Assisted walking. Had he used it to walk, or is it just a prop?
“That’s what rehab is for.”
Sterling: He didn’t seem to be leaning on it, earlier. “Do you think you can find a rehab for the wayward slaves of vampires? Besides, I am a monster myself, and I have duties to my kind, tedious as I might find them. My old man would have a fit if he learned I had turned a renfield loose so cavalierly. No, Gen, I would much rather employ you generously myself. I think if you really took the time to think about it, you’d prefer that too.”
Genevieve: Her lips curl. “Employ?”
“Is that what you’re calling it these days?”
Sterling: “Such moxie,” the vampire sighs. “Such honesty. Yes, I am another domitor. But I am a gentler and more generous one. Cruelty for cruelty’s sake bores me terribly. I would much rather pamper you and reward you for loyal, faithful service. And though I am a beast, I am also a man. Better a servant rescued from a cruel master than one enslaved for no good but my own whims, hmm? It wears rather lighter on my conscience, inasmuch as I bother to carry one.”
Genevieve: He’d rescued her to feel good about himself. Her nose twitches in withheld amusement. She stays silent, considering. Then, “you meant it about this being my place. That wasn’t a game?” How far does generous go? Actual meals? Days off? Familial—no.
Sterling: “Oh, it’s all a game,” he croons. "But it’s one you’re meant to have fun in. This is your home, now, for as long as you serve me or grow tired of it. And how far generous goes… " he smiles slightly. “If you ask, many things might be given. I’ll tell you what. If you come sit on my lap, I’ll pretend to be Santa and we’ll call it Christmas. I like saying yes. It’s rather a thrill.”
“Or you could stay where you are. There’s no game without choice, after all.”
Genevieve: Any warmth in her eyes dies at the thought of touching him. She turns her face away, chin jerking toward the door.
“If it’s my home, I’d like you to leave.”
Say yes to that, deadman.
Sterling: He laughs. “Cute. So cute. How about we play a game, instead?”
There’s a blur of checkers, and then there’s a glass in his hand. A glass filled with red, syrupy, coppery sweetness. The smell is intoxicating.
The man who is no mere man smiles knowingly at her as he daintily licks his wrist clean. "I bet that you can’t walk me to the door without trying to take a sip. If you win, I’ll go. If you lose… " he tilts his head. “Well. If you lose, let’s just say there’s more where that came from, hmm?”
Genevieve: She’s not listening. Her eyes are on the glass in his hand. Her mouth is dry, so dry, and that will quench it. That will make everything better. That will fix the dull ache inside her chest, the one that started when she’d been told she belonged to someone else now.
If he goes, will he leave the glass? The door can’t be that far. She tears her eyes away from him to find it. When had the room gotten so big? It’s zooming away from her, like something out of a horror movie.
She thinks he moved, too. Gotten closer. Because she can smell it, can almost taste it. That’s not fair. That’s not fair, he cheated—but, no, it’s just her who’s leaning forward, reaching.
She rights herself. Shakes her head. If she’s on his lap she can pin him down. Drink until she’s full. Is the gamble worth it? Is touching him worth it?
“Door,” she says tightly, pointing.
Sterling: He smiles, silver teeth flashing, and rises too, proffering his arm—the same arm that holds the glass. “If you’ll walk me.”
Genevieve: She can touch his arm. Arms are fine. Arms aren’t laps. Right? She takes his arm in her hands. So close to the cup, to that sweet red. A sip wouldn’t hurt. Just a taste. He’s quick, though. Is he going to snatch it away? No, he wants her to reach for it.
She tells her feet to move but they won’t. They’re stuck. Heavy. Her eyes close and that makes it worse, because now she’s picturing it, can see herself lifting the glass to her lips. It’s heavy in her hand, warmed by the blood. It will slide so smoothly down her throat…
She doesn’t know when she moved, when her hands closed around the glass, but now she isn’t imagining it in her hands, now her fingers are curling around it and she’s tugging to get it away from him.
Sterling: He lets her take it. A part of him feels bad for her, but better she find out this way than another.
She cannot be free from herself.
The taste is phenomenal, and distinct from her usual “drinks.” His blood makes her hear dice rolling, tastes like all the icons in a slot machine aligning. It tastes like victory, like a kiss from lady luck, like everything is going to be alright.
She lost the bet. But she feels like a winner.
He regards her patiently when the last sip is gone, her lips streaked with his vitae. “Well, now. It seems I’ll be staying a while longer.”
He takes her hands in his and leads her to the couch.
“I’m going to make you the luckiest ghoul in New Orleans,” he clucks softly. “If you’ll let me.”
Genevieve: It’s like that first sip of water after being lost in a desert for months. Divine. It doesn’t linger long on her lips once the glass is empty; she licks them clean, following along with him to the couch. She hadn’t gotten far. One step? Two? She doesn’t pull away, sits when and where he tells her to.
“You said more,” she reminds him.
Sterling: “More?” he asks teasingly, pulling her over his lap, bouncing his knee under her. He taps a finger against her nose, like he might a beloved dog. “What more? Is Gen suddenly thirsty, even in her gilded cage?”
His voice grows deeper, warmer, more rumbling.
Like a belly full of jelly.
“What would you like for Christmas, little Gen?” asks Santa’s voice.
Genevieve: It’s not fair. She wants more. Will her teeth break his skin?
“401k, paid vacation, no holidays, dental and vision included?” Her tone is dry. She arches one white-blonde eyebrow at him. “Should I ask for a pony instead?”
Maybe she can try it. Just bite down. She’s already on his lap. She leans in.
Sterling: He laughs.
“HO HO HO!”
He bounces her closer as she leans in, so that she’s right next to his cold neck. She can even feel an uneven, but definite pulse there. “Hard to give a 401k to an immortal, little Gen. And that’s what you’ll be. Paid vacation, sure. Pony, what breed? Ask me for something real, Gen. Something precious.”
He runs his fingers through her hair fondly.
Genevieve: “Diamonds, gold, a yacht. A rocket ship.” Nothing she wants. Just a distraction, something to keep him busy. His neck is right there. Isn’t that the place to bite? Her flat teeth touch down on his cold flesh. Only she doesn’t have anything to break the skin. She doesn’t have fangs. She’s just a ghoul on the lap of a vampire who can read her mind.
Her mouth closes.
She wants to forget the past few years ever happened. She wants to be happy and healthy. She wants her husband, and she wants him to be left alone. She wants the child she had promised him seven years ago. She wants a lock on her bedroom door that this one can’t get through.
She doesn’t say any of that. She doesn’t know how.
She nips at his neck instead.
Sterling: She nips. She can feel his laughter, a low rumble, but it fades quickly. His fingers don’t stop, but they start to caress her cheeks, her forehead. “You want to see your husband? Want him provided for and safe?”
He slips a finger to her lips, almost hushing her. “The neck has tougher flesh than a finger, you know.”
Genevieve: She’s brought back to that time, months ago, it was her finger against his lips. She’d had a dream he didn’t like. He’d heard her crying, hadn’t liked it. He’d—
She yanks away. There’s nothing graceful about it.
Sterling: He lets her, regards her sadly. “Oh, Gen. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Genevieve: Her laugh is nothing more than a disbelieving rasp. “You will. Of course you will. That’s what I’m here for. That’s all I am.” She backpedals. The ground is hard beneath her. Her shoulder hits the coffee table and she winces, rising, edging around it. The door is close. She can get outside. Scream. He was fond of telling her she had a nice set of lungs.
Sterling: “Oh, bother.” He’s past her quickly, between her and the door. “Remain still and silent,” He tells her, and she finds that she does.
“Bother, bother,” the man hums. “Don’t overexert yourself. You’ve had enough for one night, and I have other places to be anyways. I won’t chase you from your new home.”
He carries her. He’s a bit of a scrawny man—more than a bit, a stiff wind ought to bruise him—but he isn’t weak, and he carries her up the stairs to a nicer bedroom than she’s been in in years. He tucks her in, saying soothing things, and then he leans over her. She feels the bite, two pinpricks on her neck, and then the pleasure of his steady, soft pulling from her veins.
When he stops, she’s exhausted, and her eyes are fighting to remain open. “The command will desist with the sun,” she heats him say from a great distance. “I’ll be back tomorrow night, and we’ll play something innocent. I’ll give you time. You’ll adjust. I promise.”
He bends over her again, his lips brushing her forehead. “Try to sleep, Genevieve. And here’s a little apology.”
She can’t see what he does, but when he presses his wrist to her lips, she can drink of the same heady brew he shared earlier.
But this time, when it’s over, his smile swims before her eyes, and it seems rather more charming, marginally less sinister.
“Sleep, little pet. Little Gen. There are a great many clouds in your life, I know.” His voice retreats to the far side of the room. “But I hope in time, you’ll see me as what I am; the silver lining.”
The door shuts behind him. She’s left alone, in the dark, with a comfortable bed.
She’s left alone, in the gilded cage.
Wednesday, 13 February 2013, PM
Genevieve: She’s waiting for him the next evening.
She’s seated on the couch, her eyes on the door, waiting. It’s locked, but there’s no part of it that doesn’t think that he doesn’t have a key or another way in. So she sits, and she waits, and she doesn’t dread his arrival.
She has changed since last night. Her hair is still wet from her shower, her skin still pink from the heat of it. That’s the excuse she’ll use for her red eyes, too, if he asks, though she doesn’t think that he will. The clothes are the right size for her; she’d found them upstairs in the closet, and she wondered how he knew. They’re comfortable. Let her put her bare feet on the couch. The TV is black, but music plays from the radio in the corner, nothing she’s familiar with. She keeps hearing songs she doesn’t recognize.
There’s a piece of paper and a pen in front of her, words scribbled across the page in handwriting that can only be described as “rough.” It’s the list he asked for yesterday, the things she wants. She doesn’t know if the offer is still on the table.
Maybe he’ll know that she tried to run. Maybe he’ll look into her mind and see Michael with the other woman, the beautiful woman, with her tan skin and her dark hair and her eyes that aren’t too far apart, her shoulders that aren’t too broad. Maybe he’ll see the child they share, the one she couldn’t give him.
Maybe she won’t have to explain her broken heart.
Sterling: She’s right that he has a key. He blinks when he walks in.
“And here I was expecting you’d have run. Glad I checked.”
He strolls in, but doesn’t make himself comfortable. He regards her, maybe reading her mind or maybe just watching.
“You seem calmer,” he says finally. “How have you found this place? Will it suit you?”
Genevieve: She gestures vaguely toward the couch. He might as well have a seat; it’s silly to pretend that he doesn’t own this place, that he couldn’t just take it back from her on a whim. She knows what she is.
“I had a home in the city once. It wasn’t this nice.” Her eyes dart toward the statue, the art on the walls. None of it is to her taste. “Is redecorating still on the table?”
Sterling: “Of course.” He rummages in a pocket and suddenly holds a sleek, silver card between his fingers, which he offers to her. “I took the liberty of setting you up with an expenses account. I expect two hundred ought to do for the year, but let me know if you need more.”
Genevieve: Two hundred might replace her wardrobe. If she’s thrifty. There’s a secondhand store down the street she can visit. She takes the card from him, setting it on the table next to her list. A second later she crosses spending money off her list.
“Do I have a job to do? Fetching dinner?”
Sterling: He snorts. “What, hunting? Only if I’m particularly lazy. No, I see you in more of an… assistant capacity. You’ll manage some of the things I’m too bored to, help clean up when things get messy, and perhaps carry the occasional message. More than that… what are your skills? Talents?” He waves a hand that glitters with rings. “I could delve through your mind, of course, but I rather prefer to have a conversation.”
He comes closer and eyes the list. “Why’d you cross that off? Does two hundred grand go a shorter way than it used to?”
Genevieve: “…you said two hundred.”
Sterling: He looks offended. “What am I, a coal miner?”
Genevieve: “You’re giving me a card. With a limit of two hundred thousand?”
Sterling: "Like I said, if you need more… " He shrugs. “Like I was saying last night, you people get so worked up about price. It all comes around, in the end. That’s just a week or two’s winnings, honestly. Besides, you’ll probably be in charge of managing my finances soon enough if you’re adept at that sort of thing. I’d rather pay you the money than encourage you to embezzle it.”
Genevieve: He has to be kidding. This is a joke. There’s no way that he’s just handing over that much money, that much responsibility. He doesn’t even know her. She could clear out the account, buy a plane ticket, be halfway around the country before he even knows.
“Winnings.” He’d won her, too. “You gamble?”
Sterling: He smiles at her roguishly. There’s some charm in it, now that she’s tasted him. “I play, yes. And I’ve made quite a career out of it.”
The man takes a seat next to her, leaning forward on his cane. “I don’t need to poke my fingers in your mind to know what you’re thinking. But money itself means next to nothing to me. And besides, if you were going to run, you would have already. I’m confident that you’ll stick around long enough to appreciate your new situation.”
Genevieve: Her eyes close. She takes a breath. It’s deep, in through the nose, out through the mouth. She has to tell him. Be honest. Otherwise he’ll find out, then it’ll be worse. She opens her eyes again but doesn’t look at him. She’s staring down at her list. How silly it seems now.
“I did run.”
Sterling: “Oh? Where to?”
Genevieve: “I can’t tell you.”
Sterling: He rolls his eyes. “Won’t, you mean.”
Genevieve: Her lips press together. She nods.
Sterling: “Look, Gen, I don’t know how much you know about my kind. Especially living among the Sabbat. But I’m sure I don’t have to point out that I’ve been exceedingly genteel with you. Yes?”
Genevieve: “Yes.” Her voice is tight. Her muscles are already tensing in anticipation.
Sterling: “And there you go. There’s no other shoe that you haven’t seen waiting to drop. No chopper coming to chop off your head. You might think I rescued you from my less cultured cousin for my own moral vanity, and you’d be right. I’m a monster, and I’m not pretending not to be. But what you don’t seem to appreciate is how I have absolutely no desire to threaten you into obedience. There are a thousand and one ways I could have done so already. Tell me, if you think I was interested in tormenting you, there is anything at all you could reasonably do to stop me?”
Genevieve: “No.” That’s the truth. He’s a vampire. She’s a human. Ghoul. Slave, whatever. He’s in charge. Stronger, faster, smarter. Immortal. She’s breakable, frail. He can read her mind. She can… do a back bend. She bets he can’t do a back bend. But that isn’t the purpose of this.
“I spent years with them. Everything I did was wrong. Every word was wrong, every action was wrong, every apology was wrong. I was—am—dirt. Less than. A literal punching bag. You bring me here. Expect me to accept that you’re not going to think of a new, creative way to break me.”
Sterling: “Oh, darling Gen. Why should I break you? You’ve been broken.”
Genevieve: “And you’re the superglue to his hammer?”
Sterling: “So much more fun to put you back together, isn’t it? I enjoy a challenge.”
Genevieve: “And what about when you get bored of that? Dissemble again? I’m not real to you people.”
Sterling: “Oh, who knows what the future holds? Well, some licks, probably, but I’m not one. I rather enjoy not knowing. Yes, there is a chance I will, for reasons inexplicable to myself now, decide to shatter you like an old toy. But now you are new, and shiny, and oh-so-fascinating. Live in the present, Gen. That’s all you have when you live forever.”
Genevieve: She doesn’t appreciate his cavalier attitude about shattering her. But that’s rule number one, then. Don’t let him get bored.
“I don’t live forever,” she points out. She’d seen enough of her kind come and go to know there is a very, very brief life expectancy.
Sterling: “You can,” he replies.
“If you don’t die, of course. But I’m rather invested in ensuring that you don’t.”
Genevieve: “I was married. Before this. I went to see him.”
“He moved on.”
“That’s where I went.”
Sterling: He stares into the middle distance for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” he says, in his real voice, the smoker’s rasp. “Sometimes our loved ones forget us. It hurts. I know.”
Genevieve: “I kept thinking if I got out he’d be waiting. We could go somewhere.” Her face doesn’t change, her voice doesn’t crack. There’s nothing to give away what she’s feeling inside. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s not.”
“I don’t want to run. I don’t have anywhere to go. It won’t happen again.”
Sterling: “I’m glad,” he says. “We’ll have more fun without you trying to make a break for it, anyways.”
Genevieve: “Who did you lose?” It’s none of her business. She asks anyway.
Sterling: “My wife. She didn’t handle what happened to me very well.”
“She’s in an institution, now.”
Genevieve: “Oh.” She hadn’t expected that. “I thought you weren’t supposed to tell people.”
Sterling: “We’re not,” he says quietly.
He grips his cane. “How much do you know of the Camarilla?”
Genevieve: “Stuck up. Better than everyone. Rules, rules, rules. Prince Yahoo and the Endless Titles.”
Sterling: “That is the big picture, yes,” he agrees. “I’ll take some time over the next few nights to teach you some of the finer points. If you embarrass me in public, I’m afraid I’ll have to punish you. So don’t.”
Genevieve: Rule number two, then. Her chin jerks downward in a nod.
“I don’t know your name.”
Sterling: The ghost of a smile haunts his face. “I have many, many names.”
“Among those I trust more than not, I go by Sterling.”
Genevieve: “Sterling.” She taps a finger against her lips. There’s no metal in her mouth, but she’d seen his. “Mister Sterling?”
Sterling: “If you like. Now, then. Tell me about that list of yours.”
Sterling: He gives her what she wants.
And gives, and gives, and gives.
Maybe she asks for more ridiculous things, more absurd privileges. The yacht? Easy. He wins it in a craps game with a capo. A pony? He’ll make sure to buy her a range to ride around. That rocket ship? It’ll be hard, but he knows a Kindred with ties to NASA. It’ll take a few years to get him in his pocket, naturally, but if she’s willing to wait…
Vacations, even. When she asks about what would happen if she ran away, he laughs.
And she never does. Not when she’s across the world with enough money to make a go of things, not when she’s out of his reach entirely, not when he all but gives her permission to abandon him.
Why doesn’t she leave?
Genevieve: That first time she’d boarded the plane she’d still thought it was a joke. That he’d somehow be waiting for her on the other side of the world, that he’d sent a tail, that her very body was lit up with some sort of tracking device that would call her back at any moment. She’d expected to be dragged back, kicking and screaming, and thrown into a dank basement somewhere.
But that didn’t happen. She’d had a marvelous vacation. Her thoughts were still with him, of course, even while she laid out on the beach, even while she ate chocolate croissants, even while she saw plays she didn’t understand the words to because they were in foreign languages. She found herself calling him from the phone he’d given her on day three, checking in to make sure that everything was okay. Two days later she was on a flight back, and he’d sent a car to pick her up from the Louis Armstrong International Airport. He’d asked how it went when she got home.
She told him the truth. That she’d missed him. She worried about him. She thought about what had happened to her before, the stories she had heard the other ghouls tell each other, and she’d realized that she had it good. There was no world in which her normal, boring, human life let her enjoy the comforts like this, with the amenities she asked for, the yacht, the parties, the money, the vacations. He never touched her, not like that, never bit off her finger and spat it at her, never gave her to his new packmates to practice reigning in the Beast. Really, he doesn’t ask for much.
She tells herself that if she leaves she’ll always be in hiding. She’ll be on the run, afraid, never sure of who she can trust, where she can sleep. She tells herself she stays to fix him, because she can make him a good person, show him what he’s doing is wrong.
She lies to herself.
Some deep part of her knows the truth: she enjoys it. The privilege. The admiration. She likes being looked at without disgust.
Sterling: The longer the leash, the more eagerly she comes back to her owner.
He’s endlessly amused by her attempts to fix him. Her tight, curt condemnations when they’re alone. He doesn’t punish her for them.
Occasionally, he even seems to listen.
There’s a lot to fix, too, as she comes to learn. He’s a mobster, or so tightly entwined with them as to make it hard to tell the difference. She accompanies him on his hunts a few times. It turns out he stalks gambling addicts at their support groups, isolates them, gives them lucky numbers—and when he gives somebody lucky numbers, they work. He says its about punishing hubris, about teaching them to be thankful for what they have. The few times they don’t give in to temptation, he leaves them be.
But that’s very, very rare.
He’s a moneylender, too. No, that’s the wrong word. A loan shark, more like. People come to him in his seedy gambling den, and they ask in quavering tones for ridiculous sums. They call him the Wizard, Mr. Oz, Mr. Goldilocks, because he always has a fix, always knows the numbers that are just right.
The other mobsters, the real ones high up, call him Smiles.
She sees him turn down pleading men desperate to start a business. When asked why, he’ll say their ideas were boring. The same night he’ll give a thug seed money for a drug buy, in return for points on the package, as long as he expands his territory somewhere interesting.
He runs a numbers racket. It’s his steadiest source of income, next to his frequent high-stakes gambling. He milks desperate people for their petty cash and brings in ten times what he pays out. Hope is a powerful drug, he says.
When people can’t pay him back, he does things to them. Rarely does he maim them. That’s too easy. Instead, he makes them sell their homes, their businesses. He entraps them further in a web of obligations. Occasionally, he adds them to his herd. Or he ghouls them. He goes through most of those ghouls quickly. He offers them as stakes in games with other vampires. Occasionally, he kills one himself.
He’s a monster, like he told her. But he likes that she tells him what she thinks of him, when they’re alone.
“You make a good Conscience, Gen,” he tells her. “I suppose I’ll have to start calling you Connie.”
And that is that.
He makes her responsible for his soul.
Genevieve: On the list of “terrible things my domitor has done,” calling her Connie doesn’t even make top fifty.
Still, she hates it. She’s pretty sure he only does it because he knows she hates it, too, and enjoys the way she flinches, purses her lips, or otherwise makes some tiny annoyed sign with her face. It’s usually all the reaction people get out of her these days, especially when she’s around anyone but him. With him the mask comes down. Sometimes she even smiles.
She’s not smiling the day he killed the man. She’d been there. Watching. Told him not to, even, not that he had listened. She doesn’t even remember why he did that first time. Something about defaulting on a loan, no collateral, not even fun to ruin. Does it matter? She’d watched. It was… awful.
Like being back with the wild bunch of mongrels all over again. She’d told him that, too, when they were alone. That he’s no better than the dogs in the Sabbat if that’s what he’s going to do.
It hadn’t landed well.
Sterling: No. Normally he laughs, or affects a wounded stare at her criticisms. But when she compares him to his cousin, to her old tormentor, she sees it for a moment, in his eyes.
Genevieve: There’s a moment where she thinks she should back down. Where she should apologize, tell him that isn’t what she meant, of course he’s not that bad, she’s sorry.
But she doesn’t. She hears the screams in her head and she knows that she’s right. He’s a monster. She tells him so.
Sterling: It’s a few nights before he calls upon her again, his expression blank. Since she’s so over him, he says, he’s loaning her to a friend of his. If she likes him better, maybe he’ll let him have her.
His friend is one of the ugly ones. The really ugly ones. His mouth looks like he has some kind of cancerous, industrial-strength herpes. His eyes are a sickly green that glitter with cruel amusements. She’s seen him before. He’s in Sterling’s coterie. Normally, he wears a different face. But not tonight. Not for a mere, freakish ghoul. He’s noticed her, too.
He plays with her, that night.
He makes her do things. Crawl through things. The smells alone make her want to cry.
He makes her do things, with… with…
Sterling’s waiting at her apartment, when she’s finally allowed back to it. Dripping with filth and reeking of her punishments.
“So,” he says. “What have we learned?”
Genevieve: The ugly one told her that he was going to fix her. He didn’t understand why she was crying, why she kept screaming. He told her it was annoying.
So he took her tongue.
When she wouldn’t smile for him he carved one into her face. It’s almost as wide as Sterling’s. It’s like the guy in the movie, the one with the clown makeup.
There was worse, but that’s what’s visible on her face when she comes back to Sterling. The thin scar spreading outward from the corners of her mouth. He’d broken her, but he’d put her back together too, and then he’d handed her back to her domitor as if he hadn’t scarred the rest of her more than he had her face.
She doesn’t look at Sterling when she gets back to the apartment. She can’t. She makes to move past him, but his words stop her.
Eyes on the ground, she tells him that she’s sorry, that she didn’t mean it. Her voice is thick, choked with tears.
Sterling: “Oh, Connie,” she hears him say, in his real voice, his cigarette-burned drawl, “I’m sorry, too.”
He feeds her well that night, more than she needs to heal, and stays with her in the hour or so before the sun rises. Soothes her, hugs her. She drinks straight from his veins. Her bond tightens, though there’s still some room left for it to tighten further. A noose half-tied.
He even offers to take some of the memories, if she likes.
He knows she’ll remember the lesson.
Genevieve: There’s no more pretending she’s something other than she is. She is scum. Less than. Nothing. It was drilled into her with the ugly one, and now he does it again: she’s only comfortable because he lets her be.
She doesn’t want the memories, she tells him. She doesn’t want to know what was done to her. What she had to do. The things—
She tucks her face against him. It’s the only time she’s touched him when she wasn’t being fed.
“Please take them.” But if he takes them, how will she avoid it in the future?
Sterling: He explains, stroking her face, that she’ll remember this. How she felt, when she apologized. How resolved she was.
How much he loves his little Conscience, and never, ever wants to let another monster hold her again.
She does remember that, when she wakes up. She remembers going to the club, too. The horror, he can’t take. The disgust. The trauma. The mental scars are still there.
But when the sun rises that morning, she’s able to forget the wounds that left them.
The lesson remains.
In more ways than one.
He doesn’t kill people for neglecting their debts, anymore.
Genevieve: She doesn’t do it again. She never does it again. She’ll be better.
That’s what she tells herself.
She’s the lucky one.
And maybe his debtors are, too, when he stops killing them. But she doesn’t like the way his coterie looks at her anymore, and sometimes, when the one draws near, she’s pretty sure he’s leering at her. She starts begging off rather than be around him. When that doesn’t work she plasters herself to his side instead. No one can touch her when she’s right next to him.
Maybe that was the lesson, too. Only he can keep her safe.
Sterling: He does keep her safe.
She’s his Conscience, after all. Where would he be without her?
He lets her take a long vacation, after that. He even has somebody deliver a puppy to her front door when she gets back. It’s entirely white, from head to tail.
Just like her.
Genevieve: Its eyes match hers, too. A blue so light they’re almost white. “Glass eyes,” someone at the pet shop told her when she went to get it a collar. Blue, to match its eyes. They asked if she was getting it fixed.
“He’s not broken,” is her response. She lets herself love it.
Maybe she’s happy, for a time. Maybe she stops dreaming about a man lying on a table and a knife in her hand. Maybe she stops sleeping with a nightlight.
Maybe she’s still afraid of Sterling, because her puppy growls at him when he’s around.
Sterling: He takes it all in stride. He feeds the pup a drop of his vitae and it’s content to be around him.
But it’s different now. Her old bond has long faded, and now she dreams of Sterling sometimes. Finds her thoughts dwelling on him, constantly. How she can get him to notice her. Anxiety, over if he’ll find another Conscience.
And gratitude. Of course, the gratitude.
Genevieve: She asks him, one night, what’ll happen to her if he does. If he’ll trade her in a card game to another one of his friends, or if he’ll just… ignore her. Forever.
Somehow, that sounds worse.
She isn’t whole when she’s alone. She’s part of him. His Conscience. Without her, he’d be the monster she thinks he is. She can’t let him get to that point. She makes herself invaluable. Learns how to play the games he plays. Learns the numbers, the percentages, the loans. Trips over herself to find a reason to stay with him.
Maybe it’s enough. She doesn’t have the advantage of being able to read his mind, though.
Sterling: He simply smiles at her and takes her chin in his hand, and whispers in her ear from a foot away without moving his lips at all:
“I could never ignore my Conscience completely, Gen.” It’s been a long time since he’s called her by her real name.
There’s a lot of games. A lot to learn. He says it’s very sweet of her to want to learn. He’s happy to help. He plays with her a lot, too. He always wants a game to play. He often tells her about his night, asks what she thinks of his choices. Is he too cruel? What should he do, to be kinder?
Sometimes he listens. Sometimes he doesn’t. But he rather likes playing with her. Sometimes she even wins, though maybe only because he lets her.
Genevieve: Sometimes, she thinks, it’s embarrassing how easily he can read her thoughts. She doesn’t want him to know how often he is the center of them. Or how hearing her name—her real name, not the nickname he’s given her—sends a thrill through her.
She’s determined to find a game that she can win at. Something new. Something novel. She goes through all the classics with him, chess and checkers, poker, blackjack, and he shows her that the house always wins. She finds novel games to play, too, things from other countries, from joke shops, word games and dice games and card games. The key, she thinks, is to find something where the action is too quick for him to read her mind, or something where his ability to get inside her head won’t matter.
A game of chance. Something that is one hundred percent luck. She’s the luckiest girl in New Orleans, surely she’s got the luck to beat him in a game.
But that’s not very satisfying, is it?
She learns to cheat instead.
Sterling: The first time he catches her, he laughs delightedly, and tells her to cheat better.
The second time, he tsks and tsks, and makes her perform a forfeit. He knows she hates to be looked at. So he makes her take off her clothes. She plays the rest of the night naked, until she can win her clothes back.
His eyes dare her to try and cheat for a third time.
Genevieve: Even with her legs crossed and her shoulders hunched, arms stretched across her torso to cover herself, she can feel his eyes. She doesn’t like it. She doesn’t try to play with him for a while after that. But she finds marks for him, people who do try to cheat, people who need more than they have. Maybe that makes up for trying to deceive him.
Maybe it’ll make up for the third time she tries to cheat him, weeks later, after the humiliation from the second has faded from her mind. She palms a card. It’s smooth. She’s been practicing.
Sterling: “Good,” he says, “Very good. I don’t know whether you need a punishment or a reward.”
“Hmm. Maybe a little of both?”
Genevieve: She doesn’t like the sound of that.
“How can something be both?”
Sterling: He just smiles.
He feeds her that night by spilling his vitae along the floor. There’s a lot of it, but she has to crawl and lick it up.
After that, she’s suddenly in his lap. Just like the first night.
“No sex,” he whispers in her ear. “But how long has it been since you’ve been touched?”
His hand wanders slowly up her thigh.
She’s very, very still. Her heart might have stopped. In fact, she’s sure that it did, or that it’s about to, because she can’t tell him the answer to that question.
Years. She doesn’t have to tell him. She thinks it and he knows, and her cheeks flare red at the thought, bright spots of color on her otherwise alabaster face.
Sterling: “Too long,” he croons. “Poor, lonely Gen. Faithful Gen. Even a conscience needs to be caressed, every once in a while.”
“You’re beautiful, you know. I wouldn’t have noticed you otherwise. Wouldn’t have rescued you.”
His hand crawls under her skirt, brushes the obstacles his fingers find out of the way easily. Her underwear he pulls and slides down her legs, and he bounces her so that those spread.
He doesn’t touch her though. Not yet.
“Would you like me to help you, Genevieve? Would you like to be touched?”
His other hand crawls up her stomach. Fiddles with her brassiere and cups what he finds underneath.
“Tell me, Gen. You’re so good at speaking your mind.”
Genevieve: Her body arches beneath his touch. She’s pliant, moving as he needs her to, thighs spreading open beneath her skirt. Her back rests easily against his chest, her own rising and falling in short little breaths that do nothing to slow the thrum of her heart.
She should tell him no. That’s the safe play. But she wouldn’t be here if she played it safe. She nods instead, a tiny jerk of her head up and down. Always so vocal, now she’s at a loss for words.
Sterling: “Say it.”
Genevieve: She can’t. She bites her lip, eyes closed, and shakes her head.
Sterling: “Gen,” he says, disappointed. “Say. It.”
Sterling: He does.
He plays her like a violin, like some kind of fine instrument. It helps that he moves so fast, but there’s care and intention there, too.
He winds her tighter and tighter.
He’s feeding on her as he does, and she can feel the pleasure melting her like so much sun on an ice cube.
And then, just when she’s about to shatter, like he said—his fingers stop.
Genevieve: She’s quiet. Restrained. She doesn’t know how to cut loose, even when his fingers dance across her, even when he drinks from her. It’s hard to tell when she’s close. Her breathing is irregular, but the shuddering gasp might be his only clue.
Still, he knows. He stops. And that’s the first sound she really makes, the whimper. It’s torn from her as soon as he ceases.
“No.” Her hips shift, pressing against his hand where she wants it. “Please?”
Sterling: “Ah, ah,” he chastises in that garrulous, higher voice. His hands slide teasingly away, the one below her waist pinching her rear before disappearing from her dress. “Unfair, isn’t it?”
He turns her head to stare into her eyes. “If you cum tonight,” he says, “you won’t see me again.”
And just like that, she knows in her bones that he’s telling the truth.
He taps a finger, still slick, against her face. “Cheating isn’t very satisfying. But you still did a good job of it.”
Genevieve: It’s not fair. It’s downright humiliating when she thinks about it later, after he leaves. Even the cold shower hadn’t done anything to cool her off, and she stares at the ceiling in her bedroom, fingers digging into the blankets beneath her hands.
He wouldn’t know. That’s what she tells herself, the lie she wants to make herself believe, that he wouldn’t know. Except he would. And she’d never see him again. And she wants to see him again. Maybe. Probably. Once she gets over the fact that he—that she was… she can’t even think it. Even alone her cheeks are hot, and she flips over onto her side, body curling beneath the blankets of her bed. She pulls them over her head for good measure. No one can see your shame when you’re under the covers.
But she doesn’t risk it. She doesn’t touch herself, doesn’t dip her fingers beneath the waistline of her panties, doesn’t slide them inside or against or—
“Agh.” She can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe if she’d been more vocal. Maybe if she was prettier. Maybe if she had more chest to grab.
Alone, dissatisfied, she finally falls asleep, and a man with silver in his smile dances through her dreams, laughing at her from behind his hand.
It isn’t fair.
Sterling: He doesn’t mention it, if that helps. But there’s a knowing gleam in his eye now. Or maybe it was there before. Or maybe she’s just imagining it.
He seems pleased with her, though. He likes having her by his side. Likes hearing her opinions.
He seems proud of her.
Genevieve: She wouldn’t know about the gleam. She doesn’t make eye contact with him anymore. She avoids looking at him, really, because every time she does she thinks about being spread open on his lap, and she gets a little flustered, and that’s… well, that’s humiliating. She’s gone right back to avoiding touch, too, as if that will do anything, and she dreads the next time he’s hungry and wants to bite into her.
She’s always a step behind, now. Pants instead of skirts. Bras that close at the side instead of the front or back. Shirts that don’t do anything for whatever figure she’s hiding beneath it. She doesn’t think it’ll help if he really wants to mess with her, but it makes her feel better. For a time.
She doesn’t talk much when he’s around, either. It’s the sort of humiliation a person doesn’t really bounce back from. But she does what he asks, otherwise. Runs the number. Finds new gambling addicts for him. Stands behind him rather than beside him, like she used to.
She downloads a dating app on her phone, too. Maybe that’ll take her mind off it.
Three terrible first dates later, she has decided it will not.
Sterling: He doesn’t say anything at first, but she starts to detect a faint frustration in his interactions with her.
Finally, he shows up at her apartment one night with a deck of cards.
“Enough of this,” he says, and waves his hand at her. “You feel despoiled, hmm? Perhaps, violated?”
His can thumps against the floor and punctuates his exclamations. “Perhaps you wish to forget your punishment?”
Her pup—did she ever bother to name it?—sniffs at his shoe. He picks it up by the scruff of its neck and tosses it onto the couch, where it sniffles and cowers.
Genevieve: Of course she named it. His name is Ash, which he would know if he ever bothered to ask her about it, but he doesn’t because he’s too busy finding new ways to punish her for perceived slights. She scowls at Sterling and scoops the terrified pup into her arms, scratching his ears.
“I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” She doesn’t have to look at him when she’s holding the puppy.
Sterling: “Fine,” he squeaks in a falsetto that sounds like it ought to shatter glass.
“Fine,” he says in a simpering whine, but his lips don’t move, and the voice comes from behind her.
“FINE,” snarls a deep, cruel voice from somewhere above.
He advances on her, cane gesticulating wildly. “You would lie to me even now, Gen? My own conscience, afraid to speak her mind?”
The voices around her howl in discordant rage.
Ash squirms and buries his little snout into her neck.
Genevieve: Oh. Oh no.
She clutches the puppy to her chest as if he’s going to save her from this wrath coming her way, one hand on his back, the other beneath his soft belly. She takes a step backward for every step that Sterling takes toward her, shaking her head.
No, no, no.
“Stop it, stop. You’re scaring—” me “—him.”
Sterling: He stops, sniffs her fear. “You still think I’m him,” he says, and he doesn’t bother to disguise his voice, or the sadness in it. “You still think nothing more of me than a monster. You who I rescued. You who I saved.”
The silence that follows his words is pierced only by Ash’s soft whines.
Genevieve: "You used me. You humiliated me. You did—did that, and then you just—you stopped, and you walked away, and you… " she can’t even get the words out. So unlike her with her cool head, normally so eloquent, without trailing sentences. Now she trips over her words. “Did you have any idea what that would do to me? What it would—God, it had nothing to do with him, it was everything before him, when I was just a—a freak. Something to laugh at.”
Sterling: “Used you? I punished you, exactly as I promised I would if I caught you cheating again. Are you bitter over a little loneliness?” He tilts his head, eyes narrowed. “Tell me, little conscience Gen, how I might kiss it better? Would you like me to bend you over my knee and diddle you more thoroughly? If you’re so tired of me, tell me, did you finish the job that night? Or did you choose to see me again?”
Genevieve: Something flares inside of her at the offer. She looks away from him.
“N-no. Don’t. Don’t touch me, don’t, just don’t.” She clutches the dog closer to her, his whines drowning out the hammering of her heart.
Sterling: “Answer the question.”
Genevieve: “Of course I didn’t.”
Sterling: “Ah, how flattering. So you do prize my company more than a little burst of your ovaries.”
He doesn’t touch her. But he stands close.
Genevieve: She says nothing. She barely breathes. Her fingers are only still because they’re buried in the fur of the dog.
Sterling: “You think you’re a freak, is that it? That my neglect of you was somehow influenced by repulsion, instead of principle?”
Genevieve: Of course. Of course that’s what it was. She nods.
Sterling: “Then why,” he sighs, “am I so proud of you?”
Genevieve: She has no idea what he’s talking about. “I don’t know.”
Sterling: “Gen, I called you beautiful. I played a game with you and was so impressed with your attempt to cheat that the punishment was pleasure. I could not have asked for a better conscience. I all but said as much. The only person in this room who seems to think less of you for that night is you.”
Genevieve: “It ended in rejection.” Like it always did.
Sterling: “It ended in denial, my sweet little conscience. A tease to make you regret your own overeager fingers. If I thought you repulsive, would I keep you by my side? Would I pamper you so? Did you need to finish to understand that you are mine?”
Genevieve: "You made me beg for it. And you saw me. You touched me, you… " She shakes her head. She can’t explain. He won’t get it. He doesn’t get it now. He explains and she thinks it makes sense, until she pictures herself on his lap like that with his fingers… no. The dog whines again and Gen loosens her grip.
Sterling: “Yes, I touched you,” he says. “You are mine to touch. Mine to expose, mine to display, mine to do with as I wish. Ah, but I see. You feel shame, that I treated you so. Feel mocked, perhaps. Do you think I found it funny, sweet Gen?”
Genevieve: “I wouldn’t know,” she snaps, “I don’t posses the same affinity for trawling through brains that you do. Did you find it funny? Did you enjoy laughing at me afterward with your friends? That Connie was panting like a bitch in heat.” Her voice is a close approximation of his.
Sterling: “Should I have? I thought it was a rather sweet moment between the two of us.”
Genevieve: His answer flusters her all over again.
Sterling: “Oh, Gen,” he says. “So shy. So unsure of yourself. Perhaps I should make you dance nude in Jackson Square. You might see your own beauty in the gasps of your admirers.”
It’s an idle threat, but he likes her when she’s flustered.
“Or perhaps you can tell me how to make it better. My sweet, sweet conscience. Little voice of reason.”
Genevieve: “That’s not—that’s not funny.” He wouldn’t make her do that. Would he make her do that? He can’t make her do that.
Sterling: Except he can. He might have already, and made her forget it.
Genevieve: Oh. That’s… oh. She’s only realizing that now. Does he see the blood drain from her face, or is she already so white that he can’t tell the difference?
She turns away from him. Ash whines. She shushes him.
“I have to take the dog out.” Anything to get away.
Sterling: He laughs, softly. “Would you be rid of me, then? All your gratitude, your loyalty, gone for a little shame?”
Genevieve: No. No, and that’s the worst part, isn’t it? Not that she feels shame, but that she wanted it, that she couldn’t even finish herself off later because that meant giving up him, too. It’s not shame she’s feeling, it’s rejection. He knows she wants him, and that’s… that’s too much for her. She doesn’t even want him to take away the sting because it means giving up the good part, too.
Sterling: “What would you like, Gen? What treat? What salve? I have no use for a conscience too shamed to speak.”
Genevieve: "I don’t know. I don’t know what will make it better. I… " She trails off, shaking her head. Takes a breath to compose herself. When she speaks again it’s in the cool, detached tone he’s used to. “Conflict of interest, I can’t advise you on myself.”
Sterling: “Hmm. I suppose you can’t.”
“Ah, but if there’s no moral way… What was the name of the girl you despised in school? Brittney something or other?”
Genevieve: She considers lying. Instead she tells him yes. “Brittney Mitchell.”
Sterling: “Mitchell, yes. All right. Give me a week. Perhaps then you’ll be… cooler.”
He walks away from her, his conscience.
Perhaps he leaves feeling lighter.
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