“Anyone else would have broken.”
Sunday night, 13 March 2016, AM
Celia: The dolls pull her under, bit by bit. Wave after wave of them, surrounding her, tripping her, pulling at her with their grabby little hands and glaring at her with their hateful little eyes. She isn’t fast enough. She’d hesitated for too long, tried too hard to bring Key to her side, thought too hard on how to fix it. She’s going under, drowning in a sea of porcelain and chiffon.
But the doll in her arms: Lucy. Grace. Diana. One of them had given everything to tell her to flee. She’ll be punished as a traitor. But Jade won’t let that happen. The dolls might get her Kindred body, but they won’t get Lucy’s. She drags sharp claws down her front from sternum to pelvis and stuffs the doll inside. A pinch of her fingers seals the wound. It’s her last action before the enemies catch her, overwhelming her in sheer numbers. Her fingers brush against the door; she’d been so close. Then they’re on her. Around her. Under her. In her.
She’s there. Then she’s not. Something shatters inside of her, a tinkling chime of porcelain and glass. It tears at her skin, her eyes, her mind.
Leilani’s gentle smile is her smile. Jade’s sneer is her sneer. Celia’s face is her face. The Beast skulks nearby, half-shrouded in shadows, red eyes smoldering in hatred. And more, the others, the dolls: Princess, with the ballet slippers and the daddy who had always loved her. Blossom, whose father had never taken a hacksaw to her mother. Lucy, with the kind eyes and patient smile, a larger part of herself than she will ever admit. And the new ones, the ones she and Elyse would have made together had things not gone so poorly, had she not learned Diana’s truth: Lacey, Daisy, Bambi, Angel, Belle, Bonita, Bellamy. Dolls that don’t exist and never will. They surround her. They pull at her. Out there, in here.
Play with us.
One of us.
Who are you?
What is its name?
And Lotus. The first, maybe the favored. Lotus watches. Lotus, with her curling black hair and her pretty face and her dress made of memories: her first kiss, first date, first time, first “I love you,” the dress she wore on the eve of her release into Kindred society, the dress she wore when she spoke to her sire for the first time during their rooftop interlude, when he had made love to her and told her that what they had was something special, the dress she wore the evening of her Embrace, when he plucked her from her childhood home and carried her into the sky and she was cold, so cold, and he trailed wintry kisses down her face and neck and sank two points of ice into her veins and drew forth the fire and blood and life from her body and her breath came out in ragged, throaty gasps and she knew without any shadow of doubt that he would drop her, kill her—
Frigid arms embrace her, cradle her against a hard chest. She looks but doesn’t see, eyes blinded by buttons. It’s not him. He’s not real. He’s a figment, imaginary like the rest of them. The nameless one.
Blood assails her senses.
“You’re killing her!”
Wind whips across her face.
“I’ll tuck you in.”
Is this how it ends? An echo of how it began?
This is how it ends.
Him tucking her in.
Because Key’s screaming and there’s blood flying from his severed fingers.
Jade doesn’t see what happens next, doesn’t see if any of the dolls lose their hands too, because she’s soaring through the night air at breakneck speed, scores of feet above the ground and climbing still higher—
Celia: The air, the cold, the movement tug at her. The buttons fall from her eyes. The nameless one beats them back with the saber at his side, cutting through the horde in unchallenged efficiency. He doesn’t need anything, she and Elyse had long ago decided, but maybe he wants something.
Maybe he wants her.
The taste of freedom dances across her tongue as the nameless one slaughters the last of them. He turns to her and extends a hand. He pulls her out.
Only it’s not the nameless one. It’s the dark one. The cold one. And he’s not a doll: he’s real. There. With her. For her.
She’s not in her mind anymore. She’s not in the house anymore. She’s soaring through the sky. In his arms. Safe.
Despite the cold, the altitude, the dread in her belly at his ire, she finds comfort in his embrace. Nothing can touch her when he has her. Nothing but him. Her sire. Cold, merciless, meticulous; his is the composure that she strives for, the the mask she had sought to don this evening.
Now, seeing it in front of her, she knows she had not come close.
Reality comes back to her in little snippets. She touches him, fingers but a whisper against his cheek, and remembers who she is.
Celia. The name. Her name. Not Jade. Not Leilani. Not Star, Neveah, Jasmine, Princess, Blossom, Lotus, Lily, Lucy, Dahlia Rose, Em, Emil, Emily, Caroline, Veronica, Antoine, the Beast, the Beauty, the Bitch, the Madonna or the Whore.
She’s Celia. Just Celia.
Celia, of the heavens. Celia, reborn from the sea. Celia, childe of Donovan, chosen for… something.
CrAaazZYyy… someone giggles.
Celia finds the anchor that she needs in front of her. Uncertainty and the remnants of humanity slip away into the night, falling like the sanguine teardrops from so long ago to splatter against the ground. She touches him and the tips of her fingers freeze. She freezes.
“Celia,” she whispers. Frozen in time. Frozen forever. This is who she is. Everything else is a mask, a lie, a part she plays like a puppet on a string, like the dancer in her chains, each move choreographed in advance by him, for him. For him.
“Donovan.” His name leaves her lips, soft as a sigh, no longer a question but an answer. She curls her fingers in his clothing and tucks her face against his chest. She comes back.
GM: Flight with her sire could last forever. Celia, more than any of her other masks, has perhaps no place she’d rather be than held aloft in his arms. They’re cold, like the rest of him, but strong and unyielding. Like the rest of him.
She can be certain here. She can know who she is here. She can know what role she is supposed to play. The good childe. The obedient childe, working always to please her sire.
She can ignore Leila’s words.
She isn’t crazy. She’s not. She’s not. He won’t allow her to be. He’ll just cut it out of her, like he cuts down anything that would threaten her.
Rain pelts against the pair as they fly. It always rains in this city. Celia’s sire is dressed in the same black, double-breasted trench in which she saw him last. Water runs does down his expressionless, marble-like face.
Their flight feels as if it ends too soon when a familiar rooftop approaches. They land atop Celia’s haven. The one close to Vidal’s border. Donovan sets her down.
Home, in more than one sense now.
Celia sees the blade extending from one of her bracers. Any blood on the edge is long since washed off by the rain. Her sire runs the flat against his palm, wiping off the excess moisture, and retracts the blade back into its sheath.
She doubts he would care if he knew what the leather was made from.
His voice seeps into her thoughts like a chill night mist.
:: Explain. ::
Celia: It ends too quickly. Here, in his arms, she could enjoy the rest of her Requiem and never want for anything else. Petty worries and troubles fade away: there’s just her, him, them, the sky, his arms, the frigid temperature. She doesn’t need to breathe but she does it anyway, taking in long, deep, shuddering gulps of air as they move through the night. She breathes him into her lungs, lets his scent fill her.
The relief at her rescue ends as soon as her feet touch the ground. She has to come back down eventually. He’s not a hero. Her hero, maybe, but not a hero.
All the same, she doesn’t step away. She doesn’t give him the space that she should. The blade he wipes clean could gut her before she has a chance to start the movement. The thought shouldn’t make her shiver as it does. But despite her apprehension she’s glad to see it put to use.
How can she explain? She lost control. She’d let him get away with hurting her mother because it’s him. No one else will be afforded that luxury. A dozen lies flit through her mind, dismissed as quickly as they occur.
She’s in trouble. She’s in so much trouble.
:: We were friends. Then she sought to destroy something that belongs to me. ::
Her eyes don’t leave his face. She refuses to drop her gaze. She will not hide from him. He can see it anyway, watch it play through her mind: her Beast slipping its leash and attacking Elyse.
She’d lost control.
She has never seen him lose control. She’d thought it had been beaten out of her, but tonight just proved that she’s no closer to mastering her Beast now than she had been years ago.
It would have been easy to say that she needed to see him anyway and orchestrated a way to do so with none the wiser. Cause problems in his parish and he’ll be sent to deal with it; who would suspect that there was anything more to it than that?
She had even told Key she was going to call the regent or Elyse’s sire. Now the ghoul will just think that she had done so while he was busy orchestrating the defense and the sheriff had whisked Jade away to mete out his own sort of justice. No one has to know it was a rescue.
GM: His icy eyes linger on hers.
Perhaps he is watching what happened.
Perhaps he is angry at her. Perhaps he is disappointed.
His face gives away nothing.
Like the nameless doll.
She could be in so much trouble, and she cannot even tell.
:: Describe how you have been of use to me since our last meeting. ::
Celia: Of course.
Coming for her had nothing to do with her. He just can’t lose his little spy. His pawn. Not even a toy; at least you play with toys.
Her Beast simmers just beneath the surface, already on edge from the multiple times it had been set free this evening. Maybe if she rakes her claws down his face he’ll finally show something resembling emotion. Had it really only been hours ago that she’d thought he’d chosen her to save him? What a laugh.
What if she says she hasn’t? What if she tells him she’s done absolutely nothing but play house with her boyfriend and fix the mortal family he ripped apart when he decided to get involved?
Finally, she looks away. She stuffs it down deep where it won’t bother her. She turns away to hide the hurt; it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care.
:: Making allies. Gathering intel. Putting plans into motion. ::
Rain slicks down her face, flattening her hair against her scalp and cheeks. She swallows the rejection. It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. It can’t matter.
Be patient. Be patient so he can get what he wants from her and—
She stops the thought in its tracks.
:: You told me not to trust him. But you put me with him. Told me to help him. Weaken the prince, you said, so you could take the city. He says you are the frontrunner for the spot. If I continue down this path with him, will it harm your interests? ::
GM: :: No. ::
Celia: She’s silent for a beat. She sends another thought. A question phrased as a statement. Here, privately, where no one else can listen in, she requests the truth.
GM: The mental answer is the same.
:: No. ::
Celia: It’s not the answer she expected. She hadn’t even expected an answer. The picture begins to fall into place, but it’s a puzzle to which she’s missing pieces. No matter how firm a grasp she thinks she has on things there are parts that continue to elude her.
Until it clicks.
Another piece finds its home. But it brings up more questions, more uncertainty on how she should proceed, on what it means for her, for him, for them.
Celia reminds herself there is no them. Her “them” is down below waiting for her to come home, unaware that she stands twenty feet above his head, so close to the city’s sheriff that she can count the lashes on his eyes. Celia turns back to Donovan, lifting her gaze once more so she can see those same eyes that have long starred in her dreams.
One step separates them. She closes the distance and her eyes search his face, though she expects to find nothing.
Finally, she sends another message. Softer words. For all that she tries to be Celia the childe around him, not too many moments ago she was Celia the broken.
:: I have information. Plans. But I hesitate to take action without a complete picture. I will not be the reason that your goals stall. ::
There’s no one else she can talk to. For all that people say he’s a monster, he is at least the monster that she knows.
He doesn’t stand much taller than her. But this close he’s a giant. This close, when she thinks she’s finally unlocked some of the truth, when the request lingers in the back of her mind, he towers over her. He rises above mere Kindred as something other.
Nameless one. Donovan. It’s hard to keep them straight.
She reaches for him. Not because she does not respect him or the sanctity of his boundaries but because she does; because he is what she holds sacred; because she knows the power that lurks inside his mind and body; because when her fingertips brush his coat, his shoulders, his cheek it creates the tether that she needs to anchor her to reality. She knows exactly who she is.
She is his childe. She trusts him. Loves him. Needs him.
And for all that, she doesn’t know how to ask for what she wants.
GM: He’s there.
He’s not tall, as far as men go, but he’s always felt as though he is.
The rain is cold, but he is colder.
He does not touch her back with his hands. She feels his mind inside of hers, his presence chilling her thoughts like she’s stepped into a freezer. It’s as cold and dark as the rest of him. Others would recoil, but Celia does not. In her sire’s presence, she is secure. Safe. Destined for greatness.
So long as she is worthy of him.
So long as she does what he asks.
So long as she is a good childe.
He wants her to be useful because one can only be useful if they are strong. Only a childe who is strong is worthy to carry his blood. That is why he asks how she has been useful. She wants to be strong for him. She wants to be worthy of him. He wants her to be strong and worthy.
Storm clouds on the horizon. A darkening of his thoughts.
Tonight she showed she was weak.
Ruled by her emotions.
Ruled by her Beast.
Ruled by Elyse’s children, had he not saved her.
He gives her a chance still, to show she is useful. To show she is strong.
Yet bitterness and resentment still welled within her thoughts? For the mercy he now shows her? After his rescue of her?
Celia: The dark clouds of his thoughts gather, but her lightning strikes first.
There was another night where she had stared into his eyes too long. Then, he had pulled her in and showed her his Hell. Tonight she opens the door for him, throws it wide, and invites him into hers.
He fills her. Even here inside her mindscape where she rules his presence looms. But he is no king here. This watery terrain is hers, and while he gets caught up by the roiling storm on the surface—the anger, bitterness, and resentment he thinks he sees—she takes his hand and pulls him under.
Water closes over their heads. Others might think they’re drowning. Perhaps they’re meant to drown rather than swim. A strong current surges against them, half-formed monsters…
…with fins and rows of jagged teeth…
…and luminous little eyes meant to lure you in…
…made of shadow and stray thoughts surround them.
But this is her mind, her domain, and he her welcome guest. The monsters watch, wary of intruders, but keep their distance.
They go deeper.
Light disappears the deeper they go, but they are creatures of the night; when the trench looms before them, silent and dark, she does not hesitate to lead him toward it.
Here, too, the current runs strong. This time she lets it catch her and he comes along for the ride. It yanks them toward a whirlpool…
…chaos waters swirling, swirling, swirling…
…dragging them around, around, around…
…closer and closer toward the point of black in the center.
The rules of reality don’t apply here. Light bends around them. Space and time distort. He sees things whiz by in their mad descent toward the bottom of her mindscape’s ocean:
a girl in a pink dress, the hum of a ventilator, a green statue, jagged edges, rage in its eyes, a stuffed bear, the long teeth of monsters, eight candles on a chocolate cake, a bullwhip cracking through the air, perfectly painted nails, claws and fang and simmering anger, beautiful lies and ugly truths, ugly lies and beautiful truths, blueberry pancakes, questions asked a thousand times, words spoken by sealed lips, broken bones and severed tendons, mermaids, bubbles, porcelain dolls, a tiger in a gilded cage, a name carved into flesh, a bird with broken wings, the whispered words of long ago…
“I think there’s a monster under my bed”
“it’s all in your head, sweetie”
“Cici was just pretending”
“it’s all okay”
“you’ll feel better in the morning”
“who are you”
“I love you, Celia”
He wants truth?
She’ll give him truth.
He wants to know what she has done with her time?
She shows him.
A thousand fractured fragments splinter past them, some so quickly he can’t see them all. Everything she has ever done for him. Every lie she has ever told for him. Every mask she has ever worn for him. Every word, every action, every thought, all of it wrapped up in him, him, him, every waking moment, every agonized decision, every betrayal, every hurt, every scar, every drop of blood—his, it’s his, his.
Seven years of his. Seven years of serving without knowing why. Seven years of no questions, no demands, no second-guessing. He had handed her to his enemies and she had made herself a place. She had carved a niche. She had made friends, collected allies, sought the favor or mentors to further his goals, his plans, his schemes, and she has not once ever resented him for it, has not been bitter for it, and her only reason for questioning him now, the only reason she asks anything now is to avoid destroying what he has so carefully wrought these long years because now, finally, everything starts to come together.
She doesn’t want to know his secrets, but she shows him hers. She doesn’t want to see his plans, but she shows him hers. She doesn’t need the answers to her questions, but she shows him hers.
All of it.
Strong? She shows him strength. Obedient? She shows him her devotion. Good childe? She shows him the line she has walked, the masks she has worn, the ways she has bent but never broken. Every night she finds the jagged edges of herself and smooths them over. She paints in her cracks. She fills the holes that this work leaves behind.
Anyone else would have broken.
The vortex batters them from all sides. It pulls them under. It pulls them deeper. It spins them around, over, under, backwards, sideways. It thrashes them, throttles them, pummels them.
Anyone else would have broken.
Night by night, she stitches herself back together.
Anyone else would have broken.
Anyone else would have broken.
Finally, it spits them out into a small cave, the one secret piece of her that no one has ever touched, the thing that the monsters, the lies, the claws and fang all protect. Calm waters lap at their feet, and even his ice isn’t enough to chill it.
The bare rocks hold no further answers for him. There are no words etched across their surfaces that he can peruse, no pictures painted in clay or mud or blood. It’s just them, him and her, the monster and his maiden.
Celia Flores, nineteen years old, in flowing chiffon and silk that match the storm in his eyes stands before him. Waiting for him all this time. Knowing that one night he would come back for her. The girl he had dropped into the ocean has made it her home. And like the rest of the world’s waters, very little has ever been discovered about its depths.
The thing about secrets…
… is that the greatest of them are hidden in the most unlikely places…
… and to keep one, you must hide it from yourself.
It starts as a ripple in the water at their feet. No moon controls the tides here, no earth quakes beneath them, but all the same the water ebbs and flows in gentle waves against their shins. Warm, tropical, like the long ago summer sun against their skin. It stirs at her command.
He’d thought she was tapped? That these bare rocks hold no more secrets?
Oh no. She’s just beginning.
The answers aren’t written on the rocks because they reside within the water, hidden away like her cave. She wouldn’t leave them out in the open where anyone could steal them; she’s tied them to her core, to the real her hidden beneath the tons of ocean above, the guardians, the obstacles. Even the empty room is but another trap; were she not with him he would be caught here in this little cave, a prisoner inside her head, crushed beneath the weight of the water that would rush in. Intruders are drowned.
But he is no intruder. She has invited him in, and now she shows him what he has asked for.
She summons the soul.
Drops of water bead together at her urging. They coalesce, lifting, seething higher, disconnecting from the larger body around them. In vaporous rivulets they snake upward like smoke from a fire.
How could he doubt her?
Water takes so many forms.
The molecules bind. They separate, divide, amass. Hues emerge, particles of light glinting off their surfaces. He may be an achromatic creature, but she is made of color.
Wispy tendrils converge on one another, swirling together to form coherency. Translucent bubbles take shape.
Something moves in their midst.
White, it flashes through the orbs like lightning through the sky. Energy. Her energy. Little pieces of her that dance and twist and cavort. It bubbles and froths inside the spheres. Fluid, flexible, mercurial.
Seven orbs form from the waters that separate. One by one they take their place in front of her, between them. Seven orbs for seven chakras, seven memories, seven thoughts, seven plans, seven secrets.
Seven orbs for seven years.
A wave of her fingers sets them to spinning in circular orbits through the air. All he has to do is touch them to learn what’s inside.
She will show him worthy.
Every building and painted face begins with foundation. Everything has a base. So too does her vision for the future, and so too do her goals. She has spent long years building her repertoire, honing her skills, and practicing her craft. Now, she unveils it for him.
She starts with red.
The globule pulses above her hand: crimson, claret, and carnelian, currant, cherry, and carmine. A hundred shades of red reside within the confines of the rondure, bubbling and gurgling in effervescent glee.
It all comes back to red with their kind. Red is the foundation of their society. It is payment, barter, sustenance. It is love and life and family ties. Red is blood. It is what binds them together.
Red is the base. The root chakra. It ties to the physical identity of every being and oversees their base needs: security, survival, stability. Without the root there is nothing; a building without a solid foundation will crumble into pieces. Red allows her to stand on her own two feet and withstand whatever challenges come her way, but even the strongest king doesn’t rule alone.
Fitting, isn’t it, that the gemstone most associated with the root chakra is onyx.
He is her foundation. Connecting to him, touching him, it centers her. It reminds her who she is, what she is, what their goals are. She can wear a thousand masks and be a thousand things to a thousand different people, but when she is with him she knows the truth: she is Celia Adelaide Flores, childe of Donovan. Nothing else matters.
He had told her once that she has a place with him in his new order. Then, she had not understood what he meant. How could she possibly serve a god? How could she offer anything that he could not take for himself? In time it had come to her: the role he has cast her into, how she can make herself useful. And she has made herself very, very useful.
She shows him her vision: the darkened throne room, and he on the stone chair. He does not want it for himself—(he kneels, he waits, his time will come… they place a crown upon his brow… he assumes the throne, then casts the crown aside… he kneels once more)—but she puts him there on the pedestal in her mind. And beside him, with eyes that burn like green fire, she waits in leather and lace. The door opens, admitting a petitioner that bows before him and says his piece. The Donovan on the throne is silent. He does not do so much as turn to her, but when he speaks the word she knows her orders.
The Chameleon vanishes before her steps have finished carrying her from the room.
That is the place she wants in his new order. So she has set herself up to take it.
Starting with the roots.
Like the rose of her clan, she spreads her roots through the city, an interlocking system of connections that she has forged across all manner of borders. In New Orleans that tangle is the thickest; here is what matters, but their city is not an island cast adrift in the middle of the ocean. The roots reach out to other cities where she has planted seeds, each of them blossoming into little gardens of their own that she has tended over time: allies, mentors, favors, secrets, debts, and safety. Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Miami, DC, Seattle, Las Vegas.
All of them ripe for plucking whenever she needs a hand.
She moves on. The garden grows.
Her name has not been connected to the woman who owns the company, but she has had more than a hand in it all the same.
The thing about insects is that you don’t notice them beneath your feet until they start to bite. They scurry, scurry, scurry through your house and learn your patterns; they catch you with your mistress, watch you do lines of coke before your big meeting, know exactly where and how deep the bodies are buried.
Kindred and kine alike, she has been inside their havens and theirs homes. She has seen their dirty laundry and the skeletons in their closets. Silently, she observes it all.
Bugs catch everything.
She moves on. The garden grows.
In nature, many plants and animals form symbiotic relationships. Some of them are parasitic, where one organism benefits and the other is actively harmed. Some are commensalism, where one organism benefits and the other is neither harmed nor helped.
And some are mutualism, where both organisms benefit.
Star and Stanley both benefit from their arrangement: he gets a hot Latina lover on the side, and she gets to see every single bit of paperwork that passes his desk and overhear every single conversation that takes place in his office. She sees their faces. She hears their stories. She learns their secrets.
And when she wants something looked into she uses him as her intermediary so that her hands stay clean.
She moves on. The garden grows.
Dolls are funny things, aren’t they? Cute. Feminine. They wear what you put them in, stand how you arrange their limbs, smile contentedly even when they witness horrible atrocities.
They see everything. They hear everything. And when they’re living, breathing, things and can move of their own volition they get into even more. They travel in their little boxes, far and wide across the country, but some of them find homes right here in the city.
The little girl shows him her dolls.
“This one is Sunshine. Her father didn’t think she was very bright, so we gave her a name to make her shine. Now she’s married to a political consultant and takes notes at all the meetings.”
“This one is Jewel. She cheated on her husband, so he sent her to us for refining. One of her sons works in media, and the other is a real estate attorney.
“This one is Chastity.” The little girl giggles. “She’s a secret from the mother. Her aunt wanted her to join the family business, and now she makes bank on her back.”
“And this one is Bree. She’s not like the others. She inherited an arms dealership and her daddy just wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t blow up the world in a fit of feminine rage. Girls can be silly like that.”
She moves on. The garden grows.
The foundation has been set. The roots have taken hold. Now that the web has been spun by the spider, she shows him the flies that she has caught.
Once upon a time, the story goes, a singer loved a sculptor and asked him to be hers for eternity. The sculptor was taken by the singer and agreed to her request. But the singer was a fickle sort, and soon her interest waned. The sculptor spent long years vying for her attention before he finally gave up and walked into the sun.
But everyone knows that the Beast won’t let their kind take that sort of easy out.
Wounded, the sculptor left the city. His abandoned clan thought he had been destroyed. But he was only waiting, biding his time to avenge himself upon the singer who so callously threw him aside. One night he met another sculptor, one who deals with flesh instead of marble, and the two sculptors devised a way that they could help each other.
She moves on.
“The thing about kine politics,” Celia explains to a girl whose face is in the process of being transformed, “is that every Kindred wants a piece. They know that ruling the kine can make for a better Requiem. And while Marcel and Marguerite may have years of experience on me, while they can sit back in their plush offices and consult to their heart’s content, I have one thing that they don’t: I can get in on the ground level.”
“To charm them, mistress?”
“No, ‘Lana, not the way you’re thinking. I don’t need the gifts of my clan to wrap someone around my finger.” She adds the finishing touches to the look and steps back, admiring her work. “And the mental and emotional tricks are too heavy-handed to use like that. Start blasting everyone with it and rivals or hunters are sure to come knocking.”
“And tonight, mistress?”
“Tonight,” Celia says as she begins the work on her own face, “we are two pretty co-eds who are oh-so-interested in what Mr. Coxx has to say, and pretty please won’t he take us back to his room and show us a good time.”
Back in the cave, Celia stands in front of him. A single sphere remains unviewed; it pulses and throbs in hues of green, a veritable forest teeming with life and plants.
Green, for the heart. It’s the middle chakra but she saved it for last, and she sends it to him now with a flick of her fingers.
“They say that this one bridges the distance between above and below, spiritual and physical.” Her voice is liquid, it ebbs and wanes as the tide, at once both ancient and innocent. “It’s the ability to connect to others, to give and receive love, to show empathy.”
She will be his bridge. She will touch the people he cannot touch, break them with compassion just as easily as he breaks them with cruelty. She has done it before. She knows how the game is played.
She presents this final creation.
She shows him the bridge that she has already built and the plants that teem along it: the lilies, the crocuses, the violets on their lines of ivy that wind and stretch around every baluster and blanket the space between in floral fragrance. Small things yet, still being tended by the girl who planted the garden and built the bridge with her own two hands; many of them have begun to bear the fruits of her labor, but she would not yet call them “finished.” Some are still just empty stalks, waiting for the right conditions with which to flourish.
Except for two.
There are two here that she wants to show him. Two that have grown larger than all the rest. Two that have flourished under her careful cultivation and can now be harvested as desired. One has heart-shaped blossoms that dangle from slender, arching stems, interspersed with delicate and fernlike foliage that creates the perfect backdrop to the flowers. The other is taller, willowy, with six lobes that fan outward from the center stalk. A common garden plant, no one notices what hides within the petals.
The iris and the bleeding heart have bloomed.
The heartstone is Jade.
The colorful orbs fade. The bubbles pop. Surface tension that had once held the warbling globules together dissipates; teardrops rain from the seven spheres to splash into the water at their feet. It ripples outward in ever-expanding concentric circles before crashing into the edges of the pool.
Tonight she was weak. She doesn’t deny that. Tonight she lost control. Tonight she needed him like she has not before, and the resentment and bitterness he felt coming off of her was not for him; it was for her own failings. For seven long years she has not needed him to hold her hand and guide her through her Requiem. She has been content to make her own way, forge her own alliances, collect her own friends. But tonight, yes, tonight she needed him.
And he came.
How her heart had rejoiced when she emerged from the prison in her mind to find herself in his arms. How could she say that, though? How could she tell him the words etched across her heart and soul, how could she explain that he means everything to her and that letting him see her like this is just another punch in the gut after an evening of abysmal disappointments?
She has only ever wanted to be worthy.
Even now the the events of the night spin through her mind. How she can explain what happened to Elyse. How he can secure the position of cold-hearted, merciless sheriff and prevent anyone from ever knowing that he had saved her. How they can twist a setback into a victory.
She sees it so clearly in her mind: he wakes Elyse, binding her to him, and tells her that Jade Kalani has been apprehended and punished. He tells her that already he has taken a dive inside her mind to see the events of the evening, and that Miss Kalani’s consciousness had unraveled to reveal the truth: she had been given a deeply submerged directive by an enemy of Elyse, the Invictus, the Sanctified, Donovan, or the prince himself. Torpor Elyse so that the enemy can take her place. Torpor Elyse so that it looks like the first shots fired from the lord of the Quarter. Torpor Elyse for personal reasons. It could have been Sabbat. It could have been Tremere. It could have been a Ventrue, and the blue-eyed blonde flashes through her mind; Elyse was a target because of where she lives. The four-toed, raven-haired zealot flashes through her mind; Elyse was a target because of what she had done to Diana, for all she hates the woman. Or it could have been another: A new night doctor who has heard of Jade’s abilities and sought to sour their relations and remove the competition. A Nosferatu who has picked up tricks outside their clan and thought it would be hilarious to watch the two beauty-obsessed Kindred in the city tear each other apart; after all, she made such a decidedly easy target when she wandered so willingly into their sewers and night club. Jade will smooth over the relationship from there and retain her position with Elyse to keep her network secure.
She has only ever wanted his attention.
But not like this. Not this cold fury. Not this dissection of her person and purpose. She wants what Roderick has: she wants to learn. She wants him to show her. Centuries; he has had centuries to hone his skills, and she just wants a small portion of what he can offer. An hour of his time without demands for answers and information and plots and plans and schemes. Just him. Her. Together.
She has only ever wanted him.
Barefoot in the water, Celia Flores lifts her gaze to her sire’s. Darkness swims in the depths of her brown eyes; his storm gathers within her.
GM: Celia dives, and her sire follows under.
He is well at home among the monsters. She’s seen the inside of his mind, after all. He follows the current. He does not need to fight it or to confront its monsters. He has nothing to prove.
He waits, patiently, at her demonstrations of filial loyalty.
He does not reply aloud. There is no need to speak in this place.
But Celia knows.
He told her that she had a place at his side. She did. As a mole and agent by his own sire’s side. If she desired a greater place than that, it was incumbent upon her to envision and incumbent upon her to seize. Competence cannot be bequeathed. Initiative cannot be bequeathed. Vision cannot be bequeathed. Even his own sire, for all his charming veneer, has not declared that he wishes Celia to be his spymaster: others cannot realize one’s ambitions for them. Some Kindred have ambitions and some do not. Some Kindred aspire only to exist from night to night, used by their elders purely as tools, and others aspire to be more.
He believes, now, that she aspires to be more.
Is he pleased?
Even here, so deep within her mind, he shows so little of himself. No warmth radiates from his thoughts. No smile creases his features. But he would not be the same Kindred if he did. Perhaps Celia would not have brought him here if she thought he was capable of such. He is who he is.
There is a place for one who plants gardens and plucks their fruits.
There is a place for one who can become as an insect.
There is a place for a mutualist organism.
There is a place for a dollmaker.
There is a place for a sculptor of flesh.
There is a place for the pretty co-ed.
There is a place for the chakra opener.
There is a place for one who would be his bridge.
There is a place for one who would wear all of these faces and many more.
There is a place for one who would be his spymaster.
There is a place for one whose identity is what she needs it to be.
There is a place for one who would be more than simply a mole.
There is a place for the Chameleon.
He had but waited for her to claim that place. He could not do it for her.
His storm gathers within her, then about her, and she knows its frigid kiss.
Celia: The storm crashes against her. It does not rage for he does not rage; it consumes. It consumes everything in its path and would sweep her along with it, but the mental projection inside her mindscape is a maiden in the monster’s arms; it has long been her safe harbor.
She welcomes the frigid touch of ice and wind and rain against her skin.
She welcomes what it means for her. For them. And for their city.
She gives herself to the storm.
GM: She gives herself to him. His wintry and all-consumptive kiss freezes out all lesser sensations, but is all-too brief.
He is pleased she would be more than a mole.
He is pleased she harbors ambitions for greater things.
But her lapse of control was a weakness.
Weakness must be punished.
Weakness must be purged.
He punishes so that she may improve.
He purges so that she may be all she aspires to be.
She will accept her punishment if she loves him.
He offers her a choice: physical chastisement or a third draught of his blood.
Celia: It’s always too brief with him. Every moment that she has with him ends too quickly, and tonight she will not push for more. Tonight, despite what she has shown him, despite his pleasure with her shared ambition, she knows that she made a mistake and that she must pay for it.
The choice he presents isn’t a difficult one.
She will not shy from her sire’s lessons. She will fix this. She will show him that she will not make the mistake again, that she accepts his judgment and her place. The physical chastisement will correct her behavior and the blood will make sure it never happens again.
Both, she tells him. She will take both.
GM: Reality dissolves around the pair as Celia’s sire withdraws his tendrils from her mind. They’re back on the roof of her haven, rain pouring down around them. Celia is soaked to the bone under her wet clothes. She’s not sure how long they were in there for.
Then, her sire hits her.
The attack comes without warning. His rain-slick fist smashes into her mouth, splitting her lip, crunching her jawbone, sending teeth flying. Celia’s knocked off her feet from the force of the blow. Her ears ring. Her Beast, furious, howls to counterattack.
This is love.
Her sire’s booted foot stomps down on her hand, noisily crunching delicate finger bones, cracking apart her perfect nails.
He lifts it, then stomps down again. Her wrist audibly snaps against the roof.
He yanks her up by her hair. For all the struggles of her Beast, its instinctive urge to flee or fight when confronted with pain, Celia forces it down.
This is love.
His pale fingers reach inside her mouth. Squeeze. Wrench. There’s a burst of pain as her jaw breaks from the force. It dangles almost limply from her head. She can’t close her mouth right. He must have snapped her mandible. Jaw’s weakest point.
This is love.
He takes hold of her lower jaw with his other hand. Shifts position, so they’re at opposite points. Squeezes. Celia feels her lower teeth press against his palms as he squeezes, squeezes, squeezes. She can all but hear the cracks running through her jaw before the bone crunchily fractures again, at two equidistant points under his palms. The pain is horrific. There’s blood, red and coppery, but not a lot. He isn’t cutting her. Her lower face is a ruin.
This is love.
It goes on for a while. Celia thinks he draws it out. He isn’t trying to kill her, just inflict pain. There are so many nonessential bones one can break. So many more that are nonessential to the undead.
This is love.
She hurts, everywhere, as the blows rain down, as his merciless pale hands squeeze, crush, and crack. Maybe he’s going to break every bone in her body. That would take a while, but he could do it, she’s sure. Who knows how much time remains in the night. He could do it faster. Leave her a Kindred slug, like one of Elyse’s fifth-order dolls, helpless to move under its own power, just a useless lump of bruised and bleeding and broken flesh. At least the dolls get their bones removed so they can remain in some way whole. He could just leave her broken everywhere.
This is love.
He seizes her head between his palms. Perhaps to squeeze. To just push his hands together, a horizontal nutcracker with her head as the nut. Squeeze and squeeze until she cracks. He hasn’t spent as much time destroying her face as Roderick did. Perhaps he should. That’s part of her she values most, if one asked her paramour.
This is love.
Yet through it all, Celia smothers her howling Beast, throws herself upon it like a soldier diving onto a grenade to save their unit. She can’t let it get out again. Can’t disappoint him again. Can’t fail him again.
This is love.
And perhaps it is. Her broken body screams with a hundred inflicted pains, but no new ones are visited upon it. Instead, she feels her sire’s pale wrist press against her fangs. Press until they puncture, and heady vitae wells forth. Ice-cool vitae, cold as any corpse’s.
Colder than any corpse’s.
He’s proud of her, for holding the monster in. That has to be it. He’s proud of her.
This is love.
She lies broken and bleeding on the cold, wet, hard ground like a wounded animal left to die, and he kneels to feed her.
This is love.
Celia: It’s love.
He loves her.
He has to love her.
If he didn’t love her, he wouldn’t take the time to correct her behavior. If he didn’t love her, he wouldn’t care what she got up to or how she spends her time. If he didn’t love her, he wouldn’t care that she is weak.
He loves her.
And he shows it to her with every blow that he rains down upon her. Over two hundred bones in the body, and she will let him break them all if he thinks it necessary for the lesson to sink in.
Let him. As if she could stop him. As if she would stop him.
The first strike sends her reeling. She stumbles, staggers, and finally drops to the rain slicked roof. His boot upon her hand shatters phalanges and metacarpals, delicate little bones that cannot stand against the weight of his blow. Her nails chip and splinter. Her wrist fractures. Her claws come out—but just as quickly they slide away when she beats her Beast back with her own white-knuckled rage. It has ruined so much for her this evening and she will not let it take this from her, too. She will not hide in the red haze and let someone else—something else—take her punishment.
She deserves this.
She is weak.
He will make her stronger.
Pain blossoms through her body, but she does not shy away from what he does to her. She does not run. She does not beg him to stop. She does not cry, not in front of him, never in front of him. She refuses to, even when her Beast claws at her insides, even when it howls in her ears, even when it demands justice for what he does to her. She fights that internal struggle and stuffs it in, stuffs it down, stuffs it so far within herself that it becomes a backdrop to what he does to her.
With a broken jaw she can’t clench her teeth. There’s nothing to stop the noise from escaping her throat and mouth. Shame burns in her eyes the first time it happens; what must he think of her that she can’t contain the song of pain? More weakness. More failure to be purged.
Fractured fingers try to curl to stop it, but another broken bone draws it out of her, an agonized, formless whimper that drowns out the crack and grind of bone.
He wouldn’t scream if someone hurt him. He wouldn’t grunt with each blow, each punch, each splinter of bone. He would silently bear it. She searches for the ice inside of her, willing herself to become as cold as he is, to halt the noises in their tracks. Maybe it works, or maybe at some point the pain hits diminishing returns, but eventually she falls silent.
He shatters her jaw, mandible, clavicles, ribs, sternum. Her chest caves, but her heart doesn’t cease its useless beating. It swells. Through the pain, it swells. Through the agony, it flutters. Through the excruciating torture, it loves.
Do strong enough words exist to describe what he does to her? Pain. Agony. Torture. Burning, wrenching, aching. Sharp, gnawing, throbbing. She’s lost in it, drowning in it, and only his hands on her body keep her from disappearing into the red haze. Only his hands on her body keep her grounded. Only the repetition of her name reminds her who she is, who he is, who they are.
Blood drips from her useless jaw when he’s done with her. When he finally lets her fall back onto the roof she sprawls in a dirty puddle, every bit of her broken. She follows him with her eyes and he can see the apprehension, the nerves, that he isn’t done, that he will do more, and she readies herself for another kick, another wallop, another explosion of brutality against her person.
And the trust. He can see that too. It swims in the depths of her eyes, trust and gratitude and steely pride, and something softer, something like affection. But deep. So very, very deep. An endless, bottomless pool of aching, yearning, devotion.
This is love.
The final strike never comes. Wounded and helpless, Celia can only hold still when he presses his arm against her mouth; she can’t even move her jaw to bite, can’t sink the points of her fangs into his flesh, so he does it for her, cradling her like a newborn while she suckles at his wrist. The first drops don’t even make it into her mouth; it’s not until he tilts her head back that she tastes him upon her tongue, her broken jaw hanging uselessly inside its fleshy prison.
Cold. So cold. Had she expected any differently?
She sucks eagerly at what he offers her, replenishing what the Beast had stolen from her earlier. She drinks deeply, savoring the taste of him, ardor curling in her belly and spreading outward in a living ember that engulfs her. While she drinks she sends the blood to the areas of her that have been hurt the most: her fingers snap back into place, her wrist straightens, her jaw clicks. She becomes an active participant in the feeding rather than a passive doll, though she knows better than to grab at him or take more than he is willing to give.
Her fingers brush against his coat.
Her Beast is finally silent, tamed by her sire.
And perhaps even more importantly, it’s acceptance.
GM: It is love.
All she knows is death and cruelty and paranoia. But cold though his vitae is, something within it warms her to her core. It’s comfy and enveloping and makes her feel safe and whole. There’s no more doubt. There’s no more pain. There’s no more fear. There’s no more being alone. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light ends with her sire’s face. She is warm and safe and loved here, deep in her cozy place. The cozy place will be with her always. He will be with her always. She need only close her eyes, and she will be back in the cozy place, the mother’s womb, her sire’s arms snugly around her. And if there are thoughts for Roderick or Diana or Lucy or Emily, they are as bugs spattering against a windshield. They don’t understand her like he does. They are not father and lover and sire and protector like he is. That is what it is to be someone’s everything. To be everything they could ever need. Right there in the cozy place.
She can’t imagine why anyone doesn’t want this.
Celia: One by one, the collars that have been thrown on her by other people snap. The bonds break. Her grandsire, Coco, Veronica, Josua, Pietro, Reynaldo, Caroline, and Roderick.
She sees his face as it snaps. The dead girl inside of her wails at the loss; they were meant to marry, to bond each other, to be happy. Tiny fists beat at the inside of her rib cage, venting ineffectual frustration and heartbreak. How could she do this to Roderick, that dead girl cries, how could you? She had one good thing and now it, too, slips away.
Her heart cracks.
His blood binds it back together. It fills in the gaps and chasms that Roderick leaves behind. He fixes it, enveloping her in warmth.
She chose this.
She wants this.
Roderick will never understand her like her sire does. She has to lie to him constantly, hide the core tenants of herself, deceive him about who and what she is. Donovan demands no explanations when she carves someone apart or ends their life; he just wants her to be strong, to be better, to be great. He chose her.
He chose her.
It means everything.
His blood courses through her. It kills everything else in its path, destroys every part of her that had ever belonged to anyone else. She’ll wear the masks, she’ll pretend, but nothing will ever come close to what it feels like to be wrapped within the comfort and security of his arms. No one will ever be able to pry her away from him. They can’t force her to betray him. They can’t make her work against him. The bond is a punishment, but it’s no prison.
Celia rises, body returned to its pristine condition. He broke her, rebuilt her, saved her. Gratitude thrums through her in the wake of his blood. Her mind opens to him again, one final thought she would share this evening if he’s listening.
GM: He is the only one who truly listens.
Celia: :: The Malkavian. ::
Elyse’s face swims in her vision: pale and porcelain with painted on freckles, a living doll. Essential to Jade’s operation, or at least a portion of it.
She asks if he will wake her. If he will lie to conceal the truth. If he will use his position as regent and sheriff to plant the falsehood Celia had sent him earlier, the lie that turns setback to scheme and protects the nature of their relationship. It explains away his presence. No one will ever know that they are more than sheriff and harlot. He binds someone further to him. It benefits them both, this small thing.
GM: A single, cool word echoes through Celia’s mind.
:: Foolish. ::
A supporter of the French Quarter lord’s who attempted to slay one of his vassals would never leave the parish.
Not if he caught them.
Jade knew this and fled with her rescuer, whose face the Malkavian’s creations did not see. It is too coincidental that the sheriff and his agents would have noticed Jade’s flight, apprehended her, extracted the story, spared her unlife, and done it all in the remaining hours before dawn.
He will wake Benson. When and if others bring her torpid body to him, and explain to him what has transpired.
Celia can hear it in her ear. A too-familiar voice that tries to pull her out of the cozy place.
Celia: Just like that, her hope of an easy reparation vanishes.
She had told Key she was going to call someone to help, someone to wake her. She had been in the bathroom with Elyse, no dolls in sight, no one to report that she had never used her phone. It had been in her hand when she had left the room to find Lucy on the ground before the dolls attacked. She remembers tucking it back into her pocket so she could use her hands for the doll. She could have made the call.
But if he thinks it has no merit then it has no merit.
The familiar voice knocks at the entrance to her bubble. She closes her eyes against it, keeps it from taking root. Not here. It will not bother her here.
She doesn’t know what to do with Elyse now. If it’s better to stay away or push to fix it immediately. How could she just leave her friend lying naked in the tub like that?
She tells him that she understands.
GM: Were he nearly slain by an adversary lost to their Beast, he would slay any underling pathetic enough to entrust that same adversary to awaken him.
Key will not care what calls she has made or not made.
The ghoul will exercise his own best judgment on how to revive his mistress, if her sire has not already sensed her near-destruction and arrived to investigate.
The too-familiar voice whispers in her ear again.
Celia: Another knock on the door. It’s harder to ignore this time.
A tutor had once told her that it’s okay to be wrong in front of the person who is meant to teach her. That they’re guides and will correct her if she takes the wrong path. She thinks he might have never met the sort of monster to whom failure is not an option; she thinks he might have never had a figure like Donovan in his life, who expects her to be her best at all times. His admonition almost makes her flinch.
All the same, she’s grateful for the correction and explanation.
GM: :: You have struck her. ::
Then, Celia tastes blood in her mouth as her nose gorily crunches in, re-shattering the just-healed bone. Her vitae drips from her sire’s fist.
:: She will strike back. ::
What would she do if she were Benson, and the Kindred who struck her elected to ‘stay away?’
The companion who mauled her nearly to death for showing a tape of a favorite doll?
Celia: Pain explodes across her face. Her head snaps backwards; blood drips from her freshly broken nose to stain her skin and lips. She makes no move to wipe it away or reset it. The lesson needs to sink in.
Strike back, as he said. Find out what made Jade react that way to that doll when she has never had any trouble breaking women to turn them into dolls before, when she has shown such talent for it. Find out and use it.
Maxen, Logan, and David are safe behind the walls of Audubon. But Diana, Emily, Lucy, even Sophia… and Celia herself.
They make such pretty little targets. Fragile, defenseless, one of them already trained.
Her mother is once more cast as the damsel, caught up in her daughter’s world. Maybe another city is the best thing for her.
GM: She seems happy enough to get back together with Maxen. Who seems just as happy to make Baton Rouge his new home.
Celia: She had been avoiding the thought. She does not want her sire to see the dinner she had with her father, does not want him to think that she interferes in his plans.
But it’s there in her head.
GM: :: Key will take his mistress to me, as her regent. Her sire’s choice, should he recover her, will depend upon his inclinations. ::
The Krewe of Janus’ leader carefully tries to avoid favoring either bloc of the Sanctified.
But most Kindred believe his personal temperament is far more in line with Savoy’s.
Dawn, however, is fast approaching. Celia will have to act soon if she wishes to avoid Sol’s burning eye.
Celia: If Elyse’s sire sensed the attack and has already arrived on scene there isn’t much she can do. She wouldn’t trust the lick that attacked her childe; most wouldn’t listen to what they had to say before sticking a stake in their heart to let someone else sort them out. And why would Harlequin take his childe to Savoy when one of Savoy’s was the person to attack?
Had she just inadvertently driven a wedge between the pair?
The thought pops whatever is left of the cozy feeling she had enjoyed only moments ago. Maxen’s whispers win.
She doesn’t want him in her head anymore. She doesn’t want him to hear the voice that won’t leave her alone. She doesn’t want him to see the desperation in the half-baked plans that flick through her mind to fix this before she loses Elyse forever. She doesn’t want him to know that she’s lost on how to salvage this, or that she’s afraid to go back into the house again because what if all of those things catch her. She doesn’t want him to see that the thought of being stuck in the sun paralyzes her, that she can’t spend the night elsewhere because she needs to talk to Roderick, needs to go to this dinner, needs to meet with her grandsire on Monday, and if Diana is picked up then she won’t make it to dinner and then Celia will have to explain who she is on their terms instead of hers and what if her family is just a loose end now, what if he expects her to get rid of them, what if he gets rid of them?
He knows what they mean to her. Knows they’re a weak spot, an easy target of enemies. But he uses them, too, to keep her in line. It’s not something she can afford to think about right now. She has to trust him. She does trust him.
She’ll set a guard, she’ll—
None of it will matter if Harlequin or Elyse really want to get to her. The parish lines don’t matter to the Regent of the Masquerade.
She has to move them. Move them, send a message to Elyse, beg for a chance to explain, balance the social scales. She already knows how she’ll do it.
It will be okay.
It has to be okay.
Her eyes find her sire’s, the storm inside of them finally settling into an icy chill as her panic subsides when she settles on a course of action.
:: Thank you, sire. For tonight. The lessons. And for… for saving me. Thank you. ::
There’s more. There’s always more she wants to tell him, ask him, discuss: the trick with the blood, Savoy, Maxen, the future, their future. But the night draws to a close and she has taken enough of his time this evening.
She doesn’t know when she’ll see him again. The thought shouldn’t hurt as much as it does. If he were anyone else she would reach for him, tell him that she loves him, kiss him goodbye. But he’s not someone else. He’s him.
GM: He’s him.
Just like that, he streaks into the night sky, a darker spot against so much black.
Then he’s gone, and the only answer to Celia’s thanks is falling rain.